Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Rotting Corpses of Dogs

Why Nigeria is in such a mess

Chinua Achebe’s No Longer At Ease starts off with what turns out to be the conclusion to Obi* Okonkwo’s attempts to resist corruption. He is in court, and the question is posed: ‘How can an educated young man with so much promise do such a thing?’ The following 150 pages present an unraveling of the Nigerian’s fall from grace. The book presents grim details of the forces of corruption at work in Africa. These are woven into the somber backdrop of the slums of Lagos. The currency of Lagos turns out to be not the dollar or the pound, but ‘kola’ (bribes). Achebe depicts the erosion of culture and the corrosive effects of dishonesty and corruption on the individual in a way that awakens our sympathies, and stimulates insight into the difficult situation that prevails in Africa.

Obi Okonkwo is special because he’s a ‘been-to’ – uniquely selected to be educated abroad in England; the sole designate, but obvious choice, for this singular privilege; it was made possible by the inhabitants of his village, Umuofia.

After 4 years in England Obi returns and his idealized sense of Nigeria suddenly evaporates. Lagos had been represented to him once, by an officer in a military uniform. These people were heroes to the locals (who had seen countries like Egypt and Burma), and when they visited a market in a random village, they took whatever they liked. Lagos, the soldier explained, ‘has no darkness’ (because it had electricity). But when he returns there are things Obi no longer recognizes, ‘like the slums of Lagos’ which he now sees for the first time.

The grim side of Lagos is revealed in its sewers filled with the rotting corpses of dogs (killed by new car owners on purpose for good luck), Long Life Potions (supposedly a cure-all for everything from Rheumatism to dog bites), and November’s drenching downpours.
And immediately upon his return Obi becomes aware of the deterioration of his parent’s health; his mother is frail and skeletal, and his father only slightly better off. How he wonders, could they become ‘all bones’ in just 4 years after serving the church faithfully for 30 years?

His initiation into the ‘scandalous’ nature of life in Lagos intensifies when he is appointed into the Civil Service, is instantly put into a position, by Mr. Mark, to accept a bribe. Obi is shocked, but shortly after the refusal of the bribe the sister of Mr. Mark, a young schoolgirl, visits him and offers to sleep with him in exchange for a ‘recommendation’ for a scholarship. Obi also refuses this offer. Meanwhile, Obi has fallen in love with Clara, a beautiful girl from a forbidden caste (an osu), and is determined to marry her despite the traditional misgivings of his tribe (the Ibo). Gradually the forces of corruption become apparent. Joshua Udo, a messenger for the Post Office is sacked for not paying a bribe he’d committed to paying. A man tells Obi, ‘[It’s about] money, not work…Anyone who likes to work can return home…’
Even the President of the local union endorses bribery (he chastises Udo for failing to honor his promise to pay, then reinstates him), showing to what extent corruption is common currency in Nigeria’s capital.

While Obi feels elated (‘like a tiger’) for resisting Mr Mark’s attempts to bribe him, he is later aware that everyone in Lagos is dispensing this wisdom: ‘You may cause more trouble by refusing a bribe, than by accepting it.’ And the Minister of State, slightly intoxicated, had added that ‘the trouble was not in receiving bribes, but in failing to do the thing for which the bribe was given…and how do you know a “brother” or “friend” is not receiving on your behalf?’

Then Obi receives an outlandish electricity bill which he describes as ‘sheer robbery’. A British co-worker describes Obi’s electric bill for one month as being equal to the payments for a full quarter in England. And the high costs for automobile insurance seem even more sinister. With these financial pressures at work, it becomes difficult to resist the ‘easy money’ of bribery. When Clara, who at this stage is practically Obi’s fiancé, procures the money (fifty pounds) suddenly, no explanation is given.

Then, swiftly, Obi’s life begins a downward spiral. First Clara’s fifty pounds is stolen out of their car. Then Obi visits his parents and is told by his mother that she will kill herself if he marries Clara while she is still alive. And his father admits that his own father cursed him when he went away with missionaries; that his father (Obi’s grandfather) killed a young boy that was raised in his family (the Oracle of the Hills and Caves instructed him to kill the Ikemefuna – a boy given to the village by a neighboring village as a gesture of appeasement). And that Obi’s grandfather hung himself after killing the boy, who was like a brother to Obi’s father, with his own hands. Obi is told how everyone believed it was ‘a great wrong’ that was committed, where a man took the life of a child that called him father.

Thus the noose tightens around Obi. Feeling cursed, he crashes his car during the drive back to Lagos from his parents’ village. His situation goes from desperate to chronic when Clara finds out she is pregnant. More money, that Obi simply doesn’t have, is required to perform an ‘illegal’ abortion. Obi discovers he can be paid a traveling allowance for every mile traveled, and lies about the distance traveled to insure a maximum payout. The doctor, at first refusing to be involved, later blithely announces: ‘We are all criminals’. Clara suffers a secondary infection and remains in hospital for five weeks. Obi is broken-hearted to have ruined his relationship with her, but soon matters are made even worse. In a carbon copy of the first visitor to his office (Mr Mark), a man arrives asking for a ‘recommendation’ for a scholarship. And leaves money for Obi on the table. Soon after a girl arrives and Obi sleeps with her. But he feels no sense of elation, and decides against telling a friend about it. Soon after the same man returns with a policeman and finds the marked bills (of the bribe) in Obi’s pocket. Now the story is complete, and we see how and why this educated young man, with so much promise, has ended up in court.

Mr Green makes a comment which seems to me to sum up the ignorance and frustration of the West with Africa. He says: ‘I have lived in your country for fifteen years and yet I cannot understand the mentality of the so-called educated Nigerian.’ Nigeria has 4 months of holidays (originally imposed by the colonials), and plenty of ridiculous kickbacks for government employees while the poor masses starve. Chinua Achebe helps the outsider to appreciate the magnitude of the problem, and how things can so easily fall apart once we are ‘No Longer At Ease’ with ourselves and each other in whichever country it is we call home.

*Obi is a shortened version of Obiajulu, which means ‘the mind at last at rest’. It’s an ironic name, because in one sense it reflects the peace of mind of Obi’s father, who was anxious to have a son, but also, more darkly perhaps, reflects a mind that has not understood the machinations of corruption, and when it does, is suddenly able to sleep and go numb.

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