When occasions bring people from all walks of life together, there are usually moments of fun and moments of anxiety that immediately does not engage the attention of the mainstream media. The final funeral rites of passage to legendary father of African literature Prof Chinua Achebe was not an exception.
St Philips church Ogidi where the funeral Service took Place bestrides and dominates the space for that area of Ogidi called Akapakogwe, Nkwele Ogidi. The primary school beside Saint Philips Church ,originally owned by he church retains the Akpakogwe in their nomenclature enquiries led me to the reference to a giant oil being tree –akpaka is oil bean and ogwe referring to the size of the stem translates to giant oil been tree.
So what is this giant oil bean tree that I could not see? The fun started from there. My guest cleared his throat and took a deep breathe. It was as if to tell the story of Things Fall apart, afresh. Ogidi is actually the setting of the legendary novel so far translate into 60 languages across the globe. ‘Well the tree had been cut down long ago. It used to house a small market on Eke day before the coming of the church’ he concluded in unmistakeable Ogidi sub-Igbo accent, offering a throaty laugh.
‘Ogidi, here I come’ I muttered to myself and headed to the gate of the church where screening for the event started. Before the gate a noticeable swarm of mixed security personnel-Police, Soldiers and Department of State Service-lined up the two roads adjacent to Saint Philips, one on the west leading directly to Ilo Igwodo and the other connecting Holy Land Nursery and Primary school and Ugwuoma.
The president’s chopper eventually landed in the field of Holyland Nursery and Primary School, a later-day school adjacent to the older school equally owned by St Phiips Church archdeaconry and there was no wonder in the sheer number of security personnel. Screening for me was not too hectic. I had on an event tag secured in Awka at the Wednesday lying-in-state event at Alex Ekwueme Stadium.Others answered a few questions. I later learnt it was a different ball game after the arrival of the president.
Straight I went into the church new church beuiding. I gathered construction work had to be hastily concluded because of Achebe’s funeral. Before then the construction had been going on slowly and steadily like most Nigerian church buildings.
One usher and then another was directing press men to the gallery of the church. They appeared to comply for that moment. When my attention returned to this midway into the service, the gallery was now empty and camera men and journalists chose to operate from the isles. One could sense they had an issue with faulty sightlines. Achebe’s casket, was not placed on high enough a pedestal to be visible to be easily pictured from the gallery and everyone that mattered to the event except the clergy was backing the camera.
Elsewhere in the hall a brochure war was on. One bespectacled man, probably in his 50s man was directing the proceedings on distribution of brochures and everyone was charging at him. I saw about three tense moments. I took note of a particular one in which a fairly tall man in all black attire approached the the ushers for a brochure and the bespectacled man directed that he should not get. Tension rose.
The explanation of the former that distribution had crossed his table while he went to ease himself was brushed aside insisting that the document would only get to those seated. The man simply took a seat near the distribution line of the ushers, but again the bespectacled man insisted that he should not be given because that was a seat for Achebe’s alma mater-Government College Umuahia. A shouting match ensued and the man left in anger to his seat without the brochure. I was later told that the bespectacled man was the Chairman of Anambra State Burial Committee on the funeral ceremonies and a high officer in government. No wonder the naked show of power over a small discretionary matter, I said t myself.
The Master of ceremonies kept announcing that ‘This is the church that Chinua Achebe attends whoever he was in Nigeria and in Ogidi. A stone’s throw away is the primary school that Chinua Achebe attended. It was difficult not to catch anyone’s attention with those words. Whereas all eyes was focused on renovating the church for the funeral ceremonies, it was too difficult not to notice that the primary school was in an advanced sage of dilapidation and in all ways contradicted the status of the man to which all had gathered to give final honour.
Then while I was reading the brochure that I managed to get, a loud cheery noise erupted, and I concluded that the president had arrived in the church. When I had convinced two chatting gentlemen to clear the view I noticed Senator Chris Ngige barely sitting down after acknowledge the deafening cheers. No wonder! I said and went back reading.
Moments after that the MC announced that the service was about to start and shortly after the president accompanied by the Ghanaian President came in. It was an odd ball as the two presidents with Host Governor Pert Obi moved in three until the mouth of the church isle which could only take two persons. It was difficult for Peter Obi to fall in line and trying to do so he tripped, stumbled and quickly recovered, fallng in line behind the president.
The insistent MC repeated his message on Chinua Achebe church and school. The choir and St Philips church officials were at the door and procession had started. Other three guest choirs were seated. They were closely followed by the clergy from all home far and wide. Then suddenly the procession was broken and every eye, including that of the president kept going back to the western door to no avail. After a long quiet tense moment, the governor of Abia, State Theodore Orji entered from the point Bishops were being expected. He was ushered to a front row east on the left of the church.
