Unit 4: Themes and messages in a novel
a. In pairs discuss the meaning of ‘the moral of a story’.
b. Tell your group a story that you have read before. Discuss the moral of that story
As you have noted, novels are stories about life. They are stories about human experience. Novels are written in different contexts – situations. It could be a historical, economic or social context. The context or existing environment, affects the themes that an author chooses to address. One could choose to write about love, war or independence, depending on the existing situation. For example, Things Fall Apart is set in pre-colonial Nigeria – this is the historical context. Umofia is a conservative African village where tradition and belief in deities is expected of all Umofians – this is the social context. These contexts enabled Chinua Achebe to talk about yams, wrestling matches, war among other concerns.
Read the following chapter from Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel, The River Between, and in your small groups discuss the questions that follow.
The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life. Behind Kameno and Makuyu were many more valleys and ridges, lying without any discernible plan. They were like many sleeping lions which never woke. They just slept, the big deep sleep of their Creator. A river flowed through the valley of life. If there had been no bush and no forest trees covering the slopes, you could have seen the river when you stood on top of either Kameno or Makuyu. Now you had to come down. Even then you could not see the whole extent of the river as it gracefully, and without any apparent haste, wound its way down the valley, like a snake.
The river was called Honia, which meant cure, or bring-back-to-life. Honia River never dried; it seemed to possess a strong will to live, scorning droughts and weather changes. And it went on in the same way, never hurrying, never hesitating. People saw this and were happy. Honia was the soul of Kameno and Makuyu. It joined them. And men, cattle, wild beasts and trees, were all united by this life-stream.
When you stood in the valley, the two ridges ceased to be sleeping lions united by their common source of life.
They became antagonists. You could tell this, not by anything tangible but by the way they faced each other, like two rivals ready to come to blows in a life-and-death struggle for the leadership of this isolated region.
It began long ago. A man rose in Makuyu. He claimed that Gikuyu and Mumbi sojourned there with Murungu on their way to Mukurwe wa Gathanga. As a result of that stay, he said, leadership had been left to Makuyu. Not all the people believed him. For had it not always been whispered and rumoured that Gikuyu and Mumbi had stopped at Kameno? And had not a small hill grown out of the soil on which they stood south of Kameno? And Murungu had told them: “This land I give to you: O man and woman. It is yours to rule and till, you and your posterity.”
The land was fertile. It was the whole of Gikuyu country from one horizon embracing the heavens to the other hidden in the clouds. So the story ran in Kameno. Spiritual superiority and leadership had then been left there.
Kameno had a good record to bear out this story. A sacred grove had sprung out of the place where Gikuyu and Mumbi stood; people still paid homage to it. It could also be seen, by anyone who cared to count, that Kameno threw up more heroes and leaders than any other ridge. Mugo wa Kibiro, that great Gikuyu seer of old, had been born there. And he had grown up, seeing visions of the future and speaking them to the many people who came to see and hear him. But a few, more cynical than their neighbours, would not go to him. They called him an impostor. Then one night; when people were asleep, he vanished from the hills. He was soon heard of in the land beyond; in Nyeri, Kiambu, Murang’a; in fact all over the Gikuyu country. And he still spoke aloud his message and cried: “There shall come a people with clothes like butterflies.” These were the white men.
Or there was that great witch, Kamiri, whose witchery bewildered even the white men at Murang’a. His witchery and magic, before he was overcome by the white men with smiles and gifts, had won him resounding fame. He too, it was said, had been born at Kameno. Like Mugo before him, he had disappeared from the hills to the country beyond. He could not be contained by the narrow life of the ridges.
Another was Wachiori, a great warrior, who had led the whole tribe against Ukabi. As a young man he had killed a lion, by himself. When he died, at the hands of a straying white man, he left a great name, the idol of many a young warrior.
The ridges were isolated. The people there led a life of their own, undisturbed by what happened outside or beyond. Men and women had nothing to fear. The Ukabi would never come here. They would be lost in the hills and the ridges and the valleys. Even other Gikuyu from Nyeri or Kiambu could not very well find their way into the hills. And so the country of many ridges was left alone, unaffected by turbulent forces outside. These ancient hills and ridges were the heart and soul of the land. They kept the tribe’s magic and rituals pure and intact. Their people rejoiced together, giving one another the blood and warmth of their laughter. Sometimes they fought. But that was amongst themselves and no outsider need ever know. To the stranger, they kept dumb, breathing none of the secrets of which they were the guardians. Kagutui ka mucii gatihakagwo ageni: the oilskin of the house is not for rubbing into the skin of strangers.
