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The Arrow of God



Chinua Achebe the great African author from Nigeria who died on March 21, 2013 in Boston, United States, at the age of 82 is often referred to as “the doyen of African literature.” He wrote to re-establish the dignity of the African people. His oeuvre is well known throughout the world. I know people who can recite chunks and chunks of Things Fall Apart, his pioneering novel that is also estimated to have sold millions of copies. However, I find his third novel, Arrow of God, which came out in (1964) after No longer at Ease (1960) more profound. I think that Arrow of God could be read as a manual for African diplomacy. Arrow of God is about the chief priest of Ulu called Ezeulu, whose authority is increasingly under threat — from rivals within his people in the six united villages, from functionaries of the colonial government, and even from his own family members. Yet Ezeulu believes himself to be untouchable. Armed with this belief, he is prepared to lead his people, even if it is towards their own destruction. But his people demonstrate that while they are obedient, they will not be dominated so easily. About comparing his own books, Achebe himself once said, “Whenever people have asked me which among my novels is my favourite, I have always evaded a direct answer, being strongly of the mind that in sheer invidiousness, that question is fully comparable to asking a man to list his children in the order in which he loves them. A parent worth his salt will, if he must, speak about the peculiar attractiveness of each child.” However, Achebe also claimed that he wrote his earliest books to demonstrate that contrary to European views, Africa was a civilization. “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones set in the past: Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God) did no more than teach my readers that their past — with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.” If you read Arrow of God, the above appears to hold water in various ways. Africa, as typified by Umuaro is on its own a sustaining and credible civilization. Evidence for that is that Umuaro has tenets of democracy. You see it through the gathering of the elders and people to debate over matters of their state as they discuss the possibility of going to war with the people of Okperi. They also discuss Ezeulu’s invitation by the white administration and other issues. This means that in Umuaro, no decision that may affect the rest of Umuaro may be taken by individuals. They are clear that a man cannot be right until proven so through debate and dialogue with Umuaro. Another very complex and compelling matter is that Umuaro’s finding is based on legitimate need for survival and sustenance. They are not an accident on the face of the earth. History has it that six villages, that lived as different but related people, were under constant threats from invaders and enslavers actually came together for security reasons and created a deity, Ulu, for themselves. Through that, a people had actually founded themselves and their God. This is an example of people engaging in nation-building. As you read on, you notice that Umuaro (Africa) has beautiful and systematic thought patterns and knowledge systems. This is seen through the Ibgo people’s constant references to events in the past and the wisdom stored in the wide variety of proverbs and idioms like: When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat left for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool; When a handshake goes beyond the elbow we know it has turned to another thing; The fly that has no one to advise it follows the corpse into the grave; When we see an old woman stop in her dance to point again and again in the same direction we can be sure that somewhere there something happened long ago which touched the roots of her life; He whose name is called again and again by those trying in vain to catch a wild bull has something he alone can do to bulls. Umuaro (African society) has direct relations between the living, the dead and the deities. As a result, all phases of production from planting to harvesting are clearly marked on the calendar thereby making survival a priority and not a metaphysical coincidence. There is expressed here a wish to survive. In Arrow of God, there is also clear mechanism of checks and balance with no centralised authority in the form of a chief or king. Individuals in Umuaro are not commanded by central forces to be in tandem with their neighbours but are controlled by the realisation that they might be walking out of step with their neighbours. However, the above observations do not mean that Umuaro society has no faults of its own as a civilisation. As shown even in Things Fall Apart, such internal weaknesses were many and were taken advantage of by the colonising forces from Europe. Through Arrow of God and Things Fall Apart, Achebe is very clear on the inevitability of colonial conquest but he equally suggests that Africa, through Umuaro, tended to facilitate effective occupation in more than one way. For instance, while Umuaro has a culture of healthy dialogue, the conflicts between Ezeulu and Ulu on one side against Nwaka and Idemili, on the other, splits society unnecessarily. While individuals Ezeulu and Nwaka are fighting for influence, they drag in the gods Ulu and Idemili and yet the original plan was to have the gods complement each other. Technically, Idemili is god of water and the sky and Ulu is god of the earth. When they fight, as they do in this novel, the state becomes weak. Through that, Achebe’s theory of internal divisions that contributed to Africa’s effective occupation becomes clear. Ezeulu inherits the powers and position of Ulu from previous Ezeulus but the amount of power over sowing and harvesting begins to get to his head when, in fact, it is people made power which can only be relevant for as long as people think that it is useful in their lives. Ezeulu begins to see himself first before the deity that he represents and also he also thinks that criticism and harm of himself is criticism and harm on Ulu. During his moments of anger or pride, Ezeulu actually thinks that he is being used by the gods to caution and punish Umuaro and that he is in fact an “arrow of God” himself! During his arrest, he thinks that the white man who has taken him from Umuaro, resulting in the suffering of Umuaro, is another arrow of God. He also thinks that his now school-going son, Oduche, who captures the royal python, is another arrow of God. Finally you see that Ezeulu would rather wrestle harder with his people than with the white man. This crucial novel actually becomes a study into the relations of power within the collective. In its wake, the novel raises the following questions: Is power in Umuaro continually used for the life of Umuaro or for individuals? And does Umuaro adequately know its real threats? Finally, do the gods have capacity to withstand colonialism or, would a new era necessarily need new strategies of resistance? All the above is in keeping with what Achebe says in his essay “The Novelist as a Teacher” when he writes: The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer’s duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost… After all, the novelist’s duty is not to beat this morning’s headline in topicality; it is to explore in depth the human condition. In Africa, he cannot perform this task unless he has a proper sense of history.” Memory Chirere

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