Re-Reading No Longer At Ease

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It had been a short visit but much longer than the previous one. The last time all the time had been spent in Lagos. This time, after a necessary night after arriving late in the day, we set out for Akure the following morning. We went through Ore to Ondo and then on to Akure. This way, we avoided the Lagos to Ibadan, Ibadan to Ife and Ilesha and on to Akure. I was reliably informed that the road along this option sometimes disappeared only to appear after a detour through the forest! The Ore to Ondo option sometimes created minor problems, like some vehicles deciding to drive on the ‘wrong’ section of the two-way highway!

Obi Okonkwo did not have those options in 1956. At that time you drove from Lagos through Ibadan to Akure on your way to the Eastern Region. Akure was the half way from Lagos to Onitsha and Enugu and the novel was good enough to mention my home town and was I grateful for that! After all there were so many other towns he could have mentioned but he chose to mention Akure!

Somehow critics have always been dismissive of No Longer at Ease, considering it a slight read. It is an easy read alright but that is because Achebe’s narrative style has become so capable as to hide the art in his artistry. The blend of modern English with ancient Igbo sayings works wonders in the consumption of the story. I went back to read it because I had forgotten some things which I thought the novel contained and I wanted to know if those things were still in the novel. I had forgotten what Isaac Okonkwo, Obi Okonkwo’s father says about books:

“Our women made black patterns on their bodies with the juice of the uli tree. It was beautiful, but it soon faded. If it lasted two market weeks it lasted a long time. But sometimes our elders spoke about uli that never faded, although no one had seen it. We see it today in the writing of the white man. If you go to the native court and look at the books which clerks wrote 20 years ago or more, they are still as they wrote them. They do not say one thing today and another tomorrow, or one thing this year and another next year. Okoye in the book today cannot become Okonkwo tomorrow. In the Bible Pilate said: “What is written is written.” It is uli that never fades.

The subject matter of No Longer at Ease is not corruption but PUNISHED CORRUPTION. Let anyone who is interested in ending corruption read this novel and he and she will see that it is about how a corrupt civil servant is punished. The story is straightforward, narration sophisticated. Obi Okonkwo is a clever boy from Umuofia whom the Umuofia Progressive Union decides to sponsor to read Law in England. The hope of these men is that Obi will return, pay them back for the scholarship he had enjoyed and defend them in the law courts when they had cases, especially those having to do with encroachment on their land. Obi reads English instead and gets a job in the civil service. They forgive him for this, especially because he is now in the Senior Service of the country and would help them in many ways. On the boat returning to Nigeria Obi meets Clara Okeke and they get involved and were soon talking love. But then Clara is osu, descendant of a slave to one or other of the gods in Igbo land. Obi’s fight with the Umuofia Progressive Union came when they insisted that he could not marry Clara. He accuses them of trying to run his life because he owes them for the money they spent to send him to study in England. He walks out of their meeting, rejects the four-month relief they offer him to settle down before commencing repayment of the scholarship loan. On a visit home, Obi finds that his parents are no longer as strong as they used to be able to supplement his father’s pension with subsistence farming and selling of small items. He had to take over the payment of the school fees of his last siblings as well as supporting his parents with a monthly allowance. In addition he had to pay for his car, what with insurance and vehicle licence and other costs. He also had to pay his tax and still live well as a senior service man! To cover the car insurance he takes a bank overdraft. Clara, a nurse, loans him £50:00 to repay the bank and pay her whenever he was able to. Sheer pride makes Obi wish to return the money to Clara. On a night out, Obi leaves the money in his car’s glove box only to find his car broken into and the money stolen. He would still try to pay Clara back. When he travels home to tell his parents of his pending marriage to Clara, the father refuses to allow it and his mother threatens to kill herself if he cannot wait for her to die before he would marry an osu. As Obi drove back to Lagos two days after the discussion with his father we are told: “During the last night he spent at home he had worked out how he was going to tell Clara.”

Clara would have none of this nonsense and she promptly returned his engagement ring and said goodbye. Her only regret was that she had not taken care of herself. She was pregnant. Obi seeks and finds a doctor that would do an abortion only to change his mind and try to stop it when it was absolutely impossible to reverse the decision to abort the pregnancy. The cost would be £30:00 payable upfront. To solve his cash flow problems, Obi began to accept bribes, with regret no doubt but he began to accept them. He could not go to a money lender. Nor could he borrow from the members of the Umuofia Progressive Union who would want to know what he did with his senior service salary. There was sting and he was arrested, tried and sent to prison. The novel ends as it begins: “The learned judge, as we have seen, could not comprehend how an educated young man and so on and so forth. The British Council man, even the men of Umuofia, did not know. And we must presume that, in spite of his certitude, Mr. Green did not know either.” This lack of understanding of Obi’s behaviour did not prevent justice from being done. Corruption must  be punished. Unpunished corruption is what is going to destroy Nigeria. Corruption is human, not punishing corruption is inhuman.

There is something else that was still in No Longer at Ease which I had forgotten about. It is the quarrel between mother tongue and the English language in Nigeria and perhaps in other parts of the continent.

•Kole Omotoso wrote this article for TheNEWS magazine