To a teacher, sharing a classroom experiences will always be relevant. Someday, another teacher will go through the same.
Uganda and Eye
Eye look at Uganda,
Eye see the filth, and everybody just staring,
Nose smell as usual
Eye shade tears for Uganda
An insight into the notion of Africa as a land of savages; a critical analysis of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease!
In his important essay, The Novelist as a Teacher, Chinua Achebe argues that, “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially ones I set in the past) did more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not a long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them”
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Was Africa a Land of Savages?
In many of his novels and other works, Chinua Achebe primarily concerns himself with educating his audience about issues that affect them. But also he wishes that his teachings would go beyond teaching, perhaps to converting the people to do something about what he teaches. In his essay, The Novelist as Teacher, he uses the statistics of the sales of the cheap paperback version of Things Fall Apart, his most famous novel,to categorize his audience into three major strata: Britain, Nigeria and other places. As such, I argue that even when in the same essay, he denies having to have a foreign audience in mind when one is writing, he educates his foreign audience, majorly the British, pretty as much as he teaches his own Igbo people about their past. The point I am driving to here is that as we try to look at the way he educates the Igbo about their past, he also educates the British as well, and subtly other people too.But even then, when you enter into the world of any Achebean text which attempts to teach people about their past, you get out of it with a clear perception that the African had a past…the journey of an African did not begin with the advance of the European. Instead, everyone had their own past which would not in any way befit the description of a savage culture. However, this is not to saythat Achebe holds the indigenous African traditional cultures flawless – in fact, he acknowledges that there were imperfections in the cultures of his people. It is with this mind that Achebe refutes the Europeans’ idea that they saved the African from the lifestyle and conduct of a savage. In this essay, we will explore how he educates his audiences about their past, chiefly using his novels Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease. At some points, we will look at how he educates the African and particularly the Nigerian audience, but also educates the European about their own culture in relation to Igbo cultures.
Chinua Achebe uses contrasts and comparisons as a major technique to teach his audience about their past. Comparison and contrast is done at majorly two levels: Firstly between African/Nigerian concepts that communicate a value, for example by contrasting Okonkwo with his father Unoka, the audience learns that the Africans treasured success by hard work. While Okonkwo is successful, Unoka isn’t, because unlike the former, the latter has a strong phobia for work and is terrified at the sight of blood. The concept of patriarchy is foregrounded when Okonkwo compares his children in that light. He wishes that Ezinma, his masculine daughter were a boy, and is ashamed by his son Nwoye who is feminine. Interestingly, the name of Nwoye’s mother, the first wife, doesn’t appear anywhere in the text, but that of the more masculine Ekwefi, Okonkwo’s second wife appears. Subtly, Achebe blows a trumpet for polygamy, one of the most outstanding values of African tradition. He does this by showing that Nwoye, the son to the first wife does not bring happiness to his father, while Ezinma, the daughter to the second wife brings happiness to him. Therefore, he subtly poses a question that: ‘If this man had married only one wife, wouldn’t he die a miserable man, considering the happiness derived from children?’ This is however not to demean the dignity of the first wife.
Secondly, comparison and contrast is between African and European attributes. Achebe, between Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God plays about with the different attitudes of his main characters towards the intrusion of Christianity onto the African cultural institution. On one hand, in Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo will not hear of his son, Nwoye, going to attend a Christian church. On the other hand, in Arrow of God, Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of Ulu, with cooperative reasons sends his son Oduche to learn the ways of the white man, acting as his ear and eye there. As such the Chief Priest (as well as the audience) who already knows the traditional culture can learn about the Christian cultures.
The same technique of sending an ear and eye to the Christian church has been used by Ngugi wa Thiong’o in The River Between where Waiyaki is sent by his father Chege to study the ways of the white man and use them to guard the clan against the white man’s advances. Like a skillful teacher would leave his learners to work out a controversy whose information he has provided, both Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o do not provide a decisive solution to the problem. In The River Between, Waiyaki ends up at a trial by the Kiama traditional puritans. In Arrow of God, Ezeulu ends up in dilemma after losing solidarity with some of his people, especially those of Umuachala; and in Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo ends up hanging himself because oh is uncompromising manner. This poses a question to the African: “What direction do we take: stick to our own, or take the new trend? What is the fate of the collaborators like Nwoye who later features in the Achebean text No Longer at Ease as Isaac Okonkwo, the father to Obi Okonkwo?” The novelists leave the audience to work out these connections, but there is an important warning that Isaac Okonkwo sounds to his son Obi when he tries to take a Christian excuse for marrying Clara, an Osu. Isaac says that he has been disappointed in Christianity, which he also says he knows very well.
