May 05, 2008

Celebrating 50 Years of Things Fall Apart

Photos, Quotes & Keynote Address from the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Celebration at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (April 25th & 26th, 2008)

Yours truly, Osondu Nnamdi Awaraka
From left to right: Onyeka Nwelue, Professor Kanchana Ugbabe (Department of English, University of Jos, Nigeria) and Osondu Awaraka.
Onyeka Nwelue, Ladi and Oguche (ANA members Abuja)
Henry Akubuiro of the Sun and Onyeka Nwelue
Onyeka Nwelue and Maryam Ali Ali (author, The Faces of Naira)

Professor Ernest Emeyonu (Chair of the African Studies department in the University of Michigan-Flint) giving the keynote address in the Princess Alexandra Hall, UNN
I strike a pose with Odia Ofeimun
Dr. Chattopadhyay, Chief Charity Ada Onwu, Maryam Ali Ali (author of The Faces of Naira) and other writers.
Professor Okey Ndibe and Onyeka Nwelue
Onyeka Nwelue and Dr. Grace Adichie (first female registrar of the University of Nigeria and mother of the award-winning author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

From left to right: Dr. Debasish Chattopadhyay (Head of Department, English Language, Raja Peary Mohan College, Uttarpara, Hooghly, West Bengal, India), Chief Charity Ada Onwu and Osondu Awaraka.
Dr. Chattopadhyay, Chief Onwu and Onyeka Nwelue, author of the forthcoming novel, The Abyssinian Boy.
Odia Ofeimun (Polemicist, Poet and social commentator) and Eromo Egbejule (blogger and writer)
Okey Ndibe (Columnist and novelist) and a representative of the Chinua Achebe Foundation

Professor Okey Ndibe and Eromo Egbejule

Dr. Grace Adichie (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's mother), Mr. Ebika and another guest at the event

All photos (c) Onyeka Nwelue 2008

QUOTES from Guest Speakers
"We cannot tell the world the African story if we cannot tell it in our indigenous languages." - Moses Tsenongu, Translator of Things Fall Apart into Tiv language.

"TFA has been the greatest teacher of the Golden Age of African dances"- Arnold Udoka, Director of the National Troupe of Nigeria.

"Okonkwo's father was an artist and would have loved to live in a society where artistes were appreciated. To him, everyone did not have to be a farmer."- Odia Ofeimun, Nigerian poet and political activist.

On the first day of the event held in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Professor Ernest Emenyonu, Chair of Africana Studies at the University of Michigan-Flint gave the keynote address. In the two days of celebratory events, it was the only address that received a standing ovation. His delivery was powerful and incredibly motivating. Fortunately for you Incessant Scribble obtained the keynote address. Enjoy!

Another parable He put forth to them, saying “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches. “Parable of the Mustard Seed”—Matthew 13:31-32.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen!
I would like to begin by expressing my profound gratitude to the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) for the singular honor and privilege to present this Keynote Address today. This is the second time in my literary career that I have been asked to introduce Chinua Achebe and his fiction to an intimidating world audience from both sides of the Atlantic. I will talk about the first occasion towards the end of my Address.

When the President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Hon. Wale Okediran, invited me in a letter dated January 14, 2008, to present this Address, he said, “The Association of Nigerian Authors will appreciate it if you can kindly deliver the Keynote Address in Nsukka under the theme, “50 years of Things Fall Apart: Telling the African Story.” My chosen title is "Things Fall Apart (1958): Chinua Achebe's Mustard Seed.” But before I get substantively into that, let me reveal a unique situation prior to my coming here today. It opened my eyes very clearly to the dilemma that our Igbo elders had in mind when they expressed the metaphor of a man summoned simultaneously by his father in-law and his Chi, his ‘personal god.’ More than a year ago, I accepted a request in a letter by Ike Okonta, of the Chinua Achebe Foundation in London, England, to co-ordinate in the United States, the events commemorating the Golden Jubilee of the publication of Things Fall Apart. I quickly contacted the organizers of this year’s African Literature Association annual conference at Western Illinois University, Macomb, requesting a prominent space in the program to set up two panels to discuss the ramifications of the literary phenomenon called Things Fall Apart, and a Roundtable panel of distinguished scholars to discuss Chinua Achebe’s Legacies in the Development of 20th Century Modern African Literature. All three panels would be chaired by me. There would also be a huge cake with fifty candles on the stage. The cake would be cut by Chinua Achebe or a member of his family, but where that was not possible, I had at the back of my mind that Professor Emmanual Obiechina would be invited to perform the ritual. Professor Obiechina as you may know, is best described as the Dean of the Critics of African Literature, and the Nze of the scholars of Igbo studies. Then nine months later, in January 2008, after all these have been entrenched in the program of the 2008 African Literature Association Conference, I received the invitation of the Association of Nigerian Authors for this occasion. The unique thing about this is that the conference in the United States and this Nsukka Conference are meeting at the same time. Now you can see and appreciate the dilemma of the man who received the simultaneous summons to appear before his father in-law and his Chi at precisely the same time. The Igbo parable never told us which call the miserable man answered first, so I will not answer the question apparent in your minds namely, which one is my chi and which one is my father in-law, the Association of Nigerian Authors or the African Literature Association? Now, let us turn to my adaptation of the parable of the Mustard Seed.

