No Longer At Ease
by Chinua Achebe
Where It All Goes Down
Lagos, Nigeria and Umuofia, Nigeria in the 1950s
No Longer At Ease is set in the 1950s, before Nigeria achieved independence from Great Britain. Though the British had been trading in Nigeria and had sent numerous missionaries to convert the region during the 18th century, they took possession of Nigeria by force in the late 19th century, from about 1885-1900. This violent period was known, ironically, as the "pacification" of Nigeria. It was half a century before the Nigerians recovered and insisted that they had the right to self-governance. Nigeria achieved independence in 1960, a few years after the period in which the events of this book place.
More specifically, this book is set in Lagos, with a couple of brief excursions to Obi's birthplace, Umuofia. Lagos is a bustling big city and the capital of Nigeria. Lagos is where the masses of urbanites live – both African and European – in generally segregated neighborhoods. By the 1950s, however, some educated Africans with senior positions, such as Obi, live in the European quarters because they can afford to escape the squalor and poverty found in most of the African neighborhoods.
Umuofia is an umbrella term that describes a collection of villages in rural Igbo, in the southern part of Nigeria. The rural villagers live a very different life than those Africans in the city. Though cultural and religious traditions have changed dramatically since the pacification period, the rural villagers retain more of their respect for traditional customs than those Africans in the city who are busy acquiring western values.
By contrasting city life with village life, Achebe achieves a couple of important things. First of all, he shows how modernity and urban lifestyles erode traditional culture. We also observe more poverty in the city, since the people who live in the city lack the safety nets provided by traditional culture and customs that exist in the rural areas. As Obi observed when he went with Clara to her seamstress, who lived in a seedier part of the city:
His car was parked close to a wide-open storm drain from which came a very strong smell of rotting flesh. It was the remains of a dog which had no doubt been run over by a taxi….Here was Lagos, though Obi the real Lagos he hadn't imagined existed until now. (2.14, 17)
In addition to showing the destruction caused by urban life, we are able to see that village life has its own problems. Though the people there might not experience the same destitution and squalor, they recognize that the future will not look anything like what they knew in the past. This is why they tax themselves mercilessly to send their young people to get college education. The villagers know that it is only a matter of time before their way of life is gone forever, and in the meantime, they must work hard to plan for a different future.
One of the interesting aspects of Achebe's comparison between village and city life, however, is the recognition that some cultural concepts and traditions are entrenched deeply, no matter where you go. Clara's identity as an osu is one example. Though Obi and many of his kinsmen live in the "new" Nigeria – the modern world of cars and politics and dating – they are unwilling to let go of their ancient taboos. These follow them to the city.