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Tradition Versus Change in T M Aluko’s Novels
A popular preoccupation in the earlier literature from Africa was the impact of western civilization on the African tradition. The earlier African writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wathiongo, Elechi Amadi portrayed the negative or positive impact this new incursion had on the society. But generally they yearn for the bliss and peace of the lost traditional world. For them, western civilization brought with it evils such as social and economic corruption. This clash of tradition and western civilization is at the centre of most of T.M Aluko’s novels as well. It will therefore be interesting to see how this is brought out in four of his novels: One Man One Wife, One Man One Matchet, Kinsman and Foreman and His Worshipful Majesty.
T.M. Aluko was born 14th June 1918 in Ilesha, Nigeria. He trained as a civil engineer and town planner both in the University of Lagos and at Imperial College in London. He held several administrative positions in Nigeria rising in the public service from colonial officer in 1950 to Director of Public Works in the Ministry of Works and Transport when departing from the civil service in 1966. He then pursued an academic career on to retirement, in the process earning for himself a doctorate in municipal engineering in 1976. He also received several awards and honors including an OBE in 1963 and Officer, Order of the Niger in 1964.
Aluko’s short stories appeared in the late 1949’s. But he only started attracting general interest when his first novel One Man One Wife was published in Nigeria in 1959. The book is a controversial invective on Christians in conbat with traditionalists in southern Nigeria. Inspired by its modest literary success he produced his outstanding novel One Man One Matchet which satirizes the colonizer’s programme for rural economy and social integration.
The clash between traditional and western civilization in One Man,One Wife is in the form of a confrontation between traditional religion and Christianity. It starts with Christianity already making inroads into the traditional society. The church’s campaign against traditional religion has become a regular routine. Hundreds of villagers are regularly being witnessed to, to abandon worshiping streams and trees for the one and only God of the Christians. To prove the ineffectuality of such gods, the pastor goes to the extreme of kicking the trunk of the sacred odan tree.
The conflict is even much more deep-seated, for the two religions are diametrically opposed. Traditional religion promises them material reward whilst the Christian religion promises them only spiritual bliss in a ‘mythical’ world called Heaven. But the strangest demands of the doctrines of the new religion is that a Christian man should remain monogamous. For it is necessary and most important for him, it is said, if he should attain the highest rung of Christianity. The spiritual concerns are in short incomprehensible and antagonistic to the materialistic traditional world. Shocked by this ‘madness’, the people are therefore forced to react.
At the start of the novel, we witness a child challenging the authenticity of the pastor’s repudiation of the gods’ powers. Later on, Dada, the High Priest of Shomponna, threatens that such a challenge might force Shomponna to visit Isolo with a terrible epidemic of smallpox in the following dry season.
In the second novel, One Man, One Matchet, the clash revolves around the confrontation between the westernized black District Officer, Udo Akpan, and a political opportunist, Benja- Benja. This conflict starts when Benja- Benja expresses his disappointment at the way the young District Officer addresses an august African Oba and his Council of Elders. Later on, Udo Akpan is infuriated by Benja Benja’s audacity to deliver to him personally in the Rest House an official document that should go through the normal processes of bureaucracy.
The conflict itself in this novel is launched by a crisis in the land. A certain disease is destroying cocoa plants. Nothing can be done for the afflicted trees, so it seemed. Prevention seemed like the only cure. The danger is even greater when you realize how heavily dependent this region is on the cocoa crop. The British administration comes to the region to explain to the people what needs to be done to contain the problem. But then another constraint comes in. They do not speak the local language and only a few of the locals speak English. So when the government proposed to cut down the diseased trees to prevent the further spread of the disease it seemed incomprehensible and a mad-headed way of thinking to the people to whom the cocoa tree is the tree of all wealth. They greeted this with disbelief, seeing it only as another of the White Man’s conspiracies. To transcend this negative attitude, the government launched a publicity campaign. Stanfield advocates with regard to this, that the mind of Africans should be won first before any plan would be successful. He therefore advocates for the education of as many of them as possible on why it is necessary to cut down the cocoa trees. Even though Chief Ajayi had volunteered his farm as the first to be cut down, as an example, the villagers still remained hostile. ‘They disliked the whole affair… [They] shook their heads in silence and spat in anger.’ This culminated in the attack of Chief Momo’s whole household, dogs and all, on the cutting out squad.
