[This tribute is a second revision of a piece (REFLECTIONS ON CHINUA ACHEBE) which I wrote in 2000, and revised in 2007. His passing, in the third week of March 2013, has necessitated this revision.]
Chinua Achebe was a compelling figure, straight out of a Biblical saga. He was also, rather more prosaically, a friend who was so close, he was like a brother. A few hours after his death was blazed around the world, I received a condolence call from a member of our Dallas, TX Igbo community. This friend asked me if I was sure Chinua and I did not share an umbilical cord. Another person, this time a Reverend gentleman, expressed his condolences in rather more risqué language. “Your friendship with Chinua,” he said, “reminds me of the biblical story of David and Jonathan.”
I would be lying through my teeth if I said I was not flattered by the language in which the two condolences were couched. But while I gloried in the way my friendship with Chinua was perceived by these two gentlemen, two things struck me about the manner their perceptions were expressed. The reference to Chinua and I sharing an umbilical cord will be easily recognized for what it was: a humorous turn of phrase. But when the clergyman reached for his Bible in search of relational equivalences, he lighted on one of the most emotional passages in Holy Scripture: David lamenting the death of Jonathan, whose love for him, David sang, “was wonderful, passing the love of women!” The love of women? I ask you!
The clergyman’s Biblically inspired phraseology also set me thinking in an unusual direction. I thought about it for a long while, and then – eureka! – it hit me. Chinua Achebe’s story, the saga of his life, is a story of almost Biblical proportions. He rose so far above his humble birth, and above his innate humility – as a human being, a classmate in school, and a friend – that nothing about him seemed ordinary. And, amazingly, his stratospheric rise to greatness, fame and universal acclaim was, at least, twice predicted: first, in 1943, by his and my primary school Headmaster, Mr. Okongwu, as sagacious an observer of humanity as you are likely to meet; and, about a dozen years later, by Chinua himself, albeit innocently.
Chinua did not prophecy, in so many words, that he would, one day, be a great man. But, about two years BEFORE he even began to write his epochal novel (THINGS FALL APART; published in 1958), he wrote the following words to a mutual friend: “Yes, there may be many stars in the firmament, but some shine brighter than others.” My memory, at my fairly advanced age, is like a sieve but, as near as I can remember, those were his exact words. I know this because I saw and read the letter he wrote to the friend, and I was involved in the sequence of events that led to that innocent prediction. The mutual friend, I am happy to relate, also achieved considerable success, in his own right, as a novelist. Glory be!
Headmaster Okongwu’s prophecy was couched in more straightforward and unambiguous language. In 1943, as I was sweating over my preparations for the entrance examination to Government College, Umuahia (G.C.U. – a boys’ high school), along came my Headmaster. He regarded me for a moment or two, and then uttered his immortal words: “If,” he said, “you do well enough in the exam to gain admission to the school, I predict you will there meet a boy called Albert Achebe, and Albert will make the rain that will drench you!!!!!!” (This was a boy he last saw in 1940, when Chinua was ten years old.) In the upshot, I gained admission to GCU. Chinua also did, on a merit scholarship! This was in January 1944.
The rest is history. In the middle of 1944, our first year in high school, Chinua was promoted, with five other boys, to class two. First drenching! From then till his high school graduation in 1948, he was the best student in his new class. That same year, he won a merit scholarship (one of only six or seven awarded that year) to the University College, Ibadan (U.C.I.). To study MEDICINE!! U.C.I. was then the only institution for tertiary education in the country. He changed courses at the end of his freshman year, and I caught up with him one more time. This was in 1949. We both graduated, Bachelor of Arts, in the same subjects, in 1953. Throughout those four years, our professors and lecturers, again and again, let us know that Chinua was, not only the best student in the class, but also the best writer of English. He achieved the best result in our degree examination. Second drenching!!
I need not belabor the point. More drenching followed, fast and furious! Within five years of our graduation, Chinua published THINGS FALL APART. Other novels followed, and success followed hard on success. The inevitable consequence followed. Chinua, force majeure, began to shift out of my orbit. He discovered, as his friends did too, that he had been drawn onto a world stage – to all of humanity, and not just to a narrow circle of friends and admirers.
He was, as I have dared to proclaim elsewhere, the best writer of English that I think I have ever read. He is, for me, its most mellifluous exponent. If the reader disagrees with this spectacular claim, I plead that beauty is in the beholder’s eye. I speak for myself and, perhaps, for a continent. There is no writer, living or dead, who has demonstrated, in greater measure than Chinua, the ability to weave a tapestry of words taken from the Queen’s English and from the proverbs and aphorisms of his own mother tongue, Igbo.
He certainly rose above the British colonial quagmire to which our people were condemned for a century and more, to write the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Stevenson and, yes, even Conrad, with a mastery that takes the breath away. When we were reading those authors, in high school and in college, we did not think – we dared not think – that we would produce a Chinua Achebe. Later, he was to pick a bone or two with Conrad’s racially slanted writings, but that is another story!
I might have sometimes been tempted to look at Chinua, and think (again, Biblically): Is this not the carpenter’s son? But I can say, truthfully, that I never succumbed to that temptation. He bestrode my world like the colossus that he was, and I rejoiced with him as he scaled the heights of literature to its pinnacle. No, he was no mere carpenter’s son for me. During the years Chinua and I were in high school and university, my contacts with the senior Achebe were few and far between. My memory of him is, at best, very sketchy now. But Chinua’s old man was no carpenter, though I have no doubt that he was largely responsible for chiseling Chinua, in his formative years, into the exquisite product that has dazzled the world for more than half a century, since THINGS FALL APART was published in 1958.
Chinua should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel Prize committee members are probably the only persons, on earth, who know why he was denied this recognition of his literary stature, and of his influence on more than two or three generations of African writers. And on other writers worldwide! Tony Morrison (the Nobel laureate) acknowledged Chinua as one of her main literary inspirations in writing about her own people. Chinua’s most celebrated contemporary and fellow Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel laureate, also acknowledged Chinua as a trail-blazer. Enough said!
Chinua now belongs to the ages, his work on earth magnificently done. No one could have asked for more from even a genius of his breath-taking dimensions. Regrettably, Chinua had to live out the last twenty-three years of his life wheelchair-bound – the result of a vehicular accident in 1990. This is the reason, above all else, that my wife, Ethel and I (and Chinua’s other friends) are especially appreciative of the love and devotion of Odozi-ngwulu, his beautiful wife, Professor Dr. Christiana Achebe – Ana to Chinua himself, Christie to the rest of us! My appreciation also extends to their children, Chinelo, Ike, Chidi and Nwando, of whom one is a medical doctor, and the other three achieved doctorates in academia. Apropos of this, Ethel sometimes teasingly told Chinua he was the least educated member of his family!! I was his best-man when he married Christie, and he was godfather to my son, Chukwudi (Chidi).
His last book, THERE WAS A COUNTRY – the story of Biafra, and of man’s inhumanity to man – was like a concluding and thunderous exclamation mark on his life as a writer!! The buzz it generated has scarcely died down, as I write this.
I stand, in humility, in the shadow of his greatness and, yes, of his almost Biblical stature!!! In the language of the Bard, when comes such another?
ARLINGTON, TX April 2013