Chinua Achebe’s death at age 82 reminded me that my father would’ve been exactly the same age today, were he still alive, and that my mother-in-law is now the same age, too.
Like many other people all over the world, I read the news of Achebe’s demise with disbelief and tears in my eyes. Someone sent me a text, saying she had just heard the news, and asking me to verify if it was true. I got on Google and found out for sure a few seconds later. I might have mentioned before that I didn’t come to appreciate Achebe’s work until much later in life. I read several of his books earlier in life because I had to, whether I really understood his work or not. And then as an adult, I began to read him because I really wanted to, because I finally got it.
This post is not a tribute to Achebe. I am far too intimidated by the idea of writing about this man that meant so much to my country and to the world to even begin to do that. I am also aware that many tributes have been written since Friday and many more will continue to pour in over the next week or so by those that we really expect this sort of thing from. I, personally, will read and savor which ever ones I come across in the coming days.
Apart from the fact that we have lost a great and courageous writer, thinker, and patriot, I was particularly saddened, in those first few moments of hearing the news, by where he died. Away from home.
My father was of the generation of those that returned home in the 80s after receiving an education and building their careers elsewhere. It was literally a mass exodus back to Nigeria in those days, as I remember it. And even when things took a turn for the worse in Nigeria, about a decade later, people that had the option would generally send their children out of the country for a better education, while remaining at home themselves. My father really impressed upon us (and not in so many words, but through his actions) the importance of knowing where we came from and of returning home some day. He did such a ‘good’ job at it that for a long time, I could not imagine living anywhere else. My father eventually got really worried about my education because I refused to leave Nigeria. I was keen on gaining admission into a particular program which was only offered in two universities in Nigeria back them. Both universities happened to be on strike for at least a year. I waited the whole year while my father worried that I might get frustrated and change my mind about going to grad school. So he and my mother began to urge me to leave the country, saying I could always come back. I dug my heels in for the whole year, patiently waiting, while the two universities comfortably remained on strike. At the end of the year, my parents asked some close family friends of ours to intervene and try to get into my head to understand why I would pass up this opportunity. As much as I wanted to live in Nigeria, I wanted to go to school more. A year of waiting after Youth Service turned out to be all I could take, and so I left several months later.
In a tribute to Achebe published today by Onyeka Onwenu, she speaks of a time when she interviewed the author as part of a BBC film: “When I asked him if he would ever consider leaving Nigeria for another country, his answer was categorically, ‘no.’ ‘This is where God in His infinite wisdom has placed me. Why should I live in a place that someone else has cleaned up.’” (http://www.codewit.com/nigeria-news/6520-achebe-was-the-igbo-nigerian-african-conscience-and-consciousness)
But after a ghastly accident in Nigeria in which he nearly lost his life, and which resulted in his being paralyzed from the waist down, he was forced to revise his convictions and relocate to the U.S. for care. As unfortunate as the reality is (and not to excuse the precariousness of driving on some of our African roads), accidents do happen everywhere in the world. But it would’ve been nice if we would have at least had the quality of medical care he required so that he could have taken his last breath on Nigerian soil. I’m putting words in Achebe’s mouth now, assuming that this was his wish even after the accident, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. In my mind, Achebe was supposed to belong to the generation of those that returned home.
I actually started writing about the (changing) meanings of ‘home’ last year, but have not felt inspired before now to develop it into a blogpost. When I was married, the location of my home was more cut and dried. My home was my husband’s home, and I was okay with my ‘original’ home taking a back seat for the most part. With the divorce, deciding where home is, is a process that I’m currently working my way through.
When I moved to this country, it was because I got a job here. My actual ambition was to get a job in Nigeria, though. But I decided that as long as I was in Africa, I could eventually find my way back to Nigeria. One of my goals was to secure employment with an organization that had a branch in Nigeria, and to find a way to get transferred there eventually. Well, I finally did secure such a job almost 4 years ago. In the last year or two, I have had several offers to move to the Nigeria office (at least four). I have turned down every one of them. I have been forced to revise my convictions, and I’m still working through what my new set of convictions are. It’s hard to believe that just six years ago or so, I would’ve absolutely jumped at the chance.
