Monday, 25 March 2013
(52): Chinua Achebe’s literary legacy
On December 10, 2012 the Foreign Policy Centre in the United Kingdom organised a debate at the House of Commons to discuss the memoirs of the literary icon, Professor Chinua Achebe. The debate was both fierce and cordial. Little did we know that the man at the centre of the debate had just few months to live. Achebe introduced himself to the world with the power of the pen through his book Things Fall Apart, and he departed when the debate he created by publishing There Was A Country is still relevant, especially with the 100th anniversary of the amalgamation of Nigeria approaching.
Just like his writings, his death became international news, from CNN to BBC, Guardian to Telegraph, from Nelson Mandela to Jacob Zuma, messages of condolence have kept pouring from around the world, to the extent that his death became more of a celebration of his contribution to world literature than mourning the demise of an intellectual giant. You do not have to agree with Achebe, as many of us, young and old, disagreed with him, especially on his latest book, but one thing you cannot deny the Professor is the literary juggernaut that he was, the real winner of the Nobel Prize in African literature in the court of public opinion.
As the world mourns his departure, what are the lessons to be learnt from the life of Chinua Achebe? What would be his legacy? The answers are quite obvious. But two of these legacies stand out. First was his contribution to African literature through his novels, from Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, No Longer At Ease, Anthills of the Savannah, The Trouble with Nigeria, down to the most recent, There Was A Country, and also the most controversial of his books. This contribution would for life remain an enduring legacy that would put him at par with other literary icons like William Shakespeare, George Orwell, Charles Dickens and Earnest Hemingway, at least on African literature written in English language. Such contribution showcases the quality of education received in Nigeria during the colonial days and few years after political independence.
His generation has produced classic writers of international standard such as Achebe himself, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo and Abubakar Imam, of course the latter did not enjoy much international exposure because he chose to write in Hausa language, but he was certainly an exceptional writer of the same caliber, particularly with his trilogy, Magana Jari Ce (Speech is an Asset). A common feature among this generation of writers is that they are not intellectuals who compiled degrees yet those pursuing degrees in literature up to PhD level have to study their work. This is the difference between core education and paper qualification, which is today erroneously represented in contemporary society as substitute for knowledge.
The second key contribution of Achebe is pioneering the formation of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). ANA is one of the most important institutions I believe today in Nigeria. It is so because it is one institution that is almost run voluntarily, yet supporting young Nigerians to develop their talents, produce literary works in poetry, short stories and novels in native Nigerian languages and English. With active branches in Lagos, Abuja, Port Hacourt, Niger and Kano, ANA has produced, and is continuing to produce, a pool of young writers who have the potential to compete at any level of literary endeavour, yet constrained by the Nigerian factor, particularly lack of reputable publishing houses, and the deteriorating nature of our educational institutions.
For instance in the Kano branch of ANA, through the Creative Writers’ Forum, a lot of university students, yours sincerely included, have benefited immensely in producing literary works. It was so beautiful that every last Wednesday of the month, students and teachers would meet to discuss their new output. It became a culture that every single thing members of ANA-Kano experienced, they will put it in writing, either as poem or short story. The likes of Professor Mustapha Ahmad Isa, Professor Ibrahim Bello-Kano, Dr Aliyu Jibia, Professor Yusuf Adamu and the late Malama Binta Salma Muhammad would be there to provide an assessment of the work and suggest ways for improvement. Within a short time, literary minds like Ismail Bala Garba, Faruk Sarkin Fada, Sulaiman Zailani, Aliyu Barau, Nura Ahmad, Aisha Zakari, Umma Aliyu, Shakir Balogun, Aliyu Abubakar, Hadiza Hanga, and many more whose name I cannot mention due to lack of space, were developed, and some of them, without doubt, have the potential to follow the path of Achebe. Similar effort is replicated in many chapters of ANA around the country.
No human being is perfect, and certainly Professor Achebe was not an exception, particularly with the bashing he received for his latest contribution, There Was A Country, but that is the price you pay for being a writer. As the saying goes, a single tree cannot make a forest. Without exaggeration, Chinua Achebe was a tree that made a forest in African literature.