Tribute to Chinua Achebe

Sat, 23 Mar 2013 Source: Awuyah, Chris Kwame

I thought I "knew" Chinua Achebe from his writings until I met him in person when, during my graduate studies in Canada, he visited with my supervisor (Prof. Killam) for six months. Imagine for SIX MONTHS Achebe was visiting the university! I can say without hesitation that the visit is among my most memorable experience in life. I had the privilege of joining Achebe at dinner/lunch etc. I was struck by his sense of humor and his self-effacing nature. He was a humble man. Once I went with him to the book store, and a Prof. approached me that he had heard Achebe was at the university and would I introduce him to Achebe. I was standing by Achebe and remarkably, he never said a word. I was quiet for a while and then I said I would find out if he would agree to meet you. Then Achebe reached out with his hand and asked the Prof: "how are you"? During his stay at the university, Achebe directed a project for reconfiguring traditional folktales for contemporary relevance. For instance, a tale from a part of Cameroun recounts how a man had three daughters but he was never satisfied until he had a son. Such stories devalued the experience of girls. My other encounter with Achebe was when he was a guest of honor at a conference on non-native writing at my current university. I also spoke at a colloquium to celebrate the birthday of Achebe at the Philadelphia African American museum. We celebrate the life of Achebe because he is unrivaled in his contribution to modern literature. His essay, "An Image of Africa" excoriates Joseph Conrad for the latter's rabid portrait of Africans and for his indulgence and tone death silence at King Leopold's carnage (of which Conrad was an eye-witness) in the Congo at the turn of the 19th century. Achebe has taught us through the experience of Okonkwo about the dangers of power without control. The Mugabes of today believe that they would survive when they have power without measure. Power as implied in Things fall Apart, A Man of the People, and Ant Hills of the Savannah lies in powerlessness.

Things Fall Apart has sold well beyond 15 million and it has been translated into almost all the major languages across the globe. Curiously, Achebe has been overlooked by the Nobel Prize of Literature committee. His joins a list of influential authors such as Philip Roth, Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Juan Goytisolo who have not received the Nobel Prize. Achebe's writing is as compelling as those of recent winners including Saul Bellow (who questions whether there is an African equivalent of Shakespeare --- to which I would simply respond: of course not since Shakespeare never spoke Zulu, Ewe, Ga, Akan, Hausa, Gikuyu as well as English/French, etc); Mo Yan (2012 Chinese writer); etc. Achebe's voice continues through his literary creations. His proverbs would continue to shape the thoughts of generations of Africans and non-Africans. Chinua Achebe continues to be the medium through which human beings from diverse ethnicities would seek understandings guided by the principles of justice and mutual respect. He is still a world acclaimed writer of immense value.

Below are excerpts from my study on Things Fall Apart. “Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too” - a reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

In 2004, the Federal Government of Nigeria, led by Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, nominated Chinua Achebe for the award of Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR), the second highest national honors. Almost instantly following the nomination, the acclaimed world author sent a terse letter to President Obasanjo declining the offer: I write this letter with a heavy heart. For some time now, I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance of the Presidency … Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honor awarded me in the awarded me in the 2004 Honors List. (Kayode Ogunbunmi)

In these poignant words the author of Things Fall Apart (TFA) and The Trouble with Nigeria, among others works, makes a statement about the inherent contradictions, gross injustices, and fault-lines of the civic, political and economic realities of Nigeria.

Interestingly, the central concerns of Achebe’s letter are reverberations of the major thematic thrusts of his fictional writing, especially the monumental works TFA, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah. The desire for an egalitarian and just society as expressed in the proverb, “let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too” (19) has resonance for and goes beyond the colonial encounter. The artistic disposition of the first novel tellingly offers a platform for a continuous preoccupation with the issues of equity, parity and justice. TFA represents a study par excellence of the tragic consequences resulting from contradictory power relations during the early stages of colonization. However, the ramifications of this subject extend beyond African colonial and post-colonial experience. Achebe orchestrates the tensions from the dialectical power relations through a medley of diverse and oppositional voices, and a dramatization of individual and cultural crises, and an enactment of political conflicts.

The lack of equilibrium at the social level (and indeed all realms of human experience) is expressed through the title, Things Fall Apart, which Achebe derives from W.B.Yeats’ “The Second Coming”. The narrative is constituted by an array of voices, sometimes competing, sometimes conflicting, and sometimes in unison, reflecting diverse and opposing interpretations and perceptions of the codes and rhythms of society. The novel consists of a dynamic system of multiple and contending voices within a traditional social setting. The narrative flows artfully from a medley of voices that are intensely engaged, representing the competing interests within a heterogeneous society. Achebe dramatizes these competing voices and interests within a narrative structure that is shaped, in part, out the dynamics of local cultural patterns and tropes. TFA opens with a powerful demonstration of the rhetorical tradition of the Ibo people of Eastern Nigeria. In celebrating the lead character, Okonkwo’s wrestling prowess, the text replicates, emotively and visually, the high moments of Okonkwo’s encounter with his toughest opponent, Amalinze the cat. The narrator describes the entangled bodies of the competitors as well as recalls the suspense, anguish and excitement among the spectators. The verbal ebullience continues with a three-dimensional representation of Okonkwo’s physical outlook. However, this rhetorical outpouring is suddenly deflated when the narrator notes rather casually Okonkwo’s speech contractions: “He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists” (4). Okonkwo’s fists, anger, and lack of speech make him a potential threat to the well-being of his society. Okonkwo is woefully deficient in a society that puts much premium on the effective use of language. Achebe represents Okonkwo in images uncontrolled and uncontrollable harmattan fire.

The desire for justice and social equity is expressed in proverbial language: “Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too. If one says no to the other, let his wing break” (19). TFA is Chinua Achebe’s creative response to the urgent need for an egalitarian society.

Columnist: Awuyah, Chris Kwame