From Achebe to Mandela

Go-di-di-go-go-di-go. Di-go-go-di-go. It was the ekwe talking to the clan. One of the things every man learned was the language of the hollowed-out wooden instrument. Dum! Dum! Dum! boomed the cannon at intervals.

The first cock had not crowed, and RSA was still swallowed up in sleep and silence when the ekwe began to talk, and the cannon shattered the silence. Men stirred on their bamboo beds and listened anxiously.

Somebody was dead.

Achebe and Mandela
Achebe and Mandela

The cannon seemed to rend the sky. Di-go-go-di-go-di-di-go-go floated in the message-laden night air. The faint and distant wailing of women settled like a sediment of sorrow on the earth.

Now and again a full-chested lamentation rose above the wailing whenever a man came into the place of death. He raised his voice once or twice in manly sorrow and then sat down with the other men listening to the endless wailing of the women and the esoteric language of the ekwe.

Now and again the cannon boomed.

The wailing of the women would not be heard beyond the village, but the ekwe carried the news to all the nine villages and even beyond.

It began by naming the clan: Umuofia obodo dike! “the land of the brave.” Umuofia obodo dike! Umuofia obodo dike!

It said this over and over again, and as it dwelt on it, anxiety mounted in every heart that heaved on a bamboo bed that night.

Then it went nearer and named the village: ” Iguedo of the yellow grinding-stone!” It was Okonkwo’s village.

Again and again Iguedo was called and men waited breathlessly in all the nine villages.

At last the man was named and people sighed “Ma…, Madiba is dead.” A cold shiver ran down Okonkwo’s back as he remembered the last time the old man had visited him. “That boy calls you father,” he had said. “Bear no hand in his death.”

Nelson Madiba Mandela
Nelson Madiba Mandela

Madiba was a great man, and so all the clan was at his funeral. The ancient drums of death beat, guns and cannon were fired, and men dashed about in frenzy, cutting down every tree or animal they saw, jumping over walls and dancing on the roof.

It was a warrior’s funeral, and from morning till night warriors came and went in their age groups. They all wore smoked raffia skirts and their bodies were painted with chalk and charcoal.

Now and again an ancestral spirit or egwugwu appeared from the underworld, speaking in a tremulous, unearthly voice and completely covered in raffia.

Some of them were very violent, and there had been a mad rush for shelter earlier in the day when one appeared with a sharp machete and was only prevented from doing serious harm by  two men who restrained him with the help of a strong rope tied round his waist.

Sometimes he turned round and chased after those men, and they ran for their lives. But they always returned to the long rope he trailed behind. He sang, in a terrifying voice, that Ekwensu, or Evil Spirit, had entered his eye.

But the most dreaded of all was yet to come.

He was always alone and was shaped like a coffin. A sickly odor hung in the air wherever he went, and flies went with him. Even the greatest medicine men took shelter when he was near.

Many years ago another egwugwu  had dared to stand his ground before him and had been transfixed to the spot for two days. This one had only one hand and it carried a basket full of water.

But some of the egwugwu were quite harmless. One of them was so old and infirm that he leaned heavily on a stick. He walked unsteadily to the place where the corpse was laid, gazed at it a while and went away again—to the underworld.

The land of the living was not far removed from the domain of the ancestors. There was coming and going between them, especially at festivals and also when an old man died, because an old man was very close to the ancestors.

A man’s life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors.

Madiba had been the oldest man in his village, and at his death there were only three men in the whole clan who were older, and four or five others in his own age group.

Whenever one of these ancient men appeared in the crowd to dance unsteadily the funeral steps of the tribe, younger men gave way and the tumult subsided.

It was a great funeral, such as befitted a noble warrior. As the evening drew near, the shouting and the firing of guns, the beating of drums and the brandishing and clanging of machetes increased.

Madiba had taken three titles in his life. It was a rare achievement. There were only four titles in the clan, and only one or two men in any generation ever achieved the fourth and highest.

When they did, they became the lords of the land. Because he had taken titles, Madiba was to be buried after dark with only a glowing brand to light the sacred ceremony.

But before this quiet and final rite, the tumult increased tenfold. Drums beat violently and men leaped up and down in frenzy.

Guns were fired on all sides and sparks flew out as machetes clanged together in warriors’ salutes. The air was full of dust and the smell of gunpowder.

It was then that the one-handed spirit came, carrying a basket full of water. People made way for him on all sides and the noise subsided.

Even the smell of gunpowder was swallowed in the sickly smell that now filled the air. He danced a few steps to the funeral drums and then went to see the corpse.

Madiba!” he called in his guttural voice.

If you had been poor in your last life I would have asked you to be rich when you come again. But you were rich.

If you had been a coward, I would have asked you to bring courage. But you were a fearless warrior.

If you had died young, I would have asked you to get life. But you lived long.

So I shall ask you to come again the way you came before.

If your death was the death of nature, go in peace. But if a man caused it, do not allow him a moment’s rest.”

He danced a few more steps and went away.


Two great men Africa has lost this year: Chinua Achebe and Nelson “Madiba” Mandela.  Heavens broke the mould soon after making them.

Chinua Achebe

R.I.P. Great Sons of Africa – our failure to learn from you should not in any way diminish your efforts to school us.

All over Africa, things are falling apart. We have ‘leaders’ chasing doctorates they never studied for, glories they do not deserve and posing as saints when they are Lucifer (and Luciferine) incarnate(s).

(c) Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe. Madiba in Chinua’s novel is Ezeudu.

All the errors are mine.


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