Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ibo vs. English

Chinua Achebe’s motif of language is a major theme in No Longer At Ease. Obi is torn between the two languages of Ibo and English, on a larger scale: his native culture and the English culture. It is referenced numerous times that Obi is much more comfortable speaking his native language with his native Ibo people, than being submitted to the English language. When Clara firsts speaks Ibo to Obi, he interprets what she has said to “we belong together: we speak the same language” (Achebe 29). Toward the beginning of the novel, one can see how he has close ties to his home, but as the novel progresses, although he tries to hold on to some Ibo traditions, he ends up sacrificing and cutting ties with what he once had believed in, or what his people still believe in.

Obi forfeits Ibo morals including allowing Clara to have an abortion and wanting to marry her in the first place. Obi’s mind is set to marry Clara, even though she is an osu. Obi is determined to argue with his father with the language of Christianity, something he feels his father will relate with, to convince him to let him marry Clara, and to prove that it is something that is not wrong. “I don’t think it [marrying an osu] matters. We are Christians” (Achebe 151). Obi criticizes his ignorant grandfathers similar to when he criticized the ignorant colonialists.

When the world seems to be against Obi, he starts loosing his roots. Submitting to accepting bribes, he lives comfortably and forgets his guilt and his morals as an Ibo. When he admits how he has been living is wrong, he is arrested. Caught in the middle of two cities, languages, and cultures, it seems as if Obi has lost and compromised his morals. I do not believe that all has been lost. Obi was just confused with his double heritage of Ibo and English.

Achebe and Loyola students

In general I thought the physical descriptions of Lagos that Achebe presents are somewhat lacking and vague, but his writing makes up for this in developing the spirit of Lagos through character development. I could not picture the actual city of Lagos in my mind, but I could deeply comprehend the people, and their beliefs and expectations of themselves and each other. One expectation we discussed in class was that Obi was expected to return to Lagos, to contribute to his community what he had learned abroad. The pressure for Obi to do this was at a heightened extreme, but as a Jesuit institute I think Loyola, at least through its service elements, call us students to do this to a degree. When we are doing service learning we are sharing our abilities and knowledge with the rest of Baltimore. To be a community we must all be able to work together, and I think that Lagos believes in the essence of this statement, but to a more extreme level. Through our service we are in a way representing Loyola College, just as Obi was representative of Lagos in Europe. In our classrooms, particularly in Literature of the City, we are expected to share with others our experiences in service, and what we have learned.I was particularly interested in the character Mr. Green. On pg 96, Achebe writes, "Yes, a very interesting character. It was clear he loved Africa, but only Africa of a kind: the Africa of Charles, the messenger, the Africa of his garden-boy and steward-boy. He must have come originally with an ideal- to bring light to the heart of darkness, to tribal head-hunters performing weird ceremonies and unspeakable rites. But when he arrived, Africa played him false". Mr. Green is a man of prejudices and of stereotypes. This is not inhuman, what makes Mr. Green racist, is his inability to let these false ideas go in the face of opposing evidence and truth. Before I volunteered I had certain stereotypes that the poor people would be so helpless, and how I would have to assist them at my service site, but when I first arrived I realized how wrong that idea was. At Beans and Bread, you are serving the poor of Baltimore a meal, but they are serving you with information about 'their' Baltimore and their stories. I learned things about Baltimore that I would never learn in a classroom at Loyola. I experienced first hand the people who live on Baltimore's streets, spending their days and nights with the city. I was intrigued by their views of the city, and how different they were from mine. I was also impressed that while some people have some limited resources in Baltimore their love and pride for the city remains.

effect of the city

In Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, the author quotes T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” to truly set the tone of his novel. The text states:

“ We returned to our places, these kingdoms, but no longer
at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people
clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death” (Achebe)

This quote gives the reader a hint about the mentality of the protagonist who has gained knowledge, but lost his identity. Yet, through the novel, the character Obi, does not only feel like he cannot identify with his own culture, but cannot fit in with his new found culture. Obi is essentially lost or between two worlds. This point is extremely profound. Does Obi consider his new found knowledge and culture a gift or a curse? Does Obi prefer ignorance and a sense of belonging over an enlightened spirit of knowledge? Obi’s new found education was to empower his country, but instead alienated himself.
These questions are perplexing after considering the individuals of Baltimore city. Loyola’s new mission is to merge the society and culture of Loyola into Baltimore. Will these two cultures collide? And how will these new interventions or mergence into the city impact Baltimore culture? The long term effects of knowledge can have either a negative or positive impact on society or the individual.
I cannot predict what type of impact Loyola College will have on the Baltimore community. I can only hope that it will be a profitable and positive one that will lead the city toward the greater good. However, in term of this novel the negative effects will not be a feelings of displacement.

