That call that breaks the darkness in the room at night and wakes you up from sleep; I’ve always dreaded it.
My grandpa passed on in the wee hours of Monday morning, and before then, I was already mourning the demise of the erudite professor, Chinua Achebe. These are two men, of the same age who I admired and looked up to all my life. Achebe is like god; I was so sad and overwhelmed when I heard the news and I started reminiscing of the days I read Things Fall Apart and knew I wanted to be that great a man. Or half. I remember especially one night, reading it with a flashlight because I shared a room with my siblings and I didn’t want them to wake up. And it was in that blackness of the night, with the sighs of frogs and hiss of the winds that I knew I wanted to tell stories.
There are so many things everyone must seek to emulate in this great hero Achebe: his integrity, the audacity of his truth; his impeccable will to not compromise. Achebe told stories when they burned like tea slurped without bread; he stood and spoke the truth when the birds hovering over his head held nsi in their buttocks, and he sat, gentle with the poise of royalty when he couldn’t stand no more and told all that he had held back in There Was A Country.
Chinua Achebe’s books and essays were instrumentals in giving a voice to the dead and dying of Africa, to histories that we are often ignorant of. It's like that unspoken thought people have when hearing of fresh tragedy in China: oh well, there're too many people in China already, they can afford to lose a few million. No one will say it aloud, but it hovers there like a black cloud of superiority all the same (in the same way as westerners always looking at China and India as the real problem when it comes to climate change). There was a human story in every line Chinua Achebe had ever written, aimed in bringing to life the different layers of the Nigerian society, giving them back ownership of their African identity and heritage even while telling the story of it being taken from them.
Last year, I coincidentally stayed in the house Chinua Achebe lived in Nsukka. I was visiting my uncle who is a Professor at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A faded colored detached house sat, as if carelessly, in a big compound with picket fences and a decent green area. I was to stay for three days. I could not sleep; I felt like some sort of ghost would surround me and bestow on me the ability to tell stories that skip through air. It was in this same house that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie moved into, with her family, after the Achebes moved out. It was in this same house I would imagine, Achebe wrote “Girls at War”; a book from which I learned the act of telling short stories.
My grandfather’s death will not make headlines or become a trending topic on social medias. But people will flood our country home like rain on roads without drainage, they would wail and shake heads and hold their shoulders high in a tensed manner. They will say, “Oh yes, Nze was a greatman” and I would know it is not the voices of the empty bottles of beer on the table in my grandma’s living room. I would know that if you stop two villages away, and ask a young boy, the height of a maize tree in the middle of May and say “Oh, I’m looking for Nze’s compound”, he would wipe his hands on his round, exposed belly and point towards left and right, or right and left, and the rain would not wash away your footprints till you get to the compound surrounded by almond trees.
My grandfather was quiet; spoke sporadically and ate with the grace of a cat. I remember his last visit to Lagos, driving him to hospitals and to see his friends from Nigeria Airways who retired and didn’t go back to the village. I remember the days before then, when his visits to Lagos was frequent because the Nigerian government delayed paying his pension. We would all go to FAAN, at Ikeja and wait. The air was hot every time; there was always an aura of grey around everyone. It was like a mist that wouldn't rise. Everyone there waited, most times for long hours and when they needed to stretch their bones, they would buy groundnut from the young children under a tree shade. I remember playing the Kenny Rogers record in the car because it birthed a different, intensely fragile, depth of mind that I felt both of us could connect to. He would grab the headrest of my seat and say “ka nwam, ji ri ya nwa yo”. Take it easy, Lagos has been here before me and it is not going anywhere. My grandma will rebuke him, and apologize to me. Maybe she thought I was offended by it; maybe she thought her husband had forgotten that the only way to get through Lagos was to hurry. But I would look at them from the rear-view and smile.
For so many reasons, my relationship with my maternal grandparents was estranged for such a long time, and it wasn’t till I was old enough to stop bathing outside with the ruthless harmathan, that I realized why. (Story for another day, please). So, yes, I was deprived of so many Christmas memories with him, and when I was ready to listen to stories by his bedside, he grew ill. There was an overwhelming emptiness with his presence each time he visited Lagos, and sometimes I didn’t know how to react when his eyes burned at me unconsciously. I knew each time he stared at me and I would make up his thoughts; sometimes I would want to tell him how I learnt to ride a bike, or how I sometimes wish to hear stories of the Biafran war from him. But I wont. He was worn out; weak most times to the tick of the clock in the solitude of his room. But still, with that weakness, we danced for victory. We danced for misery. We danced for miscarriages. We danced in garbage, too.
