As Chinua Achebe’s seminal novel Things Fall Apart is celebrated world-wide on the occasion of the 5oth anniversary of its publication, tributes are expectedly pouring in from various quarters. In an article published in The Chronicle, Peter Monaghan informs that the septuagenarian writer “originally intended to stay only one year, but medical and political considerations changed that.” “At age 77, author Chinua Achebe is living in grace and in exile, housed in a cottage built just for him on the campus of Bard College, lonely for his native Nigeria and the people for whom his stories have been written,” writes an Associated Press correspondent in an article published in CNN.com, adding that the characteristically unassuming trailblazer “longs for home in Nigeria, the inspiration for his novel Things Fall Apart.” “I feel that’s where I should be,” the AP reporter quotes Achebe as saying, “having that relationship active, and working, is important for the health of my stories.” Describing him as “a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize and winner last year of the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in fiction,” the AP writer notes that “Achebe arrived at Bard in 1990, not long after an auto accident in Nigeria left him paralyzed from the waist down.” He informs that Achebe “is currently working on two or three projects, [but] nothing is close to completion and he acknowledges that “a novel is certainly overdue.” Then he quotes Achebe as offering some explanation: “This is a period that I found myself going to live abroad, and with the problem of paraplegia, which is not very comfortable. So just sitting down, writing a novel, has a huge physical side to it, which is not helped by this.” But, he [Achebe] adds, firmly, “I must not deal with excuses.” In the following article first published in ThisDay newspaper, NDUKA OTIONO, former General Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) founded in 1981 by Achebe, recounts Achebe’s remarkable homecoming in 1999, a few months after the military allowed democratic governance to return to Nigeria.
The manner of his return had the trappings of a military plot with its reliance on the element of surprise. Although the actual homecoming had been preceded by rumours, no one seemed to be sure of the date of his coming. Poet and former president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Odia Ofeimun, encapsulated the mood following the news of his return in these words: “I had been expecting him for so long that, in fact, I had begun to experi¬ence what you may call withdrawal syn-drome. So many people had been touting dates that I just disbelieved it when I heard he would be returning on the 23rd.” And then rather meditatively he added: “But really, there was no way the man could have come into the country quietly. It’s particularly painful that the welcome reception for our founding president of ANA and one of the greatest literary personali¬ties of all time which we were planning couldn’t hold.”
But as Chidi, a fresh medical doctor and one of his children who accompanied him on the Swissair flight which reportedly landed at 5.30 p.m. Monday, August 23 disclosed, Prof. Chinua Achebe is not one for loud and unnecessary grandstanding. “He likes to keep a low profile,” said Chidi. But this is not often without a price as was the case at the Murtala Mohammed Interna¬tional Airport, Lagos, when he returned. For as it turned out, there were no advance preparations to cope with his special needs as a man who had been forced to rely on the wheelchair for mobility after a motor accident on March 22, 1990. Hence, he was kept waiting in the aircraft for two hours be¬cause there was no aisle chair to de-board him since as he was to learn, he had not planned “a VIP visit”.
As sad and painful as the experience was Achebe was to issue another surprise to his teeming admirers, friends and relations. As early as 8.30 a.m. of the second day, he checked out of the five-star hotel where he had lodged in Lagos. Journalists and others who had learnt of his whereabouts were thus surprised to discover that he had left Lagos for the East, and so did not have another opportunity to interview him. And as if that was not enough, rather than travel by air to Enugu from where he would have been driven a shorter distance to his hometown, Ogidi, a couple of kilo¬metres away from Onitsha, the celebrated novelist chose to travel by road from Lagos in his customised white, with blue-stripes Ford Ecoline Caravan with registration number LAB 2473. And reporters and well-wishers who had kept vigil for his “triumphant entry” into the East via Enugu airport were disappointed. And so at the reception in his honour organised by the Ikenga Family Union of Ogidi, there were only few journalists in attendance. True to his design and nature, he succeeded in making it a private, family affair.
Nevertheless, for a visitor plying the un-tarred road lead¬ing to his residence, the outstanding white, relatively pala¬tial building appears uncharac¬teristically commanding. Lo¬cated within Amugwo quarters, one of the four out of nine villages in Ogidi that make up the Ikenga Family Union, the visitor was further arrested by the lovely white and blue cano¬pies, white plastic chairs, the big caravan parked at the right hand comer of the clean court¬yard, and the flurry of activi¬ties. “Who owns this place?” uou asked rather rhetorically that Thursday morning. “Prof. Professor Chinua Achebe,” the expected answer came.
Once inside the compound, you realised that there were two buildings – a duplex facing the gate and dating back in time, and a relatively new bungalow which on enquiry, was said to have been constructed after the renowned writer’s accident. Built to suit his paraplegic circumstances, it is where he now lives in Ogidi, where-from he wheels himself to see visitors in the old house, which also sports a small ramp. Both buildings show evidence of new coating in immaculate white, partly the job of Ifeanyi Iloegbunam, Achebe’s nephew who, together with lke his first son, have been the ful¬crum of preparations for the storyteller’s homecoming.
Inside the living room of the duplex marked off by a raised platform which serves as the dinning section, art works and memorabilia adorn the pat¬terned, cream walls. In the background an electric genera¬tor purred, while sweet aroma of cooking filled the atmos¬phere.
Outside, a music set cum public address system from which rhythmic flow of local music filled the compound con¬firmed the ceremony ahead; an official welcome-home visit by the lkenga family union, and an extension of the reception be¬gan the evening before Achebe arrived.