To further complicate the situation, there is a simmering land dispute over a small piece of territory called Igbodudu, now being controlled by the Apenos but on which the Ipajas have made a claim. Two educated blacks returning from abroad figure prominently in this dispute. One is Udo Akpan, newly appointed District Officer for the region. The other is Benja- Benja, nominally working as a journalist but also pursuing other grander plans. Udo Akpan has got into the shoes of the white man. But he wants only the best for his people and his country. But doing the best is made difficult by the British failure to provide him vital information about the cocoa disease as well as other educated Africans – notably Benja- Benja who gets the vital information before him and uses it to his own end leaving the locals as helpless and bewildered victims unable to differentiate between the educated men. This bewilderment is encapsulated in the Oba of Ipaja’s remark to the local reverend, Josiah Olaiya:
You read the same books. But you confuse us who are not educated. You tell us
different things. Yet you read the same books. Why then do you read different
things from the same books?
Playing on the emotions of the locals, and distorting the truth, Benja- Benja manages to get their support and money. Benja is indeed an outlandish figure whose ambitions, crimes and lies are increasingly outrageous. He exploits his extraordinary skills in speaking and mobilizing people to his greatest personal advantage thus advancing his own goals and enriching himself by getting the people of Ipaja to donate more to a fund to supposedly litigate for the return of the disputed land than it was really worth.
The conflict also involves the western religion of the Christians being thrust against the forces of nationalism steered by Benja- Benja. The church, now more established than in One Man One Wife, is represented by Pastor Olaiya. In his sermons, he tries to muzzle the villagers’ militancy by warning against the preoccupation with national concerns. ‘Take no thought for your life, what ye shall put on.’ He says. This is directed at turning them away from resisting the administration’s policy of cutting down cocoa trees. He also questions that kind of patriotism which supplants or threatens the individual’s responsibilities as a Christian. This puts him on the warpath against nationalism or ethnicism which are what Benja-Benja espouses. Benja-Benja is thus quick to turn the war against Reverend Olaiya whom he terms ‘the imperialist Dragon’ and the church for giving him cover and protection. He promises him and his imperialist master battle any day, anywhere and plenty of it. With this, the conflict is thrust on two planes.
In the third novel, Kinsman and Foreman, the conflict is again personalized. The modern world is represented by Titus Oti, just back from England. Titus thus gets embroiled in a struggle against the corrupting influence of his kinsman, Simeon Oke, an embodiment of traditional conservatism. Titus, having returned with high ideals from Britain finds himself alienated from the values of his traditional society. This initiates his struggle against the constraining traditional elements.
At the start one of the traditional elements he has to fight free from is his own very family. It was that same family that had handed him over to the corrupt care of Simeon Oke. The traditional rites he had to go through on his return home were so unbearable that he began:
To have the feeling that he was gradually coming under some strange influence that
he could not explain. Something deep down in him was telling him in a thin voice that
he should run out of the airless room into the fresh atmosphere outside – an atmosphere that was free of ancestral spirits. But he found himself completely powerless to carry out his desire. He found himself unable to resist whatever he was ordered to do by his old great-uncle. He watched the old man, as in a dream pour out some water from a gourd into a calabash.
The demands made on him by his relations are equally, if not more stifling. Old Pa Joel especially, reprimands him for not giving him money and not respecting him and Simeon Oke. The church itself joins the traditional elements in making unreasonable demands on him. Even though he has hardly had time to settle down, and regardless of the financial expenses involved, the church expects him to commit himself to engaging in functions whose financial demands were by no means slender. He was to spend as much as 40 pounds for the bazaar for which he was to be chairman. But in his fight against being pushed into a tight position from which it would be impossible to extricate himself without resorting to the same corrupt practices he is fighting against, he has to turn down all the invitations and pleas for contributions. This even forces him to start battling against his own very family. It is only through this that he manages to maintain his principles and emerge still uncorrupted.
The opportunity for a clash between the modern and traditional in His Worshipful Majesty arises when a new arrangement is made for traditional rulers to start sharing power with more educated modernists in the society. The clash is inevitable as this new structure means an ‘erosion of the powers and authority of the traditional rulers. The new council which results from this is chaired by a brilliant barrister, Morrison. Morrison is committed to bringing efficiency and progress into traditional life and eradicating such social ills as corruption and dishonesty. Here the policy moves up from confrontation that is forcing new ideas on the old to accommodation. In the construction of the building the traditional way of spicing work with work-songs is adopted so as to make work faster, less tiring and more efficient. This receives Morrison’s endorsement:
‘whatever happens to the rest of our customs,’ he says. ‘this communal labor system must be preserved.,’ Traditional methods of maintaining discipline are also borrowed to help maintain a congenial work spirit at the construction site. Those who fail to turn up for work have two goats each slaughtered and the blood so produced is dabbed on the offender’s house. For a start, this accommodation of the traditional and the modern goes on well. So well is it that the traditional authorities themselves become convinced of the need for modernization. This is the realization that prompts the Alaiye to ask Morrison’s advice on how they should build a new courthouse where lawyers like Morrison himself could work.
However, the signs of uneasiness soon start showing. The junior workers are shown as torn between their loyalty to their traditional ruler and that to the new regulations. The Accounts department staff, for instance, ‘were caught between these two conflicting loyalties – loyalty to the new stores regulations and financial instructions, and loyalty to the Alaiye.’ The Alaiye is the main cause of the conflict. He fails to understand the implications of the new regulations and his new role in the new system. He therefore fails to make the necessary adjustment to fit himself in, thus continuing to behave as autocratically as before. Despite Morrison’s effort to remain as reasonable as possible by increasing the traditional rulers’ salaries, introducing an entertainment allowance for the Alaiye and giving him a special vote for repairs to his court, the Alaiye still remains difficult. In the end the conflict erupts into a confrontation. Morrison then pledges that to avoid a total failure in their assignment the Alaiye be made to move with the progressive elements into the future. For such a failure, he realizes, will be catastrophic, as there will be a head-on clash between the Alaiye together with his forces on the one hand and the progressive elements and the majority of the people who are already showing signs of impatience with his autocratic and oppressive rule on the other. The probe into the Alaiye’s unethical and corrupt practices leads to an irreversible position:
‘Now tell them all to mind their own businesses. We shall mind ours. We do not
want Morrison. We do not want the Improvement League. That is our decision.’
The clash in the end proves to be very riotous and bloody with buildings destroyed and people assaulted. Amongst those assaulted was the narrator, Roberts, who had been working closely with the Alaiye.
Aluko’s attitude to both forces is generally difficult to decipher, as he generally seems to be adopting a dispassionate stance towards both the traditional and the modern. Though in the end he takes a definite stand, his comments are by no means restricted to any one side. Both cultures thus receive close scrutiny.
In One Man, One Wife, we see much evidence of sarcasm at the expense of the traditional. As Griffiths claims:
Aluko sees nothing noble or dignified about traditional tribal life. He laughs at the
Villagers who worship gods, lightning, iron and smallpox, and the priests of these
Gods are invariably exposed as hypocrites and charlatans who prey on the superstitious
fears of their neighbors [ALT5]
The buffoonery and incompetence of traditional rulers is hinted at in the chaotic local court scene. When order has been finally restored though transitory the President, beaming with pleasure continues:
‘This is a serious case,’ he observed from one associate judge to another. ‘This man
claims to have spent thirty-seven pounds. This woman admits only six pounds, five
shillings. The gap between thirty-seven pounds and six pounds is not narrow. What do you say to
it, Chief Osi?’
Chief Osi in turn ineffectually turns the matter over in his mind and admitting of its difficulty hands it over to another chief. This process goes on for long without the matter being solved.
This inefficiency goes up to as high a level as the Oba’s. On hint of trouble brewing in Isolo, two messengers and a native authority constable are sent as the Oba’s representative to investigate. But the ensuing investigations take a rather curious form – the messengers were billeted free for five days, feasting on village fowls and goats, drinking palm wine and making love to village girls. This, it is learnt, is sanctioned by the Oba himself.
The immorality of the traditional could also be seen in the fate that awaits girls who reject the suitors of their parent’s choice. They are sent to the Oba’s palace to slave as domestic servants. This prospect is what plagues Toro to the point of his fleeing from home.
Shango himself is not presented as an attractive deity. When the blinding flash of lightning followed by a tremendous and deafening peal of thunder struck, it was accepted that another evil-doer has been struck down. But it later came out to be Joshua who had spoken boldly in favor of the values that Shango protects. It was incredible! It was astounding. Even the die-hard traditionalists found it difficult to believe.
