Unoka’s artistry, economic management brilliance held up as models
By Anote Ajeluorou
CHINUA Achebe’s journey to ancestry began on March 21, 2013, having lived for 82 years (born November 16, 1930). His stature in African and world literature has been on the ascendancy long after he died. This necessitated the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) he founded in 1981 to stage a celebration of his passing 10 years after from May 19 – 20, 2023 at its Chinua Achebe International Conference Centre, Mamman Vatsa Writers Village, Mpape, Abuja. Notable writers, academics and culture workers from the world over took part physically and virtually and lent credence to the anniversary theme ‘The Immortality of Creativity: 10 Years after Achebe’s Transition’.
Day One event on Friday, May 19, 2023 was ‘Tributes and Reminiscences on the Legend, Chinua Achebe’ and had participants paying tributes both to the man of letters and his immortal works. But it also afforded some of his devotees opportunity to vent their views on some aspects of his writings, particularly the characters of Ikemefuna and Unoka in Things Fall Apart. Many cannot as yet come to terms why Achebe decided to ‘kill’ Ikemefuna, or indeed allow him to be killed by the man he called father. Prof. Emeka Aniagulu, Prof. Vicky Sylvester were of the view that Ikemefuna should have lived, but Prof. Damian Okpata, Achebe’s student, thought otherwise, even providing a startling proposition that he said Achebe found intriguing and revelatory on Ikemefuna as a character.
Unoka also took centre-stage, with his debt and economic management brilliance being held up as a model. His artistry was also singled out as one that preceded modern griots and artists of all hues. It therefore raised the question whether Achebe was fair in portraying Unoka as a failure, with an accomplished man as Okonkwo as his son. In Africa when a man’s son is successful, the man automatically gains prominence and is mirrored in his son’s looming image and wealth.
Emeritus Professor Femi Osofisan (described as living ancestor) speaking on Achebe with the legend’s banner behind him
For Aniagulu, whose father worked with Achebe during the Nigeria Civil War, the death of Ikemefuna “was a horrific moment for me as a youngster reading the book, and I held it against Achebe for a long time. I just couldn’t understand why he allowed that sort of thing to happen in the book. Instead of Okonkwo to do something paternalistic, he took up his machete and killed Ikemefuna. So I told myself I was going to ask Prof. Achebe why he wrote the book that way. Years later when I met him in the US, I had the privilege of being with and posed to him my monumental question. When he heard it, he laughed so hard and then said to me, ‘But you do know it’s fiction!’ He also told me that, ‘We have done our bit; it’s now in your hands.’”
Achebe perhaps misread Unoka, according to Prof. Sylvester, because she refused to see Unoka the person Achebe wanted her to see him – as a failure. Unoka was the father of a hero unmatched in wrestling in all the nine villages of Umuofia. She sees Unoka as a hero since his son is also a hero, even though Okonkwo’s wealth couldn’t save him from the disease that saw him being thrown into the evil forest. She urged young researchers to look critically at Achebe’s characters and come up with proper perspectives on them.
Prof. Okpata saw Achebe at close quarters as his student at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and said he missed him personally as his teacher. He described him as “very soft-spoken and very sincere person.” But while Aniagulu and others condemned Okonkwo for killing Ikemefuna, Okpata thought otherwise, saying Ikemefuna was a fated boy and was destined to be killed and that it didn’t matter who did it. He exonerated Okonkwo for the crime, saying Okonkwo singlehandedly brought Ikemefuna to Umuofia. He said he differed radically from Achebe, when he one set a question for his class: ‘to discuss the novelist as a teacher’, which would be the title of one of Achebe’s seminar essays. Okpata said he sharply disagreed with the concept, because of his radical approach. This would earn very low marks as a result as against others who agreed with proposition.
Female characters in Things Fall Apart like Ezinne, the priestess Agbala, and Ekwuefi have always held a fascination for Prof. Razinat Mohammed, especially when she first encountered the novel as a secondary school student. Over the years as a teacher, she always recommended the novel for her students in the foundation classes, because of the allure and beauty of the language. For her and many others also, Achebe’s pre-eminence stems from the cultural revolution of his works in redeeming Africa from total oblivion that Europe’s narrow historicism subjected the continent. Achebe singlehandedly rescued the continent from cultural death and redeemed black race, according Mohammed. Her recent encounter in Germany was eye-opening, as her students had no knowledge of Achebe or Things Fall Apart. She immediately recommended the text to them. She imagined that that racism in Europe has persisted with such lapses in their academia, where the work of a literary colossus like Achebe missing from their curriculum.
Like Mohammed, Emeritus Professor Femi Osofisan also praised Achebe for his cultural vision in giving back Africans the humanity that the white man denied them with his revisionist work. For the white man, Africa had no culture, no history and nothing worth of value to write about. That was why Joyce Carry and Joseph Conrad could write vile novels like Mr. Johnson and Heart of Darkness. Osofisan said Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was an attempt to counter Europe’s cultural onslaught against Africa, as the continent was denied basic humanity. He added that the success of Achebe’s cultural reclamation saw Things Fall Apart being one of the bestselling novels of all time, with translation into innumerable languages of the world.
Students were also part of the Achebe celebration
Owei-Ilagha also highlighted Achebe’s critical bent of mind, an aspect he said liteary scholars were yet to pay critical attention, as they tend to gloss over it. He said Achebe is almost a canonical critic with his seminar, critical writings in explicating Africa’s literary and cultural worldview both to Africans and foreigners alike. He read a piece from Achebe’s poetry collection Beware Soul Brother and Other Poems that won him the Commonwealth Prize in 1972.
Earlier, the President of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Camilus Ukah, while welcoming guests to the anniversary celebration, said the gathering was about the “story being a guide and an escort,” as Achebe always admonished in his critical writings. Ukah said it was to the vision of Achebe that the current secretariat in the country’s capital city Abuja now stands as a testament to creativity as arguably “the biggest and the best writers resort anywhere in the world aptly named after Chinua Achebe. If you consider the size of Mamman Vatsa Writers Village, you’d agree with me that nowhere in the world do we have this sort of writers’ resort.”
Ukah said the body of writers was more blessed among other such bodies in the country, as none other could boast of such sprawling expanse of land that is rapidly being developed as a one-stop showpiece for the country cultural propagation through literature. The resort boasts of the Femi Osofisan Library Complex, Creative Writing and Film Institute, Chinua Achebe International Conference Centre and ANA Hotel and Writers’ Resorts.