WAY back in 1979, I was privileged to get close to our idol and hero, Professor Chinua Achebe. I had just gained admission to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
I was 17 years old. Though I had applied to study Mass Communication or Political Science in the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, JAMB, examination, I found myself in the Department of English. Getting to the university, I sought to change to the course of my first choice but later decided to settle for English after one of the most respected lecturers, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and my clansman, the late Prof. Donatus Nwoga, to whom I had taken my complaint, had talked sense into me.
On settling down and doing all the necessary clearance, I filled the course form to start my studies in earnest. The University of Nigeria, Nsukka of those days was not a place you could waste any time in your studies. Not when you had ‘high voltage’ courses –courses that carried 12 and nine credit loads. A slip or low grade in those courses and you were already heading for third class or pass degree.
After filling my course form, I went to the department notice board to know who was my academic adviser and whom I should take the form to for his signature. I stared in disbelief as I saw against my name: Professor Chinua Achebe. What? Achebe! I did not even know that the literary icon was there as one of our lecturers. At that time, I could not claim to be a very bold young man. Though I could not describe myself as timid, but the trappings of a village boy who was leaving his village for the first time was quite evident in me. I was, therefore, filled with trepidation though a little excited.
But how would I approach him? A Professor whose name rings bell all over the world. A person, known for his mastery of English Language, who was said to teach Engish people their own language. How would I talk to him? What if I made mistakes? Would he chide me or refuse to sign my form or…what? Useless thoughts filled my fear-stricken heart.
Mustering enough courage, I approached the door with the wooden sticker on which was written: Prof. Chinua Achebe. I met the Secretary, a woman, as I opened the door. She asked me what I wanted and I told her I wanted my course form signed. She quickly collected it from me and added it to others on her table and asked me to come the next day to collect it after ‘Prof’ must have signed it. I thanked her and quickly left the office, grateful that I did not have to confront Professor Achebe. But somehow, even as I was grateful to leave, I still felt a little disappointed that I could not see Prof. Achebe face to face. To see and probably touch the author of Things Fall Apart and A Man of the People, his books I had read before then, would be the beginning of greatness, I thought.
The next day, I was back to the department and to the office. A car, a Jaguar, which I learnt belonged to Prof. Achebe announced his presence. As I entered the general office, and told the secretary that I had come for the form, she quickly told me that my form was not out and that Prof. had signed all the forms she sent in except mine and that other students had already collected theirs. I could not understand as I stood there speechless. “You have to go and meet him for yours. I don’t know why he didn’t sign it.” I stood staring at nothing in particular as I contemplated how I would meet him. Why didn’t he sign my form? How would I present my case? What would I say?
Remembering that I was now in the university and that I must be bold and courageous instead of being the village boy, I summed up courage and knocked on the door and opened, my hand a little shaky.
“Good morning, Sir”. I could detect timidity in my voice and I thought he did too.
“Good morning,” he replied, barely looking up as he looked at me above his reading glasses. He was very busy writing and appeared to have little time to talk.
“I have come to collect my course form, Sir,” I started… He looked up and with his head motioned to the ‘out’ tray on his left. There on top of the papers was my form. I picked it. But it was not signed. I stared at it for some seconds.
“Sir, it… i..s… not signed…” I began. He looked up, regarded me for a moment and bent down again on his work. I stood there for nearly a minute not knowing what to do or what next to say. Something must be wrong with the form, I thought. I quickly turned and left the office. Once out and on the corridor, I went through the form, searching for any mistake. Then, my eyes went to the word, ‘Professor’. “Ah! Is this word spelt with double ‘f’ and double ‘s’ or is it double ‘f’ and one ‘s’. I rushed to the department library just opposite me and quickly grabbed a copy of Oxford Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary. I went searching for ‘Professor’ and promptly found it. My God! One ‘f’ and double ‘s’ and I had spelt it with double ‘f’ and one ‘s’. This could be the problem.
I rushed back to the general office, collected correction fluid from the secretary and neatly cleaned the word and wrote the correct spelling. I knocked on the Prof’s door some minutes later and opened. As I entered with the form, his eyes quickly went to the correction. He stretched out his hand without saying a thing and collected the form from me. He signed it immediately and handed it back to me, grinning and nodding his approval.
I smiled and thanked him. He smiled back at me, his smile so kind and fatherly. I left the office so happy that I had met Professor Chinua Achebe and could describe him to anyone who cared to know. Besides, I was very happy that I had learnt the spelling of ‘professor’ once and for all. This is the department of English indeed and I had to be very careful with my spellings and use of words, I thought. The lesson had actually begun and I had been taught the first lesson by no other than the legendry Chinua Achebe.
The next time I got very close to Prof. Achebe was in my second year. I had been elected Secretary of The English Association. The various executive positions of the association were usually distributed among the first, second and third year students since the final year students were considered too busy to engage in association matters.
We had organised the usual welcome party for the fresh students and new lecturers that had just joined the department. It was late evening around 7pm. I cannot recall what took me to the department that evening before going to the party that was to start by 8 pm.
As I walked down the corridor of the ground floor of Ansa Building housing the English Department, I met Professor Achebe coming out from his office.
“Good evening, Prof”, I greeted.
“Good evening, Oh! Good, secretary, where is your party taking place?
Somewhat stunned, I replied, “Princess Alexandria, Sir.”
“Ok. Are you ready? Let’s go together.”
He entered his car, the imposing Jaguar, the only such car on campus, and opened the front seat door for me. I went in with my heart thumping. “Me…ride with Professor Chinua Achebe in his Jaguar. In the car he enquired about my health, my academics and the association. I answered his questions carefully, modestly until we got to the venue of the party.
Reminiscing on this, I could not but imagine what a father Achebe was. So simple as his use of words in writing, so loving and kind. I marvelled at his wonderful memory. Even though, he did not teach me in class, did not see me very often, he could still recognise me anywhere.
But by far, what continued to beat my imagination was how he knew that I was the Secretary of the English Association as I never had any encounter with him in that capacity. Could it be that the Prof was taking silent interest in all us and was monitoring our progress?
Prof. Achebe was indeed a great man. A great writer and a heroic figure. His death, to me, and no doubt, to all his students at Nsukka, is like the death of a god. Of course, he was the god of African fiction.
Prof, could it be that you knew you were going to die that you hastened to bring out There Was A Country whose first few pages read like an autobigraphy or better, a valecdictory speech? Could it be that you knew what was going to happen that you rounded off your career so smoothly, providing us with the missing link of your life, the brief country you belonged to and the disappointing country you died in?
Rest in peace, our hero and our pride!
Mr. ENYERIBE ANYANWU, a commentator on national issues, wrote from Lagos.