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Recollections of Chinua Achebe, the African Lion Who Told Our Story

I was blessed to meet Professor Achebe on several occasions, twice at conferences where he was the keynote speaker. First at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, at the Conference Across Languages and Cultures: Creative Writing in English by non-Native Speakers in 1996. 

But it was in 1998, at the Inaugural World Conference-Black Expressive Culture Studies Association at Kent State University, in Cleveland, that I was able to secure a personal interview for my dissertation.

I would later travel from Philadelphia—where at the time I was an unknown Temple University doctoral student in African American Studies—to Achebe’s home in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, for an hour-long interview.  He could have very easily been very arrogant and aloof, but, from my experience, he was an extremely accessible and humble man.

He could also have been bitter, as some might have been after another monumental event that happened almost exactly 23 years previously, on March 22, 1990: the tragic auto accident in his beloved Nigeria, which left him a paraplegic, wheelchair bound for the remainder of his life.

Instead, on every occasion—even when I called his home unexpectedly about my research—I found Achebe to be exceedingly warm and quick to smile, the epitome of grace.

As such, he welcomed me into his home office, at the rear of the quaint cottage built and equipped for his special needs by Bard College, where he was then the Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Professor of Languages and Literature. 

We spent the next hour engaged in a wide-ranging chat about everything from my dissertation topic, portrayals of polygamy in the African novel, to the role that Christianity played in traditional Africa “falling apart,” as it were, with the coming of the White man, as well as the politics of language in African literature.

But I will share here perhaps the most personal (and hence, for me, the most special) part: when he told me of his earliest memory. He estimates that he was 5 or 6 when he had his very first ride in a lorry (a van), from an unnamed town to his storied village, Ogidi, also a first.

“We sat in the back of this lorry, sort of facing the wrong way, as it seemed to me, because the lorry was going in this way and we were facing this way (gestures with his arms). That was an extraordinary experience, you know, sort of moving with your back. And the trees seeming to flee from you. And the dust and the smell of petrol, obviously. All kinds of (things). I was very dizzy for a very long time…My father had retired. He was a teacher and a church teacher. And after 35 years working with the Church Missionary Society, he had earned his rest. And so he took us—everybody—back to his village, where he had put up a modern house, with a zinc roof, which is why it was called a zinc house…It was actually corrugated iron…And that was a sign of the times. Those who could afford this were immediately in a class. You see, everyone else built with thatch. And so, we got to this big house of ours, and my life then began in the village which I now call my home, but I had not been there, because my father and my mother were traveling spreading the gospel. So all of my siblings were born in different places where they (my parents) happened to be; but this was now our home. And that’s the place where I learned what I know…Ogidi. This is where I got what I know and when I really began to pay attention to my father and his friends and to my mother and her friends and what they said and what was going on in the community. That was the moment and the place where it all began”

And now the story has ended, this chapter, at least.

March 22 was just another Friday…until, that is, I learned of the death of the great Chinua Achebe. The news of his transition the day before shook me to the core, as it did many of his legions of fans around the world. His passing marks the loss of an incomparable, pioneering literary giant.

There is an African proverb that states that, “Until the lion tells his own story, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” This adage must have been coined with Chinua Achebe in mind.

For he was a lion of a man. And a storyteller par excellence, determined to tell the story of Africa, from an African perspective. This would become his purpose in life, which he pursued until the very end, with his final publication, There Was a Country, being released this past October.

Chinua Achebe, born Albert Chinualumogo Achebe in Ogidi, Nigeria, on 16 November 1930, is considered by most to be the “Father of Modern African Literature.

Achebe served notice to the world that no longer would Africa be portrayed in literature as the “dark” continent populated with the “savages” and “cannibals” of Joseph Conrad’s racist Heart of Darkness. As he stated emphatically to me, he wanted there to be stories written “by people who see Africa as their home, not as a place for safari…books by people who see Africans as their people…as people, [even].

Of course, Conrad was not alone in dehumanizing Africa and its peoples with his prose, but Achebe set the Polish writer’s contribution apart, he said, because it is so elegantly written that it has been elevated to the status of “permanent literature” that will be read and studied for time immemorial.

And in knocking down Conrad’s magnum opus, Achebe created his own in 1958: Things Fall Apart. He told me that he never imagined that the novel would go on to sell more than 12 million copies and be translated into 50 languages.

It was last evening, as I sat thumbing through my interview transcript, peppered with his beautiful long hand cursive edits, that his transition really sunk in. I had not pulled it out for many years. As I read his short, also handwritten, cover letter wishing me luck—written on understated white stationery, with “Chinua Achebe” emblazoned in block letters—only then did I fully appreciate the priceless gift that The Great Man, as he is known in some circles, had so generously bestowed upon me.

Suffice it to say, we will never know the likes of another Chinua Achebe. Indeed, the African literary pantheon—and indeed the world—has lost a singularly towering figure. But Chinua Achebe has left behind a body of “permanent literature” that will be read and studied for the ages.

He will be missed on so many levels, but I feel certain that the African ancestors will embrace him and escort him to a very special seat at the head of the head table of great African storytellers.

It seems appropriate to end with another African proverb, which states that, upon the passing of an elder, “A library has burned.” And rest assured, for countless millions, a substantial number of the works and ideas therein will have been authored by the great Chinua Achebe.

Rest in perfect peace, Sir.

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