Modernity and Tradition in Chinua Achebe’s “Girls at War” and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s “A Meeting in the Dark”
Nonetheless, both short stories share an important contrast between modernity (as a result of European influence on the part of colonizers) and tradition (the combination of cultural and social features characterizing African people’s identity).
Language acts as another element which divides tradition (aboriginal languages) and modernity (language of the colonizer): Ngugui wa Thiong’o supported the unique use of African languages in literature but it was after he wrote this story, which he wrote in English. He said that the language of the colonizer was a symbol of his identity, a way of accepting European culture.
On the contrary, Achebe decided to write in English because he wanted to address to the whole nation by means of a central language. He even considered that the use of English opened up more opportunities for his message to be read throughout Europe. This Western cultural background and clash between European and original African identities results in the concept of cultural syncretism, which will be a key concept for this analysis. These short stories are written literary proof of how African people found themselves in a constant fight to keep their original believes and traditions, trying to achieve success through European literacy but never being accepted as fully Westernized, nor as fully Africans anymore.
Two opposing forces: TradiƟon vs Modernity
The aim of this essay is to analyse two short African stories, each of them belonging to different areas. I will be focusing my aƩenƟon on Chinua Achebe from Nigeria (West Africa) author of the short story “Girls at War” and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o ’s “A MeeƟng in the Dark”, from Kenya (East Africa).
Nonetheless, both short stories share an important contrast between modernity (as a result of European influence on the part of colonizers) and tradiƟon (the combinaƟon of cultural and social features characterizing African people’s idenƟty). We have to make reference to Yeats in order to explain this contrast. According to Paula García in her doctoral thesis: “ El irland é s ten í a un concepto c í clico de que la historia se sucede de forma destruc Ɵ va ” 1 On the other hand, we should consider the concept of decolonizaƟon which took place during the 1950s and led path to a debate in the choice of language for wriƟng literature. Language acts as another element which divides tradiƟon (aboriginal languages) and modernity (language of the colonizer): Ngugui wa Thiong’o supported the unique use of African languages in literature but it was aŌer he wrote this story, which was in English. He said that the language of the colonizer was a symbol of his idenƟty, a way of accepƟng European culture. On the contrary, Achebe decided to write in English because he wanted to address to the whole naƟon by means of a central language. Even, he considered that the use of English opened him more opportuniƟes for his message to be read throughout Europe. This Western cultural background and clash between European and original African idenƟƟes gives as result the concept of cultural syncreƟsm, which will be a key concept for this analysis. These short stories are a wriƩen literary proof of how African people found themselves in a constant fight for keeping their original believes and tradiƟons, trying to achieve success through European literacy but never being accepted as fully Westernized nor as fully Africans anymore2.
Two opposing forces: Tradition vs Modernity
On the one hand, Chinua Achebe is an African author from Nigeria, West Africa. In “Girls at War”, short story which appears in the collecƟon Girls at War and Other Stories (1976) we find poliƟcal subjects such as the struggle Africans faced for achieving Ibo’s independence: “The war of Biafra” (1967-1970) is the main topic in this story, funcƟoning as a perfect revelator of social disƟncƟons as well as differences concerning gender: the only opƟon a woman had for surviving in a war was by means of prosƟtuƟon just like Gladys did (tradiƟon). Achebe is revealing how corrupƟve power (modernity) may lead to destrucƟon and injusƟce. We part from hope and move towards disillusionment liƩle by liƩle throughout this short story.
The story begins with a third person narrator introducing us the first Ɵme in which Reginald Nwankwo, an important official, and Gladys, a beauƟful young woman, meet. Achebe looks for the preservaƟon of proverbs of the Ibo community by means of this stories: “Somebody else shouted “ Irrevolu! ” and his friends replied “ shum! ” “ Irrevulu ” , “ shum ” , “ Isofeli? ” “ Mba! ” (p. 157). So this use of Ibo language is a gesture towards the richness of Nigerian folktales: griots went from one village to another in order to tell stories just like literature passes from one hand to another in a more spread like travel than the one of griots. This is the power of literature as preservaƟon and expansion of the Ibo tradiƟon.
On the other side, the Red Cross was an associaƟon for fighƟng in the war supporƟng the Ibo independence and an essenƟal indicaƟve of progress towards revoluƟon. People were being more and more instructed in schools since colonizaƟon and this immersion into opportuniƟes of reading woke up in them a feeling of acƟvaƟon even in the female figure: “girls from a local secondary school marching behind a banner: WE ARE IMPREGNABLE!”