Leaders of the land rose from there, for though the ridges were isolated, a few people went out. These, who had the courage to look beyond their present content to a life and land beyond, were the select few sent by Murungu to save a people in their hour of need: Mugo, the great seer; Wachiori, the glorious warrior; Kamiri, the powerful magician. They became strangers to the hills. Thereafter, the oilskin of the house was not for them. It was for those who lived inside. These were the people whose blood and bones spoke the language of the hills. The trees listened, moaned with the wind and kept silent. Bird and beast heard and quietly listened. Only sometimes they would give a rejoinder, joyful applause or an angry roar.
a. In groups of four, discuss and state what you think is the historical context of this story.
b. State the social context of this story. Discuss this in groups of four.
c. What is the main theme in this story? Discuss this with your desk mate.
d. How do you compare the culture depicted in this excerpt to Rwandan traditions? Discuss this in groups of four
Themes and messages in a novel
Discuss with members of your group why we read novels. Report your findings to the class.
The key functions of a novel are firstly to entertain and secondly to communicate ideas. Theme is the main/central idea of a story. It is the view about life that is expressed in the story. Message is the lesson the author hopes the reader can get from the novel.
A theme may be stated explicitly. This is when the writer states the theme openly and clearly. A theme could also be implied. This is when the author does not state the theme directly. Themes may also be major or minor. A major theme is an idea the author returns to time and again. It becomes one of the most important ideas in the story. Minor themes are ideas that may appear once in a while in a story.
In groups of four, discuss why we are asked about the moral of a story only at the end.
In interpreting themes, one has to deduce evidence from the story. You must identify a cross section of examples from the text to support your interpretation of the story’s theme. When writing about themes do not merely describe what happens in the story. The theme should be an idea we learn after reading the story.
There are some common/universal themes, such as love, suffering, hope and betrayal.
Every element of a story can highlight a theme. For instance:
1. The title often provides insights into the theme or themes in a story.
2. The statements of the narrator or other characters could reveal a theme.
3. The arrangement of events – plot – can also reveal themes.
4. Conflicts in a story are also indicators of themes.
5. Central symbols in a story may also point out to important themes.
Ask yourself the following questions when interpreting themes in a novel:
1. What is the central or main theme of the story?
2. What other themes can you identify?
3. Does the title of the story suggest a theme?
4. Does the narrator or any other characters, make statements that express or imply a theme?
5. In what ways does the arrangement of events in the story suggest a theme?
6. In what ways does the central conflict suggest a theme?
7. How does the point of view shed light on the story’s central theme?
8. Are there any symbols that suggest a theme?
Practice Exercise 1
a. For homework read The River Between and discuss two other major themes in the novel.
b. Explain how setting, symbolism and characters have helped in the development of the major themes in the novel.
c. Explain the meaning of the title in relation to themes in the novel.
d. From your knowledge of history, compare the culture depicted in The River Between to Rwandan traditions.
Practice Exercise 2
Following is Chapter 1 from Chinua Achebe’s novel, A Man of the People. Read it in groups of four, taking turns, and answer the questions that follow. The chapter has been subdivided using activity questions.
No one can deny that Chief the Honourable M.A. Nanga, M.P., was the most approachable politician in the country. Whether you asked in the city or in his home village, Anata, they would tell you he was a man of the people. I have to admit this from the onset or else the story I’m going to tell will make no sense.
That afternoon he was due to address the staff and students of the Anata Grammar School where I was teaching at the time. But as usual in those highly political times the villagers moved in and virtually took over. The Assembly Hall must have carried well over thrice its capacity. Many villagers sat on the floor, right up to the foot of the dais. I took one look and decided it was just as well we had to stay outside − at least for the moment.
