The Iroko has Fallen; Long Live the Eagle: A Tribute to Chinua Achebe

By M. O. ENE


“You cannot plant greatness as you plant yams or maize. Who ever planted an iroko tree – the greatest tree in the forest? You may collect all the iroko seeds in the world, open the soil and put them there. It will be in vain. The great tree chooses where to grow and we find it there, so it is with the greatness in men.”

Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease (1960)


Traditional African names are a very personal phenomenon as well as popular vehicles through which generations advance and pass on cultural creeds and linguistic legacies in all their rightful ramifications. The Igbo nation of Professor Chinua Achebe is not an exception. Mr. William Shakespeare definitely never heard about the Igbo, or any prominent Africans besides Othello, when he opined that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Igbo names have deep ritual and religious relevance, social significance, and serious symbolism probably like to no other nation on earth. Names are not words plucked from existential emptiness; they are designed to celebrate life and to review constantly the reality of human conditions in the Cosmos.

There are seven types of names an Igbo person might bear in a lifetime. Like the Akan of Ghana, the day you are born names you: Kofi, Kwame, Kweku, Adwoa, Afua, etc. Unlike the Akan, the Igbo have only four days in a native week (seven weeks in a full moon, and 13 moons in one solar year). These days are named after four gods: Eke, Orie, Afo, Nkwo, and the names are used in varied ways to name both females and males: Akunkwo, Mgboafo, Mgboeke, Nwankwo, Nwaeke, Okeke, Okonkwo, etc.


The family last name or surname waits before birth. Then comes the native doctor or soothsayer to announce who has returned… for the Igbo believe in the reincarnation of souls. Parents add given names, now given color with imported so-called Judeo-Christian (European) and Muslim (Arabic) names. Pet names follow—some stick, others don’t; and friends have ready nicknames. Of interest here is the title name that a person chooses for himself. Yes, in Igboland you take titles; titles are not given. The conferment of chieftaincy titles is a more modern, copied craze, a tolerated, post-1970 aberration! So, ever a true traditionalist, Achebe took the title of “Ugo n’Abo”: The Eagle on the Iroko. The eagle is the king of birds; the iroko is the giant of trees, the tree no one plants—the tree of true greatness. Achebe, the iroko, grew in western Africa, home of irokos.


Achebe’s title name says it all. He was what the Igbo call “Okaibe”—primus inter pares, the first among peers, the creamiest of creams in African modern literature. No one came close while Achebe lived. Achebe inspired and sustained a modern, pan-African literature genre that will outlive every person alive on the day he joined his Igbo-African ancestors, amongst whom the gods chose to grow him.


Africa’s Achebe is gone to rest with the ancestors. Chinualumogu Achebe lived true to his name. He allowed his Chi to fight for him, for he who walks in lockstep with his godly guardian or personal providence, his Chi, attains the pinnacle of his purpose in life. Unlike tragic Okonkwo Unoka of Umuofia, the main character in his epic novel, Things Fall Apart, Achebe agreed with his Chi, and his Chi guarded and guided him right, away from studying medicine to working with words. “Onye kwe, Chi ya ekwe”: He believed; he achieved… by the grace of his Chi.


Like all great men the world over, Achebe did not write an autobiography. He came close in his last published book, There was a Country. A personal story of the Biafran epoch (1967-1970), the book vented so much suppressed emotions from the decadent den of decades of denials —especially from those who are yet to read the book, who soon crawled back to the den of denial. Nonetheless, Achebe left a lot of works and speeches, enough for scholars yet unborn to string together the essence of his life. The full story, however, may never be told. Like the elephant to six blind men, his life was larger than the elephant to the blind and, as the wise man said to the blind men, the Eagle on the Iroko will have all the features to be described and much more.


The last time I saw Achebe was in Billy Johnson Auditorium of Newark Museum, New Jersey, USA on Friday, June 2, 2006. It rained with buckets. Achebe revealed that he knew early on in the 1950s that the English language must have a discussion with his Igbo language, that Christianity must have a discussion with Odinani (Igbo religion). It is no wonder he wrote in Things Fall Apart (1958):“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”


Obviously, Achebe decided to “write back” to the Europeans in a language that is very African but which they would understand. This devise, I believe, lifted his epic work and placed it high on the iroko. The European could not touch it; he just stood and admired it and wondered what lies behind the striking showy sayings. It is no wonder Achebe never won the Nobel for literature. He refused to conform to established forms. He chose to clear and plant in a virgin land, and the harvest was plentiful.


