Emmanuel Dongala


I was still hoping to eventually meet Mr. Achebe at some point by constantly bothering you to introduce me to him so I could get signed copies of his books. I LOVE HIS BOOKS: Things Fall Apart, A Man of the People. So good. All those memories. 


It was by this howling, pain-stricken and cross-continental text message that I learned of the passing of Professor Chinua Achebe. I say cross-continental because on that day of March 22, I was in Africa and the sender of the message was not an African but a student from China: This tells you all about the stature of Chinua Achebe in the world of literature. 

My story with Chinua Achebe started a long time ago, in West Berlin (Germany was still divided then) during the first Festival of World Cultures (Festival der Weltkulturen), June, 1979. All the big names of African writing were there: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Nuruddin Farah, Dambudzo Marechera, to name a few, and also Mongo Beti, Camara Laye, Ahmadou Kourouma, and Tchicaya U’Tam’si, among those  writing in French.  I don’t know how I got to be invited among those literary heavy weights, as I was then just the president of the Congolese chapter of the International PEN.

Imagine the scene: a completely unknown would-be young writer walks up to Chinua Achebe to greet him and tell him how much he admired his work, an utterance I am sure he had heard a million times before. I expected him to politely acknowledge the compliment and dismiss me. He did not. Instead, he invited me to meet him later in his room where, after a short but warm conversation, he offered me three issues of Okike, the magazine he was then editing.

Years passed. Almost twenty years later, in 1998, I left Congo during a bitter civil war and with help of writer Philip Roth and president Leon Botstein of Bard College, I secured a teaching job at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Two or three weeks after my arrival on campus, the phone rang in my office. I picked it up…and it was professor Chinua Achebe welcoming me to America and to Bard! Not only had he heard about my tribulations in Congo, but he was generous enough to call and invite me and my wife to his home.

I had the opportunity to work with professor Chinua Achebe on several occasions -- from sitting with him on the jury of student theses  at Bard College to being closely associated with the “Achebe Colloquium” organized each year in his honor at Brown University after he joined their Faculty in 2009.

When I look back at all these years with professor Achebe, two cherished moments stand out. The first was in 2009, when he discussed the trip he had just made to Nigeria after a decade of absence. I was honored to be the facilitator of that standing room only discussion at Bard College, an event covered by the national press.

My second cherished moment was more private. It was on a snowy and cold winter’s day in Annandale-on-Hudson. Nuruddin Farah was visiting and after lunch, we went to pay a visit to professor Achebe, who was waiting for us in his office. The three of us spent nearly two hours of intense discussion on Africa, Nigeria and, of course, literature.  It was very gratifying for me and yet so humbling!

Chinua Achebe will forever be remembered as the man who turned African literature into world literature. If you ask people at random on the street to name one African writer, chances are they will come up with the name “Achebe”. One proof of this is the lovely story told by Wole Soyinka during the celebration of Achebe’s 70th birthday at Bard College in 2000. When Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986, an admirer came up to him and congratulated him with effusion, telling him how much he loved what he writes. “And what have you read by me?” asked Soyinka. “Things Fall apart” answered the admirer. 

Emmanuel Dongala has published five novels, a collection of short stories and a play. His novel, Johnny Mad Dog was selected by the Los Angeles Times Book Review as one of the best books of the year. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1999 and the Fonlon-Nichols prize by the African Literary Association for “excellence in creative writing and for human rights and freedom of expression” in 2003. Dongala is on the Advisory Board of Warscapes magazine.