Green the extreme or Green the American

In No Longer at Ease, the character of Mr. Green is an example of an extreme response to the character of Obi and Obi's situation. However, I think it is also important to view Green as an example of what many would consider the American way. The reactions that Mr. Green has are not dissimilar to those of many Americans, including us college students. One being his response to race in his office. Another being his reaction to Africa as a country. And finally, the question of how much effort he should put into helping those people who are less fortunate than he is.

The response that Mr. Green has to the African race is one of the more harsh scenes within the text. "'The African man is corrupt through and through...I'm all for equality and all that. I for one would hate to live in South Africa. But equality won't alter facts.'"(3-4) This reaction the African's situation seems to be one that has been echoed throughout United States history. This can be clearly seen in the court case, Plessy V. Ferguson, where, although the United States want thing to be "fair" for African Americans, they would not allow them to integrate with Caucasian students. This is only one example of this sort of outlook. One of the major purposes of the Civil Rights movement was to create equality between blacks and whites, even though slavery had been illegal for almost one hundred years. Many Americans believed that despite being granted human rights, the African did not deserve to be completely equal the Caucasian man.

Or for a more recent controversial issue, one could compare Mr. Green to a proponent of stronger immigration laws. "Education for what? To get as much as they can fro themselves and their family. Not the least bit interested in the millions of their countrymen who die every day from hunger and disease,"(132). By twerking this speech by only a few words, one could easily see how this could apply to an American man discussing the immigrants from Central and South America, who have recently been such an issue within the US Congress. Mr. Green may be seen as an extreme in Obi's case but the similarities he has to many American men and women makes him less of an extreme and more of an American reality.

A final strong example of similarities between Mr. Green and many United States citizens is his reaction the entire country of Africa. "It was clear he loved Africa, but only Africa of a kind; the Africa of Charles, the messenger, the Africa of his gardenboy and steward boy...He must have come originally with an ideal-to bring light to the heart of darkness,"(121). Many seem to believe that this is the view the United States has on many countries, especially, most recently, Iraq. Many believed that the United States would overthrow Saddam Hussein, show the citizens what democracy was like, and they would automatically love it and the United States would have saved the day, bringing light to Iraq's darkness. However, although we now know that this is not the case, there are still many who believe they alone can change the world. Even within service and volunteer opportunities, many come into a non-profit agency thinking that they will "make it work". Again, this proves that although Mr. Green may have been an extreme response to Obi's situation, he might not have been as extreme as we would like to believe.

Although when one reads Achebe's book, No Longer at Ease, and has such a strong and adverse reaction to the character of Mr. Green, it would not be very long to see that this is not an entirely fictional character. Clearly Achebe might have experienced a Mr. Green in his life. And that would make the reader feel a little bit better, because, yes, that might have been Achebe's reality, but we know better in the United States. However, that does not seem to be the case. Although Obi was facing extremes in Nigeria, it seems that the United States has a few of its own extremes to face.

