Book Talk, Culture

Achebe’s Long Journey Home

There was nothing more striking about Chinua Achebe’s funeral than the ambiance  for how does one mourn a man who had become an ancestor while still very much alive? And perhaps caught in this conundrum, events to mark the funeral, euphemistically dubbed ‘transition’, were tinged with an ambiance of a celebratory sense of loss.

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Rt. Rv Owen Nwokolo receiving Achebe’s casket at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja

He had accomplished more than he had envisaged, perhaps, more than was envisaged for him. And had, by all his accomplishments, risen to the point where the Archbishop of Aba Anglican Province, Ikechi Nwachucku Nwosu said of him: “There are some people who cannot be buried.”

The mortal remains of Achebe were lowered into his grave at a mausoleum built within the walls of his house in his native Ogidi, Anambra State. That was where he was born in 1930. The little town was graced by Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan and his Ghanaian counterpart John Mahama, several state governors and top politician and writers and cultural leaders.

Achebe was famed for his criticism of politicians starting from his third novel Man of the People (1966), which predicted the incursion of the military into the administration of Nigeria following the colossal failure of the political class. He followed this satire with his 1982 seminal piece, The Trouble with Nigeria.

Ironically, it was this same book that President Jonathan held up in front of mourners at the St. Philip Anglican Church, Ogidi and echoed Achebe’s conclusion about the failure of leadership as the bane of Nigeria.

“He was making references to what was happening in the 1950s and 1960s,” the president said, “for those of us holding political office, we should ask ourselves: Have we changed?”

The mourners were unanimous in shouting back, “No!”

Achebe knew, before he died, that there had been little or no change in the quality of leadership in the country, prompting him to turn down two national honours, the last under president Jonathan, (in 2011) citing then the complicity of the presidency in the political chaos in his native Anambra State. Angrily, the presidency had lashed out at Achebe. But at Ogidi, before Achebe’s mournful family, President Jonathan spoke for 12 minutes, lauding the qualities of the late literary icon.

It was a national burial. Achebe deserved no less, being a global figure and as Emeka Anyaoku, former Secretary General of the Commonwealth described him as the man who “gave Africa its confidence” but it was unsurprisingly in his native Anambra that the ovation was loudest.

The burial programme was elaborate, arrived at after some serious deliberations. It is never easy burying a man of Achebe’s calibre as all and sundry would lay claims to his remains.

There was a national day of prayers at the Ecumenical Centre in Abuja Sunday May 19th, followed by a symposium on the life and times of Chinua Achebe at the International Conference Centre, Abuja.

The controversy surrounding his last book There Was a Country, published just months before his death played subtly in the minds of those who spoke at the event.

Chairman of the occasion, Governor Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu of Niger State, speaking through his commissioner of Information and Integration, Muhammad Yahya Kuta, said, “Achebe, till the end of his life, believed that Nigeria will be great if we do the right thing.”

That evening, more tributes poured in. Speeches were made, poems were read and even a drama adaptation of Achebe’s works was staged. American novelist and essayist, Michael Thelwell, said in a moving and colourful keynote address, “Achebe is not lamenting the loss of the Biafran dream but the abuse of the heritage of Africa by its leadership.”

And perhaps that was why some of those in leadership, who on many occasions have had to put up with Achebe’s blunt criticism, didn’t show up for that event prompting Senator Ken Nnamani to look at the half-filled hall and lament, “If we were launching a brand new beer here, the hall would have been filled.”

And the next morning, when Achebe’s corpse arrived Abuja’s Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State explained, in the absence of his colleagues, that he was representing governors from the South East.

The corpse arrived in a coffee-coloured mahogany casket draped in the national colours of green and white accompanied by his widow, Prof. Christie Achebe. She sat grim-faced alongside her four children, and other relatives, dressed in black and gold head gears as the officiating priest, Rt. Rev. Owen Nwokolo prayed for the repose of Achebe’s soul.

As the casket was loaded into the a smaller airplane that would take it to Enugu, outside the domestic lounge of the airport, long closed down for renovations but reopened to receive the remains of the literary icon, members of a cultural troupe stood uncertainly, not sure if to commence dancing or act appropriately sombre. They never got the chance to showcase their moves.

