Death is the ultimate right of passage for all living things. Its eventual occurrence is as guaranteed as the rising of the sun and the darkness that ensues when its sets. Whereas the act of dying is solely that of the victim, the usually excruciating implications of death are left to the living. It’s what you might call a survivor’s burden. Although a deceased may have known of the pain of losing loved ones they’ll never know of the hurt suffered by others as result of their (the deceased) death.
So in the afternoon of March 22, when the news of the passing on of the man born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated writers, I was gripped by a numbing disbelief at what I was reading on Twitter. “How dare Achebe leave us?” I asked myself. A part of me was holding on to a wish that someone with reliable information of the health status of the octogenarian would dispel as rubbish the death of so iconic a human being especially to us Africans. It was, after all, through the acclaimed Igbo writer’s pen that our stories found a louder and bolder advocate that dispelled the myths that ours was a continent without history and was inhabited by savages. James Curry, in Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series and The Launch of African Literature, said the following of Achebe’s renowned Things Fall Apart:”If people have read one novel from Africa it is most likely that it will have been Things Fall Apart. Sales in English may well have passed 10 million. There have been translations into almost 50 other languages. It now appears in Penguin Modern Classic”. Such was the reputation of the legendary man of letters, who yanked the world’s attention, moved it past the racist narrative of Africa of the time and set the record straight. He unapologetically asserted that we aren’t children of a lesser God and urged us to guard and tell our stories and not to rely on thus to inform us about ourselves as had been the norm for the longest while. As the editorial adviser of the invaluable African Writers Series for a decade, Achebe oversaw the introduction of what would be the golden era of African writing. “The launching of the Heinemann’s African Writers Series was like the umpire’s signal for which African writers had been waiting on the starting line” the Man Booker International-winning Nigerian writer once said.
From the elder statesman we also learnt that we must always hold ourselves to the highest standards regarding whom we elect to political office. On more than one occasion he refused to accept presidential awards and honours from his native Nigeria because he viewed the political establishment as being responsible for the country’s problems of the last 50 odd years. He dared to take to task the “Big Man” phenomenon of newly independent states of the continent on their disruptive and destructive behaviour from which many countries are still battling to shake off the effects.”Chinua Achebe has not feared to challenge, with the ideals and practice of justice and humanity, those post-colonial, independent regimes in Africa who abuse personal power in every possible way, from banning potential opposition, to corruption. His novel A Man of The People, a biting satire on corruption in freed African regimes, uses the blade of humour to alert us, his readers, to official greed and the cant which legitimise it” so enthused the Nobel-winning author Nadine Gordimer in a tribute in the City Press.
The publishing of literary work is an act of immortalization. Although death’s conduct has loosened Achebe’s grip on his mighty pen, a towering and indelible legacy has been bequeathed to us. It’s through that literary heritage that we ease the pain of bearing the survivor’s burden in the wake of the passing on of so decorated a sage. The Mail and Guardian’s Percy Zvumoya reminds us that “this is no place to mourn Achebe, his long life has been exemplary. Perhaps more than anyone else- and this explains the moniker “Achebe: father of African literature”- he set the template for the darker people of the world to own and tell their own stories.” If anything, the death of Achebe, as a result of the massive media coverage it’s garnered, will in all likelihood introduce him to audiences who otherwise wouldn’t have read his impeccable work. For every one his books that are bought or borrowed from a local library anywhere around the world his legacy will be replenished. At the 3rd Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture in 2002, Achebe spoke of “people who write books whose vocabulary moves into common speech, or whose imagery grip the popular imagination do not stumble accidentally into their status, they achieve it through the deep knowledge they have acquired, often painfully, about their society”. It goes without saying that he’s been part of the people he’s referred in the address. His passing on, although it’s unfortunate, offers an opportunity for younger writers to leave their own mark while simultaneously carrying on a literary tradition that’s too sacred to forsake.
It’s hard not to imagine the likes of Eskia Mphahlele, whom Achebe referred to as “the doyen of African literature”; Leopold Senghor; Bessie Head; Langston Hughes; Lewis Nkosi; W.B Yeats and other wordsmiths welcoming the great son of the soil to the Hereafter’s Book Club.