Mabel Segun, a writer, apart from being born the same year as the late Professor Chinua Achebe, was in the same class with him at the University College, (now University of) Ibadan. In this interview with ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE, Segun, author of Conflict and Other Poems, My Father’s Daughter, Under the Mango Tree, Olu and the Broken Statue, The Twins and the Tree Spirits, and Sorry, No Vacancy, speaks about her university days with Achebe and what made Achebe tick
You were with Chinua Achebe at the University of Ibadan; could you recall your days with him?
That was a class of 25 or so. I can’t remember anybody on the first day or even week. You know we all came for enrolment process for the first time and we went our different ways. But we later did many things together. He loved dancing and we used to go to the dancing club together. We were taught different steps – not the lazy dancing you young people do nowadays that you don’t learn anything and you just throw your arms and legs up! Ours was a properly structured kind of dancing, where you had to pay attention and learn where to put your feet. So, Achebe and I became close through that.
What really brought us together was writing because he became the editor of our magazine and I was the advertisement manager. It was a student magazine.
What’s the name of the publication?
The University Herald. Then, Achebe found out that he needed help for the editing so he made me a sort of unofficial assistant editor. We worked together but there was no room or space designated as an office. So we used his room. And that meant me and him in his room alone. We gave some people who were not too enlightened reasons to be suspicious about us. The notion was that if a man and a woman were in the room alone, what else could they be doing? It was foolish! They insinuated all kinds of things but we just ignored them.
Achebe was a very self-respecting person who respected other people. I know of men who went to the point of trying to rape women 20 years older than them. But Achebe composed himself well. He was a perfect gentleman. We would do the editing and all the work together alone in the room. Of course people wrote all sorts of things in their stupid magazine – a weekly bug – insinuating many funny things. They even corrupted our names to read Nuachi (instead of Chinua) and Lemba (instead of Mabel). But we just ignored them and went on with our work.
Did you notice certain traits in Achebe that showed that he would later become a great writer?
One thing I noticed about him later in life – because you learn about people as you go along – was that he was older than his years. I learnt that when he was young, he associated a lot with elders in his hometown, Ogidi. So he acquired this sort of elderly behaviour. He was very sensible and behaved more like an elderly person who could comport himself in the society.
That was how I saw him at the time. He had a very good sense of humour that I admired very much. It was not the kind of stupid humour that you see nowadays being displayed by the so-called comedians! Achebe had a sort of subtle humour which showed his deep knowledge of the English language. I enjoyed it so much. He even tried it on me sometimes. He used to say I spoke with an Ijebu accent. But I am Edo, not Ijebu, so I took it as one of his jokes. I never lived in Edoland; I lived in Yorubaland, but certainly not in the Ijebu area. I am from Edo.
I read it somewhere that you hailed from Ondo town…
I am from the family of Aig-Imoukuede. I am from Sabon-Gida Ora, Edo State. My father was the first archdeacon there. I am not from Ondo, as some people like to say (I am currently writing my memoirs. I’ll put all of this in it). Some people once came from Ondo and said they wanted to honour me. It is a good thing to want to associate with success. I know that if I were a bandit, no group would wish to do that. It was a compliment.
Unfortunately nowadays, there are societies that honour robbers! That shows a different value system!
Apart from your working together on the student magazine, how else did you know that Achebe was going to be a good writer in future?
I wasn’t trying to assess him really. He wrote in the paper. Where else would I assess him? There was nothing else to indicate he would turn out great, except that he spoke very good English. Once you had that kind of subtle humour, you most likely would have a good knowledge of English. Today, you find professors who don’t even understand what a satire is. When you say something, they don’t know it’s a tongue-in-cheek expression – that you don’t mean it the way you said it. And then they take you up on why are you supporting that character, whereas you are actually condemning the character.
Can you remember some of your other mates in school then?
I remember some of them quite well, even though I was not the clubbing type. I remember Grace Alele-Williams, Akin Mabogunje, Ufot, who was in WAEC at a time; Oforiokuma and, I almost forgot, Bola Ige. I remember there was a big clash sometime between Bola Ige and Achebe.
What caused the clash?
You know Bola Ige had a big mouth and could say anything! He attacked me too. It was later we made up and he started calling me the Matriarch of Literature and so on.
It was an incident in the university which involved Achebe and Chukwuemeka Ike and some other people. It was like an ethnic clash but it was settled. It was the bitter rivalry over which ethnic group, between the Yoruba and Igbo, should be the representative of our halls of residence. Given that they were the ones who arrived first in school, the Yoruba students believed they should head the students’ representatives and not the Igbo, who had gone behind to constitute a few of them as representatives. The quarrel was eventually settled.
But Bola Ige now went and bought a notice board which had a glass case and padlock so that nobody would be able to remove anything from it. He then wrote nasty things about the other camp. Both sides were in the wrong; but Bola Ige went too far. He wrote a piece and put it in the glass case and locked it up, so no one could tear it. He said something like: ‘There were some small fry who had just come to the university and thought that they were the lord and master of the place.’
It was at that point that Achebe, (and I believe I saw Chukwuemeka Ike, too), went into the kitchen hall, got hold of an axe, and made for the glass notice board and broke it. That was the only action of Achebe that I saw which I wasn’t too happy about. Bola Ige shouldn’t have stoked the fire after the matter had been settled. But that was his style. He was one of my greatest enemies in the university but he repented later. And when people repent, you have to forgive them.
From your interactions, did Achebe strike you at any time as a tribalist? There is the notion that Achebe tried to whip up tribal sentiments with his last work, There Was A Country.
There was the incident at the university where he had to break a notice board. But I don’t think we can refer to him as a tribalist for doing that because of the circumstances that led to that. Bola Ige provoked him to take such action.
Many people refer to Achebe as the ‘father of African literature’. What do you think?
Yes. Some even say it’s Amos Tutuola.
What is your position on Achebe’s memoirs on Biafra, There Was A Country?
I have not seen the book, I only saw extracts. So I cannot judge the work based on the extracts. But I worked closely with people like Obafemi Awolowo on those things. I was in charge of the Hansard in the Western House of Assembly. So I was the one who produced the record log, even for the House of Chiefs as well. It was a tedious job because I had a new baby then and I was working for almost 24 hours.
Given the animosity the memoirs generated between the Igbo and Yoruba, what’s your advice to both ethnic groups for them to forget the past and preserve the handshake across the Niger?
I don’t think people should make that much of it. All the protagonists of the whole thing are dead now. I think we should just move on. I viewed Achebe as larger than life. That he was immortal. That we would keep on hearing from him again and again. But he died.