In “The Education of a British-Protected Child,” Chinua Achebe describes his mother’s unique experience as a first-generation learner. She was sent to a missionary school called St. Monica’s Girls’ school, which Achebe says was the first school of its kind in Igboland. Not only was she sent to the school but she lived with the school’s principal, Miss Edith Ashley Warner, and several English teachers. His mother did chores around the house in exchange for her housing and education. He says that for a woman like her, the daughter of a village ironsmith, life at the school was “strange, exciting, and sometimes frightening.”
Achebe’s main point in incorporating his mother’s experience is to illustrate his claim about people who were victims of colonial oppression. He says:
Dispossession is, of course, no laughing matter, no occasion for humor. And yet the amazing thing is that the dispossessed will often turn his powerlessness to good account and laugh, and thereby lift himself out of desolation and despair. And save his humanity by the skin of his teeth, for humor is quintessentially human!
To prove this point, he tells the story about a time when Miss Warner (who was learning the Igbo language) tried to tell his mother not to break the plate she was carrying. She messed up the Igbo verb and his mother laughed a little bit. Miss Warner got very angry and gave her a serious lecture on the importance of good manners. Achebe says that his mother would tell the story to their family over and over again because it made them all laugh.
There is a lot to unpack in this one story. First, it is an example of how colonial missionaries would instruct native people on how to act and speak. They tried to redefine what was considered “proper” according to their standards, which was a part of their mission to “civilize” people who they saw as savages. But it is also an example of how the colonized used mechanisms like humor as a way to resist oppression and maintain their sense of self. The fact that this English woman was with Achebe’s mother and trying to learn her language so that she could “civilize” her is sad and cause for despair. Yet the fact that Achebe’s mother found humor in it and then told it to her family so they too could find humor in it shows how the dispossessed adapt and try to stay human when forces out of their control work to dehumanize them.