There Was A Man: Tribute To Professor Chinua Achebe


By Tayo Ogunbiyi

In his book ‘What is History?’ famous historian, E.H. Carr, attempted to put in perspective the role of  individuals in defining and shaping events in the society. While he agrees that the society offers the platform for individuals to achieve set goals, he, nevertheless, submitted that there are personalities whose vision and strength of character have significantly shaped, defined and influenced their respective societies. These include Adolf Hitler of Germany, Mikhail Gorbachev of the former USSR, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, to mention but a few of such personalities whose passion, vision and mindsets radically impacted their societies.

In Nigeria, despite the lopsidedness in our socio-political system, few men still stand out when it comes to honour, integrity and altruism. Chinua Achebe, teacher, poet, author, broadcaster, social crusader, etc certainly belongs to this class. Popularly referred to as the ‘Grandfather of African Fiction’, Achebe bestrode the literary world as a colossus until his death on 22 March, 2013 at the age of 82.   In Things Fall Apart, one of his famous novels, which was published in 1958, Achebe told the story of the intrigues and contradictions involved in the colonization of the African continent. In the novel Okonkwo, the main character, struggles with the legacy of his father, a lazy debtor fond of playing the flute, as well as the complications and contradictions that arise when white missionaries arrive in his village of Umuofia. Navigating the landscape of cultural conflict, particularly the encounter between Igbo tradition and Christian doctrine, Achebe returns to the themes of his earlier stories, which grew from his own background.

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one,” says Okonkwo’s friend, Obierika, in the novel. Things Fall Apart represents a compelling story that was told in a fashion that has remained unequal, to date. It is a masterpiece from a grand master.  No wonder, the novel has sold more than ten million copies all over the world in addition to being translated and published in over fifty languages. Such was the strength of the literary and intellectual acumen on display by Achebe in Things Fall Apart and indeed in all his other works.

Like the biblical light that cannot be hidden, Achebe’s literary expertise was not concealed from the rest of world as he has been honoured across the globe on countless occasions.  For instance, he won the Commonwealth poetry prize for his collection Christmas in Biafra while he was a finalist for the 1987 Booker prize for his novel Anthills of the Savannah.  In 2007, he won the Man Booker International Prize. The woman who presided over the judges at the event, Elaine Showalter, declared that Achebe had “inaugurated the modern African novel”, while her fellow judge, the South African Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer, referred to his fiction as “an original synthesis of the psychological novel, The Joycean stream of consciousness, the postmodern breaking of sequence”, and that Achebe was “a joy and an illumination to read”. In 2010, Achebe was awarded The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for $300,000, one of the richest prizes for the arts.

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A further testimony to Achebe’s literary profundity came from no other person than another great son, and indeed great pride, of the African continent, Nelson Mandela, who once pronounced that Achebe “brought Africa to the rest of the world” in addition to referring to him  as “the writer in whose company the prison walls came down”. At the Brown University, Boston, Massachusetts, United States, where Achebe held the position of David and Marianna Fisher university professor and professor of Africana studies until his demise, one of his essays “is recognised as one of the most generative interventions on Conrad; and one that opened the social study of literary texts, particularly the impact of power relations on 20th-century literary imagination”.

The tragedy of the Nigerian nation is well reflected in the life and time of the late literary icon. How such a rare talent did choose to remain abroad at such advanced age when his country men were supposed to be drinking from his cup of wisdom? Is it not a tragedy that the Nigerian society could not provide the poor man the soccour he needed in his old age? No wonder, he found the allure of a foreign nation so irresistible!  After he had been involved in an accident that cruelly damaged his spine on 22 March, 1990, Achebe preferred to reside in the United States. In an interview in 2007, Achebe revealed: “I miss Nigeria very much. My injury means I need to know I am near a good hospital and close to my doctor. I need to know that if I went to a pharmacist, the medicine there would be the drug that the bottle says”. Most men of his age, who did not have the luxury of the choice Achebe had, had died in miserable circumstances long before now. That is the tragedy of the Nigerian nation.

Aside from his literary proficiency, Achebe was famous in Nigeria for always standing on the side of truth, justice and fairness. In a country where hypocrisy, deception and opportunism have become a national past time, Achebe was able to keep his dignity and honour intact.  Throughout his lifetime, he was always on the side of the people. He was never tired of spearheading the cause of the ordinary and downtrodden Nigerian folks. As many shamelessly hobnob with some of the oppressors at the corridor of power to further inflict pain on the Nigerian masses, Achebe cautiously distanced himself from the ‘men of power’. Twice, in 2004 and 2011, he rejected enticing offer of national honours from the Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan administrations respectively.  He hinged his rejection of the award on the unchanging socio-political system in the country. He said: “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 … 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.”

Born at Ogidi, in southeast Nigeria, on 16 November, 1930, Achebe was the son of a Christian evangelist. He went to mission schools and to University College, Ibadan, and taught briefly before joining the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, where he was director of external broadcasting from 1961 to 1966.  As this great son of Africa transits to the great beyond, I join millions of his admirers across the world in celebrating his eventful life. Adieu, Professor Chinua Achebe, the teacher of teachers.

•Ogunbiyi is of the Features Unit, Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja