305 Marguerite Avenue – a modern shrine?

#305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue, University of Nigeria, Nsukka Campus For many staff and students at the University of Nigeria and others across planet Earth, it may be just another house in the residential neighborhoods of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka Campus and you probably have . The house in question is quite historic. Why do you ask? It was once home to two literary heavyweights; leading novelist and celebrated father of modern African literature – Chinua Achebe – and Chimamanda Adichie, described by Nigerian Femi Osofisan as “a new voice breaking forth…”.

I was interested in it, so I decided to find the house. Along with two young men, Osondu Awaraka and Onyeka Nwelue, who were as interested in the place as I was. Of the three of us, I was the only one who knew the address because I had seen it in one of the newspapers and looked for the house without success. Now I know I couldn’t find it because when I looked for #306 there was nothing in particular, a pointer or a 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 as it slowly faded away.

The sun was a little far from handing over the baton of duty to the early darkness that the sunset and sleeping moon would bring that evening. It was 4:08pm or rather short that Tuesday when we went there.

The motorbikes that took us there stopped at 205 Marguerite Cartwright Street. We descended, our roving eyes darting up and down, searching for details that would identify our target. Soon it looked as if we would be stranded, because the numbers on the houses were slowly fading. But fate smiled on us when we saw house #306, which we thought was our destination, and we moved towards it in unison toward green flowers (I honestly don’t know their names) that looked like they had nature played with brushes. The welcome path was regal and a dark blue, fairly old Peugeot 504 saloon sat in a small garage next to the house, painted so white I couldn’t decide on an adjective, with a balcony beyond.

The young lady who answered the door of number 306 giggled after we explained our mission to her and pointed out that Chimamanda’s house was just across the street. She was probably amused at the sight of some idle adventurers or treasure hunters stopping in front of her gate. We went to #305.

Like all the other residences in the staff quarters, #305 was a white-painted one-story building for which I could not pin down an adjective, with a balcony behind it and a bare entryway with no flowers at the entrance, like those at #306. Instead there were rows of Ixora (the size of a ten-year-old boy) as green as the proverbial green snake among the green grass forming a fence. Driving in, a driveway stares at you unblinkingly in an eye contest you know you can never win. The house stands centrally in the courtyard like the nose on the face.

Something about the stillness of the entire scene struck me. It seemed as if the house and the adjoining street were inhabited by a male spirit called “mmuo” by the Igbos. Everything, even the plants and chirping birds on the nearby gmelina trees, seemed afraid. I figured it was probably Achebe’s Okonkwo (in Things Fall Apart) or Adichie’s Eugene (in Purple Hibiscus). Their presence seemed too real for me to begin to imagine that the fathers of these two writers were very strict. What do you think?

There were a couple of men bringing down a telephone pole and a pile of asbestos on the ground. It was obvious that the latter would be used for the renovation work at the site as there were dangling sheets of asbestos which I constantly raised prayer requests against.

Osondu knocked on the door while Onyeka and I waited. My heart was pounding so loud with excitement I thought the sound would be heard by those in the house. A chubby boy who looked about ten answered the door. Now and then I remembered a friend who lived in this house thanks to the similar traits I observed in the boy. I wondered why I had forgotten that a magazine I had read a few months ago published that address under her name. Before Chinaza Madukwe appeared, my companions were talking excitedly about something I couldn’t make out because my blood was doing a fart dance. Well, Chinaza came out and shook hands with all of us and said we couldn’t come in because her parents weren’t there. Although we were very disappointed by this and our spirits were dampened, they climbed on immediately. She said it was fine if we just took a peek at the yard.

We continued to look around. The lawn was fairly neat with a small circular patch and there was a rusty rectangular tank with a square hole in the top right corner on one of the sides. A blue tank waved slow-flowing drops of water from its perch on a small brick pedestal covered in green algae, just feet from a faucet with buckets. A small garden, which Onyeka said probably belonged to Aunt Ifeoma in Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, was behind the house near the boys’ quarters, which supported us in cowardly shame.

We gathered some information about her family from her guide. They had moved into the home a little over a year ago and their father was Professor Michael C. Madukwe, the current Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture. She is, as I already knew, a 300 level electrical engineering student at the same University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

We asked our guide if there was a study. Oh yes, she confirmed, going on to say that the study was quite small, with two doors, one leading to the balcony and the other leading back into the house. Surely Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie must have used this study many times, either for writing or for some other academic exercise.

Although Chinaza told us that we could not take snapshots of the building, we were quite satisfied that we had been visitors to the tranquil surroundings where Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie once resided for inspiration to produce beautiful works of literature .

Osondu’s face turned deathly pale 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 shock. I wasn’t very surprised because earlier this year when I went to the University of Nigeria bookstore to buy the latter novel, the sales lady said they wouldn’t sell any of Adichie’s books because she hadn’t taken them to the bookstore.

As evening was fast approaching, we decided to leave and promised to come back later after receiving official permission from Chinaza’s father to photograph the house. She, in turn, promised that we would see the inside of the house.

Tired but happy we walked back to the hostel. I felt particularly triumphant, like a sailor returning from a successful expedition, after visiting the house that had hosted two of the finest Africans in the literary world. Then we started listing the similarities between the two of them, and the list seemed endless. Aside from the fact that they both resided at 305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue, UNN, I will list a few here.

First of all, both Achebe and Adichie belong to the same ethnic group, the Igbos and are respectively from Ogidi and Abba, two towns in the Nigerian state of Anambra, each located a twenty minute drive from each other. Introduce!

Next on the list of coincidences is the same academic background they both share. Both studied medicine (although Adichie dropped out early), but later switched to the arts. While Achebe was a lecturer at the Department of English and Literature, Adichie, whose father was the first Nigerian statistics professor and whose mother was UNN’s first female registrar, attended University Staff Secondary School in Nsukka and also attended UNN’s pre-med school here.

Their names also have some striking similarities that never cease to amaze me. Their given names begin with the prefix “Chi-“, meaning God. Also, their surnames start with an “A” and end with an “e”. Onyeka pointed out that Chinaza also begins with “Chi-” and her last name also ends with an “e”. What a string of coincidences?

Both currently reside in the United States of America and both have recently won literary awards. While Achebe won the International Man Booker Prize, Adichie won the Orange Prize for Fiction. There are so many other similarities that we may not know and will likely never know.

I noticed that I was expecting a crowd of devotees to come down to see and admire 305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue, and also that the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) would like a visit to such a historic place to be one of the for the celebration of planned events should have included 50 Years of Things Fall Apart, which will take place from April 12-24 in various cities in Nigeria. We all would have expected so many Nigerians to want to explore this home which would have been a literary shrine and tourist destination had it existed off the shores of this country that Achebe does not call great.

Sometimes we always dwell on the fact that “a prophet has no honor in his own land.” But let’s assume that something will happen over time. Maybe now. Maybe later.

Thanks to Eromo Egbejule | #Marguerite #Avenue #modern #shrine

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