A Man of the People

Dialogues

In Chinua Achebe's novel, A Man of the People, two contrasting groups of people from a political and social aspect based in West Africa.  The groups are the old and the new generations of politics and two characters represent them.  Odili, the narrator, represents the new intellectual generation, while Chief Nanga, Odili’s former teacher, represents the old style of bush politicians.  The conflict between the old and new ways is portrayed through the two characters as they not only disagree and quarrel over political views but also women.  The story ends with a military coup that foreshadows the Nigerian Revolution of 1966.  "Chinua Achebe proved to be a better prophet than any of the political scientists"(K.W.J. Post, xiii).  Achebe captures the inside reality of the lives of the contrasting characters as he demonstrates energy and brightness as well as violence and corruption.

About the Author

Chinua Achebe, a strong voice for African literature, was born in 1930 in Ogidi.  His father was a Christian evangelist and teacher. Achebe's full name is Albert Chinualumogu Achebe.  He studied broadcasting with the BBC and received a BA in 1953.  Over the course of his life he has written nearly 300 books and has become a powerful influence in the Nigerian politics.  His writings are aimed toward a select group of people in Africa, not only those who can read, but those educated above the basic level, who have enough money to purchase the book.  "Paradoxically enough, his writings are probably better known outside his own country than in it." (K.W.J. Post, v) This idea of an "aimed audience"implies that Achebe wants countries with power and a say in the world to understand the lives of the people from his part of the world, West Africa. 

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  Dialogues

LEADERS

In A Man of the People, Chief Nanga, is referred to by the narrator, Odili, as a man of the people, and the most approachable politician in the country.  He is the minister of culture and his speeches to the public represent everything that a politician should do and be.  But as Odili tells the story, it becomes clear that Chief Nanga does not practice what he preaches.  The money that is supposed to go towards helping his community he uses instead to build four-story buildings, which he rents out for his own profit. 

Chief Nanga is supposed to be standing up for the traditions and beliefs of the pre-colonial African culture by defending the common man and opposing the European-oriented post-colonial intellectuals.  This notion of defending the unique and colorful African culture is evident in another book of his called Arrow of God where he explains in detail the various rituals, artistic creations, clothing, beliefs, politics, and a sense of community and disagreement among tribes in Africa.  However, in A Man of the People Achebe focuses more on the politics of West African communities.  Achebe shows the switching of power between the old and new styles of politicians and how the old style bush politician, Chief Nanga, is becoming more and more greedy as he learns the political system. 

The politicians in this novel stand as an intermediary between the government and the common people but are portrayed by Achebe as the evil side.  Chief Nanga learns to be greedy and learns how to win elections through the corrupt system of politics he was against in the first place.  The important thing for Chief Nanga is that the people trust him.  He relates to them more, because he considers himself closer to the common man and far away from the intellectual, who represents a more European style of living and thinking.  By representing his country after colonialism he has the incentive to stay as far away from the European style of life and politics as possible.  As Odili explains the story, however, Chief Nanga only tells the people what they want to hear about defending their culture and way of thinking, and Nanga acts in a voracious way to obtain what he wants in his personal life; money, power, and women.

Chief Nanga's corrupt way of leading the people by telling them one thing and doing another is what eventually brings his reign to an end.  Nanga taught Odili when he was young and Odili respected and liked him as a teacher.  He learned many things from him and was happy when he heard he was first elected.  But as Nanga grew more powerful within his office and country Odili began to grow smarter and he became more aware of the corrupt reality.  It was not finally realized though, until he actually had the chance to live with Chief Nanga and witness how Nanga abused his money and power by over-spending his money and having his way with the women he desired.

Odili gives his insight on this situation when he narrates, "We ignore man's basic nature if we say, as some critics do, that because a man like Nanga has risen overnight from poverty and insignificance to his present opulence he could be persuaded without much trouble to give it up again and return to his original state.  A man who has just come in from the rain and dried his body and put on dry clothes is more reluctant to go out again than another who has been indoors the whole time.  The trouble with our new nation as I saw it then lying on that bed was that none of us had been indoors long enough to be able to say, to hell with it.  We had all been in the rain together until yesterday." 

He goes on to talk about his group of people as the smart and the lucky and how they had scrambled to the one shelter their former rulers left and taken it over.  The metaphor here is very powerful and it really makes it clear the point Achebe is trying to explain.  The point is that a person who goes from having nothing (Nanga) to having everything is going to be more reluctant to go back to having nothing compared to someone that has had everything the whole time, thus making him more greedy to gain power and more defensive against giving up this power. Odili emphasizes that the new nation was never indoors, but together in the rain, and they desprately needed to experience a little shelter.                 

