Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Dirge for Achebe

“If you don’t like somebody’s book, then write your own,” the most quotable Chinua Achebe once said. But that was not his original name. Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was. First, he discarded Albert into the dustbin, probably because it was European and stood awkward with his Africanist stance. Next, he dissected Chinualumogu and retained the first two syllables; Chinua. He fused that with Achebe and so came up with the name known and revered in the circles and oblongs of the literary world…“When I read Chinua Achebe in Robben Island, the prison walls fell down.” One Nelson Mandela said.

 He was not the first novelist to come out of Africa and even Nigeria. Before him came Camara Laye, Cyprian Ekwensi and Amos Tutuola. But their works were like the Russian cosmonauts that just orbited earth. Achebe’s work was like the American astronauts who skyrocketed into the unchartered stratosphere on Appollo 11 and landed on the moon first. One small book about a yam farmer and a giant leap for African Literature. How then did he have global appeal when his predecessors had failed? Simple. His technique was simple, language was simple, language was English. A new breed of English in which he altered the syntax by   incorporating proverbs into it, Igbo words into it, African culture into it, African concepts into it, African identity into it, African everything into it.

Tapping into the poetic lines of William Butler Yeats, he churned out the perfect tale that turned up the heat; an ancient Africa that had a rich history, a systematic Africa that had laws, that had nature, that had medicine and that had peace, before the colonizers loosed anarchy upon it and caused all its sanity to cease, and wittily put a knife on the things that held us together and so we fell apart. They brought Christianity and labeled our religion paganism, they brought their education and through it convinced us to abandon our traditions. Some converted but Okonkwo never surrendered like a Spartan soldier and died with his head held high. Okonkwo’s demise follows Obi and the priest Ezeudu as the trilogy ends. There were two novels after that but no Nobel prize for the noble man. But he was worth much more than the award. He called it a European prize. Rest in peace our sage, you paved the way for the African writers of this age. And yes, this proverb describes you best, “You did not point at your father’s village with your left hand!”