A goodwill Message
The Department of English, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia,
A One-Day Seminar on "Discourses and Representations: Chinua Achebe and the Aftermath,"
on 23rd April, 2014.
I am greatly pleased to know that you are holding a special seminar in India in honour of the late African novelist, Chinua Achebe. I wish I had the opportunity of being physically present at your seminar, to listen to the presentations and draw inspiration from the insights. I would, if I were in attendance, have tried to entertain you with some Igbo folktales and joke lore – the type that Achebe loved so much and used very masterfully in his writings and public presentations. Not just out of fascination with the narrative practices of the late writer, but, as a matter of fact, because I, too, happen to be an Igbo person and someone with a strong attachment to indigenous Igbo performance traditions.
Achebe’s town, Ogidi, is not very far from Uli, my hometown, and both towns are in Anambra State, Nigeria. Uli, which some of you must have read about, featured as an important town in Biafra during the Nigeria-Biafra war that lasted from 1967 to 1970. Thus it inevitably featured in Chinua Achebe’s lifewriting, There Was a Country. But that is not the only place you would encounter Uli in Achebe’s writings: it is also mentioned in his novel, Things Fall Apart, where the novelist narrates the congregation of egwugwu, masked spirits, from various towns, following the alu (abomination) committed by the Christian convert, Enoch. The alu was so terrible that the Mother of Spirits – the night spirit—walked the length and breadth of the land lamenting for her “murdered” son. The spirit wailed in a way never heard by humans before. One of the terrible egwugwu that arrived to confront the Christian iconoclasts was Ekwensu, and Achebe said it came from Uli. When I read about this in my high school days, I went to my hometown and inquired from the elders whether there was a masked spirit in Uli called “Ekwensu.” They confirmed that there was indeed such a masked spirit in the past and that it was the most terrible that ever existed but was no longer featured in their cultural performances. Hmmmm. Maybe the Enoch syndrome in postcolonial Igbo life had caused Ekwensu to really become fiction!
Achebe borrowed immensely from Igbo life and culture in writing his stories, but his craft and commitment will remain exceptionally engaging. As an Igbo person, I am beginning to see greater meaning and significance in Achebe’s stories in contemporary postcolonial Igbo world. I could see Chinua Achebe’s fictional characters taking human form in recent Igbo experiences! No, do not think about Okonkwo; his case is too obvious. Think about Nwoye (whose apparent weakness as a boy makes Okonkwo very sad) and Oduche (who is sent to become Ezeulu’s “eyes” and “ears” in a present-future overrun by Western modernity and Christianity). I tell you, dear friends, that, if Achebe were still alive, he might have considered seriously a continuation of his story, writing about the descendants of Oduche and how they have moved from their father’s imprisoning of the sacred python in a box to using the sacred snake for a weekend barbecue! And who knows whether he would have written about how the new masked spirits of the Nigerian world, armed with AK-47s and general purpose machine guns, abduct village heads and elders and ask relatives of the abductees to buy back their half-dead bodies with millions of Naira!
I am inclined to think that Achebe was inviting us to see Africa’s past, present, and future through his stories. There may not be one-to-one correspondence between the stories and real life, but one realises that there is clear, intimate conversation going on between the two. What would a society that has fallen apart give birth to, especially when its citizens have not learned where the rain started beating them?
Chinua Achebe lives in his stories. Those stories will never die. Onwu egbu akuko – death does not (and cannot) kill the story.
In celebrating Achebe in faraway India, you are indeed helping to confirm the philosophical truth in onwu egbu akuko. Incidentally, India has got the enviable reputation of being a society that constantly beckons on the rest of the world to return to contemplation and creative thinking. In celebrating Achebe, you are inviting the world to see greater meaning in his stories and to peep into Africa’s future.
I send my warmest felicitations to Professor Aparajita Hazra and her team of scholars and students for holding this important seminar.
Professor of Cultural Semiotics & Stylistics
University of Ibadan, Nigeria.
Photographs of the event (Courtesy of Prof. Aparajita Hazra, Chief Organiser of the seminar)