The presence of dignitaries at Chinua Achebe’s funeral was in recognition of literary accomplishment, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Fame found Chinua Achebe and stalked him ever since. This was after his literary magnum opus, Things Fall Apart (published in 1958), began making waves in the literary world. Gone for good was that “upstart” whose manuscript was sniffed at by his British publishers. Long before his death on March 21, his renown had earned him an enviable place in the world’s literary hall of fame.
It was, therefore, not surprising that the literary luminary’s funeral in his hometown – the Anambra State town of Ogidi – drew a motley crowd consisting of diplomats and politicians, among others. Conspicuous among them were Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, his Ghanaian counterpart, John Mahama and representatives of the South African president, Jacob Zuma, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Yet, Achebe was known to have eschewed what turned out to be the hallmark of his last Thursday’s funeral: pomp. Would his lingering soul have winced at the thought that the very people he had blamed for his country’s woes were conspicuous at his funeral?
But how else would the “Eagle on the Iroko” have been celebrated? At his 60th birthday celebrations in 1990 – the last time many saw him standing on his two feet before a car crash paralysed him from waist down – academic activities at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka literally ground to a halt in his honour. Diplomats and writers from far-flung places in the world as well as the then governor of the old Anambra State, Colonel Robert Akonobi, had graced the occasion. Cultural dancers dressed in gaudy attires pranced about the university’s Freedom Square. Literary evenings held around thatched-roof mud-walled huts in a discrete corner of the large campus.
Thus, Achebe became renowned even among those who were yet to read a line of his celebrated novel, Things Fall Apart. This probably explains why otherwise very busy people including Governor Akonobi, the Somali-born writer, Nurudeen Farah and Western diplomats could sit through a five-hour long keynote lecture by the Jamaican-born American novelist and civil rights activist, Michael Thelwell at the University of Nigeria’s Margaret Ekpo Refectory. Perhaps, not many remembered a word of, or even cared about, Thelwell’s lecture. But the point had been made: Achebe as the “Eagle perched on the giant Iroko tree” deserved that kind of keynote address. Hours after this address, Thelwell literally reeled with fatigue and begged a Nigerian writer Chinweizu to drive him back to his hotel.
A mere mortal though Achebe was, he seemed to have attained a transcendent status. That explains why he could be one of the ruling elite’s fiercest critics but still have lawmakers, governors and the president swarming to his funeral. To think that he had twice rejected national honours and was still considered eligible for a state burial attests to his status as one of Africa’s foremost writers!
Things Fall Apart, the novel that earned him this fame, a narrative about the rampaging onslaught of colonialism on an Igbo village, was not only translated into over 5o languages but was also adapted to both stage and screenplays. His other novels, including the much-praised Arrow of God, failed to earn him as much accolades. Though he never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he won several other prestigious literary prizes. The novel also made the Time magazine’s list of 100 best English-language novels published since 1923 alongside novels like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.
His literary parting shot, a civil war memoir titled, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, stirred the hornet’s nest of controversy, prompting his friend and colleague, the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, to declare it “a book I wish he had never written – that is, not in the way it was”. Soyinka also said: “There are statements in that work that I wish he had never made.”
The book, which was deemed divisive, sparked off a fierce debate between Igbo and Yoruba intellectuals. Achebe could have inadvertently or deliberately touched a raw nerve with his account of the 30-monthlong civil war. Soyinka, who was incarcerated for reaching out to the “rebels”, had issues with it enough to express his regrets that he never had the chance to challenge Achebe over the book. He, however, paid tribute to his late colleague in a poem, he had written when the latter turned 70.
One thing was certain: the inevitable glitz of the icon’s funeral takes nothing away from the principles he had always stood for. The presence of the throng of dignitaries at the event only attested to his renown as a world-acclaimed literary icon. The late author may have rejected Nigeria’s second-highest award (the Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic) from two Nigerian presidents, still the honours trailed him to his grave. It was as though the ruling elite he often criticised insisted on acknowledging him for who he was.
His activism explained his open support for the secessionist Biafra’s independence as well as his eventual involvement in politics during the defunct Second Republic. His links with his cultural roots did not become tenuous because of his relocation to the US, after the 1990 car accident that crippled him for the rest of his earth-life.
Despite officially disagreeing with Achebe for rejecting the national honours, President Jonathan had at the funeral service tacitly acknowledged truth of the late author’s criticisms of the country.