Oral tradition is also used broadly to highlight a wide range of issues in the past of Achebe’s primary audience, Nigeria. Almost all Achebean novels are richly embroidered with aspects of the oral tradition of the cultural settings in which they appear, chiefly the Igbo. Folk tales (like the “Tortoise and the Birds” tale in Things Fall Apart), wise sayings, greeting formulae, songs (for example children’s songs at the approach of rain) and proverbs among others have been used to highlight certain values of the Africans. Isidore Okpewho quotes Achebe having said that proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.(Okpewho 89) I want to dwell a little more on proverb, folk tales and greeting formulae.
Primarily, the use of oral literature refutes the idea that education came with the white man to Africa. It highlights the nature of education the Africans received.For example, when Ekwefi sits with her daughter, Ezinma, to tell her stories, the latter benefits from the moral lessons which shape herinto a moral being. The wisdom behind folk tales also features in other oral traditional pieces. At this point, I want to quote Isidore Okpewho who in her essay, “Oral Literature and Modern African Literature” writes:
“… In Things Fall Apart, Achebe tells us: Among the Ibo, the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten. (962:6) Consequently, when characters (especially adult males) converse in Achebe’s Igbo-set novels, they season (or oil) their speech quite liberally with these well-chosen witticisms.
The art of conversation or public speaking is marked not only by the copious use of proverbs but also by the selective use of stories. Stories and songs are found open, while in Achebe’s Arrow of God, especially in interludes of relaxation when women and children sit in the yard in the evening to amuse themselves; such moments bring needed relief to the tragic tension in the story of the confrontation between the traditional culture and the European presence…”(Okpewho 89)
The use of oral tradition highlights a number of attributes of the past of Achebe’s audience. Firstly, it highlights the concept of the woman as a custodian of knowledge which she passes to the younger generation. In the same line is the man as an icon of wisdom which drives affairs of society. Achebe gives this fact importance when in Arrow of God, he makes Captain Winterbottom notice the wisdom that yield to respect in Ezeulu who he requests to be chief of Umuaro in his colonial indirect rule agenda, which he turns down.
Secondly, the oral tradition, as ever, highlights society’s philosophies and ways of life. In Arrow of God, the high treasure in yam as masculine food is embedded in the saying, “The woman who had seen the emptiness of life had cried: let my husband hate me as long as he provides yams for me every afternoon.”
Social customs and rituals might sound a little obvious as a tool for teaching Achebe’s audience about their past, but I want to emphasise it, trying to delve a little deeper into the subtle dynamics that these customs, rituals and feasts present. I will start with the custom of marriage and dwell on the significance and implication of bride wealth. Drawing from the marriage of Obierika’s daughter in Things Fall Apart, an Eurocentric mind (such as the one in Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson) might think of an African as materialistic, almost trading away his daughter for pots of wine. An expectant conversation at the party of Obierika’s daughter goes:
“I hope our in-laws bring many pots of wine. Although they come from a village that is known for being close-fisted, they ought to know that Akueke is the bride for a king.’
‘They dare not bring fewer than thirty pots,’ said Okonkwo. ‘I shall tell them my mind if they do.”
(Of course everyone in Umuofia would easily tell what Okonkwo’s mind means in the context).
The same seemingly materialistic minds were relieved when later they counted the fifty pots of wine, saying, “Now they are behaving like men.” However, an African who understands the custom of bride wealth treasures the practice not in the spirit of materialism but in the spirit of defining communalism among Africans (for the wine is drunk at the communal feast), and sealing the bond between the in-law families. Evidence that the intention is not materialistic is that Obierika hands his in-laws a carefully selected goat, hence sealing and smoothening the bond.
Other past-revealing rituals and feasts include Ogbuefi Ezeudu’s funeral in Things Fall Apart, and the celebration of the new moon (which is one of the driving motivations for the development of the plot) inArrow of God.
