Conjunctions complicate everything

“I cannot understand why you refused to come with us to kill that boy,” he asked Obierika.

“Because I did not want to,” Obierika replied sharply. “I had something better to do.”

“You sound as if you question the authority and the decision of the Oracle, who said he should die.”

“I do not. Why should I? But the Oracle did not ask me to carry out its decision.”

“But someone had to do it. If we were all afraid of blood, it would not be done. And what do you think the Oracle would do then?”

“You know very well, Okonkwo, that I am not afraid of blood and if anyone tells you that I am, he is telling a lie. And let me tell you one thing, my friend. If I were you I would have stayed at home. What you have done will not please the Earth. It is the kind of action for which the goddess wipes out whole families.”

“The Earth cannot punish me for obeying her messenger,” Okonkwo said. “A child’s fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palm.”

“That is true,” Obierika agreed. “But if the Oracle said that my son should be killed I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it.”

The conversation above is from Chinua Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart. Two friends, Okonkwo and Obierika argue about Okonkwo’s role in killing Ikemefuna, the captured slave who has become like a son to Okonkwo. This is one of the two parts of the book that really stopped me. The other part is where Okonkwo  shows a rarely seen tenderness – to the reader’s surprise we find that he stealthily followed Ekwefi his favourite wife into the bush to look for her child.

What I find interesting in this conversation is that Obierika, while agreeing with the tradition, also finds the room to reconsider. He does not doubt the Oracle’s orders, but he does not need to be the one to execute it, because he has better things to do, exposing in Okonkwo’s logic (and perhaps ours) spaces he had not known to explore. Surely the Oracle can be right without you having to be the one to obey it. Surely the Oracle can be right and it also be right to not kill your son.

Obierika is flexible and yet grounded in his tradition. Meanwhile Okonkwo is the pillar of the old way, the one respected for his ability to earn power within the tradition and to uphold it. But eventually – spoiler alert- he commits suicide. In this sense his pure strength strangles him and his power turns upon itself. Obierika’s flexibility allows him to survive, to both hate what the white man is doing and also be able to critique his own beloved tradition. This, to the purist is weakness. 

It is the conjunctions that complicate everything. Yes the oracle is right, but. Yes the tradition says the boy is to be killed but it is also an abomination to kill one’s son. I think they also keep us humane. I have to admit that there are times where I am more like Okonkwo and other times where I am more like Obierika. Nuance or black and white thinking? Both have their place, and we all have our intrinsic leanings, and need wisdom to know when to apply which.

A very popular Igbo proverb goes – egbe belu, ugo e belu. Let the kite and the eagle perch. Simply put – let us all live and let live. One could argue that while Okonkwo was the pillar of the tradition in a way, maybe it was Obierika that was being Igbo in that moment to even imagine another way within a dilemma that was supposedly black and white.

Can one be both solid and fluid, at home but also free to grow? How do you see clearly, so that even your attempts to change the world are not just you projecting your flawed maps onto others? Can one truly live and let live, have a spine yet not oversimplify the world? This is an art, and I think it starts with truly respecting ourselves and others.


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