by Nwachukwu Egbunike
What if someone had prophesied (Nigerians love prophets) 50 years ago, that his first novel would be known all over the world? That Things Fall Apart, published in 1958 by William Heinemann Ltd, London, would go on to sell around 11 million copies in about 50 languages? In addition, that at the dawn of the 21st century, his own daughter would be teaching it to American college students? Bob Thompson of the Washington Post posed these questions to Chinua Achebe early this year. Achebe replied that: “I don’t think there was anybody who would have thought that up. If anyone did, I would say they were out of their mind.”
However, the prediction is not only true but is currently been celebrated all over the West with such frenzy that I begin to wonder what they would have done if Achebe were an American or European. In the midst of all this jubilation, the Nigerian government has maintained a pathetic silence, leaving only the media and the Nigerian literati to sing the song of victory for this Nigerian hero. The ingenuity of Achebe’s talents may be a reservoir of hope for Africa but has the continent made proper use of it?
This will not be the first or the last time that our government will keep sealed lips on the accomplishments of her sons and daughters. Our government (how I wish I could say so with pride) only glorifies in the hubris of absurdities. The National Honours is almost turning into an assembly of political entrepreneurs and establishment boot lickers. Unfortunately those who really merit the honours are faced with an integrity crisis for being guilty by association. Nigeria tops the list as the most demonized nation on earth. We are perceived as being guilty, until proved otherwise in most countries. Our expertise in yahoo yahoo has earned us international accolades, so much so that most of our people elect to be citizens of Gabon, rather than being Nigerian. Out of the blues, the whole world seems to have been infected with Things Fall Apart, and our government keeps silent.
The information ministry should realise that its job description does not end in hording news on the president’s state of health nor slamming close a media house for airing “rumours”; its primary function – among other things – is to intrinsically propagate a new ethos for the country. By this I don’t mean the misadventures of the past when millions of naira were flushed down the drain in disastrous PR stunts. Besides, information and communication should necessarily include orientation. Since the ministry of information is also saddled with the task of orientation, then it has to do a lot much more to spark up national pride amongst Nigerians. While Nelly Uchendu’s song ‘Me I Love Nigeria…’ still resonates in my head, government must take its obligation seriously. Many do not see any reason to be proud of being Nigerians. The 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart, provides an invaluable opportunity to foster the national pride we so much lack.
Things Fall Apart has dwarfed many works to become arguably the most influential work of fiction by an African writer. In the United States, it occupies a natural place in their college and high-school reading. Even the most influential critics cannot but include it in the “canonical works of world literature”. In 1993, Chinua Achebe – the grand old man of Nigerian letters – was named by The Sunday Times of London as one of the “1,000 Makers of the 20th Century” for his contribution to creating “a modern African literature that was truly African.” Achebe has a chest of over thirty honorary degrees from numerous universities worldwide. To cap it all, he won the biannual Man Booker International Prize. Despite all these, the government of this venerated author appears to be calmly wrenching her toes and doing nothing.
Would it not be an exercise in futility to continually hammer it down our throats that it is our collective task to make Nigeria great? One will never cease to listen to the countless jingles that Nigeria is the only country we have and therefore we should all aid in her development. However what continually baffles me is that the reality belies these props. If the labours of our hero’s past should not be in vain, then it is only a matter of common sense that our leaders learn to honour those who really deserve it.
I must commend the many private initiatives that foster the creative talents in the nation. If not for these few institutions, the arts would have long been buried in this country. There are many Chinua Achebes who go unsung, who daily toil it out without expecting any applause. Nonetheless, it would be a disservice to them and to our collectively patrimony if our government continues to treat her citizens with disdain. When a society idolizes mediocrity it should not cry over the type of leaders she begets. May things fall in place, may this pathetic silence at home be punctured.
First published on October 10, 2008.