VOICES

A voice is a powerful source for spreading beliefs and enforcing laws.  In the political voice of A Man of the People, Chief Nanga tells his fellow citizens only the things that he feels they need to hear.  His motivation is to gain the approval of the people through the things he says and he persuades them to think that his one voice will represent everyone’s voice.  He is not only a man of the people, but also a voice for the people.  The only side of Chief Nanga the people hear, however, is his politically persuading West African voice that is heard as a voice that will defend and protect against the European style of living and colonizing while representing the African culture.  His methods work to not only persuade the people to vote for him, but to believe he is doing everything he can to help them.  The people are in a way a puppet being controlled by Nanga and his thugs.

In the novel Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, the voice of Mr. Kurtz plays a huge role in the actions of his followers and the people seeking to meet him.  People trust his voice as a powerful sound and that sound echoes through their minds like a drum pounding in an African jungle.  His voice, like Chief Nanga's, is heard as the voice of the people.  Both voices in each novel are listened to as though it is a gavel striking down upon the table.  What is heard by the people to do is what is done.  Both men use their voice to enforce laws and actions.  Kurtz is in charge of a huge ivory production line that is meant to make him and his home country a fortune.  Nanga is in charge of his country and is the Minister of Culture, and his thugs do whatever he needs done to ensure he keeps winning elections.  In this story, Odili sees a different side of Chief Nanga that the people do not see.  He sees the greedy and gluttonous Chief Nanga and he sees the lust and passion driving Nanga to have his way and to have women bow down to him. 

This evil side of Nanga that no one ever sees due to his power and way of hiding the truth and having his way with women is seen by Odili as a powerful enough reason to run against him in the upcoming election.  This dark and empty side of Nanga motivates Odili to seek a friend he has not seen in quite sometime, Max. Together they split away from the two political party systems in West Africa that they see as corrupt and self-centered and they form their own political party that is meant to represent the common man.  The argument Nanga uses against Odili is that Odili is an intellectual who has a European style of education and thus is farther away from the common man.  This is a good argument, but coming from the mouth of Nanga, it is hypocritical and untrue.  Nanga finds a way to take the women that Odili has feelings for away from him, and thus Odili seeks revenge as he is determined to defeat Chief Nanga in the upcoming election and win back the woman he desires. 

A voice is so powerful; people fail to realize this until they think of voices that stand out in history and the meaning of the voice.  The voice of Martin Luther King Jr. has touched so many and made such a huge impact on the world.  He is one man with one voice and it really makes one realize the influence that one man can have on the world.  Adolf Hitler on the other hand, used his voice to kill millions of Jews while attempting to spread his view on what the world should look like on the outside.  Jesus Christ used his voice much like Martin Luther King Jr. as he spoke without using his fists or guns to spread his message.  He touched so many people with his one voice that it is hard to believe the largest religion in the world originated from one man.  Muhammad’s voice played a huge role in the history of the world as he started a religion known as Islam that is the fastest growing religion in the world today.  The power of one voice, as one can see, is incomparable to anything else in the world.  In the novels, A Man of the People, and Heart of Darkness the power of the voice is evident and plays a crucial role in the behaviors of the people listening.

MOTIVES

In the novels A Man of the People and Heart of Darkness, the characters are motivated by different underlying factors that ultimately control their behavior.  The motives for each character determine what methods each uses to achieve his goal.  Violence, discovery, power, curiosity, greed, money,lust, and revenge are some of the different variables controlling the behaviors of the characters in these two novels.

In Heart of Darkness, Marlow's motive for travel and exploration is curiosity.  He simply loves every bit of discovering new places and seeing things for the first time.  Marlow wants to find new sights and sounds, and he wants to explore for the sake of exploring, not for the sake of colonizing and overtaking.  Unlike Marlow, the other main voice in the novel, Mr. Kurtz, explores to seek money and power.  Each man has the urge to travel and explore, but each man has a different motive driving him to behave in different ways.

In A Man of the People, Odili's motives for running against Chief Nanga in the election is to seek revenge and to prove that he is closer to the common man than Nanga.  Odili is upset and jealous of Chief Nanga as he wins out both the girls Odili attempts to have relations with.  Nanga wants to prove that no matter how old he is, his political power, money, and charming good looks will always win over the younger less powerful intellectual.  When asked if he (Odili) was serious about Elsie from Nanga, Odili played it off like he did not care and told Chief Nanga that he was not serious about her.  It was not until one night that Odili had the intentions of sneaking up to Elsie's room when he realized Nanga has beaten him to the spot and the competition begins.  Nanga justifies his actions by explaining to Odili that the reason he (Nanga) asked him about whether or not he was serious about Elsie was to find out whether she was spoken for. Elsie screams Odili’s name, but Odili does not care enough about her to react.  If he did care he would have responded.  Instead he packs his bags and leaves, and is only mad at Nanga for competition's sake.

