Anthills of the Savannah (1987), the last novel the late Chinua Achebe wrote, has a chapter with the title Impetuous Son. The impetuous son is Ikem Osodi, poet and newspaperman, a character drawn from the skeleton of Achebe’s friend, the poet Christopher Okigbo, a victim of the Biafran War for independence.
Okigbo died in battle when he was 37; Achebe died at the ripe age of 82. From his mid-20s right into his 80s, Achebe wrote novels, poems and essays. There was the bestselling Things Fall Apart (1958); the monumental Arrow of God (1964); two tomes on corruption in the post colony — A Man of the People (1966) and No Longer At Ease (1960) — poetry and short stories. His essays — more like meditations — include the magisterial Hopes and Impediments (1988); The Trouble with Nigeria (1983), an irate missive to his compatriots; The Education of a British-Protected Child (2009), a melding of the essay form with the autobiography; and his last book, a proper memoir, There Was a Country (2012).
Achebe was essentially a writer of tragedies: his main protagonists are the playthings of an unforgiving fate, always hurtling towards a sad end. Tragic yet beautiful heroes bestride his oeuvre: there is Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart; Obika and his father Ezeulu in Arrow of God; Obi in No Longer At Ease; and Ikem and Chris in Anthills of the Savannah.
Of all the characters in Achebe’s works, Obika is the novelist’s prototypical character. The “handsomest young man in Umuachala and perhaps in all of Umuaro”, Obika is also rash and foolish. He never backs away from a fight. A signature sentence is when he tells a court messenger of the powerful white administrator to “go and eat shit”. He dies before his wife gives birth to their first child; it’s the fate, coincidentally, that befalls Ikem and Chris in Anthills of the Savannah.
Typical of Obika’s rashness, one day he gets into a verbal duel about “the amount of palm wine a good drinker could take without losing knowledge of himself”. Of course, after a bellyful, he and his friend sleep into the early hours, overpowered by the sap of the palm tree.
But happily for us, unlike his most inspired creations, Achebe lived long enough to build an oeuvre, nay, a testament, that will stand on its own for centuries to come.
Beyond the war and the warrior
No other passage in all of Achebe’s writing encapsulates what he was about as much as a section in Anthills of the Savannah about “why the story is chief”. A wise old man explains to his Abazon kinsmen that: “To some of us the Owner of the World has apportioned the gift to tell their fellows that the time to get up has finally come. To others He gives the eagerness to rise when they hear the call; to rise with racing blood and put on their garbs of war and go to the boundary of their town to engage the invading enemy boldly in battle. And then there are those whose part is to wait and when the struggle is ended, to take over and recount its story.”
The lecture continues: “The sounding of the battle drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important; and the telling of the story afterwards — each is important in its own way. I tell you there is not one of them we could do without. But if you ask me which of them takes the eagle feather, I will say boldly: the story … so why do I say that the story is chief among his fellows? ... Because it is only the story [that] can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of the war drums and the exploits of brave warriors. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort, without it we are blind.”
His work was essentially about telling the black man and the black woman that their past was not one long night from which the white man rescued them. In his much quoted essay The Novelist as Teacher, in the collection Hopes and Impediments, he wrote that he wants to “help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement”.
For Achebe, no other writer encapsulated “the Western project” as much as Joseph Conrad. Writing in a 1975 essay, An Image of Africa, Achebe argued that the novel Heart of Darkness “projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, an antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization”. Conrad’s descendants still walk among us. And Achebe returned to confront them in the essay Africa’s Tarnished Name, in The Education of a British-Educated Child.
“The vast arsenal of derogatory images of Africa amassed to defend the slave trade and, later, colonisation gave the world a literary tradition that is now, happily, defunct, but also a particular way of looking (or, rather, not looking) at Africa and Africans that endures, alas, into our own day,” Achebe wrote. Even though the sensational “African” novels that were popular in the 19th century have trickled to a “virtual stop, their centuries-old obsession with lurid and degrading stereotypes of Africa has been bequeathed to the cinema, to journalism, to certain varieties of anthropology, even to humanitarianism and missionary work itself”. Who can ever forget the Economist’s 2000 cover that indicted Africa as “The Hopeless Continent”, or how Africans on brochures from non-governmental organisations or on television are still the poster children of misery?
Glorifying the hunter
Achebe started studying medicine at the University of Ibadan before discovering his love for literature — to its eternal shame, the University of Cambridge wouldn’t accept him for postgraduate studies. When he started studying literature at the university’s college in Ibadan, Achebe complained about Joyce Cary’s racist novel, Mr Johnson, until an outraged white lecturer said to him: “Why don’t you write your own novel?” He did just that — turning out the classic Things Fall Apart.
Achebe is the perfect embodiment of the proverb: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Yet he was a typical colonial child, raised on a literature in which the black person was the savage, a menace to the peace of the white man. As a child of one of the earliest converts to Christianity in Nigeria, Achebe naturally took the side of the white man until much later.
When he eventually revised his own prejudices against the “uncivilised” black, he “realised that I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail — the bravery, even, of the lions,” he said in an interview with the Paris Review.
This is not the place to mourn Achebe; his long life has been exemplary. Perhaps more than anyone else — and this explains the moniker “Achebe: father of African literature” — he set the template for the darker peoples of the world to own and tell their own stories.
Unlike the impetuous and tragic characters that people his own novels, Achebe lived long enough — even surviving a car accident that resulted in him being wheelchair- bound from his 60s — to tell and remind us, and the rest of the world, about the black person’s humanity. Even though for the last few decades Achebe had to live in the United States for medical reasons, one could never doubt his enduring commitment to the continent of his birth. As someone wrote elsewhere, instead of celebrating his birthdays on the Hudson River, it would have been a more enriching experience — for him and for us — if the griot-elder had handed out those nuggets of wisdom by the Niger, Limpopo or Congo rivers.
The Nobel Prize for Literature, perhaps the grandest acknowledgement, sadly eluded him. Maybe Achebe’s project was too radical for those good people in Stockholm. Yet adulation continued to come his way; the simplest and perhaps most profound praise came in 1990 at his 60th birthday celebrations in Nigeria from his friend, the American scholar and novelist Michael Thelwell. In his keynote speech, Thelwell spoke of Achebe as “eagle on iroko”. The master of the sky and West Africa’s largest tree (considered sacred and therefore not to be chopped down).
Those two metaphors say it all.