Going home was a sad awakening
Living in exile, it is easy to begin to forget the simple things. "The sounds of the morning are different," says Chinua Achebe of the way it feels to greet the day in his native region in Nigeria. "To hear the birds." And, of course, he adds, "To be surrounded by the Ibo language."Skip to next paragraph
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These pleasures had not been available to the famed Nigerian novelist, the author of the 1959 classic "Things Fall Apart" - for nine years since leaving his country in 1990.
A serious car accident and the need for Western medical attention first prompted him to leave and then a repressive five-year military regime kept him out.
Shortly after leaving, Mr. Achebe settled in New York's Hudson Valley region where he has since been teaching literature at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson.
This summer, however, three months after the inauguration of a new civilian government, Achebe was able to return home for a visit. The journey aroused so many emotions that even Achebe, a man famed for the power of his narratives, says he cannot yet find the words to frame them.
In a dialogue with the Congolese novelist Emmanuel Dongala - also teaching at Bard while he lives in exile from his country's civil war - Achebe spoke recently in front of Bard faculty and students about what he felt and saw while in his homeland.
Nigeria has 'ceased to work'
"There is great sadness," says Achebe. "This is a country that has ceased to work." And yet, he adds, "I kept fighting to see the good in us as well." Especially at home in his own region, among the Ibo people, he says he found hope and vitality. "The ordinary people are not passive. They are viable, even humorous."
The writer flew into the country's former capital of Lagos, but went almost immediately to his home region 400 miles to the east. He also, at the invitation of the government, traveled to the new capital of Abuja to meet with President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Speaking at Bard, Achebe stopped short of wholeheartedly endorsing President Obasanjo. "Writers are not in the business of endorsing anybody," he says. But he did call Obasanjo "the best of the possibilities that we have right now," adding that he is "a bright man," with "many qualifications."
Yet a return to civilian rule is only a beginning point for the troubled country, Achebe points out. "At least now we have turned and are facing in the right direction," he says. "But that is all that we have done."
Achebe says it was impossible not to be troubled by the poverty and decay evident in his country. "Even arriving at the airport in Lagos is depressing," he says. "You suddenly felt that something was wrong. There was a lack of smoothness in the runway."
Despite having booked his flight on a respected international airline, Achebe was concerned to realize on landing that there was no wheelchair on board. "Regulations say there should always be a wheelchair on board," he says. "First, you wonder why this airline would disregard the rule on this flight. Then you realize - it is because they are going to Nigeria."
Once off the plane, the drive along a crumbling highway with beggars sleeping by the wayside was also deeply troubling, says Achebe.