For three or four weeks Obi Okonkwo had been steeling himself against this moment. And when he walked into the dock that morning he thought he was fully prepared. He wore a smart palm-beach suit and appeared unruffled and indifferent. The proceeding seemed to be of little interest to him. Except for one brief moment at the very beginning when one of the counsel had got into trouble with the judge.
‘This court begins at nine o’clock. Why are you late?’
Whenever Mr. Justice William Galloway, Judge of the High Court of Lagos and the Southern Cameroons, looked at a victim he fixed him with his gaze as a collector fixes his insect with formalin. He lowered his head like a charging ram and looked over his gold-rimmed spectacles at the lawyer.
‘I am sorry, Your Honour,’ the man stammered. ‘My car broke down on the way.’
The judge continued to look at him for a long time. Then he said very abruptly:
‘All right, Mr. Adeyemi. I accept your excuse. But I must say I’m getting sick and tired of these constant excuses about the problem of locomotion.’
There was suppressed laughter at the bar. Obi Okonkwo smiled a wan and ashy smile and lost interest again.
Every available space in the courtroom was taken up. There were almost as many people standing as sitting. The case had been the talk of Lagos for a number of weeks and on this last day anyone who could possibly leave his job was there to hear the judgment. Some civil servants paid as much as ten shillings and sixpence to obtain a doctor’s certificate of illness for the day.
Obi’s listlessness did not show any signs of decreasing even when the judge began to sum up. It was only when he said: ‘I cannot comprehend how a young man of your education and brilliant promise could have done this’ that a sudden and marked change occurred. Treacherous tears came into Obi’s eyes. He brought out a white handkerchief and rubbed his face. But he did it as people do when they wipe sweat. He even tried to smile and belie the tears. A smile would have been quite logical. All that stuff about education and promise and betrayal had not taken him unawares. He had expected it and rehearsed this very scene a hundred times until it had become as familiar as a friend.
In fact, some weeks ago when the trial first began, Mr. Green, his boss, who was one of the Crown witnesses, had also said something about a young man of great promise. And Obi had remained completely unmoved. Mercifully he had recently lost his mother, and Clara had gone out of his life. The two events following closely on each other had dulled his sensibility and left him a different man, able to look words like education and promise squarely in the face. But now when the supreme moment came he was betrayed by treacherous tears.
Mr. Green had been playing tennis since five o’clock. It was most unusual. As a rule his work took up so much of his time that he rarely played. His normal exercise was a short walk in the evenings. But today he had played with a friend who worked for the British Council. After the game they retired to the club bar. Mr. Green had a light-yellow sweater over his white shirt, and a white towel hung from his neck. There were many other Europeans in the bar, some half-sitting on the high stools and some standing in groups of twos and threes drinking cold beer, orange squash or gin and tonic.
‘I cannot understand why he did it,’ said the British Council man thoughtfully. He was drawing lines of water with his finger on the back of his mist-covered glass of ice-cold beer.
‘I can,’ said Mr. Green simply. ‘What I can’t understand is why people like you refuse to face facts.’ Mr. Green was famous for speaking his mind. He wiped his red face with the white towel on his neck. ‘The African is corrupt through and through.’ The British Council man looked about him furtively, more from instinct than necessity, for although the club was now open to them technically, few Africans went to it. On this particular occasion there was none, except of course the stewards who served unobtrusively. It was quite possible to go in, drink, sign a cheque, talk to friends and leave again without noticing these stewards in their white uniforms. If everything went right you did not see them.
‘They are all corrupt,’ repeated Mr.Green. ‘I’m all for equality and all that. I for one would hate to live in South Africa. But equality won’t alter facts.’
‘What facts?’ asked the British Council man, who was relatively new to the country. There was a lull in the general conversation, as many people were now listening to Mr. Green without appearing to do so.
‘The fact that over countless centuries the African has been the victim of the worst climate in the world and of every imaginable disease. Hardly his fault. But he has been sapped mentally and physically. We have brought him Western education. But what use is it to him? He is . . .’ He was interrupted by the arrival of another friend.
‘Hello, Peter. Hello, Bill.’
‘May I join you?’
‘Most certainly. What are you drinking? Beer? Right. Steward. One beer for this master.’
‘What kind, sir?’
‘We were talking about this young man who took a bribe.’
Somewhere on the Lagos mainland the Umuofia Progressive Union was holding an emergency meeting. Umuofia is an Igbo village in Eastern Nigeria and the home town of Obi Okonkwo. It is not a particularly big village, but its inhabitants call it a town. They are very proud of its past when it was the terror of their neighbours, before the white man came and levelled everybody down. Those Umuofians (that is the name they call themselves) who leave their home town to find work in towns all over Nigeria regard themselves as sojourners. They return to Umuofia every two years or so to spend their leave. When they have saved up enough money they ask their relations at home to find them a wife, or they build a ‘zinc’ house on their family land. No matter where they are in Nigeria, they start a local branch of the Umuofia Progressive Union.