Five or six dancing groups were performing at different points in the compound. The popular ‘Ego Women’s Party’ wore a new uniform of expensive accra cloth. In spite of the din you could still hear as clear as a bird the high- powered voice of their soloist, whom they admiringly nicknamed ‘Grammar-phone’. Personally, I don’t care too much for our women’s dancing but you just had to listen whenever Grammar-phone sang. She was now praising Micah’s handsomeness, which she likened to the perfect, sculpted beauty of a carved eagle, and his popularity, which would be the envy of the proverbial travellerto-distant-places who must not cultivate enmity on his route. Micah was of course Chief the Honourable M.A. Nanga, M.P.
The arrival of the members of the hunters’ guild in full regalia caused a great stir. Even Grammar-phone stopped − at least for a while. These people never came out except at the funeral of one of their number, or during some very special and outstanding event. I could not remember when I last saw them. They wielded their loaded guns as though they were playthings. Now and again two of them would meet in warriors’ salute and knock the barrel of their guns together from left to right and again from right to left. Mothers grabbed their children and hurriedly dragged them away. Occasionally, a hunter would take aim at a distant palm branch and break its mid-rib. The crowd applauded. But there were very few such shots. Most of the hunters reserved their precious powder to greet the Minister’s arrival − the price of gunpowder like everything else having doubled again and again in the four years since this government took control.
As I stood in one corner of that vast tumult waiting for the arrival of the Minister, I felt intense bitterness welling up in my mouth. Here were silly, ignorant villagers dancing themselves lame and waiting to blow off their gunpowder in honour of one of those who had started the country off down the slopes of inflation. I wished for a miracle, for a voice of thunder, to hush this ridiculous festival and tell the poor contemptible people one or two truths. But of course it would be quite useless. They were not only ignorant but cynical. Tell them that this man had used his position to enrich himself and they would ask you − as my father did − if you thought that a sensible man would spit out the juicy morsel that good fortune placed in his mouth.
a. In groups of four, discuss the passage you have just read.
b. How does the narrator feel about what is happening. Answer this individually.
c. With evidence from the story, explain why the soloist is called Grammarphone. Discuss this with your desk mate.
d. Grammar-phone is an ______.
e. Compare the culture depicted in this excerpt novel to Rwandan traditions.
I had not always disliked Mr Nanga. Sixteen years or so ago he had been my teacher in Standard Three and I something like his favourite pupil. I remember him then as a popular, young and handsome teacher, most impressive in his uniform as scoutmaster. There was on one of the walls of the school a painting of a faultlessly handsome scoutmaster wearing an impeccable uniform. I am not sure that the art teacher who painted the picture had Mr Nanga in mind. There was no facial resemblance; still we called it the picture of Mr Nanga. It was enough that they were both handsome and that they were both impressive scoutmasters. This picture stood with arms folded across its chest and its raised right foot resting neatly and lightly on a perfectly cut tree stump. Bright red hibiscus flowers decorated the four corners of the frame; and below were inscribed the memorable words: Not what I have but what I do is my kingdom. That was in 1948.
Nanga must have gone into politics soon afterwards and then won a seat in Parliament. (It was easy in those days − before we knew its cash price.) I used to read about him in the papers some years later and even took something like pride in him. At that time I had just entered the University and was very active in the Students’ branch of the People’s Organisation Party. Then in 1960 something disgraceful happened in the Party and I was completely disillusioned.
At that time Mr Nanga was an unknown backbencher in the governing P. O. P. A general election was imminent. The P. O. P. was riding high in the country and there was no fear of its not being returned. Its opponent, the Progressive Alliance Party, was weak and disorganised.
Then came the slump in the international coffee market. Overnight (or so it seemed to us) the Government had a dangerous financial crisis on its hands. Coffee was the prop of our economy just as coffee farmers were the bulwark of the P. O. P. The Minister of Finance at the time was a first-rate economist with a Ph. D. in public finance. He presented to the Cabinet a complete plan for dealing with the situation.
The Prime Minister said ‘No’ to the plan. He was not going to risk losing the election by cutting down the price paid to coffee planters at that critical moment; the National Bank should be instructed to print fifteen million pounds. Two-thirds of the Cabinet supported the Minister. The next morning the Prime Minister sacked them and in the evening, he broadcast to the nation. He said the dismissed ministers were conspirators and traitors who had teamed up with foreign saboteurs to destroy the new nation.