Fifty years ago, in the year of Our Lord, 1958, an unknown unpractised farmer, Chinua Achebe, took a seed yam and planted it in a patch of untested soil. And then the tendrils blossomed and the tuber grew to immense proportions, producing side tubers which produced other side tubers, until several barns were filled with enormously big Abakiliki-type of yams; and in effect the pillar which was once rejected by European builders became the corner stone of a most gigantic world edifice, which is the reason we are all here today.

That, in a nut-shell, is the story of Things Fall Apart. At conception, it was one long narrative stretching into many, many pages. Before the mother went into labor, the midwives saw the signs and likelihood of multiple births. The young mother concurred and when the time was due, delivered the first baby called Things Fall Apart, also known as Okonkwo, and not long after, the second baby, No Longer at Ease, also known as Obi, was born. But then the young mother wasn’t done yet. Some fertile embryo still remained in the womb. Patiently, the young mother nurtured this young embryo which had got stuck in the womb when the younger sibling was evacuated. At its own time, it was delivered and named Arrow of God, also known as Ezeulu. That was how Obi came to be born first before his truly elder brother, Ezeulu.

The enormous success of Things Fall Apart has stunned the whole world, not the least many European literary scholars at the time of its publication, who had believed that like the biblical Nazareth of old, nothing good, particularly literary, can come out of Ogidi, or Nigeria, or Africa for that matter.

As we celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the birth of Things Fall Apart, this year with all the fanfare, let’s not forget the rock-like skepticism of the European and Western readers, scholars, and publishers fifty years ago who did not foresee for the novel a chance of celebrating its second birthday. The Heinemann Publishers, London (the striking heroes today), were convinced that the venture of publishing the novel, was a daring and risky gamble, and so printed only 2000 copies in hardback and stood poised to write off the business loss eventually. Today, there are scores of hard and paperback editions, and sales in millions of copies in diverse world languages. On reading Things Fall Apart when it was first released, a British woman was so infuriated, she fouly castigated Chinua Achebe for daring to suggest that things fell apart at the British advent into Africa early in the 20th century. Why, she wondered, was Achebe still wearing European type of clothes and not the raffia attires of his beloved ancestors? We are lucky that Chinua Achebe was not distracted by such preposterous insults and attacks.

There were other Westerners who kept the heat on Achebe, blasting him and fuming at his audacity, scorning and taunting him as the personification of the misguided irreverent pretentious emergent African elite who had chosen to bite the finger that fed them. And Achebe was among the first generation of graduates of the University College, Ibadan, technically a Campus of London University. What an ingrate!

But there were others from the high echelons of the literati who literally hauled bricks at Achebe for audaciously daring to indict the emperor. How dare he insinuate in his novel that the tactics of the early Europeans in their encounter with Africans were well designed strategies for the fall of Africa? Who did Chinua Achebe think he was to seek through his novel to deconstruct Social Darwinism, the ideological stance for Euro-imperialism, conquest and domination of Africa? How dare he plant ideas in the minds of barbaric rural Africans to perceive the psychology of imperial conquest and its implications from the African perspective? How could an unknown literary quantity who had been brought up in the great traditions of British literature have the effrontery to begin his literary career with a novel that sought to deconstruct the Eurocentric perspective of Africa?

One of these offended Western intellectuals was a Lecturer in the English Department here at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka during my undergraduate days. Dr. Austin J. Shelton had an aura of elevated intellectualism and had built for himself a reputation for intimidating erudition. Some of us majoring in English at the time who had missed out on his courses somehow began to feel academically deficient and incomplete. That was until the wind blew and revealed the entrails of the fowl, as the saying goes.

