Dwelling Between Self-culture and the Culture of the Colonizers: A Study on Chinua Achebe’s Novel A Man of the People

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Table of contents

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Text Discussion


The paper will study how the Chief Nanga and Odili Samalu, the major characters drawn in Chinua Achebe 1966 novel A Man of the People, dwell in an ambivalent psycho-cultural territory being inevitably, though unintentionally, trapped between two cultures: their own African culture and the culture of the colonizers. The essay will look closely how a recently, most importantly, geographically decolonized, nation’s existence has been shaped by changes, transitions, transformations and unsettlements.

Though the nation has not seen the generation go hybrid or hydroponic it has a number of people who dwell between an unavoidable pull of own culture and an irresistible attraction for the culture of the colonizers even after they are geographically and politically (though partially) decolonized. In other words, though they are rooted in their origin they are no less prompt to cling to the newness their colonizers offer. However, the study will also examine whether the ambivalence is peculiarly unique to the people described in Achebe’s narrative or is obvious in any group of people colonized or decolonized.

Key words: Corruption, Culture, Ambivalence, Colonialism, Native.


“Our identity is at once plural and partial” and …sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures…it is a fertile territory to occupy for the writers” (Salman Rushdie).

In his 1966 novel A Man of the People (1966) the Kenyan author Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) has portrayed this particularly ambivalent territory which Rushdie mentions above. Achebe attempts to represent a group of people or nation unintentionally trapped between two cultures, their own African culture and the culture of the colonizers. The book reveals how a nation’s existence has been shaped by changes, transitions, transformations and unsettlement. Though the nation has not seen the generation go hybrid or hydroponic it has a number of people who dwell between an unavoidable pull of own culture and an irresistible attraction for the culture of the colonizers even after they are geographically and politically decolonized. In other words, though they are rooted in their origin they are no less prompt to cling to the newness their colonizers offer. However, this ambivalence is not peculiarly unique to the people described in Achebe’s narrative it is obvious in any group of people colonized or decolonized.

In his introduction to Aime Cesaire’s essay “Discourse on Colonialism” (1950), Robin D.G. Kelley observes that “The colonial encounter…requires a reinvention of the colonized, the deliberate destruction of the past- what Cesaire calls ‘thingification” (9). This thingification is very obvious in the people of any colonized nation. The people Achebe portrays in A Man of the People are not any exception. The chaos and corruption, vividly described in the novel, is a common byproduct of the process of colonization. It will be not out of context to quote Cesaire’s following words here, “Between colonizer and colonized there is room only for forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses” (42). In other words, there cannot be but an unavoidable entanglement between the two. The present paper will study how the characters of share a divided legacy without suffering from any sense of emotional loss.

Another important aspect is distorting the language and culture of the colonized to make place for the language and culture of the colonizers. Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s following comment is worthy of mentioning here, “ The domination of a people’s language by the language of the colonizing nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonized” (16). Along with language comes the domination of culture. Ngugi’s following observation is of central relevance in this regard that colonialism involves: “the destruction or deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, their art, dance, religions, history, geography, education, orature and literature” (ibid). It is obviously clear that though colonization is a forceful drive behind a nation’s being de-culturized (from native or own culture) and re-culturized (oriented to the culture of the colonizers), de-colonization does not, necessarily, ensure de-culturization, which means, getting rid of the culture of the colonizers. Thus, after geographical decolonization, culture hegemony continues. And the present paper will look closely how the newly independent nation handles this cultural chaos.

Text Discussion

A Man of the People deals with a very central issue: the colonial aftermath. According to Leela Gandhi, “The colonial aftermath is marked by the range of ambivalent cultural moods and formations which accompany periods of transition and translation” (5). Besides, the concept of ambivalence is also of vital importance in the present context. In other words, one needs to comprehend the kind of ambivalence a decolonized, newly independent nation experiences to appreciate and relate to the present essay. Being groomed in an atmosphere of conflicting cultures Achebe has learnt to handle both which is reflected in his portrayal of many fictional character who need to learn to negotiate between cultures. Set in ‘a highly political time’ A Man of the People shows that neither Nanga, the ‘man of the people’ who is the title character of the present text, or Odili Samalu, the narrator of the novel, is above this nexus. Achebe underscores the extent to which this cultural uprootedness can be all pervasive and distressing privileging the culture of the colonizer as dominant.

