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Critical Essay by Chris Kwame Awuyah
SOURCE: "Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God: Ezeulu's Response to Change," in College Literature, Vol. 19, No. 3, October, 1992, pp. 214-19.
In the following essay, Awuyah analyzes Ezeulu's attitudes toward colonial authorities in Arrow of God, focusing on the significance of his decision to send Oduche to a Christian missionary school.
Achebe's Arrow of God is a multifarious work with several uncharted territories that can be explored with much reward. However, one must exercise caution in teaching this text to neophytes, lest they become befuddled within its several contours. It is with this notion in mind that I introduce Arrow of God to my beginning class in world literature (at West Chester University, Pennsylvania), most of whom are taking literature at the university level for the first time as a General Education requirement. Instead of engaging my students in multiple interpretations, as Arrow of God really demands, I find it expedient to map out and concentrate on a few significant segments that invariably lead to the core of Achebe's art.
A principal issue which unfailingly elicits enthusiastic comments from students is Ezeulu's response to changes in his social environment as a result of the presence of the white man. By focusing on this topic students gain insight into Ezeulu's character and become acquainted with the background of British colonial rule in Eastern Nigeria. Usually we engage in spirited discussions about the ambivalent roles of Ezeulu as a protector of the indigenous tradition, but one who undermines his god and antagonizes his people by openly associating with the new forces. My aim is to help students appreciate Ezeulu's complex character and the difficult choices he has to make. I also find it timely to relate Achebe's art to the larger configuration of black writing. Students who have studied some aspects of African/African American history and politics have an advantage in understanding the continuity and tradition behind Achebe's work. There is personal satisfaction when students eventually come to appreciate the simple fact that Ezeulu is after all a human being who acts in the interest of his own society and its future, not some strange being who fits the Western prototype of the Neanderthal.
In consonance with the objective of focusing on singular subjects in Arrow of God I will analyze Ezeulu's perception of the sociopolitical dynamism in Umuaro and review his conception of his own experience with the colonizer. In one of the most memorable passages of African fictional writing, Ezeulu, the chief priest of Umuaro, explains why he has sent his son, Oduche, to a mission school:
I want one of my sons to join these people [the Christian mission] and be my eye there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there, you will bring home my share. The world is like a mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place. (46)
An intricate and sophisticated man, Ezeulu could not have been unaware that he has compromised his position by urging Oduche to join the white man's religion and school, whose practices undermine the local tradition. In the past Ulu (the supreme god) protected Umuaro against hostile neighbors. But with the presence of the white man, all their local traditions have become violable. Even Ulu seems vulnerable, a fact signaled by the tolling of a church bell that momentarily distracts the chief priest as he prepares an annual rite.
Ezeulu is convinced that it is only by understanding their ways that he can challenge white men. He confides in his close friend, Akuebue, in proverbial language:
Shall I tell why I sent my son? Then listen. A disease that has never been seen before cannot be cured with everyday herbs…. This is what our sages meant when they said that a man who has nowhere to put his hand for support puts it on his own knee. (133)
Thus, with some ambivalence, the chief priest's response to social and political exigencies constitutes, for him, the ultimate sacrifice. It is imperative that he seeks information about the "strangers" who have come uninvited to his land.
Power relations in the Umuaro region have changed with the intervention of the colonizer. The British colonial administration suppressed a war between Umuaro and their neighbors, Okperi, propped up Okperi as the administrative center of the subregion, and established warrant chiefs (effectively cronies of the colonizers) in an acephalous society. The chief priest has assumed that the power of the white man derives largely from literacy, especially the ability to write with the left hand. Ezeulu's statement to Oduche about the need to acquire Western literacy is putatively a Fanonian discourse of language as power:
I saw a young white man who was able to write his book with the left hand; he could shout in my face; he could do what he liked. Why? Because he could write with his left hand…. I want you to learn and master this man's knowledge so much that if you are suddenly woken up from sleep and asked what it is you will reply. You must learn it until you can write it with your left hand. (189)
However, judging even from his personal confrontation with the British, it is clear that though Ezeulu is highly impressed with the new forces, he is not willing to cede his authority to them. It is inconceivable that this proud chief priest would abandon his own tradition. Ezeulu is unequivocal in instructing his children about propriety and observance of local customs. He tells Oduche:
When a handshake goes beyond the elbow we know it has turned to another thing…. Your people should know the custom of this land; if they don't you must tell them. (13)
It seems to me that Ezeulu seeks social equilibrium, coexistence between the indigenous tradition and the new forces. Unfortunately, he does not anticipate that the colonizer, positing his own value system as an absolute, wants to dominate the existing sociopolitical and economic structure.
Already some of the ancillary trappings of the new culture have caused discomfort in Umuaro. Oduche, unlike any other family member, wears a singlet, and owns a slate and chalk and a wooden box—supplies from the Christian mission. While the rest of his family sits together during a storytelling session, Oduche sits apart, completely absorbed, learning the alphabet from his new book, Azu Ndu.
But the real threat to Umuaro comes from the colonizer's utter disregard and, consequently, his attempt to impose a new order on the local society. A major case is the mission's crusade against indigenous traditions they consider anathematic to Christian faith. Fired with this zeal, the impressionable Oduche tries to harm a royal python, a symbol of ancestor worship. Oduche's attempt to suffocate this snake in a box, made by a missionary carpenter, is symbolic of the efforts of the Christian forces to subjugate the traditional religion.
