‘You must learn it until you can write it with your left hand.’ These are the words chief priest Ezeulu speaks to Oduche, the son he has sent to learn ‘white man’s knowledge’ in Chinua Achebe’s 1964 novel, Arrow of God. Today, in Nigeria and the Global South at large, many have mastered this skill as a means of survival. However, learning to write with the left hand does not mean that one forgets how to hold a pen in the right.
Until recent history, external forces had extensively shaped the African narrative. Through cultural mediums such as books, photography, and religion, the ubiquitous image of the ‘Dark Continent’ ensured that Africa and its people were seen as savage and in need of intervention. These attitudes have generated damning real-life consequences for people from the continent and have been exploited by the West to justify foreign policy like slavery, colonization, and covert military intervention. Chinua Achebe describes this ability as the ‘absolute power over narrative.’ Its use has been particularly deadly, as language and global power structures have long prevented Africans from accessing the same information distribution networks as the West. Even with the advent of globalization and a vigorous push by Africans to reclaim their narrative, the effects of this ‘absolute power’ are still evident.
Achebe ushered in a wave of African literature that began the practice of painting a more nuanced picture of life on the continent, thereby formulating an African response to years of disparaging tales. The aim was not to exclude the views of external parties in the depiction of Africa. For the ‘father of modern African literature,’ the goal was to reach a point of balance as more African authors released works that spoke specifically to the customs, joys and pains of their specific communities. When the likes of Joseph Conrad pushed, authors like Achebe were there to pull. This exercise comes to life in Arrow of God, in the way the story wraps around the meticulous rituals performed by its protagonist, Ezeulu. The chief priest’s painstaking attention to detail and loyalty to his forefather’s traditions directly attacks the notion that African religions are without history, lacking structure, and rely solely on harmful sacrifices.
Beyond this shift in the perception of Africa, it is critical to appreciate how the mastery of a colonizer’s language continues to aid in altering power dynamics. Those who are able to communicate effectively in the language of the oppressed and in that of the oppressor occupy an immensely strategic position. In Arrow of God, both Igbo and English characters use this ability to command respect from their peers but for the Igbo characters, a lot more than reputation is at stake.
Moses Unachuckwu, for instance, serves as a translator and intermediary for the age group building a road and the British officer in charge of its construction. When tumult concerning wages ensues, it is he alone who can carry the message of frustration from the young men of Umuaro to the white man. The negotiation lies in his hands. In contrast, most of Umuaro’s people are perplexed by the ways of the white man but unable to articulate their grievances directly to him. In one instance, Captain Winterbottom calls for Ezeulu to see him. With neither being able to speak the same language, they must rely on messengers to translate each other’s intention, resulting in a web of miscommunication.
Soon after, Ezeulu is arrested and held captive for days. This is a sequence of events that Africans, especially those living abroad, know all too well. The penalty for the communication gap between the oppressor and the oppressed consistently falls on the oppressed.
Nonetheless, mastery of colonial languages does not equate to discarding the plethora of languages and literary devices that Africa possesses. Overflowing with idioms and a style of writing that mimics Igbo folklore, Arrow of God itself is a masterclass in Achebe’s ability to translate Igbo feelings into English. Describing the first rain after a long dry season in South-Eastern Nigeria, he writes:
Although the first rain was overdue, when it did come it took people by surprise. Throughout the day the sun had breathed fire as usual and the world had lain prostrate with shock. The birds which sang in the morning were silenced. The air stood in one spot, vibrating with heat; the trees hung limp. Then without any sign, a great wind arose and the sky darkened. Dust and flying leaves filled the air. Palm trees and coconut trees swayed from their waists; their tops gave them the look of giants fleeing against the wind, their long hair streaming behind them.
These sentences are written in an English that can only be born from speaking and experiencing Igbo. It is a revolutionary act for a citizen of a former British colony to bend the English language in a way that it stretches to accommodate every ounce of his ‘Nigerian-ness.’
Achebe’s decision to write in English was an often-debated topic during his life. Many, including Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, questioned whether it was possible for African writers to advance their own languages while writing in the tongue of former colonial powers. Though the reasoning behind such criticism is valid, Achebe’s use of English is simply a reflection of the various code-switching tactics employed by colonized people across the world. For Nigerians and other former British colonies, the English language should not serve as a measure of status or intelligence but should be looked upon merely as a tool that allows individuals flow between worlds at their choosing.
From the Yoruba slaves in Cuba who adopted Catholicism into Santeria to Barack Obama’s variation in his style of handshake, code-switching is a shared survival tactic by the African diaspora at large. The power of code-switching lies in the ability to maintain one’s cultural signifiers while also applying those of the dominant group depending on the setting. It allows oppressed people to build community and keep practising their traditions, particularly in environments that actively threaten to appropriate or eradicate them. This is where it differs from assimilation. Assimilation says, ‘forget your culture, this is how we do things here’ and in turn, strips individuals of their heritage. Code-switching responds by gaming the system.
Of Achebe’s pantheon of protagonists, none understood code-switching better than Ezeulu. Ezeulu acknowledges that his people will soon battle the white man but understands that to outlast his opponents, he must ‘dance the dance prevalent in his time.’ ‘The world is changing,’ Ezeulu says. ‘I do not like it. But I am like the bird Eneke-nti-oba.’ When his friends asked him why he was always on the wing he replied: ‘Men of today have learnt to shoot without missing and so I have learnt to fly without perching.’
Ezeulu also remarks:
‘I want you one of my sons to join these people and be my eye there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share. The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow.’
From Ezeulu’s speech, it is clear that this decision is a strategic form of defence. Oduche has not been sent to learn the foreign religion for prestige, even if he happens to acquire some in the process. Instead, it is a calculated move by Ezeulu to ensure that when his village is inevitably struck by the white man, he is equipped with their knowledge and able to fight them according to their own rules.
Ezeulu sent only one of his sons to learn Christianity and continued to train the others in the discipline of Umauro’s local deity. This is important to note because it implies Ezeulu had no plans to encourage his family or community to relinquish their religion but sought to build an intellectual arsenal that was flexible enough to participate in any manner of warfare. For colonized persons, this is the most advantageous vantage point—to have insight into the methods of the colonizer while remaining steeped in one’s own cultural identity.
Unfortunately for Ezeulu, he did not foresee that his son, Oduche, would choose to fully assimilate rather than to serve as his eyes. Arrow of God illustrates how easy it is to justify turning on one’s own identity when it is seen as less valuable in the global power structure. It also highlights how dangerous this action can be for Africa and its traditions. Oduche’s change in intention results in him withholding a significant piece of information from his father and by the close of the book, Umuaro is set to capitulate at the feet of Christianity.
Arrow of God reads like a survival guide for today’s African navigating a western-centric world. The final novel in Achebe’s ‘African trilogy’ demonstrates the need for Africans to possess a certain willingness to adapt or risk being ‘rolled in the dust.’ Fair or not, to be African is to be constantly on guard—protecting languages, protecting histories, protecting lives. Ezeulu began with the right plan: infiltrate the colonial system, gain access to the social mobility it promises but always remember the road back home. Yet, as Oduche reveals, it takes an individual who truly values the power of their culture to accomplish this mission alive.
Achebe survived the mission. Through his work, readers of all backgrounds must come face to face with the realities of a new African story. Novels like Arrow of God are in active dialogue with decades of writing that held the image of Africans hostage and so it is an added joy for it to be written using the same language. In accordance with Ezeulu’s line of attack, Achebe conquered English. But it was always his Igbo consciousness dictating the remarkable narratives that effortlessly spilled onto pages from his left hand⎈