Monday, 12 May 2014

Partial Reflections on the 2014 Chinua Achebe Colloquium, Brown University, 1-3 May 2014

Kwadwo Osei-Nyame, Jnr
School of Oriental and Africa Studies
University of London
A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so. Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe, In Memoriam
The 2014 Chinua Achebe Colloquium was an enjoyable moment. The panels were generally very well organized, mostly done within time, the speakers mostly were able to bring some interesting angles to discussing and commemorating Achebe’s work, thus in a sense making us - at least that’s how I personally felt - re-discover other dimensions of Achebe and what he represents.
A fair number of contributions established that convergence between text and wider world, something which Professor Spivak, for example, did very well in her interesting presentation. Another person who established that connection between the writer and his universe was the “youngster” Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, who reading -presenting and concurrently speaking off-the-cuff also drove the point home well.
To mention these two, however, is not in any way to leave out the many other excellent presenters. One cannot forget, for example, the panel on There Was a Country, which proved that one could speak about Achebe, about Biafra, about Nigeria and indeed about Africa and even the Black World and still establish the connections between these, without spiteful acrimony. Not that the book on which the panel was based cannot be critiqued but that one can tell a story about a nation any nation within or without another nation as part of a process of historical dialogue: Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe demonstrated this so very well in his talk and as another contributor on his panel put it, “yes, there was and is a country Biafra, but there also was and is a country Nigeria”.  One might add here that in a sense there will always be both.
Again, hearing for example, how the contribution that someone like Dr Nair Anaya Ferriera is making with Achebe’s work among African descent people (the Afro-Mexicans) in Mexico, hearing her describe how she is spreading the word and providing students and the community a means of self-understanding, that was most inspiring, giving an indication of the reach and extent, indeed the limitless possibilities of Chinua Achebe’s legacy in the New World.
Serious discussions aside, the conference was full of some truly humorous moments. Recall, for example when Raoul Granqvist made the entire audience laugh with his story, of almost being denied entry into the US for some silly reason(s), and how he had to hold back his words, and not tell his interviewer what he really would have liked to tell him or her because he really simply wanted to be at the colloquium and so kept his mouth shut.
The presentations were of course interspersed with some beautiful performances - singers, dancers, instrumentalists, raconteurs, drawing, teasing out and  illustrating vividly and vibrantly, even soulfully the connection between the world of literature and of  Igbo and other African cultures, indeed the connection between our African culture(s) and in another sense our spirituality. Performers were in this respect from South Africa, from Igboland, and also right (t)here in the African Diaspora, from the African community in the United States/America.  
Seeing Chidi Achebe with his time-keeping antennae, always on the ready and quick to entreat the Mistress of Ceremony, Abena Busia, to regulate the time and keep everyone in order at the least sign of disarray, which was done gracefully by both Chidi and Abena, even if with some interesting challenges such as when speakers and performers occasionally became over-exuberant! I think we ended up enjoying it all as drama and spectacle anyway. And Abena of course compeered the event very smoothly in her usual bubbly manner…
We cannot forget Mikele and her events team, ever helpful, as they had been prior to our arriving, and here even the driver of the shuttle between the conference centre and hotel deserves mention for being always lively and cheerful, and patient even as he obviously had a business-like approach to keeping his shuttling schedule intact. Meals at the hotel and lunch and dinner were fine.
Re-connecting with Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, Obioma Nnaemaka, Akachi Ezeigbo, Chimalum Nwankwo, Olakunle George, Olabode Ibironke, and many others, colleagues whom I haven’t seen for a while, making new friends, all of that apart from the stimulating nature of the discussions made it enjoyable and while I mention these folk above, I believe it was equally joyous for others to be re-connecting with whoever they touched base with or whoever they even became acquainted with or got to meet for the first time.
There were twists and turns of fate. Hearing sadly how Morakabe Raks Seakhoa was denied a visa ostensibly for his anti-apartheid activism in a previous era. Should that be a crime? Really in this day and age? Lawd hav mercy upon some souls, abi? O shame and shame unto the powers that be! What absurdity really. Anyway his partner, Sindiswa Seakhoa, who was accompanying him, was allowed entry.