I was left to make up memories of my Grandpa from what I thought would be; memories and stories of him holding me as a child and remembering my birthdays and buying my favorite fruits from the junction, holding the village to the city. But now I only hold two stories: one- which I will learn of after his death- is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other- which I saw through his sickness -is of how he became a child again.
My grandma has been gracious. She’s as slender as Nneoma and strong like a basket woven under the sun. But soon she would be weakened; soon she would put her husband in between a thicket of long almond trees, where the green seems to still have a hollow voice in the branches, spreading out to catch the sun. She would try not to think about the birds that soon would gather, and so we would all stay beside her, desperately trying not to weep. Our throats would tighten. Our heads would pound like the throbs of heavy rain against a zinc roof. Everything would hurt inside. Someone; one of us; all of us would try to take Grandma's hand. One of us will, and would think it belonged to a glass doll.
And so we too would gather around, with spades and shovels and set brown sands over Grandpa, trying our best to protect him from the birds. We would pile heaps of earth gently on his stomach, his legs and over his round face, until he becomes one with the almond trees.
Then we would all stand, and study our work, feeling like these heaps of sands and rocks are on us instead. And my grandma will tear her cheeks in grief, knowing that his flesh will rot away- more birds than family flocking round his body.
I don’t know what I’m feeling, to be honest. Writing most times puts me in check; of where I’m supposed to be and what emotions I should process. I feel like when it comes to death, the most interesting thing about it is grief. Grief is captivating; it is it’s own size and it’s own boss and it’s own determiner. It’s not the size of love, or hurt, or sadness or even anyone else who looses someone. It is its own size and it comes to you when it sees fit. You understand? I’ve always loved the phrase that someone was “visited by grief”, because that is really what it is and how it operates. Grief is it’s own thing. It’s not like it is in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing and one needs to be okay with it’s presence when it finally arrives. If one tries to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at one’s door.
But I’m indifferent. I feel like I don’t own my emotions yet. It’s hard. But we are human; we all own our emotions at a price. With indifference, I can sell my emotions out to the highest bidder: to whoever can plough my thoughts, loot them and then drive me with them. I say, here’s my worn out white sheet. I don’t want to sell it to the virgin and I don’t want to sell it to the prostitute…so whoever finds it, please use it. That is indifference. And meanwhile, a child just might come around and use it to wipe the dog’s poop.
But it doesn’t matter who I sell the bed-sheet to…the virgin isn’t always better than the prostitute. The most important thing is that I can decide to sell it to one of them and defend my sale with all my might. Because it is careless to leave an unused sheet hanging.
So now I decide to be happy. Happy that I was lucky to be born in the era of such a great man, Chinua Achebe; happy to be able to look up to him and learn from his knowledge and be inspired by his integrity. Today I decide to be happy for African literature; for its woes and triumphs, its bitter histories and lost treasures; its glory and its unsung melodies. Happy that when the white men found our culture to be like chaffs from coconut juice, Achebe gathered it all and used it to make candy. Happy that there are distant shouts in my head, of the pressure to leave a remarkable legacy as these men did; to lay in, hands crossed in an open coffin with a laced-up shoe too big for anyone to fit in. Happy that these men have paid the toll and the road has been opened up for greatness; that when I look in the mirror, it doesn't shatter with shame nor my face sour with disdain. Today, I’m happy that a good man lived long and well, and that he passed by my window on his journey home, and that he didn’t send me ahead of him when he should go first.
RIP CHINUA ACHEBE.
Some of my favorite quotes from Chinua Achebe:
“I believe in the complexity of the human story and that there’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, This is it. Always there will be someone who can tell it differently depending on where they are standing; the same person telling the story will tell it differently. I think of that masquerade in Igbo festivals that dances in the public arena. The Igbo people say, If you want to see it well, you must not stand in one place. The masquerade is moving through this big arena. Dancing. If you’re rooted to a spot, you miss a lot of the grace. So you keep moving, and this is the way I think the world’s stories should be told—from many different perspectives.”
"The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
“We cannot trample upon the humanity of others without devaluing our own. The Igbo, always practical, put it concretely in their proverb Onye ji onye n'ani ji onwe ya: "He who will hold another down in the mud must stay in the mud to keep him down.”
“When Suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat left for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.”
“I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past - with all its imperfections - was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them”
“Those whose kernels were cracked by benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble.”
“It is the storyteller who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have - otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.”
My dear friend, Oluwafunmilayo Oyatogun (Rubayo Ibin) -the founder of Baliff Africa (www.baliffafrica.org)- is the well of my inspiration . We had talked( and we are literary twins separated at birth), and sought depth, but ended up getting lost in the simplicity of some life situations. She tells the story of the virgin and the prostitute poignantly. And her wisdom is unfathomable.