Sadly though, the South East governors were not in Enugu either to receive Achebe’s corpse and the little reception planned for it had to be cancelled, as was the Ohanaeze night of mourning and ikoro salute. No explanation was given. But a procession by staff and students of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where Achebe taught and eventually founded the Association of Nigerian Authors, held, as well as a senate sitting in honour of the writer.

At the border of Enugu and Anambra states, Governor Peter Obi, who had been travelling with the corpse all along, formally received the casket as it entered into his states and was promptly moved to the Alex Ekweume Square where hundreds had gathered to pay homage to Achebe.

The casket was laid in the middle of the square and an ambiance of awe and wonder, and the uncertainty of how to mourn or celebrate the life of Chinua Achebe resurfaced again. But the president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Professor Remi Raji put it in context when he said, “We are here to celebrate the mortality and immortality of Achebe.”

Around the square, copies of Achebe’s books, especially his last, There was a Country, was being hawked by book vendors. Some of the copies were clearly pirated. But beyond that fact, it was evident that Achebe had contrived to achieve immortality ala William Shakespeare and other literary greats.

And perhaps in recognition of his greatness Prof. Fidelis Nwankwo of the Anambra State University in his tribute declared Achebe as “the field marshal of African literature” in the battle to disabuse the minds of those corrupted by false notions of Africans perpetuated in literature prior to the publication of Things Fall Apart.

Interestingly, that book alone has sold over 12 million copies and has been translated into over 50 languages, and perhaps one more. Copies of the Igbo version of the book suddenly surfaced at the square and were distributed to dignitaries. It was poorly produced but there is no other Igbo translation of the book available. The controversies around this persist, even after Achebe’s death.

And there too, there were no tears, apart from that of former minister of education Obiageli Ezekwesili. To her, Achebe’s character brought into sharp relief that of the people driven by the hunger of worldly acquisition. “Achebe is not a man of things but a man of values,” she said.

Her teary homage culminated with her quoting Aristotle’s saying that the best of men is the one who bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace. “Achebe did not bear his circumstances, he defined them,” she said.

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Ike Achebe performing the dust to dust rite.

In Ogidi, Achebe’s birth home, his remains was received by a sea of red-capped chiefs at the town hall, where another set of tributes followed while the Achebe family sat and listened, again in matching attires. At the same time, work on the author’s country house was still ongoing. The mausoleum where his body will be laid to rest was still being constructed.

It was here, in that new structure with glass walls that the remains of the simple Chinua, whose words touched the minds of children and adults and simpletons and presidents that he was indeed interred. A casket, a tomb of glass and concrete walls and the relative obscurity of Ogidi cannot repress the legacies of one of Africa’s biggest literary exports.

(This article was first published in Sunday Trust of May 26, 2013)

