Achebe: I Flew On The Torn Pages Of Things Fall Apart, By Betty Abah

chinua achebe
Chinua Achebe in 1967. Photo courtesy UK Guardian
Betty Abah
Betty Abah

My literary career kick-started on the torn pages of Things Fall Apart (TFA), the classic novel by Chinua Achebe – whom I am too afraid to prefix ‘Late’.

I still have vivid memories. I was five. At Ojira, Otukpo, Benue. And, Like many girls my age then, unschooled. That was the age when girl education was still given only half-hearted consideration. Surprisingly, that was 1979.
And so, I stumbled on a copy of  TFA in Baba’s living room, a copy torn into half,  belonging, I guess, to a half elder brother in secondary school. I neither asked for whom nor about what happened to the second half.  I merely ‘stole’ it. I couldn’t read then but was deeply fascinated by what was left of the book – the catchy illustrations (by iconic artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya), funny drawings of Okonkwo and of several other characters and events. There was a compelling allure about the book… It triggered my imagination. I hid it and when I wasn’t running errands  for seniors (during which I would be subtly threatened that my navel would rot if the spittle on the ground dried before I returned!), I would flip through the pages, amused, intrigued by the drawings. I didn’t know the story. I was just okay with the strange images, the brownish look and smell of the paper.
Later that year, I also found a copy of Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare, of course without the cover, and digested drawings of the ‘Merchants of Vernice’. I guess something snapped in me. That early acquaintance with the two books stirred my love for books. When I eventually started school at age eight (!),  I went on to read every available book from the Heinemann’s African Writers Series (incidentally, edited by Achebe) supplied by a class mate whose dad,  fortunately, had a big library.
Through the help of black and white TV, I later got a clearer picture of TFA via the flick version aired in the animated 1980’s by the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA).
Oh, how I read and re-read my elder brother’s copy of Chike and the River until it grew several wrinkles.
And gradually, five years later, in Primary School, I wanted to write  stories like Achebe, and like Cyprian Ekwensi (The Drummer Boy, An African Night Entertainment and The Passport of Mallam Illia), and like Kola Onadipe (Adventures of Souza, The Boy Slave), the trio who were my greatest literary influences at childhood. Another five years, in secondary school, and I wanted to write poetry like J.P. Clark, Gabriel Okara and later, like Odia Ofeimun.
Today, I am still very much an eaglet trying to find my place on the branches of the giant Iroko but then I can’t forget where, exactly, the literati rain first began to drench me. I believe the torn pages were God’s way of triggering my potentials and Achebe, the acclaimed man of the literary people, was a giant arrow of God.
Achebe dazzles and dazzles with the thin pen. Originality. Poetic elegance,  and ofcourse, the local colours! Achebe verily inspired an entire generation and will continue to inspire several more to come.
He gave us African literature. He gave us pride. He gave us an authentic voice. Achebe forever dispelled the falsehood about the sentimental ‘Heart of Darkness’  and shone the right light on our continent.  Today, the world is divided between those who have read TFA and those who, sadly, haven’t. Those who haven’t, pitifully, are those who still hang on to the notion about Africa being the perennial begging bowl with pictures of starving children being swarmed by flies, an Africa that always means bad news. Obviously, they haven’t read TFA. No, they do not know of Okonkwo, the valiant warrior.
And, concerning Achebe’s patriotism as a Nigerian, there is no question. His outspokenness, forthrightness and principles, like his literary craftsmanship is a rarity. They need no elaborate re-telling.
When his fiction couldn’t pierce the half-intelligent minds of our leaders enough, he came out to talk plainly about The Trouble with Nigeria.
 
When he saw our volatile history being repeated, dangerously, he came out bluntly to say, just before you forget, There was a Country. What else could a patriot do, biko?
I agree with an AIT reporter who mentioned in a special documentary on the titan; ‘Achebe was the Nobel Laureate Nigeria never had’. So well put.
Mba, you do not do lengthy tributes when Masters pass; there is not much to be written simply because in themselves, legends they are living letters, unmistakeable masterpieces. His name, through his pen are imprinted in timeless gold…
We can only thank God for the life of Chinua Achebe (1930—2013).
I am personally thankful for encountering him – on the torn pages of TFA..!
I never met him in flesh and blood, nevertheless, I feel him in my lines and sentences!
Certainly, Achebe will continue to live in living, blazing letters as long as stories are told…!
Abah is a Lagos-based journalist, poet and environmentalist.

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