Language of the City

Throughout No Longer at Ease, Chinua Achebe places an emphasis on language. Achebe begins by discussing how one’s native tongue is more real because of a person’s ability to truly own that language. Achebe perfectly describes the difference between a person’s native language and foreign language by writing, “He could say any English word, no matter how dirty, but some Ibo words simply would not proceed from his mouth. It was no doubt his early training that operated this censorship, English words filtering through because they were learnt later in life” (52). This description forces the reader to recall his or her youth and the simple scolding of a mother- ‘Don’t say that word.” Although these words translate into pretty much every language, the offense is never felt the same without knowledge of the cultural background.
Achebe then addresses foreigners’ perceptions of a culture being directly related to language. He writes, “It was humiliating to have to speak to one’s countryman in a foreign language, especially in the presence of the proud owners of that language. They would naturally assume that one had no language of one’s own” (57). Achebe reinforces the earlier sentiment of owning a language, while expanding the point to show the damage of having no language at all. If even Africans are speaking English, the foreigners would believe that the English-speaking world, with its commerce and worldly power, had eroded the area of its culture. Obi is obviously uncomfortable with conceding that sort of power; however, considering that he had to learn English to become a senior officer, it is clear that issue is always looming in the background.
The references to language are not as pointed towards the very end of the novel, but there is a final parting warning to those people who would follow Obi. The President of the Umuofia Progressive Union says, “A man may go to England, become a lawyer or a doctor, but it does not change his blood” (182). The message seems to warn of succumbing to the greed that can come with the opportunities presented with education and learning a foreign language. While education is undeniably a gift, a person must be careful to not forget his roots. Obi did well to learn English and receive a high-paying job, but he soon found his concerns to be related to money, instead of to the family and community that raised him. Achebe shows that language is a powerful thing- it binds people together and can also easily tear people apart.


To be a foreigner in a foreign land is one thing, but to feel like an outsider in your own community is something else. Obi Okonkow, the central character in Chinua Achebe's novel, No Longer at Ease, is faced with such a situation. Torn between his ancestrial African culture and his adopted English ways, Obi finds it hard to maintain his Nigerian herritage with what he has learned in cosmopolitan London. Achebe uses the juxtaposition of the Nigerian city of Lagos and the Western city of London, to represent Obi's struggle and to highlight the social injustices that were commonplace in this period of decolonization. Poised for independence, during the time in which the narritive takes place, Nigeria is coming into her own. However, that's not to say that she was ready to become and independent state, given the vast corruption in the government.
Any city is a large community. Those who are part of this community form relationships with the city, with eachother and create something that is unquely their own. Obi was expected to form a bond with London, with the Western world, when he was shipped of to Great Britain to study. He was to be Nigeria's envoy to the mother country, to learn her neuances and to bring the Nigerian people a deeper understanding of the white man. The fact of the matter is, Obi was out of his element and no matter how hard her tried, he would never be a part of this community, the city of London.

As in other literature that we have read discussing the adverse and positive affects of cities on the lives of those who travel through and live in them, it is certainly apparent that the city is considered the mecca of opportunity and prosperity. I think, in turn, Achebe's portrait of Obi's Nigerian village represents more of a family than what we would contemporarily view as a town; this family is responsible for teaching its son values and traditions by which to live. I think that it is a very interesting and pertinent point that it is his village that teaches Obi his traditional standards and values, but to assume that he would not have reduced himself to accepting bribery and participating in the corruption that surrounded the Nigerian government had he never left Umuofia and traveled to the city may be a bit of a stretch, as he is exposed to the notion of advancing one's social status by any means possible by other members of his village, or family.

Corruption in the Nigerian government seemed commonplace, and virtually inescapable to Obi, "[Obi's] theory that the public service of Nigeria would remain corrupt until the old Africans at the top were replaced by young men from the universities was first formulated in a paper read to the Nigerian students in London."(44) But as an acceptional scholar and strong willed individual, I believe that Obi would have undoubtedly, at one point or another, have encountered this same corruption had he remained in the village of Umuofia the rest of his life.

By exposing himself to the cosmopolitan way of life, Obi was not simply presented with the opportunity to particpate in corrupt government, but also experience with the tools to combat such a way of life. In fact, the reader sees the first "casual" mention of bribery on Obi's return to his village after receiving his education in London,
"'Have they given you a job yet?' the chairman asked Obi over the music.
In Nigeria the government was always 'they'. It had nothing to do with you or me.
It was an alien institution and people's business was to get as much from it as they
could without getting into trouble. 'Not yet. I'm attending an interview Monday.'
'Of course those of you who know book will not have any difficulty,' said the Vice-President
on Obi's left. 'Otherwise I would have suggested seeing some of the men
It seems to me that the culprit behind such rash decisions to forgo one's established set of values is a result of a desire to get ahead--a desire which in Obi's case could have been a product of the stress of shouldering the hopes for advancement of his entire village. I think that Achebe is making the point that, while in fact his character's relocation to the city does play a pivotal role in his decision to accept a bribe, it is the infiltration of Western ideas and standards into the Nigerian villages and the distorted view of success and the means by which it is acceptable to achieve such a successful status is what ultimately drives Obi to corruption.