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Book Talk

Ten Days at the Caine Prize Writing Workshop

This year, the prestigious Caine Prize Workshop held in Uganda, in the resort town of Garuga, hugged by the expansive Lake Victoria. 
I missed the workshop in South Africa last year because some of that country’s officials had a bad weekend and decided that Nigerians shouldn’t be allowed in on the pretext of invalid yellow fever cards. Don’t ask me what Yellow Fever is: I heard the last reported case in Nigeria was some 18 years ago. Anyway, that was how I was turned back at Jo’burg’s Oliver Thambo Airport. The climax of some four days of frustration. The trauma of that disappoint lingered for months. Fellow writer Elnathan John wasn’t even given a visa.
Fortunately, there were no such calamities this year. The Ugandans proved to be a lot more friendly and accommodating and so all invited writers, including three shortlisted writers for the 2012 Caine Prize, Kenyan Billy Kahora, Malawi’s Stanley Kenani and Zimbabwe’s Melissa Myambo alongside the winner and fellow country man, Rotimi Babatunde, made it.
Elnathan John managed to get a visa this time and we were joined by the quartet of Hellen Nyana, Lillian Aujo, Davina Kawuma and Harriet Anena (dubbed The Ugandan girls). And there was the gentle Wazha Lopang from Botswana, who sadly lost his mother while the workshop was still ongoing, and another Malawian, Micheal Phoya. A dozen writers from across Africa. And there was Ivorian writer Veronique Tadjo and English woman Pam Nichols, both working with South African universities as the two facilitators. Caine Prize administrator Lizzy Attree was there to ensure the smooth running of the workshop and was conferred with the title ‘Dear Leader’ by the workshop participants. She is certainly nothing like that young Asian who bears the same title.
Garuga Resort Beach Hotel is a secluded place nearly an hour’s drive from Kampala with cobbled paths and wide expanses of grass fields and is bordered by the magnificent Lake Victoria that laps the shores with restless energy, turning up bounties for the numerous birds that visit its beach.
Of course there were butterflies. Large ones. Mostly monarchs and swallow tails. And my love affair with these fascinating creatures manifested as I spent almost an hour trying to capture their image in my camera. Not much success with that, anyway.
There were lots of Geckos and storms of lake flies, irritating little insects that form low level clouds and get in one’s face. The spiders were many and very spirited. They immediately wove you into their webs if you stood or sat still for a minute. It was a perfectly inspiring place for writers to hole up.
The Caine Prize workshop is unlike other workshops I have attended before. There are no lectures. You are just required to produce a story that will be featured in the Caine Prize Anthology. You may consult the facilitators, should you choose to, to discuss your work in progress and get feedbacks. The structure is very loose and quite liberating.
I had given very little thought to the story I intended to work on at the retreat. In the days before arriving Garuga, I was preoccupied with clearing my table and finishing the novel I have been working on for over a year. I was on the home stretch and I knew if I didn’t get it off my chest, I simply couldn’t focus on anything else. So, arriving Garuga, the first thing I did was to put aside my luggage and sit down in my room to write the last part of the novel. Then I went out for dinner, to let my brain and body rest and bask in the euphoria of completing a first draft.
It was wonderful meeting the other writers, sharing jokes and generally getting to know one another.
I sure needed a lot more time getting my head out of the novel I had just written and face the challenge of writing a decent story for the Caine. I didn’t have that luxury. And so for the first two days, I wandered around with a vague idea of a story in my head, a vague character who had a name already, but with no clear idea what perspective to write the story from. That was when I realised that it was indeed possible to suffer a writer’s hangover, trying to clear your head from one story in order for another to sprout and thrive within hours.

On the shores of Lake Vicotria

On the shores of Lake Victoria

It was in these days of in-betweens that I fell in love with Lake Victoria as I sit on her shore and bask in her exultation as she bath the beach and pour forth her bounty for the waiting birds. And then the story started coming, disjointed at first. The beginning did not come until much later and having woken up on the morning of the second day still suffering that most unusual hangover, I was delighted when by evening I was feeling pretty pleased with the story unfolding in my head.
By then, early starters had done their first rounds of readings, a dinner time ritual where a number of participants are expected to read parts of their works in progress. This works were discussed critically by the entire group.
The stories touched on varied issues: politics, grief, deprivations, fundamentalism and of course love. There was even a story about a dog and one about birds doing some funny business. That was sadly put aside by the author. Essentially, the stories that unfolded were a depiction of slices of life on the continent and the promise African writing offers with these young writers.
I favoured the poolside shed for my writing. It was an airy space with comfortable seatings and easy access to the lake, whose tides could be heard lapping the shores even from there. It was a good place to be in company of other writers. Not that there was much conversation going on here. It was always pleasing to have understanding faces to smile into when one is worn out and rises to walk the beach or stare into the blue, blue water of the pool.
By the time I had my first reading at the dinner time gathering, I was quite pleased with the progress of my story. The bond between I and my characters had blossomed and the story flowed unhindered.
Finally, there was a breather. A day out of Garuga and a visit to Kampala. We went as a group, with the exception of a couple of writers who felt the need to stay back and work more on their stories.
We had some fun wandering at Kampala’s craft market, our first real contact with Uganda in the real sense. And incredible craft they did have. And we did visit the museum in Kampala and I was shocked to learn that some politician had attempted to close it down so he could appropriate the space for some private venture. Fortunately, some people mobilised to ensure that never happened.
The Baha’i Temple was another lovely place with verdant grounds and a temple seemingly rising out of the greens and pointing into the clear blue skies of Kampala. It was built in the late 50s by Iranian missionaries of the Baha’i faith that believe in the teachings of all religions and open their doors to all comers.

