Wednesday, September 20, 2006

City As Possession

Reading No Longer at Lease, I was moved by Mr. Green’s choice of words in a comment directed at Obi in chapter twelve: “‘…I have lived in your country for fifteen years and yet I cannot begin to understand the mentality of the so-called Nigerian…’” (132). I think it is interesting how Mr. Green makes the word “country” seem like a possession, one that is not his but Obi’s, even though Mr. Green has lived in Lagos for a substantial amount of time. This is especially strange because in the novel Mr. Green seems to represent imperialism and influence of the Europeans over Lagos. Instead, he claims neither ownership nor understanding.

One reason that I think Achebe carefully chooses Mr. Green’s words is to make the distinction that imperialism isn’t necessarily a means of claiming ownership over another people but that it is actually a way for the imperialist nation to gain space within which its own people can flourish. Throughout the novel, Achebe makes it clear that a group will try to retain its identity even if the people leave their home city. In chapter fourteen, Obi’s father asks him: “‘How were all our people in Lagos when you left them?’” (149). Again, there is a sense of ownership when Mr. Okonkwo distinguishes the Umuofia people as “ours” even though they are relatively far away.

In chapter five, Achebe reveals that “Four years in England had filled Obi with a longing to be back in Umuofia. This feeling was sometimes so strong that he found himself feeling ashamed of studying English for his degree. He spoke Ibo whenever he had the least opportunity of doing so. Nothing gave him greater pleasure than to find another Ibo-speaking student in a London bus.” (57). The reader never catches any hint that Mr. Green misses his home country, and he feels no shame at speaking English in Lagos. If the Umofia Union had been present in England, I’m sure that Obi wouldn’t have felt such a sense of alienation and shame. In a way, imperialism allows a culture to travel together in distant lands, moving but staying together. In No Longer at Ease, imperialism seems just to be another way that a culture maintains and strengthens its identity, at its heart a means of survival more than a means of power.