Chinua Achebe’s son, Chidi, tells Gbenga Adeniji that despite the criticisms that followed the final work of the late literary icon, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, his father did not read any of them in newspapers
H ow much of your father’s childhood do you know?
The journey that would lead my father far and to the unprecedented, dizzying global acclaim started with his parents, Isaiah Okafo Achebe and Janet Iloegbunam. They were early Christian converts who dedicated their lives to spreading the gospel and instilling Christian values into their own children. This Christ journey would for my father continue in various schools, but most importantly, would resonate in his own personal Chi. It is this confluence of agreement between his soul and the Christian tenets he grew up with, like the waters of the Niger and Benue at Lokoja, that would result in a revolutionary, symphonic fusion of Western and African traditional literary forms; that not only would define his trademark narrative style, but give birth to his remarkable and indelible contribution to the worldwide literary canon.
We perceive this God-given genius—and there are many examples—through my father’s novels, poetry, children’s books, literary criticism, and his work with the African Writers Series—that established a whole generation of writers throughout the African continent. His uncanny gift of prognostication, human and civil rights work, but above all, his kindness, gentleness and legendary humility remind us that God is in tune with his Chi.
What lesson did you learn from your father’s decision as he made the journey into adulthood?
Dad’s over-fifty-year marriage to my mother, Christiana Okoli Achebe, may very well be his greatest blessing and wisest decision. That they had a successful marriage is an understatement that deserves commemorative status. Blessed with four children and six grandchildrenso far, this union, my siblings and I would realise, was built on a bedrock of God’s love and unshakable by adversity, fame, and life’s challenges. A lasting lesson for me is the understanding that the institution of marriage, like communion, possesses a spiritual and divine significance.
I grasp a deeper appreciation of my father’s purpose-driven life when I remember how he weathered a life-threatening motor accident in Nigeria and continued his life’s work. I perhaps most profoundly beheld my father’s worship of God through his life-long advocacy for the dispossessed and oppressed. He wrote extensively about racial and ethnic bigotry, graft, political ineptitude and social injustice and leaves behind a reputation as one who lived as Christ taught us to be—formidable advocates for the “least amongst us”—the downtrodden, powerless and voiceless everywhere. His gift to me is the life well spent in the spirit of God. I thank God for him and his beautiful spirit—being close to it, learning from it, being loved by it, encouraged by it, supported and blessed by it. He will be missed by millions of people around the world, but most deeply by those who love him the most—his family.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a physician executive. I completed undergraduate studies in natural sciences, history and philosophy at Bard College and received an MPh from the Harvard School of Public Health. I got my MD at Dartmouth Medical School and MBA degree at Yale University’s School of Management. I also completed residency in both Internal Medicine and Paediatrics at the Texas Medical Centre in Houston, Texas. I now serve on several boards and committees. I am married to Dr. Maureen Okam-Achebe, who is a Haematology and Oncology specialist at Harvard. We have three children.
Your brother Ike was prominent during the preparation for your father’s funeral. What does he do and who are your other siblings?
Ike is my older brother and the “diokpala” or first son of my parents. He is the Chief Executive Officer of the Chinua Achebe Foundation. He was extensively educated in England and holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge. He did a fantastic job during the funeral preparation and the ceremony and we whole-heartedly supported him and his efforts. I have two other siblings – Chinelo Achebe-Ejueyitchie (the oldest) and Nwando Achebe-Ogundimu – both of whom are university professors.
Your sisters bear Itsekiri and Yoruba last names. Tell us more about them?
Chinelo is married to Tosan Ejueyitchie from Warri. Tosan was an executive staff with Elf Oil before relocating with his family to the US. Incidentally, Tosan’s father is the former secretary to the Federal Government under the Gen. Yakubu Gowon military government. Nwando is married to Professor Folu Ogundimu from Ogun State. So we are thoroughly Nigerians.
At my father’s funeral, my in-laws brought troupes – scores of dancers, singers, musicians with drums, flutes, etc – all the way from Ogun State, Warri and Oguta where my wife comes from. It was so beautiful to see Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage showcased for foreign and local guests to appreciate. It was very colourful. We are grateful to them for the support.
How did Achebe view the divergent reactions that followed his last memoir; There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra?
