MY first encounter with Chinua Achebe was through the sociological cum literary eyes of the immortal and seminal Things Fall Apart (TFA), first as a secondary school aficionado of the in-any-form written word.
As impressionable young men, writers James Hadley Chase, Sidney Sheldon, Barbara Cartland, Nick Carter, Harold Robbins, Erle Stanley Gardner and the rest of the thrilling Western junk had dominated the consciousness of our group. Achebe, through TFA, later returned to me as a required read in Form Three, and changed my focus permanently, forever. My Literature teacher, one Sunny Ade Oloba (where would that man be now?) made additional difference.
The gusto with which he taught Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi and African Literature, only added fuel to the fire of love for this 'simple' African writer!
I was completely taken in by the 'simplicity' of the novel, of the hero who boldly, individually struck against the intruding colonial forces, masquerading as agents of a superior culture, religion and political machinery.
To be sure, before developing the appropriate critical appraisal tools, we faulted Okonkwo for attacking the civilising band of white men. Much later, with maturity, we came to understand Okonkwo's fall as a tragic occurrence, a waste of the huge human resource which the continent had in stock in the period in question.
The language was captivating, fresh; its deep referents were close to the nuances of my Urhobo ontology, as represented by my Udu mother's nightcap narratives. Reading Achebe's now legendary sentence: 'among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten', opened the ears of eyes and eyes of my ears.
With all the proverbs issuing from Obierika's wise tongue, I could not resist reading and re-reading TFA, puzzled by Unoka, attached to Ikemefuna, shocked and thrilled by the ogbanje motif. Later, as I read Arrow of God, No Longer At Ease, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah, and much later There was a Country, followed by digesting critical works on our subject's oeuvre, the Achebe world view was not as simple as the naivety of the formative years had suggested.
Achebe's narrative is that of the Igbo, of Nigeria, of Africa, of the world. The platform certainly is Igbo religious/cultural cosmology, full with all the accoutrements of language, ethos, and ancestral presence, and even politics.
Yet, Achebe's is a peephole into the unflattering narrative of the African experience, the tension between the periphery and the centre, between the empire and the willy-nilly subjects who had no say in the cascading trajectory of their disjointed lives, and the need to interrogate how and when 'the rain began to beat us'.
If the cultural framework and sociological referents of the early writing were essentially Igbo, the message in my view was certainly bigger than the immediate geography of the subject matter. Perhaps, this accounts for the ascension into and the permanent residence of TFA in the canon of world literature. How come the capture of the big picture through the small canvas of our own Umuofia etched itself into the memory of the world?
Our own Umuofia? Yes, our own Umuofia, a near-mythological time and place of which we are proud, our local differences notwithstanding. For, Umuofia was not just Igbo, not Nigeria. It was Africa.
IT was the minority of the world. It was the Black race. It was thus Umuofia in Igbo, yet not Igbo. Umuofia in an imaginary Nigeria; yet not Nigeria. Why has the classic, TFA, found a niche in any clime where there is identity struggle, where literature is taught? Where the colonial encounter has severed links, destroyed bridges, exploited weaknesses, destroyed local heroes, displaced cultures? Because it speaks to all of humanity, the exploiter or the exploited, the possessor and the dispossessed, Black and White races, no matter the geographical setting.
In subsequent novels, Achebe entered into the contemporary world, dwelling on a wide range of themes and concerns, from the challenges of the post-independent nation to official corruption and the political dynamics of a modern dictatorship. The predictive A Man of the People placed him in the prophetic mould, speaking for the weary Nigerian, frustrated by the political heists of the 1960s which reached its crescendo in January 1966, resulting in the pestle-entering-the-mouth years of 1967 to 1970. He was a man of the people of Nigeria. But of course, from the small he went to the big; 'where one thing stands, another can also stand", Achebe would later say.
Through all the novels, of course we saw, came to know and embraced Achebe somewhat personally. We could almost speak for him, read his thoughts and pontificate on his philosophy, his disenchantment with what the political leaders had done to the dreams of Nigerians in the aftermath of independence.
We empathized with him and even blamed our shortcomings when a road accident confined him to a wheel chair. We could swing with him when he wrote The Trouble with Nigeria, placing the burden squarely on failed leadership. We agreed or disagreed with him when he wrote There was a Country, the last testament he wrote before he danced into the night of his life in far away America.
He was an icon, a voice of dissent and a voice of consent, but above all a voice of hope for the dispossessed. If we were in the time so poignantly captured in TFA, Achebe would certainly have been elevated to the pantheon of deities. So let it be with the spinner of words as he returns home with the bounce of one of the ancestral spirits who presided over disputes in TFA; let him return home as a conqueror of the world space whose final space though located in Ogidi, is the nation that gave him birth.
In concluding this tribute to Chinua Achebe, a man who 'though dead yet speaketh', we do not need a prophet to conclude that with translations into 60 languages across the world, TFA, his greatest work in the fictive genre, will never die; Achebe will never die. His place in the pantheon is eternally assured, even long after all the pussy-footing elements of the Nobel world are gone. When a big tree falls in the forest, we do not need a town crier's gong to alert the world.
The fall itself is the announcement. Or do we wet the floor for our pathway when we return from the stream after a bath? Ehn, do we? When or where was it heard that baby lizard laid eggs for its mother to hatch?
When or where was it heard that the breasts of Omotekoro removed to the back to feed her infant a week after birth? When baby ants strut on the fallen tree with words of bile, it does not reduce the power of the belly of the tree. Ask Ojighele who cut off his nose to put anger inside the belly of his face. It is goodnight Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, iroko among irokos, torch bearer, survivor of many battles, and agile dancer on the floor of fluid narratives.
As a writer, Achebe's overall concern for humanity, for Africa, for Nigeria, for the Igbo, was an inquiry into 'when the rain began to beat us' that we started entering our 'house through another man's gate'.
He was concerned that though that boy called us 'father, we still bore a hand in his death'; that, 'a man who asked you for your god must have a terrible story one should not pry into; that, when things began to fall apart, we failed to remember that there was once a country. Umonwu Ogidi-Africa, kachifo! Umonwu Ogidi-Nigeria, to ode! Umonwu Ogidi-Igbo, oda ro!
Prof. HOPE EGHAGHA, is Commissioner for Higher Education, Delta State.