With Michael Phoya and Lizzy Attree at the musuem

With Michael Phoya and Lizzy Attree at the musuem

The tour ended at Kampala’s Garden City, a sprawling mall where he had lunch, a long and hearty chat and set off for the peace of Garuga and the cobwebs on our separate doors.
But the Caine Prize was not only preoccupied with holing up writers in a beach resort. There was an open day when writers from the workshop visited a school in Kampala and read and talked with the young ones. And in the evening of that same day, the public presentation of the 2012 Caine Prize Anthology was held at Kampala’s Steakhouse.
A lovely evening it was of interactions and readings by the shortlisted writers from their works that were featured in the book African Violet. The event was well attended with the British High commissioner to Uganda, Ms Alison Blackburne presenting the book to the public.
Dinner at the steakhouse, much after the event was over was ruined for me by Bayern’s 4-nil mauling of FC Barcelona in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League. A very beautiful evening dampened by a shocking football match. But that is football.
By then the workshop was coming full circle. Finished stories had to be pruned and cleaned up and turned in for the Caine Prize Anthology coming out this June.
But the experience was awesome in the sense that you discover how much the Caine Prize is doing for African writing and writers, and future writers. The stories of a continent was told; some humorous, some sad, some very revealing. Friends were made, amidst much mocking of accents. Fortunately, someone managed to convince the Ugandan girls that ‘sure’ is not pronounced as ‘Shoowah’.
And I left the shores of Lake Victoria, very sad for the parting and deeply distressed by the fate of the vanishing Lake Chad. Someday, I am going to write about that lake.

