No Longer at Ease: Colonialism and Colonial Experience


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No Longer at Ease; Colonial Experience

Many issues arise out of post-colonialism, and nonetheless numerous authors have tried to tackle them and bring them to light. However, few can express the challenges so simply, yet effectively as author Chinua Achebe did with his novel No Longer at Ease. The book tells the story of Obi Okonkwo, a young Umuofia man who returned to Nigeria upon his studies in England. Nigeria is not the Nigeria Okonkwo once loved and his colonial experience created an internal struggle for his identity. This experience had been shaped through his upbringing and western education, conflict between his modern and traditional values, and his placement in an elite job post, which all lead to his tragic failure.

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Okonkwo’s colonial experience had molded his early childhood and education. When the British colonized Nigeria, they brought with them Christian missionaries. Okonkwo’s parents were both devout Christian converts, and growing up he was exposed to a strict household, which distinguished him from his Umuofia culture. For instance, this is seen when Okonkwo’s father banned his mother from telling them folk stories, which most Umuofia children grew with, because the stories were heathen. Alternatively, as a child when Okonkwo was offered food, he would reply, “we don’t eat heathen food.” This affected Okonkwo’s childhood because he missed some aspects of the Umuofia culture; which his family had given up in exchange for a western colonial religion. Okonkwo even went as far as to mention in the novel that there were consequences to this; especially when he attended school and every child knew folktales except him. Essentially, his colonial inspired upbringing isolated him. It also created a wedge between him and his culture early one in his life that led the way to further tension.

Subsequently, as a child, Okonkwo was the smartest in his village; he was recognized for his intelligence and incredible grades and achievements. Ultimately this is what led Okonkwo towards a western education and scholarship. This relates back to the way he was brought up and his fathers love for the “written word” of the white man, which he viewed as a means of power. This was a foreshadow of the way Okonkwo trusts and pursues the “written word.” In addition, it was something that was touched upon when he was referenced as a representative of his community who has studied the “book.” Therefore, due to his father’s Christianity, Okonkwo was detached from his culture early on, and through his embrace of western education, he became additionally estranged from his bloodline.

Although Okonkwo was brought up differently than most of his fellow village men, he still felt a kinship towards Nigeria. Okonkwo had spent 4 years in England, and because of this distance between him and his country, it was there that he started yearning for his family and culture . He had an idealized image of Nigeria, a Nigeria with promise and hopes, shaped through his phase of separation. For instance, when he came across other Nigerians when abroad and spoke Igbo with them, it brought him pride. In contrast, when he spoke English, the language of the colonizers, he felt his culture and language were being scorned. Due to this, he felt shame. This illustrates a mixed identity of two cultures. Okonkwo was surrounded by the colonizer culture early on, but he still valued some of his own culture. Although, paradoxically his education abroad taught him new values and ideals, that ultimately caused him to critique some aspects of his Nigerian culture.

When Okonkwo returned from his studies abroad, he was expected to find a civil service job. Moreover, because he was western educated, he was situated in a “European post.” This experience further created an identity struggle for Okonkwo because he now faced further dilemmas. When he lived in the metropolitan Lagos, he had to follow a specific way of living such as; having a driver, access to entertainment, a modern home, paying back his scholarship, paying taxes, as well as sending his family money. The western model is materialistic in which members greet one another with “how is the care behaving.” Therefore, Okonkwo through his financial struggle felt incapable of conforming to the norms of the west. Although he had been paid well, and had an upper class rank, it was a struggle to maintain that status. Furthermore, Okonkwo questioned the character of white people, which was illustrated with his colleague Miss Tomlinson who had a genuine personality, but upon first interaction, Okonkwo suspected whether she was planted to spy on Africans. This revealed that although Okonkwo valued the knowledge and intellect of the white people, he did not trust them; one reason could be that they had colonized his country. Furthermore, Okonkwo recognized that his university degree was his stepping-stone to luxury, and that second succeeding thing to being a European is to work at a “European post.” This belief also reveals the hidden sentiment of always being “inferior” to Europeans regardless of what position or rank one held because the European will always be superior.