In recent weeks the Union had met several times over Obi Okonkwo’s case. At the first meeting, a handful of people had expressed the view that there was no reason why the Union should worry itself over the troubles of a prodigal son who had shown great disrespect to it only a little while ago.
‘We paid eight hundred pounds to train him in England,’ said one of them. ‘But instead of being grateful he insults us because of a useless girl. And now we are being called together again to find more money for him. What does he do with his big salary? My own opinion is that we have already done too much for him.’
This view, although accepted as largely true, was not taken very seriously. For, as the President pointed out, a kinsman in trouble had to be saved, not blamed; anger against a brother was felt in the flesh, not in the bone. And so the Union decided to pay for the services of a lawyer from their funds.
But this morning the case was lost. That was why another emergency meeting had been convened. Many people had already arrived at the house of the President on Moloney Street, and were talking excitedly about the judgment.
‘I knew it was a bad case,’ said the man who had opposed the Union’s intervention from the start. ‘We are just throwing money away. What do our people say? He that fights for a ne’erdo-well has nothing to show for it except a head covered in earth and grime.’
But this man had no following. The men of Umuofia were prepared to fight to the last. They had no illusions about Obi. He was, without doubt, a very foolish and self-willed young man. But this was not the time to go into that. The fox must be chased away first; after that the hen might be warned against wandering into the bush.
When the time for warning came the men of Umuofia could be trusted to give it in full measure, pressed down and flowing over. The President said it was a thing of shame for a man in the senior service to go to prison for twenty pounds. He repeated twenty pounds, spitting it out. ‘I am against people reaping where they have not sown. But we have a saying that if you want to eat a toad you should look for a fat and juicy one.’
‘It is all lack of experience,’ said another man. ‘He should not have accepted the money himself. What others do is tell you to go and hand it to their houseboy. Obi tried to do what everyone does without finding out how it was done.’ He told the proverb of the house rat who went swimming with his friend the lizard and died from cold, for while the lizard’s scales kept him dry the rat’s hairy body remained wet.
The President, in due course, looked at his pocket watch and announced that it was time to declare the meeting open. Everybody stood up and he said a short prayer. Then he presented three kola nuts to the meeting. The oldest man present broke one of them, saying another kind of prayer while he did it. ‘He that brings kola nuts brings life,’ he said. ‘We do not seek to hurt any man, but if any man seeks to hurt us may he break his neck.’ The congregation answered Amen. ‘We are strangers in this land. If good comes to it may we have our share.’ Amen. ‘But if bad comes let it go to the owners of the land who know what gods should be appeased.’ Amen. ‘Many towns have four or five or even ten of their sons in European posts in this city. Umuofia has only one. And now our enemies say that even that one is too many for us. But our ancestors will not agree to such a thing.’ Amen. ‘An only palm-fruit does not get lost in the fire.’ Amen.
Obi Okonkwo was indeed an only palm-fruit. His full name was Obiajulu – ‘the mind at last is at rest’; the mind being his father’s of course, who, his wife having borne him four daughters before Obi, was naturally becoming a little anxious. Being a Christian convert – in fact a catechist – he could not marry a second wife. But he was not the kind of man who carried his sorrow on his face. In particular, he would not let the heathen know that he was unhappy. He had called his fourth daughter Nwanyidinma – ‘a girl is also good’. But his voice did not carry conviction.
The old man who broke the kola nuts in Lagos and called Obi Okonkwo an only palm-fruit was not, however, thinking of Okonkwo’s family. He was thinking of the ancient and warlike village of Umuofia. Six or seven years ago Umuofians abroad had formed their Union with the aim of collecting money to send some of their brighter young men to study in England. They taxed themselves mercilessly. The first scholarship under this scheme was awarded to Obi Okonkwo five years ago, almost to the day. Although they called it a scholarship it was to be repaid. In Obi’s case it was worth eight hundred pounds, to be repaid within four years of his return. They wanted him to read law so that when he returned hewould handle all their land cases against their neighbours. But when he got to England he read English; his self-will was not new. The Union was angry but in the end they left him alone. Although he would not be a lawyer, he would get a ‘European post’ in the civil service.
The selection of the first candidate had not presented any difficulty to the Union. Obi was an obvious choice. At the age of twelve or thirteen he had passed his Standard Six examination at the top of the whole province. Then he had won a scholarship to one of the best secondary schools in Eastern Nigeria. At the end of five years he passed the Cambridge School Certificate with distinction in all eight subjects. He was in fact a village celebrity, and his name was regularly invoked at the mission school where he had once been a pupil. (No one mentioned nowadays that he once brought shame to the school by writing a letter to Adolf Hitler during the war. The headmaster at the time had pointed out, almost in tears, that he was a disgrace to the British Empire, and that if he had been older he would surely have been sent to jail for the rest of his miserable life. He was only eleven then, and so got off with six strokes of the cane on his buttocks.)