Chinua Achebe uses setting to teach the audience about their past. As he rightly mentions in the essay, The Novelist as Teacher, he sets the novels we are exploring in the past, whereby the cultural setting tallies with the temporal setting. This appeals not only to the guiding principle of art – verisimilitude – but also gives the target audience a sense of origin and continuity. It tries to trace “where the rain began to beat us (people he teaches)”(Achebe, The Novelist as Teacher 104). Published in 1958 and 1964, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God respectively paint a believable picture of the past starting from at least 50 years before these publications – before the white man advanced into Igboland. By setting these novels in the past, Achebe lets his audience interact closely with the characters who lived at the time – the golden time – before colonialism. In this, Achebe seems to be suggesting that his audience fishes out the virtues of that past age but also leave out the flaws of that age. Some of the imperfections that he highlights are the practices like discrimination of Osus, the casting of twins in the Evil Forest, and the abandoning of the people with a bad disease to die in the Evil Forest. The manner in which he presents these social evils lets us know that he is warning against them. He lets us sympathise with Clara, an Osu who humanely should have married Obi in No Longer at Ease. In Things Fall Apart, he lets Nwoye get frightened by the twins he hears cry in the Evil Forest. More importantly, he presents an internal conflict in his main character, Okonkwo, rotate around the unsuccessfulness of his father, including the nature of death he dies. This acts as the ceaseless force propelling Okonkwo to do what he does, trying to escape his father’s shame. But “Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father.”(Achebe, Things Fall Apart 6)
If Achebe had set his novels in the present, he would lose the moral license to comment about the past so believably. He, aware of this fact, emphasises his wish that his novels, “especially those I (Achebe) set in the past”(Achebe, The Novelist as Teacher 105) do more than teach the people about their past.
Achebe also uses language as a major tool to teach his audience. Africanised English, as has been popularly said, is a principal way he has taught his audience. He heavily deploys Igbo words to fit in the complex structures of English Language. He does this, I suggest, maintaining the rawness of the Igbo spirit that lives not only in his soul but also in his novels. Even in cases where he makes a translation, say of a proverb or a wise saying, he does it so skillfully that you will sense the crudity of the Igbo language. As such, Achebe embarks on the complex task of preserving the Igbo language in the same closet with English language. You can sense that when he wrote, he was well aware that English language has come to live, never to leave; but how he preserves his own language alongside the mightier intruder was evidently the question lingering in his mind. This way, Achebe manages to escape the trouble that Obiajunwa Wali senses in when he writes in his article The Dead End of African Literature that:
“There is little doubt that African languages will face inevitable extinction if they do not embody some kind of intelligent literature. The best way to hasten this extinction is by continuing in our present illusion that we can produce African literature in English and French.” (Wali 335)
‘An African writer who thinks and feels in his own language must write in that language. The question of translation, whatever that means, is as unwise as it is unacceptable, for the “original” which spoken of here is the real stuff of literature and the imagination and must not be discarded in favor of a copy…” (Wali 333)
On the same debate about which language to use, Achebe submits thus, and lives by his submission:
“The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language so much that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning an English that is at once universal and able to carry peculiar experience. I have in mind here the writer who has something new, something different, to say.” (Achebe, English and the African Writer 347)
In the final analysis, Chinua Achebe has skillfully used a multiplicity of techniques to communicate the importance of the past of his audience, some of which have been stated above. The connection he intends to make, which constitutes his wish in The Novelist as Teacher, is that his learners not only learns, but also go by what they have learned. This is however not to say that people should go back to their past and live in that illusionary state. His intention rotates around the co-existence and accommodation of the clashing cultures and traditions – the same way he manages to blend the two languages, Igbo and English, so that they co-exist but also do his intention.
Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria) Ltd, 1964 .
—. “English and the African Writer.” 1965. Jstor. 11 February 2014 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2935429>.
—. No Longer at Ease. Ibadan: Anchor, 1960 .
—. “The Novelist as Teacher.” African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 2009: 103-106.
—. Things Fall Apart. Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria) Ltd, 1958 .
Okpewho, Isidore. “Oral Literature and Modern African Literature.” African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory (2009): 88-91.
wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. The River Between. London: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1965.
Wali, Obiajunwa. “The Dead End of African Literature.” 1963. Jstor. 31 January 2014 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2935427>.
Amoni Kitooke, B. A. Arts with Education is a profession teacher and charity worker. He is currently working with The Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda, a non-governmental organisation that seeks to foreground culture in issues of personal, community and national development.