By Richard Dowden
A conversation with Chinua Achebe was a deep, slow and gracious matter. He was exceedingly courteous and always listened and reflected before answering. In his later years he talked even more slowly and softly, savouring the paradoxes of life and history. He spoke in long, clear, simple sentences which often ended in a profound and sad paradox. Then those extraordinary eyes twinkled, his usually very solemn face would break into a huge smile and he would chuckle.
He had a look of Nelson Mandela about him. Both have that ability to look very stern and solemn and then break into a huge smile. It happened when they met each other in South Africa, his daughter, Nwando, told me. At first the two men just looked at each other and then burst out laughing as if recognizing their brotherhood. Both romantic about Africa’s traditions, they talked and talked. Mandela had read Things Fall Apart when he was in prison on Robben Island and he said of Achebe: “The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down.”
He also shared Mandela’s care for ordinary people. I noticed how cleaners and nurses and others who cared for him were treated as friends.
His life was itself a paradox. He was of that first generation of ordinary Africans to receive western education. Until then only the sons of chiefs were sent to school. He loved and gloried in the education he had been lucky enough to receive – a typical British public school routine and curriculum. Nor had he any complaints about the benefits that modern technology had brought to Africa. But he was also a fierce defender of African traditions and the right – duty even – of all Africans to live by them and respect them. He wanted the two cultures to meet as equals. It was not about civilization replacing barbarism.
This was not merely philosophical. It was personal. His father, a Christian missionary who laboured tirelessly as a church worker and builder of churches, encouraged his son to read – especially the Bible. His father’s uncle however kept the traditions and when his nephew tried to convert him, the uncle showed him the insignia of his traditional Igbo titles – which he would have had to renounce if he became Christian. “What shall I do to these?” he asked. Achebe interpreted these words as: What do I do to who I am? What do I do to history?
The dilemma which separated his father from his great uncle haunted Achebe all his life. His books are set in the time when the old world was being destroyed, lost or abandoned and a new world of modernity, mediated by the West, was being imposed on Africa. His five novels trace the story from the coming of the white man, through to Nigeria’s independence and self government and its failure to deliver on its promises. His books were prescient about Nigeria’s failures. In A Man of the People, published in 1966, he describes a coup – which promptly happened in reality.
Whichever way he looked at it, the British seizure and creation of what is now Nigeria was a catastrophe. In Things Fall Apart the impetuous and uncompromising traditionalist, Okonkwo, tries to resist the British by force and ends committing suicide in the forest. In the next novel Arrow of God, the old keeper of the shrine, a modest open-minded man and based on Achebe’s great uncle, tries to engage with the white invaders, showing what might have been a coming together of different cultures. Instead the result is the same – they are not interested and humiliate him and destroy the shrine.
Achebe celebrated Nigerian independence with great excitement, believing, as most of his generation did, that a liberated Africa would soar. His disillusionment was swift and, long before the rest of the world foresaw the political failures of the new African states; Achebe pinpointed them. In A Man of the People he described the African states as a house abandoned by the colonial powers, taken over by “the smart and the lucky and hardly ever the best”, leaving the vast majority of the people out in the rain.
Soon after came the second agonizing dilemma of his life. In 1967 his Igbo people, feeling persecuted and excluded by the alliance of the northern Muslims and the Yoruba in the west, declared independence from Nigeria. Led by Colonel Ojukwu, the Igbo called their new country Biafra and Achebe was its chief proponent and propagandist. The war lasted three years and left more than a million dead. His last book, There was a Country, is an account of that war and shows Achebe to still be a staunch supporter of Biafran independence.
A car accident in Nigeria in 1990 left him in a wheelchair and dependent on others. He had to move to America for treatment. But his devoted wife Christie looked after him fiercely and made very sure he did not get mobbed by visitors or used by people who might exploit his easy going nature.
In my book, Africa Altered States Ordinary Miracles I used Achebe’s image of the house left behind by the imperial powers as a theme. I then had the cheek to contact him and ask him to write a forward. I was astounded and thrilled when he readily agreed and we got to meet each other.
In 2009 I accompanied him on his last visit to Nigeria to make a film for the BBC. We went to see the home that he had built for his family, complete with its own power and water supply and a lift that would take his wheelchair. It was close to completion and he wanted to live out his final years there but the medical services he needed were not available and his family persuaded him to stay in the US. Sadly that was his first and last visit to that house.
Everywhere he went he was mobbed. We drove at frantic speed from Abuja to Owerri accompanied by a police escort which forced everyone off the road. The lead police Land Rover roared up the middle of the road, lights full on, sirens wailing and police with whips lashing out at cyclists, bikers and pedestrians as they passed. At one stage the convoy took a wrong turning but doubled back, travelling the wrong way along a busy motorway at night. This was the sort of behavior that Achebe had denounced in his 1983 tirade The Trouble with Nigeria. I pointed this out to him. He gave me a rueful smile and shook his head sadly. His son Chide, a distinguished doctor in America, tried unsuccessfully to persuade them to go a little more slowly and be less violent.
Achebe delivered his lecture at Owerri in Igbo heartland and reminded his audience of their history, their culture, their language. This was their heritage, he said, and if they kept faithful to it, they would be strong. After the speech I asked audience members randomly what they thought of the speech. One of those I spoke to said he agreed: “If we know our Igbo language and culture we will be strong – and then we can rule Nigeria!” This sentiment was repeated by two others I interviewed. When I related this to the old man he was appalled. “That is not what I meant at all,” he said. But I wondered if, after his long absence from Nigeria, a new more cynical generation had lost touch with his noble, old-fashioned idealism.
I hope this and the scores of other tributes to one of the greatest Africans of his generation, whose work and memory will last as long as Africa itself, will be some consolation for Christie Achebe and all the family. I condole you.
Listen to Chinua Achebe: A Hero Returns, BBC Radio 4, 23:00, 22 March 2013 presented by Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles.
This article originally appeared on African Arguments, hosted by the Royal African Society and World Peace Foundation, part of the Guardian Africa Network.
Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society.
African Affairs is published on behalf of the Royal African Society and is the top ranked journal in African Studies. It is an inter-disciplinary journal, with a focus on the politics and international relations of sub-Saharan Africa. It also includes sociology, anthropology, economics, and to the extent that articles inform debates on contemporary Africa, history, literature, art, music and more.