Chinua Achebe is an African English-language writer. As an author, Achebe uses the power of English words to expose, unite, and reveal various aspects of Nigerian culture. His subjects are both literary and political. In general, Achebe’s writings reflect cultural diversity in twentieth century African society. He focuses on the difficulty faced by Africans who were once under the rule of British colonials but later had to struggle with issues of democracy, the evils of military rule, civil war, tribal rivalries, and dictatorship.
Achebe seeks to preserve the proverbs and truths of his Ibo tribal heritage by incorporating them into his stories, whether they be in his contemporary novels or his children’s tales. His works do more, however, than entertain; they reveal truths about human nature and show the destruction of power corrupted. Achebe’s writing does not cast blame but delivers a message to his readers, concerning unity and the necessity for political stability in Nigerian culture.
Achebe’s “Vengeful Creditor” is a story that seems to be about what a misconceived government decree guaranteeing free education to all can lead to, including some rather comic developments. It appears to be a story about class struggle, and then, as the reader sees layer after layer of meaning stripped away and one theme leading directly to another, it seems to be—and is—about something really quite different from either education or the class system.
Mr. and Mrs. Emenike are part of the Nigerian upper class: He is a parliamentary secretary, and he and his wife own a Mercedes and a Fiat and employ servants from the still-uneducated masses, most of them from the village of their birth, to which the Emenikes return periodically to shower largesse upon the populace. At the beginning of the story, a free-education bill has caused a mass desertion of servants, even those of college age, all of whom wish to go back to their villages and qualify for an education. Apparently many others have the same idea, for the turnout for free schooling is double what the government statisticians had predicted. The reader sees Emenike and his running buddies at the cabinet meeting at which it is decided to make everyone pay, after all, because the army might have to be called out if new taxes are announced to pay for the unexpected costs of the program.
The Emenikes, finding themselves with this “servant problem,” return to their native village and ask Martha, a village woman known to them, if her daughter Vero will be their baby nurse for the princely sum of five pounds per year. Martha has led a rather sad life: She was educated at a Christian school whose reason for being was the education of African girls up to the standards expected of the wives of native pastors. The woman in charge of her school, however, by way of furthering her own romantic aspirations, persuaded Martha to marry a carpenter being trained at an industrial school managed by a white man. Carpentry never came into its own, however, at least not as much as preaching and teaching, and Martha had a “bad-luck marriage,” which eventually left her a widow with no money and several children to support, although she was a Standard Three (beginning of high school) reader and her classmates were all married to prosperous teachers and bishops.
The withdrawal of the free-education decree has cast Martha’s daughter, Vero, back onto the streets. When Mr. Emenike says that one does not need education to be great, Martha knows he is patronizing her; she knows exactly what the fate of an uneducated person usually is, but she needs the money from this job. Mr. Emenike rounds out his recruiting pitch by saying he thinks there is plenty of time for the ten-year-old girl to go to school. Martha says, “I read Standard Three in those days and I said they will all go to college. Now they will not even have the little I had thirty years ago.” Vero turns out to be quick, industrious, and creative, but there also begins to be a connection between her charge’s maturing and her own chance of an education. Finally, as she comes to realize the child will need care until hope of an education has past her, she tries to poison him by making him drink a bottle of red ink.
Mrs. Emenike, one of the least sympathetic Africans in any short story ever written by an African, beats Vero unmercifully. They drive back to the village where they were all born and pull her out of the car. Martha hears from Vero that she has been fired, sees the blood on her daughter, and drags her to the Emenikes. Called one who taught her daughter murder, she retorts to Mrs. Emenike that she is not a murderer. Mr. Emenike, trying to break up this confrontation, says, “It’s the work of the devil. I have always known that the craze for education in this country will one day ruin all of us. Now even children will commit murder in order to go to school.”
“Uncle Ben’s Choice”
“Uncle Ben’s Choice” is a ghost or magical story which involves the element of human choice. A succubus-goddess known as the Mami-Wota, capable of many disguises, is both a seducer and a betrayer. She makes it possible for a young girl who offers herself to a man to guarantee not only sexual relations but also success, riches, and whatever material things the man desires. The only condition is that the Mami-Wota prevents the man from marrying her.
“Uncle Ben’s Choice” is a monologue told by Uncle Ben in a tone that is skeptical yet simultaneously sincere and ingenuous. Uncle Ben is a clerk determined not to marry, whose passions are scotch, a brand-new phonograph, and his bicycle. His affluence brings him to the attention of the Mami-Wota because he not only lives better than the average African but also is much more concerned with the material rewards of life than even his fellow clerks.
A “light” girl who is Roman Catholic falls for him, and he tries to stay out of her way. However, he comes home one night after some heavy drinking and falls into bed, only to find a naked woman there. He thinks at first that it is the girl who has been making a play for him, then he feels her hair—it feels European. He jumps out of bed, and the woman calls to him in the voice of the girl who has a crush on him. He is suspicious now and strikes a match, making the most fateful decision of his life: to abjure wealth gotten from being the exclusive property of the Mami-Wota, her lover and her slave. “Uncle Ben’s Choice” is about the innate morality of men in society. Uncle Ben honors his society by suppressing his own urges and fantasies in favor of remaining a part of his family, clan, and tribe, whose rewards he values more than riches.
