It is only a weighty matter that compels the elders to start heading towards the Village Square in ones and twos. The sighting of droves of the dragon fly is a clear indication that the harmattan season is nigh, just as no one needs to consult an oracle to know that a dumb person cannot be made spokesman of the clan, nor given the title of “Onu na ekwuru oha”. That is why the Igbo say that the eagle and the vulture do not fight over food, since one is a hunter while the other is only a scavenger. They also say that no reasonable adult goes to a heap of birds and returns with a flower bird or a vulture; since one is not edible meat, while the other is barely visible without the feathers. They also say that the Ijele does not dance for money, because it is sufficient unto itself.
His parents named him Chinualumogu and a person who lacks wisdom will not know that the head of a sheep has less meat than that of a goat, because he sees the goat’s horns, but does not notice that beneath the thing flesh on the sheep’s head is a perfectly meatless skull. His name literally says: “May my guardian spirit fight for me. But his friends and admirers have since found many other names for him. He is being mourned as the great Iroko, which is a tree that belongs to the genre and motif of “Oke Osisi”, or Great trees. It shares this privileged status with a few others in Africa, but also finds its motif equivalent in other climes in the Baobab and oak trees. Let us deal with the little matter of some ontological analysis.
As Achebe’s admirers say, obviously with a deep sense of loss: “The great iroko has fallen”, I ask myself whether there is such a thing as a ‘great’ Iroko. The Iroko is, by its very nature and definition, great. No one has ever seen a ‘small’ Iroko, except where this expression is used as metaphor for some fledgling aspirant to greatness. A sap of an Iroko is not diminished by its age and size, since its essence already defines it even while shrubs are yet rubbing shoulder with it. The next question is whether, in truth, Achebe’s admirers are right in saying that the Iroko is dead. They have likened the man to a dead giant of a forest of tall trees. Such an Iroko would be leafless, sapless and offer no shelter to birds and sundry creatures. The trunk and branches would then no longer suggest the robust ambience of the living Iroko. In the popular imagination, it may then even be used for firewood and timber.
But three considerations need to be noted here. The first is that Achebe is not the man from Anambra State, but the work that has become part of our common humanity because of his calling to distil some of the vibrations of the ineffable for a people’s general edification and the march of history. The second point is that an Iroko tree does not die, as such. It lives in the generations of local bats whose forebears once fed on its fruit. It also lives in the timber and furniture holding up many homes and palaces; and in the many artworks of exquisite craftsmanship. Do you not find it ‘breathing’ like no other wood in the many work tools that define livelihoods and the personal skills and attainments of many renowned craftsmen and women? Finally, there is something fundamentally incongruous in the statement: “The great Iroko is dead”.
But beyond all the foregoing, the Iroko is really not the ultimate. This tree is a physically manifest great tree, unlike another ‘tree’ that is actually not a tree; in the way that the Ijele ‘masquerade’ is not a masquerade. The mystical Mandrake root for instance, which Adolf Hitler was reported to have had his diviners dig up in his work for the darkness, belongs in this latter category. The Igbo equivalent of this, but one whose true nature and positive powers far outweigh its many wrong characterisations is Anunuebe.
The Anunuebe is believed to be so mysterious that it can even change its location and manifestation. It is believed to be best traced by less than conventional means and at great risk to the one who seeks it. This is because the ‘tree’ is believed to have dangerous and terrible powers, such that birds are alleged to drop dead once they perch on it. Its potency is presumed to be so strong that any medicine man who is able to wield a tiny piece of it, as part of his arsenal, is virtually impregnable and indestructible (never mind that all medicine men eventually die). It is also believed that one who flashed any extract of this tree at an enemy he wants dead has already killed him, as the latter would die shortly afterwards.
What is not common knowledge, however, is that the person who so confronts an upright man with Anunuebe will be the one to die shortly afterwards. The goodness of the target victim is all that the Anunuebe will respond to, automatically turning everything evil directed at him to its original source. But the concept of Anunuebe in its negative primitive connotation is so dominant that no one really knows anything about this mysterious entity, except that it is terrible. But, just as the symbolism of the Ijele represents the unapproachable majesty of genuine royalty, so does the higher, positive concept of Anunuebe represent a strong radiating neutral elemental power that can be used for good or ill. In the way that potash (akanwu) speeds up your cooking, there are all manner of forces and substances that can affect life in various ways.
The writer Chimamanda Adichie was one of the few of her generation to publicly thank Achebe for recreating a local milieu they never experienced, but which they were able to ‘live’ and see through his works. She also showed that there is no need to crave physical proximity to a great man if his essence speaks to your spirit and mediates what it should to you. Though Achebe had read and endorsed her work, and she owed him a world of gratitude, she only politely greeted him from a respectful distance on two separate occasions, when she should have smothered the man with hugs in a vulgar display of familiarity. The unabridged physical space between them on both occasions contained no gap in the exchange between them.
She abandoned the prevailing wrong understanding of the Igbo saying: “Whoever climbs the Iroko should take all he can (firewood, leaves, etc.) because the tree is not climbed often”. Taken literally, this is a serious violation of a people’s sense of propriety, and even their sense of the sacred, because the Iroko is not firewood material as such. Only very few human beings could climb the tree in those days – and would often be sought from another land of many market days’ journey. Chimamanda did the right thing by tapping into Achebe’s defining essence, rather than the banal. She took the true meaning of this saying, which is: whoever has access to something, or someone, exceptional should make the best of it, for such opportunities do not come often.
Orji Uzor Kalu, former Governor of Abia State, took a lot of personal trouble to seek out Achebe and personally celebrate his birthday with him; as he does every year. His narrative was as revealing as my memory of a meeting with Achebe in 2000. The Hudson River provided a good setting for his forest home, as well as one of the most incisive inquisitions into governance and the purposes of the Nigerian state by a genuine patriot. His main interlocutor was the then Minister of Transport, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, who elected to visit the man and personally explain the prevailing governance challenges, as a committed cabinet minister under the Obasanjo regime. At the end of it all, Achebe could see that the man before him was unusually committed, but he also could see that the road to salvation was still far – and not fully understood, or charted by anyone.
As Achebe was a phenomenon all by himself, proverbs and not words suit all discourse about him. With Achebe gone, Ndigbo will say: ‘A wise snake does not waste time in vacating its lire for a more dangerous animal’. But they will add: ‘The python does not vacate its lire for any creature, but will lumber out and eat up whatever dares venture near, or into, its abode out of recklessness or impudence’. They will also say: ‘The life of a people is always threatened when an apprentice archer brings his bow and arrows to the market, or to the village square’, not knowing that such are not the places to learn and perfect the archer’s skill’. Just as the pointed ends of two thorns cannot meet, unless one of them is not a real thorn, so is physical death inevitable for all – except for one who is not human.
The elders say: “It is not out of stupidity that the nanny goat allows its kid to stumble a few times. She knows that the legs can only grow strong when the muscles are exercised. But a nanny goat that stumbles all the time like a kid must itself be kept in check, to save the water pots in the compound. Achebe’s problem with Nigeria comes from the suspicion (that finally crystalised to a certainty?) that she is threatening to earn itself the profile of a foolish nanny goat.
But this is not real tribute to Achebe. Watch out for The Return of Ejindu, which will be available online and in hard print, two weeks from today.