After uneventful 30 minutes or so, the Bishop on the Niger His Lordship Owen Nwokolo stepped in and a string of Bishops and Archbishops followed. Of course the family was in this compartment of the long procession. It was difficult not to notice the elderly woman ridden on a wheelchair and dressed on the family funeral attires. To my amazement, the lady seated to my left said it was Chinua Achebe’s mother. I stared rather in disbelief. I took it up this observation with a friend seated in the row behind me ad he said he heard IT was Chinua Achebe’s wife’s mother. It was tough to confirm anything further because attention was evenly distributed on other attractions. One thing was certain. The woman on the wheelchair was Dr Ike Achebe’s grandmother. Longevity is not a stranger around this family.
Finally the Bishop had made it and the higher clergy and the family and the casket have made it and the service would begin. It was not until the sermon that The Archbishop pf Aba, Most Rev (Dr) Ikechi Nwosu who stood in for Primate Nichola Oko explained the delay in the procession. Security operatives, apparently on hard instructions refused to yield to the entry of a number of Bishops. Most Rev Nwosu also picked up the message of the MC that the primary school attended by Achebe was begging for attention.
Just as the first lesson was being concluded again through the Western Door came Gov Rochas Okorocha. The decibel did not rise like that of Ngige, as service had started but the shuffles and muffles was enough to register the reception for the capacity-filled church.
Service over, Bishop Owen Nwokolo introduced the clergy and handed over to the governor for other protocols. Obi introduced the president and his guest, Ghaniaan President and went ahead to introduce Former Vice PRESDIENT Alex Ekwueme and Emeka Anyaoku and finally Emeka Ihedioha who later spoke on behalf of the National Assembly. Governors Orji, Okorocha and Uduaghan were not introduced.Ngige the senator in his constituency was not introduced. The man sat calmly and stoically behind Ekwueme, from the corner where I was people read political meaning into it immediately. Others wondered why Chukwumerije would be anonymous in such gathering if Ndigbo do not hold their history in contempt.
On speeches Anyaoku spoke for elders, Obi took over as MC at this point and .At some point Governor Obi carved the indulgence of all to mention the old Boys Association of government College Umuahia, where Achebe schooled to stand and sit, but Prof Laz Ekwueme literally ran from their sit, said something to the governor and within minutes close to 35 men of average age 75 were singing away in the state box of the church.
Then the president Jonathan climaxed the speeches, or so we thought after his Ghanaian counterpart had told the congregation that he will deliver a lecture in honour of Achebe at Brown University United States in December. Jonathans; speech turned out to be a review of Achebes works with three-Things Fall Appart,The trouble with Nigeria and There was a country. The president noted succinctly that every effort Nigeria makes now should be directed towards that time when Achebe’s grandchild that he can see in the brochure will grow up in Nigeria to say,’ There is a country’.
Little did President Jonathan know that he would have to speak twice on that occasion, ironically when Chinua Achebe’s eldest son Dr Ike Achebe had given the vote of thanks. The president returned to announce that he and his Ghanaian counterpart will intervene to rebuild the primary school. He forgot the first time. As the cheers was dying down, MC Governor Obi, whose lot it was to call up Ike Achebe for vote of thanks, said he would earn commission from Ogidi community for the intervention of the two presidents in Akpakogwe Central School ,Ogidi, where Achebe’s education started. He was only joking, I think. But an old man seated near me said:’He ought to be embarrassed instead’. Nigerians are becoming more Americanised in democratic credentials.
The event signposts fun continued outside the church as different people projected interests. For the politicians, particularly those with gaze on this year’s gubernatorial elections in Anambra State events did not seize around them. Andy Uba had about had about 400 women is putting on his uniform of purple blouse over off-white wrappers with faint flowing. They burst into a song as the man who mounted Anambra saddle for 17 days after a heavily rigged election appeared. Lee ya k’ o na bia… went the rendition. Ifeanyi Ubah had wooden painted posters with handle lifted around hi as he made his way to his car.
Senator Chris Ngige had neither uniformed women nor posters, but when he emerged from the church in his blue safari suit, the crowd surged and held him hostage until he abandoned his car and proceeded to Achebe’s house on foot with the insistent crowd chanting behind him.
Achebe was buried around 3.30 pm in a mausoleum with an ecstatic crowd hanging think outside the premises. Going in or out of the premises proved very tough