By Anote Ajeluorou
When promoters of Moet and Chandon Champagne decided to make a toast to the extraordinary life of Chinua Achebe at Freedom Park, Broad Street, Lagos last Thursday, little did they know what harvest the largely young audience would have for the late literary icon. Although Achebe’s soul mate Prof. Wole Soyinka turned up, the late start of event robbed the audience of his magisterial presence. But this didn’t dampen the sheer enthusiasm to relive the life of the man who gave the continent a literary voice. Tolu Ogunlesi curated the event.
Indeed, rather than the proposed ‘toast’ as stated in the proceedings, Deji Toye’s déjà vu suggestion of ‘libation’ elicited sighs of instant approval from everyone, as Ogunlesi stumbled over which was the proper way to proceed. A libation was the only thing that could appropriately fit the moving spirit of the continent’s literary age, a man who just became an ancestor. And so glasses of Moet and Chandon Chanpagne were lifted up and clinked after generous drops had been tipped to the marble floor in honour of a worthy ancestor. But this was after almost everyone had had his say on what the Achebe phenomenon really was, and will continue to be as a guiding light and legacy to a continent’s writing.
Indeed, it isn’t always that such high-end product as Moet and Chandon Champagne to hobnob with writers or even celebrate them, but Achebe was such high-end personality that drew an audience that filled the Kongi Harvest Hall. Also, it was the first literary event held in honour of Achebe in Lagos since he died last April.
First, Ogunlesi pointed out the sheer symbolism of Achebe being celebrated at an old Majesty’s former prison (now remodled Freedom Park) on a day Nelson Mandela turned 95, a man who spent a better part of his life in an imperialist’s prison. In opening the celebration, arts enthusiast Mr. Toyin Akinosho said Achebe was the man who built the local content in Nigerian, nay African literature, (not unlike the Petroleum Industry Bill - PIB – Akinosho, an oil man, is the publisher of Oil and Gas magazine).
He went on to give background to the emergence of Achebe and how his famous Things Fall Apart (TFA) manuscript made its uneventful journey from Lagos to London and was almost lost in the hands of the typewriters who found it odd that an African upstart could arrogate to himself the whiteman’s craft of writing a novel. Akinosho read excerpts from James Curry’s Africa Writes Back. TFA manuscript probably made the most convoluted journey a manuscript ever made to come into world acclaim! It wasn’t until a professor of Economics at London School of Economics gave it a seven-letter word endorsement that it saw the light of the day, when he said: This is the best novel after the war!
Those were the magic words that brought TFA into being. From that point onward, Achebe’s personal chi said an affirmation and his eagle took a flight. Achebe soon became editorial adviser to Heinemann publishers, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Maxim Uzoatu (author of God of Poetry) regaled the audience with details of his trip from Lagos to Ogidi for Achebe’s burial and how the man’s personality elicited arguments from among the town’s folks who he really was, whether he was Pete Edochie or Okonkwo of Things Fall Apart, the NTA 1980s drama series or just another politician. With massive billboards and huge posters adorning every conspicuous space in town and the invasion of thousands more, with two presidents in attendance, Achebe was mythologised in his native birthplace. In sum, most people in Ogidi didn’t Achebe, Uzoatu stated.
Uzoatu, who had the rare privilege of interviewing Achebe years back, described him as an organised person, who took his writing seriously from start, adding, “Some of us lack the courage of conviction, but Achebe was a man of his own. Even when Europeans said the novel is dead, Achebe will say, ‘no; we haven’t written our own yet; we haven’t told our story yet’. The proverbs, the idioms are commonplace but the way he deployed them made a difference.
“The initial efforts of Achebe, Soyinka, Ammos Tutuola made them pathfinders. We should return to the original African story. That’s the legend of Achebe!”
Like Ogunlesi, who first proposed the seemingly unthinkable, the ‘what if’ Things Fall Apart had not been written or the manuscript got lost from Lagos to London, Toye further extended that improbability of TFA getting lost or not having been written and the probable fate African literature. For Toye, Achebe, too, fell under the spell of this improbability, when he said in his usual humility that another person could have written TFA if he hadn’t written.
