By Silas Nyanchwani
On Friday, at around 10.33 am, I was crossing Wabera street to the office. The streets were not so crowded and Nairobi was quiet. A random thought just struck me. Is this one of those days when something really nasty happens?Like say a bomb is dropped killing so many people and uniting us as Kenyans, the more .God forbid. You really can’t stop your brain from conceiving such silly ideas.
Something significant did happen, actually. As soon as I turned my laptop I did something we all do:Turn to social media for something funny or any update. Actually I wanted to follow up the Nigerian-Kenyan beef of the previous day. But the news from America on Nigeria was not so good. Someone had just tweeted #RIP CHINUAACHEBE. It sounded likely.
And unlikely. At first I thought it was one of those internet deaths. So I checked on Wikipedia, no up date. But Twitter was streaming on with scanty details. An hour later, Wikipedia included the date of death, but no info about the cause of death. The family denounced this in a back and forth way prompting one tweep to write that ‘Chinua Achebe’s death news is behaving like Kalonzo'(indecisive). It was later confirmed and I have been saddened ever since.
If ever, there was a writer who caught the imagination and the creative capabilities of Africans; it is be Chinua Achebe. Doubtless. And now he is gone. And I am poorer for that. He died on Friday morning, 22nd March in a hospital in Boston, Massachusetts this past Friday.
If there was a person I really wanted to meet, just to be in their presence, it must be Chinua Achebe. I have already met Ngugi wa Thiong’o and a dozen other chaps that I look up to, but Achebe would have certainly instilled something in me. Growing up, I used to harbor thoughts that I will be the modern day Chinua Achebe; I am far away from that reality than Pluto is from earth. I mean I am only a year shy of the age when Achebe broke ground publishing Africa is eternally greatest novel; Things Fall Apart. My four classic novels are somewhere in the head and the media has often fumbled searching for the right adjective to describe my ability to write and tell a good story. The things our brain can conceive. *slaps self back to normalcy*
I first encountered Achebe when I was in class 7 when I stumbled upon a copy of No Longer at Ease and to date, I remember two things I read in that book. First, if you live by the river, you can’t bathe or wash your hands with spittle. And secondly, the funny interpretation of the acronym RSVP (Rice and Stew Very Plenty). I remember comforting myself that if I can understand Achebe at such a young and impressionable age, then I would be able to understand everything else he had written. And the search begun. I stumbled upon Things Fall Apart in Form II, though I never read it until in campus, while studying Literature. I did however read Elechi Amadi’s masterpiece Concubine. One of the novels I have memorized to date.
Studying A Man of the People in high school was a revelation. It was the funniest book I have ever read. Its absolute portrayal of the typically bad politics of Africa was best exemplified when the area MP came to our school for a Prize Giving ceremony. The MP Stephen Manoti, who incidentally has been re-elected, cannot speak in straight English and is famous for direct translations. He is the quintessential African politician. A nice chap, but not the best for politics. He was a replica of Chief Nanga, complete with the village charm. Our Literature teacher Mr Omwoyo did well to make me fall in love with Literature and by extension books and the written word.
In campus, the University of Nairobi’s Literature Department is where some of the most revered literary names in Africa have walked through. Chinua Achebe visited in 1988 and would have visited frequently, had he not been consigned to a wheel chair over the last two decades. Taban lo Liyong, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo, Christopher Wanjala, David Rubadiri, John Ruganda, Austin Bukenya have memorable links to that department. Walking in that department, you can actually feel these fellows, some alive and others departed.
Meeting these people can be overwhelming or underwhelming. I met Micere Mugo in 2010 and I asked her how can we, young writers break even? And she told me the best place to start is stop deifying the giants of the 1960s like Ngugi and Achebe. Sensible, but is it realistic? I mean, there is a sense of provocation when you read Ngugi’s passionate argument on language, or Achebe’s elucidations on fiction and the role of a novelist as a teacher. I mean these guys write with so much authority that you are instantly persuaded reading them. Their writing carries with it a certain weight and conviction which has informed the literary discourse since independence.
I have read Achebe, and I have read Soyinka extensively. Achebe takes the biscuit for me. Not so much for his simplicity, but for his commitment to telling the African story in a way that is accessible, memorable and entertaining. As he once said, he never wanted to glorify the past, as if Africans were saints. Neither did he want to praise the White man, too much, acknowledging too that they had their shortcomings. Basically, we are all human, only that Africans are cursed with terrible leadership problems that are responsible for our lagging behind. His non-fiction no-nonsense book The Trouble with Nigeria should be a compulsory read for everyone.
