Today, millions of Africans around the globe are lamenting the loss of Chinua Achebe. I am one of them. There is something eerie that goes on in the soul of a (presumed) writer when a fellow leaves this realm. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like that intense emptiness that rushes over you while watching your best friend get into a moving van relocate across the country. You wonder how you’ll ever survive, but in time, you figure out how.
I was not an early fan of Achebe. My education was fiercely Eurocentric, and when I switched secondary schools in sixth form I was bombarded with unfamiliar (and admittedly, uncomfortable) Afrocentrism. In my literature and higher English classes we were being ask – or required, rather – to read works of authors who were not White, male and dead…and I resented it. I would have rebelled completely, but 30% of my grade rested on completing a 500 word essay on either the works of Okot p’Bitek (Song of Lawino), D T Niane (Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali) or Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart). I chose Song of Lawino, not because it was a literary masterpiece, but because it was the shortest book of the three. After all, what could a man who was neither dead nor White have to say of substance?
At prep time, the majority of the other literary nerds from the junior classes would gasp audibly and give each other shocked or amused glances, daring only for a moment to look up from their copies of Things Fall Apart. Talking at prep was forbidden.
“Things fall apart,” one of them would say.
“The center cannot hold,” the other would reply.
Ah. What inside joke was this? I wanted in. Achebe shamed me into a mental revolution and freed it with his simple but profound words. He left an indelible impact on me as a teen.
Achebe’s influence extends far beyond rectangular cement structures that house pupils in Africa or grandiose university lecture halls. His effect is felt even in hip hop, dating back to 1999 with The Roots entitling their fourth album with the same appellation of Achebe’s most renown work Things Fall Apart. One of my favorite songs on the album, also entitled Things Fall Apart/You Got Me, features Erykah Badu:
We knew from the start that things fall apart
And tend to shatter
She like that sh*t don’t matter
When I get home get at her…
I loved that verse because it was so gritty and real.
It never occurred to me to wonder what Dr. Achebe thought about The Roots’ flagrant use of the title he’d coined 40 years before, but I do know he didn’t care for 50 Cents attempt to do the same in 2011. He sued the rapper/actor for plagiarism and won. Fiddy must have thought he was dealing with a small boy. He tried to settle out of court, offering the Chinua Achebe Foundation $1 million to use the title, but the Chinua Achebe Foundation turned down the offer.
“The novel with the said title was initially produced in 1958 (that is 17 years before rapper 50 Cent was born), [is] listed as the mostly read book in modern African literature, and won’t be sold for even $1 billion,” Achebe’s legal reps said.
I don’t know what words Achebe whispered to Fiddy, but before you could say “It’s your birthday!”, the title was changed to All Things Fall Apart. Hei!
You guys know that I am a bush girl masquerading as a learned lady. And it is for this reason that this will always remain my favorite memory of Chinua Achebe: Hardcore Literary Gangsta!
As the tributes pour in for Chinua Achebe he will be remembered for many things: For being a man of the people, an unflinching voice of truth, a brave and unapologetic witness to Africa’s greatness and condemner of the follies of its leaders – a roaring voice of the people.
Now that my grief has subsided in part, I can finally offer my sincere thanks to you, Chinua Achebe. Thank you for telling your stories – our stories – so beautifully and inspiring generations and generations yet to come to do the same.