I grew up under my grandfather’s ancient pear tree in the Nigerian village of Uwessan. The tree’s roots were massive and its leaves shielded us from hot tropical sun while we played soccer. Elders also used it as shade while drinking palm wine and telling hunting tales in the evening. We sometimes climbed a low branch to set wire-traps and catch birds. When a dead branch broke off, it became firewood. Most important, the tree was a major cash crop for my grandfather, who sold its fruits to traders from far away.
Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer who died last week, was a similarly rich resource for an entire generation of Nigerians. He meant different things to different people, but he was first and foremost a writer whom we all grew up to respect.
We were raised on Mr. Achebe’s stories. His fame spread through towns and villages across Nigeria and even beyond. I first encountered him at the age of 10 through the pages of “Chike and the River,” a children’s storybook. Mr. Achebe later became a regular staple at every step of my educational journey.
In secondary school, his masterpiece “Things Fall Apart” was a recommended text. My older siblings had read the novel and passed down the story and a worn-out copy to me. One of my older sisters had warned me that some parts of the book were so tragic I would cry. I never knew until then that written words could elicit such emotions. When you grew up in a village like mine, not many books had familiar characters, setting or diction like Mr. Achebe’s.
His use of parables and proverbs brought his writing home for me, because they were sayings I heard every day as a villager.
In my undergrad days as an English and literature major, we were asked to write long essays on him and his works. Throughout the four years in the department, most of us had read him so much we felt we knew him personally.
I finally met Mr. Achebe in person years later in New York. When he entered the room, everybody froze in reverence. He was not a physical giant with a booming voice. He was a gentle needle that sewed tattered clothes, a minuscule scorpion’s tail that packed venom. He answered every question with the precision of a sniper. He was a man who spoke gently, yet he was a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down,” as Nelson Mandela said.
Mr. Achebe was a source of pride to many Nigerians, an elder we could point to when the world laughed at our shortcomings. We often invoked his name like that of a fierce god.
Beyond his literary prowess, Mr. Achebe was known to stand for what he believed in. When those who did not know the African story told it to glorify themselves, he rose like a lion and thwarted the hunter’s tales with truth. Not only did he fight back against the mistelling of our story by white explorers; he equipped other writers to do the same.
With fiction and nonfiction, he helped us deride colonialism. He went to the front lines of the Biafran war in the late 1960s and served as an ambassador for the short-lived breakaway republic when he felt the need to side with his fellow Ibos in their unsuccessful fight for independence.
He also addressed corruption head on, teaching younger Nigerians not to be hungry to the point of selling our birthrights. His soul and conscience were nonnegotiable. He turned down Nigeria’s national honors twice because he was one who believed an elder should not eat his meal atop a heap of malodorous rubbish.
Mr. Achebe was a gentle rebel who refused to shake the necrotic outstretched hands of corrupt leaders. He was an old breed, a wise man from a different generation who could not stand the wanton looting of Nigeria’s public coffers.
Mr. Achebe would have loved to spend his twilight years among his own people instead of in America. With the bastardization of a nation he was once proud of by kleptocratic military and civilian rulers, the old man had no country to return to alive.
Victor Ehikhamenor, a writer and visual artist, is the author of Excuse Me!