No Longer at Ease's quick ending

To add onto the previous blog, I think that whether or not society is responsible, it is definately held accountable. I'm not sure if a child's behavior it's the "educator's" responsiblity, but at some point or another, those educators -or society in general- will carry the stigma of teaching "problem kids." Baltimore county has some tough schools. I don't think that is any fault of the teachers, in fact I think the teachers in Baltimore County are exceptional when compared to other areas. But I do think that the general public will make a scapegoat out of the educational system sooner than blame a parent.

Anyway, now that I'm off my soapbox, I'd like to move on to something different. I found it very interesting in Achebe's work how quickly and suddenly he dealt with the problem of Obi's corruption. There does not seem to be any hint of it before the last chapter and it is over before it really begins. Achebe was not being hasty here, in fact I think he meant for this to come out of nowhere. He did this for two reasons. First, he knows that the reader already knows what will happen to Obi so he doesn't dive deep into the actual act. Instead he focuses on the events leading up to it, emphasizing the journey it actually takes to go from Obi's moral high horse to being corrupt.

Secondly, he also seems to want to emphasize that his abruptness in writing reflects what is oftentimes an impulsive decision. Obi does not contemplate taking bribes for very long. Instead, he makes the decision practically overnight to start using bribe money to pay his dues. This, in turn, shows a unique character about cities in general. Achebe wants to show how a city can, figuratively speaking, gobble you up. Obi, though at first he relies on his rural morality to help him get through life in Lagos without taking bribes, is broken down by the city and conforms to its will. In other words, someone who lives in New York is a New Yorker. It is very unlikely that someone who lives in any particular city is not in some way changed or affected by that city's collective perspective.

“Society’s Responsibility?”

In Chinua Achebe “No Longer at Ease” the importance of society on the individual is made clear through his main character Obi. In the story, Obi makes life decisions based on what society expects of him. He decides whom he shouldn’t marry based on society’s expectations and the events in his life that occur afterwards are a direct result of that decision. How would the story have ended had Obi ignored society’s input? In the environment (place, era, etc) he lives in, would that have even been possible? Obi’s life is shaped almost entirely by his society; his education and therefore his future especially is a byproduct of the society in which he lives.
How responsible should society be held for the actions that its members commit? In utopias like Campanella’s “City of the Sun” the society controls every aspect of life (from your parents, your birth date, your “life partner”, even the way in which you live out your final days). Therefore we can say “yes” they are responsible for your actions and the impact that they have upon others. But the society in which Obi lives is not a Utopia and the society in which we live in certainly is not. Can society, therefore, be held responsible or accountable for the actions of its citizens? This question has always been asked in regards to the education of the youth and crime rates, not only in our city, but also in all cities.
I am a future educator for the State of Maryland and as a result I am aware of the current status of Baltimore inner city public schools. If I were to become a teacher for Baltimore county schools would I still be considered a member in a society or a member of the society. Would I be held responsible for the actions that my students commit inside and outside of the class? Can we hold Baltimore County for the condition of their students? Are “they” (society) responsible for the poor test scores, the high rate of dropouts, the violence in the streets due to the lack of education, or the level of poverty? Where is the line drawn for societies responsibility to its members? Would Obi have committed a crime if his society had not restricted in his personal life choices? In my opinion, no, I think the story had, Obi not been dictated by society’s actions would have had a happy ending, but when society plays a role on the decisions made by the protagonist (like in Obi’s case) there’s usually never (in my memory) a happy ending. The society’s we live in should only help to shape the people who we are to become, it should not define the person we are to be.

City as Opportunity

Throughout No Longer at Ease there is a strong distinction made between the city and the village which manifests itself in many ways, sometimes less obvious than physical space. The city is viewed by the villagers (and indeed by the city dwellers, when they take the time to consider it) as a place of luxury and wealth. Obi is first struck by its brightness and its pace. The true association, on a deeper level, is one of opportunity. Cities, particularly those in Europe or with a European influence, are places to advance in status and knowledge. One can only go so far if he stays in the village but the city offers almost limitless experience.

