Voices from Nigeria Spoken by Chinua Achebe
Stories from Africa are always interesting to read and discuss, including Chinua Achebe’s stories. Here I will analyze the structure of Achebe’s two short stories titled Dead Man’s Path and Civil Peace. Both short stories are originally written in English but still with the style of Igbo, the language of an ethnic group in the southeastern Nigeria. The first discussion of this essay is the working through of Dead Man’s Path, while Civil Peace comes second.
Dead Man’s Path is a story about a young man named Michael Ibo who is assigned to Ndume Central School as a new headmaster. He is such an enthusiastic and energetic man. He has a lot of fresh ideas to make the traditional school become a more modern one. His wife is along with him. Both share ideas about bringing up modernity to their new life in Ndume, including to the school. The wife utters that they shall have delightful gardens, a symbol of nice settlement. Having her husband as a headmaster, the ruler of the school, makes her want to be a queen of whom the wives of the other teachers are envy, by dressing and behaving fancily. However, she was downcast after figuring out that the teachers in the school are all single. There are no other wives. This behavior of the Ibo family is one of the phenomena appeared in the story. Passions for modernity are clearly reflected on the behavior of Michael Ibo and his wife, while modernity is in contradiction with the setting of place of the story, which is in Nigeria where supernaturalism is tightly gripped by its people. Here, supernaturalism is closely related to traditionalism and old-fashioned life style.
After a while of sitting in his new position, Michael succeeds in bringing modernity to the school in several ways, whose one of the examples is by building a garden (the garden that his wife has always dreamed of) in the yard of the school. His mission after all is to make the school look forward-minded physically besides to make the school performance developed academically. Then, he soon found out that local people often use the path on the school yard as a walk through to the path leading to the ancestor graves. He was not fine with it for sure considering his belief that supernaturalism and education should be separated. He then built fences around the school yard to prevent local people trespassing. A priest, who seems to be a Christian priest, comes to him to warn about what the new headmaster is doing. Michael ignores the warning and is forced to give payments as a result. Some time after the fences are built, a giving-born woman loses her child before it manages to see the world, which triggers the madness of local people. They think that the fences around the school has given them bad luck and then they destroy them without a second thought. The next morning (right on the day when the Government Education Officer comes to assess), Michael’s jaw is wide open when seeing the fences and the garden he has built to beautify the school are all torn up. Finding this overwhelming mess, the Government Education Officer gives the new headmaster and the school a bad report.
After reading the story closely, I find that the binary opposition in this story is Michael and his wife as the representative of modernity, and, the priest and local people as the representative of traditionalism. Both oppositions have contradictory opinions toward how to live life. Michael and his wife are two people with a hip style and taste. They cannot blend with the characterization of local people, which lead them to cross the line. Be at cross purposes, the priest and local people grip their supernaturalism tradition strongly. So, we can conclude that this story actually tells about a war between traditionalism and modernism in Nigeria as reflected on the main binary opposition.
Chinua Achebe, whose original name was Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, was born on November 16, 1930, in the Igbo town of Ogidi in eastern Nigeria. Although he was an Igbo born, he committed to learning English as a second language since he was eight years old. He said that as a crossroad cultural person, he did not mind learning language other than Igbo. It was not that he wanted to betray his race but he only wanted to promote African culture to the world. To promote, he needed English as a mediator language. He always wrote honestly about African people with the style of Igbo (though written in English). In his middle age, he moved to the Unites States to teach in several universities. This decision of leaving his home country is an example of his view toward the world. He did not want to cage himself in Africa, instead, he traveled and taught around the world to spread the news that not all Nigerians were lack behind. His belief in modernity is clearly reflected on the characterization in Dead Man’s Path. It is questioned then whether he puts himself in the story as the priest and local people or as Michael Ibo.
The fact is that around the setting of time of the story, in 1953, was when French colonized West Africa. French had a mission to rebuild and revamp the school system in Africa including the Igbo cities in eastern Nigeria. To accomplish this, missionaries were sent, and Michael Ibo is probably one of those French missionaries (in the story, there is no given detail about Michael’s race, so I am just making a guess). Missionaries assigned by colonizer are usually full of enthusiasms of bringing new changes to the environment, which is clearly seen in Michael’s personality. They brought modernity and new-fashioned passions, however, sometimes they just do not know how to blend with local people without crossing the line.
Not only Death Man’s Path, Chinua Achebe was also well-known for his other short story titled Civil Peace. It tells about Jonathan Iwegbu who survives the Nigerian civil war along with his wife and his three out of four children. Luck is with him for sure. Soon after moving out of the shelter, Jonathan found the bicycle that he buried to keep safe is still in a good condition. He also feels so much blessed for having his house stands still, though needing a little reparation. He and his family work really hard to start their life all over again. Not even one of the family members is lazy to work. Then, one day, Jonathan is given 20 pounds after turning over rebel currency. After receiving the money, he tried to keep it safe from thieves. However, he cannot run from such an unfortunate event. In the night on the same day, when the Jonathan’s family falls asleep, a group of thieves knocks their door to ask for money. Jonathan gives them his 20 pounds after all to make they be rid of. The next morning, his neighbors wonder why he and his family could continue working after what happened the night before. Jonathan then explained that money cannot ever pay what is lost, so it is better for him to give up his money than to give up his family.
Civil Peace is a story showing Nigerian people’s positivity after the long and desperate civil war. Jonathan himself is a depiction of optimism that Achebe as the writer wants to show to the world about Nigeria. Through all sadness, difficulties, and disappointments, Jonathan can get up to face the world again and to work to get a better life.
Although the main theme of Dead Man’s Path and Civil Peace is so much different, however, the two share the same main background that is the life of Nigerian People. In Dead Man’s Path, it is figured that people in Nigeria are superstitious. They believe in another power related to their ancestors, and they also refuse modernity that separates them with their faith. Then, in Civil Peace, Nigerian people are depicted as optimist people even after going through tragic losses during the civil war. Both short stories tell about the characteristics of Nigeria. Chinua Achebe himself is a Nigerian, so he fully understands about how his people live, behave, and think. Therefore, the flow of his stories are accurately composed. Although he fully understands about his people, he does not fully take their side. He still believes in modernity and positivity (that is usually understood as western people’s attitude) that shall be achieved by Nigerian people in order to build a better life. He vocalizes his opinions through writing mostly in English to introduce the world to Nigerian culture, and to teach his people about open-mindedness.