ACHEBE AT 70: A Reporter’s Diary (Day one)

By Rudolf Okonkwo  (EMAIL)
Lynn, MA, USA
Thursday, November 9, 2000

My search for the Igwe of African literature led me to the beautiful Hudson Valley, on the east bank of Hudson River, 90 miles away from New York. Driving into the campus of Bard College, I found myself in great awe as to where they hid one of our greatest. It was a Friday on November 3, 2000, and the events marking the 70th birthday of Prof. Chinua Achebe were in full swing. I walked into Olin Auditorium where a panel discussion was already in progress. On the discussion table, tackling the topic, IMAGES OF AFRICA, were Michael Eric Dyson, Gil Noble, Ali Mazrui, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, with Kwame Anthony Appiah playing the role of the moderator. It was a beginning of what became a two-day celebration of Achebe’s contribution to world literature.

Images of Africa could be seen all around the auditorium. Scholars, writers, political activists and friends of Chinua Achebe were all on hand to witness the milestone. Panelists like Ali Mazrui battled with the definition of what an African writer should be. He wondered if the works of an African-American who took an African citizenship like W.E.B. DuBois counted as African Literature. Or if an African living in Diaspora and writing about life in Diaspora counted as an African Literature. The composition of the panelists was a good indication of the diverse nature of Africa was. There was Gil Noble, a producer and host of WABC-TV’s weekly public affairs series LIKE IT IS. He grew up in a family where he was brought up oblivious or in denial of the racial divides in America. When the reality hit him, he became the champion of those who said it as it is. In his presentation, Noble talked about Black and White dialogue that is yet to take place in America and how it would continue to haunt America until such a time when the dialogue occurs.

Ironically, sharing the table with the likes of Mazrui was Ngugi. Ngugi is one of the most revolutionary African writers alive. He believes not in the gradual evolution of African society but rather in its radical transformation, a view that seemed to be reflected in his rejection of western lifestyle. For those who know him, it was not surprising then that he was garbed in the most traditional of African attire. The age-long ideological differences between Soyinka and Mazrui seemed to be made apparent by their choice of outfit. While Mazrui was in his three piece suit illuminating all of the western side of the triple heritage of which he talked about in his book, THE AFRICANS, Wole Soyinka was dressed in a uncharacteristic shirt and pants. Soyinka’s was a contrast to Mazrui, and a non-indication as to where his allegiance is- the Yoruba culture in which he draws his imagery and where most of his works or the Marxist camp. Soyinka spoke about the importance of Achebe in African Literature. He told a joke about someone who chose THINGS FALL APART as his favorite African Literature book, but when asked whom the writer was, the fellow answered Wole Soyinka. He also recounted his reaction when told that he would be in a panel with Ali Mazrui with whom he had philosophical differences. He however stated that he would do anything to honor Achebe even if it entailed swallowing his pride.

Then there was Michael Eric Dyson, hailed as “a hip-hop intellectual who effortlessly fuses academic lectures with urban hip-ism”. His was a portrayal of the 21st century Malcom X, walking out of the Ivory Towers and not from the four walls of the penitentiary.

The third panel of the day consisted of Alastair Niven, Norman Manea, Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman. They discussed “The Writer on the World Stage: impediments and Approaches to Dialogue”. Earlier in the day, the first panel had discussed “Education and Political Representation”. Members of that panel were Charles J. Ogletree, Leon Botstein, Johnnetta B. Cole, Joseph Duffey, and Ruth Simmons. The third panel discussion was followed by an art exhibition titled Ride Me Memory which featured the drawings and paintings of Obiora Udechukwu and Ada Udechukwu. At 8:30 PM, the Odenigbo Dance group performed the ancient and famous Ohafia War dance. It was a dance usually performed in Eastern Nigeria in honor of heroes.

And when it comes to heroes and Eastern Nigeria, there could be none bigger than Chinua Achebe.

In-between panel discussions, I had a chance to meet some participants. I cornered Wole Soyinka when he burst out in search of Laolu Akande. He promised to come back later but I never saw him again. I met Ali Mazrui and indicated my interest in having an exclusive interview with him. Mazrui promised to find time the next day for the interview. It was however Ngugi, with whom I spent most of the day.

Outside Olin auditorium, I met Ngugi surrounded by reporters and participants. He was the star of the day following his well-received presentation. Following what looked like an endless wait for a chance to talk to Ngugi, I interrupted the discussion going on with a greeting in Swahili. Ngugi’s eyes widened as he heard me. He looked up and I stretched my hands in greeting. I told him I was his greatest fan. A young Nigerian professor beside me who came down from Canada protested that he was Ngugi’s greatest fan. I responded by presenting my reasons. I told Ngugi how through his book, WEEP NOT CHILD, I transported myself to Kenya and since then had not looked back. I reminded him that unlike most African writers of his generation, he was the only one I read who found the time to put in a love story in his novel even as they dealt with the different struggles of life. I told Ngugi that it made me think during my formative age that only Kenyans could fall in love. I however reminded him that despite my dealings with Kenyans, I had not been able to meet any Mwhiki. That so far, all I could see was a Mukami. As I said that, the same Nigerian Professor protested that he too had a girlfriend named Mukami. On that note, Ngugi and I walked away.

Alone with Ngugi, I asked him how he had been doing in exile. The government of Arap Moi had prevented him from returning home he told me, but he remains steadfast and strong-willed. He confirmed to me that he had decided to write only in Kikuyu. When I confronted him with the circumstance where he finds himself translating the same work of his into English, he told me it was alright. An in-depth interview with Ngugi was however put off for another day. While talking to him, Toni Morrison walked by and stopped for a moment to shake Ngugi’s hand and she said, “I am a big fan of your work.”

Amongst other notable figures present were Chinweizu, Emmanuel Obiechina, Tsiti Dangarembga, Nuruddin Farah, C. Lyn Innes, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Micere Mugo, Niyi Osundare, Ogaga Ifowodu, among others. Some of them were slated to shine on the second day.