I am indebted to Kwadwo from logo-ligi for my copy of No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe: I won it in his Reading Relay and I decided to make it my second choice for Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge. First published in 1960, two years after the acclaimed Things Fall Apart (which everyone of my generation read at school) No Longer at Ease is a classic from the African Writers Series published by Heinemann…
At first glance it’s a straightforward cautionary tale. Obi Okonkwo has been a fool. The novel begins with the judge who convicts him for corruption expressing his astonishment that a young man with a good education and such brilliant prospects should have come to this. Flashbacks explain how one thing led to another and Obi succumbed to temptation as he failed to make the transition from village life to city bureaucrat. At this level the book can be read as a coming-of-age gone awry as we see him act on impulse, choose unwisely, take imprudent decisions, and stick to his guns out of stubbornness rather than good judgement. It is his ego which prevents him from realising his potential, together with his inability to meet the demands that the new responsibilities of adulthood entail.
As the excellent introduction by Gikandi explains, however, Obi’s fall is a metaphor for Nigeria itself in its post-colonial transition, as impending independence gives rise to the age of corruption. The young man’s tragedy is the tragedy of so many African nations in the post-colonial era, nations that have failed, even now, to establish good governance.
Obi’s village has scrimped and saved to send him to study law in England so that he can represent their interests in the forthcoming new Nigeria, but he has let them down badly. The good folk of Umuofia, however, while disappointed in him, have not forgotten their pride in his achievement and their collective decision is that they will not now let him down:
In recent weeks the [Umoufia Progressive] Union had met several times over Obi Okonkwo’s case. At the first meeting, a handful of people had expressed the view that there was no reason why the Union should worry itself over the troubles of a prodigal son who had shown great disrespect to it only a little while ago.
‘We paid eight hundred pounds to train him in England,’ said one of them. ‘But instead of being grateful he insults us because of a useless girl. And now we are being called together again to find more money for him. What does he do with his big salary? In my opinion we have already done too much for him.’
This view, although accepted as largely true, was not taken very seriously. For, as the President pointed out, a kinsman in trouble had to be saved, not blamed, anger against a brother was felt in the flesh, not in the bone. And so the Union decided to pay for the services of a lawyer from their funds.
But the case is lost and now there is the sum of twenty pounds to be found for the fine…
The men of Umuofia were prepared to fight to the last. They had no illusions about Obi. He was, without doubt, a very foolish and self-willed young man. But this was not the time to go into that. The fox must be chased away first; after that the hen might be warned against wandering into the bush.
When the time for warning came the men of Umuofia could be trusted to give it in full measure, pressed down and flowing over. The President said it was a thing of shame for a man in the senior service to go to prison for twenty pounds.
And how has it come to this? Well, first of all Obi reneged on the deal and studied English instead of law. This was disappointing, but at least he could take up a good position in the Civil Service. However, like Pip in Great Expectations, Obi discovers that his salary – astronomical by the standards of his origins – is not enough to maintain the standard of living of a smart young man. Enjoying having money in his pocket for the first time in his life, he fails to take account of forthcoming expenses. And when they come, they hit him hard: the government issued car needs tyres and insurance; electricity bills are high; there is obligatory entertainment to be paid for, and nobody warned him that he needed to save up to pay his annual income tax.
But financial pressure as he makes the transition into the modern world is not all that lies in wait for Obi. His biggest problem is the chasm between the cultural mores of the past and those of the present. In England Obi fell for a lovely young fellow-Nigerian called Clara, and he wants to marry her. Indeed, one of his impulsive extravagances is an engagement ring for twenty pounds. But Clara is an Osu, which makes her by village tradition an Untouchable. This relationship is a personal disaster for Obi but it also brings into sharp relief one of the major problems for any developing country, that is, the conflict between modernity and tradition.
I had heard about the Untouchbles of India,, but not that there was something similar in Africa so I asked my friend Kinna about it. Kinna (who blogs at Kinna Reads) is from Ghana but has extensive knowledge of Nigeria. She tells me that prejudice about caste is declining but that there are still ‘isolated cases where marriages have been abandoned because one of the betrothed was Osu’. Achebe shows that in 1960s Nigeria even educated people maintained their objections, and Obi is naïve to expect their support.
Achebe’s great skill in telling this story is that unlike the harangue which marred a more recent book on a similar theme, this novel portrays Obi’s dilemma in all its complexity. Obligations and gratitude towards the group are balanced against the wishes and interests of the individual, and No Longer at Ease shows that being a good and grateful child is not as simple as picking up the phone and calling home every now and again. Some traditions are repugnant, and parents living in a simple village do not understand how hard it can be in a city full of temptations and new social obligations. Obi, we would say in the West, is entitled to expect that his parents would respect his choice of bride; we would say that he has the right to study where his passions lie. At the same time, the village which has supported him so generously is owed respect, gratitude and certain standards of behaviour. They are entitled to expect that Obi will repay the scholarship, and his family is entitled to expect that he will help pay for his brother’s school fees. Before long Obi’s idealism and scorn for the corrupt officials that are running the country is in conflict with his new lifestyle and obligations and it impacts on the bottom line of the young man’s budget. He can’t make ends meet.
No Longer at Ease features a character who engages our sympathy even though we see his faults only too clearly. It’s a wonderful book.
Visit Kwadwo’s blog to see his review too.
Author: Chinua Achebe
Title: No Longer at Ease
Publisher: Pearson Education (Heinemann African Writers Series) 2008
Source: logo-ligi’s Reading Relay