“Girls at War”
“Girls at War” is a story about the war between the seceding state of Biafra and Nigeria, and both the theme and the plot are foreshadowed in the spare sentence introducing the principal characters: “The first time their paths crossed nothing happened.” The second time they meet, however, is at a checkpoint at Akwa, when the girl, Gladys, stops Reginald Nwankwo’s car to inspect it. He falls back on the dignity of his office and person, but this fails to impress her, which secretly delights and excites him. He sees her as “a beautiful girl in a breasty blue jersey, khaki jeans and canvas shoes with the new-style hair plait which gave a girl a defiant look.” Before, in the earlier stages of the war, he had sneered at the militia girls, particularly after seeing a group recruited from a high school marching under the banner “WE ARE IMPREGNABLE.” Now he begins to respect them because of the mature attitude and bearing of Gladys, who seems both patriotic and savvy, knowing and yet naïve.
The third time they meet, “things had got very bad. Death and starvation had long chased out the headiness of the early days.” Reginald is coming back to Owerri after using his influence as an official to obtain some food, unfortunately under the eyes of a starving crowd who mock and taunt him. He is something of an idealist, and this embarrasses him, but he has decided that in “such a situation one could do nothing at all for crowds; at best one could try to be of some use to one’s immediate neighbors.” Gladys is walking along in a crowd, and he picks her up, but not because he recognizes her. She has changed: She is wearing makeup, a wig, and new clothes and is now a bureaucrat and no doubt corrupt. She reminds him that she was the one who searched for him so long ago; he had admired her then, but now he just wants her, and as soon as they get into town he takes her into an air-raid bunker after Nigerian planes fly over, strafing.
Later, they go to a party, where in the midst of Biafran starvation there is scotch, Courvoisier, and real bread, but a white Red Cross man who has lost a friend in an air crash tells them all that they stink and that any girl there will roll into bed for a fish or a dollar. He is slapped by an African officer who, all the girls think, is a hero, including Gladys, who begins to appear to the protagonist—and to the reader—as the banal, improvident child she really is. Finally, Gladys goes home and to bed with Reginald, who is shocked by the coarseness of her language. He has his pleasure and writes her off. Then he begins to think she is nothing but a mirror reflecting a “rotten, maggoty society” and that she, like a dirty mirror, needs only some cleaning. He begins to believe she is under some terrible influence. He decides to try to help her; he gives her food and money, and they drive off together to her house. He is determined to see who is there and who her friends are, to get to the bottom of her life of waste and callousness.
On the way he picks up a soldier who has lost part of one leg. Before, he would not have picked up a mere private, not only sweaty but also an inconvenience with his crutches and his talk of war. Then there is another air raid. He pushes past Gladys, who stops to go back to help the crippled soldier, and, terrified, goes into the timberline, where a near-miss knocks him senseless. When he awakes, he finds the driver sobbing and bloody and his car a wreck. “He saw the remains of his car smoking and the entangled remains of the girl and the soldier. And he let out a piercing cry and fell down again.” With Gladys’s horrible death, the protagonist understands the potential for nobility within the heart and soul of even the most banal and superficial of human beings. “Girls at War” confirms Achebe’s faith in humanity and in Africa.
Because of the remarkable portrayal of Nigerian culture, Achebe’s works, like the three stories analyzed above, are frequently anthologized. Achebe himself edited and published the collection African Short Stories (1985). It is subdivided by regions of the African continent. In the West African section, Achebe included his own work “Civil Peace,” originally published in Girls at War.
This story takes place in the time period just after the Biafran War. It points out with the ironic title that there may not be much difference between civil war and civil peace. Jonathan Iwegbu feels fortunate that he, his wife, and three of their four children have survived the war. As an added bonus, so has his bicycle, which Jonathan had cleverly buried in his yard to keep it from the marauding troops. After the war, Jonathan’s entrepreneurial instincts can flourish because he has the bicycle.
His business ventures do well and, in addition, he receives a cash payment of Nigerian money (called the ex-gratia award or egg-rasher by the Nigerians struggling with the foreign term) for turning in rebel money coined during the conflict. Unfortunately, a band of thieves, many of them former soldiers, armed with machine guns and other weapons, learn of his windfall and terrorize Jonathan and his family in a way reminiscent of wartime, until Jonathan gives them the money. Fatalistically, yet realistically, Jonathan realizes he is back to square one, and, at the end of the story, he and his family are once again preparing to go out and start all over again. In Jonathan’s own words, “I say, let egg-rasher perish in the flames! Let it go where everything else has gone.”
This story illustrates one of Achebe’s major themes, a portrayal of both the problems or weaknesses and the strengths of the Nigerian people. The society has been vicious and cruel to itself, yet the strength and spirit of individuals will carry it onward.