Written by John Nagenda
Have learned people worked out a formula calculating whether the incidence of death quickens and slows according to seasons, and why this should be?
Is it merely my imagination that we have recently lost more well-known people than is usually the case? Even as we drove back from our funeral to Kampala from Kabale, news reached us Chinua Achebe, arguably the best-known (and best ever) writer in Africa had died, aged 82.
Chinua Achebe: the name rolls off the tongue, as poetry, as magic. (What’s in a name, asked Juliet. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet!” Maybe; but could you imagine Chinua Achebe as a butcher or sandal-maker?)
His fellow Nigerian countryman, Wole Soyinka, is the better rewarded writer, having bagged the Nobel Prize, plus not far short of a million US, but for me, and a multitude of others, that should have gone to Achebe (profuse apologies, Wole!) Ask a million African schoolchildren who have read African literature, and I bet most will say Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the best book ever written by an African. And that it would rank at the highest level beside those from any other continent or time.
I first met him and other mainly African writer-lions, but also some Black American ones, in 1962, at a Writers’ Conference at Makerere University, from which I had just recently graduated. Wole Soyinka was there too, and others: Zik Mphahlele, Dennis Brutus, Lewis Nkosi, Alex La Guma (South Africa) John Pepper Clark, Chris Okigbo (Nigeria), Kofi Awoonor, Cameron Duodu, Efua Sutherland (Ghana), Langston Hughes (US), who won my everlasting friendship (though I never saw him again) when praising the lyricism in a short story of mine, which some participants had judged of no political merit! Ah, there were many other writers there, but memory (from which I list these) and space, are my masters…
Thereafter my meetings with Chinua Achebe were perforce infrequent, and mainly where birds of the writing feather were gathered together! Once, or perhaps twice, we crossed paths on teeming London streets. He always had a smile for me, of warm but perhaps quizzical nature. I heard he had been reduced to a wheelchair by an accident, and gone to the US semi-permanently. I wondered whether his heart for Nigeria (without Biafra) had broken. But I never forgot Chinua Achebe, much less now!
We who were alive at that hour when his first book, Things Fall Apart came out, when he was merely 27, were astounded and captivated by its writing power. But also by how, through its Igbo protagonist, Chief Okonkwo, an older, African, civilisation, was submerged by a later, European, one.
Thus it could be called a song of defeat, but sang in heroic tone, and fashioned elegantly into an English with Igbo undertones: technically a magical and miraculous feat. The book, it is no exaggeration to state, blew our minds. But equally those of countless others: it went into more than 50 translations, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide.
Four other novels followed: No Longer at Ease (1960) Arrow of God (1964), which some, but not I, consider his greatest achievement: I stick with the first book, Things Fall Apart (which to me seems nearer to perfection), then satirical A Man of the People (1966) and finally Anthills of the Savannah (1987), his kind of summing up of his and other African writers: to me seemingly an afterthought. There were some children’s books too. He also brought out Beware Soul Brother (1971), an award-winning collection of poems, and Girls at War and Other Stories (1972), a volume of short stories. These last two came from his experiences of the Biafran War.
This was that calamitous civil war of an attempted secession, by Biafra from Nigeria, in which more than a million, a huge majority of them Biafrans, perished. Surprisingly, Chinua Achebe, the most peaceful person you could ever meet, believed firmly that only an independent Biafra, to which its people could retreat, would ensure the survival of the Igbo, of whom he was one. He said, “I believe our cause is right and just. And this is what literature should be about: right and just causes.” From this came his often-repeated statement, “Let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch”: Equality!
A friend of his from earliest schooldays was the Okigbo I met, brilliant poet who chose to fight for Biafra in this war, and died, some say shot in the back while ordering his troops to follow him where the fighting was fiercest!
Mr. John Nagenda is a Senior Media Advisor to President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda. Nagenda is an accomplished sportsman, he played for East Africa in the first cricket World Cup in 1975 and captained the Nomads Cricket Club, an itinerant team once loosely related to Oxford and Cambridge universities.