Ann Ogunsulire, Wole Soyinka and Tolu OgunlesI.jpg, Lola Shoneyin, speaking.jpg and Curator, Tolu Ogunlesi giving a toast
In recognition of his sterling contribution to the development of African literature, Professor Chinua Achebe was honoured posthumously in Lagos recently. Ayodeji Rotinwa was there…
Nostalgic recollections, eulogies, an impromptu poetry delivery, calls to action, a flashback to one heart-rending occurrence, an endless supply of champagne and then finally, a toast to memories, work, and indelible legacy of a man who changed the world with his pen. These were the highlights of the Moet & Chandon-hosted toast event held in honour of the late revered author, humanitarian and literary icon, Chinua Achebe.
The luxury champagne house gathered together at the Kongi’s Harvest Gallery, Freedom Park, an interesting mix of Nigeria’s literati and distinguished personalities in media, entertainment, business and society circles to “toast to an extraordinary life” as the event invitation card read. Most distinguished of them all was none other than recently controversial social commentator par excellence, celebrated writer and Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka. His presence was rather poetic, a comrade-in-literary-arms paying tribute to another.
The evening started off as a meet-and-greet with guests sharing their different experiences of Achebe’s body of work. This opening session confirmed to this reporter that everyone who has read Achebe leaves his work with a story of their own, a life lesson or an impossibly indelible impression. These floated and hummed around the room for a spell, accompanied by the highlife music of yesteryear’s maestros such as Victor Uwaifo, Steve Osita Osadebe, playing in the background.
Soon, it was time for the reading session curated by freelance journalist, Tolu Ogunlesi. Respected writers, authors and fellow journalists in persons of, amongst others, Eghosa Imaseun, Jahman Anikulapo, Deji Toye, Lola Shoneyin, Toyin Akinosho, stepped up front and centre in quick succession to read their favourite passages from a number of Achebe’s books – the highly critically-acclaimed, world-renowned and the rabble-rousing, once-upon-a-time-headline-dominating, historical/autobiographical curtain call salvo, There Was a Country. Extolling Achebe’s mastery of words, the lessons deftly layered within his stories and their consequence for our society at large, the speakers also touched on their personal interactions with Achebe whether via his books or physically. Mr. Jahman Anikulapo’s account was especially compelling.
He had been detailed to cover Achebe’s arrival back into the country in the early 90’s. Sometime before, Achebe had been savaged by one of Nigeria’s many reliably decrepit roads in an accident that paralysed him from the waist down. He had left the country for further medical care after being poorly handled by another incompetent institution – a Nigerian hospital. When abroad, it was then confirmed that his ability to walk could not be salvaged. Years later, he was to return to the country and special arrangements were to be put in place by the Ministry of Culture to welcome him not only because of his standing but also of his state of limited mobility. Anikulapo recalled with disgust that no such arrangement was made. Achebe, revered father of African literature was carried on the back of a woman perhaps an air hostess to the waiting lounge. There was no fanfare, red carpets, not even the humanity of a wheelchair. A jolt of shock blitzed around the gallery. How could a national treasure be treated so? Anikulapo then remarked cynically that the same members of government, who treated Achebe with such disdain were the first ones with empty, patronising words, claiming kinship with him at his graveside. An interesting side-note, Ojo Maduekwe was then the Minister of Culture. He is now Nigeria’s High Commissioner to Canada.
Anikulapo also charged everyone (everyone being today’s generation, presumably) guilty of a reductive regard for Achebe. He declared as regrettable how the media throughout Achebe’s life and career berated him perhaps unwittingly, fingering him in apocryphal, long drawn-out stories of bad blood with his contemporaries notably Wole Soyinka, Elechi Amadi and Cyprian Ekwensi.
The reading session ended on Anikulapo’s reproof and then guests present were afforded the floor to tell what Achebe meant and represented to them, the impact his work had on their lives. Yet another compelling story unravelled during this. One guest, flushed with emotion, (she didn’t even give her name) revealed that it had been a lifelong dream of hers to meet Achebe in the flesh. However, this was not to be while he was alive. Upon his death however, a chance presented itself to meet him. As fate would have it, she is a journalist and similar to Anikulapo, was detailed to cover his funeral. She went above and beyond following Achebe’s body as it was honoured and celebrated on a tour across the country from Abuja, to Nnewi, Nsukka and finally his hometown, Ogidi. On this tour, she connected ephemerally, in a somewhat spectral fashion to this man who had inspired her beyond measure. She finished her tale, mysteriously, with the words, “I am Achebe”.
Other guests had their say. One, an (also) unnamed, dreadlocked man opined that Achebe was a revolutionary. Like his character Okonkwo, he spoke up on the issues that mattered. He never cowered. He never pandered to any affiliation; he fought with his words, voice courageously despite numerous attempts to stifle it. The dreadlocked gentleman even went as far as to draw a parallel between Achebe and the slain black American teenager, Trayvon Martin; a boy who, according to him, stood his ground when challenged though he paid dearly for it with his life. He encouraged all to imbibe this brand of fearlessness in the face of perceived wrong. Concluding, he spoke against the now fashionable trend in today’s literary circles wherein supposed luminaries or experts dictate to others how they should write. He drew from one of Achebe’s timeless quotes, “If you do not like someone’s story, write your own…”
Another guest, Zack Brisson, revealed that Achebe was the light that showed him the way out of a crisis of identity, in his past. On the cusp of adulthood, not sure of what to do with himself, the book, Things Fall Apart was the brainwave that informed a crucial move on the chessboard of life. He decided to study history at the university, a decision that has contributed positively to making him the man he is today.
Then, time having danced away into the night, the event came to an end but not before a crisp white procession of waiters permeated the gallery serving tall, gleaming glasses of champagne from delicately balanced trays. Drinks in raised hands, the room toasted heartily to the extraordinary life and work of Chinualumogu Albert Achebe.