Obi’s going to England caused a big stir in Umuofia. A few days before his departure to Lagos his parents called a prayer meeting at their home. The Reverend Samuel Ikedi of St. Mark’s Anglican Church, Umuofia, was chairman. He said the occasion was the fulfilment of the prophecy:
‘The people which sat in darkness
Saw a great light,
And to them which sat in the region and shadow of death
To them did light spring up.’
He spoke for over half an hour. Then he asked that someone should lead them in prayer. Mary at once took up the challenge before most people had had time to stand up, let alone shut their eyes. Mary was one of the most zealous Christians in Umuofia and a good friend of Obi’s mother, Hannah Okonkwo. Although Mary lived a long way from the church – three miles or more – she never missed the early morning prayer which the pastor conducted at cockcrow. In the heart of the wet season, or the cold harmattan, Mary was sure to be there. Sometimes she came as much as an hour before time. She would blow out her hurricane lamp to save kerosene and go to sleep on the long mud seats.
‘Oh, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob,’ she burst forth, ‘the Beginning and the End. Without you we can do nothing. The great river is not big enough for you to wash your hands in. You have the yam and you have the knife; we cannot eat unless you cut us a piece. We are like ants in your sight. We are like little children who only wash their stomach when they bathe, leaving their back dry . . .’ She went on and on reeling off proverb after proverb and painting picture after picture. Finally, she got round to the subject of the gathering and dealt with it as fully as it deserved, giving among other things, the life history of her friend’s son who was about to go to the place where learning finally came to an end. When she was done, people blinked and rubbed their eyes to get used to the evening light once more.
They sat on long wooden forms which had been borrowed from the school. The chairman had a little table before him. On one side sat Obi in his school blazer and white trousers.
Two stalwarts emerged from the kitchen area, half bent with the gigantic iron pot of rice which they carried between them. Another pot followed. Two young women then brought in a simmering pot of stew hot from the fire. Kegs of palm-wine followed, and a pile of plates and spoons which the church stocked for the use of its members at marriages, births, deaths, and other occasions such as this.
Mr. Isaac Okonkwo made a short speech placing ‘this small kola’ before his guests. By Umuofia standards he was well-to-do. He had been a catechist of the Church Missionary Society for twenty-five years and then retired on a pension of twenty-five pounds a year. He had been the very first man to build a ‘zinc’ house in Umuofia. It was therefore not unexpected that he would prepare a feast. But no one had imagined anything on this scale, not even from Okonkwo, who was famous for his open-handedness which sometimes bordered on improvidence. Whenever his wife remonstrated against his thriftlessness he replied that a man who lived on the banks of the Niger should not wash his hands with spittle – a favourite saying of his father’s. It was odd that he should have rejected everything about his father except this one proverb. Perhaps he had long forgotten that his father often used it.
At the end of the feast the pastor made another long speech. He thanked Okonkwo for giving them a feast greater than many a wedding feast these days.
Mr. Ikedi had come to Umuofia froma township, and was able to tell the gathering howwedding feasts had been steadily declining in the towns since the invention of invitation cards. Many of his hearers whistled in unbelief when he told them that a man could not go to his neighbour’s wedding unless he was given one of these papers on which they wrote R.S.V.P. – Rice and Stew Very Plenty – which was invariably an overstatement.
Then he turned to the young man on his right. ‘In times past,’ he told him, ‘Umuofia would have required of you to fight in her wars and bring home human heads. But those were days of darkness from which we have been delivered by the blood of the Lamb of God. Today we send you to bring knowledge. Remember that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I have heard of young men from other towns who went to the white man’s country, but instead of facing their studies they went after the sweet things of the flesh. Some of them even married white women.’ The crowd murmured its strong disapproval of such behaviour. ‘A man who does that is lost to his people. He is like rain wasted in the forest. I would have suggested getting you a wife before you leave. But the time is too short now. Anyway, I know that we have no fear where you are concerned. We are sending you to learn book. Enjoyment can wait. Do not be in a hurry to rush into the pleasures of the world like the young antelope who danced herself lame when the main dance was yet to come.’
He thanked Okonkwo again, and the guests for answering his call. ‘If you had not answered his call, our brother would have become like the king in the Holy Book who called a wedding feast.’
As soon as he had finished speaking, Mary raised a song which the women had learnt at their prayer meeting.
‘Leave me not behind Jesus, wait for me
When I am going to the farm.
Leave me not behind Jesus, wait for me
When I am going to the market.
Leave me not behind Jesus, wait for me
When I am eating my food.
Leave me not behind Jesus, wait for me
When I am having my bath.
Leave me not behind Jesus, wait for me
When he is going to the White Man’s Country.
Leave him not behind Jesus, wait for him.’
The gathering ended with the singing of ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow’. The guests then said their farewells to Obi, many of them repeating all the advice that he had already been given. They shook hands with him and as they did so they pressed their presents into his palm, to buy a pencil with, or an exercise book or a loaf of bread for the journey, a shilling there and a penny there – substantial presents in a village where money was so rare, where men and women toiled from year to year to wrest a meagre living from an unwilling and exhausted soil.