For the Joy of Reading: Foreign Gods etc

There is a long tradition in English fiction of books being written about culture clashes between Europeans and Africans.   One of the earliest books of this kind was Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, and there have been many other English novels like this by authors as diverse as Evelyn Waugh, V.S. Naipaul, Alan Paton and William Boyd.   It was, of course, the great Chinua Achebe who challenged the way in which these books, written from outside African culture, presented a view of Africa to the world.   [Alan Paton is something of an exception here because he was African, born in what is now the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa].

Achebe was the pathfinder, and many African authors have followed in his footsteps, giving the world a view of Africa, as seen by Africans, in all its cultural vibrancy, in all its diversity, in all the wisdom that it can offer to those who have the sense to listen.   Okey Ndibe is one of the newer voices adding to this understanding of the world that we live in, and helping us to realise what a bewildering place it is.   It is a place that can be seen from many perspectives, and the only perspectives that cause difficulties are selfishness and a sense of superiority.

That is the heart of this tale.   When Ike fails to become as rich as he would like in New York, he decides to go back to his home village in Nigeria and to steal a statue of the god Ngene, which he then hopes to sell on the antiquities market in what has become his home city.   He does not think about the effect that this will have on his family, and especially on his uncle Osuakwu, who is the high priest of the shrine.

Like Damon Galgut’s “The Good Doctor” or William Boyd’s “A Good Man in Africa”, Ike is someone who causes havoc.   In Ike’s case, however, it is not because he is white and does not understand the culture around him; it is because he has forgotten important aspects of that culture.  The long years he has spent abroad at college, and then trying to find a job suitable to his qualifications, and failing to do so, have alienated him from his culture.

He has childhood memories of sitting in Ngene’s shrine, listening to stories told by the elders about the missionary Stanton, but he no longer has any understanding of what was meant until it is too late.

On the face of it, this is a story about Africa, which it is.   It is a story about the coming of Christianity to the Igbo-speaking peoples of southern Nigeria, and the inevitable clash with the already existing norms of spirituality.   It is a story of people seeking to become the “big man”, whether through the medium of religion or politics.   It is a story about the aspirations of ordinary people to have a decent life.   But because it is these things, it is more than a story about Africa.   It is a story about the human condition.

Ike is motivated by greed, by the desire for a better life, and he refuses to think of the consequences, other than his hope to become very wealthy indeed.   And it is a story about how things can come back to haunt you.   This is a book that takes you into the depths of the soul.

Okey Ndibe is a new voice to me.   He is a voice that should be heard.   If you wish to learn about Africa, if you wish to learn about your humanity, Okey Ndibe is someone you should not ignore

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