The truth of the matter is that he did not read a single article in Nigerian newspapers about that important work.
Achebe was worried about events in Nigeria, especially concerning its leadership. Did he discuss this with his children?
He was a deep believer in Nigeria and its people. His views about Nigerian leaders are well known and extensively discussed, so there is no point repeating them.
He taught us that a nation built on the bedrock of democracy had to find a way to make it possible for that bright, talented or gifted child from any part of the country to be properly prepared and given an opportunity to succeed. We must remember that Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are two of such children from the US; they were not children of wealthy, famous or powerful parents. We have to develop a system that makes it possible for our best and brightest to attain the reins of power. Dad continued to believe this to the very end. Most Nigerians understand that this is the path to rocketing Nigeria into the league of developed nations.
When I was in the high school, there was a student who won many prizes in the hard sciences – additional mathematics (pre-calculus) and physics. Dad attended these prize giving ceremonies religiously and would continually ask about this student and where he ended up. In a country that worked effectively, such students that would be nurtured to excel further and become leaders.
As a writer who foresaw the future in his writings, how did your father organise his thoughts and ideas?
My father’s literary genius is (‘is’ and not ‘was’ because great writers and their works live on) a gift from God. The gift of prognostication is one from God.
Many believe he deserved the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature before his death. What is your stand on this?
Let me help you understand because many can’t and will never grasp this point. Here is a parable: Dad operated on a spiritual plane. That remained his focus. His greatest blessings came and come from God.
How did he attend to his children each time he was writing a new book?
He was an attentive, caring and wonderful father at all times. In turn, his devoted family loved and adored him deeply.
What was his idea of child training?
He was a patient and gentle parent. He never spanked us. But he was able to put the fear of God in us by just looking sternly at us. That worked like you can’t imagine.
Since he projected Igbo traditions in his works, was he firm about his children being conversant with cultural norms and ethos?
We are all fluent in Igbo and English languages, even though we (Achebe’s children) have spent decades abroad. Our relatives in Ogidi made that point during the funeral when they expressed their delight in our ability to speak our mother tongue without mixing it with the English language.
How did his literary fame rub off on his children?
We realise that his fame and literary gifts are from God and should always be seen as such.
Achebe’s acclaimed classic novel, Things Fall Apart, is a testimony of his grand writing form. Did he express any feeling about the widespread translations of the novel into many languages?
He felt deeply honoured and grateful to God and to his readers and supporters for his literary and other forms of blessings.
How else can one perceive his remarkable literary career and life? In his lifetime, he was able to witnessThings Fall Apart translated into more than 60 languages — many in the past five years which is an indication of a growing readership. The same book he was blessed to see named one of the 100 greatest novels of all time; with over 12 million copies sold (the true figure is closer to 20 million but that is another topic). No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God have been translated into several world languages and have both sold more than a million copies each – More than two million copies of No Longer at Ease have been published.
Recently, there has been a surge in the readership of Anthills of the Savannah and his poetry, as well as other children’s books. So I ask again, how else does one appreciate this phenomenal success?
Did he leave any parting word for the country before his death?
He loved Nigeria deeply and bled for her. He kept saying to all who would listen, that if we tackle the problems of leadership and corruption, the sky would be the limit for this nation. His hope was that the young people will seize the moment — the opportunity — and create a democratic society with high standards that will fight corruption, celebrate merit and not mediocrity; and establish a nation that is based on core moral principles.
Did he encourage any of his children to embrace writing?
Dad’s philosophy is that you should follow your own calling, not the wishes or expectations of others. Having said that, my sister, Chinelo who is a professor at University of Massachusetts, Boston, has published a short story collection and has a novel in the works.
What are the virtues he taught his children and what are they missing after his death?
Most paramount would be to follow God’s teachings and live a Christ-filled purposeful life. We are missing his wisdom, gentleness, humility, love and patience.
How did he relax whenever he was not writing or teaching and what were his hobbies?
He loved music. Few people know that when he was younger, he was known for his dancing and taught ball room dancing. Imagine that! He also read voraciously.
Did he nurse any regret after the accident that confined him to the wheel chair?
He did not have any regrets. Those of us close to him continue to marvel at how he weathered that life-threatening accident in Nigeria and continued his life’s work with dignity and his characteristic wit and poise.
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