illustrated portrait of Igbo Nigerian author Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

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In "Chike's School Days," what shocks Elizabeth so much that she nearly dies, and what does she do to try to correct her son's mistake?

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In “Chike’s School Days” by Chinua Achebe, the story takes place in colonial Nigeria where Chike and his family are part of the Igbo Tribe. The tribe is divided between the beliefs and culture of the English colonizers and the traditional beliefs and culture of the Igbo. The most significant conflict between the two cultures comes from the religious differences between Christianity and the Igbo spiritual practices.

Chike’s father Amos is a convert to Christianity, and as a result, he marries an Osu woman. Osu is the name of the lowest caste in Igbo society; they are essentially slaves until they die—they cannot marry outside their caste or in any way change their station. Amos marries his wife at the urging of Mr. Brown, the minister, which in turn makes him an Osu when he had been a free man.

His mother, upon hearing his plan to marry and Osu, nearly dies of shock. The story says,

A few days later he told his widowed mother, who had recently been converted to Christianity and had taken the name Elizabeth. The shock nearly killed her. When she recovered, she got down on her knees and begged Amos not to do this thing.

His mother, despite her conversion, is distraught at the news because she understands what her son is choosing not only for himself but for all his children in the future. His life will not get better just because of the white people, because his place in their society is still dependent on his caste.

Ultimately his mother regrets her conversion and goes back to the religion of the Igbo. She listens to the village wise man and sacrifices a goat so that her son will not marry the Osu, but it doesn’t work. Amos is stubborn and goes through with it, choosing to be a Christian and marry his wife instead of following the ways of the Igbo.

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"Chike's School Days" was written by Chinua Achebe to explore notions of traditionalism in the African family and challenges to those norms. The challenge to the accepted standards of culture in the story is the behavior of Elizabeth's son. In Nigerian society at the time, it was not acceptable to marry someone who was considered to be inferior in class and status. Elizabeth's son wants to marry Sarah, a woman who is deemed to be in the lowest class in traditional Igbo society, the Osu. Elizabeth, who is a Christian convert, adamantly believes in upholding Nigerian family traditions and strongly opposes him marrying her. (The only people who seem to support the marriage are white missionaries.) Elizabeth's son marries Sarah anyway, and this marriage shocks Elizabeth intensely, causing her to nearly pass out from the news.

To correct her son's mistake, Elizabeth decides to consult with a Diviner, a pious person who is believed to be able to reveal fortunes and advise on the best courses of action. In an effort to help her atone for her son's embracing of the "white man's religion" and marriage to an Osu, the Diviner instructs Elizabeth to sacrifice a goat to the ancestors of traditional Igbo religion. Realizing that her sacrifices are futile, she stops.

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In "Chike's School Days," Elizabeth is so upset by her son's announcement of his impending marriage to an Osu that the "shock nearly killed her."

In the old days in Nigeria, Osu were a people set apart. They were viewed as a type of "living sacrifice" to the gods and, as a consequence, were not allowed to participate in any of the typical ceremonies or rituals of day-to-day living. Osu were only allowed to marry other Osu, and most Osu were shunned by the common populace. Anyone who married an Osu was considered cursed. Achebe tells us that Osu were not allowed to own land, to marry free-born Nigerians, or to take "any of the titles of his clan." So, when Amos, Elizabeth's son, announces that he is going to marry an Osu, despite not being an Osu himself, Elizabeth is grieved beyond measure. She begs her son to reconsider, but he does not relent.

The story of Nigeria's Untouchables.

In spite of her rejection of the old Nigerian traditions, Elizabeth visits a traditional diviner who tells her that her son's insanity is a direct result of his conversion to Christianity, the white man's religion. He insists that the only remedy for this disturbing state of affairs is to complete all the necessary old rituals for the benefit of the ancestors and to sacrifice a goat to appease their anger. Elizabeth does all of this, but her son remains strangely recalcitrant. He marries an Osu girl named Sarah, and the grief actuated by his actions prompts Elizabeth to reject Christianity and return to her old faith.

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