The Wrestling Match Themes
The novel opens with a conflict between Okei and his uncle, Obi Agiliga, which continues throughout the book, but is resolved by the end of the story. At the beginning, Okei is restless, bored, tired of his uncle’s nagging, and thinks he can solve his own problems and that his uncle is hopelessly out of touch. He also thinks his uncle has nothing to teach him, since he has been educated. This attitude is common among his age-mates who have been to school; none of them want to work on their parents’ farms, although they are happy to eat the food their parents provide. The girls of their same age, who unlike the boys are expected and required to do productive work for their families, think the boys are “bigheaded” and lazy.
Obi Agiliga, however, does remember what it was like to be a young man, and he secretly sympathizes with and understands Okei’s problems, although he can’t convince Okei of that. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that Okei is an orphan and believes his uncle took him in out of duty, so he is reluctant to trust Obi Agiliga. As the story progresses and Obi Agiliga comes up with a scheme to keep all the boys busy and teach them a lesson, Okei gradually learns that his uncle is trustworthy, that he does know more than Okei thinks he does, and that it might be wise to ask his advice every now and then.
One turning point in their relationship comes when Okei is wrongly accused of being in Obi Uju’s house, and his uncle and aunt protect him. Okei realizes for the first time that his uncle will truly stand behind him, and that despite his “nagging,” he really believes Okei is a good person.
A second turning point occurs when another boy, a farmer’s son, tells Okei that his uncle was once the best wrestler in the village. This is news to Okei, who has never bothered to listen or to ask about his uncle’s past, because he just assumed he was a boring old man. Obi Agiliga teaches him the traditional songs and wrestling moves, the old way, and also shows him some special techniques to attack the opponent when he is unprepared. While teaching, he regains some of his old skill and youth, and Okei is fascinated. Obi Agiliga says, “I have to teach it all to this young man here. It is his turn now. My turn has come and gone.” He also praises Okei for being not only the leader of the wrestling group, but also the leader of his age group. This true praise helps Okei to trust him even more, and they are finally close; a bond of trust has been created.
Tradition versus Change
Much of the conflict in the book stems from the fact that times have changed, even within Okei’s lifetime. He began life in a stable family, but that was quickly destroyed during the Biafran War, when his family was killed and he had to go live with his uncle. He lives with the pain of this past history.
Things are also different for his generation because some (though not all) of them have been educated. In the past, young men simply farmed, like their fathers. It has also made the educated boys reluctant to work on their fathers’ farms, and leads them to look down on other boys who have not been to school. These other boys, dutiful and traditional, seem dull to the educated boys, but in the end may be wiser; one of them advises Okei to go learn from his uncle, an act which makes him a much better wrestler and which he would not have thought of on his own.
The schooling has opened up new possibilities, but as one of the gossiping girls points out, not great ones; in her opinion, Okei is educated enough to be a houseboy, but has too high an opinion of himself to succeed even at that lowly job.
Because of the schooling, Okei and the other boys are in a kind of limbo—they don’t want to work on the farms, and they are not educated enough to do anything else. This leaves them restless and bored, with a lot of energy but nothing productive to do with it, leading to trouble. Kwutelu observes, “They are so proud about being partly educated. They are like bats, neither birds nor animals.”
Futility of War
The book ends with the sentence, “In a good war, nobody wins,” and this theme is brought up early, when the narrator describes how Okei lost his family in the Biafran War. “It was a civil war that did cost Nigeria dear. Almost a million lives were lost, and not just on the losing side; those who won the war lost thousands of people too—showing that in any war, however justified its cause, nobody wins.”
At the end of the wrestling match, which turns into a mass brawl, Obi Agiliga tells everyone that the fight has ended “well.” By this, he doesn’t mean that anyone has won, or that any real good came from the actual fight. What he means is that it ended as the elders expected it to. “You were all hurt and humiliated,” he tells them. “I am sure you will remember this day.”
One would hope that the young people would remember the lesson they’ve learned, but the book itself makes it clear that although they may remember it, their offspring may not. Memory is short when it comes to avoiding conflict; the young people, themselves the offspring of a war, are all too ready to start another one, perpetuating a futile cycle.