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305 Marguerite Avenue – A Modern Day Shrine?
#305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue, University of Nigeria, Nsukka campus to many of the staff and students of the University of Nigeria and others all around planet Earth may just be another house in the staff residential quarters of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka campus and to you probably. The house in question is quite historic. Why you ask? It has at one time or the other housed two literary heavyweights; foremost novelist and the acclaimed father of modern African literature – Chinua Achebe- and Chimamanda Adichie described by Nigeria’s Femi Osofisan as “a new voice bursting out …”.
I was interested in this and thus decided to locate the house. Together with two young men, Osondu Awaraka and Onyeka Nwelue who were as interested in the place as myself . Of the three of us, I was the only one who knew the address because I had seen it in one of the papers and had embarked on a fruitless search for the house . Now I know that I couldn’t find it because when I went looking for #306 there was nothing special, a pointer or statue or whatever to indicate that two more-than-mere mortals had once lived in it and the number on the house was almost inconspicuous since it was fading slowly.
The sun was a little far from handing over the baton of duty to the early darkness that sunset and the sleeping moon would bring that evening. It was 4.08pm or somewhat close to on that Tuesday we went there.
The motorcycles that took us there stopped around #205 on Marguerite Cartwright Street. We came down and our roving eyes travelled up and down, searching for details that would identify our destination. Soon, it looked like we would be stranded because the numbers on the houses were slowly fading away. But fate smiled on us when we saw house #306, which we thought was our destination and we, with one accord moved towards it.. It looked more like Aunt Ifeoma’s house in Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and at its entrance were welcoming rows of yellow and green flowers (I honestly do not know their names ) that looked like nature had been playing with paintbrushes. The welcome path was royal-like and a dark blue fairly old Peugeot 504 salon was parked in a little garage attached to the house painted a white that I couldn’t decide on an adjective to qualify, with a balcony behind.
The young lady who opened the door of number 306 chuckled after we had told her our mission and pointed out that Chimamanda’s house was just across the road. She probably was amused at the sight of some idle adventurers or treasure hunters stopping at her gate. To #305 we went.
Like all other residential houses in the staff-quarters, #305 was a storey building painted a white that I couldn’t decide on an adjective to qualify, with a balcony behind and a bald entrance path devoid of the flowers at the entrance, like those in #306. Instead, there were rows of ixora (as tall as a boy of ten) , as green as the proverbial green snake under the green grass forming a fence around. As one enters, a driveway stares unblinkingly at you in an eyeing contest that you know you can never win. The house sits in a central position in the yard like the nose on the face.
Something about the quietness of the entire scene struck me. It seemed like the house and the adjoining street were being manned by a manly spirit, the one the Igbos call “mmuo”. Everything, even the plants and chirping birds on the gmelina trees in the neighbourhood seemed to fear. I told myself that it was probably that of Achebe’s Okonkwo (in Things Fall Apart)or Adichie’s Eugene (in Purple Hibiscus). Their presence seemed too real that I have begun to imagine that the fathers of these two writers were very strict. What do you think?
There were a couple of men taking down a telephone pole and a pile of asbestos on the ground. It was obvious that the latter would be used for the renovations going on in the compound because there were dangling asbestos sheets that I was constantly uttering prayer requests against.
Osondu knocked on the door while Onyeka and myself waited, my heart pounding so loud with excitement I thought the sound would be heard by those within the house. A chubby faced boy who looked like he was ten opened the door. There and then , I remembered a friend lived in this house, thanks to the resembling features that I observed in the boy. I wondered why I had forgotten that in a magazine I had read some months ago this address was published below her name. Before Chinaza Madukwe showed up, my companions were talking excitedly about something I couldn’t decipher because my blood was doing a whoopee dance. Well, Chinaza came out, shook hands with us all and said we couldn’t come in because her parents weren’t around. Though we were real disappointed at that and our spirits dimmed, they rose immediately she said it was okay if we just took a little peek around the yard.
We proceeded to look around. The lawn was quite neat with a little circular patch and there was a rusty rectangular tank with a square hole at the top of the right hand corner in one of the sides. A blue tank was waving slow-flowing drops of water from its position on top of a small brick podium clothed in green algae that was a few metres away from a tap with buckets round it. A small garden that Onyeka said was probably Aunt Ifeoma’s in Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus was behind the house close to the boys’ quarters that was backing us in cowardly shame.
We gathered a little information about her family from her guide. They had moved into the house a little over a year ago and her father was Professor Michael C. Madukwe, the current Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture. She is, like I had already known, a 300-level Electronic Engineering undergraduate of this same University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
We asked our guide if there was a study. Oh yes, she affirmed and proceeded to say that the study was quite small with two doors, one leading out to the balcony and the other back into the house . Surely, Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie must have used that study many times, either for writing or for some other academic exercises.
Even though Chinaza told us that we would not be able to take snapshots of the building, we were quite satisfied that we had been visitors to the tranquil environment that Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie had once dwelled getting inspiration to churn out nice works of literature.
Osondu’s face turned a deathly white when Chinaza told us that she hadn’t read Purple Hibiscus and had barely read Half of a Yellow Sun. It was more than a shocker. I was not much surprised because early this year when I went to the University of Nigeria bookshop to buy the latter novel, the attendant said they were not selling any of Adichie’s books because she had not brought them to the bookshop.
Since evening was fast approaching, we decided to leave and promised to come back later after getting official permission from Chinaza’s dad to take photographs of the house. She in turn promised that we would get to see inside the house.
We walked back to the hostel, weary but satisfied. I was particularly feeling as triumphant as a sailor returning from a successful expedition, having visited the house that had sheltered two of Africa’s best in the literary world. Then we began listing the similarities between them both and the list seemed inexhaustible. Apart from the fact that they both resided at #305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue, UNN, I will list a few here.
First and foremost, both Achebe and Adichie are of the same ethnic group, the Igbos and hail respectively from Ogidi and Abba, two towns twenty minutes drive away each from the other in Anambra state of Nigeria. Imagine!
Next on the list of coincidences is the same academic background that they both share. Both read medicine (although Adichie withdrew early) but later switched to the arts. While Achebe was a lecturer in the Department of English and Literary Studies, Adichie whose father was the first Nigerian professor of statistics and whose mother was the first female registrar of UNN, attended the University Staff Secondary School, Nsukka and attended pre-medical school here in UNN too.
Their names also have some striking similarities that do not fail to amaze me. Their first names begin with the prefix “Chi-” which means God. Also, their surnames begin with an “A” and end with an “e”. Onyeka was quick to point out that Chinaza also began with “Chi-” and that her surname equally ended with an “e”. What a string of coincidences?
At the moment, they both reside in the United States of America and even then, they both won literary prizes recently. While Achebe won the International Man Booker Prize, Adichie won the Orange Prize for Fiction. So many other similarities exist that we may not know and may probably never know.
I remarked that I expected a throng of devotees, trooping down to see and adore #305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue and also that the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) should have included a visit to such an historic place among the events lined up for the celebration of 50 years of Things Fall Apart that holds between the 12th-24th April in various cities within Nigeria. We all would have expected that so many Nigerians would want to explore this house that would have been a literary shrine and tourist destination if it had existed outside the shores of this country that Achebe chooses not to call great.
At times, we always dwell on the fact that ‘a prophet has no honour in his own land’. But let’s assume that with time, things will happen. Maybe now. Maybe later.
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