By Frank Garriba In Abuja, Nigeria
Like Okonkwo, the legendary wrestling hero in his best known novel, Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe was a notable in society. That will mean he had to be buried in style and opulence. Two African heads of State, Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and John Mahama from Ghana, were in attendance.
While his casket was being buried in a mausoleum next to his house in Ogidi village in Anambra State, Eastern Nigeria, dozens of hawkers were busy selling his books outside.
Before his remains arrived from the USA where he died on March 22, Anambra State organised week-long celebratory commemorative festivities in honour of a man who placed the state on the world map.
Millions of naira was spent to give a befitting send-off to “The Father of African Literature,” even if Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, a prize that eluded Achebe, is irked by the fact that Achebe remains a bigger literary “baobab” than he will ever be.
Soyinka always hated Achebe to be known as “The Father of African Literature” and said so in a less than flattery interview he granted saharareporters five days before Achebe’s funeral. Wole Soyinka did not even wait for a dead man to be buried before exposing his brazen dislike for the humble Achebe. This paper is, however, not about an Achebe/Soyinka rift.
Achebe died at the ripe old age of 82. He could afford to be buried in a mausoleum but his burial does bring back the age-old debate about how much should be spent to bury the dead.
His was a very rich funeral but must we spend so much to bury the dead even if they are “The Father of the African novel?” We still don’t know if the Nigerian government contributed in any shape or form to the funeral expenses.
According to the Canadian Anthropology Society, four decades ago, death in Southern Nigeria was regarded as a mysterious, inevitable, grief-laden and calamitous event. Rarely, except in the case of very old or very sick people, was death perceived as a welcome event or one to be celebrated.
That is no longer the case. Families now need to show how rich they are when one of theirs dies, and this sometimes to the detriment of the living.
Nigerians, are noted for their expensive funerals.
One man’s protest against expensive funerals.
“Why don’t we spend all these money on people while they are still alive? Why do we find it hard to celebrate our loved ones while they are still living?” Danjuma Audu, an indigene of Taraba State, working in Abuja, asks when I corner him to comment about our propensity for expensive funerals.
“I wonder why people spend fortunes on burials. And it’s unfortunate that a majority of people, even the enlightened and poor in the land, indulge in it,” Danjuma continued. However, his only source of relief and joy is that the Anglican Communion in his diocese had long banned expensive burials by making sure they are conducted only on Fridays, instead of weekends, so they attract only few people who would expect to eat and drink.
Danjuma says he never eats or drinks during funerals as his own small way of protesting against the huge amount of money wasted organising them.
Also, the Anglican Communion warns its members that dead bodies must be buried within two weeks, else the Church would not take part in the burial ceremony.
Former Nigerian leader, Dr Obafemi Awolowo, business tycoon, Chief M K O Abiola, former Biafra leader, Emeka Ojukwu, and a hosts of other well-known Nigerians could afford the huge fortunes that were used during their funerals but the average Nigerian cannot; yet, they still spend beyond their means to bury their dead.
Achebe will be remembered for his humility, patriotism and transparency, as he was a man who lived an exemplary life and was contented with what he had. Twice, he rejected National Honours offered him by the Nigerian government because he wanted the government to first correct what he called their corrupt system.
The celebration of death in some parts of the country is almost embarrassing. Someone said recently that when you see Nigerian family members wailing and throwing themselves about at the loss of a loved one, the wailing is not so much about the pain of the loss but because of the problems the late person had left behind for the living; the first burden being the elaborate funeral.
Adieu Chinua Achebe!