I remember this broadcast very well. Of course no one knew the truth at that time. The newspapers and the radio carried the Prime Minister’s version of the story. We were very indignant. Our Students’ Union met in emergency session and passed a vote of confidence in the leader and called for a detention law to deal with the miscreants. The whole country was behind the leader. Protest marches and demonstrations were staged up and down the land.
It was at this point that I first noticed a new, dangerous and sinister note in the universal outcry.
The Daily Chronicle, 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. (I have preserved a cutting of that editorial.) Let us now and for all time extract from our body-politic as a dentist extracts a stinking tooth all those decadent stooges versed in textbook economics and aping the white man’s mannerisms and way of speaking. We are proud to be Africans. Our true leaders are not those intoxicated with their Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard degrees but those who speak the language of the people. Away with the damnable and expensive university education which only alienates an African from his rich and ancient culture and puts him above his people ...
This cry was taken up on all sides. Other newspapers pointed out that even in Britain where the Miscreant Gang got its ‘so-called education’ a man need not be an economist to be Chancellor of the Exchequer or a doctor to be Minister of Health. What mattered was loyalty to the party.
a. With evidence from the passage, tell your desk mate the main economic activity of the people in this passage.
b. In groups of four, discuss the statement, “It was easy in those days − before we knew its cash price.” From this statement discuss what message the author is passing across to the reader.
I was in the public gallery the day the Prime Minister received his overwhelming vote of confidence. And that was the day the truth finally came out; only no one was listening. I remember the grief-stricken figure of the dismissed Minister of Finance as he led his team into the chamber and was loudly booed by members and the public. That week his car had been destroyed by angry mobs and his house stoned. Another dismissed minister had been pulled out of his car, beaten insensible, and dragged along the road for fifty yards, then tied hand and foot, gagged and left by the roadside. He was still in the orthopaedic hospital when the house met.
That was my first − and last − visit to Parliament. It was also the only time I had set eyes on Mr Nanga again since he taught me in 1948.
The Prime Minister spoke for three hours and his every other word was applauded. He was called the Tiger, the Lion, the One and Only, the Sky, the Ocean and many other names of praise. He said that the Miscreant Gang had been caught ‘red-handed in their nefarious plot to overthrow the Government of the people by the people and for the people with the help of enemies abroad’.
‘They deserve to be hanged,’ shouted Mr Nanga from the back-benches. This interruption was so loud and clear that it appeared later under his own name in the Hansard. Throughout the session, he led the pack of back-bench hounds straining their leash to get at their victims. If anyone had cared to sum up Mr Nanga’s interruptions, they would have made a good hour’s continuous yelp. Perspiration poured down his face as he sprang up to interrupt or sat back to share in the derisive laughter of the hungry hyena.
When the Prime Minister said that he had been stabbed in the back by the very ingrates he had pulled out of oblivion some members were in tears. ‘They have bitten the finger with which their mother fed them,’ said Mr Nanga. This too was entered in the Hansard, a copy of which I have before me. It is impossible, however, to convey in cold print the electric atmosphere of that day. I cannot now recall exactly what my feelings were at that point. I suppose I thought the whole performance rather peculiar. You must remember that at that point no one had any reason to think there might be another side to the story. The Prime Minister was still talking. Then he made the now famous (or infamous) solemn declaration: ‘From today we must watch and guard our hard-won freedom jealously. 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 ...’
Mr Nanga pronounced the death sentence at least twice more but this was not recorded, no doubt because his voice was lost in the general commotion.
I remember the figure of Dr Makinde the ex-Minister of Finance as he got up to speak − tall, calm, sorrowful and superior. I strained my ears to catch his words. The entire house, including the Prime Minister tried to shout him down. It was a most unedifying spectacle. The Speaker broke his mallet ostensibly trying to maintain order, but you could see he was enjoying the commotion. The public gallery yelled down its abuses. ‘Traitor’, ‘Coward’, ‘Doctor of Fork your Mother’. This last was contributed from the gallery by the editor of The Daily Chronicle, who sat close to me. Encouraged, no doubt, by the volume of laughter this piece of witticism had earned him in the gallery he proceeded the next morning to print it in his paper. The spelling is his.
