Some people live with us and then pass, and when they pass we ask ourselves what we would have become but for their having been among us — which gave rise long ago to the expression, "If he/she didn’t exist we would have had to invent them.” This speaks to the impact and influence one individual’s life and work have on other people and their times and lives.
Such a one is the grand old man who passed the other day, Albert Chinuamulogu Achebe, known to the world as Chinua Achebe, an African literary colossus, critic, political activist, publisher and polemicist.
He came to us, we of my generation, through his incisive novels, which captured those twilight spaces we inhabited as Africans, where we were, all too often, unsure of what we were, what we had been and what we intended to be in an emerging world that was at the same time tethered to our equally confused past in which tradition was still fighting a losing battle with an imposed modernity, but in which the latter was not exactly winning either.
Out of his large body of works, I will concern myself with three novels that left an indelible mark on me, and, no doubt, on many of my contemporaries.
The narrative of Things Fall Apart is at the same time simple and complex, expressed in images that could be found across the African continent. A community steeped in its ancient heritage is confronted with an intrusive worldview whose supposed superiority is assured by gunpowder, not morality.
The ambivalent response of strong men like Okonkwo, the main protagonist, is no different from that of other actors on the continent then. A proud heritage is a good thing, but it is sustainable only if its inheritors can insulate themselves against agents of industrial and mercantilist progress. In the interface of the two is to be found an unequal dialogue, leading to half-hearted resistance and ignominious surrender.
In the end, Okonkwo, the fearless warrior and intrepid wrestler who had overthrown Amalinze the Cat, hangs himself rather than be arrested and tried by white officials for the murder of one of them. In the eyes of his people this is an abomination, and represents the depths to which this macho man had fallen.
A god whose ambassadors carry machines that can shoot and kill from a hundred steps — forget the parting of the Red Sea and people dying and coming back — is a mighty god indeed, and what his envoys say — from the printed word — has a certain incontrovertible logic. Soon, school complements church in the process of spiritual alienation, and the zombie is born.
The African gods — incoherent because unrecorded — are relegated to the station of folklore and consultation done in the dark, far from the prying eyes and cocked ears of the white father. They become assistants to the Big White Spirit, members of a Plan B crew to be consulted when the documented god has failed us, in our women’s fecundity or the yields of the fields.
In Okonkwo’s son, Obi (No Longer at Ease) we see the continuation of the argument between the two irreconcilable universes, as the young man, with the luxury of foreign training, finds himself unable to relate to his folks as the latter would wish; he becomes town-bound, clinging to a modernism that is but a veneer that, with the conspiracy of so many other forces, eventually leads him to his ruination.
Herein we find all the ingredients of the quintessential Greek tragedy. Out of principle, Obi abhors corruption, and does everything to turn down bribes. Yet the pressures of family and extended family and community obligations and the desire to keep up with the standards of a modern city elite, do him in, big time.
It is a lovely little thing that Chinua does with Obi when he makes his main protagonist, down on his luck, reason that since he is accepting bribes exclusively from people who were already qualified anyway, it was less reprehensible. Actually, the young man soon earns a reputation as one who delivers on his promise once bribed!
A Man of the People broke out of Igboland confines and into the larger African scene, shining a harsh light on the rot of corrupt politics in post- Independence Africa. Represented by the incredible chief Nanga (Chief the Honourable D.M..A. Nanga, MP, LLD), the post independence clique of rulers is shown in all its avarice, incompetence and viciousness, concerned only with increasing its vast material wealth and power to do as it pleases.
It is an African story that continues to this day, only it’s getting worse. The other side of the argument is represented by Odili, a young and idealistic teacher who challenges Chief Nanga, a minister of the government, and the resultant stresses and strains, played out in a wider national context, lead the hostage country down the route to a military coup. This was indeed Chinua’s prophecy, shortly before the first of a series of military takeovers in Nigeria arrived.
His literary work, which places him in the pantheon of the greatest writers of his generation anywhere, was a weapon he wielded to fight what he saw as the negative forces subjugating and dehumanising the African, sometimes forces surging forth from the African’s own millenary existence, sometimes extraneous ones that the African can hardly comprehend, let alone thwart.
It is an epic struggle whose outcome cannot, even today, be anticipated, as the story of Okonkwo, Obi and Nanga, continues to play out, assuming different names and functions, populating diverse spaces and speaking to assorted audiences. It is the story of alienation, of the conquest of the spirit and the grim search for a new beginning that will take us to the old, lost idyll, which could itself prove to be a mirage. It is frightening in the extreme.
Chinua evolved in a rich time for African literature, populated by great writers such as Cyprian Ekwensi, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi, Peter Abrahams, Camara Laye, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ferdinand Oyono, Es’kia Mphahlele, David Rubadiri, even Amos Tutuola, whose The Palm Wine Drinkard gave us magical realism before we knew it as such.
But Chinua taught a whole generation of Africans about their past and the imperative to honour it, and the importance of recognising who we are and what we are all about. His extensive travels across the African continent gave him insights into the workings of the African mind, and he never hesitated to give his views thereon.
He had his politics, and his politics was Biafran, staunch and unflinching, even turning down a lucrative teaching berth in the US to serve as ambassador for the ill-fated rebellion. Unto his death he never doubted the justice of his stand nor the righteousness of the cause.
Moments from his work jump to mind as we contemplate the passing of this great of the greats. I will never forget the passage where Odili is riding his bicycle carrying his girlfriend, Elsie, on the back carrier, and Elsie, as a way of encouraging him in his punishing task, tells him, “You are eating the hills like yam.” Never mind that, with the lure of money and power, Elsie betrays Odili and sleeps with Nanga.
Nor can I forget Odili’s reflections on his headmaster who had told him that he, Odili, was tired. “A man of fifty or more, with a son in secondary school and a wife whose dress gets caught in the buttocks” telling him that he was tired!
Chinua taught us all about human greatness and littleness, and showed us how the best, the bravest, the most blessed could, sometimes through no fault of theirs, be shot down even as onlookers were applauding them. For, in many African communities the hero is the community, permanent, indestructible, irreplaceable ; the individual is the very opposite, however good.
Go well, Chinua, you taught well.