By Nagenda, John
New African , No. 529
When I travel outside Africa, mostly to Britain, say in the summer, and perhaps to my "clubs", my friends, however delighted to see me, will start: "How goes Africa, Old Boy, all well?" No sense in telling them that there are 54 nations there, and that each is not an exact replica of the other and that therefore the question is not valid or accurate--however well-meant, or not!
But this summer, I shall positively await the query, eager to give the answer: "Oh. Africa is weeping because Chinua Achebe is dead!" And I shall tell a tale about our greatest writer, among the very few first to summon a whole continent and unite it with the power of the stories he told, and the manner in which he told them. As long as books are read, which undoubtedly they will be forever, Chinua Achebe will feature among those writers who united a continent with how they glued the past and the present together, starting all those years ago in the 1950s, and told how Africans had been, how they came under attack, and how they survived, sometimes with scarifying difficulties.
Towards the end of March, some of us were driving back from the funeral of a friend. Lady Justice Constance Byamugisha, the new Acting Deputy Chief Justice of Uganda. This was only a fortnight after that of her brother, Eriya Kategaya, erstwhile No. 2 in Uganda's hierarchy, behind President Yoweri Museveni. On the journey (death surrounding us) news arrived that Chinua Achebe, arguably the hest-known, and best-ever, African writer, had also died, aged 82. Chinua Achebe: the name rolls off the tongue, as poetry, as magic. (What's in a name, asked Juliet. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet!" Maybe so: but who could imagine Chinua Achebe, as, say, a butcher or sandal-maker?)
His fellow Nigerian countryman, Wole Soyinka, is the better rewarded writer, having bagged the Nobel Prize for Literature, plus not far short of a million dollars, but for me, and a multitude of others, that should have gone to Achebe (profuse apologies, Wole!). Ask a million Africans, including school children who have read African literature, and I bet most would say Achebe's Things Fall Apart is the best book ever written by an African. And that it would rank at the highest level beside those from any other continent or time.
I first met him and other mainly African writer-lions, but also some African-American ones, in 1962, at a Writers' Conference at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, from which I had just recently graduated. Wole Soyinka was there too, and others (from memory): Zik Mphahlele, Dennis Brutus, Lewis Nkosi, Alex La Guma (all from South Africa), John Pepper Clark, Chris Okigbo (from Nigeria), Kofi Awoonor, Cameron Duodu, Efua Sutherland (from Ghana), Langston Hughes (from the US), who won my everlasting friendship (though I never saw him again) when praising the lyricism in a short story of mine, which some participants had judged of no political merit! Ah, there were many other writers there, but memory and space are my masters ...
What fun and joy at life that first-ever intercontinental literary conference generated! Those were the days, especially with the Francophone Africans, when Negritude, the power of praising Africanness, was all the rage, even from President Senghor of Senegal, himself a renowned poet! One day, Soyinka, bored to death with this Negritude, remonstrated: "Should the Tiger roar its Tigeritude?" I fear the wind left the French-African sails!
Soyinka had latterly held up a Nigerian radio station at pistol point as a political act. Now he bestrode the conference like the colossus he was. Dennis Brutus had been shot by racist white South African police. Dennis was never a "bestrider": he had written a poem about the terror of his country, but ending with the wonderful line: "But somehow tenderness survives!" Myself, hardly published, in the face of these heroes, rebelliously stood up and observed: "What a problem for those of us who have not held up radio stations or been shot! …