“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”
– William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
How can a word so final as ‘dead’ be used to describe the living? Chinua Achebe is not dead. His kernel is, definitely, as is the destiny of all kernels or shells. They die, and then they decay, decompose, etc. But the man, the real person, does not really die, unless he was dead before he died.
Wole Soyinka says: “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.” Achebe was not silent. He spoke with Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, No Longer At Ease, Anthills of the Savannah, Man of the People, The Problem With Nigeria, There Was A Country, etc. He spoke when he turned down national awards of ‘honour’. He spoke when paralysis did not stop him from living. He spoke in his many speeches and interviews. He spoke when he broke the forty-year-long silence on the Biafran war in his controversial book and the last work he published, There Was A Country.
Achebe was saying goodbye to us with There Was A Country, but we did not know it. Instead of listening to the prophetic contemplations of a man who sensed that his time was near, we argued back and forth, taking sides where there was no conflict, even when many of the debaters had not read the book in question. Nemo moriturus proesumitur mentiri – a man will not meet his maker with a lie in his mouth. Achebe probably waited until he was ready to say farewell before sharing his point of view on the war and other crucial issues related to it; perhaps he waited because he wanted us to admit his declaration as evidence – to accept the veracity of his conclusion without much doubt.
The whole world attests to his greatness, despite several accusations. He was accused of ditching the country of his birth, when he sought succour in another land, after suffering lasting wounds facilitated by some leaders’ negligence. He was reproached for writing pornography, because he chose to portray realities in his novels. He was allegedly proud or snobbish, because he refused what he saw as dishonour clothed in ‘honourable titles’. His meanings were misinterpreted, that was why many concluded that the ‘country’ that ‘was’ is Biafra, where Achebe was referring to Nigeria. He was called a liar, when he gave his literary ‘last testimony’. But no one denies his greatness, and none dares say that he was a coward. He was courageous.
Achebe is not dead. He continues to live in his works. He created classics, and a lasting legacy. Death has not conquered this one. His words and lines endure. His life endures in his many books, articles and speeches. His life continues in the lives of his students and followers. His works live in shelves and libraries in physical and virtual space. His words decorate the works of many writers. How can he die, when his works thrive? With reference to Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet, his lines give life to him.
There were four brothers. One left with the Biafran war. Another has gone. The remaining two, Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark tell us that he lives, and remind us that Achebe’s works ‘provide their enduring testimony to the domination of the human spirit over the forces of repression, bigotry, and retrogression.’
Death came when it came. But death has lost yet again: Achebe is not dead!