The text reveals the inconsistency of the concept of identity, particularly in case of a newly decolonized or independent nation. In fact, we do not find any character in the novel that is really decolonized. In other words, if we follow what Jean-Paul Sartre writes in his introduction to Frantz fanon’s masterpiece The Wretched of the Earth (1961), that “ we only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us” (15), we will notice that neither Nanga or Odili can be considered decolonized. On contrary, both of the major characters are culturally colonized in some or other way and the difference lies in the point of view only. This division is also an obvious outcome of so-called decolonization.

A very relevant observation comes from Fanon who believes, “The colonial world is a world cut into two” (29). Apart from individual response to the colonization and decolonization, the novel also portrays people’s response and reaction to cultural diversity and difference. The novel depicts some characters who struggle to adjust between the African traditions that they own or belong to, and the entirely different western culture that they have to encounter every day. It also projects some characters that dwell between the two. The present essay will deal with such two characters: Nanga, the minister and Odili, the schoolmaster.

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In addition, the cancerous process of colonization creates a particular consciousness and even trauma, an obvious byproduct of cultural conflict. This is evident in the character of the Chief’s wife, whose children are taught in the medium of the language of the colonizers (that is English), but who loves to speak in her native language, which symbolizes an obsession of returning to the long lost organic past. Her consciously maintained collective identity, as a person bound to accept new, is sometimes overpowered by the overwhelming desire to live in her individual (ethnic) myth. Her historic experience of being colonized and, geographic reality of being decolonized fail to provide her with a fixed cultural base and as a result she too, like other characters in the novel, dwells between the two cultures. Her behavior displays an unwillingness to fully accept the colonizers’ language (English), a tool of the colonizers’ culture.

Being colonized a nation becomes vulnerable to hybridity and heterogeneity facing cultural, linguistics, ethnic, and national threat. The experience of colonization renders them as diverse and open-ended offering a necessary heterogeneity. The formation of Odili’s identity can be understood through the followings words of Cohen, “… identity is about questions of using the resources of history, language and culture in the process of becoming rather than being,: not ‘who we are ‘or ‘where we came from’, so much as what we might become…” (4).The family of the protagonist Odili reflects this. His father was an interpreter; a career Thomas B. Macaulay gifted the colonizers. According to Thomas Macaulay’s 1835 infamous ‘Minute on Education’, the motto behind the civilizing mission was “to form a class who may be interpreter between us (the Europeans / colonialists) and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in bold and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in manners, and in intellect”. (qtd. in O’Reilly 17).

He was rich, powerful, widely known and hated. People used to give him European drinks as gifts. About his household Odili informs us that people, “brought their children to live with us house-boys or their brides-to-be for training in modern housekeeping.” (29). He used to point to his son that “all the important people in the country today – ministers, businessmen, members of Parliament, etc, did not have half my education” and tell him several times to leave “this foolish teaching and look for a decent job in the government” (31). However, Odili is disturbed by the fact that most of the ministers and government officials are literally illiterate, at least in academic terms.

Moreover, the text shows us how colonial experience makes the colonized people perceive themselves as inferior to the colonizer. Through an implicit cultural hegemony the colonizers present the English world as ordered and successful opposed to the native land, which is often associated with ignorance and darkness. As a result the hegemonized natives consider their own culture, customs, tradition, religion, and race as inferior to those of their masters. This causes their attempt to identify themselves with the empire. For instance, the popular ‘Ego Women’s Party’, which is very common in any ceremony or celebration, is bitterly criticized by Odili, a Western-education taught young man, who considers his fellow people to be “ not only ignorant but cynical” (2) and declares, “personally I don’t care too much for our women’s dancing” (2).