Soon, a pick-up van sup¬plied assorted drinks – cartons of Eva wine, Five Alive fruit drinks, St. Remy brandy – sug¬gesting the class of people ex¬pected. As Nwando, 29, Achebe’s daughter currently pursuing a doctorate degree at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) was to reveal, the activities will be crowned with a Thanksgiving Service in Ogidi the next day, Sunday, August 29.
Now and then, Christie, the returnee intellectual’s beautiful wife, shuttled between their new house where her husband was busy getting ready for the day and other parts of the com¬pound. Sporting a blue boubou with simple white patterns, she was busy supervising arrange¬ments for the occasion and at¬tending to the streams of visi¬tors who were defying the un¬ending drizzle, which I learnt started the day before, to catch a glimpse of “the big masquer¬ade” or, as some prefer to call him, “The Eagle on Iroko”. Sparing sometime from her very busy schedule, Mrs. Achebe told me that her husband lives a normal life in spite of the crippling accident, the dif¬ference only being that he now took his time to do things which ordinarily were quick routines for him. “But once he is up for the day, he doesn’t retire till he’s tired,” she added. Describ¬ing him as a very humane, car¬ing, kind and loyal husband, Mrs. Achebe also revealed that even in his present state, the multiple honorary doctorate degree-holder does not isolate himself to write. “He still works very hard, he is still writing,” she explained. “Unlike me who needs solitude to work, Chinua is easily accessible even when he is writing. Once the muse is there, hardly any form of dis¬traction will deter him from his project. He is even more ac¬cessible than me, always willing to listen to people’s problems, to assist wherever he can.”
True to her explanation about her husband taking his time over his routines, he came out for the day at 1.20 p.m. to meet his kinsmen and women and others who were eagerly waiting to see him. Escorted by his wife, the author rode in the automated Quickie wheelchair highlighted by the colour blue, into the duplex”, greeting eve¬ryone in sight with smiles and waving his right hand.
Inside the duplex, Achebe greeted his folks in the tradi¬tional Igbo hand backslapping style reserved for eminent persons, men with titles. Pleasantries were exchanged while a dark, rather gaunt and hyper¬active relation who appointed himself the spokesman, presided. “God is behind us,” he declared in Igbo, admiring or was it evaluating, the man of letters and ideas. “We will continue to praise you and pray for you. God has been doing wonders for us. God is with us.” And then before sitting down, the “wondrous” wheelchair which their host rides without assistance drew a small, appreciative com¬ment from him: “Ha, this Oyibo people...”
From that moment the tempo of activities accelerated, the turning point being the ar¬rival of members of the Ikenga-Ogidi Family Union. They were accompanied by a music group whose traditional performance enlivened the scene at the courtyard. Indeed, as the chair¬man of the family union Hon. (Chief) Goody Okeke would state in his welcome address, “t is an occasion of happiness and celebration to receive our illustrious son, Prof. Chinua Achebe from the United States of America.”
Earlier, Achebe had de¬scribed his homecoming, espe¬cially on sighting the white banner put up by his immediate family to welcome him back as emotionally charged and inex¬plicable. “These are emotions that are deeply felt and diffi¬cult to describe,” he had said. The emotions assailed him again as he began to respond to the welcome address, reminding one of his earlier meeting with Patrick Okafor, the Awka indi¬gene who came to his rescue on the day of the accident. Intro¬ducing the burly, bearded man, Christie Achebe managed to subdue a sob, but could not stem the tide of passion that visibly swept her. As if to contain his own overpowering emotions in public glare, Achebe led the young man to the then deserted sitting room of the main house, and expressed his immense gratitude to the “good Samari¬tan”. They were in company of four, the other two being the auto mechanic/driver’s friends, and a policeman.
Truly an emotional occasion, Achebe’s re¬sponse to Chief Okeke’s wel¬come address captivated the au¬dience like the master storyteller that he is. He began to apologise for not giving advance notice to lkenga-Ogidi Family Union; the reason being that he was not sure what was going on in the Union. “All the news I had been hearing about lkenga in particular, about Nigeria in gen¬eral…were disheartening,” he said. Hence he decided to come back home quietly and see things for himself. “So you can imagine my happiness when I arrived here yesterday evening and there was a big party,” he continued. “There was a banner welcoming me, and there were people massed up here – I was al-most in tears. Those of you who were here last night would re¬member that I couldn’t really say very much except ‘Thank you.’ It really moved me. It was a very profound experi¬ence. I’ve never had any doubts that my roots are here. I am happy that you are united and working together and I would like to congratu¬late Ikenga.”
Achebe’s remarks were greeted with reverberat¬ing applause. But the author of the world-acclaimed historical novel, Things Fall Apart, among other books, was not done yet. He saw it as another opportunity to launch into a discussion of democracy, an urgent idea he told me he would rather engage then than literature.
“There is nothing better than democracy,” he emphasised. “It may be difficult, it may be slow, it may even be painful, but in the end, there is nothing better than the rule of the people by themselves.”
Further displaying those wise, oratorical qualities which make conversations with him a delight, and which make his speeches flow like one reading from an invisible script, the lit¬erary oracle as some also refer to him, continued: “Ahm ... one of the mistakes we made in the past was to believe that the so-called strongmen had answers to our problems. Strong men ¬do not have any solutions to any problems. In a civilised so¬ciety, the only way is for col¬leagues and friends to talk over their problem. Therefore, I congratulate Ikenga.”
Finally, Achebe expressed grati¬tude to the whole Igbo community “for re¬peating last night today.” And on a lighter, humorous note he concluded: “I didn’t know I was returning to an Ofala festival... It is really wonderful to be back again.”
• This tribute, first published while the writer worked with THISDAY on Sunday and republished in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Chinua Achebe’s Magnum Opus, Things Fall Apart, has been reproduced here in honour of the departed literary luminary.