Chinua Achebe, legendary writer, philosopher and political activist died March 21st this year at age 82 and was laid to rest in his home town of Ogidi, in eastern Nigeria on the 23rd of May, 2013. The funeral of this most favored son of Africa was attended by presidents, the world’s literati, political figures and the regular folk whose cause he championed all his life.
And in the midst of this – a book of tributes. I was charged by the family with the daunting task of collecting and putting together a commemorative account of the life of a legend. Daunting because for one who wrote as prolifically as my uncle Chinua and whose life story was as well-known as his many books, what was one going to say about him that wasn’t already well known? What kind of literary presentation prepared at such short notice would do justice to the life of a literary legend for the ages? Where did one begin?
At the beginning of course! Starting with the ones who knew him first – and best.
Books of tribute in Nigeria in recent years have become big. They’re not just booklets that chronicle a life and present a list of survivors and relationships but have become sometimes an avenue of robust discussions and acclamations of what that particular life meant in the larger context of family and community. Even lives of supposedly humble men have come to reveal quite extraordinary heretofore unrecognized feats of achievement. Some tributes are veritable photo albums denoting important and interesting milestones of a life.
Bearing all this in mind I thus set out on this time sensitive task and sent out word to family and friends, aided by my cousin Chidi, Uncle Chinua’s second son. Everyone was urged to send in the best stories they had. And there were stories indeed!
As my inbox began to fill up, I was surprised by how similar the private stories were that were recounted about this great storyteller. From his older nephews and nieces were very similar accounts of an extremely generous young uncle, who was engaged in the everyday lives of his many young relatives. He never appeared without a gift of a box of cookies or candies. He was the uncle that came to the boarding school on visiting day, laden with gifts and provision; the one that gave thrilling rides in his numerous cool trendy cars. Even through the pages one could sense the devotion of these young relatives, probably informed by the even greater love of their own parents for this young man who was special and had showed so much promise so early.
That Chinua Achebe had been an extraordinarily bright lad is well known. Both of his surviving siblings- my aunt Zinobia Ikpeze and my father Augustine attested to this in their tributes. But from his older nieces and nephews, the ones who long ago shared many morning prayers with their Uncle Chinua and Grandfather Isaiah the catechist , the ones that first called him Uncle Alba for Albert – the English name he later dropped – before he became Uncle Chinua, I also learned of him as a fun-loving uncle who didn’t mind getting down on the floor with his young relatives. He would play the gramophone for them and all the neighborhood kids who congregated at the main family house whenever he was in Ogidi. He was also the patient uncle who explained the workings of the wondrous gadgets of his ‘European quarter’ house to starry eyed young nieces and nephews.
That Chinua Achebe was a generous and extremely attentive son to his elderly parents was evident from the stories that were gathered together from the family that were there at that time. For me it was also an opportunity to delve into the extraordinary lives of his parents – my grandparents Isaiah and Janet Achebe. They were both early converts to Christianity and became travelling evangelists for the Church Missionary Society or CMS, a ministry they performed for over thirty- five years and during which time all their six surviving children were born. At the time of their retirement and return home to Ogidi, the young Albert aka Chinua was only five years old and I believe that being born to elderly parents may have contributed in no small way to the man he would later become, endowed as it were with the ‘wisdom of ancients’.
From the tributes sent in by boyhood friends and contemporaries such as Chike Momah, Chieka Ifemesia , Obiora Udechukwu and Chukwuemeka Ike one was introduced to a young man with a searing intellect who ‘drenched’ his peers academically leaving an indelible mark at Government College Umuahia, the premier boy’s secondary school he attended. We were told of a faithful friend who never forgot who he was or where he came from and who never shied away, especially in later life from the responsibilities thrust upon him as the re-inventor of the African novel. It fell upon him to free African literature from the shackles of colonial anachronistic traditions that had propagated stories about Africa and Africans as aliens and other similar unflattering life-forms such as was found in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
But I digress because the book of tributes is a private journey into Chinua Achebe the man – son, husband, father, uncle, brother, grandfather and friend.
From his daughter Nwando, we met an exceedingly thoughtful man who in his final moments wanted to know the name of each nurse that took care of him to thank them personally. And finally from his wife Christie, the story of a calm spirit whose last moments in a Boston hospital were extremely peaceful as he slipped quietly away.
Goodbye, Uncle Chinua and thank you God for this life.
The Book of Tribute was handed out at the funeral service in Ogidi.
Ngozi Achebe is the niece of Chinua Achebe and a practicing medical doctor living in the USA. She is also a writer and her debut novel Onaedo- The Blacksmiths Daughter is available on Kindle, in bookstores and also online. Please visit her on line at www.ngozi-achebe.com or Facebook to follow her current projects.
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