In the decade following the publication of Things Fall Apart, Shelton had written a series of critical articles on African literature many of which were designed to interprete first, for Africans and then others elsewhere, the true nature of the emerging African writing. And since Things Fall Apart stood out prominently he tried to interprete the nuances of the story to all and sundry and in the process, arrogated to himself the important duty of educating everybody, beginning with Chinua Achebe, on the correct interpretations of the symbolisms, Igbo religious rituals and cosmology embedded in the narrative of Things Fall Apart. He asserted that Chinua Achebe had missed the correct dimensions in his portrayal of some of these in the novel. Spurred on by this sense of mission he published a spate of articles perhaps to set the pace for the criticism of modern African literature in general, and Achebe’s fiction in particular. The articles included: “The Offended Chi in Achebe’s Novels(1964), “Behaviour and Cultural Value in West African Stories(1964), “The Articulation of Traditional and Modern in Igbo Literature(1969), and “Failures and Individualism in Achebe’s Stories(1971). Nowhere was he more absurd and blatant than in the article, “The Offended Chi in Achebe Novels.” He began the article by declaring that he was “aware of Achebe’s sensitivity about non-Igbo speaking literary critics ...” which was a rather cheap and devious attempt to turn literary critics of non-Igbo origin (Westerners and Africans alike) against Chinua Achebe, and portray him as a writer who depended only on his kinsmen and women for validation and authenticity. Then he took on Achebe on specifics, asserting that Achebe’s definition of Chi as ‘personal god’ in Igbo traditional religion was a blasphemy (emphasis mine), and that the correct definition was “God Within.” To him Achebe was not only blasphemous, but he also had “a jaundiced attitude toward his own people’s religion.” But he did not stop there. He went further to say, “One might properly comment that Unoka (Okonkwo’s father in Things Fall Apart) actually did not have a “bad chi” as Achebe says, because a chi is not evil except from a narrow and erroneous human point of view (apparently Achebe’s), even if that point of view is of the Ibo.” Still Shelton wasn’t done with Achebe. Paragraphs later in the article he had this to say: “Ironically, Okonkwo’s very individualism causes him to perform an action which was sacrilegious in relation to Ane (sic) and the very alusi (spirit, not “earth goddess,” as Achebe puts it) whom his father had abominated, by beating one of his wives during the “Week of Peace.” (p.37) (emphasis mine).

Perhaps Austin J. Shelton is not worth this much space at a celebration of the excellence of Chinua Achebe as an artist in his first novel, Things Fall Apart. It is not so much what he says as his manner and attitude of saying it. He portrays Achebe as lacking in the proper knowledge of Igbo religious traditions and culture, and this by a white man who could not even understand Igbo proverbs. But Shelton was not naive or dumb. He had read Things Fall Apart very closely and realised that both the novel and its author were set to threaten existing European distortions of Africa in reality and fiction; that in Things Fall Apart, Achebe had provided Africans with a veritable tool for the deconstruction of Eurocentric perspectives of Africa, and a tool for understanding the Africa of today, issues in cultural confusion and conflicts; a tool for understanding the passing of the old order in Africa and the forceful emergence of the new. If Things Fall Apart survived and won the day, and Achebe continued in his eloquent creative imagination, then the era of the dominance of such novelists about Africa, as Joyce Cary and Josef Conrad was eternally over. So if Chinua Achebe’s integrity as a novelist was destroyed at the very beginning of his career, then Europe or the West had nothing to be afraid of in upcoming African writers. Shelton left no one in doubt about this in the concluding paragraph of his article where he fanatically chides Achebe with:

Achebe makes a vainglorious attempt in Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, and I suspect he will continue so in The (sic) Arrow of God, to ascribe all the evils which occurred in Ibo society to the coming of the whiteman. But he stacks the cards in the novels, hinting here and there at the truth, yet not explaining fully the substratum of divine forces working to influence the characters. His own motives perhaps are linked with his patent desire to indicate that writers outside can never understand the works of Igbo-speaking writers (whose novels are in English); although one must properly leave the subject of authors’ motivations to psychiatrists. Whatever the case may be, however, what caused “things to fall apart” and what made the Ibo man “no longer at ease” in the case of Achebe’s works were the evil actions of Okonkwo, who brought the wrath of Chukwu, the alusi, and the ndichie upon his own lineage. (37)

We hear in Austin J. Shelton’s utterances the voice of an outside mourner weeping louder than the bereaved. Yet he could not even remotely counter Achebe’s summary declaration in Things Fall Apart, on how things fell apart in Africa. In one of the most articulate and beautiful pieces of prose in 20th century literature in English, Achebe pointedly declares:

Does the whiteman understand out custom about land? How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The whiteman is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart. (176)