Even he loathes the crowd waiting for the minister by calling them “they were not only ignorant but cynical” (2). Odili’s relation with Elsi reflects how Europeanized the newly educated African young men became. He confessed, “Elsi was…the only girl I met and slept with the same day—in fact, within an hour.” (24). That, he was much influenced by the ways of his colonial masters, is evident in the following statement of Jean, American woman he met at Nanga’s: “Don’t be so British, she said almost vehemently” (54). His longing of appreciation from the Europeans present at his lawyer friend Maxwell’s is also noteworthy. He confesses, “ I was as much interested in what he said as the way he said it. His English had an exotic quality…” (79). This statement is an evident of how the hybrid youth are still hegemonized and spell-bound by the colonial charm.

Odili’s last blow comes from joining the newly formed, Europe-funded political party they named ‘the Common People’s Convention’. It is evident that his main wrath on Nanga is personal, not political. Ever since Nanga has slept with Elsi, a friend of Odili, the latter was adamant on taking revenge. Even he goes as far as to snatch away the Chief’s future wife Edna to teach him. His buying a car with the fund for political activities is also a corruption. Most importantly, the fund came from Europe to disintegrate the newly born nation. He even allowed his body guards to pay the cops bribe as they convinced him saying, “Man no fit fight tiger with empty hand” (114). He confessed, “I knew that a certain amount of exploitation was inevitable in this business and I wasn’t going to question how every penny was spent”(114). Thus, he too becomes one of the corruptors he loathes.

On the other hand, we see the minister, the ‘man of the people’, and showing prejudice against Western educated people of his nation. He calls them “conspirators and traitors, who had teamed up with foreign saboteurs to destroy the new nation” (4) but himself provides his children English medium education. This ambivalence is also reflected in Odili’s observation that, “in 1948, Mr. Nanga harbored a yearning for higher education but in 1964 he was boastful that he was doing better without it. He said the dismissed ministers were conspirators and traitors who had teamed up with foreign saboteurs to destroy the new nation” (4). In other words, apparently, he shares the anti-intellectual feeling in the country as well as ambivalent attitude toward it. An evidence of his anti-intellectual mindset is found in the following observation of Odili, “He distrusted our young university people” (66). More importantly, in spite of being the Minister of Culture Nanga does not even know the name of writers of his country even though they were very few. Instead, he behaves arrogantly with Jalio, the author of The Song of the Black Bird, on whose book launch he appeared. And when he announced “in public that he had never heard of his country’s most famous novel” (67) he received applause.

Furthermore, we are informed that, “The Daily Chronicles, an official organ of the P.O.P., had pointed out in an editorial that the Miscreant Gang, as the dismissed ministers were now called, were all university people and highly educated professional men” (4). And the chief adds to the common sentiment by saying, “Never again must we entrust our destiny and the destiny of Africa to the hybrid class of western-educated and snobbish intellectuals who will not hesitate to sell their mothers for a mess of pottage…”(6). However, the irony lies in the fact that Nanga himself claims, “My private secretary has a B.A. from Oxford” (12). Even, during his stay at the minister’s house, Odili overheard the chief saying over phone: “I prefer to deal with Europeans” (42). This reflects the common corruption the nation shared. The text states, “A common saying in the country after independence was that it didn’t matter what you know but who you knew” (17). The practice of favoritism in politics is well-reflected in the text.

For instance, Odili’s friend and colleague Andrew Kadibe is not ready to hear the ill of the Minister because they “came from the same village. Primitive loyalty, I call it” (7). However, Odili does not hesitate to call the chief “you are just a bush” (74). In fact, the newly born nation is very likely to be flooded with unscrupulous persons. One can find parasites like Mr. Nwege, who is not tired of praising Nanga and who dismissed Odili from his job in his school without any notice simply because the young man joined an opposing political party. Besides, there are unethical tradesman like Josiah, “the wicked outlawed trader” (102) as well as a corrupt minister like the Chief, whom Odili’s friend Maxwell boldly labels as “corrupt, empty-headed, illiterate capitalist” (75). Nanga had, reportedly, “ built out of his gains three blocks of seven-story luxury flats at three hundred thousand pounds each in the name of his wife” (101). This type of corruption is also seen in Odili who buys a luxurious car with the money Europeans provided them to run the newly emerged anti-government political organization.

