Monday, March 1, 2010

Achebe's Laboratory - Realising Father's Dream in Son

By Yemi Adebisi, Daily Independent/All Africa

Lagos — Most foremost African writers fight injustice, preach liberty, moral, through their pens while some prefer to confront their 'opponents' to iron out their differences physically. Though there are a number of these literary evangelists that never started as a writer, but as fate would have it, ended up being a voice to reckon with in the Diaspora. For instance, the late Cyprian Ekwensi read Pharmacy, but his fame would not shine in the drug laboratories. He breathed his last in the cold room of short stories and children literature. The acclaimed father of African literature, Chinua Achebe also started with the intention of becoming a world renowned medical doctor.

Today, his contributions in the world famous record of fiction cannot be overemphasised. He is also one of the few African writers that suffered the brunt of the gun, because of what he put down in one of his novels, A Man of the People. He didn't find it funny when the military was all out for him during the Nigeria's first military coup: "One Sunday morning I was telephoned from Broadcasting House and informed that armed soldiers who appeared drunk had come looking for me to test which was stronger, my pen or their gun.

The offence of my pen was that it had written a novel called A Man of the People, a bitter satire on political corruption in an African country that resembled Nigeria.

I wanted the novel to be a denunciation of the kind of independence that people were experiencing in post-colonial Nigeria and many other countries in the 1960s, and I intended it to scare my countrymen into good behaviour with a frightening cautionary tale. The best monster I could come up with was a military coup de'tat, which every sane Nigerian at the time knew was rather far-fetched. But life and art had got so entangled that season that the publication of the novel and Nigeria's first military coup happened within two days of each other," Achebe recalled recently.

Claiming the reason behind his choice of 'war', he said Nigeria has not offered the best to justify her freedom from the colonial master going by the dividend of democracy: "Our 1960 National Anthem, given to us as a parting gift by a British housewife in England, had called Nigeria "our sovereign motherland." The current anthem, put together by a committee of Nigerian intellectuals and actually worse than the first one, invokes the father image. But it has occurred to me that Nigeria is neither my mother nor my father. Nigeria is a child. Gifted, enormously talented, prodigiously endowed and incredibly wayward."

What is Achebe's continuous worry about his country Nigeria? "Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting. I have said somewhere that in my next reincarnation I want to be a Nigerian again, but I have also, in a rather angry book called The Trouble with Nigeria, dismissed Nigerian travel advertisements with the suggestion that only a tourist with a kinky addiction to self-flagellation would pick Nigeria for a holiday. And I mean both."

It is amazing that the only daughter that took after Achebe in the art of writing is Chinelo Achebe-Ejueyitche. She teaches and writes in New York, U.S., where she lives with her family. She has also worked in publishing. Her first book, The Last Laugh and Other Stories, was published by Heinemann in 1992. However, other children have proved to be the best in their various careers.

Chinua Achebe's dream to become a medical doctor was never a waste after all. His second child, Chidi Achebe has filled the gap with the latest world record he broke in the United States of America (USA).

He said recently, "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 elder 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."

Of recent, at a time of recession, he installs a new laboratory and dental clinic in Dorchester, the United States of America, catering to the health problems of the people. This report affirms why this promising Nigerian doctor is the future of healthcare.

"I used to always say to my family," recounts Dr. Chidi Achebe, "why is it that when you go to clinics in the wealthy neighbourhoods, like Wellesley, they have labs? Why don't we have that here in Dorchester? I don't ask that question anymore," he says. "If it's not in Wellesley, then I don't want it here. I just want the same standards, since we're in the same country."

However, many Nigerians have registered their displeasure to the choice of location of such edifice in the United States of America. A Nigerian writer, Godfrey Ebuchulam, in his reaction through a mail said this is the high time Africans learnt how to build their homes. "Congratulations to Dr. Chidi Achebe on his new lab. Now that he has built this facility in America, his father is at home, why not build the same facility at home (Nigeria)? Charity must begin at home, where this is a person from China, he/she would find a legal way to build it in China first, then he/she would build one in America, and later show others how to duplicate the same lab in their countries. Africans are here building in America, yet, our people at home who have no advocate die in silence, those who can afford it would come here (America) for care. What about the person who is unable to afford the costs to come to America, is her/his life worthless?" he queried.

Be that as it may, the record has been made through the dark pot of an African legendary writer.

The laboratory has been described as a gift of the University of Massachusetts Memorial Labs, one of the largest and growing lab companies in the New England region.

But it has only been since Achebe took the job and hired an outstanding team of medical workers that Harvard Street Health Centre has received, what he calls, a facelift.

The centre has historically concentrated on primary care, but with a difference, according to Achebe, they are open to black men with criminal records being released on parole.

"I am a black male, and I think that one of the things that we are suffering from in our community is the fact that our men have not gotten the kind of healthcare that they deserve. They're not able to function in the family unit to lift the whole family, and one of the things that we want to remind the men is that if the pathology is yours, then it's going to be ours as a community, because people look at themselves as silos. But if the men are not taking care of themselves and it's all about the women taking care of the kids then the balance isn't there."

The Centre also has a food pantry conspicuously tucked away in its basement.

"This is a big secret," says Achebe. "One of the reasons this pantry is arranged this way is to give our patients the respect that they deserve. We want to make it possible for people to come here and leave without drawing any undue attention to the fact that they are here picking up food."

Taking a moment to mention a handful of the doctors that he has on staff, Achebe continues, "We have been blessed with fantastic physicians committed to the community. My commitment to them is to work as hard as I can to help keep the standards similar to what you would expect in a mainstream hospital so that these well-trained doctors don't feel like they're slumming. You want them to know that they are working in our community and it's not so bad. That's why we're trying to get into this building next door, and if we get everything else that we're dreaming of then guess what? It's in Dorchester!"

With seven major health clinics located throughout the neighbourhood, there has never been a plan to have so much compacted into just one of the centres in Dorchester. The strategy, says Achebe, is to be the first.

"I spent two years getting an MBA from Yale University and one of the things that I loved the most about the time was a course I took on strategy. Getting to the finish line first is a humongous strategic advantage because you get to announce, 'Hey, I'm here!' Anyone else who is getting there behind you will look like a copy-cat."

When asked to suggest some strategic approaches to the national healthcare crisis, Achebe cited a unique trend-taking place in hospitals throughout the city of Boston, which involves hiring doctors who can run hospitals like him.

"A lot of these doctors can be productive towards the bottom line because they can see patients. I'm in clinic part of the week, so even though I have an MBA and I can speak the business language, I am also contributing to the bottom line as opposed to some figure clearly getting a big salary. Clinicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, any one of these people, with an MBA and the experience, can run a clinical setting. All of the major and tertiary hospitals in Boston are run by medical doctors and I think that is the future."

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