THE motto of Obafemi Awolowo University is ‘For Learning and Culture’. No one academic in Nigeria reflects and personifies that maxim more than Professor Chinua Achebe. The grandfather of modern English literature in Africa was both a colossus in learning as he was a thorough bred and highly cultivated individual in manners and character.
Chinua Achebe’s transition last week took the world by storm and he was genuinely mourned by all those who appreciated both his writings and character.
His passing on into eternity was a personal loss to this writer.
It was in July 1965 that Uncle Segun Olusola took me to Chinua Achebe somewhere on Broad Street, Lagos to seek his permission for me to adapt his most celebrated classic Things Fall Apart, published in 1958 into a play. I had seen the dramatic elements in the novel and decided to make a drama out of it. Achebe asked me a few questions and satisfied with my answers, approved my proposal to adapt the novel for both stage and television. Ambali Sanni’s Muslim College, Ijebu Ode provided the funds while the students made up the cast. The production was taken round the whole Western region, including Lagos (minus the colony) and was given loud applause by the likes of Derek Bullock and Dapo Adelugba.
That was the beginning of the romance with this giant of letters, who, seven years later hosted me and my wife on our honeymoon to his official residence at the University of Nigeria Nsukka in 1972.
Achebe gave pride to African writing and to Africans. For the first time, he provided a lens into Africa and presented Africa from the African perspective. His writings were African based, but with monumental universal appeal. Hence his maiden novel Things Fall Apart got translated into well over 50 languages and sold over 12 million copies.
Apart from being the greatest writer of prose to emerge from African continent, Achebe wrote for the masses. Achebe spoke so that he could be understood. The beauty of his writings was that he was a most excellent communicator, believing that the over all purpose of any work of art is communication. Your work, be it dance, song, speech, drama, gesture, painting must convey a message, and that message must be comprehended by your listener, your viewer or your audience. Anything short of that is intellectual garbage.
In fact, Achebe could easily pass for a playwright of immense stature. There is so much drama in all of his novels. And this was the reason I started work on The Theatre in Achebe’s Novels. All the characters in his writings are alive and touchable. The trees, the mountains, the rivers and valleys in his novels speak.
Chinua Achebe gave dignity and personality to art. For him, you do not need to grow a bush on your head, or grow rodents in your hair to impress on the world that you are an artist or a writer.
Achebe was a man of character. He taught for many years at Nsukka, and no one ever heard that he drove his female students nuts, nor was he ever accused of befriending or marrying his students.
Achebe taught us what a great mind should be. Achebe never went round state governors with beggar’s bowl soliciting for money or gratification nor was he ever accused of sleeping with his friends’ widows.
Twice Achebe was offered national honours. Twice he rejected them, arguing that he was not one that would pose as holy in the day time and be in cosy alliance in the night with people he accuses in the day time.
The millions who have continued to mourn Achebe since his transition, do so in deep sorrow and in sincerity, having discovered in the literary colossus a most genuine and sincere human being.
Achebe identified with his Igbo nation. He shared the pains and sufferings of his people. And never for once did he treat them with condescension that he was in any way superior to his clan.
Achebe was mature. He showed maturity in all his dealings. He did not exhibit childishness. He was never petty or small-minded. All those who had anything to do with him ended up respecting him, because he commanded respect. Even when he was in his 30s he displayed unusual maturity and mastery of human relations. As far as Achebe was concerned, a writer or any artist for that matter was first and foremost a human person with deep human feelings and ethos.
Chinua Achebe eminently qualified for a Nobel Prize before that hitherto prestigious prize got politicised and became not a reward for distinction but a reward for those who had mastered the art and science of boardroom politics or global arm-twisting.
Although Achebe mentioned lizard in almost all his works, the honourable man of letters never learnt the art of lizarding.
Prose writer Chinua Achebe shared the distinction of being the best in their arts with John Pepper Clark and Christopher Okigbo who up till today are the best writers of poetry, with Professor Ola Rotimi, the best in playwriting and play production, with Ene Henshaw, Wale Ogunyemi and Professor Femi Osofisan as playwrights with greatest relevance and profundity. This explains why to me, Achebe remains the uncrowned Nobel Prize winner with most authentic claim to that crown.
The Federal Government of Nigeria must immediately commence the process of creating a national monument to immortalise this rare genius of both learning and character. Chinua Achebe was not just a writer; he was a distinguished writer with the best and noblest of human virtues. A non-hypocrite. A non-bully. Achebe was both a great ambassador of Africa, and a true and respectable specimen of the finest humanity.
• Adeniyi wrote from Lagos.