By Frank Opara
It was my dream to meet you in person. Even as old age closed up on you, I still did not lose hope of a memorable meeting with you.
As an undergraduate at the University of Calabar, I once laid ‘ambush’ for you at the university’s famous annual “English and Literary Studies Symposium/Lecture” immediately I saw your name among the list of literary giants who were to grace the occasion. As it may interest you to note, I drafted a list of Igbo proverbs which I needed you to break down or translate into your unique style of English grammar that made you a famous wordsmith.
Besides, and most dear to me, it was an opportunity to have a memorable handshake and perhaps draw from your profound fountain of knowledge, and possibly engage you in a question and answer session, the way a child engages his father with innocence. That would have been a life changing experience for me! After all, the same ambush paid off for me at the same event where I had the privilege of a memorable handshake with your literary contemporaries like Soyinka, Flora Nwapa, J.P Clark, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Ken Saro-Wiwa, etc.
The first time I laid my hands on your first novel Things Fall Apart, I was engrossed with the style, choice of words and the overall simplicity of language that I felt so reluctant to let go. I am yet to read a novel that holds a reader spell bound. Subsequently, I read No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God and the list goes on.
The books simply portray you as a master story teller yet to be equalled in our lifetime. They are always new and pristine any time you pick them up to read not minding how many times you have read them. Thank you for those great works because with them generations unborn have a veritable compass to locate their past.
I like Literature. It was one of my favourite subjects in my college days. Reading your famous books ornamented my appreciation of literature to say the least. Your books led me into discovering many other African Writer’s Series books published by Heinemann like Weep Not Child by Ngugi Thiong’o, The Narrow Path by Elechi Amadi, etc. However, while sharing a thought with a friend over a certain issue of national interest, we slipped into a sudden reflection over your life on sighting a documentary on you on a local television station.
You may not have lived a perfect life before God, the sole arbiter of life on earth, but in our society today where it seems every man has got a price, you vehemently refused to put your conscience up for sale. Your life on earth has once again proved that what is most fulfilling in life is to live an exemplary life of integrity.
All the elegies, eulogies, encomiums and ululations pouring in for you is not because of your vaunted riches either in cash stashed away in Swiss banks or property scattered across the length and breadth of the globe, but because of your moral rectitude.
Simply put, you refused to be bought because your conscience remained priceless. You are one of the few whose material possessions, if any, could not be traced to the nation’s wealth. All you possessed in material wealth came via your God given talent; your creativity and sparkling brilliance.
Right from your elementary school days where one of your mentors recognized the star that resides in your small fragile frame, you never betrayed either in logical reasoning or moral intelligence his prophetic vision, thus putting the lie to the Chinese proverb, “When men speak of the future, the gods laugh”.
Ever since your painful demise, the world and especially the literary community have continued to rue the vacuum you have left. More so, they have been buffeted by worries over who fills the big shoes you have left behind. I have chosen to be sceptical. Did you actually leave any shoes behind? Methinks you became so disappointed and disenchanted with us that you took them away.
Personally, I feel if there is anything to worry about it is how we as citizens and leaders should appropriate your exemplary life in a society that has bought the franchise to canonize rogues and reprobates as leaders; a society that has been initiated into the cult of money, obsessed with the material, and is incurably corrupt.
You were not the most intelligent in a nation so blessed with quality human resources. But what stood you out were your uncommon candour and courage and your principled refusal not to ingratiate yourself to the powers that be.
I am very sure you must have heard about the debate going on ad nauseam to immortalize you by this same group who have refused to adhere to your advice on good leadership. It has got me thinking what on earth they would come up with that would supersede the monumental timeless works which has made you a global icon.
At a youthful age of 28 when most of those in that age bracket today are still ‘sagging’ their trousers, you wrote your most celebrated novel Things Fall Apart which has etched your name into the hearts of humanity. In life you rejected their tainted National Honours Award several times. In death I doubt if you are still interested because your back-to-sender body language depicts a polite NO, except if they decide to change their corrupt ways which had been your homily.
Your wisdom gave you some prophetic element very rare with mortals. You predicted the fall of the First Republic in your fourth novel, A Man of the People. Shortly after the publication of The Trouble with Nigeria, whereupon you sounded alarm bells of danger about corrupt leadership being our bane, there was a military coup that took overthrew the civilian government in 1983.
One is tempted to slip into a vortex of ‘ifs’ at a quick glance of your life. Probably if not for bad leadership, you would not have been driven out of politics in your first attempt at joining Mallam Aminu Kano led PRP. If not for bad leadership the fatal accident that nearly claimed your life could have been avoided. And if not for bad leadership, may be you would have lived longer. Who knows?
You decided to fall asleep when our leadership crisis leaves a sick feeling in the pit of everybody’s stomach. At a time you chose to release your last true life story, There was a Country, recounting in it the avoidable mistakes that led us to the bloodiest civil war ever, we are witnessing similar scenario which made majority of your kinsmen and women and their children, daily victims of ethnic cleansing.
Could all these have hastened your demise? Would you have tarried a while if there was an inkling of hope of better leadership? Maybe you felt you had exhausted all you were sent to deliver to us mortals and it was time to go?
Permit me to capture in your own words, using a popular Igbo proverb, the manner and style in which you have chosen to take your leave in Arrow of God, “The stranger will not kill his host with his visit, when he goes may he not go with a swollen back”. Well, if your ‘chi’ has invited you over to reunite with your ancestors, who are we to question Him? Go well Chinua! We will miss you!
However, enjoy our own modest way of saying thank you for what you brought for us. I trust this letter meets you well as you rest in the bosom of your creator. Ijeoma, Adieu!
Frank is a media consultant with the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) Abuja.