However, Toye would not be seduced by such reasoning even as it came from the revered ancestor himself while he lived. For him and many others, it could only have been Achebe who could have pulled off such literary magic and no one else, saying, “What if? What if the manuscript had been lost? Achebe had said if he hadn’t written TFA, somebody else would have written it, which isn’t very true.
“He was a product of his era. The era itself produced the writing. It was a gate-keeping era in which the architecture, historiography, musicology, visual arts and literary art were wrested from European hegemony and stranglehold”.
Eghosa Imasuen (author of To Saint Patrick and Fine Boys) said his first encounter with Achebe was A Man of the People, a novel he described as being ridiculously funny. He noted that as a writer was someone that might be considered being a witness to history, it became something he yearned for, especially from his reading of A Man of the People. Also for Ralph Tathagarta, Achebe was a revolutionary who put up a fight just like his famous hero, Okonkwo in TFA, a man who stood in defence of what was his even when it appeared indefensible!
A white member of the audience praised the historicity in Achebe’s books as it helped him in understanding his identity, noting that Achebe’s writing helps in “understanding the history of our fathers and that we have obligation to our place in history and the choices that we make”.
ALSO, former editor of The Guardian on Sunday, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo expressed sadness over how Achebe’s last book There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra sparked off much heated debate and vilification of the man even from unenlightened quarters and those who hadn’t even read the book joined the fray. He said it was sad “the way we reduced Achebe to our ethnic narrowness. The way we represented him wasn’t how he was. Achebe represented our own collective imagination. The way we interpreted him was not how he set out to be. Many of us, especially journalists, are just reductionists. Let’s restore Achebe to that status he really was. He wasn’t in enmity with Soyinka or Clark. Achebe gave every African a voice”.
Anikulapo narrated an encounter with Achebe after his debilitating accident. The iconic writer was returning home and at the Lagos airport during the Chief Ojo Maduekwe’s era as Minister of Culture and Tourism, and there was the usual oversight and no armchair had been provided. Achebe had to ride on the back of a woman to be ferried from the tarmac to a waiting car! At that time also, overzealous journalists had whipped up so much dust about his quarrel with late Cyprian Ekwensi.
Later when he (Anikulapo and one other journalist) arrived Achebe’s Sheraton Hotel suite, in came Ekwensi; they almost wished the ground would open and swallow them (journalists) up at the camaraderie of the two elders who were believed to be at loggerheads with each other.
For Anikulapo, that momentous occasion provided a lesson in humility and how larger than life personages are reduced to the ethnic or other narrowness of those regarding them from their narrow perch.
Poet and teacher, Aj Daggar Tolar said the literary community usually commits sin against acknowledged ancestor of African literature in the wrong perception of his treatment of women in his novels. With the character of Ekwuefi, Tolar said, women had an assured place in traditional African society and that Achebe should be commended for placing women in such high priestly office.
And like Okonkwo, who played the oppositional role in standing alone in TFA till the very end, Tolar said Achebe also stood alone to the very last as a strong oppositional figure in the battle to rescue the sinking soul of his country from the cabal that hold it hostage.
“The life of Achebe and how he died raise some fundamental questions of nationhood,” Tolar said. “He had principles that are entirely missing in today’s Nigeria and that’s where we’re where we are today.”
A violinist from Crown Troupe of Africa very movingly serenaded the audience with a classic tune from NTA dramatised Things Fall Apart.
Also, Lola Shoneyin (author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and organiser of Ake Arts and Book Festival) stated that the worst thing to say about Achebe would be that he didn’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature, saying, “He shouldn’t be reduced to that level”. Shoneyin said Achebe awakened in her the issue of her true identity, especially when she was a student in England at the age of six, when she didn’t quite know the implication of race. However, after reading Achebe, it reinforced her identity and she began to discern the racist insults flung at her and her having to fling them back at her tormentors with equal vehemence.
The evening ended with the libation, which was enthusiastically embraced by all.