Anyone who teaches Things Fall Apart anywhere on the continent of Africa today, should make the students memorize and internalize this passage. It is an incontrovertible eternal historic, political and cultural truth about the way and manner of the human conquest of Africa by Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Austin Shelton’s mindset was that of a biased and prejudiced scholar from the Western world who behaved true to type fifty years ago. But today, there seem to be some people inside Africa whose understanding and appreciation of Things Fall Apart and Chinua Achebe’s achievements in the field of African Literature in particular, and World Literature in general, remain as shallow as Shelton’s, but perhaps worse, because they ought to, and they are in a position, to know better. I am referring specifically to one David Kaiza of Kenya whose recent article in February 2008, entitled “Achebe: Why he was no Literary Genius,” published in Nation, a Kenyan publication, prompted Odoh Diego Okenyodo a journalist in Abuja to e-mail me in the United States seeking an urgent rebuttal of Kaiza’s apparent ridiculing of these celebrations for Things Fall Apart. In Kaiza’s understanding of success in literature, “a single novel that sells eleven million copies” is no big deal, and a twenty-one gun salute for its author, is a waste of precious gun powder much like the outrage at the woman in the biblical story in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, who was sharply criticized and rebuked for wasting a costly and precious alabaster fragrant oil (perfume) on Jesus’ head and feet!

Although I responded by saying that David Kaiza was a distraction not worthy of attention and that the literary world should leave him to his mighty mass of ignorance and move on, yet it seems necessary to show how irrelevant his points of view are in the present discourse. My friend, Charles Nnolim, about whom I will speak briefly later, once said that a traveler who stops at every barking dog will never get to his or her destination. Yet, once in a while it may become necessary to hush up the bellowing dog for our peace of mind.

Kaiza saw Achebe as merely a chance beneficiary of an accident of history. He claims that after the two World Wars, Western intellectuals had begun to tone down their idiosyncratic attitudes to, and lurid perceptions of Africa. Then he concluded, “... had it appeared before the Second World War, Things Fall Apart might have been ignored.” Well, Mr. Kaiza, Things Fall Apart, did not appear before the Second World War, and there is nothing you can do to change that fact!” Next, Kaiza states that writers like Wole Soyinka and Okot p’Bitek achieved more in terms of creativity” (than Chinua Achebe). In a number of instances in his article, Kaiza tries to compare Achebe with Wole Soyinka concluding that Soyinka is the genius that Achebe couldn’t and wouldn’t become. In one paragraph of the article, he was no longer talking just about Things Fall Apart. He said, “When you read his books outside the colonial context, Achebe comes across as a small-scale entrepreneur of the novel.” Then almost with an oracular authority, he declares: “He (Achebe) was no literary industrialist like Soyinka. He was a retailer of proverbs, bucolic wisdom and anecdotes.” He later adds that “there is a gripping lack of strength in his (Achebe’s) voice.” Again, David Kaiza, the whole world disagrees with you for you don’t seem to have listened carefully to Achebe’s voice in Things Fall Apart. One uniquely fascinating thing about Chinua Achebe’s narrative voice is that every reader can hear him clearly, audibly, and meaningfully in his or her dialect or language whether in Nigeria, Africa, Europe, Asia, Russia or North and South America. It is the vibrant stimulation from that voice that has made Chinua Achebe an honorary literary citizen of the world, and Things Fall Apart every nation’s story in the so-called Third World today.

This celebration is not about comparing Chinua Achebe with Wole Soyinka. It is not a relay race between Chinua Achebe’s novels and the works of other African writers. It is not about showing how Okot p’Bitek, or Ayi Kwei Armah, or Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or any other African writer stands in relation to Chinua Achebe. This celebration is simply about a fifty-year old African novel whose classic eminence has endured the test of time; a fifty-year old African novel which has been translated into more than fifty languages and sold more than twelve million copies; a fifty-year old African novel whose passionate story of colonial arrogance and ethnocentrism has touched the hearts of people world-wide, and resonated with readers of all age groups regardless of race, creed or class. “Mr. Kaiza, give us any other African novel with this type of stature and world-wide appeal fifty years after its publication, and we will celebrate it!”

One final comment and we will move on. Kaiza remarked that “Achebe has been called the father of African literature, while later writers have been described as the ‘sons of Achebe’.” Kaiza seemingly did not want Ngugi wa Thiong’o from his country, numbered among these “sons of Achebe,” so again he put his foot in his mouth and declared, “It would be too much to call a man like wa Thiong’o, a “son of Achebe” because, although his book came out later, books take long to take shape in writers’ minds, and Ngugi appears to have formed his ideas long before he heard of Achebe.” I had said earlier that this celebration is not about comparing African writers, and we should not devalue the integrity of this discourse by succumbing to low-level distractions. But it is important to set some records straight. In January 1967, Chinua Achebe was interviewed in Nairobi, Kenya, by Tony Hall. That interview was published on January 15, 1967 in Sunday Nation (the same magazine which published David Kaiza’s article on February 25, 2008). Tony Hall asked Achebe:

We have had some pretty fierce arguments going on here about the alleged poverty of African writers in East Africa. You are editor of African writings for a London publisher. What are your views about this?

