In what was probably not the most fitting of tributes, the Embassy of Nigeria and Chevron teamed up to support the most recent edition of the Africa Society’s Andrew Young lecture series. The noted academic, Ali Mazrui, who I first became aware of while perusing the University of Ghana’s bookstore as an undergraduate, was the featured speaker for an event honoring the recently deceased African literary dean, Chinua Achebe. Perhaps the most interesting point, which will please the Afro-pessimists out there, is that both of these African scholarly giants have decided to spend their final years in the northeastern part of the United States (Achebe in Boston, Mazrui in upstate New Yok). Achebe also refused prestigious honors from the Nigerian state in his final years and was an ardent supporter of the secessionist Biafra republic in the late 1960s.
The event had a very strong pan-African focus. The evening’s host, Nigerian ambassador Adebowale Adefuye, who like his President Goodluck Jonathan holds a doctoral degree, had conducted graduate studies at Makerere University in Uganda while Ali Mazrui lectured there. Dr. Adefuye made an invitation extending the use of the embassy premises for any group of African-Americans holding an event promoting black culture. Most interestingly, and I cannot recall the impetus for this remark, he described Bob Marley as the musical expression of the philosophy of the Jamaican pan-Africanist, Marcus Garvey.
He did address the elephant in the room, namely Chinua Achebe’s criticism of the Nigerian state. Adefuye’s position is that one ‘cannot blame him for expressing his opinion’ and that his critical remarks aside, his illustrious career brought honor to Nigeria. He also said that a whole coterie of academics who had written their dissertations on Achebe owed him a great deal.
Johnnetta Cole, a former President of Spelman College who is currently the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art also heaped on the Pan-Africanism perspective. She had known Achebe since the early 1970s when they were colleagues at the University of Massachusetts and she lauded his candid criticisms of Joseph Conrad, the well know British-Polish novelist, whose Heart of Darkness, one of his best known works, was set in an unnamed country resembling the Congo.
She also fawned over Chinua Achebe’s parenting skills, extolling the large number of degrees his children have accumulated (to which Bernadette Paolo of the Africa Society replied by stating that one of Ali Mazrui’s children was a lawyer, like her).
Ali Mazrui (a Kenyan who was educated in the West and has spent most of his career outside Africa) gave an extremely cerebral address, speaking on his own novel that explored the Biafran civil war (he is also connected to Nigeria via his wife, a Nigerian) and making some comparisons between Achebe and 18th century British writers. I found his most interesting statements to be a dismissal of Biafran secession as a “suidical bid” and his repeated references to personal ambivalence as to the righteousness of the independence movement.
I must confess that I left about halfway through his remarks. Therefore, I should similarly confess that I’ve never been able to make it through one of Achebe’s best known works, Things Fall Apart, but perhaps I’ll take a look at some of his non-fiction, to see what he may have thought about Chevron, the 3rd largest oil producer in Nigeria, sponsoring an event in his honor.