It was the publication of There Was A Country that served as my sole premonition of the imminent death of my father Chinua Achebe. When he published it, my first reaction was “oh my God!” That was because for years, he had only commented in snippets on the Nigeria-Biafra war. A war that we know eroded all belief Achebe may have had in the viability of the geographical entity called Nigeria.
Yet he refused to write anything about it. So also did he refuse to write anything about the Nigeria that followed after the war. Until after a long wait, he grudgingly wrote Anthills of the Savannah, a novel that also referenced his enduring belief in the segregation of a certain part of the country owing to its inhabitants’ refusal to kowtow to the military administration of His Excellency Sam. But with There Was A Country, Achebe finally lays bare his personal views of the war and I became terrified. I was terrified because from all indications, that book read like a swan song to me: that was how I knew his demise was imminent.
I write this a few hours after the news of his death broke. As I write, I am undecided as to how best to react to this news. Tears well up and I fight them. Not because I do not wish to be called “the outsider who wept louder than the owners of the corpse”(for I am Achebe’s child in so many ways even though I am not his child biologically) but because I am struggling to come to terms with the best way to mourn a man who not only lived to the fullest, but who in his eighty two years on earth, fathered more children than even Solomon could have imagined. All these he was able to achieved with his concise and critically objective manner of writing.
When the western world was trying to foist the African story on us, Achebe was the young man who refused to be influenced even though he was at an age when he should have. And even despite all his upbringing. Defying all odds, he decided that the story that Africans have to tell, has to be told by Africans themselves in order to achieve objectivity. He did not care about his book being rejected by Western publishers, he was only concerned about telling the story of “where the rain began to beat us”. That became a trail blazing moment for African literature.
It was this trail blazing action that perhaps led to my exposure to Achebe for before my birth, he was already a renowned figure in African literature and his works had somehow found their ways into school curricula and even television. Despite being exposed to Achebe’s works through television (Things Fall Apart was made into a soap opera on NTA) and school curricula, I did not particularly “meet” him until I picked up No Longer At Ease just about the time I was to write JAMB. That was when the character of Obi Okonkwo inspired me to choose English as a course of study. Before then, I had written a few poems and a few “stories”.
But it was not until I became a first year undergraduate of the English Studies department of the University of Port Harcourt that I “met” Achebe the way I had always wanted to meet him. Critical essays handed over to us by Professors Charles Nnolim, Maduka, and the then Doctor (but now Professor) Nkem Okoh were replete with Achebe’s works. That was when I re-read Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. That was also when Dr. Tony Onuh introduced us to Anthills of the Savannah. Truthfully, that was when I really did “meet” Chinua Achebe.
My first impression after “meeting” Achebe was that of intense agony. I severally asked myself,as a potential literary critic and budding writer; “what exactly is that thing that I know about my village’s myths,rituals,proverbs, etcetera.” I realized that I knew none and that somehow, my strictly Christian upbringing had not allowed me know anything about my people. So I asked myself; “how then can you write about a people you have detached yourself from?” Holidays saw me traveling home and trying so hard to understand and know about the many Igbo rituals and culture. In the final analysis, I realized that I could learn all those aspects of my people’s culture and still remain a Christian. That was how Chinua Achebe changed my life, my destiny, and somehow decided what will become my primary goal in life: upholding the tenets of truth and recreating Africa in the eyes of the world.
I have since then followed Achebe’s actions and all I learn is how to form my own opinions by painstakingly evaluating facts. Achebe was never swayed by public opinion or fear. He was never swayed by ethnic affiliations (otherwise he would never have looked on to Aminu Kano as a near saint. (See The Trouble with Nigeria). It is this type of man that I fight everyday to become. A man not swayed by general opinions.A man hell-bent on revealing the truth no matter what. A man who despite the strong tribalistic leanings of most Nigerians, stands by the truth no matter the ethnic group that birthed that truth.
Chinua Achebe to me was my awakening and the father who truly taught me to search and find the truth. He was the father who showed me how to search for the ways of my people. He was and will remain my literary and cultural father. The pains choke my heart, but the one thing that triumphs over his death is this; he will never really die. When I miss him, I look into myself and regurgitate the lessons I have learnt and am still learning from his works.