Chinua Achebe: All Quiet On The Eastern Front


By Wale Okediran

In the morning it was all over. The funeral had come to an end. I woke about six o’clock, had a bath, dressed and checked out of the hotel. Out in the car park, Emeka was waiting for me in his taxi. Moments later, we were in Ogidi. Everywhere was quiet and there were no people on the streets. A few shops were about opening as the owners swept their frontage and started arranging their wares.

Even the large space beside the petrol station not far from St. Philip’s Church where there had been a carnival the previous night after the interment was also empty. The chairs and canopies had been removed. The funeral was over.

It would be my third trip to Ogidi since the demise of the literary Icon, Chinualumogu Achebe. On my first trip, I had gone to commiserate with my brother, Ike Achebe, who had just returned from the United States ahead of the family to prepare for the funeral. He was alone in the family house where a major renovation as well as the construction of the mausoleum was on. When I expressed my shock at what happened, Ike quickly reminded me that his father had lived a good and productive life and we should not mourn but celebrate him. And each time he broke into one of those his easy smiles, I always saw Chinua Achebe in his face. It was painful each time he did this and at a point, I wanted to tell Ike to stop smiling so I could stop remembering. But all that was over now as the funeral had come to an end. All was quiet in Ogidi.

Even Mama Ekene in whose restaurant I had had breakfast the day before had also not opened shop. Suddenly, my mind went to the rice and fish stew breakfast I had the previous morning of Thursday, 23 May 2013. That was my second Ogidi trip when I went to bid farewell to the master story teller and literary craftsman and hunger came calling. My group, made up largely of journalists, had left our hotel in Awka for Ogidi very early in the morning of 23 May in order to beat the anticipated human and vehicular traffic without breakfast.

In view of President Jonathan’s anticipated attendance at the event, the small town was already choked up with armed security personnel, politicians, visitors, journalists and as expected, pick pockets. It therefore took my group some time to find our way round the town. Having secured vantage positions in the premises of St. Philip’s Anglican Church venue of the Christian Funeral Service from where we hoped to watch the proceedings, our next assignment was to foray for food. Although it was Anote Ozore of The Guardian who led our team on the culinary mission round the sleepy town, it was Job Okeke of the National Mirror who finally sniffed out Mama Ekene’s restaurant. “He has a talent for sniffing out food aroma,” Job’s colleagues said.

The restaurant which was located behind a supermarket had already been invaded by some security personnel and other out-of-town visitors, all in search of food. It was therefore a herculean task to get food and for that matter, seating space in the tiny restaurant. We therefore had to spill out into the compound next to the restaurant, where we sat on every conceivable object from chairs to old kerosene tins.

Matters were not helped by the fact that the small restaurant was manned by just two people, Ekene and her mother. Trust journalists, using their creative ingenuity which included assisting the proprietor to wash plates and serve the food, plates of akpu and rice soon appeared. The only problem was that there was a severe shortage of beef and fish. And as such some plates were deficient of these accompaniments. And so when my own plate of rice appeared without any accompaniment, Sunmaila Umaisha, ex-New Nigeria and now BluePrint Newspaper, decided to share his fish head with me. Sunmaila’s fish head was a big salmon ‘iced fish’ whose two large eyes glared at me from the soup in which it had been well manicured. It reminded me of the fish from Ernest Hemingway’s  The Old Man and The Sea even though Umaisha’s was not as large as Hemingway’s.

Having been drilled by a childhood folk song which associated poor academic performance with the consumption of fish eyes, I avoided the eyes and rather made the best of the remaining stuff.

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It is interesting how hunger and food could create such instant friendship and bonding among strangers. In a corner of the compound where we were all having our meals, I could see previously fierce looking security officials now exchanging banters with the journalists over steaming plates of rice and akpu.

Breakfast over, we all sauntered back to the church compound to await the arrival of the President and the commencement of the funeral ceremony. In order to get a good view of the ceremony, it was important for one to enter the church. However, this was no mean task as security was tight but we were able to achieve our aim with the help of some of our new friends from Mama Ekene’s restaurant. ‘What Mama Ekene has joined together let no man put asunder’.

Although Ogidi was the last leg of the funeral rites for the late literary Icon, it was by no means the least of the activities. As a member of the National Transition Organising Committee, NTOC, I had spent the previous weeks with other members in planning, strategising and travelling to put the events together. In the process, we all had to cope with disruption in personal activities, sleepless nights and the occasional calming of frayed nerves among some Committee members.

From Abuja where we had arranged a day of prayers and religious worship, Literary Symposium by the Association of Nigerian Authors and a Day of Tributes, we had travelled with the body to Enugu. It was from Enugu that we moved to Awka where a mammoth crowd had participated in a carnival-like reception at the Alex Ekwueme Stadium.

The leader of the Federal Government delegation to the Awka event, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba inadvertently caused a stir when he introduced another member of the delegation, Senator Muhammadu Magoro, to the crowd. In his introduction, Ndoma-Egba referred to Magoro as ‘a retired Army General who commanded the Federal Forces in the Eastern Front during the Civil war. His visit today is therefore, a sort of home coming for him’. The ominous silence in the stadium as well as hard stares from the crowd was a testimony of the deep-seated feeling that the Civil War still left in the minds of many Igbos.

It was also in Awka that Remi Raji, the current President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, taught me how to correctly pronounce the name’ Chinualumogu’ which means, ‘May God fight for me’.  ‘You prolong the ‘mo’ and swallow the ‘gu’ the Professor of English instructed. As we later filed past Achebe’s casket, I briefly touched the brown mahogany and said a prayer for the repose of the late literary mentor.

A Literary wake-keep organised by the Association of Nigerian Authors in the family compound in Ogidi kept all of us up most of the night of Wednesday 22 May. ‘Make sure you leave Ogidi before midnight,’ one Awka-based writer reminded us as she made allusion to the high crime rate in that part of the state.

During the funeral service on 23 May, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Professor Viola Onwuliri, committed a diplomatic gaffe when she asked Ike Achebe to come forward to collect condolence messages sent from Nigeria’s foreign missions. As the minister put it in the presence of the Ghanaian President, Mr. John Dramani Mahama: “All the condolence messages are in these Ghana Must Go bags.”  The nervous laughter from the congregation quickly elucidated an apology from the minister.

•Dr Okediran, a former member of the House of Representatives is also former National President, Association of Nigerian Authors.

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