Chinua Achebe, “No Longer At Ease” (1960) – I read “Things Fall Apart” something like ten years ago now. Maybe I was just too young and callow for it, but it didn’t feel like that much of a revelation to me- I already knew Africans had complex feelings and thoughts. “No Longer At Ease” is a sequel, following descendants of the Igbo wrestling champion who served as main character in “Things Fall Apart.” The main character in this one, Obi, is sent to England by the village of Umuofia specifically to gain an education, get a good job, and advance the interests of his village in the big city, Lagos. Obi’s grandfather Okwonko struggled against the British in the first book; Obi works with them in this one, though in the framework of gradual decolonization.
How much theorizing has been done about these gradual, mostly peaceful decolonization processes, through which most African countries gained their independence? The more violent struggles get more press, naturally, and I know Fanon basically dismissed the independence of those countries that gained their notional freedom peacefully, insisting they were in neocolonial relationships (not that Kenya or other countries that fought escaped them), but how much more has been said about them?
Like a lot of commenters on the Nigerian scene, Achebe, an Igbo himself, depicts his people as strivers, and Obi strives with the best of them, working hard to meet the approval of both British modernizers and the traditional power structures from his village. Of course, it’s not enough. Maybe if Fanon were there, he could tell Obi to garrotte his patronizing English boss in the educational bureaucracy at which he lands a post-graduation job, Mr. Green, and thereby regain his agency and self-respect and become the new, free, decolonized subject… but Fanon is nowhere to be found. Instead, young Obi falls between the two stools he’s expected to seat. Both modern (he needs a car and a houseboy to keep up appearances) and traditional (less successful people from his village with their hands out) tax his limited financial resources. He can’t marry the girl he loves because she belongs to an out caste. He resists the structure that bridges the traditional and the modern — good old fashioned bribery and influence-peddling — until he can’t anymore, and then they make an example out of him.
This is a short book and Achebe is a masterful prose stylist so it all moves right along. Worse times for the Igbo were coming- Igbo leaders would try to secede from the raw deal they were getting in Nigeria, leading to a grueling civil war that only ended with the Igbo being starved into submission, with British help, naturally. My understanding is that’s what sent Achebe into a long exile. I’ll have to look into his latter books. ****