Encounter with Chinua Achebe: A Critique of Traditional Igbo Society

by Emmanuel Omoh Esiemokhai

Between 1972 and 1974, I was the editor of NEW ERA Magazine, in Kano. I love and respect all editors. They are the people, who promote the world’s literary culture and civilization.

Upon my return to Lagos in February, 1974, I was commissioned by the US Embassy in Lagos to interview the author of THINGS FALL APART, for publication in their magazine.( INTERLINK)

I purchased a copy of the book from a Lagos book shop. I do not know about other lawyers, but after rigorous and laborious studies in jurisprudence, for many years, I cannot bring myself easily to be carried away by romanticist, sentimental, flowery use of language.

In law, you must get to the point and appraise the logic in the matter and the jurisprudence of the issues in contention.

The Okonkwo narrative and the village setting of the book, did not excite my judicial habit of mind.
Chinua saw this aloofness in my mien and so like a master story teller, he spent over one hour exposing the intricacies of his story.

Perhaps, except his students, no one has ever been lucky to hear and feel the Igbo proverbs he used to add depth to his intellectual musings.

After he learnt that I had become a University of Ife don, he wrote to congratulate me in 1979. I have read most of his works, especially those that reflected on our lead-footed Republic.
Chinua Achebe was born on October 15, 1930 in Ogidi, near Onitsha. His father was the “onye nkuzi” in charge of the Church Missionary Society’s village School.. After his studies at the Government College, Umuahia, he was among the first graduates, to receive the Bachelor’s degree at the University College, Ibadan, where Wole Soyinka also studied.

He became a broadcaster, attended the BBC staff school and later became the Director of External Broadcasting for Nigeria and much later, a Professor of English and a literary icon.

He told me that he and the late Christopher Okigbo started a publishing outfit in Enugu.
He recalled with tears, when he learnt that the poet died during the Biafra conflict and he expressed sadness as he narrated how his house was burnt during the war.

He told me how he, Cyprian Ekwensi and Gabriel Okara visited the United States and told his audiences the POGROM events.

I asked him whether he thought that the visit impacted on the outcome of the Nigerian civil war.
He said that the speaking tour enabled people in America and Europe to have a clearer understanding of the injustice the Igbos were resisting at the time.

When the war ended, he became the editor of “Nsukkascope”, “OKIKE” and HEINEMAN‘s African Writers series as editorial adviser.
His books which are very well-known have received world-wide acclaim.

During the interview, I put it to Chinua Achebe that his book, THINGS FALL APART, was “set in Igbo land at the turn of the century. It is concerned with the dislocation of the Igbo society caused by the impact of Western civilization as heralded by the arrival of European missionaries”, who aided the colonial system of imperialism.

It was an attempt to repaint traditional Igbo life.

I asked him what was so special about traditional Igbo society, where in 1949, there was cannibalism, marauding “Abani dim egwu,”, ritualists of the OKOTOKO genre, killed and robbed from Coal Camp to Abakpa Nike, the pursuit of “Ogbanje groups and Osu ostracism” of innocent people, the killing of twins and other indubitable wrongs prevalent in pre-colonial traditional Igbo society.

If the white man did not forcefully and spiritually intervene, only God knows what would have happened to the defenceless Igbo man!

I grew up in Aba. I am a known member of ABA ONE group. I had a Credit in Igbo in my Cambridge School Certificate in 1959 and I had lived in many Igbo towns and villages. I speak Onitsha Igbo, Owerri Igbo, Wawa, Abriba, Ngwa etc. I know what I know about Igbo traditional society of those times.

My experiences with the AMADIOHA devotees, the OKPOSI KPOSI cultists and other worshippers of the cult at Ihiala, serve as evidence of my Eastern Region habitations and observations. The young have grown!
Supernumerary Constable, King George VI medalist, detective, police intelligence , Scotland Yard- trained Daniel Omolua Esiemokhai( popularly known then as Anamatujo) told me frightening goings-on in traditional Igbo society, which Chinua was lamenting its overthrow, in THINGS FALL APART.

After my gory narratives, Chinua was speechless. We resorted to Onitsha vernacular and we both wiped our faces. It was a hot session. Oh yes!

I am sure he was embarrassed about kidnappings in Igbo land.