Achebe emphasizes this by flashing back to Obi's departure and later bringing him back to his village after he receives his degree. Before Obi leaves, he is an especially talented villager, but he is still very much a member of the community. He himself doesn't know what to expect in England or even the city within Nigeria. In fact, he relies on descriptions of the experiences of others to anticipate a Nigerian city. Later when he makes his grand homecoming, he is not even capable of communicating to his neighbors the things he has seen and learned while in Europe. The villagers sent Obi to England so that he might be educated and successful but they aren't capable of ascertaining exactly what they gave him. In their minds, it is enough to know that he has been given opportunity.

Achebe makes it clear that there is a cost for such an opportunity. Although the city represents material success, the village is the center of traditional values. When Obi leaves, he loses not only some of his religion but some of his resolve. It is easy to argue, I think, that had he never left the village he never would have reduced himself to taking bribes. The village offers a system of support in maintaining values whereas the city accosts Obi with nonstop pressures making it increasingly difficult to stay virtuous. The villagers made the mistake of sending Obi to be a villager in the city without realizing that such a thing is impossible. His education and his surroundings changed him in a way that they could not understand. The city provides many useful things, but it is the village that provides the values in order to use the opportunity of the city properly.

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.

Conflicting Cultures Within the City

Sometimes outside influences can bring a wealth of good to a particular city. They can diversify the city and create new opportunities. However, this is not the case with Umuofia and the other towns of Nigeria, which are mentioned in the novel No Longer at Ease. These Nigerians are influenced in a negative way by English society, and consequently they must face conflicts between their old culture and the new one that is forced upon them by the English. These citizens are victims of imperialism and are forced to adapt a sort of double culture in their lives, which brings about unrest.

The main character Obi returns to England to find his expectations unfulfilled. He returns to a place of discord, bribery, and strife. He is not as respected as he should be upon his return because he has been highly educated at a prestigious university. At one point in the novel, the elder Odogwu says, " Today's greatness has changed its tune. Titles are no longer great, neither are barns or large numbers of wives or children. Greatness is now in the things of the white man" (Achebe 62). When Obi speaks of the woman he met in England, he is praised for not returning with a white woman. A carpenter named Matthew Ogbana says, "I say a black man who marries a white woman wastes his time" (Achebe 61). Obi's boss, Mr. Green, often disrespects Obi and disregards his prestigious education. He says, " I think the government is making a terrible mistake in making it so easy for people like that ( referring to Obi) to have a so-called university education" (Achebe 132). He seems to represent the unrelenting close-minded and hypocritical mentality of the British upon their invasion of Africa. This is especially apparent because of his decision to resign his duties upon the independence of Umoufia. Obi says that, "He must have come originally with an ideal- to bring light to the heart of darkness...but when he arrived, Africa played him false" (Achebe 121). Clearly, Mr. Green and all of England set out on a self- fulfilling conquest that bore no interest of the others in mind. These conflicts, as well as conflicts with religion show the negative influence that England has on Umuofia. Obi's grandfather placed a curse on Obi's father when he decided to leave home to join the missionaries, which shows just how taboo succumbing to the white man was in those times. Obi's father said he "went through fire to become a Christian" ( Achebe 157). The old religion of the Umuofians was mostly lost due to English influence and some Umuofians, such as Obi's father, resorted to violence because of this. In Augustine's City of God, he says, "I divide the human race into two orders. The one consists of those who live according to man and the other of those who live according to God" (Augustine 635). This illustrates that it is not easy to balance obligations between two ways of life within the city, and that infact, it may be impossible. Just as Obi's father paid a price for his religious choice within his city, we too will pay prices for our cultural obligations. It is not always easy to please two cultures while following your own desires and dreams. This is exemplified in the character Obi, who ultimately falls apart due to his conflicting obligations to both the imperialistic culture of England and his homeland of Umuofia. He fails at his job, he fails to take a wife, and he fails to completely please his family and city.

