In “Chike’s School Days,” Chinua Achebe paints a portrait of an Igbo Nigerian village through the lens of one young boy’s family. Chike starts school at a time when the influence of British colonizers has begun to have a serious impact on the lives of people in his village. Families are ruptured along the lines of members who subscribe to the white man’s tradition—the conversion to Christianity, in particular, is presented as a dividing force in the story. The language Achebe uses to describe the impact that English cultural influence has on Chike’s village creates images of violence and emphasizes the point that colonialism is, inherently, a destructive force.
Chike is the son of his mother, Sarah, an Osu—a member of the lowest social class—and his father, Amos, a “freeborn”. The union of two such people represents a rupture in the hierarchy that maintains the social order of Chike’s village. When Amos, tells his mother, Elizabeth, that he intends to marry Sarah, “the shock nearly kill[s] her.” The language here is obviously suggestive of violence. Amos’s mother’s surprise and disappointment at his having made a choice that prioritizes white Western values over traditional Nigerian values almost causes her to metaphorically die. The new generation’s embracing of English practices does away with everything the older generation had passed on to them, causing a form of cultural death. Elizabeth’s reaction is particularly complex, however, because she herself had already converted to Christianity—the religion whose values allowed Amos to consider marrying an Osu woman. However, the extent to which her son has adopted these new beliefs affects her strongly, and even causes her to return to “the faith of her people.” In this way, Amos’s full integration of Christian values creates a rupture between him and his mother. Initially, Elizabeth tries to talk her son out of marrying Sarah, but doesn’t get through to him because “his ears had been nailed up.” The use of passive voice here makes readers guess at who did this to Amos, the only obvious answer being Mr. Brown, the village’s English missionary. The metaphoric use of “nails” is strange, and also references Christianity—Jesus having been nailed to the cross. Thus, the influence of Christianity on Amos is portrayed as violent.
When Chike is preparing to go to school, he is anxious about the stories he’s heard about “teachers and their canes,” implying that school is a place where violence is inflicted upon the children. Chike’s older sisters sang a song in Igbo about the teacher that implied that he “flogged the children to death.” The schoolteacher in Chike’s village is English like the missionary, and instills fear in the children by using his cane. The implication that an educational system could cause a child to die invites readers to consider that this is, in fact, a metaphorical death. At Chike’s school, children are educated by colonizers who intend to disconnect them from their traditional culture. Indeed, Chike’s experiences at the school support the suggestion that what happens to the young students there is a metaphorical, cultural death. Immediately following the passage about the song Chike’s sisters sang, Achebe describes Chike’s experience in “religious class” where he sang the catechism. The parallels here between the song Chike’s sisters sang about being flogged to death and Chike’s singing Christian songs at school clearly compares Christianity to a form of violence being inflicted on the village people, and especially young children, who are more impressionable than the adults and are responsible for the future of the village.
Finally, toward the end of the story, Achebe creates a metaphor that addresses not just Christianity, but the spread of English culture as a form of violence. One of the lessons Chike learns in school and will “never forget” is about seed dispersal. The teacher lists five methods by which this can take place, the last of which, shockingly, is “by explosive mechanism.” The first four items on the list—“by man, by animals, by water, by wind”—are peaceful and mundane, which makes the violence of “explosive mechanism” shocking by contrast. “Seed dispersal” is a clear analogy for colonialism, especially within the school context. Chike and his schoolmates are the seeds of a new generation that embodies English values and cooperates with the colonizers. They are being “dispersed” with violence, as their dispersal is only made possible by the “explosive” destruction of the culture of their ancestors. Immediately following the passage about seed dispersal, readers observe that “Chike was impressed by the teacher’s explosive vocabulary.” Here, the English language also becomes equated to a weapon. Indeed, the teacher’s words and the things he teaches function as tools to separate the children from the society that raised them.
Through sharp metaphors of violence, “Chike’s School Days” seeks to paint a portrait of traditional Igbo society slowly being destroyed through colonial influence. Through the destruction of tradition and the British education of children, Achebe illustrates the ways in which the powers of colonialism conquered nations by isolating new generations from their ancestors and the culture from which they came. While the destruction of traditional Igbo culture due to colonizing force is an important theme in Achebe’s body of work as a whole, what makes “Chike’s School Days” unique is the fact that the story is told through the lens of the child, inviting readers to consider what will grow in the place of a culture that is being destroyed.
Colonialism as a Form of Violence ThemeTracker
Colonialism as a Form of Violence Quotes in Chike’s School Days
Sarah taught her children not to eat in their neighbors’ houses because “they offered their food to idols.” And thus she set herself against the age-old custom which regarded children as the common responsibility of all […]
The neighbor was full of rage, but she controlled herself and only muttered under her breath that even an Osu was full of pride nowadays, thanks to the white man.
It was unheard of for a man to make himself Osu in that way, with his eyes wide open. But then Amos was nothing if not mad. The new religion had gone to his head. It was like palm-wine.
The only person who supported Amos in his mad marriage venture was Mr. Brown, the white missionary, who lived in a thatch-roofed, red-earth-walled parsonage and was highly respected by the people, not because of his sermons, but because of a dispensary he ran in one of his rooms.
A few days later he told his widowed mother, who had recently been converted to Christianity and had taken the name of Elizabeth. The shock nearly killed her. When she recovered, she went down on her knees and begged Amos not to do this thing. But he would not hear; his ears had been nailed up.
Old Elizabeth performed the rites, but her son remained insane and married an Osu girl whose name was Sarah. Old Elizabeth renounced her new religion and returned to the faith of her people.
It did not matter to their dancing that in the twentieth century Caesar was no longer ruler of the whole world.
According to the teacher, there were five methods: by man, by animals, by water, by wind, and by explosive mechanism. Even those pupils who forgot all the other methods remembered “explosive mechanism.”
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.