A Tribute to Chinua Achebe, a Craftsman of Indelible Letters


Some people are like events to be carved in our memory. Not even time would, with all the mystery, sweep away the connections formed, the thoughts spurned out of boredom. A few things in this world would even manage to take one from their world and hurl them into a life they never lived. And no one did it for me as did Chinua Achebe.

When I was a boy, the name Achebe was a certain rhythm, an exotic delicacy, a timeless tinkling. There was something about the Nigerian novelist’s tales that isolated a mind, and almost mischievously made one thoughtful.

Even now, some passages in his novels stick to my memories so much so that, at a whim, I can narrate them. This is especially true of his classic book, “Things Fall Apart.” Okonkwo, the book’s main character, had been banished for seven years from his village of Umuofia. During the mourning of an elder, he had unfortunately shot and killed a fellow kinsman with his hunting gun. Thus, exiled for seven years in order to placate the gods he offended, Okonkwo travelled with his large family of wives and children to his mother’s homeland, to live with his uncle.

A proud man with a bushy brow that made him appear severe, Okonkwo was a great wrestler and an aggressive warrior. As a young man he had thrown down Amalinze the cat, whose back could not touch the ground, in a fight that an old man said, was the fiercest since the ancestors fought the spirits.

At first Okonkwo had been ruffled by the scathing decision delivered by his kinsmen. It was delusional that he, the village hero, of all people, should get such an averse treatment. He swooned for some time until his uncle, Uchendu, wishing to put an end to this, convened a brief family meeting. Uchendu had been stricken by the eccentric designs in Okonkwo’s crude behavior, on account of having been banished from his homeland where he, in comparison to his age mates, had great wealth in two barns full of yams, a well-built homestead, three wives and a multitude of children.

At the meeting men carried goatskins to sit on, while women spread their mats on raised grounds. Uchendu, an old man who remembers Okonkwo from a young age, said he wanted to talk to the assembled kinsmen in general, but Okonkwo in particular. After a series of questions, Uchendu said to Okonkwo:

You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world. Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children?  I had six wives once. I have none now except that young girl who knows not her right from her left …

Have you not heard the song they sing when a woman dies? “For whom is it well, for whom is it well? There is no one for whom it is well. ‘I have nothing more to say to you.

Achebe’s words had a way of staying in one’s psyche forever. They were words, though said playfully, were stern and more meaningful than life. And the proverbs, sprinkled with sincerity, became one’s eternal property. Achebe had a way of reprimanding in his prose without seeming officious. He always created, imaginatively, that spring of life in which a variety existed and they all wanted to colorfully burst. The spirit of Ubuntu, he once called it.

When, in his third novel, “Arrow of God” published in 1964, the character I always wanted to be died, I wept. Not because it was the easy thing to do, but because there were emotions he artfully provoked. He aroused an instinct and I had a glimpse of what it was to be a writer. He always said that one of the reasons of becoming a writer was that one took on “the considerable trouble” of writing, and hence, signed on a “terms of imprisonment” before bringing any material “to fruition.”

Obika, the character who was artistically slaughtered in “Arrow of God”, is a character I walk with every day. Although it is debatable, I find myself comparing Obika to characters I meet in other books. Obika was a son of a kingly priest, Ezeulu, but he was as ordinary and as real as they come. He was a drunkard, and had once been lashed by colonial officers for his lateness to a community road building.

The previous night, Obika had been in a drinking gamble that left him unconscious and, under the twinkling stars, slept in the open for a better part of the night. He was tall, handsome, and had the color of terracotta. This was a versatile character who developed naturally, but when he grew on, he suddenly exited. Achebe realizing the weight of events he had created said thus to console the reader:

‘The death of Obika shook Umuaro to the roots. A man like him comes less often to the world.’

Men like Achebe are so rare, that when they leave the world, they leave behind a gaping hole. My own father, himself a storyteller, says Achebe is a man who brought wisdom to Africa’s future. His stories were primarily set to treat everyone as human, not an object. We make mistakes, we believe in faiths that are out of our command, and we meet our (un)timely death. And so did Achebe – he died, away from home in Boston, Massachusetts, at the ripe old age of 82.

 Enos Nyamor is a short story writer who lives in Nairobi, Kenya. He can be reached at: enyamor@gmail.com

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

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