In today's cities, many people are surrounded by conflicting cultures, similiar to Obi's situation. For instance, immigrant families must learn a new language and new customs and they must adopt the new lifestyle necessary to fit into a city. America is filled with cities that are seperated by cultural districts. These people, and many others, must create a place of their own, while striving to abide by the customs of their homeland. They must learn multiple languages, etc. The culture of the city to which some immigrate may be too drastically different, so these people may choose to follow traditions from their old country. In most cases, they are constantly trying to balance the old and the new. It is not always easy for the older generation of immigrants to see their children fall away from the ways of their homeland, but in a way, it is somewhat necessary, although unfortunate. At any rate, to try and fulfill the obligations of two cities with conflicting cultures can certainly make one no longer at ease.

Augustine and Achebe

Achebe’s novel, No Longer at Ease, mainly focuses on two distinct places, the village in Nigeria where the Ibo tribe lives and the city of London, England. In the excerpt we read on Augustine’s City of God, Augustine describes the city of Jerusalem as an earthly city pointing toward the heavenly city. Later in the essay he describes how each earthly city is mirrored after the heavenly city. During my reading of Achebe’s novel I attempted to discern which city or place that Obi resides in mirrors the heavenly city more strongly.

The village of Ibo, with the exception of Obi’s family, believed in pagan gods. Though they believed in pagan gods rather than the Christian God that did not make them any less religious. They displayed genuine concern for others and took death very seriously. The God that Augustine discusses in his essay is the God of Christianity and the God that Obi’s family believed in. This fact elevates them closer to the heavenly city in Augustine’s beliefs, yet ultimately doesn’t make them any more or less religious than those tribesmen who celebrated the pagan gods. The city of London had lost much of its religion the elevation of importance of the business place. When Obi returns from London he states that, “he had very little religion nowadays” (27.) To the European men such as Mr. Green, money is much more important than religion.

I thought it was very interesting, while looking at this comparison, how the village of Ibo looked upon the city of London versus how the city actually was. Most of the Ibo people did not have enough money to reach London so they believed it to be the land of opportunity, similar to how the pilgrims in Augustine’s essay viewed the heavenly city. The tribesman believed that anyone could be someone here and for that reason they praised Obi once he returned from the promise land. In opposition to the tribesmen the readers understands that all is not gained while in London.

The city of Anastasia (12) in Calvino’s Invisible Cities describes a glittering, golden city which “appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content.” This view of Anastasia is the same view the Ibo tribesmen have of London, and European cities in general. In actuality Anastasia was the “treacherous city” in which you work “eight hours a day” and “believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.” Mr. Green, Obi’s boss, exemplifies the “slave” talked of in Anastasia. He believes that he is so righteous and superior to the Nigerians he works with but in actuality is just a slave to money. Though the Ibo village did not possess Western education or religion I found it to more closely mirror the heavenly city. The people of the tribe devoted their lives not to material possessions but to each other.

Religions and Decisions

Religion, although thought to be only a positive presence in someone’s life, can also be negative and harmful. In Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, the author describes many situations in which religious beliefs are referenced, and leaves it up to the reader to decide whether or not religion was used in a positive or negative manner.

A social situation usually does not involve the tenets of religion, but Obi Okonkwo soon finds that even a night dancing may be hindered by using religion as an inappropriate basis for reasoning. While Obi and his friend Christopher spend time with “two Irish girls who were very interested in Nigeria” (133), the men expect their experience to be light-hearted and free of any restrictions – they just want to have a gay night on the town. While dancing, “Obi won a couple of tentative kisses. But when he tried something more ambitious, Nora whispered sharply: ‘No! Catholics are not allowed to kiss like that!’” (134). When the men come to visit the girls another time, they are reproached with the response, “Then Nora explained quite simply without any false apologies that the Mother had spoken to them seriously about going around with African men. She had warned them that if the Bishop knew of it they might find themselves sent back to Ireland” (135). In these instances, the women use religion as a basis for their deciding not to form relationships with Obi and Christopher. Nora first uses her conservative religious tendencies as a foundation for not engaging in more promiscuous activities, while the Mother Superior uses the threat of telling the Bishop as a method to prevent the mixing of races. Instead of using their religion as a means of connecting one person with another, the women use their religion to form restrictions as a means of separating themselves.