Although Dr Makinde read his speech, which was clearly prepared, the Hansard later carried a garbled version, which made no sense at all. It said not a word about the plan to mint fifteen million pounds − which was perhaps to be expected − but why put into Dr Makinde’s mouth words that he could not have spoken? In short, the Hansard boys wrote a completely new speech suitable to the boastful villain the ex-minister had become. For instance, they made him say he was ‘a brilliant economist whose reputation was universally acclaimed in Europe’. When I read this I was in tears − and I don’t cry all that easily.
The reason I have gone into that shameful episode in such detail is to establish the fact that I had no reason to be enthusiastic about Chief the Honourable M.A. Nanga who, seeing the empty ministerial seats, had yapped and snarled so shamelessly for the meaty prize.
a. In groups of four, discuss the main theme in this extract.
b. In groups of four, discuss the minor themes in this extract.
c. In groups of four, discuss the irony in this extract.
The Proprietor and Principal of the school was a thin, wiry fellow called Jonathan Nwege. He was very active in politics at the local council level and was always grumbling because his services to the P. O. P. had not been rewarded with the usual prize − appointment to some public corporation or other. But though disgruntled he had not despaired, as witnessed by his elaborate arrangements for the present reception. Perhaps he was hoping for something in the proposed new corporation which would take over the disposal of all government unserviceable property (like old mattresses, chairs, electric fans, disused typewriters and other junk) which at present was auctioned by civil servants. I hope he gets appointed. It would have the merit of removing him from the school now and again.
He insisted that the students should mount a guard of honour stretching from the main road to the school door. And the teachers too were to stand in a line at the end of the student queue, to be introduced. Mr Nwege who regularly read such literature as ‘Toasts − How to Propose Them’, was very meticulous about this kind of thing. I had objected vehemently to this standing like school children at our staff meeting, thinking to rouse the other teachers. But the teachers in that school were all dead from the neck up. My friend and colleague Andrew Kadibe found it impossible to side with me because he and the Minister came from the same village. Primitive loyalty, I call it.
As soon as the Minister’s Cadillac arrived at the head of a long motorcade the hunters dashed this way and that and let off their last shots, throwing their guns about with frightening freedom. The dancers capered and stamped, filling the dry-season air with dust. Not even Grammar- phone’s voice could now be heard over the tumult. The Minister stepped out wearing damask and gold chains and acknowledging cheers with his ever-present fan of animal skin which they said fanned away all evil designs and shafts of malevolence thrown at him by the wicked.
The man was still as handsome and youthful-looking as ever − there was no doubt about that. The Proprietor was now introducing him to the teachers beginning with the Senior Tutor at the head of the line. Although I had not had time to scrutinise the Senior Tutor’s person, I had no doubt he had traces of snuff as usual in his nostrils. The Minister had a jovial word for everyone.
You could never think − looking at him now − that his smile was anything but genuine. It seemed bloody-minded to be sceptical. Now it was my turn. I held out my hand somewhat stiffly. I did not have the slightest fear that he might remember me and had no intention of reminding him.
Our hands met. I looked him straight in the face. The smile slowly creased up into lines of thought. He waved his left hand impatiently to silence the loquacious Proprietor who had begun the parrot formula he had repeated at least fifteen times so far: ‘I have the honour, sir, to introduce ...’
‘That’s right,’ said the Minister not to anyone in particular, but to some mechanism of memory inside his head. ‘You are Odili.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Before the words were out of my mouth he had thrown his arms round me smothering me in his voluminous damask. ‘You have a wonderful memory,’ I said. ‘It’s at least fifteen years ...’ He had now partly released me although his left hand was resting on my shoulder. He turned slightly to the Proprietor and announced proudly: ‘I taught him in ...’
‘Standard Three,’ I said.
‘That’s right,’ he shouted. If he had just found his long-lost son he could not have been more excited.
‘He is one of the pillars of this school,’ said the Proprietor, catching the infection and saying the first good word about me since I had joined his school.
‘Odili, the great,’ said the Minister boyishly, and still out of breath. ‘Where have you been all this time?’
I told him I had been to the University, and had been teaching for the last eighteen months.
