The news of Prof. Chinua Achebe’s death, this week, came as a rude shock to me. My heart stopped for a second. Yes he had lived to a ripe old age but there are people one expects would never die, as irrational as that sounds. He was certainly one such person.
Chinua Achebe was larger than life. His life’s work had become so central to the Igbo/Nigerian/African identity and survival that it had become impossible to think of ourselves without his ever looming presence, to prod and direct our thinking, every now and then. He was the Igbo, nay Nigerian, nay African conscience and consciousness.
I first met Chinua Achebe in 1983, when I interviewed him for the BBC film, “Nigeria, A Squandering Of Riches”. He had just written ” The Trouble With Nigeria”. As usual, his observations about our country, a country he cared so much about, was succinct, honest, hard hitting and constructive.
Chinua Achebe’s answers to my questions were incisive, heartfelt and sincere as well. When I asked if he would ever consider leaving Nigeria for another country, his answer was categorically, “no”. “This is where God in His infinite wisdom has placed me. Why should I live in a place that someone else has cleaned up” – I paraphrase. That answer, so apt, was vintage Chinua Achebe. It became the central message of our film – that Nigerians who are smart enough to recognize the source of their problems, are the ones to remedy the ills of our society.
Although Chinua Achebe did leave Nigeria to reside in the United States because of the medical condition, caused by his near fatal motor car accident, he never did leave Nigeria in spirit. He continued to prod, chastise and direct, with criticisms, contributions and suggestions. Even the refusal of National Awards was his way of saying, “there is still so much work to be done”. The man loved his country, he didn’t lie – apologies to Wole Soyinka.
Here is an anecdote. Your dad confessed to me, after our first meeting, that he did not have high expectations for the interview, what with me being a “singing journalist” and all. But that it turned out to be one of the best interviews he had ever subjected himself to, as at that time.
Thereafter, his respect for me grew, to the point that he invited me, through you, to participate in the “Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series”. I conducted Margaret Ekpo’s last major interview before her death and Chief Gani Fawehinmi’s, as well.
His respect for me was most flattering, as you can imagine. I was grateful for it. What an honour it was, indeed, that this literary giant, our hero for all times, would consider me worthy of his attention.
Chinua Achebe will be sorely missed. But then, he is not dead. People like him never die. His works remain with us, into history, as one of the greatest writers, expressionists God blessed this world with, His advise and admonitions continue until we heed them.
What pride that he was from and of us. What pride that he was your father. But the Achebe family shared him with the world. Thank you. God bless the Achebe family and comfort you and us.
May his noble soul rest in peace.
•Onwenu, nominated for the USAfrica international creative leadership award at the 20th Anniversary of USAfrica on May 11, 2013 in Houston, is the foremost female artiste in Nigeria (of the past 22 years) and a leading voice on empowerment, development, broadcasting, political advocacy and transparency in Africa. She has been a contributing editor since 1999 of USAfricaonline.com , the first African-owned, U.S-based professional newspaper published on the internet.