The women’s use of religion to separate themselves from Obi and Christopher is the direct opposite of Obi’s technique while he tries to convince his father that Clara should be his wife. Obi’s family is firmly against his marrying Clara based on her being an osu, a descendant of someone who “had been dedicated to serve a god, thereby setting himself apart and turning his descendants into a forbidden caste to the end of Time” (82). Obi cannot begin to fathom the validity of this argument, and thus attempts to convince his parents that Clara is the perfect girl for him. While speaking with his father Isaac, Obi uses his religion as a basis for his argument, saying such things as, “I don’t think it matters. We are Christians,” “The Bible says that in Christ there are no bond or free,” and, “What is this thing? Our fathers in their darkness and ignorance called an innocent man osu, a thing given to idols, and thereafter he became an outcast, and his children, and his children’s children forever. But have we not seen the light of the Gospel” (151). Obi uses the belief that Christianity means “universal” in order to persuade Isaac to accept the differences that surround Clara’s family history. He also sights the teachings of Christ as the foundation for his argument, noting that Christ accepted everyone into His circle of believers and that everyone in Christ’s eyes is the same. Obi believes that his reasoning founded on religion will convince his father to overlook Clara’s ancestors.

Although this may seem to be a positive use of religion in decision-making, Obi soon learns that there is more at stake in his method. Isaac tells him that his use of his religious beliefs against his father demonstrates that he does not understand the true meaning of belonging to a religion. Isaac recounts his story regarding his decision to become a Christian, noting that he separated himself from his family in order to become a missionary. He states that his father never forgave him for this, and thus cursed him (157). Isaac’s choice to follow his religious beliefs in the face of being ostracized shows that he was ready to dedicate himself to one specific cause, particularly since the God of Christianity is more merciful and human than the god to whom his father adhered. His story recounts how Isaac’s father killed his boyhood companion because “…one day the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves decreed that the boy should be killed. Obi’s grandfather loved the boy. But when the moment came it was his matchet that cut him down” (158). Isaac took his stand against his father and his father’s gods by becoming a Christian and following a god who would not allow this type of blind sacrifice to occur. Isaac’s father’s situation is akin to Abraham’s experience when he is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. God quickly intervenes, saying that this request was only a test in order to verify that Abraham would complete His every instruction. Isaac knows that the God of Christianity would have stopped the sacrifice that his father carried out. Isaac states, “I tell you all this so that you may know what it was in those days to become a Christian. I left my father’s house, and he placed a curse on me. I went through fire to become a Christian. Because I suffered I understand Christianity – more than you will ever do” (157). Isaac’s decision to become a Christian demonstrates that he used his faith in a positive way to combat the savage practices that occurred. Isaac learned that although becoming a Christian is difficult and leads to ostracism, it is worth the battle. Thus, he states that Obi cannot know the true meaning of being a Christian because he has not suffered for his beliefs. Therefore, Isaac refuses to allow Obi to thoughtlessly use these tenets in order to argue with him and persuade him to allow another familial problem to become construed based on religion.

Bribery in Achebe's No Longer at Ease

Bribery is an important element in Chinua Achebe’s book, No Longer at Ease. Achebe begins his account with Obi Okonkwo's conviction in a trial. Although the exact nature of Obi’s guilt is not revealed in the opening of the book, the reader does discover that his conviction is for a money-related crime (5). It is also apparent from the beginning that Obi’s crime is not uncommon in his city. A member of the Umuofia Progressive Union says, “It is all lack of experience…What others do is tell you to go and hand it to their houseboy. Obi tried to do what everyone does without finding out how it was done” (5). Many other people engage in the activity for which Obi is punished, which becomes even more obvious later in the book. By beginning the book with Obi’s bribery conviction, Achebe encourages the reader to follow the path the gifted protagonist takes, from being an adamant opponent of government corruption to being a participant in the same corruption. Achebe wants the reader to see that unfortunate circumstances can push even the most well-intentioned, promising individuals to corrupt action.