Likewise, Okonkwo’s childhood and education did not only affect his status later on in life but also his values and beliefs. During his studies abroad, he encountered new ideas of social and political reform. This resulted in a formation of new principles that often criticized traditions of his country. With this, there was a clash between his modern values and his traditional values. Such example of this occurred when Okonkwo met Clara, a Nigerian who was also on her way back home from England. Clara caught Okonkwo’s attention, and he became interested in her. When Okonkwo fallen in love with Clara, he did not recognize that she is an Osu, since she did not share it with him until later on in their relationship when Clara announces that she cannot marry him. Osu, are a forbidden caste who served an idol, and they were shamed and shunned because of it. If Okonkwo were to marry an Osu, it would cause his ancestors great shame, and society would judge him and his bloodline. To Okonkwo, it was unbelievable that in his century anyone could be banned from getting married to someone because of his or her background. This can be connected back to his time in England and his studies, which opened up his mind to equality and freedom.

In addition, he believed that he is part of the new educated generation that would challenge these customs. Okonkwo’s close friend, Joseph, even doubted that Okonkwo understood the consequences of marrying an Osu, because of his detachment from African culture. This essentially made Okonkwo feel like a foreigner in his own country. Even his friend Christopher, acknowledged that Nigeria has not yet grasped the phase where society can overlook their customs. Particularly, this showed Okonkwo’s colonial influenced identity in which he was unwilling to follow his African custom, and his lack of respect or understanding towards it. Moreover, he felt that his education could challenge this social behavior. Except Okonkwo was confronted with a lot of opposition, even from his mother whom he held very dearly. The unexpected lack of support devastated him and forced him to question his stance and loyalty. This is when he became emotionally confused and started losing sight of his morals and ideals.

Another dilemma shaped by Okonkwo’s colonial experience is that of his reaction to corruption in Nigeria. With Okonkwo’s return from England, he held love for his country, but started losing sight of that when he noticed the dishonest system of briber. The Nigerian system was very much corrupt and known for its bribery. This could be rationalized by the custom of patronage, which had been incorporated into the western structure. According to Okonkwo, the educated youth were the keys to replacing Nigeria’s corrupt system because they could get ahead solely with their education, whereas the uneducated Nigerians depended on the use of bribery. It was hard for Okonkwo to comprehend why someone would take or make a bribe at first, which set him apart from most Nigerians. In a position such as his, he was confronted with the issue of bribery, but was determined to remain clean and principled. His first experience with this was on his trip back to Nigeria when his bus driver was stopped by a police officer, in which he found issues with the driver’s papers. Due to Okonkwo’s presence, the police officer did not take the risk of taking a bribe, which the bus driver and companions blamed Okonkwo for. Whereas most uneducated Nigerians held the belief that Nigeria will always remain corrupt, therefore, educated crowds cannot change it. However, Okonkwo held the idea that even Britain was once corrupt, and was able to overcome it.

Okonkwo believed that by not accepting bribes he was going to make a change and that eventually the system would change. He was naïve in that he believed he could change the system. He had printed a paper, during his studies abroad, in which he hypothesized on how Nigeria’s corrupt system could be changed. He held the belief that the elder Africans would have to be replaced by a younger generation of university educated and committed people who would take the civil service positions. This belief did not hold up because of his financial grief, due to the expectations society had placed on him. Eventually through many bribery encounters, he gave in under the financial and emotional stress. This all lead to him falling into a terrible and corrupt act, and just when he vowed never to do it again, he was caught. Okonkwo was different from others, whom one would assume would accept bribes; he felt immense guilt in that he was betraying what he stood for. This illustrates the struggle between his western values and principles of doing things morally and working towards advancing in life, and the traditional Nigerian practice of bribery to gain advancement.

Overall, Okonkwo’s character is an interesting character, His colonial experience joined with his detachment from Umuofia culture and standards led him into trailing his own path with the belief that there would be no consequences. Furthermore, his childhood experience and western education set him apart from that of his compatriots and friends. He had immense pride in his education and believe Nigerians could change the social institutions in his country, in which men, like him, made the path towards a better Nigeria. However, at time, he felt that he could not fit into either culture. This created a clash of ideals; his western values that took shape throughout his years conflicted with the older, more traditional ideals, and he struggled with finding a solution for a concept that would work both socially and politically. This resulted in him losing himself in the process, “I cannot comprehend how a young man of your education and brilliant promise could have done this. Treacherous tears came into Obis eyes…” No one could truly understand why he had taken the bribe, so the question remains why did he? Had he just become no longer at ease?

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