Achebe replied:

Yes, I do see a lot of manuscripts. In fact, I’m not taking credit for James Ngugi, but I did see his work before he was published, and I put him in touch with my publisher. I know he has a new thing coming out. I don’t think really one should worry. I think it’s the difference in the level of mass education between West and East Africa. It’s a matter of time – not decades, it’s going to take just a few years. I mean it’s only 15 years since the first Nigerian novel was published in English. Yet in that time a lot has happened. There are now a number of new and some very exciting writers coming on. (25)

However, this thing about the “sons of Achebe” (and now some people have also found Achebe’s daughter or granddaughter in Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie!), was started by my good friend, Charles Nnolim, and he won’t probably stop until Dr. (Mrs.) Christie Achebe knocks at his door one day to ask whether Chinua had these “sons” before or after he and Christie were married in 1961? Whichever way Nnolim answers it, he will still be in trouble. Elechi Amadi has for years, been saying to Nnolim, “Look at my white hair! I didn’t need to ask my mother for evidence that I am not Chinua Achebe’s son.” He had even mentioned that he was at Government College, Umuahia with Chinua Achebe for secondary education, and later at the University College, Ibadan with Achebe again for university education, and that a father and his son cannot be in secondary school or university at the same time at least not in Nigeria in the 1940’s and ‘50’s! It seems that it was Nnolim’s inclusion of Ngugi wa Thiong’o as one of those “sons” of Achebe that equally offended David Kaiza. He seems to have reasoned that such a classification does harm to Ngugi’s stature as a Kenyan writer for it makes him perceived as an apprentice-artist under Chinua Achebe of Nigeria. Still, that is no reason to assert as Kaiza does, that Chinua Achebe is improperly recognized as the father of the modern African novel.

Let’s now give some final thoughts on David Kaiza. Kaiza is unrelenting in his denigration of both Chinua Achebe as a writer and Things Fall Apart as a classic African novel. Pruning here and piling there, he is at pains to find evidence to prove his verdict that Achebe is “no literary genius” especially on the strength or merits of Things Fall Apart. If Kaiza finds any good qualities at all in Achebe as a writer, they are not such as would lift him beyond the rank of an average writer who beat everybody else in retelling the fables of his “tribe.”

How then should we regard David Kaiza? If you teach postgraduate students anywhere on the continent, I advise you to have your students read Kaiza’s article to help them appreciate how, even though wisdom is like a goat-skin bag and everyone carries his/her own, there are some people whose goat-skin bags came with holes through which all the wisdom seeped away before they arrived for the meeting at the village square. Why did David Kaiza stoop so low in his article? My answer is simple. Like Austin Shelton he is not dumb and he has keen insights enough to realize that this is a monumental world-centered moment for African literary discourse. There are however, some people who have nothing worthwhile to contribute but they wouldn’t want to be found missing in action. So they say something, just about anything, so as to be counted among those who once upon a time said something during a very important discussion. After all, self preservation is the first law of nature.

Since the beginning of the year, the celebration of Things Fall Apart, has taken various forms in countries all over the world – England, Portugal, Australia, and the United States to mention but a few. And two weeks ago, the Library of Congress in the United States announced epoch-making plans to honor both Chinua Achebe and Things Fall Apart on November 14, this year, two days before Chinua Achebe’s birthday. This raises the question: “Where is Nigeria in this scheme of things?” I am aware of the Public Lecture organized by the Department of English at the University of Uyo in February this year and the April 17 special literary events organized by the Department of English at the University of Ibadan, to commemorate and celebrate Achebe’s gift of Things Fall Apart to the world fifty years ago. And of course we are all here today because of the various initiatives of the Association of Nigerian Authors in different forms and locations in Nigeria since the beginning of this month. But you, Nigeria, where are you in this scheme of things? The Igbo name Unakanamba (fame that is recognized and resounds only in a foreign land) is a name that philosophically rebukes any enchantment with the bird of beautiful feathers, as the late incomparable novelist, Cyprian Ekwensi, called one of his novels. This bird has glamorous feathers outside while remaining filthy and stinking inside. Permit me to speak now not only as a Professor of African Literature but a devoted and patriotic Nigerian who has spent the last thirty years teaching, researching and publicizing African Literature both at home and abroad.

