Themes and Meanings
Ekwensi’s principal aim in this novel is to expose the sordid and morally debilitating life, without substantial hope for success, that the modern West African city offers. Written in a Nigeria that was increasingly seeing country people migrating into big-city life in centers such as Lagos and Ibadan, the novel examines the results of such a social change on the participants. The reader sees a loss of rituals, of time to think, of traditional courtesy, of a sense of responsibility, as well as a weakening of common consideration in a world where values are cheapened and confused. All the action and characters contribute to the overall impression of the city as a disease; yet there can be no retreat to the traditional ways of rural or town life, so eloquently described by contemporary writers such as Chinua Achebe. The postwar myth of the city as an industrial center of great prosperity and potential for upward mobility and sophistication is challenged by Ekwensi, who throughout his own journalistic career was capable of convincingly presenting a more realistic view of city life.
Subthemes contribute to this main theme. The city is multiracial, yet tensions exist between ethnic groups. Ekwensi avoids tribalism (many of his characters are transplanted Ibos from the area that would later become Biafra) and concentrates instead on expatriates—Lebanese and British—who do seem to have more success than the Africans, who fail to cooperate for their own benefit: “Brotherhood ends where money begins.” The one venue of multiracial harmony, The All Languages Club, fails in its aims, and the novel, in fact, in its frequent asides against expatriates and for Africanization, seems to reveal rather than discourage such tensions.
The political need for nationwide cooperation of African leaders of different tribes in the face of imperial exploitation, shown strongly in the chapter about the coal miners’ crisis, is another subtheme, and one that is partially contradicted, from Sango’s cynical, knowledgeable point of view, by demonstrations of the corruption and greed of small-minded local politicians. Yet there remains a sense of public feeling moving emotionally toward independence, presented with subdued power at this early date.