I first met Chinua Achebe in 1961 at Makerere University in Kampala. His novel, Things Fall Apart, had come out, two years before. I was then a second year student, the author of just one story, Mugumo published in Penpoint, the literary magazine of the English Department. At my request, he looked at the story, and made some encouraging remarks. What I did not tell him was that I was in the middle of my first novel for a writing competition organized by the East African Literature Bureau; what would later be published as The River Between.
My next encounter was more dramatic, for my part, at least, and would impact my life and literary career, profoundly. It was at the now famous 1962 conference of writers of English expression. Chinua Achebe was among a long line of other literary luminaries, that included Wole Soyinka, J P Clark, the late Eski’a Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane. The East African contingent consisted of Grace Ogot, Jonathan Kariara, John Nagenda and me. My invitation was on the strength of my short stories published in Penpoint and in Transition. The novel most discussed in the Conference as a model of literary restraint and excellence was Things Fall Apart.
But what most attracted me was not my being invited there as ‘writer’ but the fact that I would be able to show Achebe the ms of my second novel, what would later become Weep Not Child. It was very generous of him to agree to look at it because, as I would learn later, he was working on his novel, Arrow of God. Because of that and his involvement in the conference, he could not read the whole ms, but he read enough to give some useful suggestions.
More importantly, he talked about the manuscript to his publishers, William Heinemann, represented at the conference by June Milne, who expressed an interest in the work. Weep Not Child would later be published by William Heinemann and the paperback by Heinemann education publishers, the fourth in the now famous African Writers series, of which Achebe was the Editorial Adviser.
I was working with the Nation newspapers when Weep Not Child came out. It was April 1964, and Kenya was proud to have its first modern novel in English by a Kenyan African. Or so I thought, for the novel was well publicised in the Kenyan Newspapers, the Sunday Nation even carrying my interview by de Villiers, one of its senior feature writers. I assumed that every educated Kenyan would have heard about the novel. I was woken to reality when I entered a club, the most frequented by the new African elite at the time, who all greeted me as their Kenyan author of Things Fall Apart.
Years later at Achebe’s 70th birthday celebrations at Bard College attended by Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka, among others, I told this story of how Achebe’s name had haunted my life. When Soyinka’s turn to speak came, he said that I had taken the story from his mouth: he had been similarly been mistaken for Chinua Achebe.
The fact is that Achebe became synonymous with the Heinemann African writers series and African writing as a whole. There’s hardly any African writer of my generation who has not been mistaken for Chinua Achebe. I have had a few such encounters. Every African novel became Things Fall Apart, and every writer some sort of Chinua Achebe. Even a protestation to the contrary was not always successful.
The last such encounter was in 2010 at Jomo Kenyatta Airport. Mukoma, the author of Nairobi Heat, and I had been invited for the Kwani festival whose theme was inter-generational dialogue. Mukoma, my fourth son and I fitted the bill perfectly. As he and I walked towards the immigration, a man came towards me. His hands were literally trembling as he identified himself as a professor of Literature from Zambia.
“Excuse me Mr Achebe, somebody pointed you out to me. I have long wanted to meet you”
“No, I am not the one,” I said, “but here is Mr Achebe,” I added pointing at my son.
I thought the obvious youth of my son would tell him that I was being facetious. But no, our Professor grabbed Mukoma’s hands, before Mukoma could protest, grateful that he had at last shaken hands with his hero. The case of mistaken identity as late as 2010 shows how Achebe had become a mythical figure, and rightly so.
He was the single most important figure in the development of modern African literature as writer, editor, and quite simply a human being. His novel, Things Fall Apart, the most widely read novel in the history of African literature, since its publication in 1958, became an inspiring model. As the general editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, he had a hand in the emergence of many other writers and their publication. As a human being, he embodied wisdom that comes from a commitment to the middle way between extremes. And of course courage in the face of personal tragedy!
The last time I met him face to face was at his 70th birthday celebrations held at Bard College. With me was Njeeri, my wife, and our five year old son Thiongo and six year old daughter, Mumbi. When I introduced James Currey, and mentioned that he had been Achebe’s publisher, Thiongo decided to write his own novel on the spot. On a piece of paper, he made many marks, folded the piece, and handed the one page manuscript to James Currey. James politely accepted it. Within the next one hour Thiongo wrote several other one page novels and began rushing them to the publisher. James Currey resorted to avoiding his new writer for the rest of the party. Mumbi reacted differently, drawing a portrait of Chinua Achebe, and gave it to him when my wife took them to be photographed with Uncle Chinua. Mumbi, now a second year college student, recalled that encounter and the line drawing, when I told her about Achebe’s passing on.
Achebe bestrides generations and geographies. Every country in the continent claims him as their author. Some sayings in his novels are quoted frequently as proverbs that contain a universal wisdom. When my book, Dreams in a Time of War, was launched in Nairobi a year or so ago, the guest speaker PO Lumumba interspersed his speech with proverbs. They were all taken from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. His passing marks the beginning of the end of an epoch. But his spirit lives on to continue inspiring yet more African writers and scholars of African literature the world over.
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