Monday, April 27, 2009

Rejecting CFR was painful decision for my father, says Chinua Achebe’s son

Dr. Chidi Achebe, second son of the novelist, Chinua Achebe, and medical director, Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center outside Boston, USA, was in Nigeria last January with his family for the Ahiajioku Lecture delivered by his father. As one who acts like the spokesman for the family, UDUMA KALU approached him to speak on certian issues that affect his father. EXCERPTS:By Uduma Kalu, Vanguard Newspapers

When your dad turned down the national honor - Comander of the Federal Republic (CFR) award- did your family feel alienated from the country?

One should never feel alienated by such events....Remember that Dad has been in the public eye for over 50 years. This is nothing new for us...particularly for my mother. Dad has been embroiled in a number of “controversies”... for a long, long time. He has “fought the good fight and continues to fight” as oyibos would say...

Dad has a deep love for Nigeria and Nigerians...That action was a painful decision... that statement took a lot of courage. It was quintessential Achebe...If you only understood from whence that statement came, the energy emanated...your question would have been different. It was a difficult, painful decision. He did it for the love of Nigeria...We were and are very proud of him... very proud indeed.

What is your impression of Nigeria today? What are your hopes for it?

Nigeria is a beautiful country and a potentially great country that has not yet gotten things right, not because we don’t have the people or know the way but because a certain group will not let the right people get into the right positions to change things. Look at the power situation, clearly, there is a very powerful interest

Chinua Achebegroup that benefits from the failure of this sector and the increased generator importation....

Clearly, every Nigerian knows that Nigeria has to Change (to borrow from Obama) that we have no choice but to move in a different direction, unless of course we want to wallow in abject poverty and continue to be at the mercy of individuals variously described by leading ‘thinkers’ as “incompetent.” We have been plagued by decades of political ineptitude, corruption and mediocrity because we have not taken careful and calculated steps to entrench meritocracy. Meritocracy holds great promise for the ordinary citizen and for the nation. It is only under this arrangement that individuals of simple means but with the brightest minds can rise to leadership.

Meritocracy transcends ethnicity, class, creed and gender. It is the only system that will ensure that the best and brightest run the affairs of the nation – a development that will benefit the majority of the population. We must put in place a system that constantly seeks excellence, a process that matches the appropriate position with the most qualified applicant; and finally a culture that asks questions such as “Is this person the best person for the job?”

Meritocracy will also produce a true leadership cadre – based on the tenets of hard work, discipline and excellence.

Those that have run the affairs of our nation, historically, have often not been part of a true merit based elite. What we have had instead, are individuals and their corrupt cohorts that “shot themselves into power;” “looted and stole themselves into prominence;” or “rigged themselves into office.” With such mediocrity, how can we expect that anything will be run correctly? We have become a laughing stock among the family of nations.

The ancient Israelites found themselves in a similar situation as Nigeria finds itself in today and recorded this profound observation: “It is ill with a people when vicious men are advanced and men of worth are kept under hatches.” We can learn a great deal from that wisdom.

When was it you visited Nigeria before the last Ahiajoku lecture, and how was the country compared to what you met?

The last time I visited Nigeria was in 2008, so not too long ago... quietly..

Things Fall Apart’s success has dwarfed all other works by Prof. Please tell us what’s happening to other works in terms of translations and sales.

Professor Achebe has written over 20 books, short stories, essays, childrens books and poems and lovers of literature should seek the other great works and enjoy them. It should also be stated that Professor Achebe’s new work Reflections of a British Protected Child is now in the hands of his publishers at Random House and will be published shortly.

Having said that, one should never belittle the importance of his first and most famous work -Things fall apart. This novel has served as a nexus for the study of Achebe’s other canonical works. Now, there are many experts that believe that his greatest work is Arrow of God, others believe it is Anthills of the Savannah. One of my favourites is A man of the People. So there you have it....It really is about how great Art affects you, how it moves you, influences you, inspires you....

A lot of people say Prof. Achebe spoke in parables at the last Ahiajoku lecture. Could you help break down what he actually said?