Nigeria has been independent for forty-eight years, more than three decades of that period, under military dictatorships. During those years of brutal military rule, the Federal Government contributed virtually nothing to enhance the recognition, growth and development of African Literature in Nigeria, in both the cultural and educational arenas. If anything, it did a lot relentlessly to lower, dishonor, and damage the image of the writer in Nigeria in particular, and the dignity of African Literature in general, in the eyes of the world. We now have a civilian government and it is essential that the Federal Government be not seen as continuing the apathy to African Literature and the arts, which characterized the military regimes. And so far in this year’s world-wide celebration of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the Federal Government seems to be missing in action. We will give even the devil his due and totally agree with David Kaiza when he says in his infamous article:

Going by the preparations taking place, one might think the celebrations have something to do with a beloved monarch: Events have been lined up for the whole of 2008; a commemoration scheduled for April has been sponsored by the New York City Hall; Western universities are vying to host speakers as the media jostle for interviews; and Postsecondary Education Network international is selling lecture tickets online.... It is unfortunate that Achebe is being commemorated in the West, but little is being done in Africa to recognize him. (1, 4).

Let me use an analogy that will strike home in stating what Nigeria has done in comparison with other countries in this celebration. If this were a soccer competition, Nigeria would have been beaten and trounced by teams that fielded only six (instead of eleven) players for their matches.

The late American President, J. F. Kennedy, once admonished his country men and women: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It is appropriate to reverse that statement in our present context and admonish the Federal Government of Nigeria: “Ask not what your writers and African Literature can do for you; ask what you can do for your writers (in this case, Chinua Achebe) and African Literature (and specifically, Things Fall Apart). And to do this effectively, the Federal Government has to be reminded of a few instances of the enormous savagery of the military rulers towards Nigerian writers, and African Literature.

The whole world stood aghast in November 1995 while the organs of the Federal government executed Ken Saro Wiwa one of the most brilliant and versatile African writers of the second half of the 20th Century. That year, I had been elected on August 18, in far away Sri Lanka as the President of the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) which prestigiously, would have brought the Headquarters of the Association to Nigeria. Following the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa, the Association repudiated the membership of Nigeria, and its Headquarters never landed on the Nigerian soil. That same period too, witnessed the first black person in history to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, hounded into exile by State organs of the Federal Government. If anybody had brought his head on a platter, the Federal Government then would have gladly received it in exchange for oil and gold!! During that era too, on November 17, 1993, the organs of the State Government locked out the corpse of Africa’s first black female novelist, Flora Nwapa, from the Multi Purpose Hall Owerri, Imo State, where mourners had gathered in thousands to pay their last respects. And to crown it all, the military even “slaughtered” one of its own, the erudite and versatile poet, Mamman Vatsa. But those might be said to be yester-years. What about today? Though on a lesser scale but no less sadly symbolic, January 4, 2008 saw Africa’s most celebrated urban novelist, the inimitable writer of children’s fiction, the first ever Director of Information for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, a member of the historic panel that chose Abuja as the new Federal capital of Nigeria, Chief Cyprian O. D. Ekwensi, buried in his hometown Nkwelle, Anambra State, without a Federal government representative and not even a Condolence Message at the occasion.

Perhaps the Federal Government can seize this opportunity and use the year of the celebration of Things Fall Apart to make amends and atone for the past aversion to Nigerian writers, and the abysmal neglect of African Literature as an autonomous field of study in the Nigerian educational system. Nigerian writers are true cultural and intellectual ambassadors of their country inside and outside the Nigerian borders. Many doors today fly open for Nigeria because of such names as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, J. P. Clark, Michael Echeruo, Chukwuemeka Ike, Obi Egbuna, Elechi Amadi, T. M. Aluko, Onuora Nzekwu, Buchi Emecheta, Mabel Segun, Kalu Uka, Ifeoma Okoye, Anezi Okoro, Zynab Alkali, I.N.C.Aniebo, Adaora Ulasi, Ossie Enekwe, Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chimalum Nwankwo, Tunde Fatunde, Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, Catherine Acholonu, Sam Ukalla, Chris Nwamuo, Karen King-Aribisala, Odia Ofeimun, Isidore Okpewho, Festus Iyayi, Anelechi Chukuezi, Kole Omotoso, Femi Osofisan, Tess Onwueme, Sefi Atta, Irene Salami, Promise Onwudiwe-Okekwe... and the list goes on and on, plus those who have joined the Great Beyond but their impacts are still felt: D. O. Fagunwa, Pita Nwana, D. N. Achara, Leopold Bell-Gam, Tony Ubesie, Amos Tutuola, John Munonye, Zulu Sofola, Flora Nwapa, Christopher Okigbo, Ene Henshaw, Ada Ugah, Ezenwa Ohaeto, Cyprian Ekwensi .... and others. For their sakes, and for their great contributions to the growth and development of African Literature, now acclaimed world-wide, I respectfully call on (no, I humbly plead with) President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, to please ‘bring home’, African Literature! Remove the stigmatization of African Literature and Nigerian Writers as the proverbial Unakanamba, praised and recognized world-wide but neglected at home. African Literature should be an autonomous and independent subject in the Nigerian school curriculum studied at all levels of the educational system. It has become a huge irony and indeed anachronistic for Nigerian scholars to travel abroad to foreign universities to research on African Literature and Nigerian writers, for advanced degrees. There should be established in Nigeria an International Center for African Literature Research and Documentation, one of whose responsibilities should be the location, retrieval and collection of the original manuscripts of published Nigerian creative works and the letters (correspondence) of Nigerian writers. The Center should also have an active unit for the translation of exceptional creative works of African Literature into Nigerian languages. The film industry in Nigeria should be legitimized, empowered and assisted to produce film versions of important Nigerian creative works especially novels, as well as documentaries on Nigerian writers for use in schools and the promotion of tourism. And in this regard, a well produced authentic film version of Things Fall Apart is long overdue.

