Commentary on No Longer At Ease Essay


Obi nkwo: an Igbo villager who through a community scholarship, given to him by the Umofia Progressive Union (UPU) is sent to England to attain the only hope of advancement in the colony, a European education. Upon his return, he settles into a senior government post which he eventually loses to corruption by an acceptance of bribery. After Obi is caught and is facing trial for bribery, The Umofia Progressive Union describes obi as A man who runs after sweet things of Lagos. This paper will therefore discuss the fairness of the above assessment of Obis character in relation to the predicament he finds himself in. The essay seeks to disagree with the Umofia Progressive Union and show evidence of the unfairness of the assessment.

When Obi returns from England, one of the major problems that he encounters is his uneasy situation in the space between a diminishing colonialism and an emerging Nigerian nation. The major conflict of No Longer At Ease is the fact that Obi Okonkwo, the protagonist of the novel, is caught between two worlds: that of a traditional Africa and that of a changing and new world that lives amidst two cultures: the English and the African. Obi is caught in between his tradition and culture and the ways of the Whiteman who had colonized his homeland. Toward the end of a colonial reign; he is entrapped in the dialectic of difference and identity. Obi finds that he cannot completely dissociate himself from the colonial culture which he has inherited from his father, nor can he totally identify with the Igbo culture of his ancestors. Obi got into this conflict because of the education he has received in England. It is the higher education he has received that put Obi in a position where he is ?no longer at ease?. It is therefore his inability to fit in his own society that prompts him to isolate himself from his people, in his loneliness; he eventually gives in to bribery since he sees no reason to continue being morally right in a society which does not accept him. Worse more, like Benjamin in Harvest of Thorns Obi is not appreciated for his effort; Benjamin returns home several years away. Although he is now a citizen of a free Zimbabwe, he finds that this has little practical meaning in that he cant find a job and has to fight all kinds of administrative red tape concerning his service. As a freedom fighting hero he never gets a heros welcome. (Chinodya: 1989). Obi also finds that his fight against corruption has little meaning to both his clansmen and the Europeans.

Obi does not only face rejection from his people, but despite the fact that he is an educated man in the European kind of way, the Europeans do not treat him as an equal but instead he is also rejected, ostracized and treated as an inferior by the English. We see many examples of this like when his supervisor complains to him about the laziness inherent in the Nigerian way of work: its people like you who ought to make the government decide. Or when he says That is what I have always said. There is no single Nigerian who is prepared to forgo a little privilege in the interest of his country, from your ministers down to your most junior clerk. And you tell me you want to govern yourselves (P144). Thus obis dualistic cultural training, education, and perspective make him an island who finds little solace or refuge in the midst of the turbulent seas of culture clash. This dualistic perspective manifest itself as a loss of self worth and power of the soul within obi knowing his actions will fully please neither his fellow Nigerians or his English employers, he becomes paralyzed and losses his ability to act based on fully formed value system, because his own values have been torn asunder by the polar extremes of two cultures, cultures which cannot reconcile externally. We see his paralysis when he is faced with the decision of taking bribes and he gives in.

The Umofia Progressive Union is not fair to label Obi as a man who runs after sweet things of Lagos in that Obi does not willingly give in to bribe nor does he give in because he is after sweet things but rather he gives in to bribery because he does not find for himself a balanced scale of values, he is torn between two conflicting worlds, and this is the biggest crisis of his life because it is difficult to enforce freedom of his will. The modern Nigeria in which Obi finds himself in, is a critical one because only those people on the top where benefiting from anything thus everyone tries to get to the top through the disreputable act of bribery. In this case Obi faces a lot of pressure from people who wish to get to the top. Therefore it is only natural for him to give in to so much pressure. In The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born Ayi Kwei Armar (1968) relates the story of a man who resists from taking bribes in Ghana, in a society where if one needed to succeed, there was need to learn how to corrupt and to take bribes like Joseph Koomson the minister. Such is a society Obi found himself in. A society in which corruption was viewed as a normal trend just as the minister is heard saying, One could cause more trouble to himself by refusing to accept the bribe than accepting it, the trouble was not in the receiving of the bribe, but failing to do the things for which the bribe was given, (P 80). Unfortunately for Obi unlike the man in The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born he eventually gives in. Obi can therefore be likened to a man Jesus talks about in one of his parables in that he only gave in because of the importunity from people offering him bribe. (Luke 11:5-8):

And he said unto them, which of you shall have a friend and shall go and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? And from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, Though he is he will not rise to give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth.

The Umofians are no longer a holistic society. They gather things: salaries, status, and housing in white mens areas. But they are not at ease with themselves, with their families, with their clans, with life in the white mans world. Thus they see themselves in an unequal relationship with the English hegemony that threatens their cultural identity (Innes and Bernth: 1978) They can only approximate the lives of their betters, and that is done at great cost, more than their salaries can tolerate, thus the temptations for bribes. Since the English are in charge, it becomes painfully obvious that greatness has changed its tune. Titles are no longer great, neither are barns or large numbers of wives and children. Greatness is now in the things of the white man. And so we too have changed our tune (P 62). Obi does not run after sweet things, he only finds himself in a predicament because of the desire to belong. To do what everyone else is doing without feeling left out.

