Mildred K Barya
Tribute to the Pure, the Good that was Chinua Achebe (6 November 1930 – 21 March 2013)
When I think of Chinua Achebe, I think of the pure at heart. In his work and writing, he was committed to one thing; he willed one thing—the Good that is Literature. He did not fear anything. He wrote courageously, and taught with confidence and compassion. He did not deny the rage he felt in his defense of African culture. He challenged assumptions and misconceptions, and thus came to be known as the grandfather of African Literature, the trailblazer, because he was willing to take full responsibility of that which he believed without any double-mindedness.
He knew his path, and walked it with steadiness. He did not falter. He did not budge. As a curious writer and reader, there were times when I doubted and disagreed with ‘his truth,’ but I acknowledge that he was earnest in his biddings. When I read his response to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a part of me did not agree that all the darkness referred to Africa, and was symbolic of only what was the African continent and its cultures. However ambiguous the title, I felt a sense of the darkness that was inside the brutal colonialists, and a deeper darkness that was largely the whole enterprise of the ivory trade and dehumanization/degradation of humans—mostly the Africans. Yet, it was Achebe’s unflinching stand that made me admire him, even when I disagreed. It was his commitment to write from deep within him that made his books remarkable.
He was an ancestor long before he became one largely because of his presence as a spiritual figure, guide and counselor. At the time I read him, which was early high school, I got the sense that he was dead like Shakespeare, Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Bessie Head, and other writers I liked then. Growing up in rural Kabale, Uganda, hemmed in by the mountains every which way, in the absence of internet and the encyclopedia, it was hard to know what lay beyond the mountains, beyond the landlocked-ness of my country. I was in a world of myth and storytelling, and legends were made everyday when we exchanged pleasantries or retired by the fireside after a long day in the gardens.
In Chinua Achebe we found a way of expressing what we felt, how we felt, just by stringing together his titles. When asked how life was, in a casual reply we would quip: ‘Things have fallen apart, therefore—Life is no longer at ease’.
My world had no witnesses, although storytellers like my dad claimed absolute truth to having been there as the story was happening. There sometimes meant at a hyena’s wedding to a crocodile, a marriage break-up between the tortoise and the lion, or the village chief having a quarrel with his neighbor. Dad described scenes in great detail as if he’d truly been there, and at the end of the story he would have a coda like, ‘I only left after all the wedding guests had eaten. Here I am now,’ or ‘when the priest said you may now kiss the bride.’ The real was so mixed up with the surreal, and ridiculous as it may sound now, I was gullible and believed everything as the truth. So when I read Achebe, the template of stories being real and true was already established. I read the Bible too, almost all of it, and started wetting and sharpening my machete against the stone so that if the bad guys in the Bible came for my family or friends, I’d be read to slice off their ears. I identified with Peter, and one of my favorite scenes was with Jesus overturning the goods in the temple. I was ready to be an anarchist in the name of justice, and most of the African/World Literature I read dealt with social injustices and a search for an ideology that could embrace all. I wasn’t content with Pip finding a benefactor in Dickens’ Great Expectations. That was too neat and I wanted a revolution. Stories of struggle against colonialism fired me up even though they felt far from me. I had never seen a White person, so I began to think that maybe all stories were imagined, but where were the imaginers? One thing I knew is that no one in my life had ever met a writer, so I assumed all writers were dead. My desire to be a writer sprang from that dread that soon became a certainty, and my next quest was to discover how to die in order to write. Death has taken on many symbolic meanings since then.
Achebe’s books, like his titles, were relatable and made a big impression on many of us as students in high school. Teenage life has its own conundrums, and in Chinua Achebe we found a way of expressing what we felt, how we felt, just by stringing together his titles. When asked how life was, in a casual reply we would quip: ‘Things have fallen apart, therefore—Life is no longer at ease.’ Then we would laugh, and move on. It was a response that did not call for details, but rather to be left alone. Sometimes it wasn’t even necessary to complete the sentence. I particularly liked saying only the first part, and the person asking me how life was would improvise: ‘oh, I see, life is no longer at ease.’ Achebe therefore didn’t only give us wonderful stories but also fed us with a new language in which we created our perfect scenarios.
Now that he is gone, now that I know he was alive when I first thought he wasn’t, dead is sad but seems okay because the people who love you will continue to have you in their lives and imaginations, whether you can be seen there or felt here. What is real, true, and survives, is the storytelling, since it is the only thing that turns us into witnesses of amazing worlds that we can only imagine. Achebe blessed us with those worlds. May his afterlife witness more wonder that even a master storyteller hasn’t imagined yet. Peace.
Mildred K Barya is the author of three poetry collections: Give Me Room to Move My Feet, The Price of Memory after the Tsunami, and Men Love Chocolates But They Don't Say. She has also published short stories in various anthologies. Currently, she teaches creative writing at Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, and maintains an active writers resource blog at: http://mildredbarya.com/