BY CHINEDU NEBO
Finally, the story ends. The story teller has gone to sleep. He has gone with his stories – a bagful. But then another story begins. It is telling the story according to the story teller. It is the story of Chinualumogu Achebe and his stories. It is also about the stories of Chinua Achebe, the man with the stories. Ugo belu n’enu oji – the eagle on the iroko. It is a story that thrills, enthralls and captivates – both sides of it.
Children hear it and demand for more until they go to bed dreaming it. Adults too. They continue to cogitate over both the story and the story teller until a mental war begins to take place; an endless clash of which is the bigger – the story or the story teller. This was the story penultimate Thursday as the world virtually stood still for the man, his stories and how and where he told them.
At that remote village of Nkwele Ogidi in Idemili North Local Government Area of Anambra State where the story began 82 years ago, it was a gathering of those who came to tell their own last stories, while others came to hear them. Yet others became the story. They came from all parts of the globe – Europe, Asia, The Pacific, Antarctica, Australia, Oceania, The Americas and Africa, where the story of the story teller had spread and is being retold in different tongues; written and verbally. Those who failed to make it to the ancient village, physically, had to rely on the varied media instruments to hear the story or tell theirs.
The frenzy actually began on March 22, when the story teller told his last; when the eagle descended from the iroko and took a permanent habitation with others before him.
Sitting there in the crowded enclosure of St. Phillips Anglican Church, I could tell that though many struggled, there were and still are many stories to tell. Attempts will be made as they were indeed made on that occasion. But it will continue to be like the proverbial story of the blind men attempting to describe an elephant by feeling it, each telling his according to where he touched and felt.
I even told mine. When confronted by those who wanted to know my own version, I said: “Chinua Achebe rose to become an iconic figure in the area of literary geniuses. He stood up for everything that was right, everything that was good, everything that had to do with accountability and transparency. Chinua Achebe was so bold, so great, so courageous that he could hold a whole country ransom whenever he was ready to call for accountability and transparency. Chinua Achebe was a man who never feared anybody and he spoke the truth from the profundity of his heart not minding whose ox was gored.
So, we give God thanks that this wonderful man, one man iroko tree and one man army squad has gone the way of all mortals. But before he did so, he made his mark globally and as an international figure of repute. Anywhere in the world, wherever you are, everybody is talking about Chinua Achebe and his book and his literary work. He was a literary genius and we thank God for him. I’m so glad to also give God glory that this iconic figure is a son of Igbo extraction. Glory be to God.”
But I knew I was just scratching the surface like many others, because that was not the end of the story. In fact, even after that event, many more stories have been told and heard. So, for Achebe, the Eagle, the story will be endless. Generations after will continue to add to it until it grows into a monstrous edifice that will touch all parts of the earth. Yet, it will not end. That is the lot of great men. For Achebe was indeed a great man.
Interestingly and strikingly, the story of Achebe is not about the number of houses he had or the cars packed in his garages in all parts of the globe, where he ought to have owned them, were he like just an ordinary man of means. No, it was not in the number of children or shares in companies. If he had any, very few people probably know. I know very little either. Rather, his story of greatness and riches was in what he left for humanity – his intellectual works and his exemplary lifestyle.
To many, the fascination in the story of Achebe was that he told the story of Africa the way no other did – that indeed there was life and living in the continent; that Africans didn’t live on trees or hunted each other for meals; that it was actually the white man that came and put a knife in Africa, cutting the existing cord of sequence and order that bound those elements of life and living together. But he did not stop there.
From Things Fall Apart, a book he wrote at age 28, he went ahead to do other works, which basically pointed out the contradictions between life and living, man and his environment and the consequences of those contradictions. These were the import and purport of No Longer At Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah, The Trouble With Nigeria, There Was A Country, et cetera.
In all, Achebe, simply tried to re-establish the principle of the teaching of Jesus Christ that ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’ He tried to tell the world that man could indeed conquer his environment; that all that is needed is for him to follow the sequence as part of creation and not to attempt the impossible of re-creating it. He tried to point out the hugely destructive factor of man’s desire and attempt to own the world.
Things Fall Apart, the book that put him in the eyes of the world must have sold in hundreds of millions and earned more proceeds for its translation into about 50 languages. Other works could have earned him fairly sizable amounts equally. This is apart from his other earnings from his work as a teacher and other engagements.
Therefore, there is no doubt that he ought to be an extremely rich man. Yet, his riches translated more in his reflection of ordinariness and his closeness to humanity and his environment. At every point he perceived that environment drifting towards danger, especially man-made, he never failed to warn. That was the essence of those books. For him, any position must never be used to serve
self more than the society. It was this demand that he made of me few days after my appointment as the Vice Chancellor of University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), in 2003. He had called from the US to wish me success. But beyond that he reminded me that I must strive to re-establish the standard of the institution and ultimately ‘Restore the Dignity of Man,’ its motto. I must not fail, he emphasised, to use that platform I had to advance humanity. The effect of those words cannot be stated here. But it suffices to say that the modest achievements recorded in that assignment owes a lot to their direct impact.
And for those who thought that such a demand was utopian, impossible and even obtuse, Achebe showed how it could be done, using his immediate environment, Nigeria.
Yes, some of the things he wrote, said or did, could be considered as and were indeed controversial. But more important were the motives, principles and courage that drove those thoughts and decisions. Either in his controversial rejection of national honours or the fact that he, according to the Most Reverend Ikechukwu Nwosu, officiating minister at his funeral church service, described same sex marriage as alu (taboo) or his latest book – There Was A Country, Achebe was not only able to demonstrate unquestionable courage to speak his mind at all times, but that a man could and indeed, should say no to certain things no matter the attraction.
Whether wrong or right, in the instant examples, Achebe was able to demonstrate the teaching that saying no at a time it is needed could reduce greed, one of the greatest elements that have held Nigeria down and prevented the giant in it from rising. By writing his version of part of the Nigerian history in that book, he simply tried not only to state the truth as he knew it, but remind the country of the glorious past and the need to rediscover itself.
Many actually miss the point by putting Achebe on the hot seat for those deeds. They do because they forget that he was an intellectual. And one of the most visible elements of intellectualism is that those who inhabit that elevated platform often disagree on virtually every issue, yet remain friends.
The abiding lesson(s): We can say No! to a lot of things in this country, particularly the desire for mindless and obscene acquisition of wealth through corruption and obtrusively clogging the steady match towards making Nigeria the great country it deserves because of selfish agenda. More importantly and even more relevant to our present reality, Nigerians can disagree at every point and in all places, but must remain friends. We must never allow such disagreements destroy our unity. Those are what we owe Achebe as a legacy. That is the glorious end to the man and his story. We must, as President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, enjoined us all penultimate Thursday, write another book in future, declaring in unison that: There Is Indeed A Country.