Study Guide

Arrow of God Race

By Chinua Achebe

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"Umuru is no match for my mother's people in medicine," said Akukalia. "Their market has grown because the white man took his merchandise there."

"Why did he take his merchandise there," asked the other man," if not because of their medicine? The old woman of the market has swept the world with her broom, even the land of the white men where they say the sun never shines." (2.33-34).

Though he is headed to Okperi on a mission of war, Akukalia can't help but show some pride in his mother's people and the strength of their medicine. They have used it to capture the hearts of the white man.

"I remember coming with my father to this very place to cut grass for our thatches," said Akukalia. "It is a thing of surprise to me that my mother's people are claiming it today."

"It is all due to the white man who says, like an elder to two fighting children: You will not fight while I am around. And so the younger and weaker of the two begins to swell himself up and to boast."

"You have spoken the truth," said Akukalia. "Things like this would never have happened when I was a young man, to say nothing of the days of my father. I remember all this very well." (2.38-40)

This quote demonstrates that British colonialism's propaganda is working. The men of Umuaro recognize that the colonial administration, run by white men, behaves as though all Africans are children who can be ordered around.

The war waged from one Afo to the next. On the day it began Umuaro killed two men of Okperi. The next day was Nkwo, and so there was no fighting. On the two following days, Eke and Oye, the fighting grew fierce. Umuaro killed four men and Okperi replied with three, one of the three being Akukalia's brother Okoye. The next day, Afo, saw the war brought to a sudden close. The white man, Wintabota, brought soldiers to Umuaro and stopped it. The story of what these soldiers did in Abame was still told with fear, and so Umuaro made no effort to resist but laid down their arms. Although they were not yet satisfied they could say without shame that Akukalia's death had been avenged, that they had provided him with three men on whom to rest his head. It was also a good thing perhaps that the war was stopped. The death of Akukalia and his brother in one and the same dispute showed that Ekwensu's hand was in it.

The white man, not satisfied that he had stopped the war, had gathered all the guns in Umuaro and asked the soldiers to break them in the face of all, except three or four which he carried away. Afterwards he sat in judgement over Umuaro and Okperi and gave the disputed land to Okperi. (2.102-103)

Because of the war between Umuaro and Okperi, colonial power suddenly enters the region. Though western culture had clearly entered the region before in subtle ways, this was an entirely new phase. With colonial power came the white man's religion, traditions, and ways of doing things.

The other man, Wright, did not really belong to the station. He was a Public Works Department man supervising the new road to Umuaro. Captain Winterbottom had already had cause to talk to him seriously about this behaviour especially with native women. It was absolutely imperative, he told him, that every European in Nigeria, particularly those in such a lonely outpost as Okperi, should not lower themselves in the eyes of the natives. In such a place the District Officer was something of a school prefect, and Captain Winterbottom was determined to do his duty. He would go as far as barring Wright from the club unless he showed a marked change. (3.15)

The value that Winterbottom is trying to impart to Wright here is the idea that Europeans are superior. Thus, they must behave with certain proprieties intact.

"It was rather interesting what you said about Allen. A little smug, I think you said." [Winterbottom]

"That was the impression I had – sometimes. He doesn't allow, for instance, for there being anything of value in native institutions. He might really be one of the missionary people." [Clarke]

"I see you are one of the progressive ones. When you've been here as long as Allen was and understood the native a little more you might begin to see things in a slightly different light. If you saw, as I did, a man buried alive up to his neck with a piece of roast yam on his head to attract vultures you know…Well, never mind. We British are a curious bunch, doing everything half-heartedly. Look at the French. They are not ashamed to teach their culture to backward races under their charge. Their attitude to the native ruler is clear. They say to him: 'This land has belonged to you because you have been strong enough to hold it. By the same token it now belongs to us. If you are not satisfied come out and fight us." What do we British do? We flounder from one expedient to its opposite. We do not only promise to secure old savage tyrants on their thrones – or more likely filthy animal skins – we not only do that, but we now go out of our way to invent chiefs where there were none before. They make me sick." (3.46-48)

Winterbottom expresses several ideas about race in this short passage. For one thing, he clearly distinguishes between African cultures and European cultures, suggesting that European cultures are superior. But he also discusses the French habit of ruling through "direct rule," which he calls a more honest approach to colonialism. He considers the British habit of ruling through "indirect rule" to be ineffective and hypocritical.

