Among the West African Anglophone writers who endeavored to present an authentic picture of the African milieu along with its cultural past, its inherent anarchy and its colonial trauma, its heady independence period from the European Imperial powers, the disillusioning aftermath of post independence era and the present chaos pervading their societies, to the world at large, Chinua Achebe is truly outstanding.
Born on 16th November 1930, of devout Christian parents, Chinua Achebe was helped by the right background in producing trend-setting novels. It was during his university days at Ibadan around 1950/52 that he realized, that,
.... the story we had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else no matter how gifted or well intentioned. ("Named for Victoria," 70)
True to his convictions, Achebe in his village novels depicted the glory and good of an erstwhile native Ibo (a warrior like race of West Africa) society. Things Fall Apart, his all time best and maiden novel, the title of which is borrowed from Yeats' The Second Coming, Achebe attempted to show not only the culture of the native society but also the reasons that caused its decay and downfall. Just as western civilization was going through the gyres of anarchy due to a lack of religious faith in Yeats' vision, so too in Achebe's novel, the onslaught of the white man among other things, caused the displacement of the native societies, degeneration of native values and unending chaos in Africa.
It is one of these phases of chaos, namely, the pathetic situation faced by those born at the ' crossroads of culture' and therefore unable to owe allegiance neither to their very own native tenets nor to the values inherited by them by being exposed to the western materialism, is the core issue of No Longer At Ease.
Published in 1960, No Longer At Ease (28) is Achebe's first novel on modern Nigeria. It won the Nigerian National Trophy for Literature. It is Achebe's successful attempt at anatomizing the evils that beleaguer the Nigerian society just before independence. With the advent of the white man there is a loss of native values such as communal harmony, placing society above self, respect for the aged and reverence for achievers, which resulted in the absence of self- analysis and a stable code of ethics in the society of pre-independent Nigeria. Lured by western-education and well-paid jobs, the youth of the country do not hesitate to stoop to the levels of immorality and dangerous permissiveness.
Obi Okonkwo, the central character in No Longer At Ease is a typical educated Nigerian young man, who, to begin with, wanted to cleanse Nigeria of its evils. He was a brilliant student whose kith and kin pool in their hard earned money to send him to England for further studies in accordance with the usual practice. In return they expect him to bring honour and prosperity to their village. But much to his consternation Obi notices right from the time he lands in Nigeria that his country is no longer the "Nigeria of his dreams" but it has already advanced in corrupt practices such as bribe taking. Though his intentions are ideally good, Obi fails to carry them out in his life because of the negative change in values. While courage and inflexibility ruled the society of Okonkwo, his grandfather, Obi is a typical product of a modern era that mixes motives and values, a miserable amalgam, the offshoot of a weak, hybrid culture. Thus
The strength of the novel does not lie in characterization, but in its brilliant description and analysis of situations and conflicts.... (Eko, 15)
Obi often ponders over the ill- advised traditions of his country such as paying bride- price, the Osu practice and also the undermining of native values by the newly ushered in material values like the English language and the western way of life wherein the important question in the cocktail circles is, " how's the car behaving?" As Achebe observes,
The man who conquered us and colonized us also brought his language and his administration and his style of life and everything. These are some of the problems and some of the facts of our existence. ("Interview," 8)
Obi is a sensible young man who could question the unjust authority of Mr. Green, his English boss. He was stable enough to thwart the practice of accepting bribes in his personal life, and was modest enough not to fall for the vanities usually associated with a foreign returned. Yet Obi fails ultimately, because on the one hand unlike his heroic grandfather Okonkwo, he was not decisive enough in his actions, and on the other, he lived at a time when an individual is rendered impotent to be firm about anything in life, either in personal affairs such as marriage or in public life where he cannot enforce freedom of his will. Here lies the 'crisis' of his life.
