Chinua Achebe’s “The Madman” and “The Sacrificial Egg”: A Postcolonial Perspective
African scholar, critic and writer, Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930 and died in 2013. His literary works belonged to the postcolonial and postmodern period along with such great writers as Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiong and Leopard Senghor. Achebe is more skillful in novel writing. His major novels are Things Fall Apart (1958), Arrow of God (1964) and Anthills of the Savannah. Although Chinua Achebe is world famous as a novelist today, his first attempt in writing was for short stories. If his novels stand for the extensiveness of cultural conflicts, his short stories present the intensity of individual characters – who deal with questions of identity. Achebe's famous short stories 'The Madman' and 'The Sacrificial Egg' are from his collection Girls at War and Other Stories.
Achebe exposed the faulty image of Africa as represented by the European colonizers. He denied the white understanding of the culture and sited the strength of his culture. Though for a rationalist or a European scholar Africans are nomads but for Africans their lifestyle and culture carry the utmost importance. He didn’t criticize African superstitions but he argued let the African tribes be educated and took their own stand. As an African scholar he supported African life and its culture as easily visible in his short stories “The Madman” and “The sacrificial Egg”.
'The Madman' is a deep meaning story. The two central characters of the story are Okato Nwibe and the Madman. The story runs at two level. At a shallow level reading one would find the jolly living madman being harassed by Okafo Nwibe – a highly sensible man of Ogbu. It would even look like a tragic comedy where Nwibe is repaid with his earlier misdeeds. But one cannot forget that Chinua Achebe is a good postcolonial writer. In fact, the title 'Madman' here is used as a metaphor for the African colonizer – the British people. There are many words in the very beginning of the story which confirm the colonial attitude. The very first line 'H was drawn to markets and straight roads' show the colonial mentality to conquer market of other regions. The other line 'four hefty beasts of the bush' show the racial prejudice of superiority complex of the colonial people. The words 'fat – bottomed women', 'Vagabonds' make it certain of the existence of colonial consciousness in the madman. His surreptitious visits to market remind us of how colonial masters had entered the Africa through trading. The madman tries to usurp the market – stalls of two native African women, but he is punished for this. The madman soon realizes that to win native through might would be impossible, therefore he adopts a different strategy.
African native tribes have their own cultures. These cultures have some good and some bad attributes. Okafo Nwibe is the representative of the native African culture of Ogbu village. Nwibe is one of the sensible man, he has acquired some wealth and he wishes to enter the prestigious honored hierarchy called 'ozo' in the village. His life was going on a smooth track until he encounters with this madman at riverside. The madman, always opportunist, seizes the opportunity where Nwibe is bathing in river. The madman picks up his clothes, instigates Nwibe and then runs away. The picking up of cloths symbolically present the robbing of African natives of their cultural identities. Achebe presents here a kind of competition between Europeans and Africans. The line 'for he was, spare and wiry, a thing made for speed' shows the biological advantage and technological advantage of the Europeans. The Madman has studied all the religious and cultural defects of Africa very well. For the very reason he leads Nwibe to Eke Market, Nwibe is all enraged, shouting, naked, asking for help but the native Africans fail to understand his genuine call for help. The Kenyon writer Ngugi Wa Thiong claims "Madness after all is relative. It depends on who is calling the other mad" (Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary. p.120). The people of market take Nwibe as the madman. Nwibe is tired by running a long distance, he is not with his senses right now and he enters the scared place of market unknowingly. As soon as he puts his foot in the area, his madness is concerned by the surrounding people. The real madman meanwhile gets lost in the crowd.
Achebe is not satisfied with the failure of community members to help the man of soil who was in earnest need. He questions the medicine practice of tribal culture. The medicine man too fails in curing Nwibe from numbness caused by traumatic incident of market. In fact Nwibe becomes numb because he is sensible enough to understand that his dream to enter 'ozo' hierarchy would be difficult to achieve now. At last Nwibe is cured by an European doctor who unlike local medicine man, sharply knows, the difference between medicine and religion. He is more practical, knowing exactly the cure and cause of the illness so he naturally succeeds. His fame surpasses the local medicine man of native people. Achebe shows here the victory of European discipline of medicine and loss of native discipline of medicine. In the end of the story Nwibe's dream to enter ozo hierarchy becomes unlikely to succeed.
