? By Chigozie Chikere
Where writing meets advocacy, passion meets teaching, and philosophy meets sacrifice, there you find Professor Chinua Achebe. He earned his crust from writing and teaching, but his abiding interest was in advocacy and his gift, or rather one of them, was to defend African art, culture, and people in ways that made sense to non-Africans. Many of them not only understood what he wrote but also became infected with his love of Africa, of its past and of its growing susceptibility to change. For close to 60 years, beginning with the writing of Things Fall Apart, he carried on a legendary one-man crusade against arrogance, prejudice, contempt, levity, racism, ethnicity, and bad governance.
Professor Achebe did not come to this task from a military background. Indeed he was never part of any pressure group. But he did come from a job in journalism, to be precise, from the post of Editor of University Herald during his third year at University College, Ibadan where his interaction with his white instructors helped him realise that if Africa?s story must be told, it must be told by Africans themselves. According to him, ?finding that inner creative spark required introspection, deep personal scrutiny, and conviction, and this was not something anybody could really teach me.? Furthermore, he learnt from the shortcomings of his white teachers that despite their excellent minds and backgrounds they were not capable of teaching across cultures. He began thinking about becoming a writer after reading some appalling novels about Africa written by Europeans. These led him conclude?that the story we had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else no matter how well intentioned.? In time, he wrote Things Fall Apart, and with it launched the first salvo in what proved to be a long battle against the white man?s literary imperialism.
Things Fall Apart is somewhat benign when compared to some essays in Morning Yet On Creation Day. But the profound effect its message had on African students was addictive. Like reactional drugs, burgeoning African talents like Ngugi Wa Thiong?o responded with fiery collections like Homecoming and Writers In Politics; Essays of black African temper that matched, word for word, the destructive effects of the white man?s contempt for African art, as portrayed in their own writings.
In September 1999, as lecturer for the annual Odenigbo Lecture Series in Owerri, Achebe in his lecture titled, Echi Di Ime: Taa Bu Gboo, electrified his audience as he explained another reason behind the fixative effect the so called Central Igbo language is having on the growth and development of the original Igbo language. In his narrative in which he blamed the Englishman; Archdeacon Thomas John Dennis of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) for what befell the Igbo language today, the case of the Whiteman?s arrogance and contempt for what is African came to the fore once again. According to Achebe, the Bible was about the first piece of literature that was translated to vernacular in most Christian societies in Africa. Thus the Bibeli Mimo was the Yoruba version of the Holy Bible as translated by Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther; a Yoruba man of Oyo extraction. The translation was obviously done in Oyo dialect. But in Eastern Nigeria, the land of the Igbos, Dennis, with little or no regard for a people and their language decided against their wish that the best way to compensate for the variations in dialects was to engineer and tinker a new version called the Central Igbo. Achebe, in condemning the incongruity of the Anglican Clergyman?s decision maintained that language as a living aspect of culture should neither be engineered nor tinkered, otherwise it would die naturally. And that explains why the Oyo dialect has always served as Central Yoruba for people of Western Nigeria. And as the dialect grows and undergoes transformation, it gains wider usage and acceptance. Conversely, with a tinkered language, the story is different as it has no roots in any living dialect in Igbo land and is therefore stagnated and widely unaccepted. Achebe?s angle was the first of its kind among various reasons previously considered among Igbo scholars as explanations for the endangered or near-moribund state of the Igbo language. That could only come from a deep thinker and a fearless crusader.
Literature and the Igbo people, however, were far from being Professor Achebe?s only interest even though it inevitably played a part in his brief sojourn in politics. In his The Trouble With Nigeria, Achebe berated Nigerian unity as a hoax saying that Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo. And that was after his disappointment, frustration, and the realisation that despite the fact that there were a few upright political figures like Mallam Aminu Kano, the vast majority of the characters he encountered in the political circles were there for their own selfish advancement. It is true that his foray into politics was an afterthought, but then it helped him draw a logical conclusion in words that summerised the never-changing Nigerian situation. Achebe concluded that the problem with Nigeria is leadership. In his words; ?having great ideas was fine, but their execution required a strong leader. And clearly, Nigeria?s principal problem was identifying and putting in place that elusive leader.?
This diagnosis on the country?s maladies, though painstaking, was micro stuff. But Achebe did the big picture too. He could defend rebellion in the face of pseudo-nationalism, discredit a regime by silent protest, venture into the realms beyond to rattle the departed, recall history from a nation?s dark pages, and issue out warnings of gathering political storm and of an impending doom. He wrote with lucidity in There Was A Country about Nigeria?s march to independence, the Nigeria-Biafra war, Nigeria?s painful transitions, corruption and indiscipline, state failure and the rise of terrorism, state resuscitation and recovery, and the example of Nelson Mandela, always giving credit where it was due.
Yet he was far more than a Synthesizer. Indeed, all his non-fiction was rigorously analytical. Though he was the holder of Nigeria?s National Creativity Award, his integrity was never compromised. His fame did not wane when he was awarded twice the national honour of Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR), which he twice turned down. Any act he sees as retrogressive, such as corruption, electoral malpractice, tribalism, sycophancy, and racial prejudice, he would dismiss with cool efficiency. Other ideas such as Dame Margery Freda Perham?s dismissal of the Biafran cause as bundles of Igbo documentation, and Dr Tai Solarin?s charge that Achebe would readily defend English as lingua franca for Nigeria simply because his books are written and sold in English were derided in spoof essays. Professor Achebe had a sense of humour, and used it to effect. But he was not malicious.
Though Professor Achebe wrote more books than many people have read, as well as numberless articles and essays and engaged in numerous other activities like participating actively in the Biafran war effort, he did not spread himself too thin. During the civil war, Achebe featured prominently as a Biafran envoy serving directly under the Biafran Head of State; General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Achebe travelled extensively drumming the Biafra story into the ears of the world and soliciting for support. In the course of his assignment, he defended Biafra in Senegal, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Canada, Uganda, and in the USA. As a Crusader, he pursued the Biafran cause with diligence, hope and above all faith. The question is where it all came from, to which the only answer is himself.
Studying Medicine at the University College Ibadan, he later changed to English, History and Theology and it was then he unwittingly planted his feet on the path that brought him to Literature?s Hall of Fame. Between Things Fall Apart and There Was a Country, there are 22 books. Some were about Africa, others about Nigeria, the rest about Igbos, and all written in defense of a people and their culture against imperialist influences of Europe and corrupt practices of bad governments.
In the introduction to There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, Achebe wrote: ?it is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grandchildren that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria?s story, Biafra?s story, our story, my story.? By this statement, Achebe further reiterated his statement in his paper: The African Writer and The Biafran Cause, presented at a Political Science Seminar at Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda in 1968; ?It is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant?like the absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames.? Achebe died on March 21 2013. The one-man crusade seems to have ended but the impression is deep in the minds of all lovers of truth and of freedom. Man and mind are not synonymous. The man dies but the seeds he has sown in the minds of the living surely stand the chance of blossoming even centuries after his demise.
Professor Chinualumogu Achebe will be buried on May 23 2013 in his hometown Ogidi, Anambra State. Like a sword in the scabbard he would lie in a calm and undisturbed repose, in total submission to the will of his maker.
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