Friday, March 22, 2013

A tribute to Chinua Achebe

Achebe in 1967. Photograph by Michael Neal.

Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings.” – Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.

I read Things Fall Apart for the first time when I was nine. Fascinated as I was by the simple and beautiful use of language, I proceeded to read it four more times over the next two years - and wrote my first story in an attempt to imitate its style. By all standards, the book is a seminal work of art – exploring the complex interplay between a desire to ‘change’ and a longing to ‘preserve tradition’; the role of culture in society; first contact between diverse cultures (and religions), and various other themes.

To my young mind, however, the single biggest impression was made by the sentence – “age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered”. Very few sentences, if any, have influenced my worldview more than this one.

Achebe’s work sparked in me an undying interest in African literature. Prior to my encounter with Things Fall Apart, all of my books were about people named Jane, Mary, and Alice. If I may adapt a Chimamanda classic: they played in the snow, went to balls with their parents, and ate strawberries. After my encounter with Things Fall Apart and all through Secondary School, I went on to read about people named Chike, Ikemefuna, and Laye; they fetched water from streams, cut firewood for their parents, and ate couscous. I read classics from Wole Soyinka, Camara Laye, Cyprian Ekwensi, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Elechi Amadi, Ike Oguine, and many other stalwarts of African literature.

They were a motley collection, each with a different style and approach – all of them united in the belief that stories of the hunt would always favor the hunter, until the lion found its own historians.

Time passed, and my attention turned to books of a more academic nature. The Mechanical Engineering program at the Obafemi Awolowo University hardly left me much room to continue my romance with literature. Shamefully, my love for African literature waned.

The next time I heard of Achebe (post-University), he was in the news for declining a national honor for the second time, citing wide-spread corruption in the polity. In his words, “the reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made (2004) have not been addressed let alone solved”. That was vintage Achebe, walking the talk and taking a stand for what he believed in.

When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. While like many other young Nigerians, I do not entirely agree with some sections of his final work – There Was a Country – I am grateful he finished and published it before his passing. Achebe believed that we would not move forward as a nation if we did not understand and learn from our past, and that was a step in that direction for him. I have repeatedly argued that the book is a personal history, and must be read as such. After all, we all view and remember the world through glasses tinted by our personal experiences.

Achebe has passed the baton now. It is up to the next generation, and then mine, to continue to tell the many stories of the beauties and horrors of Africa.

Achebe was a great man and writer. The man died. The writer yet lives.