Chinua’s novels are unique.Bernth Lindfors had this to say in a prominent review, “one can observe his mastery of the English Language, his skill in choosing the right words to convey his ideas, his keen sense of what is in character and what is not, his instinct for appropriate metaphor and symbol and his ability to present a thoroughly African World in thoroughly African terms”

He never had a dull moment and he continued, regularly to comment fiercely and to write
about the Nigerian rueful condition and he stoically refused to be given meaningless national honours and accolades.

He managed to maintain energetic pride in Nigeria that treated him very badly.
After I read his critique of AWO, it was clear that he did not meet the Chief. Since I did, I published a revised edition of my essay entitled AWO IS STILL RELEVANT, which had been commissioned by the Governor of Osun State, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola.


Professor Emeritus per Excellence Chinua Achebe felt very concerned about the Nigerian condition like Professor Emeritus, per Excellence, my former colleague at GREAT IFE, Wole Soyinka.
Soyinka supported Achebe when the latter published his book about AWO. Many Yoruba found that disturbing.
Ordinarily, the Yoruba are inoculated against criticizing fellow Yoruba. They rather keep quiet.
Recently, Wole lamented that Chinua should not have published his last book and explained his feelings.
Wole also said that neither Achebe nor he could be called the grandfathers of African literature. Wole is factually correct.

I have looked at the evidence and he is right. In 1972, shortly after I received the degree of Doctor of Jurisprudence from the University of Cologne am Rhine, I purchased a book , which was authored by Jan Heinz Jahn,Ulla Shield,Almut Nordmann,entitled, WHO”S WHO in African Literature, published by Horst Erdmann Verlag, Tubingen, Federal Republic of Germany.

The authors noted in their introduction that “African Literature has established itself as a new and genuine branch of world literature.

It has become subject of scholarly research and is taught at universities and schools”
In this regard, both Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe contributed inexorably.
A-Amang Boe published, the didactical satire Le Course a l’Agent, and Les Amant de Nulle, a comedy about the marriage of a girl. According to Emmanuel Moukory, “his style is very natural, easy, without affectation, rather poetic.”


Joseph Wilfred Abruquah of Ghana, published THE CATHECHIST and TORRENTS
AL haji Abu-Bakr Imam was the editor of GASKIYA TA FI KWABO, and the author of seventeen books.
Abubakar Tafawa Balewa wrote the novel, SHEHU UMAR.

Equiano Olaudah wrote with an interesting patronage. He was born around 1754.
There were many grandfathers of African literature, long before young Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka gained admission to University College Ibadan to study the Use of English.

Many Nige

rians do not read much, because they pursue money and rodent fame. So, there is this cheap culture of repeating clichés they pick up from the local and international news media and newspapers.
Only those with an intellectual habit of mine read critically.

Some still believe that Mungo Park discovered the River Niger and that Nigeria is a hundred years old!
As we have shown above, there were eminent and early African writers in South Africa, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and in North Africa.

Leo Africanus was an Arab traveller and historian, whose narratives were in themselves cerebral stimulants, just like Aesop’s tales, which enriched African literary culture.

In Nigeria today, there is some focus on literary matters. Hitherto, centrifugal and centripetal political forces have been preoccupied with prophetic musings about 2015.

Some octogenarians disturb the nation with their senile, dilapidated, antediluvian, self-indulgent thesis about 2015, rooted in tribal interests.

In Achebe’s recent books, we have the real beginnings of Nigerian prophecy as a revitalizing factor in the destiny of our people.

He moved away from story-telling to dominant social and economic commentary to kindle awareness that we could do better, just like Robert Lowell did in Life Studies (1957).
We hereby pay tribute to his wife, from whom he derived indomitable strength. May her household be covered with the BLOOD OF JESUS in all seasons. AMEN!!!

A national Agora is now imperative, before it gets worse.
World Literature has grown exponentially, so has terrorism. It becomes difficult to assess the impact of literature on world civilsation.

As Chinua Achebe rests in peace, we shall remember his zeal to see Nigeria do better.
The day Achebe was buried “Iheukwu mere. Mkpamkpa kpara!
May God Almighty show him mercy! I know that MY REDEEMER LIVETH……

You may also like

Leave a Comment