In this way Achebe presents the colonial encroachment, the physical conflict, opportune moments and their use by colonial people, the loss of identity, culture, the incapacity of native people to understand things clearly and the final victory of doctor in a most minute way.
'The Sacrificial Egg' is different from 'The Madman'. In this story, the victorious is the same African religious superstition which loses the battle against colonizer. Julius Obi, Janet and Janet's Mother Ma, are the central characters of the story. The setting is Omuru village, situated at the banks of river Niger, the time is 1900.
Ngugi Wa Thiong, the famous African writer says “He the missionary carried the Bible; the soldier carried the gun; the administrator and the settler carried the coin. Christianity, commerce, civilization: the Bible, the coin, the gun: Holy Trinity”. (Petals of Blood, p. 88.) NKWO – the market of Umuru used to be a clean place before its industrialization. The establishment of the market as palm – oil port developed it but rather negatively. The line 'There was an empty basket on the giant weighing machine' shows how harshly colonial masters have exploited the natural resources and products of the area. The nearby people come to sell their precious proceeds like palm oils, kernels, kola nuts, cassava, mats, baskets and take home many – colored cloths, smoked fish, iron pots and plates. The sale was conducted at the price of masters.
This industrialization has forced young men like Julius Obi to leave their village and come to Umuri for the job. Julius is a standard six pass boy. He has received his education through missionary institutes. He loves Janet, a convert to catholic church. Ma, Janet's mother is a devout Christian convert and she approved for Janet's marriage to Julius is because Julius sings in the choir of the CMS church. There are two conflicts in the story. The external conflict has been due to the advent of smallpox – the tribal deity Kitikpa; the internal conflict is Julius Obi's reflection over his ideology. Both the conflict run parallel. The over industrialization like the establishment of oil port led to the dirty state of Umuru, resulting in a deadly disease smallpox. The local tribes consider smallpox as Kitikpa deity which Janet's mother – a staunch supporter of Christianity does not approve. She shows a condescending attitude towards the native custom and faith. Julius has received the education which is not enough to liberate him. He often ponders over the existence of the world beyond Umuru. He is confused regarding the choice of the culture.
Chinua Achebe defines himself as a cultural nationalist with a revolutionary mission to help his society regain belief, trust in itself, and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self – abasement. When Julius cracks the sacrificial egg unknowingly under his foot, he suddenly comes to his instinctive fear for the upcoming dreadful event. He tries to shake himself off by using his little educational reason. The onslaught of night – mask men is instantly realized by him, he saves himself by surrender to the land of cocoyam farm. This audacious revelry of convert Christians become responsible for the deaths of Janet and her mother.
What Achebe shows is that converts of Africa must return to their native culture otherwise they would not be able to survive in Africa. Achebe has not so much problem with the concept of religion but he has difference with the changed attitudes, ways of life and set of behavioral codes. In this short story “The Sacrificial Egg”, he draws our attention to the so-called European education which claims to liberate people from darkness. Achebe indirectly asks whether Europeans themselves are free of superstitions. In the end Julius reflects over the loss he incurred for his convert ideology. He also seems to have returned to his own cultural faith. His past seems a vast emptiness to Julius but at least his life is saved for he returned to his own native culture.
In short, both the stories 'The Madman' and 'The Sacrificial Egg' talk about the native tribe's cultures. The market holds an important role in both the stories. 'The Madman' presents the lamentation over the loss of valuable identity, 'The Sacrificial Egg' assets the victory of native culture.
- Achebe, Chinua. Girls at War and Other Stories. London: Heinemann. 1972. Print.
- Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1981. Print.
- Ibid. Petals of Blood. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers. 1977. Print.