I would plead specifically with Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State, to please stop at nothing to ensure the location and retrieval of the original manuscript of Things Fall Apart hidden somewhere today in a town in the Francophone part of the Cameroons. This is of the greatest importance in Chinua Achebe’s heart today. The recovery of the original manuscript of Things Fall Apart and its repartriation to Nigeria will be the crowning point of this celebration this year. On November 16, 1930, Ogidi and the entire Anambra State, gave to the world Chinua Achebe, once described as “one of the ten greatest novelists in the world today dead or alive.” The history of the literary super-eminence of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart will forever remain incomplete, until its original manuscript adorns a museum or archives somewhere in Anambra State for tourists, researchers, teachers, students and the whole world to come and behold the amazing wonders of the African mind. The Israelites of old wept pathetically in Psalm 137:

We wept when we remembered Zion....
For those who carried us away captive
Asked of us a song
And those who plundered us requested mirth
Saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

I ask the President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, I ask Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State, I ask the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, how can this treasure Things Fall Apart, described by one of the most eminent critics of African Literature in the world today, Charles Ekwusiaga Nnolim of Umuchu, Anambra State, as “an Igbo national epic,” be allowed to be held in captivity in a foreign land? Bakassi we may give up, but Things Fall Apart we can’t. Chukwu Nna Ekwela ka ihere nka me anyi! (May God forbid this potential eternal shame!) When one of the greatest African American writers of the 20th Century, Langston Hughes, died in 1967, his body was cremated and his ashes stored in an urn in Providence, Rhode Island, an all-white neighborhood. Through the collective will and efforts of dedicated African Americans, the ashes were brought home years later and are now lying peacefully at the Schomburg Center for the Study of African American Culture and Arts in New York City where Langston Hughes lived till his death. Let us borrow a leaf from that magnanimous, heroic and culturally affirmative act, and bring home the original manuscript of Things Fall Apart. Home is Nigeria where it proudly belongs.

History has bestowed on the University of Nigeria, the honor and responsibility of “restoring the dignity of man” as its motto eloquently declares. As an alumnus of this great University and true to its motto, I call on the Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Prof. Chinedu Nebo, to set up in this University a Center for the Study of African Literature and give breath and life again to such journals as Okike and Uwa Ndi Igbo both founded by Chinua Achebe during his years at the University first as a Research Fellow, and later, a Professor of English.

Finally I call on my colleagues in the Departments of English and Literary Studies in all Nigerian universities and other tertiary institutions, to make themselves relevant in the current vibrant world-wide study of Modern African Literature. Our young readers need abridged and simplified editions of great Nigerian works beginning with Things Fall Apart. It falls in the territory of Nigerian scholars to research and tell the world how many languages Things Fall Apart has so far been translated into and published; how many copies of the novel have been sold to date in different nationalities and cumulatively; and the comparative values that readers inside and outside the Nigerian borders respectively find in Things Fall Apart. What is it about Things Fall Apart that captures the interest of readers in South Korea, India, Germany, France, the Caribbean, Russia, Canada, England, Portugal, etc. different from readers in Nigeria or Africa as a whole? How can these relative interests and attitudes shape the pedagogical approaches to Things Fall Apart in the classroom? And let me state in the strongest of terms possible, that after fifty years of its publication; after over fifty translations in other world languages; after its recent publication in Yoruba language; the non existence of an Igbo Language edition of Things Fall Apart casts a shadow of doubt on the integrity of scholars of Igbo Language and Linguistics. I cannot perceive it any other way.