He wrote simply.He wrote powerfully. He wrote comprehensibly. He wrote to teach. His narrative power is irreplaceable. And we hope we will move up to take up his place.
Achebe was a true gift for us and for that our lives have been greatly enriched. He has lived long enough to share his magnificent brain with us. And for that we are terrifically happy.
An excerpt of the obituary I wrote on Friday after hearing the sudden news.,
Dubbed as the father and the godfather of African literature by renowned Ghanaian-British-America philosopher, few people can disagree with that declaration. He is the most widely read African novelist and his four famous novels; Things Fall Apart, No longer at Ease, Arrow of God and A man of the People were instructive in their teaching, entertaining in their narration and above all examined Africa in the pre-colonial era as well as the disillusionment and the chaotic politics of post-colonial Africa.
Achebe was a celebrated novelist, short story writer, poet and an essayist with a perspicacious mind that was able to observe, register and transform even the most mundane of activities into hilarious wisecracks and he supplied more proverbs and idioms in the Africa literary sphere than any other writer, maybe bettered by Elechi Amadi’s one hit wonder Concubine. His Things Fall Apart protagonist Okwonkwo is a household name in Africa and the best embodiment of masculinity in pre-colonial Africa.
In East Africa as well as Africa and the entire world, his books have been used from time to time in secondary schools as well as in Universities Literature Departments.
His edifying book The Trouble with Nigeria is a recommendable read for every African and anyone tired with the politics of this continent. And what he wrote nearly three decades ago about the rot in Nigeria’s public institutions is applicable even in this era, when you would expect more from the leadership that is schooled and enlightened. His seminal essays, the ‘Truth about Fiction’ and ‘The Novelist as a Teacher’, distinguished him greatly as one of the foremost literary voices and critics in Africa and in deed the world.
As the founding editor of Heinmann’s African Writers’ Series, he opened the door for many more writers including Ngugi wa Thiong’o whose Weep not Child was among the first titles to be featured in the series that is hitherto impossible to replicate. Ngugi, Amadi, Arma will all go to be one of the greatest African writers of the 20th century.
Over the last four decades, just like his contemporaries, he wrote less. He told Binyavanga Wainaina who has been Director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Literature and Languages at the Bard College in New York that the reason has to do with what he realized in 1975. Achebe claims that he woke up one day in 1975 and discovered most of his friends had disappeared. Either they had died or in exile. The he shifted more to essays as the room for creative expression had been stifled.
His consignment to the wheelchair over the last two decades after an accident served him no good and we have only heard less of him until his last memoir, There was a country; A personal history of Biafra last year, which rekindled the sore memories of the Biafran war that claimed his best friend; the highly elliptical and elusive poet, Christopher Okigbo. The Biafran war has also been revisited by Chimamanda Adichie, whom Achebe endorsed as one of the young people who are endowed with the gift of ancient story tellers.
His contribution to African literature was immense and he will remain one of the greatest and the best ever writers to have ever come out of Africa. That he has not won a Nobel Prize escapes many, though his criticism of Joseph Conrad and run-ins with powers that be in the western world’s academic circles and his stand on racism might have played a hand in that. He lauded Wole Soyinka when he won in 1986 but insisted that it was a White man’s prize and asked Soyinka to go back to Nigeria and they fight their(African) own battles.
He was a great voice. A prophet. A teacher. A story teller. A custodian of the rich African heritage and Africans have learned so much from him and he will remain a gift, and though he has gone, his works will definitely outlive him.
Long live Papa.
Some of the more popular quotes and novels from GrandPa
Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.
One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.
Stories serve the purpose of consolidating whatever gains people or their leaders have made or imagine they have made in their existing journey through the world.
“If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.”
“We cannot trample upon the humanity of others without devaluing our own. The Igbo, always practical, put it concretely in their proverb Onye ji onye n’ani ji onwe ya: “He who will hold another down in the mud must stay in the mud to keep him down.”
“Writers don’t give prescriptions. They give headaches!”
“Every generation must recognize and embrace the task it is peculiarly designed by history and by providence to perform.”
“Procrastination is a lazy man’s apology.”
“There is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless.”