This creates a motive for Odili to find his old buddy, called "cool" Max, and to start a new third political party in an attempt to undermine Chief Nanga.  However, as Odili becomes more involved in politics he begins to see the corruption within the whole political process.  His father is very much against him for attempting to run against the Honorable Chief Nanga, and this creates a controversy between the two men.  At one point when Odili has established himself as the voice of the new party, Nanga tries to bribe him to drop out of the election, and Odili refuses.  This episode takes place in front of Odili's father and is a two vs. one-person debate.  The two being Nanga and Odili's father team up against Odili in the argument about whether or not Odili should accept the money and drop out of the election.  Nanga tells Odili that his friend Max accepted money and Odili couldn’t believe it.  He later finds out that Max, using is wits, accepts the money to help fund Odili's campaign.

Chief Nanga has motives to obtain as much power as possible and he uses violent and greedy methods to obtain this power.  He lives in a fabulous house, constructs big building to rent and profit from, and has hired thugs to kill or arrest the person he needs killed or arrested.  He arrests Odili’s father at one point, bribes Max and eventually has Max killed, wins out the two girls Odili is after, tries to bribe Odili, and at the end tries to exploit Odili in front of the mass of people gathered to listen to his (Nanga’s) campaign speech.  Nanga stuffs ballet boxes and does everything he can with the power he has to suppress Odili’s attempt to overtake his position.

Motives can play a crucial role in determining the methods a person uses to acquire the things he wants in life.  Many men have the same motive, to spread their beliefs and thus to have people listen to them and respect them.  The modes of spreading ones beliefs will determine the fate of the world.  If a man believes he is doing the correct thing based on his beliefs there is always going to be a controversy.  Politicians have to persuade the people that their beliefs will not only come true, but will benefit everyone.  If a politician has a powerful enough voice, most often, that man will persuade his listeners to believe in him.  Nanga makes the people believe that they are so much better off than they would have been under European control that they do not even question what Chief Nanga is doing with all the power and money he has.  Odili realizes that the country could be made so much better if the people just knew the facts, but in order for him to gain the faith of the people he must go up against the man known as “a man of the people.

 

  Notes

RACISM

When thinking about different cultures from different parts of the world one cannot help but to think of colonialism and racism and the whole meaning behind the two.  Slavery is a broad term that does not give a clear view from different perspectives of what racism is.  Do not get me wrong, slavery in the United States was based mainly on racism, but in order to understand what racism is, reading literature is a great way to learn about it.

Colonialism and racism can be used interchangebly.  What is racism?  A person or group of persons that feel they have more rights, better beliefs, and more power to expand these beliefs by physical or verbal force, over another person or group of persons, based on skin color.  I think that is a decent definition, but it needs to go beyond just skin color.  I feel there is religious racism, political racism, ethnic racism, and gender racism that involves one group having a feeling of ethnocentrism as these people think they are meant to have the most power in the world.  I think I would define colonialism very closely to racism.  Colonialism involves the expansion of one group over another based on beliefs, religion, land, money, power, and race. 

In order to eliminate racism there has to be more voices like Martin Luther King Jr.  There has to be more voices like Jesus Christ.  There has to be more voices like Mother Theresa and more voices from people fighting for equality among different groups of people. Achebe and other literary writers play a big part in speaking for the country they are from. Literature in itself is a strong voice that must not be overlooked. Teachers can play a huge role in helping his or her students learn about racism.  In my high school we never talked about racism or colonialism and the repercussions they create in the world.  I came from a small town and all the people consider themselves the same race.  This environment can really cause people to focus on just at the bad points of a single race and develop a stereotype about that race.  Especially when teachers are not teaching anything about racism and colonialism, let alone pieces of literature that are from anywhere but England or the United States.

It is crucial to introduce to students pieces of literature from all different parts of the world.  This will at least allow them to think about the world from different eyes, if only for a moment, that moment is so beneficial to a person and his or her ability to relate to the world.  The world is controlled by humans and we as an organization or community need to realize that the world is continuing to grow smaller and smaller in terms of space left for humans to occupy.  Before long people are going to have to either respect their neighbor's property or fight with their neighbor for their property.  With all hope, we can learn to respect each other before it is too late.  Unless one knows the history of the United States, for the most part, one that is born in the U.S.A. is oblivious to what it to really means to be an American.  Some kids growing up have no idea what America was founded upon and why so many people from so many parts of the world came to America.  They all had a common dream in their mind, opportunity.  People that move to America today from foreign countries still have that dream.  To escape whatever aversive factors are pushing them out of their own country and to seek favorable factors pulling them into the U.S.A.

