The story of Umuofia continues…

Two generations after the protagonist’s tragic demise in Achebe’s timeless Things Fall Apart, the British Colonial Administration is deeply entrenched in Nigeria. The descendants of native tribesmen walk in the footsteps of both their ancestors and the strangers they now call their government.

Lagos has become the city of dreams where anyone who wants to be someone lives. From time to time, a war veteran in need of attention will amaze naïve villagers with stories about the big city.

‘There is no darkness there,’ he told his admiring listeners, ‘ because at night the electric shines like the sun, and people are always walking about, that is, those who want to walk. If you don’t want to walk you only have to wave your hand and a pleasure car stops for you.’

Little Obi Okonkwo drank in such stories without a doubt in his young mind.

For many years afterwards, Lagos was always associated with electric lights and motor-cars in Obi’s mind. Even after he had at last visited the city and spent a few days there before flying to the United Kingdom his views did not change very much.

But Obi returns from England to meet a very different Nigeria. Slums are springing up in Lagos and the people’s proclivity for bribery and corruption is insatiable. He is expected to pay back his scholarship to the Umuofia Progressive Union and support his family back in Umuofia from the meager salary he earns as a civil servant in Lagos. Meanwhile, he intends to marry his unwilling fiancée Clara, the young Nigerian nurse he met in England.

Obi’s expenditure inevitably exceeds his income and he finds himself in a quandary that borders on a conflict between the idealism he had learned in England and the temptation of accepting gifts and tokens from his fellow countrymen in exchange for favours.

Though Achebe’s No Longer At Ease is another masterpiece, its brilliance is overshadowed by its predecessor. The novel explores the cultural, sociological and economic divide that European influence brings to Africa. Family bonds begin to weaken. The ‘white man’s religion’ now competes with African traditional beliefs and technology like cars and electricity makes the cities more alluring to the younger generation who in having an affinity for Western culture, gradually forget theirs. Education suddenly becomes the yardstick of prominence instead of the customary titles bestowed on men. The literate are said to have ‘the white man’s power’.

… Obi heard his father talk with deep feeling about the mystery of the written word to an illiterate kinsman.

‘Our women made black patterns on their bodies with the juice of the uli tree. It was beautiful, but it soon faded. If it lasted two market weeks it lasted a long time. But sometimes our elders spoke about uli that never faded, although no one had ever seen it. We see it today in the writing of the white man. If you go to the native court and look at the books which clerks wrote twenty years ago or more, they are still as they wrote them. They do not say one thing today and another thing tomorrow, or one thing this year and another next year. Okoye in the book today cannot become Okonkwo tomorrow. In the Bible Pilate said: “What is written is written.” It is uli that never fades.’

Achebe is one of my favourite authors because of the versatility in his narration. He is able to blend excellent grammar with transliterations of his native Igbo dialect, making it easy for anyone who speaks a West African dialect to relate to such dialogue and at the same time whets the appetite of those who don’t for a better understanding of the language.

In this novel, he cleverly juxtaposes the benefits of European influence with its adverse effect on pre-colonial West African culture and family values as he paints a vivid picture of life during the Colonial era. Although No Longer At Ease is not as popular as the legendary Things Fall Apart, I think it is every bit a classic as the latter.

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