Ezeulu regards himself as an equal and a friend of the British administration, and therefore may not have reckoned that he is at odds with the new forces, who are bent on dominating and destroying Umuaro. In line with their fixed definition of relations with the colonized, the British consider themselves at opposite ends with Ezeulu. However, even though they failed to recognize common grounds with the local people, the British have no hesitation about exploiting the social order of Umuaro in an attempt to legitimize colonial rule. Indeed, the head of the colonial administration in eastern Nigeria, Captain Winterbottom, is convinced that Ezeulu would be the best candidate through whom to maintain their authority over Umuaro. Having come to that conclusion, the British intimidated and coerced Ezeulu to become chief of Umuaro. But the chief priest remained unswayed, vowing he would "not be anybody's chief, except Ulu" (174). Dismayed at Ezeulu's resolution, the administration called him an insane witch-doctor and promptly imprisoned him.
Though embittered by his personal experience, Ezeulu is nevertheless determined to find out the full extent of the white man's power, declaring tersely: "a man must dance the dance prevalent in his time" (189). But first he must contend with problems within his own community. Because of his incarceration the chief priest was not able to perform two of the monthly ceremonies of eating sacred yams from the previous year's harvest. By custom, Ezeulu must perform these rituals before declaring the New Yam festival, which marks the beginning of a new harvest. Meanwhile food from the last season is exhausted. In the ensuing confusion, the Christian mission subverts Ezeulu's authority by urging Umuaros to harvest their crops once they make offering to the Christian God, who will protect them against Ulu. Initially, the response is slow, but, as the threat of starvation looms, even important members of the community openly seek the sanctuary of the church for immunity against Ulu, thereby subverting the authority of the traditional priest.
In the end, Ezeulu is destroyed. His tragedy is caused not so much by his personal pride as by his failure to determine the true objectives of the colonizer. The chief priest's authority has been undermined by the British administration, thus setting in motion a series of events that disrupt the political and social order of Umuaro. It is ironic that Ezeulu, the most enlightened member of Umuaro, the person with foresight, should be destroyed by the new forces.
Achebe's characterization of Ezeulu belies myths about Africa as a primordial world, an emptiness, where the benighted natives live in benign nature, waiting to be redeemed by Europeans. Ezeulu is a very impressive and an immensely powerful man, with a sharp intellect, and he is independent minded. He is the only opposing voice among the council of elders when Umuaro declares war on Okperi, and he fervently defends his decision to send Oduche to learn about the white man's culture. But even when he is at variance with some elders of Umuaro, Ezeulu never loses confidence in the system whereby leaders of the six villages which form Umuaro meet and debate mutual matters. As Achebe indicates in Arrow of God, the social fabric of Umuaro can absorb singular acts, dissensions, and personal differences, since the community has faith in the system.
However, when the British got to Igboland, they assumed that they had "discovered" a people living in a state of tabula rasa. These colonizers then considered it their duty to civilize the Igbos, to save them from the pervasive darkness. This sentiment was expressed by Captain Winterbottom who, with self-indulgence, noted the transformation in his houseboy, Boniface:
He's a fine specimen, isn't he? He's been with me four years. He was a little boy of thirteen—by my own calculation, they've no idea of years—when I took him on. He was absolutely raw. (35)
Their cultural blinkers have prevented the British from relating well to the local people. The British administration do not appreciate Ezeulu's attributes since, for them, he is no more than "the Other." Ironically, however, it is the chief priest who shows openness, accommodation and desire to relate intellectually and with some objectivity to the foreigners.
The attributes of the Igbos, which Achebe attests to, had been validated nearly two centuries earlier by Olaudah Equiano, whose personal odyssey began in his native Essaka, Igboland, in eastern Nigeria, where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and later transported to the West Indies, America, and Europe. Equiano, whose name in Igbo means "one who is chosen" or "who has a loud voice," struggled to acquire literacy and has given a powerful written testimony of his experience not just of slavery, but also of life prior to enslavement. In The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, he recalls in endearing terms details about his birth place, his family, and the social order. Equiano illuminates everyday activities, noting:
We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets. Every great event, such as triumphant return from battle, or other cause of public rejoicing, is celebrated in public dances, which are accompanied with songs and music suited to the occasion. (14)
Even after his immersion in Western culture, Equiano speaks proudly of his African roots. He challenges Western aspersions about Africans as primitive, not quite human, and therefore deserving to be enslaved.
Akin to Equiano's testimony about the virtues of the Igbos, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass documents the painful experience of enslaved blacks in Maryland who, nonetheless, maintain their humanity. Douglass' autobiography is a personal triumph, manifesting the elevation of the human mind and empowerment that come with literacy. In a well-known episode that recalls the aspiration of the deformed slave, Caliban, to acquire the discourse of his master, Prospero, in order to attain freedom (in Shakespeare's Tempest), the enslaver, Mr. Auld, vigorously opposes his wife's attempt to teach Douglass to read. Accordingly, Douglass comes to the realization that literacy constitutes "the pathway … to freedom" (275).
Scholars such as Donald Wesling, James Olney, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have written extensively about the connections between literacy, slave narratives, and the affirmation of the humanity of black people. Suffice it here to say that the ethos of African/African American writing involves self-definitions, renunciation of mislabeling, and crossing boundaries from non-beings into beings. Writers who share the African heritage engage in these paradigmatic acts of reconstructing self-images. Some of the most eloquent expressions are by Achebe, Equiano, and Douglass.
In Arrow of God, although Ezeulu is physically destroyed, his vision has staying power. By learning to read and write, Oduche acquires a powerful tool to express himself, to proclaim the richness of his culture, and even to protest against the presence of the colonizer. In a sense, the achievements of Achebe himself and others have become possible because of the foundation laid by the likes of Oduche. Arrow of God fits into the framework of black experience and must be linked with substantive issues of African/African American humanism.
Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
Douglass, Frederick. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an African Slave." The Classic Slave Narrative. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1987.
Equiano Olaudah. "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African." The Classic Slave Narrative. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1987.
This section contains 2,377 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)