Prophet of the African Soul: Sometimes We Wait Too Long to Say Thanks to People Who Have Profoundly Impacted and Shaped Us. Having Just Read Chinua Achebe's Latest Book of Essays, Now Is a Good Tine to Celebrate This Literary Giant Who Single-Handedly Gave Many of Us a 'Useful African Past'

Article excerpt

Achebe is undoubtedly one of the most important African figures of the 20th century. And probably the most influential Nigerian figure to have impacted the rest of the continent. When I say this to fellow Nigerians there is noisy disagreement--is Achebe more influential than political heavyweights such as Nnamdi Azikiwe or Obasanjo? There is no doubt that 'Zik' influenced many people beyond Nigeria's borders and Obasanjo and Murtala Muhammed were part of a generation of military officers that played important roles in the wars in Angola and against apartheid. But I don't believe their impact is as enduring as Achebe's. Let me explain.

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In the 1990s I travelled extensively through Africa as I engaged in my work, making documentaries. Landing in a new country was always fascinating and it never ceased to amaze me how beautiful our continent and its people are. After each amazing landscape, sitting down and talking with people was the next most pleasurable thing. A typical exchange would have me asking them about themselves, their country and their future hopes. Then they would turn the questioning around, wanting to know about me--the person seeking to undress them. I too would have to strip--to begin to talk about who I was. Immediately my Nigerian heritage became apparent, the people in front of me would begin smiling in a kind of knowing way.

The more brazen would begin laughing--then the stories about Nigerians would flood out. Usually these would be negative stories about fast deals, arrogance, drugs and other illegality, strangely mixed in with other positive stories about Nollywood, and how much they admired the intelligence, no-nonsense business acumen, and energy of the many Nigerians they encountered. From this one got the sense that in many parts of Africa, Nigerians were as feared as they were admired, I would go on to mention my ethnic group. At the start I expected most people to have made the connection with my group through the Biafran tragedy--but this came up rarely. Instead, the minute I said I was Igbo, most people would literally swoon and say 'aah Okonkwo . …