The main point of tension in “Chike’s School Days” is between English colonial culture and traditional Igbo culture. Achebe tells the story of a young boy, Chike, raised in a village that is just beginning to feel the full force of British colonizer’s culture, especially in the realms of religion and education. Over the course of the story, various characters seek guidance from different community leaders. However, these leaders—both Igbo and British alike—are characterized as unreliable. This demonstrates the tension present in a society divided between two groups seeking to dominate local culture, and suggests that neither will fully succeed in this task. Chike and his generation are raised in a cultural context without clear authority figures or structures, which sets the precedent for their forging a new set of cultural practices and values in the wake of colonialism.
The first authority figure readers are introduced to in the story is Mr. Brown, an English missionary who lives in Chike’s village and successfully converted Chike’s father, Amos, to Christianity. Mr. Brown is “highly respected by the people” of the village, “not because of his sermons, but because of a dispensary he ran in one of his rooms.” Here, the moral authority of anything Mr. Brown would have to say is severely undermined by his manipulative use of medicine to lure local people into engaging with him. The end goal of his supplying medicine to the people is not simply to help them, but rather to convert them to Christianity. However, the inability of the Christian doctrine to convince people in and of itself suggests that it is not—or, at the very least, suggests that Mr. Brown himself is not—suitable to be a source of moral or religious authority within the context of the village. Mr. Brown is directly contrasted with the village “diviner,” whom Amos’ mother, Elizabeth, goes to see after his son announces that he intends to marry Sarah, a woman of a lower social class.
Unlike Mr. Brown, the diviner is introduced as “a man of great power and wisdom.” While readers from the can see from the very beginning that Mr. Brown is not a credible source of wisdom or authority, initially, the diviner is portrayed as someone who has real potential to be a leader in the community. This represents the narrator’s slight privileging of local wisdom traditions and wisdom over Christianity by suggesting that up until now, the local diviner had to effectively lead the people. However, the diviner is ultimately unsuccessful in doing what Elizabeth wants him to do, which is to convince her son not to marry Sarah. The diviner tells Elizabeth to sacrifice a goat, which she does, “but her son remained insane and married an Osu girl.” Here, any authority the diviner initially seemed to have is totally undermined. He claimed to have a solution for Elizabeth’s problem that was simply ineffective. In the story, then, Christianity and local religion are cast as two competing but equally ineffective sources of leadership and moral authority. Interestingly, even though the diviner’s prescription really does not work, Elizabeth returns to practice the traditional faith of her people. This choice on her behalf demonstrates that she does not choose her leadership based on its merit, but as a form of reacting against a rebellious son. Because she has seen that both Christianity and local spirituality have led her and members of her family astray, she cannot fully belief in the merit of either one.
The third and final figure of potential authority in the story is Chike’s schoolteacher, who himself does not seem particularly concerned with passing on relevant information to his students. The activities the teacher gives to his students are presented as meaningless, and even absurd. At one point, Chike and his schoolmates must sing a song in Igbo about Julius Caesar. The narrator ironically comments that “it did not matter […] that in the twentieth century Caesar was no longer ruler of the whole world.” In this instance, the schoolteacher is presenting his students with yet another false source of authority. Julius Caesar has nothing to do with the world in which Chike and his peers live, and so presenting him as a source of authority or even a role model is meaningless within this cultural context. In doing this, the teacher also undermines his own authority and potential to be a source of leadership and wisdom for the students. He is not capable of teaching them lessons relevant to their context, and therefore cannot be a helpful guide to them as they grow.
The plethora of unreliable authority figures in the story comes as a result of the attempt on the part of colonial forces to dominate and destroy local cultures. Because of the impact of colonialism, the traditions of wisdom and spirituality that Chike’s village community previously had are no longer relevant to the current context. However, because some elements of tradition and local culture are still strong among the villagers, colonial forces are also unable to effectively provide the sort of authority and moral guidance that the children—and the whole community—need in order to grow. This sets the precedent for Chike’s generation to create new traditions, sources of wisdom, and means of knowledge production that represent the synthesis of the violent confrontation between the two worlds.
Leadership and Authority ThemeTracker
Leadership and Authority Quotes in Chike’s School Days
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.
The diviner was a man of great power and wisdom.
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.