Chinua Achebe’s social allegory of Nigeria – Part 2
Continued from yesterday
On that basis alone Okonkwo was the equal of any man. But by the manner of his death, death by suicide, that was not always apparent. Okonkwo lived and died in a village called Umuofia. He was a hardworking yam farmer and merchant, and he was an outstanding citizen.
The people of Umuofia worshipped Agbala among a pantheon of gods which included Ani, the goddess of fertility and good harvest. The supreme deity of Ndigbo was called Chukwu and he resided only in a shrine somewhere on the hills and subterranean streams in Arochukwu. The fearsome oracle, Ibini Ukpabi, overthrown by the British in 1902, used to speak and deliver judgment in his name.
What stands out about the religion of Ndigbo was the existence of a personal god. Okonkwo built an altar to his Chi in his compound. Daily he offered offerings or supplications to it and generally revered it: for he recognized that his Chi represented a moiety of Chukwu in him and helps to guide his destiny.
Thus by definition, each person was in fact a member of the supreme deity. It is in this wise that you find the core similarity between the Igbo religion and the Christian religion. When Jesus walked among men it was the next logical step in the evolution of the friendship and familiarity between creator and creature whose consummation was promised when Abraham, the son of a wandering Aramean, was called to discipleship.
This is not the place nor the time to undertake a comprehensive retailing of the road signs in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I have highlighted enough for my purposes here. Achebe presented people in their own community doing their own thing to the world. And in his anti-hero, Okonkwo, he created the universal man in his own image.
Achebe’s message to Europeans was not we are your equal; but that we are humans too, and the respect with which you treat us is a reflection of your own immanent dignity or lack thereof. The British in Nigeria went ahead and created a native class of surrogates or Europeanized Africans whom they colluded with to transfer Africa’s wealth to their homeland.
Free trade became a farce as Adam Smith’s invisible hand which was supposed to correct inequities in the marketplace was subverted by force of arms. For instance, Royal Navy frigates bombarded Lagos in 1851 to break up the Ijebu trade hegemony on the lagoon and gain access to suppliers in the ‘Lagos hinterland’; and George Goldie led an expedition, armed with British army issue Maxim and mountain guns, to capture Lokoja from the Bida emirate in order to dominate trade from Bussa in west-central Nigeria to Adamawa in the east.
That said, Achebe reserved the most salient message for Nigeria’s thought leaders and politicians. Sixty-something years after the fact, a brilliant thought occurs to me: Let’s hand a copy of Things Fall Apart to each of the national delegates who convened in London for the 1958 Lancaster House independence conference. Most of them probably spent 21 days on the sea commuting to London which afforded them ample time, if they wanted, to appreciate again the skillful treatment Achebe afforded the people of Umuofia. He showed them as common people doing ordinary things in an extraordinary manner.
For the negotiations that followed in London a copy of Things Fall Apart was all they needed for a perpetual redirection of their minds to their true vocation: to build a socio-economic and political framework to deliver good governance to a people who looked just like the people of Umuofia or the people of the villages and towns they (the nationalists) had left before they made permanent residences in the cities to share the good life with Europeans.
The negotiations that took place at Lancaster House were a success for the elite and political class. A timetable for independence was announced. Nigeria’s replacement of Europeans was in charge and they were set to take the place of the privilege of the departing British even if they were not equipped technically to run the utilities; even if they lacked administrative competence; or even if they were not morally fortified to provide good governance.
The road to hell is sometimes paved also with bad intentions.
The people got nothing. Otherwise, we would not have a country where the Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, would think it was okay to say out loud, that the government could not secure every school in the country. Thus, his advice to parents and school administrators was to be vigilant and to report suspicious activities to the nearest security agency.
Sad Fact: The college of forestry where 30 students were kidnapped, mentioned at the beginning of this tribute, is located near the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) barracks in Kaduna.
Boko Haram’s stated mission is to make the human cost of schooling in Nigeria prohibitive. Evidence on the ground shows it is winning. The kids and young adults that survive kidnapping from the hallowed premises of their schools immediately put further schooling out of the question. So here we are: at the beginning of the end.
At every crossroad, our leaders followed the line of least resistance of their conscience and made the wrong turn. Achebe’s narrative ended with Okonkwo’s suicide. But to see Okonkwo as a tragic figure of his own lack of discernment and intolerance is to miss the point completely. Okonkwo’s crisis started with his drive for achievement coupled with his consuming need to compensate for what he thought was his father’s life of underachievement: Unoka would die as he had lived with unpaid debts.
Okonkwo’s crisis continued with his inability to close the spiritual expectation gap between his Chi and himself. Okonkwo thought that his Chi had not done enough to redirect Agbala from claiming to sacrifice his daughter, Ezinma. The negative energy thus generated, he then channeled to resist the alien influence in thought, culture, and religion that targeted his people. That negative energy peaked when he was unable to recruit any of his family or friends to the resistance, especially Obierika his best friend.
At each point of Okonkwo’s personal and social crises, an intervention by men or women of conscience could have produced a different outcome. In the final analysis, Achebe’s genius is revealed when we understand that Things Fall Apart was more than a literary rebuttal of Kipling and Conrad on an intellectual level. It was a social allegory of Nigeria as Okonkwo.
Now let’s go and find ten men or women of conscience in Nigeria; if we are not sixty-something years too late.
“When we are comfortable and inattentive, we run the risk of committing grave injustices absentmindedly.”
Chinua Achebe (The Education of a British-protected Child)
Ngene wrote from Atlanta, Georgia, United States.