I picked up this book because I wanted to read more books by African authors. When I look back at all the books I’ve read the last few years very little diversity is to be found. This is a shame because reading a great array of diversity is a great way to get new ideas and to learn to understand people. It helps your mind to see that different ways of living are simply another way to be, and not wrong. Chinua Achebe is a well-known Nigerian author, especially for his novel Things Fall Apart which tells about the clash of Nigerian and European culture. Things Fall Apart is part one of The African Trilogy of which No Longer At Ease is part two. Each book in the series is about a different generation of a Nigerian community and their struggles to navigate between traditional values and new ones brought by the missionaries. Each book can be read separately.
No Longer at Ease is set around the 1960s and is about Obi Okonkwo. He is one of the first of his village to go to England for a university education. He was able to do so because a group of men from his village, who call themselves the Umuofia Progressive Union (UPU), collected money to fund his studies abroad. They did so because they wanted to have an educated person in their midst to help them get influence in society. It is believed an English educated person can help a community. The agreement with the UPU is that when Obi returns from his studies in England, he will find a government job and pay back the funds. And indeed, when he came back, he found a job at the scholarship department in the city of Lagos. There he is almost immediately confronted with money problems because life in Lagos is expensive. Also, he receives many offers for bribes to give scholarships to certain people. However, Obi had decided he is against corruption and won’t accept any of them. So, he struggled on to pay his debts, to support his family and to maintain his own life with the salary he gets.
Obi has a girlfriend named Clara Okeke. They met on the boat back to Nigeria. Clara is a nurse who also received an education in England. They want to marry but because she is an osu they are not allowed. According to traditional Nigerian culture, an osu is an outcast, and it is believed that marrying one will bring bad luck to the whole family. Her father was an osu, which makes her one, beyond that, it is not explained why though. Obi ignored that belief and throughout the book is set on marrying her. I liked Clara. She is sensible and portrayed as a woman who knows what goes on in the world and what she can expect from life. She knew way before Obi their relationship was doomed, but something made her stay with Obi. She is also independent and has her own home and income. At one point she even helps Obi with his money problems to Obi’s great shame.
Obi himself is conflicted. He has ideals to avoid corruption and bribes and he wants to say goodbye to traditional beliefs. However, he is bound to those traditions through his family and the UPU. The UPU has a hold on him because Obi has to pay back his student loan and they decide how much he has to pay and when. At first, the UPU was lenient towards him because of his money struggles, but their amicable stance changed when they heard about Clara. They want Obi to break up with her. Also, they expect Obi to be there for them in his hometown and to participate in community life. When Obi refuses to listen, their friendliness changed and they forced Obi to pay back a large part of the loan. This shows the strong hold traditions have on Obi. He struggles how to position himself between the old ways and his ambition for a new life.
The central theme of this book is the clash between the old and new ways. The old ways are the traditional Nigerian religion and beliefs and the new way are the predominantly Western values brought with Christianity and missionary work. Obi finds himself in the middle between those values with his family and community on one hand and his university education and life in the big city on the other hand. This is made clear when Obi talks to his mother about Clara. His mother adheres to traditional values and upon hearing she is an osu tells Obi he cannot marry her or she will kill herself. He either has to wait until she is dead or accept himself to be the murderer of his mother. Also, his father, a devoted Christian, cannot accept Clara. Obi hoped for his father’s blessing because he is a Christian and for that, he gave up his traditional beliefs, but his reaction shows that he has not managed to do so completely. I liked the old-new clash in this book, which was portrayed very well in the interactions between all the different characters, each showing a different element of the interactions.
A second way in which the struggle between old and new is expressed is in the dilemma of corruption and whether to accept bribes or not. In the book, it becomes clear bribes are very normal and it is almost difficult to not take them, be it either in the form of money or sexual favours. This reminded me of something I’ve always wondered concerning corruption. Can it be permissible when everyone around you is doing it, and when it’s the only way to make a decent wage? I don’t agree with the practice, but to which extent is an individual expected to rise against it when it is everywhere around you? This book shows that dilemma very well. Throughout the book, Obi struggles to make ends meet without taking bribes, but we know he will take one eventually -The book starts with his trial after being caught. It is an interesting decision of Achebe to foreshadow such a big outcome of the plot right at the start of the book. It allows us as readers to see the difficulties that can lead a determined man onto a path he never intended to take. It shows Obi as a vulnerable man who was not able to follow his own values in a society where those values are rare. It shows us a human protagonist and gives the perspective of the many people who try, but don’t manage to stand up for their values.
The final thing I want to talk about is the atmosphere of the book. There is such a melancholic undertone to this book that this is an interesting read, even without considering the story. It is done in a very subtle way though, and it took me a while to notice the effect the book had on me. This shows Achebe’s skills to tell a story, and to make the reader ponder its meaning afterwards. The subject matter helped to create the melancholic atmosphere and also the fact that you know from the start it is not going to end well. The tone of the book also helps to drive home the message of the book that the clash of old and new ways is not a happy one, in any place or culture. It always comes with losing grip on familiar ways of doing things and saying goodbye to the world you knew and maybe even to old friends and family. That is maybe also why Obi, his father and the other characters in the book struggle with the question which values to embrace. There is no strict division between people who have embraced the new ways and those who adhere to the old. Obi’s father struggles to let go of traditional beliefs despite being a devoted Christian and Obi clings to a woman he cannot have. Achebe manages to tell a story about the clash and also evokes feelings that can come with an experience like that. In that way, he managed to create a book everybody can connect with who has had similar experiences.
Many people praise Achebe’s series because it shows the African perspective on colonialism and Western influence, especially because most other books on that subject are written by Western authors. However, the book is also critiqued because its portrayal of colonialism is not done very well and limited. I cannot tell you if there is truth in that because I haven’t done the research, but I do wonder if showing the perspective of a whole continent on a big part of history is a bit too much to ask of one book or series. What this book does well is showing the perspective of one Nigerian man and how he tries to navigate between traditional values and new influences. That in itself is an important story to tell and what makes this book worth reading. Focusing on the central theme of this book shows that many people all over the world share the same kind of experiences but in different settings. The clash between traditional and new values is something we can all recognize in our own lives. Everybody has felt in their own way lost like Obi and forced into decisions they don’t want to make. Let’s hope we don’t all end up like Obi but find our own place somewhere between the old and the new.
Have strength growing up award for showing us that it is not easy to keep to your own values in a changing world.
Chinua Achebe, No longer at ease (London, 1960)
Bella G. Bear