‘Good boy!’ he said. ‘I knew he would go to a university. I use to tell the other boys in my class that Odili will one day be a great man and they will be answering him sir, sir. Why did you not tell me when you left the University? That’s very bad of you, you know.’
‘Well,’ I said happily − I’m ashamed to admit − ‘I know how busy a minister ...’
‘Busy? Nonsense. Don’t you know that minister means servant? Busy or no busy he must see his master.’
Everybody around applauded and laughed. He slapped me again on the back and said I must not fail to see him at the end of the reception.
‘If you fail I will send my orderly to arrest you.’
a. In groups of four, compare the culture depicted in this extract to Rwandan traditions.
b. ‘If you fail I will send my orderly to arrest you.’ This is a bit of an exaggeration. Discuss with your desk mate what this is called.
I became a hero in the eyes of the crowd. I was dazed. Everything around me became suddenly unreal; the voices receded to a vague border zone. I knew I ought to be angry with myself but I wasn’t. I found myself wondering whether – perhaps − I had been applying to politics stringent standards that didn’t belong to it. When I came back to the immediate present I heard the Minister saying to another teacher: ‘That is very good. Sometimes I use to regret ever leaving the teaching field. Although I am a minister today I can swear to God that I am not as happy as when I was a teacher.’
My memory is naturally good. That day it was perfect. I don’t know how it happened, but I can recall every word the Minister said on that occasion. I can repeat the entire speech he made later.
‘True to God who made me,’ he insisted. ‘I use to regret it. Teaching is a very noble profession.’
At this point, everybody just collapsed with laughter not least of all the Honourable Minister himself, nor me, for that matter. The man’s assurance was simply unbelievable. Only he could make such a risky joke − or whatever he thought he was making − at that time, when teachers all over the country were in an ugly, rebellious mood. When the laughter died down, he put on a more serious face and confided to us: ‘You can rest assured that those of us in the Cabinet who were once teachers are in full sympathy with you.’
‘Once a teacher always a teacher,’ said the Senior Tutor, adjusting the sleeves of his faded ‘bottom-box’ robes.
‘Hear! Hear!’ I said. I like to think that I meant it to be sarcastic. The man’s charisma had to be felt to be believed. If I were superstitious I would say he had made a really potent charm of the variety called ‘sweet face’.
Changing the subject slightly, the Minister said, ‘Only teachers can make this excellent arrangement.’ Then turning to the newspaper correspondent in his party he said, ‘It is a mammoth crowd.’
The journalist whipped out his notebook and began to write.
‘It is an unprecedented crowd in the annals of Anata,’ said Mr Nwege.
‘James, did you hear that?’ the Minister asked the journalist.
‘No, sir, what is it?’
‘This gentleman says it is the most unprecedented crowd in the annals of Anata,’ I said. This time I clearly meant my tongue to be in my cheek.
‘What is the gentleman’s name?’
Mr Nwege called his name and spelt it and gave his full title of ‘Principal and Proprietor of Anata Grammar School’. Then he turned to the Minister in an effort to pinpoint responsibility for the big crowds.
‘I had to visit every section of the village personally to tell them of your − I mean to say of the Minister’s − visit.’
We had now entered the Assembly Hall and the Minister and his party were conducted to their seats on the dais. The crowd raised a deafening shout of welcome. He waved his fan to the different parts of the hall. Then he turned to Mr Nwege and said: ‘Thank you very much, thank you, sir.’
A huge, tough looking member of the Minister’s entourage who stood with us at the back of the dais raised his voice and said: ‘You see wetin I de talk. How many minister fit hanswer sir to any Tom, Dick and Harry wey senior them for age? I hask you how many?’
Everyone at the dais agreed that the Minister was quite exceptional in this respect − a man of high position who still gave age the respect due to it. No doubt it was a measure of my changed − or shall we say changing? − attitude to the Minister that I found myself feeling a little embarrassed on his account for these fulsome praises flung at his face.
‘Minister or no minister,’ he said, ‘a man who is my senior must still be my senior. Other Ministers and other people may do otherwise but my motto is: Do the right and shame the Devil.’
a. Discuss with your desk mate why the narrator became a hero.
b. ‘Minister or no minister,’ he said, ‘a man who is my senior must still be my senior.’