A similar attitude towards the forces representing the traditional could be seen in the other books. In One Man, One Matchet Aluko makes fun of the rather undignified way in which the Elders prostrate before the Apaja. In Kinsman and Foreman the satire is glaringly projected against Titus’ kinsmen who in their thinking and activities endorse and indeed encourage corruption.
Even the modernist elements do not escape ridicule. In One Man, One Wife one wonders how seriously one should take the pastor and those around him. They often sound naïve in the espousal of their doctrines. But whenever they act they seem to be doing so contrary to such dogmas. The infighting and bitter gossiping that goes on is most uncharacteristic of Christians. This is seen in Bible Jeremiah’s effort to blackmail Joshua. We also detect the hostility between Royasin and Bible Jeremiah. There wasn’t much love between him and the head of the village congregation, we are told. Elder Josuah’s credibility is finally shattered by his brutal attack on Bible Jeremiah even when he was praying. He threatened Jeremiah’s stomach with a matchet which he produced from under the ample folds of his cover cloth.
And then the flat of the matchet descended on Jeremiah’s back. This seriously questioned their sincerity. When later Joshua appears attacking the values of the new religion whilst defending those of the traditional he was earlier on against, we are not surprised, for we already know him as a hypocrite.
Aluko’s criticism of western values are, however, just flabby gestures. They do not conceal his real position: change is inevitable and should be encouraged, for traditionalism and conservatism can only retard progress, so it must be discouraged. He thus manipulates his plot and characters to suggest that. At the end of One Man, One Wife Baada’s death through Shompoona is instructive. A similar direl fate also meets those who play double role like Joshua. He was stricken down dead by the very deity he had been defending. In the end Christianity emerges victorious with Ma Sheyi and the people being converted to Christianity. The church now becomes their source for deliverance from the scourge of small-pox.
In One Man, One Matchet the administration is portrayed as progressive, level-headed in its programmes to eradicate the spread of the cocoa disease, whilst the people are presented as unreasonable obstacles. But in the end the progressive force of change emerges supreme with extremists such as Chief Momoh cleared off the way. A new discovery of controlling the disease without cutting trees settles the matter to everyone’s satisfaction. The importance of searching for new ways of doing things is thus underscored.
In Kinsman and Foreman Aluko clearly supports Titus’ fight against corruption. We sympathize with him as he struggles against the traditional forces trying to pull him away from his incorruptible principles and the final exposure that nearly ruins his corrupt kinsman, Simeon, who was unable to resist the pull, shows the need for some of the negative qualities of the traditional world.
Aluko could not be taken in by that sort of change that exports western culture or civilization wholesale to an African environment. He feels that it is the best of both that should be brought together to make a new and decent system. What he condemns in traditional African civilization are those clearly retrogressive aspects such as belief in Shomponna which leads to the unnecessary destruction by smallpox. His views on this matter is stronger in His Worshipful Majesty where the experiment is to evolve a workable system out of the best of the traditional and the modern. All along he shows sympathy with such a programme. Those such as the Alaiye who impede its success are shown off as unreasonable and are thus put aside in the end to allow the moderate and progressive forces to steer the way forward.
Aluko has received favorable attention just as Achebe from the western press. A reviewer describes him and his writings as follows:
One of Nigeria’s earliest writer’s of English prose fiction, Aluko maintains a consistent enthusiasm for humour and caricature. His fiction focuses on the commonplace evils of Nigerian society such as bribery, ignorance, poverty and vandalism, expressing skepticism about expatriate colonial officers as well as the educated Africans who replaced them after independence. Although his stature is below Achebe and Soyinka, his best work, One Man One Matchet is grounded in an intimate knowledge of Nigeria particularly Yoruba culture. His models are conservative English storytellers, particularly the humorists, from Dickensto C.P, Snow.
In 1994 Aluko published his autobiography My Years of Service. Amongst his other satirical works are Wrong Ones in The Dock , A State of our Own , and Conduct Unbecoming .
Aluko T.M. A State Of Our Own
Aluko T. M. Chief The Honourable Minister Heinemann Educational books , London, 1970
Aluko T. M. Conduct Unbecoming
Aluko T. M. His Worshipful Majesty Heinemann Educational Books, London, 1973
Aluko T. M. Kinsman and Foreman, Heinemann Educational Books, London,
Aluko T. M. One Man, One Matchet Heinemann Educational Books, London,
Aluko T. M. One Man One Wife Heinemann Educational Books, London, 1059
Aluko T. M. Wrong Ones in the Dock
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