What you need to know:
- Among the most riveting episodes were the ones relating to Achebe’s encounters with other African writers, including one that took place some time in early 1967, when he landed in Dakar, the capital of the Republic of Senegal.
- Eager to have serious talks with the then president, the writer and poet Léopold Sédar-Senghor, Achebe made a beeline to the presidential palace, which overlooked three hills.
It is now five years since the death of Chinua Achebe, who attained fame as one of Africa’s leading writers.
Regrettably, there were few ceremonies in Africa to mark the anniversary, and the occasion passed rather quietly.
Unknown to many, though, Achebe had memorable experiences during his travels around Africa and he never forgot them though the continent may now be forgetting him.
Many of these experiences involved top African leaders and writers, and have been documented in the major biography of the writer authored by compatriot Ezenwa-Ohaeto and published in 1997.
Among the most riveting episodes were the ones relating to Achebe’s encounters with other African writers, including one that took place some time in early 1967, when he landed in Dakar, the capital of the Republic of Senegal.
Eager to have serious talks with the then president, the writer and poet Léopold Sédar-Senghor, Achebe made a beeline to the presidential palace, which overlooked three hills.
At the time, the Eastern region of Nigeria, which was soon to be known as Biafra, had already seceded from the rest of the country, and there was a regional government in place.
It was the Foreign Service of the Eastern government, headed by the late Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, which had sent Achebe to Senegal with a letter to deliver to the Senegalese statesman and man of letters.
LOOMING CIVIL WAR
The aim of the secessionist leaders was to diplomatically solicit Senghor’s assistance in averting what they saw as a looming civil war in Nigeria.
They correctly thought that Achebe, as a renowned writer, would be well-received by the Senegalese leader and fellow writer, who was also a proponent of the Negritude movement. Achebe had already made a name with Things Fall Apart, his best-known title, published by William Heinemann in 1958 and which had received critical acclaim.
The secessionist leaders were right about their envoy’s prospects of hitting it off with Senghor. As expected, the elder statesman warmly welcomed Achebe to the presidential residence.
However, instead of talking about the deteriorating situation in Nigeria, Senghor embarked on an animated chat with Achebe focusing on literature, engaging his visitor’s attention but avoiding the real business of the day.
According to an article by Michael Awoyinfa, published in the Nigerian newspaper Sunday Concord on November 6, 1983, and citing Achebe, in the end Senghor did write a letter as requested by the Nigerian secessionists.
The Senegalese statesman however did not do anything about what the letter said. After all he was himself facing secessionist threats from his country’s Casamance region, and was clearly averse to getting involved in the then delicate political situation in Nigeria.
DIVERTED ACHEBE'S ATTENTION
Instead, the old fox chose to divert Achebe’s attention in chit-chat about literature and other non-issues, and at one point took Achebe to a window overlooking three hills near the presidential residence.
“They are like women,” he reportedly told Achebe, gesturing at the hills. “Women reclining, sitting, leaning...”
Not amused by the small talk about hills, Achebe was quick to realise that his diplomatic mission was far from accomplished and soon left for other destinations.
Achebe and his secessionist bosses had better luck with Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the Tanzanian leader and also a writer and intellectual of repute. To the great delight of the secessionists, just over a year after Achebe’s visit to Senegal, Tanzania became the first country in the world to recognise the new republic of Biafra. The recognition came on April 13, 1968 and was received with euphoria, with crowds inside Biafra pouring into the streets to celebrate, dancing and singing even as Tanzanian music was repeatedly played on radio.
“It was a fantastic day,” Achebe recalled later in an article published in Transition magazine.
Earlier, in November 1960, the month of Nigeria’s independence, Achebe had undertaken a whirlwind tour of several African countries, among them Kenya, Uganda, the then Tanganyika and Zanzibar.
According to his biographer, during the sponsored tour, the author also visited the then Southern and Northern Rhodesia, which were later to be known as Zimbabwe and Zambia respectively.
In the two latter countries, Achebe came face to face with the spectre of racism, which in the two Rhodesias was more virulent than any he had witnessed elsewhere in Africa.
While in Northern Rhodesia, Achebe took what he later described as a “Jim Crow bus” for a visit to the Victoria Falls.
He later related his experience in an article titled “The Judge and I didn’t go to Namibia” and published in 1989 in Weekend Guardian and the Weekly Mail, and later in the journal Callaloo in 1990.
According to the article, cited in the biography, the bus had sections for white and black passengers. Inadvertently, Achebe sat next to the driver in the white section to the consternation of fellow passengers, both white and black.
An encounter with the ticket examiner ensued, followed by frenzied singing and cheering by the black passengers, who had taken Achebe’s misadventure as an act of bravery.
According to the article, Achebe did not in any way feel like a hero, and after the episode he recalls how “(a) monumental sadness” descended upon him as he considered the nightmares his fellow Africans had to endure because of racism in the Rhodesias.
Things were better during his visit to the then Tanganyika during the same period. While there, Achebe attended a rally of the Nationalist Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) in what he referred to as “one hot afternoon in Dar-es-Salaam”.
During the meeting, Achebe closely observed the demeanour of the party leader, Julius Nyerere, who at that time was referred to as “Chief Minister”. According to Achebe, as other political personalities spoke during the rally, Nyerere “appeared completely indifferent, smoking or merely toying with his cigarette in apparent boredom.”
Although Nyerere “looked frail and out of place in that robust company”, the writer noted that things changed when the legendary Tanzanian leader rose to his feet and began to speak.
“He was brilliantly effective,” Achebe noted in Morning Yet on Creation Day, his collection of essays. “From the beginning to the end the crowd never ceased to cheer and clap and laugh.”
If Africa forgets him, it will have forgotten not only one of its most illustrious sons but also an important part of its history.
Kenyans gave him the biggest book signing
Regarding his books and their reception on publication, some snippets in Achebe’s biography are truly intriguing. For instance, something remarkable happened one year after A Man of the People was first published.
A Kenyan admirer “purchased copies (of the book) and gave one copy to each government minister in Kenya for Christmas.”
Apparently, there was a lengthy love affair between Achebe and his Kenyan readers, as was evidenced by a visit by Achebe to the country in December 1988.
During the tour of the country, Achebe reportedly gave talks to hundreds and thousands of school children at the different centres he visited in different districts.
“They all came together in one place with all their teachers,” he recalled later. “I had the biggest book signing in my life.”