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How Chinua Achebe Saved My Birthday By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

Last Tuesday, February 26th, was my birthday.
After the traditional Happy Birthday song, Ijeamaka, my four-year-old daughter, asked me how old I was.

Last Tuesday, February 26th, was my birthday.
After the traditional Happy Birthday song, Ijeamaka, my four-year-old daughter, asked me how old I was.

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It was a tricky question. The last time we went through that one year ago, we agreed I was a seven-year-old. It made sense to Ijeamaka because it kept my age close to hers and gave her the impetus to play with me. It also was a year above her most awaited age – six.
At six, she had been promised she would be allowed to decorate her nails like Mummy, wear long boot to school like Mummy, drink carbonated soda with its bursting cap and hissing noise like Daddy and sit in the car without the use of a car seat. As far as she knew, the magic year for independence was six. So for her, it made sense that I was seven – enjoying my independence.
However, since the birth of Ogonna, some eleven months ago, she has been re-evaluating her concepts of age and years. One of her beefs against Ogonna was that the boy is zero-year-old.
Ask her, “Ijeamaka, why won’t you share the toy with Ogonna?”
And her answer would be, “But Ogonna is zero.”
Or, “Why don’t you want Ogonna to go with us to the stores?”
Her answer will be, “Because he is zero.”
Somehow, soon after she configured that Ogonna is zero, she also concluded that grandma is one hundred years old.
So as I weighed her question on how old I was, I considered the fact that I was approaching the big __ zero, I felt I should move my age further up so that down the road, when I have to tell her I had hit the big __ zero, it would not be a big jump from seven.
So I said to her, “I am twenty years old.”
“No you are not,” she protested, rubbing my nose as if I was a bad boy lying through his nose. “You are eight years old. So Daddy, can we go to Chucky Cheese today for your birthday?”
I come from a family where birthdays were never celebrated. Never a party. Never a cake. Never a gift. Celebrating birthdays just wasn’t our thing.
As age catches up with me, I begin to feel like breaking out of that mold. This year, I wanted a gift, not the material kind. I wanted something that would make the day remarkable. Last year, Edna and I sat in on the taping of David Letterman Show. I didn’t get to meet Dave afterwards because Ogonna, still in the belly, was kicking and would not let us stay till the end.
This year, I secretly wanted to remember the day as one on which Umaru Yar’Adua was kicked out of Aso Rocks. But by noon it was clear that Yar’Adua was going nowhere.
Demoralized, I went midtown, midtown Manhattan for a planned dinner outing with Edna at Tao Restaurant. It was a lovely evening – I dressed up, joined the yuppies of New York City for a scrumptious dinner at the imposing restaurant off Madison Avenue. Being that I do not frequent such beautiful places, what I ordered turned out to be too exotic for this African. With all my two-piece suit and tie, the waiter shocked me when he brought soup boiling on top of a fire with slices of meat for me to cook for myself.
“Have you done this before?” he asked after seeing the crest of surprise roving round my face.
“Of course not,” I said.
He then taught me how it was done. And it turned out fabulous. Pushed down with red wine, I left the restaurant still feeling the need for a gift.
Meanwhile, raging inside me as the day rolled by was the great existential debate – what the hell are you doing with your life with this dream of writing the great African story? Why subject your soul to such violence? Why waste a lifetime in a dying, unappreciated, unvalued career in writing? Won’t you pack it up and live a normal life?
I was at that crossroad where everything was being questioned. Maybe one of the reasons for that was the 28th of February deadline I faced for a 10,000 – 15,000-word essay on Africa: Enabling an Alternative Society. It was a challenge I usually cherished. But unlike before, I asked myself why? Why would I subject myself to that tedious task? Obviously, it wasn’t for the $1000 the best essay will win. Even in the unlikely situation that one wins, there are easier ways to make $1000 than sit down and write 15,000 words. I was at the point where I would rather carry concrete at construction sites than write.
Like I said, age was catching up with me and I was beginning to ask myself difficult questions.
So at 7.30 pm, Edna and I left Tao Restaurant. She was to head home, and I was to head to PEN America organized tribute to Chinua Achebe at The Town Hall on 42nd Street. Somehow, Edna changed her mind and we decided to go together. We figured we would buy an additional ticket and go in and watch the show.
On getting there, the place was buzzing with people. I said, well, maybe there were several shows going on inside. All these non-African people everywhere couldn’t be there just for Chinua Achebe. At the box office, we were told that the show was sold out. We were debating what to do when we saw a ruffian selling tickets to the show at exorbitant price. We wanted to bargain but when we saw desperate patrons descending on the man, we quickly bought a ticket and went in.
By my rough estimate, there were over 2000 people in the hall to pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Featured speakers included Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, our own Chris Abani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, amongst others.
I gathered that PEN had not done anything like that for a living author. I watched as a parade of respectable authors came up the stage and stated how Things Fall Apart changed their lives.
And then, Achebe appeared. The Eagle on the Iroko appeared and the multitude stood for a long standing ovation. Tears dropped out of my eyes.
Looking at the audience up and down the Town Hall, I met my epiphany. They had all come out to pay tribute to a book that Achebe wrote as a 28-year-old. In the eyes of the old white women sitting around me were sparkles of awe. I almost showed them my ID card. I almost told them, just like I would have told Ijeamaka, that the man on stage, the man they admired, wrote about Okonkwo, my great grandfather.
As my eyes flashed between Achebe and the cheering audience, I got a different perspective of the man I interviewed few weeks ago. I got my answer to many vexing questions, including the one I asked him that surprised him most: What is it like to be Chinua Achebe?
Taking in the majestic aura of the night, I was sure I would rather be one-hundredth of Chinua Achebe than be one hundred Atikus, Obasanjos, Abiolas, Yar’Aduas put together.
I wondered in my mind what I would say if I was called upon to speak about the man. I did not live in the house he once lived in, like Adichie. I did not use the words of his books to impress girls, like Abani. I did not study under the great tutelage of his works, like Morrison. Nothing seemed right.
If called upon, I would inform the world that the greatest man of letter ever produced by Africa was born in the same town as I - my home town – Nnobi.
Yes. And that would have been enough.

(This piece was first published on March 8, 2008 by )

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