The book was a vehicle, a muscular space ship that raced me all over the world, as a child and as a young man. To this day I remember the feelings that surged through me as I smelt a new book. I loved books that had stories in them, and my world was full of books – and stories. I developed a passion for African literature early in life and it is fair to say that outside of my father, Chinua Achebe is perhaps the most influential man in my life. Is. Yes, Achebe lives. His book, Things Fall Apart is perhaps the closest I can ever get to a holy book. I try to read it every two years and what amazes me is that I always find something new inside its pages, a new insight, a new saying that had not come to me at a previous reading.
My favorite character in Things Fall Apart is Unoka, Okonkwo’s father. If you have never read Things Fall Apart, abeg, just jejely leave my column, go and enjoy yourself elsewhere, I nor fit shout. You will all recall that Okonkwo was contemptuous of his father, this man who could not grow a tuber of yam to save his life, a musician who was more likely to have an antelope as a pet rather than convert said bushmeat to well, bushmeat. Yes, you heard me right, I love Unoka. He spoke to me, this artist. Each time I go to a pawn shop in America and I see a flute I remember him and I smile.
In a society that valued wealth and other material acquisitions, Unoka stood out as different, indifferent to wealth. He traveled light and of course his only companion was his flute – and the mountain of debt from creditors that he carried around like a badge of honor. As an artist, even in those days it was hard to sustain yourself and your family, you had to go to farm and Unoka was allergic to the farm or anything that smelled of physical exertion. Today, the name Unoka is a pejorative, anyone that is called an Unoka has been invited to a fight – to rescue his or her honor.
I truly believe that every human being is genetically coded to be different from the other and that we must celebrate the gift that is within each being. Unoka was different and was derided for being different. Many children of my generation were derided and in many instances mercilessly beaten for being different. Hurtful words used were “dunce” “olodo” etc. etc. Our classrooms were industrial age rooms used to sort the cognitive elite from the rest of us. We were sorted like eggs, grade one, two, three and of course rejects. If you did not fit in the top two grades you were in trouble. Many times we would be in assembly and a poor kid would be dragged before the entire school (usually about 600 or more kids) and beaten mercilessly for failing school or for being truant, mostly because they did not find school engaging. At the time, it seemed normal. One of the most entertaining books I ever read was Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Potter’s Wheel. The chief protagonist was a brilliant kid – and spoilt rotten by loving parents. He ends up being apprenticed to this couple from hell, and in the name of discipline we read horrific accounts of child abuse in the house and in the classroom. Many of these kids were berated and beaten for being themselves. I have since gone back to read the book, it is still a great read but it only reminds me to hug my sons and daughters. Every day in Nigeria children are born into a war they did not ask for. Many of us survived the dysfunctions of our childhood. We should read. And remember. And help each child in our care to live this life a lot more comfortably – by helping them to be themselves.