I believe that if the forum for this Keynote Address had allowed questions from the audience, probably the first question would be, given the universal appeal of Things Fall Apart all these years, why has its author Chinua Achebe not been honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature? He has after all, more than any other writer in the second half of the 20th century, influenced for better the course of World Literature in English, and remains an African novelist, who has more than any other writer of this era, “provided a renewed sense of African heritage, history, and tradition.”

So why has he not been honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature? Let me allow you to hear this anecdote directly from Chinua Achebe as he recounted it to J. O. J. Nwachukwu-Agbada in an interview in October 1985 here at the University of Nigeria in Achebe’s Office as Emeritus Professor of African Literature:

Many years ago I was in Stockholm along with some other writers. I think it was to honor a Nobel Prize winner then, Heinrich Boll, a West German writer who died in 1984. During a discussion with an audience, one of the most powerful members of the Swedish Academy which normally picks the Nobel Prize winners said something which annoyed me and I told him off. And people came to me later on and said that the man was very powerful, that he was one of those who decided on who won the prize. And I said, so what? (139-140).

I leave you to draw your own conclusions. But whatever the case, I hope the Swedish Academy is watching and taking note of what the whole world is saying in 2008 about Chinua Achebe and Things Fall Apart.

I mentioned at the beginning of this Address that this occasion is the second of its kind that I have been called upon to introduce Chinua Achebe and his fiction to a seminal world audience. On March 17, 1998, at the 24th Annual Conference of the African Literature Association (U.S.A.), held at the University of Texas, Austin, the organizer, Bernth Lindfors, asked me to introduce Chinua Achebe who was the Keynote Speaker. After highlighting the marvelously unprecedented things that Achebe had done for African Literature in particular, and World Literature in general, I borrowed the words of the late Prof. Ola Rotimi to close my introduction. I will do the same thing today:

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I find nothing more appropriate to present our noble speaker to you than the words of Professor Ola Rotimi, Orator of the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria in February 1991, when the University bestowed on Chinua Achebe an honorary doctorate degree.

Chinua, son of Achebe, let me from this point on, address you in the style of traditional African Oratory... Speaker in proverbs, we salute you. Exponent of the values of African cultural heritage, I say, it is you we greet. You who ventured into the forest of world literature and came back a hero, our knees are on the ground.

If danger aims its arrows at you again,
They will not fly.
If they fly,
They will not hit you.
If they hit you,
They will not wound you.
If they wound you,
You will not weaken.
If you do weaken,
You will not fall down.
If you do fall down,
You will not faint.
If you do faint,
You will not ... die!

Ladies and Gentlemen, Long live the Association of Nigerian Authors,
Long live Chinua Achebe, Long Live the Federal Republic of Nigeria!

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann Publisher, 1958. (Quotations from Anchor Books Edition, New York, 1994)
Kaiza, David. “Achebe: Why he was no Literary Genius.” Nation, The East African Magazine. Feb. 25, 2008.
Hall, Tony. “Interview with Achebe.” In Conversations with Chinua Achebe. Ed. Bernth Lindfors. Jackson: Jackson University Press of Mississippi, 1997: 18-26.
Nwachukwu, J.O.J. “Interview with Chinua Achebe.” In Conversations with Chinua Achebe. Ed. Bernth Lindfors. Jackson: Jackson University Press of Mississippi, 1997: 130-140.
Shelton, Austin J. “The Offended CHI in Achebe’s Novels.” Transition, III, No. 13, March 1964: 36-37.
- - -. “Behaviour and Cultural Value in West African Stories: Literary Sources for the Study of Culture Contact.” AFRICA, xxxiv, No. 4, Oct. 1964: 353-359.
- - -. “The Articulation of Traditional and Modern in Igbo Literature.” The Conch. Vol. 1, March 1969: 30-44.
- - -. “Failures and Individualism in Achebe’s Stories.” Studies in Black Literature. Vol. 2, 1971: 5-9.

Dear Reader, I hope you enjoyed this keynote address. It's not the same as listening to Professor Emenyonu delivering it, but it's better than nothing. Blogger does not let it users retain the format of their work when they copy from a Microsoft Word document, I had to read through this address and re-italicize and re-bolden the words, to make it the same format my copy is. I therefore claim responsibility for any wrong emphasis of words.

I visited Chimamanda Adichie & Chinua Achebe's old house on the University of Nigeria, Nsukka campus! Read my post HERE!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much for your response to David Kaiza.

    Nothing can diminish Achebe's stature as a literary giant and as a superb intellectual.

    I am a Tanzanian and have always considered Achebe to be one of us simply because he is a fellow African.

    People like Kaiza are blinded by petty nationalism - hence his denial that Ngugi is one of Achebe's literary sons - and are a disgrace to Africa.