In groups of four, use this statement to compare the culture depicted by this statement with Rwandan traditions.
Take turns to read the story, continued below. Discuss the main and minor themes in the extract. Prepare and act out the extract in your groups.
Mr Nwege took the opportunity to mount his old hobbyhorse. The Minister’s excellent behaviour, he said, was due to the sound education he had received when education was education.
‘Yes,’ said the Minister, ‘I use to tell them that standard six in those days is more than Cambridge today.’
‘Cambridge?’ asked Mr Nwege who, like the Minister, had the good old standard six. ‘Cambridge? Who dash frog coat? You mean it is equal to B. A. Today − if not more.’
‘With due apologies,’ said the Minister turning in my direction.
‘Not at all, sir,’ I replied with equal good humour. ‘I am applying for a postgraduate scholarship to bring myself up to Mr Nwege’s expectation.’
I remember that at that point the beautiful girl in the Minister’s party turned round on her chair to look at me. My eyes met hers and she quickly turned round again. I think the Minister noticed it.
‘My private secretary has B. A. from Oxford,’ he said. ‘He should have come with me on this tour but I had some office work for him to do. By the way, Odili, I think you are wasting your talent here. I want you to come to the capital and take up a strategic post in the civil service. We shouldn’t leave everything to the highland tribes. My secretary is from there; our people must press for their fair share of the national cake.’
The hackneyed phrase ‘national cake’ was getting to some of us for the first time, and so it was greeted with applause.
‘Owner of book!’ cried one admirer, assigning in those three brief words the ownership of the white man’s language to the Honourable Minister, who turned round and beamed on the speaker.
That was when my friend Andrew Kadibe committed the unpardonable indiscretion of calling the Minister the nickname he had worn as a teacher: ‘M.A. Minus Opportunity.’ It was particularly bad because Andrew and the Minister were from the same village. The look he gave Andrew then reminded me of that other Nanga who had led the pack of hounds four years ago.
‘Sorry, sir,’ said Andrew pitiably.
‘Sorry for what?’ snarled the Minister.
‘Don’t mind the stupid boy, sir,’ said Mr Nwege, greatly upset.‘This is what we were saying before.’
‘I think we better begin,’ said the Minister, still frowning. Although Mr Nwege had begun by saying that the distinguished guest needed no introduction he had gone on all the same to talk for well over twenty minutes − largely in praise of himself and all he had done for the Party in Anata ‘and environs’.
The crowd became steadily more restive especially when they noticed that the Minister was looking at his watch. Loud grumbles began to reach the dais from the audience. Then clear voices telling Nwege to sit down and let the man they came to hear talk. Nwege ignored all these warning signs − a more insensitive man you never saw. Finally, one of the tough young men of the village stood up ten feet or so away and shouted, ‘It is enough or I shall push you down and take three pence.’
This did the trick. The laughter that went up must have been heard a mile away. Mr Nwege’s concluding remarks were completely lost. In fact, it was not until the Minister rose to his feet that the laughter stopped.
Take turns to read the extract below and then answer the following questions.
a. The extract below has a story about Mr Nwege. Discuss in groups of four, the reason the author included it.
b. The women in the extract below are seen more as companions of Chief Nanga. In groups of four, discuss if this is right and report your findings to the rest of the class.
The story had it that many years ago when Mr Nwege was a poor, hungry elementary school teacher − that is before he built his own grammar school and became rich but apparently still hungry − he had an old rickety bicycle of the kind the villagers gave the onomatopoeic name of anikilija. Needless to say, the brakes were very faulty. One day as he was cascading down a steep slope that led to a narrow bridge at the bottom of the hill he saw a lorry − an unusual phenomenon in those days − coming down the opposite slope. It looked like a head-on meeting on the bridge. In his extremity, Mr Nwege had raised his voice and cried to passing pedestrians: ‘In the name of God push me down!’ Apparently nobody did, and so he added an inducement: ‘Push me down and my three pence is yours!’ From that day ‘Push me down and take my three pence’ became a popular Anata joke.
The Minister’s speech sounded spontaneous and was most effective. There was no election at hand, he said, amid laughter. He had not come to beg for their votes; it was just ‘a family reunion − pure and simple’. He would have preferred not to speak to his own kinsmen in English which was after all a foreign language, but he had learnt from experience that speeches made in vernacular were liable to be distorted and misquoted in the press. Also there were some strangers in that audience who did not speak our own tongue and he did not wish to exclude them. They were all citizens of our great country whether they came from the highlands or the lowlands, etc. etc.
The stranger he had in mind I think was Mrs Eleanor John, an influential party woman from the coast who had come in the Minister’s party. She was heavily painted and perfumed and although no longer young seemed more than able to hold her own, if it came to that. She sat on the Minister’s left, smoking and fanning herself. Next to her sat the beautiful young girl I have talked about. I didn’t catch the two of them exchanging any words or even looks. I wondered what such a girl was doing in that tough crowd; it looked as though they had stopped by some convent on their way and offered to give her a lift to the next one.
At the end of his speech the Minister and his party were invited to the Proprietor’s Lodge − as Mr Nwege called his square, cement-block house. Outside, the dancers had all come alive again and the hunters − their last powder gone − were tamely waiting for the promised palm wine. The Minister danced a few dignified steps to the music of each group and stuck red pound notes on the perspiring faces of the best dancers. To one group alone he gave away five pounds.
The same man who had drawn our attention to the Minister’s humility was now pointing out yet another quality. I looked at him closely for the first time and noticed that he had one bad eye −what we call a cowrie-shell eye.
‘You see how e de do as if to say money be san-san,’ he was saying. ‘People wey de jealous the money gorment de pay Minister no sabi say no be him one de chop am. Na so so troway.’
Later on in the Proprietor’s Lodge I said to the Minister: ‘You must have spent a fortune today.’
He smiled at the glass of cold beer in his hand and said: ‘You call this spend? You never see some thing, my brother. I no de keep anini for myself, na so so troway. If some person come to you and say “I wan’ make you Minister” make you run like blazes comot. Na true word I tell you. To God who made me.’ He showed the tip of his tongue to the sky to confirm the oath. ‘Minister de sweet for eye but too much katakata de for inside. Believe me yours sincerely.’
‘Big man, big palaver,’ said the one-eyed man.
It was left to Josiah, owner of a nearby shop-and-bar to sound a discordant, if jovial, note. ‘Me one,’ he said, ‘I no kuku mind the katakata wey de for inside. Make you put Minister money for my hand and all the wahala on top. I no mind at all.’
Everyone laughed. Then Mrs John said: ‘No be so, my frien’. When you done experience rich man’s trouble you no fit talk like that again. My people get one proverb: they say that when poor man done see with him own eye how to make big man e go beg make e carry him poverty de go je-je.’
They said this woman was a very close friend of the Minister’s, and her proprietary air would seem to confirm it and the fact that she had come all the way from Pokoma, three hundred and fifty miles away. I knew of her from the newspapers; she was a member of the Library Commission, one of the statutory boards within the Minister’s portfolio. Her massive coral beads were worth hundreds of pounds according to the whisper circulating in the room while she talked. She was the ‘merchant princess’ par excellence. Poor beginning − an orphan, I believe − no school education, plenty of good looks and an iron determination, both of which she put to good account; beginning as a street hawker, rising to a small trader, and then to a big one. At present, they said, she presided over the entire trade in imported second-hand clothing worth hundreds of thousands.
I edged quietly towards the journalist who seemed to know everyone in the party and whispered in his ear: ‘Who is the young lady?’
‘Ah,’ he said, leaving his mouth wide open for a while as a danger signal. ‘Make you no go near am-o. My hand no de for inside.’
I told him I wasn’t going near am-o; I merely asked who she was.
‘The Minister no de introduce-am to anybody. So I think say na im girl-friend, or im cousin.’ Then he confided: ‘I done lookam, lookam, lookam sotay I tire. I no go tell you lie girls for this una part sabi fine-o. God Almighty!’
I had also noticed that the Minister had skipped her when he had introduced his party to the teachers.
I know it sounds silly, but I began to wonder what had happened to the Mrs Nanga of the scout-mastering days. They were newly married then. I remembered her particularly because she was one of the very first women I knew to wear a white, ladies’ helmet which in our ignorance we called helment and which was in those days the very acme of sophistication.