It is very clear that Obi does not run after sweet things, he is in no way a materialistic person in that it is only as a child in Umuofia that he dreams of the sparkling lights of Lagos but as he gains the European education in England, he writes pastoral visions of an idealized Nigeria thus at first Obi refuses to take bribes and finds it necessary to be a pioneer in Nigeria, bringing down corruption in government and instigating change. Obi believes that that young men like him can and will eliminate corruption as they replace the older, uneducated, and corrupted Africans who make up the civil workforce, but due to his own pride and lack of foresight, he soon becomes involved in corruption himself. We learn how one man despite his pure ideals can never be a match against a system of power that relies on corruption and bribery. He losses connection with his African heritage and develops a hatred for the ruling elite of which he is a part. After going away to England to get an education he hopes he can use it to benefit all Nigerians, however he returns home and finds that the country had lost all he believed in.

Disillusioned by the corruption of Lagos, he returns to his home village only to witness a lorry driver attempting to bribe a policeman, at Obis homecoming reception, the Vice president of the Igbo union offers to bribe a government official for Obi by seeing some of the men beforehand (P 38), in order to secure a job for him. Later the reader encounters Elise Mark: a young woman so desperate that she offers up her body in exchange for a federal scholarship despite the corruption around him Obi naively tries to maintain the idea of his own integrity as a detribalized, rational, thoroughly modern man, but his reintegration into Nigeria is a failure because he is unable to assimilate successfully any of the competing cultures he passes through. He finds it impossible to mediate the conflicting duties that are thrust upon him; because of walls set in front of him such as the neo colonial values of the Europeans and not because he was materialistic, he wasnt able to do the things he wanted to do for his people. Social anarchy has created a great confusion for young and educated people like Obi. Viewed differently, even a good custom and tradition, outlives its purpose and value and leads to corruption and anarchy.

When obi returns home he finds that there is an even stronger push to accept European values. Now he has a westernized education that landed him a job that pays well but he has all the expectations of his people on his back. Here we find a young man faced with pressure of trying to live up to the expectation of people on him. Having been trained in England, it is expected he should live like one who have attained that status quo in life-owning a car which was bought on high purchase. When he leaves for England, he leaves behind a web of expectations from his people, for example, they expect him to speak in an advanced manner, above all to dress smartly and expensively like the white man but when Obi comes back, he is dressed casually. Obi is seen by his clansmen as challenging his chi (personal god) to personal combat just like his grandfather Okonkwo (Achebe: 1958). Obi shares some relationship with Okonkwo in that they both experience some trouble conforming to the changes brought by the Europeans, in things fall apart, Okonkwo struggles to understand those changes and the fact that things are not as they always were just like obi fails to understand that the Nigeria he once knew no longer existed, the corrupt Nigeria is now in existence.

His clans forbearance is tested in that he is under obligations to meet their expectations as their bright hope. Obis moral courage, his dignity of holding to his ideals is challenged by choices he has to make and thus he is labeled as a betrayer and a man who runs after sweet things. Obi struggles because many of his people have already chosen to embrace the ways of the British rather than to maintain their own ethnic identity Obi has to put his priorities in order but cant decide because of the tradition of his people and the new ways of the western world. Many of his people have just let down their guard; they couldnt resist the temptations of corruption and all the good things it brought with it and have allowed corruption to take place. Seeing all this, Obi doesnt hold on much longer after they fall he also gives in to corruption just like the rest of them and so he enters into criminal activity to absolve himself. At his place of work in order to be recognized, respected and successful, he has to adapt to the European way of life, a life which is predominately materialistic. He bears the burden of his people's expectations but his exposure to Western culture has distanced him from tribal life and though he is now earning a magnificent living by their standards, he has trouble making ends meet as he tries keeping up with his friends in the big city. Borrowing money, he ends up "digging a new pit to fill up an old one." He is therefore torn between two worlds; that of his roots and that of the foreigner which requires him to own a car, a driver, a cook and maintain other expensive symbols of his status. In order to fit into the changing world, he resorts to taking bribes and is unfortunately caught.

