When I was coming of age in my part of the African continent, I was oriented to four major metaphors for what my environment considered most important in our social discuss.
The first was Zik, which I later learnt was short for the name of Nigeria’s founding nationalist and Africa’s foremost Pan-Africanist, Nnamdi Azikiwe. Zik was a metaphor for the kind of leadership that espoused liberty and sovereignty for African people and unity amongst them.
Chike Obi was said to be the first African (and/or the first Nigerian) to earn a doctorate degree in mathematics. As students in Nigeria, every one of us in my generation who was smart, brilliant, or intelligent in our classes, was called Chike Obi. I would learn of Einstein much later in my life, but Chike Obi was and remains my metaphor for intelligence.
Uwalaka was a particularly great professional in the sweet science of football – a sport the Americans call soccer. Any of us who showed skills in football was often called Uwalaka. And since football was and still is king among Nigerian sports, Uwalaka was the metaphor for prowess in sports. I would later learn that Uwalaka was from my joint of the African world, Mbaise.
And then there was Chinua Achebe. As soon as I learned to read, I was introduced by my father to Achebe’s works, even though I did not comprehend at that early age the language in which he practiced his craft. There was this man, my father told me, who wrote like thunder, enlightened like lightening and told stories from spirits unknown to others. Achebe was and remains for me the metaphor for story teller extraordinaire, long before I heard of Shakespeare. It is needless to say that I have read every book Achebe wrote, including There Was A Country.
I was and I am still enthusiastic about soccer, but I was never that good in it. Nor have I pursued it in any fashion beyond my youth. I did like education enough to eventually earn a doctorate or terminal degree, but mathematics kicked my butt all through me odyssey in institutions of learning. While I have had my share of student and community activism and remain a student of politics and leadership, I have never aspired to be a Zik.
The one person or metaphor that has remained central to my yet infant life is Chinua Achebe. More than anything else, I wanted to be a story teller and to work and associate with story tellers. This is what inspired me to get into writing and ultimately into publishing. The one business I could get myself to engage in was one that dealt with intellectual and creative property. I have never written or published for money as such or to be rich in doing either. I have simply sought to partake in art for the community and art for the sake of art itself, a vocation that has enabled me to play host to Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa-Thiongo, Ali Mazuri, and of course Chinua Achebe.
While I was introduced to Achebe the writer in classes at the secondary school and university levels, it was the enterprise of publishing that gave me the honor to be introduced to Achebe the man. Specifically, it was the privilege I had in publishing Achebe’s close friend, Chike Momah, that brought me in contact for the first time with the now departed great spirit. Friends and Dreams was Momah’s first work that I published under the Sungai Books imprint. Dr. Christie Achebe, Professor Achebe’s wife, stood in for her husband at the launching of that book.
In 1999, I invited Professor Chinua Achebe to receive that year’s Quintessence Award, the preeminent Pan African Leadership Award in North America, from Sungai and the African Writers Endowment (AWE). In one of the greatest honors ever done to me, the Great Spirit accepted and came in person, his health challenges notwithstanding. He later made a joke about the evident pleasant surprise in my voice when he called to tell me he would accept and attend.
And so it was that on a date in 1999, at the then Marriott Hotel in Princeton, New Jersey, I met the metaphor in person when he came as my guest of honor and as he shared and broke bread with all who attended the event. He came, he said, because he shared the Pan-African vision of the award (we choose at least one continental African and at least one African from the Americas or the Caribbean to honor each year). He also came, he said, because he saw in my little efforts at writing and publishing, the same interests he had. Professor Ibrahim Gambari was the one who presented the award to him on behalf of our organization.
By the time of the launching of the second work by Momah, Titi: Biafran Maid in Geneva, also published by Sungai Books, I had become a respectful acquaintance of the Great Spirit. It was at this event, held at Essex County Community College in Newark, New Jersey, that Professor Achebe paid me the greatest compliment of my life. Afa ma nma, aza ya nza na abu (when a name is good, you answer to it twice), he said. He was referring to my name Ugorji Ugorji. He explained that his title, Ugoberenorji, is the same name as Ugorji. He went on to tell me, in the presence of those who had gathered, that he had followed my efforts and “Ugorji, you are doing a good job for our people.” He was simply too generous for a student who was just happy to sit at his feet.
Professor Achebe would later walk further with me when he became the biggest donor to our efforts at AWE and also accepted to serve as our honorary chairman. In addition to his interest in and support for our efforts, his donation was not unconnected to the fact that one of his children came to work with us for some time.
Achebe never shied from his fact that his Igbo heritage influenced everything he did and wrote. So it would not be controversial to observe that he wrote with the traits of gumption, stubbornness, and pride in acts of truth-telling and struggles for justice and human dignity. These traits are not exclusive to Igbo people, but Achebe’s homeboys and homegirls, especially those conscious of and/or initiated in the values of the ancients, are particularly messianic in the manifestations of these traits.
As an African student at the then Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) and Rutgers University, walking through courses in writing, black studies, and the humanities in general, I needed no introduction. Achebe had introduced me and my heritage long before I came to America. This was what made him the most influential and perhaps the most significant of the four metaphors I mentioned earlier. This is what has made him eternal and immortal.
I will have more to say about my relationship with the Great Spirit in the future. For now, as the body of Chinua Achebe gets ready to be committed to Ala (Ani) this week in the land he considered and presented as a holy land – Ala Igbo – May his universal soul rest in peace with the ancestors and with Chukwu!
Ugorji O. Ugorji, Ed.D.
Executive Director, African Writers Endowment, Inc.
Publisher/CEO, Sungai Books
Princeton, New Jersey
Email: [email protected]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters