Chike’s School Days

“Chike’s School Days” takes place in a Nigerian Igbo village as the inhabitants navigate the early stages of 20th-century British colonialism. The protagonist, Chike, is the firstborn son to his parents, Sarah and Amos, making his birth a cause for celebration. In fact, his parents are so excited to welcome the first boy into the family that they give him three names at his baptism: John, in recognition of the family’s recent conversion to Christianity; Chike; and Obiajulu, which means “the mind is at last at rest.” His family isn’t like the others in the village: they are Christians now, and have different values. In fact, Sarah even tells her children not to accept food from the neighbors, because they offered it to “idols.” Around age four or five, then, a precocious Chike rejects some yams his neighbor offers him, saying he didn’t eat “heathen food.” The neighbor is offended, especially since in the traditional caste system, Chike is an Osu—a member of the lowest social class.

Chike inherited his class status from his mother, Sarah, who is an Osu woman. This means that due to Amos’s higher social status, Amos broke the social code of the village to marry her. He was encouraged to do so by Mr. Brown, an English missionary living in the village who converted Amos to Christianity and, in doing so, convinced him to disregard his culture’s traditional understandings of class division. Amos’s engagement to Sarah was so shocking that his mother, Elizabeth, tried desperately to dissuade him from this decision. Although she, too, had converted to Christianity, she was so distraught over her son’s choice of wife that she went to the diviner, a respected practitioner of the local religion, to perform a ritual that would bring Amos back to his senses. The ritual didn’t work—Amos ended up marrying Sarah—but nonetheless Elizabeth switched back to practicing traditional Igbo spirituality. By marrying Sarah, Amos is now an Osu by default, as are Chike and his five sisters.

In the story’s present, Chike is eager to start school, and the time finally comes when he is about six or seven years old. His sisters warn him with an Igbo song about the schoolteacher “beating them to death” with his notorious cane. But in spite of these threats, Chike is fascinated with school and adores learning. The education he receives is an eclectic mixture of religion and Western history, all communicated by way of songs. Chike especially enjoys the English songs he sings—even though he and his schoolmates don’t understand (and can’t even pronounce) most of the words. When Chike gets a little older, the schoolteacher begins to use long English words in class, which impresses and intimidates the students. In fact, Chike is so smitten with the English language that he goes home and invents songs with words he’s picked out of his New Method Reader. As he sings, although the words themselves are often nonsensical, he feels happy and imagines a mysterious but exciting new world.