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Nigeria: To Achebe, Eagle On the Iroko

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Chido Nwangwu, Publisher, USAfricaonline.com, honours the memory of the giant of African literature, Chinua Achebe, best remembered for his classic book, Things Fall Apart

The great man, deservedly, regarded as the father of the 20th century African novel and literature, Chinua Achebe, would have turned 90 years old — in a few days. He was born November 16, 1930, in Ogidi, eastern Nigeria. But the man best known for the masterpiece novel ‘Things Fall Apart ‘ in 1958, died on March 21, 2013, in Boston, Massachusetts.

Prof. Achebe, Africa’s most acclaimed and fluent writer of the English Language, our pathfinder, the intellectual godfather of millions of Africans and lovers of the fine art of good writing, was only 28 years when he wrote the classic, Things Fall Apart, in 1958, long before I was born.

In 1958, Achebe’s first novel, he told the conflicted story of Okonkwo, communal life, clash of faiths, dynamics of the clash of cultures and more, set in pre-colonial and colonial Umuofia, of the Igbo nation.

To highlight the tapestry of communal life and the joyful benefits of human synergy, the author wrote: “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.”

In the assessment of US former President Barack Obama, it is “A true classic of world literature… a masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.”

I served as the moderator of the Achebe Colloquium (Governance, Security, and Peace in Africa) December 7-8, 2012 at Brown University, in Rhode Island.

Since 1958, at least five important historical benchmarks became evident:

First, Achebe laid the foundation for the modern African literature. Whereby the stories and narratives about Africa and Africans hold our perspectives and values amidst the realities of a global market.

Princeton University’s professor of philosophy, Kwame Anthony Appiah, hit the proverbial nail on its head when he said that “In every English and non-English speaking country on the planet, if you ask a student to name just one African novel, it is most likely to be Things Fall Apart by Achebe. It is the beginning of the African canon. it is difficult to think of anything else without it.” Like him, I believe Achebe’s works are rich fountains of knowledge for credible and engaging understanding of African pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial history and realities.

On February 18, 2002, a distinguished jury of scholars and critics (from 13 countries of African life and literature) selected Achebe as the writer of the Best Book, ‘Things Fall Apart.’

Second, he firmed up the prologue for taking on the litany of Euro-Caucasian racist “scholars” who “objectified” Africa and African lives.

In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and other works, the centrality of Chi (God) attains an additional clarity in the Igbo cosmology. I’ve studied, lived and tried to better understand, essentially, the towering moral certainties which Achebe have employed in most of his works.

Also, it is a world which prefers a quasi-capitalistic business attitude to life while taking due cognizance of the usefulness of the whole, the community. .

Bottomline: in the Achebe accurate and contextual depiction of pre-colonial Igbo life, the rewards for hardwork/farming are wealth and family!

Third, in an era of grammatical overload, obscurantism and verbosity, he entered the arena with what I commend as the yet unmatched, uniquely Achebesque style and structure of simplicity, clarity, accessibility and organic lucidity. Achebe is good!

Fourth, between 1958 and 2013, amidst a body of first rate works, he will be remembered as one of history’s great witnesses and chroniclers. Other than ‘Things Fall Apart’ (1958), some of Achebe’s other major books are ‘No Longer at Ease’ (1960), ‘Arrow of God’ (1964; rev. 1974); In 1983, Achebe wrote the often quoted pamphlet, ‘The Trouble with Nigeria.’ In the latter, he cited the litany of failures of the leaders and pointed the way forward; ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ (1987) and his notes and memoir on Biafra titled ‘There Was a Country’ (2012). Those works and his civic, moral conscience placed him on a pedestal which I characterize as the power and permanence of Chinua Achebe! Consequently, he lives in our hearts and minds as an immortal writer!

Fifth, on the critical questions regarding why Achebe became a writer; and why he wrote Things Fall Apart? He revealed: “In the end, I began to understand there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative. Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like.”

For him, there’s an organic relationship between writing as education and the building of a better society. Recall that the prolific Achebe wrote in 1975 in his work ‘Morning Yet on Creation Day’ that “The writer cannot be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done.”

I recall flying back to the U.S. (from South Africa to New York) to attend Prof. Achebe’s 70th birthday at the historic Bard College (November 3-4, 2000) and its related conference titled, ‘Home and Exile: Achebe at 70’. Achebe was in the midst of his friends and some of the best writers in the world. He mentioned “how everyone has spoken so nicely of me, this evening… .” Then, came his one sentence punchline commentary on the gross grandiosity of African leaders: “If I were a military dictator, these two days of November would have been declared national holidays!” He burst into laughter. That’s vintage Achebean sarcasm.