"One thing you must remember in dealing with natives is that like children they are great liars. They don't lie simply to get out of trouble. Sometimes they would spoil a good case by a pointless lie. Only one man – a kind of priest-king in Umuaro – witnessed against his own people. I have not found out what it was, but I think he must have had some pretty fierce tabu working on him. But he was a most impressive figure of a man. He was very light in complexion, almost red. One finds people like that now and again among the Ibos. I have a theory that the Ibos in the distant past assimilated a small non-n****id tribe of the same complexion as the Red Indians." (3.61)

Winterbottom speculates freely about the genetic origin of skin like Ezeulu's. One can ask a number of questions about Winterbottom based on these quotes here: Is his respect for Ezeulu born from the fact that Ezeulu told the truth or because he's light-skinned? And does he think that Ezeulu told the truth because his genetic origins are "non-n****id"? Does Winterbottom consider Ezeulu a man because he told the truth, or because he's closer in appearance to Europeans?

The place where the Christians built their place of worship was not far from Ezeulu's compound….His mind turned from the festival to the new religion. He was not sure what to make of it. At first he had thought that since the white man had come with great power and conquest it was necessary that some people should learn the ways of his deity. That was why he had agreed to send his son, Oduche, to learn the new ritual. He also wanted him to learn the white man's wisdom, for Ezeulu knew from what he saw of Wintabota and the stories he heard about his people that the white man was very wise.

But now Ezeulu was becoming afraid that the new religion was like a leper. Allow him a handshake and he wants to embrace. Ezeulu had already spoken strongly to his son who was becoming more strange every day. Perhaps the time had come to bring him out again. But what would happen if, as many oracles prophesied, the white man had come to take over the land and rule? In such a case it would be wise to have a man of your family in his band. (4.27-28)

Ezeulu recognized that the white man had come to rule his people; if that was the case, it was important to understand the source of his power. But he hadn't imagined that Western culture would replace the Igbo way of life. Now that he can see it happening he doesn't what to do about it.

Words, words, words. Civilization, African mind, African atmosphere. Has His Honour ever rescued a man buried alive up to his neck, with a piece of roast yam on his head to attract vultures? He [Winterbottom] began to pace up and down again. But why couldn't someone tell the bloody man that the whole damn thing was stupid and futile. He knew why. They were all afraid of losing their promotion or the O.B.E. (5.7)

Because he considers Africans barbaric, Winterbottom believes that the system of "indirect rule" cannot be successful. The men who create such a system, he argues here, have obviously never been to Africa.

But this overseer went around intimidating the villages and telling them that unless they gave him money the new road would pass through the middle of their compound. When some of them reported the matter to their chief he told them there was nothing he could do.…Needless to say, Chief Ikedi took a big slice of this illegal tax.

Thinking of this incident Captain Winterbottom could find some excuse for the overseer. He was a man from another clan; in the eyes of the native, a foreigner. But what excuse could one offer for a man who was their blood brother and chief? Captain Winterbottom could only put it down to cruelty of a kind which African alone produced. It was this elemental cruelty in the psychological makeup of the native that the starry-eyed European found so difficult to understand. (5.13-14)

Winterbottom observes early evidence of the kind of corruption that plagues Nigeria to this day. He understands how you could swindle people who were strangers, which is why he understands the overseer; but he doesn't understand how you can swindle people who are your relatives, like Chief Ikdei. For Winterbottom, this is a distinguishing characteristic between Africans and Europeans.

"Don't make me laugh," said Ezeulu again. "So I betrayed Umuaro to the white man? Let me ask you one question. Who brought the white man here? Was it Ezeulu? We went to war against Okperi who are our blood brothers over a piece of land which did not belong to use and you blame the white man for stepping in. Have you not heard that when two brothers fight a stranger reaps the harvest? How many white men went in the party that destroyed Abame? Do you know? Five." He held his right hand up with the five fingers fanned out. "Five. Now have you ever heard that five people – even if their heads reached the sky – could overrun a whole clan? Impossible. With all their power and magic white men would not have overrun entire Olu and Igbo if we did not help them. Who showed them the way to Abame? They were not born there; how then did they find the way? We showed them and are still showing them. So let nobody come to me now and complain that the white man did this and did that. The man who brings ant-infested faggots into his hut should not grumble when lizards begin to pay him a visit." (12.79)

Ezeulu points out that if the white man is gaining power over the people of Umuaro, they have nobody to blame but themselves. They can't blame one man, Ezeulu, and they cannot blame the white man. They have to look at how they are fighting their own brothers, and how that gives the white man a way to defeat them.

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