Clearly, they were not listening... because what he said was written and delivered in classic Achebe style. I must say that the microphone system was not in the best working condition...coupled with the fact that the acoustics in the arena of 5,000 people made it often difficult to hear. But his voice was strong. Let’s break it down then....

There were three main themes in his lecture...interwoven:

The importance of language in a civilization: Language forms a huge part of the culture of a people - it is through their language that they express their folk tales, myths, proverbs, history. In other words language helps to preserve the civilization of the people that speak it. Achebe has often stated that “the language situation is not solved by taking doctrinaire decisions” such as standardizing Igbo and trivializing dialectical differences, particularly if those differences preserve their idiosyncracies.

The imperial powers invariably attempted to control native languages - diluting them and thus reducing the power of the civilization that they represented. Clearly, one cannot escape the fact that the power of English continues to be one of the major factors that makes Great Britain/America and the Anglo-saxon civilization the dominant one on our planet.

The other theme that he touched upon was that of the importance of Women. The professor clearly reports that “Ndi Igbo should, as a matter of great urgency, work towards the removal of impediments in the status of women in our society. Several studies have clearly indicated that when women are well educated, the entire society benefits positively in overall standard of living. The dehumanisation of our women through acts such as wife beating, funeral rites that take away the dignity of our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters must be abolished.

He read a passage from Things Fall Apart that dealt with the importance of women in Igbo culture and discussed the meaning of the name Nneka - Mother is Supreme.

His statement A Harvest of Ideas from Achebe for Ndi Igbo touched on a number of other important topics.

Yes, he called on Ndi Igbo and all Nigerians to hold their leaders accountable and encouraged the people to demand transparency and accountability in government; insisting on clear plans from the leadership concerning development, timelines etc.

He talked about the importance of Education - that we must make sure that our boys go to school, even if they decide they want to be traders, we should encourage them to seek out a business oriented education... obtain an MBA etc.

He called on Ndi Igbo, indeed all Nigerians to make sure we abolish practices that dehumanize our fellow citizens such as the Osu/Oru Caste system. He also called for a reappraisal of the importance we have accorded money in our society as this obsession has the ability to erode our moral fabric. I encourage all serious minded Nigerians to read that statement...

Did you visit Ogidi on this trip and how was the reception there?

Yes, we spent a some time at our country home. Not as much as we might have liked, but the itinerary was packed. The reception of our people was very warm. It is always wonderful to be home with family and friends, many of whom were present in large numbers.

What was Professor Achebe’s itinerary like?

It was packed. He travelled to Nigeria with the BBC and the Royal Africa Society led by Richard Dowden (the executive director), Smita Patel and the cinematographer Ming. The Imo State government really pulled out all the stops. One must thank Governor Ohakim and his PA Chikwem, the organizing committee and members of Ohanaeze that made the visit and Ahajioku experience memorable.

So... not only did Prof have to prepare for the lecture, attend numerous press events, meet a litany of distinguished individuals involved in the planning of his visit, he had to make time out to have deep reflective sessions with Richard and the Documentary experts Smita and Ming. Also Lord Melvin Bragg, crew from the South Bank Show were also in town making a documentary on the fiftieth anniversary of Things Fall Apart, and he sat down with them for several conversations as well.

Chidi, some say one cannot reach Professor Chinua Achebe unless they contact you first. But clearly, you are not his ADC...What is your role in the family?

Laughter.... Yes, I could be called that (raucous laughter)...That is how we want it to be...”You know, I can handle you people well well....”

But seriously, he does have a distinguished group of agents - The Andrew Wiley Agency in New York and anyone who does not want to deal with me can contact them directly (laughter).

I come from an incredibly close family... something that a number of people find difficult to understand...My siblings/family cherish their privacy....With time, people will get used to these things... It is nothing new in Europe or America, that designated sons or daughters are involved intimately with his Father’s or family’s affairs....particularly if the individual of note is a public figure...

On a spiritual level consider this (from the Church of Christ): The old testament commands us to-
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you
Exodus 20:12 (RSV)

The command to honor your parents is carried over into the law of Christ intact. The wo rd “honor” means to place a value on something, to consider it a prized possession.