The heavy-handedness, even the gross injustice of immigration in the belly of the beast notwithstanding, did not stop us enjoying Sindiswa’s wonderful performance, her synthesis of song and poetry into a melodious rhythm was invigorating. I thought as she stood on stage of Miriam Makeba, I thought of Yvonne Chaka Chaka, even sometimes of Brenda Fassie.  Sindiswa’s show was a rendition and revitalization of that powerful spiritual musical tradition that we have come to associate with Azania.  Clearly though, Sindiswa is a wonderful artist in her own right and of course so too are Tess, and Akachi, and all the performers – drummers, flutists, and others who were on stage at the colloquium. I can’t speak highly enough of them all…
One of the highlights of the conference was when the young lady – I presume her to be Chinelo Achebe’s daughter – engaged the panel on “Achebe and the Hip Hop Generation”. Intelligent, full of confidence, and speaking wisely and knowledgeably at her apparently tender age, it was a sight to behold and my heart leapt with joy. She seemed so aware of the inter-generational differences and challenges, the (mis)assumptions and (mis)understandings between her generation that is, and that of those mostly gathered there, and she spoke in such a manner as to show how the generations could still differ and reconcile or work together even with different perspectives in a common struggle for a better world. That was simply a wonderful moment and truly just remarkable. Kudos to the young lady, but also kudos to Chinelo and her dad and other family members for contributing to making this young lady the precocious child she is. We have people to take over. Indeed, she proved that the youth are already part of our common battle…
Entertainment as I have intimated was generally delightful and  another highpoint in this respect for me was coming back into the hall on the Friday evening after taking a short break and hearing the brilliant band Eme and Heteru performing Alpha Blondy’s popular song coco de rasta. I will never forget how pleasantly gobsmacked and delighted, even smitten I was to see the Mistress of Ceremony Professor Abena Busia jamming and rocking to the reggae beat and the vibrant tunes being generated by the band. Abena was swaying and grooving so well and coolly to the reggae that she looked so unbelievably accomplished… Prior to that moment of privilege which I will surely treasure forever I thought I loved Abena’s poetry, but seeing her dance, I’m honestly not sure now which I prefer – her energetic-but-simultaneously-regal and dignified dancing or the brilliant and formidable body of poetry that she has produced over the years, which I teach yearly-without-fail to my students. Maybe it’s best to love it all together…
The Friday night jam was made more interesting, more live that is, with Chidi, Nwando Achebe and others whose names I can’t remember joining on the floor and swinging to the wonderful music. The talented band played a host of different songs in different genres. I danced too, and I think I sweated more than I have in recent times even while trying to work out and keep up some pretence of fitness…
Seeing in flesh and blood meeting for the first time the rather unassuming and generous Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, another of our brilliant African descent men of letters, actually getting to dine with him and other colleagues, savouring  his humour-in-conversation at close quarters, re-acquainting with my dear brother Ike Achebe after years, Ike, who reclined mostly in the left part of the back of the conference hall and studio in the pose of a capo or don, very relaxed, taking it all in, which pose taken together with that of the wonderful dramatist-performer Tess Onwueme’s barefooted walking, summed up, for me, the cosy nature of the whole event.
Tess always elegantly dressed, seemed to make life look a lot easier simply by walking barefooted in and around the conference venue. Altogether this kinda captured for me the generally relaxed atmosphere of the occasion. Another way of putting it so to speak is that the ambience of the entire colloquium was generally one of being with family so that such a basic thing as being asked by the retinue of red-capped Igbo dancers and performers to take some group photographs of them made me feel welcome, feel at home. Hearing Nwando Achebe speak, full of fervour, while deputizing, it would seem for Abena Busia was a pleasure. I had heard Nwando once-upon-a-long-time ago speak at some African studies conference or the other and I was saying to myself as she introduced the programme that she still has her fire.

How can one of course forget being taken down memory lane, which especially for some of us first-timers who were hearing the beautiful anecdotes by Chinua Achebe’s close friends – Don Burness, Doris Soroko and others, and in particular being regaled by Ethel and Chike Momah with many interesting stories.  Ethel, who also in another guise indicated vociferously that she wants simply to read and enjoy the novels and other texts and forget about the sometimes tortuous analysis that (we) literary critics apparently engage in.
Chidi and the entire Achebe family plus Brown University. Daalu, daalu, daalu – thank you, thank you and thank you for this intellectual and cultural feast and for calling us your kinsmen and kinswomen to join you In celebration. i/we truly appreciate it…
A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so. Things Fall Apart  
Chinua Achebe, In Memoriam 
Twitter @HerbertEkweEkwe

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