Obi only gives in to bribery after he finds himself in financial problems, this shows that his being involved in corruption is not due to his desire for sweet things but rather it is due to a desperate attempt to sort out his financial problems. Obi shoulders a number of responsibilities: there was pressure of rewarding his people what was spent on his education and also paying back the loan he was granted by the Umofia Progressive Union. Obi was also responsible for his siblings education as well as taking care of his jobless parents as a result he resorts to borrowing. Obis financial crisis is further complicated by his love affair with the lovely Clara. Obi falls in love with Clara; however she is an Osu, one of the socio-religious outcasts who also figured prominently in Things Fall Apart (Achebe:1958). Marked by a traditional hereditary taboo, Obi rejects the taboo as primitive superstition to an extent, Obi mirrors his fathers rebellion however Obis mother threatens suicide if he goes ahead and marries Clara, his father whom he expected to understand because of his Christian values also says no to the marriage as observed by Jones (1971: 94):

Even Obis father has to admit that the cult-slave taboo is outdated and unfair when he is reminded by Obi that the Christian ethic deplores such discrimination. He is after all, that Nwoye who found in the abstract Christian ideals of love and charity his own platform of revolt against the tribal codes. But he has learned from the bitterness of his own experience what Obi is yet to learn, that such a revolt destroys even as it liberates

Obi does not have courage to ignore the proscriptions of family and the newly reconstituted clan. And Obi's British principles begin to crumble therefore when Clara gets pregnant, fearing for his mothers life, he agrees that Clara should have an abortion which cost money too. He is debt-ridden trying to live the new white life of one with a "European post," being a good son by sending money home, and paying for an abortion. His high English principles on the rejection of bribes fall by the wayside and he ends up in the dock, headed to prison.

Despite the fact that Obi is shaped by the traditional Igbo culture of the Umofia, the Christianity, of his father, the idealism of English literature and the corrupt sophistication of Lagos, his moral values are degraded by his parents rejection of his proposed marriage to Clara, but his moral values of standing up against corruption are further affected by his mothers death and as a result of running after sweet things of Lagos as speculated by the Umofia Progressive Union. After his mothers death, Obi begins to accept bribes in a reluctant acknowledgement that it is the way of the world. As financial and romantic pressures continue to mount and his beloved mother sickens and dies, Obi must also deal with temptation, offers of money and sex if he will use his position to assist scholarship applicants. For as long as he can, Obi struggles through all of these problems, but gradually they come crashing down on him. Perhaps it is because he has grown tired of trying to remain honest when there were no rewards for it instead: He has lost his love because of the traditions of his people, he has suffered under a great financial distress, he has exerted himself because of the expectations other people have placed on him and he has lost his mother, all of this brings the protagonist of the novel Obi to fall into what he once had believed was a terrible and corrupt act.

Obi self-righteously tries to resist the corruption of government service; alienating himself from his fellow civil servants and the clansmen who funded his education, how then can it be fair that he is accused of running after sweet things of Lagos? When at first he eschews the customary practice of accepting bribes, self-righteously viewing it as an anachronistic behavior that the new generation of educated and idealistic civil servants will eradicate, but his obligation to repay the clan and his determination to maintain a lifestyle commensurate with his position as a civil servant eventually lead him to accept payments. When he does give in to custom, he handles the bribery so amateurishly that he is caught and convicted. Obis predicament therefore can be can located to the social tension between African and English cultural others in Obis 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 (P 44). This evidence helps locate Obi in the young educated elites of historical colonial Nigeria. What haunts Obi throughout the text is this fear and suspicion of this old African that he must, by virtue of his education, replace and succeed. To him this old African is the reason behind Nigerias corruption a figure that can be redeemed through education. Young Obi Okonkwo, entering the narrative as an idealist who has been to the land of the white men, reaped its benefits, and now has returned to benefit Nigeria, has a limited view of his own people and the issues that plague them. Because of his Western university education in the Metropolis, Obi is unaware of the nature of life for the average person in Nigeria. He exudes a self-righteousness which confuses fact with invention. The protagonist understands bribery not as an agency for disenfranchised Nigerians but as a cultural proclivity. Obi overlooks the fact that bribery has become a tool for natives to attain unmet social needs a proactive way to get things done, a form of agency in an otherwise uncertain era (Njoku: 1984)

Obis mistake is assuming that his Western education would qualify him to survive in this position without considering the fact these posts were not designed for Africans to inhabit. He soon finds himself living like a European in Africa, a lifestyle that involves a certain car, a personal driver, an expensive house, and the repayment of his scholarship. He also soon finds himself accruing a tremendous amount of debt: making payments not only on his lifestyle but also for his parents as well as financing his brothers education. His attempt at reconciling an English individualist lifestyle with his African communal responsibilities becomes so destructive that he is forced to accept bribes in order to make ends meet. As the story concludes the protagonist becomes what he detested the most the bribe taking African of his contempt.

It can therefore be concluded that the Umofia Progressive Union assessment of Obi that he is a young man who runs after sweet things of Lagos is unfair in that Obi is an idealistic, self righteous young Nigerian bureaucrat whose predicament is due to the fact that he is trapped between his traditional background and his European education. Like a diminished version of his grandfather Okonkwo, he is crushed by cultural forces beyond his control; his coveted education does not provide him with wisdom nor does it teach him how to survive in the new Nigeria dominated by corruption, the lack of support from his clansmen increases his sense of loneliness thereby prompting him to succumb to the corrupting influences of government service.

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