By Mukoma Wa Ngugi
“Sir, I am very happy to finally meet you in person – I have read all your books,” a man gushed to my father, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport, Nairobi. My father loves talking with people, but he also does not mind a compliment or two and so we stopped to chat. “Your books, especially Things Fall Apart…”
And on another occasion my friends and I were sitting in a bar in Madison Wisconsin when a drunken student stumbled to our table. “I hear you are the son of that famous African writer?” He asked me.
“Yes, I happen to be,” I replied and sat up straight to cheerfully receive a few proxy compliments.
“We just finished reading Things Fall Apart in class – now that Okonkwo character…”
Suffice it to say then that Chinua Achebe has been around all my life – from the Heinemann Series poster of a smiling, serious, bemused, pipe smoking Achebe that was framed in our family sitting room, to cases of mistaken identity, to my own work as a writer and teacher.
In fact just last month, I was teaching Things Fall Apart alongside Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The question at hand was – how does Achebe counter and answer Conrad’s Africa? One word comes to mind – voice. To my ear Achebe’s voice is always measured even at its most defiant.
It’s a voice strong enough to speak for a continent denied its voice by colonial racism. It’s the voice of a humble listener who is moved into action by what he sees and hears around him. There Was A Country is as much about Biafra as it is about how Achebe answered the question – what is the role of the African writer in a decolonizing Africa? Jump into your times with both your feet and pen.
Thinking about the African literary tradition and the humility to listen, Achebe never accepted the title, “father of African literature” that we are now forcefully bestowing on him. When asked about it in 2009, he told the Brown Daily Herald that he “strongly resisted” the title because “it’s really a serious belief of mine that it’s risky for anyone to lay claim to something as huge and important as African literature … the contribution made down the ages. I don’t want to be singled out as the one behind it because there were many of us – many, many of us.”
With Achebe, Nelson Mandela and others who have challenged the way we live and think about the world, there will be areas of disagreements. So with Achebe there are questions around his stand on the role of African languages in African writing. Things Fall Apart has been translated into 50 languages – how many of them are African languages? How many of the translations are in a Nigerian language? There is also much to be argued about in regards to his representation of the Biafra war and Ibo nationalism in There was a Country.
But there is a counter-argument to be made that the work of my generation of African writers is to shine a light on his blind spots. We can give Things Fall Apart new lives in African languages. And we should tell our histories in as many different ways as we can so that there are multiple mirrors reflecting our tragedies and triumphs.
The bottom line for me is this – We are all better off because he lived and beautifully wrote his conscience. A writer who has left so much of himself in the world and on whose shoulders others will stand for generations to come cannot be said to be truly dead.
Achebe the man has died. Achebe the writer lives on.
* Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, the author of Nairobi Heat (Melville, 2011) and the forthcoming Black Star Nairobi (Melville, 2013).