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Chinua Achebe: A hero returns

By Richard Dowden
Director of the Royal African Society

Dancers
Chinua Achebe was given a traditional welcome

You might be forgiven for thinking they had turned out to greet Nelson Mandela. A huge noisy crowd, complete with dancers and drummers, gathered at the entrance of Abuja airport in the Nigerian capital at 0530 in the morning.

But not to greet a great statesman, nor even a rock star, but a 79-year-old writer: Chinua Achebe. Africa's greatest novelist was returning home to Nigeria for only the second time in 20 years.

We had been warned about the rock star treatment. The last time he came, tens of thousands of people packed a football stadium to hear him speak.

Mr Achebe was in Nigeria to speak at a festival celebrating the culture of his ethnic group, the Igbo.

Longing for home

He has lived in America since he suffered a terrible car accident in 1990, which left him paralysed from the waist down and in a wheelchair. His medical needs cannot be served in Nigeria at present.

But, he told me, he longs to be home. "I do miss Nigeria," he said, "which is very strange because when I am here, we are constantly quarrelling."

Chinua Achebe

His first and most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, was published more than 50 years ago. It has been translated into 50 languages and is taught in schools and universities throughout the world.

Four more novels followed, as well as books of poems and essays and a bitingly sarcastic attack on the Nigerian ruling elite called The Trouble with Nigeria.

He began writing in the 1950s when much of Africa was preparing for independence from British and French imperial rule. He was inspired to write when he realised that Africa's story was being told by outsiders, writers like Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary whose descriptions of Africans he found offensive.

He was determined to tell the story of his own people. But he did not at first write about the struggle for freedom that was going on around him.

Instead, he says he wanted to understand "why it happened in the first place".

"Why did my parents leave their religion and become Christians... why did those people lose their independence?"

His father was a Christian convert and missionary, but his great uncle was a keeper of the shrine to traditional gods.

Mr Achebe was one of the last generation of Africans who heard first-hand from their elders what life was like before the white man came. That is what makes his stories so vivid.

Celebrity status

His celebrity status has disadvantages in Nigeria, not just because wherever he goes crowds of journalists and others gathered to see him. Politicians and would-be politicians, the very people Mr Achebe pilloried in his novels, also queued to see him, desperate to fawn on him and be photographed with him.

In The Trouble with Nigeria, Mr Achebe wrote that "there is indeed no better place to observe the thrusting indiscipline of Nigerian behaviour than on the roads: frenetic energy, rudeness, noisiness".

He described their indifference to safety as of "truly psychiatric proportions" and complained of convoys of VIPs travelling with police escorts becoming a "childish and cacophonous instrument for the celebration of status... a medieval chieftain's progress complete with magicians and acrobats chasing citizens out of the way".

Yet he was forced to travel just like that to reach his home state in south-east Nigeria.

Dangerous journey

The 10-hour drive took us along what must be some of the most dangerous roads in the world, strewn with the burned-out wrecks of past crashes, like monstrous steel skeletons locked in death.

On a two-lane potholed highway, our police escort drove at a steady 110 kph (70 mph) on the wrong side of the road forcing everyone else off the tarmac.

As the escort overtook cars and lorries, a policeman leant out of the window and whacked the other motorists with a stick - even hitting motorcyclists with pillion riders.

When one brave minibus driver refused to pull over, the policeman pointed his gun at him. Unmoved, the driver responded with a torrent of abuse, so the policemen leaned over - we were inches apart doing about 95 kph (60 mph) - and punched him the face.

Mr Achebe delivered his lecture at Owerri, the regional capital of Igboland. More than 2,000 people turned out to listen to him.

He spoke to them in a slow, gentle but strong voice. His message was clear. He is deeply disappointed at how little Nigeria has achieved since independence.

His generation struggled for freedom, but "we don't seem to have the receipt", he says.

Nigerians must "overcome that miseducation that we received under colonial rule... and celebrate our lives".

He believes that Africans must not reject their own culture but look to their past to discover values that will enable Africa to develop now.

Stories awaiting

Before he returned to America, Chinua Achebe visited Ogidi, his birthplace in the Igbo heartland, accompanied by his wife Christie and three of his children.

He hopes to move there once he has finished refurbishing his house to accommodate his wheelchair. But as his son Chidi says, "in Nigeria you have to be your own government".

With no publicly provided facilities, the house needs a borehole for water, a generator for electricity and other facilities that elsewhere are taken for granted.

Mr Achebe longs to be back in Nigeria. America, he says "is not boring in the narrow sense but what is going on there is of very little interest to me".

He describes the US like a small field where he has been scratching to soil, compared with Nigeria's vast farm. In Nigeria, "there is so much needing to be attended to... There are stories all over the place, not written. Stories waiting to be transformed into novels".

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles.

You can listen to Chinua Achebe: A Hero Returns on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday at 2000GMT or via the BBC iPlayer and watch Richard Dowden's film on Newsnight, also on Thursday at 2230 GMT on BBC Two or via the programme website .



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