Chinua Achebe, the esteemed Nigerian novelist and poet, delivered this year’s Distinguished African Studies Lecture at the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS). Greeting the standing-room-only crowd in Tsai Auditorium earlier this week (Nov. 17), Achebe surprised the group by announcing that he had an unusual program in mind.
“I will not be giving you a lecture,” Achebe said. “Instead, I will be celebrating with you 50 years of the arrival of African literature, and I will do that celebration through poetry.”
Achebe is best known for his 1958 novel “Things Fall Apart,” which has been translated into 50 languages and is widely considered a literary classic.
Monday’s celebration focused not on prose but on poetry, as Achebe read a selection of poems from his collected works. He also offered short anecdotes about the context or inspiration for each poem.
“All of my poems,” he said, “come with stories.” In a low, melodious voice, Achebe shared brief tales about experiences in Nigeria and abroad — some lively, some poignant, others heart-wrenching. Achebe’s nine selections included several poems about political themes, such as the Biafran War (Nigerian Civil War) of 1967-1970 and a poem he wrote for the statesman and poet Agostino Nieto, former president of Angola.
Other poems expressed the challenges of life in poverty-stricken Africa. One, titled “A Mother in a Refugee Camp,” described the pride and tenderness of a young mother as she combed the hair of her starving infant son.
“No Madonna and Child could touch / her tenderness for a son / she would soon have to forget,” Achebe read. “Other mothers there / had long ceased to care / but not this one.”
“This was something I actually saw, reflected in the poem,” Achebe said quietly.
Achebe also read a tribute he wrote for his childhood friend Christopher Okigbo, who was killed in the Biafran War. Titled “A Wake for Okigbo,” the piece is based on traditional dirges from the Igbo people, Achebe’s native language group. The Igbo reside primarily in southeastern Nigeria.
“When a member of [the community] dies,” Achebe said, “his mates go around town looking for him or her. They may have heard a rumor that this person is dead, but they don’t accept it. They say, ‘This is our friend, he plays these jokes … he will turn up.’ It’s only until the end of the night, when the friend hasn’t returned, that they finally accept the truth.”
Achebe’s poem, which included a “hide-and-seek” refrain, captured the emotions of someone out searching for a lost companion. He read the poem in English first, and then re-read it in Igbo.
Turning to “Beware Soul Brother,” Achebe recalled a humorous story about the poem’s unexpected, royal admirer.
“Some years back, I was invited to a gathering in London to celebrate a Commonwealth event,” he said. “When I was there, somebody informed me that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second would like to use my poem in a speech she was giving to the Commonwealth. Did I mind?”
The room erupted in laughter as Achebe’s eyes went wide.
“Of course not!” he continued. “I didn’t quite say she could use the whole book, but that was how I felt. So that’s the background to this poem; now you see why I am always reading it: the name-dropping,” he joked.
Following Achebe’s talk, the crowd moved out into the CGIS South Concourse to enjoy a reception and performances by the Harvard College Pan-African Dance and Music Ensemble.
Deborah Foster, senior lecturer on folklore and mythology, was one of many audience members who expressed joy at the opportunity to meet Achebe.
“It was Chinua Achebe’s novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ that got me excited about African literature and led me to pursue a degree in African languages and literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison,” she said, holding up a tattered copy of the book. “I can’t express how moved I am to be able to see and hear him at this time. You can hear his wisdom and the depth of his experience in his poetry. … I am just delighted.”
The lecture was sponsored by the Committee on African Studies, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, and the Department of African and African American Studies.