This fragment is taken from the early stages of the war in which Reginald Nwankwo has just leŌ Owerri and meets a group of miliƟa girls, among them was Gladys. This is an important evoluƟon from the tradiƟonal African woman who stays at home, being submissive towards a more modern kind of woman revealing during the Biafran War.
Ibos wanted to be independent and these girls were rising up their voice which is a great movement from silence towards revelaƟon, from tradiƟon towards modernity.
In this phase, Nigeria’s Civil War is the main theme, as above menƟoned. Achebe was a direct witness and took the role of historian in the village, as a direct figure in the transmission of the new European influence to their people. The third Ɵme they meet, war leŌ horrible consequences: “ Death and starva Ɵ on, having long chased out the headiness of the early days, now le Ō in some places blank resigna Ɵ on ” (.p 157). There is again a coming back towards tradiƟon, girls are not so revoluƟonary now but will take advantage of their bodies in order to survive in the war: “Girls became girls once more and boys boys ” . It was a Ɵ ght, blockaded, and desperate world but nonetheless a world ” (p. 157). Gladys has changed, just like the war has: “ You ’ ve changed, Gladys. You were always beau Ɵ ful, of course, but now you are a beauty queen. What do you do these days? ” (p. 158). We are seeing the depicƟon of a war through the figure of a woman: Gladys is in a crowd, he sees and takes her but she is not the same anymore, she is wearing a wig, make up and even expensive clothes. She is now the wife of a corrupt bureaucrat3. Reginald used to admire her because of her former capacity of revoluƟon and remaining naïve at the same Ɵme. But now he knows that he only wants to sleep with her, as if she was an object. This symbol reminds us both to tradiƟon as modernity: it is tradiƟon because Achebe is expressing the selfish human nature, the savage one of covering necessiƟes and at the same Ɵme, it may be a wink to modernity: Gladys has been influenced by the Westernized world. Even she has covered herself both metaphorically (she has sold her idenƟty in order to survive) as literally (by wearing this arƟficial European make up and wig). The role of Gladys in this context is exactly that, the one of an object of desire: “ Don ’ t be so scared, he said. She moved closer and he began to kiss her and squeeze her breasts ” (p. 162).
We have to bear in mind that this is also a story of survival and she has to take advantage of her body in order to remain alive. But this survive is in a sense mixed with love because it seems that there have always been something magical in them, a series of encounters maybe arranged by desƟny. They cannot help meeƟng and every Ɵme they do this, important changes have taken place. Their encounters are like hidden tesƟmonies in the rearguard. In relaƟon to these constant encounters on the part of desƟny, there is a reference to tradiƟon because Igbo people believed that there existed some kind of personal god which was like the lost part of every person. This reminds us to soul mates and how they would be encountered by means of desƟny:
“ the Igbo also believe in the existence of a personal god, or chi, which is a sort of spiritual double of each individual human ” 4.
Another issue dealing with tradiƟon vs modernity is found in the fragment of the party in which a white European drunk pilot made a grotesque commentary addressing to the way women sold their bodies in order to survive in the war: “ Even these girls who come here[ … ] what are they worth? [ … ] a head of a stockfish [ … ] or one American dollar and they are ready to tumble into bed ” (p. 163). He was unconsciously making reference to one of the realiƟes found in the war and it deeply made Reginald to agree with him but we will discover it later in page 165 aŌer the party: “ He would stand up beside the fellow and tell the party that here was a man of truth. What a terrible fate to befall a whole genera Ɵ on! ” This makes reference to the tradiƟonal concept of community which is translated into a more “Modern” like context in which parƟes between people of power are a new way of being accepted by this community and thinking alike but never giving another perspecƟve out aloud or you would be taken as an outcast and excluded.
The fact that a young black officer slapped the drunk white man made the women present in the party to see him as a hero: “ And all the girls showed with their eyes that they rated him a man and a hero ” (p. 163). This admiraƟon of the male as a heroic epic figure reminds us to the tradiƟonal figure of men like protectors. Even, having a black man who wins the black man is a symbol of tradiƟon (Black African hero) over modernity (white Europeans).
1 García P. 1998, p.412.
2 “A major feature of post-colonial literatures is the concern with place and displacement. It is here that the special post-colonial crisis of idenƟty comes into being” (AshcroŌ, B. 1989, p. 8)
3 “Gladys es un producto de la Nigeria postcolonial [ … ] en un primer momento, ella gobierna su vida, aunque al final se ve inmersa por los acontecimientos propios de la guerra ” (García P. 1998, p. 416)
4 Booker, K. 2003, p. 91