As an ardent Christian, thanks to his father who didn’t seek his opinion on the matter, Achebe needed to step away from Christian indoctrination for the “discussion” with Christianity to hold. He made it unequivocally clear that Christianity was not fair to the Igbo faith and African traditional religions in general, neither was colonialism on which back Christianity rode into Africa. The inability of foreign faiths to speak to African traditional beliefs is the bane of many African nations.


Achebe posited that there should be a common ground in all fields of human endeavors, a meeting of minds where none is adjudged superior. This is in keeping with his famous statement: “Whatever you are is never enough. You must find a way to accept something, however small, from the other to make you whole and to save you from the mortal sin of righteousness and extremism.” I believe that accepting “small something” is the essence of the great country we call the United States of America.


Achebe was born into the Igbo nation of southeastern Nigeria. He did not fold and hide under the cloak of literature when his people were subjected to a pathetic pogrom. A man does not shy away from a fight for fear that someone might get shot. Unlike Chris Okigbo, his friend and Africa’s great poet, he knew not to run before his Chi, take up a gun, and head to the bloody battlefield. Okigbo did.; he died. Achebe survived the Nigerian-Biafran War and emerged to fight another day.


Back to ‘one Nigeria,’ he did not shy away from political punditry. His book, The Trouble with Nigeria (1983) was a runnaway seminal success. Right off the bat, Achebe rightly rejected the European model of exotic Africa—from where Pliny the Elder said something new always emerges, by asserting that there was nothing wrong with Nigerians. Now, for one to say that something is sweet, the speaker should also say what it tastes like. So what was wrong with the African giant with clay feet? Achebe wrote what is now the canon of commentators: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.”


Achebe’s diagnosis of the disease (“a failure of leadership”) is yet to find a cure. Not a man for half measure, he stepped into the putrid pond of politics and ran as a vice-presidential canditate with a popular politican, Malam Aminu Kano. Alas, Nigerians do not elect saints; in fact, politics is not for saints. Politics Africana is not about merit; it is about lies, positioning, grandstanding, money, fakery… hardly substance.


Achebe challenged Africans to rise and reclaim their culture. Like his 1700s Igbo compatriot Olaudah (Gustavus Vassa) Equiano before him, Achebe left big shoes. Unlike Mr. Equiano, the father of American autobiography and rage against slavery, Achebe left footprints in many genres of writing: fiction, history, politics, policies, publishing, editing, etc. Achebe will be rememberd for a very long time, mostly thanks to Things Fall Apart, a book that came at a time the Europeans were still trying to figure out Africa which, at the 1884 Berlin Conference (Kongokonferenz), they divided among themselves using a sketched map! His other books are not to be ignored, neither should “The Achebe Interviews” and “The Achebe Colloquium.” An Achebe Foundation must find ways to build more layers on the solid foundations Achebe laid.


Do we wish he had lived longer? Of course. Life is never ever enough; even the passing of paupers and loafers is mourned. Here was a great man of letters, an African legend, an icon from whose blessed brains we would have wanted to squeeeze out a lot more. Achebe will be missed. He will be remembered fondly by all—friends and foes: He gave his best to a nation that appreciated him—Ndiigbo; he gave a detailed diagnosis to the county that still struggles to shake its clay feet—Nigerians; he made proud a continent that is yet to achieve its full potential—Africans; and he passed on to eternity in the land of the free and home of the brave—Americans.


In Igbo theosophy, there are four principal stages of life: birth, rite of passage (teenagehood); marriage (adulthood), and death. Achebe lived through the circle of life. It is finished. However, like the geometric circle, the circle of life continues. The distance between birth and death could be over 70 years (almost 83 for Achebe), but the distance between life and death is 70 native weeks (280 days)—the time it takes for human life to form, incubate, and emerge. In 40 weeks time when the spirit of Achebe comes back, may he do for the world as much as he did for Africa. May his regrets turn into energy with which to make the future a better place for all. May his return bring us much more than we got from Chinualumogu Albert Achebe: writer, poet, author, essayist, social critic, pundit, mentor, pioneer, academician, husband, father, grandfather and, above all, a soul brother. Fare thee well; ‘Ije oma!’


The Iroko has fallen;

The Eagle has flown

Away at an angle:

Long live the Eagle!

Dr. Ene is an author and sociopoitical critic. His works include Blighted Blues, Nnenna: My Daughter, My Mother, and Kolanut: Food of the Gods. He blogs a column, “MOE’s Memo,” on, and he writes from New Jersey, USA.

Posted by on Apr 13 2013. Filed under Community News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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