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Thoughts on Things

Kingdom of Goons

It is amazing that the fate of a country like Nigeria is being determined by those who have the biggest guns. From the suicidal Boko Haram, whose ideology and demands are as tenuous as they are untenable, to the bigots called the Niger Delta Militants, whose vision does not advance beyond their noses and have been feted by the powers that be, to the armed, uniformed brigands called the Nigerian security operatives, led by the army, that is at best as barbaric in its approach to fighting these other groups of brigands as they all are in their continued massacre of Nigerians.
To add to the Boko Haram killings, the army’s occasional mass slaughter of the people it is sworn to protect and the lawlessness of the Niger Delta Militants, (criminalities for which no one has been brought to book), the fact that Asari Dokubo actually called a press conference in Abuja and issued Nigerians the ultimatum to re-elect President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015 or face total annihilation is a brazen display of impunity.
The fact that an election is open to be contested and that Nigerians, under the guise of democracy, have the right to choose (not that their choices really matter) who their leaders would be does not seem to register with Mr. Dokubo. That he presumes to be able to take away the franchise of Nigerians, whose only comfort remains the illusions of going through the motions of elections, is, at best, an insult on the collective sensibilities of Nigerians, and the constitution of the federal republic.
His bravado is as astonishing as the fact that the man is still walking free and had not, at any point in time, been quizzed by security operatives. Well, it would have been astonishing in others climes where logic prevails. But this is Nigeria.
If the president’s henchman and Special Adviser on Amnesty, Mr. Kingsley Kuku, speaking in the US, actually said that there would be total chaos if Jonathan is not re-elected and his boss did not bother to call him to order, then the implication would be that the president is assenting to these blatant threats against Nigerians whose worth, in the first instance, does not amount to much in the eyes of their leaders.
For how else would one explain the wanton killings of Nigerians and the often lame condemnations of such atrocities by the government, condemnations that are not worth more than the paper on which the press statements are issued? The tragedies of Baga and Boston are pointers enough. Where the American government vowed to bring the murderers of three of its citizens to justice, and did so within a short time, the Nigerian government in its usual manner ‘condemned’ the massacre of about 200 of its citizens and has proceeded to protect the perpetrators of this barbarity.
While it is unfair to make comparisons between the two countries considering the huge difference in resources between them, one cannot help but ponder the obvious lack of political will to address these issues in Nigeria. Our approach to acts of terror targeted at the ordinary citizens is to mount inexplicable checkpoints that inconvenience the victims of terror or ultimately obliterate entire communities besieged by terrorists; or have the government acting as a mouthpiece to terror groups, exonerating them from crimes they have publicly admitted to; or at best, in moves that will shock the entirety of the nation, hire Isreali spies to spy on Nigerians. It is indeed baffling that when other sane countries expend resources and commit men to keep away foreign spies, Nigeria is actually inviting them in and paying them tax payers’ money to come. Only in Nigeria!
And now we have arrived the point where this illusion that operates under the guise of democracy in Nigeria has reached the abominable level of who has the biggest dog. While the militants are threatening everyone else with President Jonathan, whose gilded accomplishments in office seem obvious only to them, Boko Haram is busy trying to dictate how Nigerians live and breathe and what God they should worship, and in precisely what fashion. The police seem preoccupied with mounting indiscriminate checkpoints and barricading public roads, accepting tokens and waving on motorists, whose trunks might just be laden with explosives. And then, of course, on nights when soldiers decide to go on rampage, God help you that your neighbourhood is not the target.
And where exactly does all this leave the average Nigerian whose earnest desire is to escape the vicious jaws of poverty, have shelter over his head from the ravages of the elements, and do other things that other normal human beings in normal climes do?
Disenfranchised. By those who, because they have guns, presume they can take away the one illusion we cherish, even though it is killing us, the illusion of being able to elect our leaders and hold them to account, the illusion of running one of the most expensive governments in the entire world that, ironically, doesn’t give a damn whether we are killed by thugs chanting god’s name or that of some marine spirits, or glorified Goths in uniforms.
When the CIA made its 2015 breakup theory, what did the Nigerian government do? Issue condemnations and call the Americans names. Now it would seem that Nigerians, not minding the help of Gaddafi in training and planting Dokubo and his likes, and Alqaeeda and certain Nigerian politicians for generously contributing BH to the mix, are working very hard to bring this prediction to pass.
There must be a reason for all this. The succession of ineptitude that has been our leadership; the massive corruption that has characterised our administrations without exception, and our daily lives as ordinary citizens; the total disregard for the worth of each other, all these have contributed in no small measure to making Nigeria a kingdom of bloodthirsty goons.
But regardless, I believe that whatever change we want to see, will have to start with us, as individuals, then as communities, then as a nation. Only then can we tell goons like Shekau and Dokubo and Kuku, and whoever else, that you can’t presume to dictate how we live or what choices we make.

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Book Talk

New spoken word poetry award berths

Spoken word poets have another opportunity to add another laurel to their names by winning the inaugural Isele! Spoken Word Poetry Prize.

The prize is dedicated to celebrating emerging talents, promotion of new voices and creating a broader platform for spoken word poets.

Interested poets are expected to write a 2-3 minutes spoken word poem on topics that border on love, peace, religion, education and politics and submit a video of their performance in MP4/3GP format, not larger than 7MB.
Fancy video works are not needed as judges are expected to judge solely based on performance and power of delivery.
The judges for the contest are the renowned performance poets Dike Chukwumerije and Sage Hasson. The quality of the submissions will be closely monitored by the Poetry Editor of Saraba Magazine, Adebiyi Olusolape.

Entries will be accepted from May 3, 2013, and ending June 12, 2013. All entries must have been received by 11:59pm, June 12, 2013.

The winner takes home a cash prize of N50, 000 and will be featured on a radio station with a chance to be featured on a TV show. The winner will also be featured at the Orange Crush Awards 2013 in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and will be performing alongside other performance poets at the Lordz of Rhyme on the variety night of the Orange Crush/Niger Delta Creative Writers Workshop, also in Port Harcourt.
The contest is open to Nigerians resident in Nigeria and entries will be uploaded on Youtube for public viewing.
The prize administrators also plan to feature shortlisted entries on various platforms.

Shortlisted poets will be notified by email to their email address they had provided. A press release will also be sent through various platforms, Magazines, Newspapers, Websites/Blogs, and also the Facebook/Twitter pages of the contest. Also, notifications will be sent through Saraba Magazine, the official partner of this contest.

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