For the last month, I’ve been trying to decide whether to spend my annual leave this year in Nigeria or not. This would be the first time as a divorced woman. It has been a difficult decision to make. I would love to show my children the Nigeria I know or knew, and to give them a sense of where they come from beyond Nigerian movies. I would love for my mother-in-law to see her grandchildren again. (I might have mentioned that my daughter is named after her, yet they have never met.) But with none of my sisters based in Nigeria, accommodation and everything else would cost me an arm and a leg just for a couple weeks’ stay. I think I finally came to the decision last night that I will make this trip with my children some day, and I will do it several times, but this year does not seem to be the year. I’ll do it when I can do it with less stress.
In the meantime, perhaps where I live now is home. This is where my children and I have our beds and bedrooms. This is where my kitchen is and my pantry is. This is where all our stuff is, and where we know our way around. This is where my children call ‘home’, and maybe I should begin to, too. Maybe ‘home’ can be a more amorphous concept. Maybe it’s even okay for me to be of the generation of those that did not return home, but that made their home where they were. Maybe sometimes, there really is no one place that one can call home; rather, ‘home’ can be several places at the same time.
As an outsider looking in, I might conclude that Achebe died away from his ‘home’ – a kind of death he did not desire. But who knows? Maybe his last home as a living being was good to him, was safe for him, was home to him even, in a way. My father firmly believed in the importance of home and could hardly wait to relocate to the village after retirement. But my father was murdered right in his country home, right after dinner, right in his compound, by ‘home’ people.
Where is ‘home,’ then? I wonder.
While I try to figure that out, I remain where I am. In a place that someone else has cleaned up.
I started by mentioning that, much as I would have liked to write one, this is not a tribute to Achebe. Achebe’s death brought certain thoughts I’d buried to the fore and I thought that now would be the best time to finally write about them. But I do want to end this with a tribute that Prof. Biko Agozino wrote on his blog (http://massliteracy.blogspot.com/2013/03/immortal-achebe-live.html). It’s a beautiful dirge that touched me deeply and that I hope you’ll enjoy. Well, I suppose you can only really enjoy it if you understand Igbo, but you still might find it haunting even if you don’t understand all the words. Maybe Biko can do a translation (:
Rest in peace, Daddy. Rest in peace, Achebe.
Rest in peace, Daddy. Rest in peace, Achebe.
Remember our papa Achebe
Our papa Achebe bu Enyi Afrika Enyi (Elephant)
Let him go and change and return
Agaracha must come back
Meanwhile, let us feast on
the inexhaustible harvest of wisdom
that he saved for us in his barn.
Things Fall Apart
Arrow of God
No Longer at Ease
A man of the People
Girls At War
Chike and the River
Anthills of the Savannah
There was a country
Chetakwanu Chris Okigbo
Chris Okigbo bu enyi Afrika enyi
Chetakwanu nna anyi Achebe
Nna anyi Achebe bu enyi Afrika enyi
Chetakwanu nna anyi Aziki
Nna anyi Aziki bu enyi Afrika enyi
Chetakwanu ochiagha Ojukwu
Ochiagha Ojukwu bu enyi Biafra enyi
Nna o! Ewuuu!
Du Bois nna anyi
Garvey Nna anyi
Aziki Nna Anyi
Chinua nna anyi
Ojukwu nna anyi
Okigbo nna anyi
Fela bu nwane m
Marley bu nwane m
Tosh bu Nwanne m
Malcolm bu nwane m
Martin bu nwanne m
Nkrumah Nwanne m
Gaddafi bu nwanne m
Hugo Chavez nwanne m
Steve Biko nwanne m
Aminu Kano nwanne m
Tubman bu nneanyi
Sojourner bu nneanyi
Onye na-ero unu iro
Onye ahu nolu onwu
Onye ga-ako unu nsi
Ruth First bu nwanne m
Onye ahu nolu nsi
Ma unu nolu ndu
Ndu bu ihe uto
Onwu bu ihe aru
Onye bu nwanne m?
Onye a bu nwanne m.
Enyi Afrika alaala
Enyi Afrika alatala
Obiakwa, welu ya gawa!