“He is dead.” That was how the text message from an associate conveyed the passing of a legend on the morning of Friday 22 March 2013. One minute later, H.E. Gov. Peter Obi confirmed same to me by phone in a very somber voice. Chinualumogu, Albert Achebe, a legend and a shining one had gone home to be among his fellow stars.
ACHEBE LIVES! Henceforth, I predict that the literary posterity shall know him by simply his surname –ACHEBE, just as we know Shakespeare, Yates, Dickens, Shaw and Byron.
For fifty-something odd years, ACHEBE provided the Africa and the world a momentum of high value in literature and social consciousness. He did so the only way he knew and could – with dignity and equanimity.
I was extremely privileged to have read and studied ACHEBE, to have met, socialized and conversed with him and to have written about him and his works. In all these interactions, he was the awesome accommodating and approachable master, and I, his ever reverent admirer and student. He was indubitably a great a great writer and storyteller.
ACHEBE has passed on to glory. Yet, it is only now his true legend, already potent and renowned will flourish and encroach on minds yet unborn.
ACHEBE passed like all mortal, having battled and overcame the halting impact of his disability and 23 years of confinement in wheelchair.
ACHEBE was a role model, a mentor and a great conversationalist, always in that almost dowdy tonality and elocution that belied his intellect, but spoke power to the truth and vented awesome and erudite views on matters so personal and otherwise. 2
By a twist of fate, the ACHEBE persona I did not read about, I came to know closely through my affinity to his childhood and lifelong friend, Chief Chike Momah and his wife Ethel. The friendship between the Achebes (Chinua and Christy) and Momahs (Chike and Ethel) was near eschatological. Vicariously, I was a beneficiary.
Thus, we were all deeply saddened by this tremendous loss of a humble patriot, who though genteel, was widely acknowledged as a legend in his lifetime. Personally, my wife Ofunne and I were privileged to be considered his friend. ACHEBE was a role model to us and many others across nationalities and across continents. He was a social a political activist and most importantly, a humanist and unrepentant social conscience of Nigeria. ACHEBE was a true Igbo icon and an eminent Nigerian beyond adjectival qualification.
ACHEBE and I crossed paths as a comb and hair would. I read him while in primary school, hardly grasping all his nuances. I did so, because he was a hit and a star for my father and his friends – members of the so-called Senior Service in post-independent Nigeria.
I read ACHEBE again in high school, as part of my literature curriculum. I only met the man in the early 1980s, when my task as a Foreign Service Officer brought us together. He was to represent Nigeria at Addis Ababa, as a judge for the selection of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) anthem. My job was to facilitate his travel and participation in that endeavour. I met him at pre-noon in his friend’s house on Glover Road in Ikoyi, Lagos to drop off some documentation. He was alone and welcomed me in. My official task was dispensed with in a matter of seconds, but ACHEBE seemed impressed that I had taken the personal trouble and effort to bring the documents to him, when a messenger or driver would have sufficed. After one hour of conversation, I excused myself to return to work but resolved to immortalize that moment and the beginning of our friendship by naming my second son after him. It was the least I could do – that honour, if it were one – cut both ways. 3
In the succeeding years, after ACHEBE’s accident and his moving to the United States, I saw him and his dear wife, Christy occasionally, either at the Momahs or at literary and alumni association events. Difficult as traveling was for him, he honoured, to my mind, far too many invitations. In so doing, he honoured Nigerians just as they revered him.
Over time, I took a personal interest in what I deemed an egregious injustice to ACHEBE by the Nobel Committee. I wrote about him severally, and in the end, was privileged to preview his book, “There Was A Country”, one year before it was given a title and published. That piece, “Intimate, Introspective, and Looking-Glass Chinua Achebe” was syndicated to many newspapers under the title, “As the World Awaits Achebe’s New Book”.
As I had predicted, the book caused a lot of raucous. Good and forthright historical books do. Steely as ever, ACHEBE never apologized. He did not have to. Now that he is gone, many will be compelled to read the book – his exit Magnus Opus –and the inherent truth he told therein shall find them.
ACHEBE’s renown will evolve. He is ranked 25th globally among the most read and most translated authors. Things Fall Apart stands in fifty languages, including Igbo – “Ihe Aghasaa.” There will be more languages now.
A legend has gone home! ACHEBE died so he could be relived and re-read more fully by his admirers and detractors alike. He will be sorely missed, but his legend will live on and loom even larger. But as his buddy Chike Momah so aptly put it: we all “stand, in humility, in the shadow of his greatness and, yes, of his almost Biblical stature!!! In the language of the Bard, when comes such another?”
Until then, we shall continue to refer to the legend and master, in the present tense and simply, as ACHEBE!
Mr. Oseloka Obaze is Secretary to the Anambra State Government.