On the domestic front, Obi testifies to the Ibo adage, ' Mother is supreme.' He holds his mother in high regard and is constantly aware of her sacrificing nature. Yet, her vehement disapproval of his intended marriage to Clara, an Osu girl, has him in shocked dismay. It is when Obi is forced to choose between his mother and Clara that he falls prey to emotional turmoil and loses his moral balance and his ideals start disintegrating. After returning from his village to Lagos, with his equanimity in shreds, Obi succumbs to the later events. He gets caught red-handed while accepting a bribe and is forced to face trial in a court of justice. Yet Obi is arguably strong. To cite few instances; his last minute decision to prevent Clara from her proposed abortion, and his belated idea to marry her, his reluctance to recommend those candidates who fall short of the minimum qualification to merit a scholarship and finally the betrayal of ' treacherous tears' on being called a young man of 'education' and 'promise' in the court by the judge.
Obi Okonkwo, the twentieth century magus, when he journeys home has certain definite ideas regarding his future. What he fails to foresee however, is to find himself in that slope of instability wherein a brilliant man like him would stand confounded. He is unable to acknowledge faith in the 'old dispensation' the norms of which are in the throes of panic caused by the advent of ' alien people clutching their gods'. He is equally restive in the milieu of urban Lagos because he is unable to conform to the ideas of the west. In a society which is predominantly materialistic, he is forced to follow such modes of living as maintaining a chauffeur-driven car, upkeep of a modern home, luxury of frequenting nightclubs, paying taxes besides expenses involving the education of his brothers and sisters and contributing to the family finances.
The life and career of Obi Okonkwo prove that the advent of white civilization 'loosed' ' blood-dimmed tide' of anarchy on African life. No wonder people like Obi who cannot put up with their disillusioning present, and would be 'glad of another death'. Disillusion with the native life, which is still in the vice-like grip of outdated ideas and the futility of western education that proved ineffectual in closing the gulf of difference between caste and outcaste-this predicament of Obi and his likes is poignantly voiced in Okara's poem thus:
When at break of day at river-side
I hear of jungle drums....
Then I hear a wailing piano
Solo speaking of complex ways. (Gleason, 143)
The common struggle of educated Africans, who stand confounded between acceptance and rejection, is evocatively portrayed in the torn character of Obi Okonkwo. He feels ' terrible' after accepting his first bribe. But he was not able to fight the ' practice'. He could not find for himself a balanced scale of values with the help of which he would have retained his integrity.
In the modern Nigerian society, unlike in the tribal communities, the "sharing" of any benefit took place only among the top people. As a result, everyone tries to get to the top through the disreputable means of offering bribes.
In Nigeria the government was ' they'. It had nothing to do with you or me. It was an alien institution and people's business was to get much from it as they could without getting into trouble". (Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 29-30)
An interesting twist in the matter is that, it may cause more trouble by refusing a bribe than by accepting it. There is a method to this madness too. As a minister of state says, the trouble was not in the receiving of the bribe, but failing to do the thing for which the bribe was given (Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 80).
Thus one evil paves way to another. Even a good custom could outlive its purpose and value and thus become corrupt, a symbol of anarchy in a different situation. The offering of the 'kola nut' that signified politeness and warmth towards a visitor in the traditional society for instance, is equal to the offering of bribe outside the traditional context or Obi being referred to as the only 'palm fruit' of the village.
The village code of conduct has been violated but a more embracing and a bigger one has not been found. (Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 2.)
While old values like courage and valour are no longer valid, the educated native's condition like that of Obi is charged with tragic undertones and is worse than that of his brothers in the bush. Achebe comments,
His abortive effort at education and culture though leaving him totally unredeemed and unregenerated had nonetheless done something to him- it had deprived him of his links with his own people whom he no longer even understood and who certainly wanted none of his dissatisfaction or pretension. ("Colonialist Criticism," 5)
Where then is the solution for the likes of Obi whom we see by the dozen in modern societies? It is perhaps in evolving a culture of their own from their heritage handed down by generations, leavened by cosmopolitan experience, a result of close encounters with the colonizers.
As the doyen among Indian philosophers S. Radhakrishnan says,
Life is like a game of bridge. The players are dealt cards unknown to them. But they can play the game well or badly. A skilful player may have a bad deal and yet win the game, whereas a bad player may get a good and yet make a mess of it. (49)
People like Obi Okonkwo can escape suffering 'crisis in the soul' by making right choices like good bridge players. Their timely decisions and exercising control and freedom to expand according to the changing times and needs of an ever growing society can help them get out of the iron hold of dogmas and retain their equanimity.
Last Modified: 12 March 2002