Kids in America need to be taught why America is the most powerful country in the world.  Children and young adults need to be informed that America is the most diverse country in the world.  They need to be taught that in order to have a well-run and developed house, community, country, or world, people need to come together with a common goal.  Kids need to be taught that America is only 227 years old, and only colonized around 400 years ago.  They need to be taught how it was colonized and they need to know the literature that went along with it.  They need to be taught the true stories of colonization and of the Native Americans.  Kids need to learn that to be racist in America is like being racist against one's own blood. 

Students need to understand that America has the most technology and the strongest military in the world because of the ideas that created them.  They need to understand these ideas derived from, not one single race, but from cultures all over the world.  How better to learn about the lifestyle of another country than to actually talk to a person from that country?  Imagine a huge group of diverse people mixed together with the same goal in mind.  This was the reality for newcomers coming to the U.S.A. during the last 4 centuries.  However, some children today are never taught these things, the true meaning of America and how lucky he or she is to be living in a land so diverse and so advanced.  They need to understand that these ideas and advancements did not come from one man or one race, but from millions of men and women and hundreds of different cultures.

Malcolm Wells writes in an article called A Jigsaw Puzzle, "Still at 62, it's hard to convince myself that this is not the country I was taught to love.  It's painful to look at the truth.  My grade-school indoctrination was so effective I still want to believe it all, from the home of the brave to the purple mountains majesty.  I'd been told about slavery, about the great buffalo massacres, and about the Indian wars, but they had all been presented in such a rosy light each page of the nation's history seemed justified, almost sanctified, when seen against the grand tapestry of our progress across this shining continent.  Waving field of grain, great heroes, American know-how. . . I bought them all.  That we had stolen this shining continent from its native people bothered my not in the least." (Whole Earth Review, 24) These beliefs come from the ways Wells was taught growing up as he was oblivious to the problems that stem from America and was only taught about America the beautiful.

 He goes on to say, "Before I looked in the mirror, however, I looked everywhere else, blaming racists, the military, politicians, hunters, developers.  When I finally saw my reflection I said Oh my god, and saw that he too had been part of the myth.  I wanted to go back and start over, to undo all I'd done.  When we see the whole picture we may stop all this brutalism and cruelty and get ourselves together just in the nick of time." (Whole Earth Review, 25)

 

  Links

*** http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/This is a good web site as it gives valuable information about Achebe's life and his works.  There are some great links to other web sites on Nigeria that come from this web site as well.

*** http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/interviews/ba2000-08-02.htm

This has an interview with Chinua Achebe, and it asks good questions that will help any teacher in his or her classroom.  It will also help someone gain a better understanding about the person, Chinua Achebe.

*** http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/achebe.htm

Good web site for quotes and descriptions of Achebe's novels.  Also gives a little history about his life.

** http://www.nigeria.com/

This site gives the current news of Nigeria.

** http://www.bu.edu/africa/outreach/tips/teach2.html

This is a good site on teaching African Literature in Elementary classrooms.

**  http://www.teachingthatworks.com/web/units/nigeria/nigeria.html

Short but informative site son teaching about Africa and Nigeria.

**  http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/indiv/africa/cuvl/teaching.html

This Site gives an ample amount of teaching resources.

  Teaching

In order to understand what is happening in different parts of the world, one has to read the literature from different parts of the world.  They must discuss what they have learned and share what they have felt from such readings with others.  In a classroom, this experience can be quite emotional and very helpful to the students and to the teacher. Together they can broaden their understanding of what is happening around the world.  Here are some discussion questions for the novel A Man of the People that a teacher might find helpful to use in the classroom.

What are the different motives behind Odili's actions that drive him to run against Chief Nanga in the election?  Are they personal, political, or environmental or all three and why?

What can you say about the influence of European colonialism on African life and politics after reading this novel?

Who is affected the most by this influence?  The people, the politicians? How are they affected, for the good or for the worse?

When you think of politics in the world, what do you think of?  Is corruption a word generally used when speaking about politics?  If you think this is true, why is this word used so often and what can you do as an individual to help create a new image?

How do the women in this novel play an important role?  If not for them, would Odili and Nangas' motives change? Why?  Would there still be a controversy between the two?  Why?

How is colonialism evident in this novel and how does it play a role in the different political factions?

Who do you think is "the man of the people," in this novel?  Is it a man or an idea?  How has this become crucial to the way the people in West Africa live there lives?

 

  Citations

Malcolm Wells, "A Jigsaw Puzzle," Whole Earth Review, 62 (1989): 22-25.

Chuks Iloegbunam, "Nigeria's Faulkner," World Press Review, 33, no. 6  (June 1986): 56-58.   

 

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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