Friday, March 29, 2013

The Significance of Achebe as an African Writer

(A tribute to Chinua Achebe who passed on at the age of 82 last week.)

By Chuks Isiugo

In the early 1980s along thecorridors of the English Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka on one certain day, an argument ensued between Esiaba Irobi and Maxwell Ihedioha on whether Achebe had won the Nobel Prize or not. I can't quite recollect who was canvassing what position, but I remember clearly how it ended.
     "Let's ask him!" I quipped to the two combatants as we watched Achebe step out of his office about to go out."Let's ask him!" they chorused.
     So we all strayed a bit uncertainly towards him.
     "Good morning, Prof" It was Esiaba who spoke up on our behalf."
    "Good morning. How are you?" He turned to us with his soft voice and the faint smile of a writer imagining a funny scene that he seemed to wear always.
      "We've been having an argument that you have won the Nobel Prize. Then we thought we should ask you as we saw you coming out of your office."
     Achebe's smile widened and became ironical as he detected humor. "Not yet. I haven't won that. But thank you for wishing it for me," he said as we went off in laughter, the matter finally resolved.
     Achebe’s one great trait was his simplicity, showing that a writer can be a normal human being. He can raise a family and stick with his wife without being moralistic about it and still abound with a liberal dose of naughty humor. A writer doesn't have to be full of himself and unapproachable. At the same time a writer can drive a nice car if he wants to (he drove a Mercury Monarch in those days) as he was to tell Esiaba in a subsequent interview. In short, that a writer is a man, a member of his community.
     I was to see this significance in his conduct and interventions during those years we as students were able to mingle in his company, whether in the classroom, at social events or at home. I remember one occasion he held a lecture at the Margaret Ekpo Refectory in those days. His had been preceded by visit by Wole Soyinka, the eventual winner of the Nobel Literature Prize a few years later. We had all thronged to Soyinka’s lecture and were not disappointed. There was Soyinka standing at the lectern, filling the hall with his presence: his uniquely cut, dark jumper top, his hirsute Afro then devoid of grey, his booming voice and very impressive diction. He did fit the bill and we were all excited to see him, even though we couldn't make much sense of what he said, we were all satisfied with the performance.
     Then came the Achebe lecture and we expected something similar. But we were disappointed. His was rather a self-effacing presence. He wore a printed Ankara top over grey trousers, his voice rather high pitched (with none of the boom of Soyinka’s), his gestures rather reserved. All his efforts were geared toward focusing us on the subject of his discussion. We were disappointed as it wasn't as colourful a show as Soyinka’s. It took me years of added maturity to appreciate how important it was that Achebe remained himself and didn't try to be anyone else. I also began to reflect on how lucky my generation was to be mentored by the likes of Achebe, Soyinka and J.P. Clark, all strong, unique examples of what it meant to be an artiste.
     In April 1990, I was in the swirl of activities to mark Achebe’s  60 years and had managed to door-step him for an interview. Days later I had gone to his Nsukka home near the campus stadium in the company of the painter Greg Odo, who was well-known to the family.  It was four days before the road accident that was to cripple him for the rest of his days, I remember very clearly. And after we sat down and made introductions, Achebe asked me if I found the interview he gave me useful. I was surprised he still remembered me. I said I did, though I was still struggling to get any publisher interested in the story I had written.
     While most of the conversation went on between his wife, Christie, Greg and I, Achebe sat quietly listening. His only intervention was to ask Greg, who had been describing the plot of a novel he planned to write, to get on with it and talk less about it.
     "If you keep talking about it, you may feel you have done enough and end up not writing it," Achebe said.
     The writer should always be aware that he is engaged in a solemn, serious business, was a message Achebe always harped.As he said in an interview, his advice to aspiring writers is that they should know it’s a very difficult business:
     “They have to know that before hand. Because if they're going into it, they should know that what it takes is not just the fanciful notions, you know, especially how writers look, what they wear or something. They should really have the energy plus the stuff. You know the story of a young  man who became mad? He just became mad, and he was just stamping up and down the market. And the older mad man who was just watching him after a time called him and said: ‘This thing you entering, do you think you can do it?’ He told him this thing is for life and you're already wasting so much energy on the first day.”

