In “Chike’s School Days,” songs represent the broader struggle for the story’s Nigerian characters to parse out a sense of meaning or identity for themselves under British colonialism. One example of this is the Christian hymns which Chike’s father, Amos, leads the family in morning and night. As one of the only Christian families in their village, these religious songs represent “the ways of the white man” to which Chike’s family has conformed. Though representative of their faith, the hymns embody the tension between the family and the traditional culture of their community.
On the other hand, songs also allow Chike and his siblings to retain their Nigerian traditions in a small way. Just before Chike starts school, his sisters use a song in their native Igbo language to warn him about a schoolteacher who supposedly “flogged […] children to death” with his cane. Though this is clearly an exaggeration, it’s significant that the song used to convey the story is in Igbo rather than English, as it suggests that although the children have assimilated to British influence in many respects, their traditional language still serves a fundamental role in communicating information to one another.
When Chike enters school and is introduced to English songs, readers can recognize the use of song to symbolically illustrate the use of language for aesthetic rather than communicative purposes. At school, Chike and his schoolmates sing these songs with heavy accents. Since their mispronunciation is so strong, they are not able to communicate meaning through this song, nor does the teacher seem concerned with explaining the lyrics’ meaning to students. Rather, the function of their singing is superficial—the students are made to parrot English songs not to communicate in a meaningful way, but rather to submit to the influence and domination of British colonialism.
Chike’s self-invented songs in English also speak to this point. At the end of the story, he reads from his schoolbook and makes up nonsensical, meaningless songs based on words he’s heard at school, like “periwinkle.” As he is creating these songs, Chike envisions a mysterious new world that makes him happy. Here, Chike’s excitement about the future parallels his excitement about English: the language interests him not because he understands it, but because it has come to represent, due to colonialism, an exotic and captivating form of power. The English songs in the story are broken forms of communication that fail to imbue the colonized population with any genuine sense of meaning—rather, their singing only conveys the superficial appearance of assimilation which undermines their traditional culture.
Songs Quotes in Chike’s School Days
It did not matter to their dancing that in the twentieth century Caesar was no longer ruler of the whole world.
Chike read it over and over again at home and then made a song of it. It was a meaningless song […] But it was like a window through which he saw in the distance a strange, magical new world. And he was happy.