Chínụ̀álụmọ̀gụ̀ Albert Àchèbé (1930-2013) was called back home on Friday March 22, 2013. Since the digital town criers broke the news of Achebe’s journey back home, eulogies and tributes have poured forth from the four compass point of the earth. Chinua Achebe, writer, novelist, poet, critic and professor was acclaimed the father of modern African literature. His book, Things Fall Apart published in 1958, holds a record of 11 million copies in sales and has been translated into about 50 languages.
I never had the honour of meeting him in person but like many of my generation, I was shaped by his writing. And that to my mind situates the material immortality of Achebe, the writer. Like many of his time, Chinua Achebe worked to break the stereotypic depictions of Africans in literary narration. And thus, he took up the post-colonial fight with his ink – which is using English via creative writing to tell the African story.
Achebe writes in English but his thoughts are rooted in the Igbo cosmology and this made his first three works – Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People – seminal. In that he did not just convey his world view by translating it into English: No, Achebe transliterated Igbo into English. And as such the flow of proverbs were easier to present, the cultural nuances were ever present and by so doing broke the stereotype of “a people without history”.
In An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Achebe accused Joseph Conrad of being “a thoroughgoing racist” for depicting Africa as “the other world”. The punch of Achebe’s angst was that Conrad presented a twisted and mangled portrayal of his people. It was as though the superior was the West and underneath lies the inferior, and less human, black world. This was therefore the basis of Achebe’s insistence that his works should be placed side by side with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Achebe has been vindicated. The fight though is no longer about post colonialism but has shifted to a more subtle manipulation – the power over the mind. Now both the West and some Africans promote the poverty porn. We have now the classic stance of superintending the cause of the unfortunate, poverty ridden, war decimated and diseased ravaged continent, the messiah complex that drives to push down solutions formulated in New York and Toronto down our throats. And any resistance is punished by withdrawing aid.
But this is a plot of this poverty porn was not conceived entirely by the West. Rather the script it was written by Africans. Chinua Achebe twice rejected national honours from the Nigerian government in 2004 and 2011 respectively. His grudge was the same, that the establishment had connived with thugs to usurp the government in his home state:
“I write this letter with a very heavy heart. For some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.
“Forty three years ago, at the first anniversary of Nigeria’s independence I was given the first Nigerian National Trophy for Literature. In 1979, I received two further honours – the Nigerian National Order of Merit and the Order of the Federal Republic – and in 1999 the first National Creativity Award. I accepted all these honours fully aware that Nigeria was not perfect; but I had a strong belief that we would outgrow our shortcomings under leaders committed to uniting our diverse peoples. Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 Honours List”.
Achebe was controversially quiet: a writer who told his story, not minding the consequences. His last book, “There was a Country” generated epic debate on the Nigeria Civil War. While the entire conversation degenerated into ethnic mudslinging, the core thesis of the book was forgotten. The history of the Nigerian Civil War is buried in the thick memories that we would wish never happened. It is not taught in high school and till date, the narrations remain one-sided, depending on the affiliation of the writer. That to my mind might have been the reason for Achebe’s There was a Country to ignite a conversation and prevent collective amnesia.
Chinua Achebe has passed on but his voice remains. While we mourn the death of a man, we celebrate the writings of an institution. Achebe was God’s gift to Africa and human civilisation, a Nigerian writer who rewrote the future. “A child cannot pay for its mother’s milk”, neither can we thank you enough!