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Page last updated at 13:17 GMT, Wednesday, 18 February 2009

In the fast lane with Achebe

by Ming Tsang
BBC Newsnight

Watch Achebe's homecoming

Newsnight had been given a great opportunity to accompany the father of African literature, Chinua Achebe, on only his second visit home in two decades. Born in 1930, the Nigerian novelist and poet is probably black Africa's most widely read novelist.

His first work, Things Fall Apart, is regarded as a classic of world literature and has been translated into 40 languages.

He's nearly 80 and although he lives abroad for medical reasons he loves coming home, not that he has an rosy-eyed views of the old country and frequently criticises the large scale of corruption in there.

In his book The Trouble with Nigeria, he suggested that only a masochist would want to be a tourist in Nigeria. I don't think it is so bad myself these days - this will be my second visit - but you definitely need the sharp elbows I honed from many a jumble sale to get anything done there.

And Things Fall Apart is a very apt description of the events I encountered this time around.

Rock star arrival

Chinua Achebe

Newsnight's film on Achebe's homecoming can be seen on Thursday 19 February, 2230GMT on BBC Two (UK) and on the Newsnight website
In fact from the moment we - myself, journalist and director of the Royal Africa Society Richard Dowden and radio producer Smita Patel - arrived with Mr Achebe we became unwitting illegal aliens.

It wasn't the plan of course, but as we waited for our passports to be stamped, a security official told us that the Achebe party were already heading outside.

We told him we were here to cover his momentous arrival and quick as a flash he had dragged us from the queue, whipped past the grey baggage hall and pushed into a world of primary colour, noise and dancers from southern Nigeria with the loudest cowbells I had ever heard.

Rock star is the best way to describe the arrival. Flashbulbs! Crowds! Fans! Screaming! Well actually the screaming came not from the fans but from the heavily armed police trying to get the assembled journos to clear a path for Chinua's wheel chair.

It takes a lot to get a Nigerian press pack to back off but several large men waving AK47s did the trick.

Illegal status

The assembled ranks of paramilitary policemen reminded me that I was still liable for deportation unless I got my passport stamped pronto.

That was when a big serious looking chap tapped me on the shoulder and said he was an undercover Nigerian security officer and wanted a word with me. Strangely he was also holding my bags.

"Ah! I can explain officer," I said. But he was merely letting me know that he was looking after my bags while we covered the great man's arrival.

Once I explained our illegal status he even offered to escort us back to immigration to get our paperwork sorted.

He was so polite afterwards that when I thanked him so much for his help he immediately struck out his hand, palms open... and I of course reciprocated with a hearty handshake.

Dangerous driving

It was time to head south, we would be joining a government convoy to get down to Chinua Achebe's home state about 550 miles away by the Niger Delta.

Richard Dowden on the dangers of driving in Nigeria

Our average speed was about 70mph, not too dangerous on a clear motorway maybe but on for most of the way the two lane highway was backed up with traffic.

We just pushed our way through it, forcing cars off the road or squeezing between trucks and oil tankers going in opposite directions.

If one of the lorries had drifted even a metre towards each other as we were going through then we would have been squeezed flat like a tube of toothpaste.

And not everybody wanted to be pushed out of the way.

One driver objected to being bullied and had an argument with one of the convoy guards through the open windows as they raced along, inches from each other. Our guard ended the debate by punching the driver of the other car in the face as we we moving - the fastest punch I have ever seen in my life.

The journey was like this nearly all the way and lasted nine hours. Richard our reporter has a few stories of African roads of his own.

Sharp elbows

The next hurdle was the Nigerian press corps who have an uncanny ability to make you feel like a grain of sand in an hourglass.

My Nigerian colleagues like to get in close, very close. You don't need High Definition TV to see every pore and wrinkle of an interviewees face if the camera filming it was only 10cm away.

Achebe on freedom and Nigeria

Those sharp elbows of mine came in handy here. More than once I had lined up a lovely shot only to find seconds later that everybody else had charged in front of me to get closer. And then someone charged in front of them to get closer still.

It was like a crazy game of musical chairs where the music never stopped. All very different from a press conference back in Blighty where we do generally do try to keep out of each other's way.

As I spent more time with Professor Chinua Achebe you do realised why the press were here in such force. The professor is revered in Nigeria and everybody and everybody wanted to be seen with him, even his enemies.

It was a genuine privilege to travel with a man who has achieved so much. And despite some of my more hair-raising incidents Nigeria itself can be a wonderful place, just remember those sharp elbows.


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