Obituary: Ashikiwe Adione-Egom, the motor-park economist, 1942-2003

By Chuks Isiugo

     Long before I met Ashikiwe Adione-Egom in 1987,  his name had preceded him. I  first encountered him through the numerous articles he wrote in The Guardian newspaper of Lagos in the mid-1980s challenging the military-backed, IMF- and World Bank inspired economic orthodoxies of the time, which later became encapsulated as the Structural Adjustment Pogramme (SAP). What they essentially said was that the market was supreme, and the ultimate regulator. So everything - health, education, infrastructure, the entire development process - had to be left to the market to determine. And whatever the market decided was God's will. Q.E.D.
     It was a convenient argument for someone with a fat wallet. Even more so when he was armed and had filled his pocket from the public coffers, as was the case with the soldiers then seized power under the leadership of Ibrahim Babangida. The argument was never won with logic but with the power of the gun and the weight of the Western powers who wanted SAP to impoverish Africa and continue the 500-year-long rape of the continent. Adione-Egom was one of those (along with Adebayo Adedeji of the UN Economic Commision for Africa) that railed against the callous argument. Thus he styled himself the motor park economist, who thought about the full ramifications of the harsh measures on the disadvantaged, even the touts in the motor parks.
     And when eventually I met him, the circumstances were somewhat dramatic and less than edifying. I had gone to The Guardian with an old friend to visit a common friend who was working then in the now defunct African Guardian magazine. At the reception we had  found no one, and while we waited a staff member came along. While we were asking from him the whereabouts of the object of our visit, along came another man dressed in khaki shorts pulled up to his belly, into which his shirt was tucked in. He wore socks that stopped just before his knees and a pair of shoes. The only thing missing was a helmet to complete to look of an old British colonial officer.
     It was Ashikiwe Adione-Egom. He glared at us while we made our inquiry and interrupted.
     "You guys should stop disturbing him, you didn't keep any receptionist here," he said.
     "But I'm not talking to you!" I shot back at him.
     "Then go! Then go!" He said, flailing his arms as he walked away, not waiting for my next response.
     My friend and I looked at each other and the man we had been talking to and we all burst into laughter.
      "Don't mind Ashikiwe," the fellow we had been talking to said to us. "He's a trouble maker."
     That was my first encounter with his eccentricity. Years later, when he had become familiar with my writing and sought me out, we became great friends. I never reminded him of that first encounter. It was not necessary and had been overtaken by events. I was always amazed by how much I learned from every conversation I had with him, no matter how short.
     Adione-Egom's main preoccupation was how the global financial system was rigged ab initio by being founded on the gold standard, a derivative of the global trading system created from the proceeds of the Atlantic slave trade. His argument was always that Africa and the global south would never find economic freedom unless they freed themselves from this system and founded an alternative financial system.
He spoke with a deep knowledge, having studied economics at Cambridge University and the best institutions of the the West and excelled. But he was like a prophet not reckoned with in his own country. He had the misfortune of being in Nigeria at a time of the most brutish anti-intellectualism, during the reign of military rulers from Muhammadu Buhari, Babangida and Sani Abacha, who decided that those with the requisite knowledge to move Nigeria (and Africa) forward were not needed since they were bent on putting the country in reverse gear (apologies to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti).
     So any intellectual who was worth the name had to brain-drain to other countries (often in the West), where their knowledge was appreciated and eagerly deployed. The rest put their knowledge to the service of the military in exchange for filthy lucre. Those who did neither became sidelined. And that became the lot of Adione-Egom. It was a difficult fate, devoid of material rewards. But Adione-Egom bore that fate with dignity and never for once stopped telling truth to power.
     In the last decade or so, his writing took a decidedly Christian, religious tone. His preferred name became Peter Alexander Egom. But the substance remained the same. It became a variant of the liberation theology pushed by Catholic priests in Latin America in the 1970s. Unlike the prosperity preaching of the Nigerian pentecostals that provides succour to the hearts of thieves and looters of public property in government since the 1980s, which justifies wealth and luxury irrespective of the manner of acquisition, Adione-Egom's economic theology was bottom-up. He argued against the economic philosophy of might-is-right and insisted that God's plan is that none of his children shall sit in the sidewalk and beg bread (to borrow from Bob Marley). It is a simple truth, so simple to be derided by those in power, but equally an enduring truth that would survive their reign, even though Adione-Egom is no more.