Children honour their parents by listening to their advice and obeying their instruction. Godly parents are a treasure to a child. They have a wealth of experience which they can pass down to their children.

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”
(Ephesians 6:1-3).

“My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother; for they will be a graceful ornament on your head, and chains about your neck” (Proverbs 1:8-9

“A fool despises his father’s instruction, but he who receives correction is prudent” (Proverbs 15:5).
So Alvan, you see, one gets something too, by obeying the law.

The Global celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Things Fall Apart has led to a reappraisal of Achebe’s body of work. What is your take on the significance of his work?

When Professor Achebe set out to write, it was clear that he was willing to engage Africa’s involvement with imperialism. He flavoured his work with an ‘African creative aesthetic’- proverbs, idioms, perspectives, customs, histories and sensibilities - to paint a unique, and authentic African literary tapestry for the ages.

In helping to reshape the dialogue between North and South, i.e. in broadening our and the West’s understanding and conceptualization of great literature, to include the African voice and experience, Achebe carefully engaged the politics of representation.

Achebe sought to reclaim the power of self definition, calling for the inclusion of voices of the powerless in Africa and around the world, in the literary conversation on the world stage. He challenged long held myths (often negative about Africa) along the way; and attempted to recast, concomitantly, the image of Africa, Africans, - and hence himself- through his novels, poetry, essays, and children’s books.

As founding editor of the African Writers Series, Achebe played a seminal role in introducing a new cadre of writers and literature from all parts of Africa to the world. The influential Harvard intellectuals - Stephen Greenblatt and Henry Louis Gates Jr. - remind us that: “the world wide literature cannon today is shaped as much by Anglo-Saxon or Celtic names like Lessing, Grass, Pinter, and Heaney, as by names that clearly imply origins beyond the British Isles or Europe - Naipaul, Achebe, Walcott, Rushdie, Marquez and Soyinka.” I am grateful to GOD for blessing Dad with this immense contribution to world literature and hence, civilization.

What I am getting at is that ART is a serious matter.The fiftieth anniversary of Things Fall Apart has produced renewed interest in all of Achebe’s work. Arrow of God,& nbsp; Anthills of the Savannah, No Longer at Ease, A man of the people and his poetry have remerged in classrooms around the world.

Given your profound interest in literary developments around the world, people tend to forget that Chidi Achebe is actually a medical doctor, tell us about yourself and how it is that you are able to traverse both the scientific and literary worlds.

Well, Alvan, send a medical correspondent next time and we will talk about health care issues (laughter)...

Yes, indeed, I am the President and CEO of a health center in Boston and I am also a physician. I was educated at Bard College where I earned a B.A. in Natural Sciences, with a minor in History and Philosophy. I later obtained an M.P.H. (Masters in Public Health) from the Harvard School of Public Health and a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) from Dartmouth College Medical School. I also hold an MBA (Masters in Business Administration) from Yale School of Management

I believe that there should be a seamless interplay of myriad fields of knowledge - be it science, politics, business and/or art. Exposure to as many aspects or disciplines of knowledge sharpens your intellect and enhances you as a human being.

In our family, several members have both science and art degrees or intersecting interests. Dad as you know started off in medicine and we can all be grateful that he ended up as a writer. My older brother Ike holds a masters and a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge in the UK and another masters in Computer Sciences. My maternal uncle, the late Dr. Samuel Okoli (one of my mentors), was a UK trained physician - (Obstetrician/Gynecologist) - and apart from running a hospital in Lagos, also was deeply interested in the arts, music and literature.

Let us not forget that there is a long list of physicians who practiced medicine and had other great interests in history - in antiquity there was Ctesias (5th century B.C.) Greek historian, also one cannot forget one of the greatest of physicians - St. Luke (1st century A.D.) apostle and author of the most literary of the four gospels- the explorer David Livingston, Anton Chekov... Closer to home one can name individuals such as Nawal El Saadawi, the Egyptian novelist, Professor Anezi-Okoro, the ANA president Wale Okediran. Also Frantz Fanon comes to I do not have unique interests....

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