Also, what happens to Chief Koko is also enlightening in this regard. It is narrated that Koko could not drink the African coffee and when his servant offered him it, the minister thought that he was poisoned. In fact, since his usual Nescafe had run out at breakfast, the servant simply served him the locally roasted African coffee brought from OHMS – Our Home Made Stuff. Ironically enough this shop is part of the government campaign that claimed “to promote the consumption of locally made products” (35). Thus, the duality has become part of the people’s national character.

To add more, the minister is always seen with “his ever-present fan of animal skin which they said fanned away all evil designs and shafts of malevolent thrown at him by the wicked” (8), an act that reflects his mentality is still infected with dogmas practiced in the bush. However, he would have preferred not to speak to his own kinsmen in English which was after all a foreign language, but he had learned from experience that speeches made in vernacular were liable to be distorted and misquoted in the press” (12). It is also observed that, he preferred beer to local palm-wine. Though he dismisses the English airs in others saying, Nanga “I no follow you black white-men for drink tea and coffee in the hot afternoon” (33), he does not mind whisky and soda. However, he does not realize that he himself is not very different from the hybrid he condemns. It will not be out of context what Bakhtin’s thought was in this regard. His conception of hybrid is “… not only double –voiced and double-accented…but is also double-languaged” (58). Both Nanga and Odili are double-languaged.

One can notice that, while living at Mr.Nanga’s place, Odili observes that Nanga “always spoke English or pidgin, his children, whom I discovered went to expensive private schools run by European ladies spoke impeccable English” (32). In addition, according to Mrs. Nanga, “the minister insisted that his children must be taken home to their village at least once a year” (39) to save them from becoming “English people”. She adds, “Don’t you see they hardly speak our language? Ask them something in it and they reply in English. The little one, Micah, called my mother ‘a dirty, bush woman” (39). Nevertheless, one observes that “Mrs. Nanga struck to our language-with the odd English word thrown in now and again”(33). However, this rootedness earned her nothing but the title of being too bush to suit her minister husband.

One relevant point is that though independent, the status of women did not change much. The narrator states, “Only for election time women get equality in this country” (19). In terms of remarriage Nanga remains bush too. It is reported that, Nanga is planning to marry a young girl according to native law and custom since his present wife is “too bush for his present position. So he wants a bright new ‘parlor-wife’ to play hostess at his parties” (23). However, Mrs. Nanga, who was well-kept in spite of being mother of seven, once told Odili that “We are getting a second wife to help me…” (36).

This declaration expresses how women had to accept the remarriage of their husband. But at one point she tells Odili about her husband’s planning remarriage. She said ironically, “Have you ever heard of a woman going to America when she doesn’t know ABC?” In fact the minister was about to go to America to receive his honorary doctorate and he wished to take Edna, his brand new, English-taught wife with him. Mrs. Nanga continues, “When Edna comes she will go to those places…I am too old and too bush” (88).

To conclude, it can be said that a significant point one notices in the novel is its people are also dwelling between their attraction and repulsion for the colonizer’s language and culture. In doing so, they are being trapped by a third allurement. That is the third political presence of America. We hear the minister explain his plan to go to the United States since “They are going to give me doctorate degree…Doctor of Law, L.L.D” (19). The minister’s flattering of an American couple, Jean and John, in his house reflects the fact well. The young couple called Nanga and his wife by their Christian names, Micah and Margaret and this American trend is well accepted by the minister. This is explained by Odili in the following words: “We have all accepted things from white skins that none of us would have brooked from our own people” (44).

It means in their trying to be anti-British, the newly free nation is becoming Pro-American. However, in Odili’s opinion, visiting Europe “in itself must be a big education” (18). Interestingly enough, the new nation is prone to any kind of hegemony, be it English or American. Both Nanga and Odili are hegemonized in their own peculiar way. As ideology is crucial in creating consent it is achieved not merely by direct manipulation or indoctrination, but by playing on the common sense and values of people. Here Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony can be mentioned which “… links the spontaneous consent of the masses to the maintenance of power by a minority class, through the use of persuasion and collaboration” (qtd. in Walia 31). However, to the end the dwelling continues and the text establishes the fact that there is no escape from it.

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