After returning to Nigeria, Obi wonders, “But what kind of democracy can exist side by side with so much corruption and ignorance?” (40). He recognizes and criticizes the corrupt practices of government officials. Obi sharply rebukes a man on the Public Service Commission during a job interview when the man asks, “Why do you want a job in the Civil Service? So that you can take bribes?” (36). Obi is full of righteous indignation at the man’s implied accusation. The pervasiveness of bribery throughout Nigeria is apparent when Obi witnesses policemen accepting money from the driver of a mammy wagon to ignore faults found with the driver’s papers (39). Bribery is quite commonplace, but Obi withstands the first test of his resolve against bribery when a man offers him money to recommend his sister for a scholarship. Obi refuses the man’s offer and “after his encounter with Mr. Mark he did feel like a tiger. He had won his first battle hands-down” (80). However, there is a small temptation in Mr. Mark’s offer, even if it is not “overwhelming” (81). The reader becomes aware that refusing bribes may not be as easy as Obi hopes, for some feel that “You may cause more trouble by refusing a bribe than by accepting it” (80). Obi also refuses the direct offer of Elsie Mark, much to the dismay of his friend, Christopher (111). However, Achebe shows the reader that Obi’s financial situation is becoming increasingly desperate and he is having trouble subsisting on his fifty pound per month salary, even though other men make only five pounds per month (89). Achebe shows that economic circumstances are causing the once-righteous Obi to slowly unravel. In the last few scenes of the novel, Obi loses his mother and Clara, two very important people in his life. He faces ever-increasing debt and accepts his first bribe from a man wearing an expensive European suit (153). Although he experiences guilt and feels “terrible” (153) after this first bribe, accepting bribery becomes habitual, even if it never becomes easier. Obi feels that “every incident had been a hundred times worse than the one before it” (154). He is still a moral person at heart, but circumstances force him to desperate measures to keep his position in the senior service, as is expected by his family and by the community that sacrificed so much for his education. Obi pretends to maintain some standards when accepting bribes; for example, he “stoutly refused to countenance anyone who did not possess the minimum educational and other requirements” (153), but the reality of his corruption is the same.

Achebe’s account of Obi’s downfall holds meaning for Baltimoreans and people of all cities. Most people agree that violent crime, deplorable public schools and homelessness are serious threats to Baltimore. We regard such unsavory aspects of our city with righteous indignation, much as Obi detests the corruption that pervades Nigeria’s government when he returns from England. Just as Obi begins on the right path, condemning corrupt officials and refusing bribery, so too do we often begin by stating our belief in the necessity of change. We may even try to effect change by electing better government officials or by volunteering with organizations that work to correct problems in our community. However, Obi veers off his original path and gives into bribery, and most people in Baltimore similarly give up their resolves and abandon attempts to correct the wrongs existing in the city. Perhaps people become wrapped up in their comfortable and busy lives and forget about the plight of others, or maybe they just get tired from the constant pressure produced by the problems and give up. It is also possible that people are forced by unfortunate circumstances to give into the problems pervading the city, just as Obi did. Chinua Achebe’s account of Nigeria encourages civilians of all cities to take an active role in correcting wrongs that exist. He shows that even people with great intentions can be corrupted when circumstances limit their choices.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Invisible Cities

After reading Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”, and then Augustine’s “City of God”, the stark difference in their writing methods is the first thing that comes to my mind. While both present the idea that a choice needs to be made, and the imagery of inferno, it is in two completely different styles. As powerful as Augustine’s writing was, I found it too forceful upon the reader, and thought that for me personally Calvino did a better job of creating a thought-provoking piece. Calvino’s book was intriguing to read and raised excellent and challenging questions. While Augustine presents the same call to choose in human lifestyle, it was hard for me not to read it almost as a harsh scolding or preach. > One passage in particular of Augustine’s reminded me of an experience I had volunteering last semester at “My Sister’s Place”. On page 639, Augustine writes what can lead to the death of a city, and he says pride in triumph can lead to a city’s death, but also fear in losing after a triumph can lead to its death as well. To me it seemed as though Augustine sets up a lose-lose situation for earthly beings. I remember while serving dinner one night to the women at the shelter, one woman in particular was shouting out in the corner various bible passages, and then proceeded to yell at me for coming into the city to volunteer just to try to show her I was better than her. I felt in this situation frustrated, and felt for the first time that my service may be looked down upon by the women I was interacting with. I felt for that moment that no matter what I did I could do no right. Of course this was one difficult situation out of many positive experiences I took from my service hours last semester, but I feel it paralleled with this small excerpt from Augustine on city triumphs.> I did strongly agree when Augustine wrote that the good on earth is good, but not better than heavenly goodness, and that we must remember every gift comes from God. I think he wrote this very eloquently, and honest. One thing I certainly appreciated about his writing was his straightforwardness.