Elechi Amadi’s recent passing prompted me to reread the book that introduced me to him – The Concubine. It was the first book that I and probably many African children have read by the Nigerian author as it has been a English setwork in secondary schools for many years.
School isn’t always the best way to appreciate books. They are read out stiltedly by your classmates and perhaps you are altogether too young to really appreciate the subtleties of the text, wedged between the 45 minutes between roll call, teenage daydreams and the bell ringing for the next class. But something about this book always stuck with me and after I’d long outgrown my uniform, I knew I always wanted to revisit it in my own time on my own terms.
It was lines like this I could never forget:
He felt the cold grip of despair, and the hollow sensation which precedes a great calamity; he felt a sickening nostalgia for an indistinct place he was sure he had never been to. (p. 17)
And which are typical of the Amadi’s dramatic and elegant style.
The Concubine, is as its title suggests – about a woman. Ihuoma is a beautiful young woman, righteous, good-natured and admired by her entire village (Omokachi) in Eastern Nigeria. But the insistence of the heart, the death of her husband, Emenike and the spirit world rippling through its human counterpart brings great tragedy to her life and her village.
Amadi expresses vividly a dignified way of life and beliefs disappearing by the time the book was published in 1966. The plot unfolds in pre-colonial times. There are descriptions of bustling market days that mark the Igbo calendar, fishing in mysterious deathly-deep lagoons and sensual love potions bubbling in pots. Lavish celebration feasts and feverish wrestling matches, punctured with the talking drums are contrasted with solemn funeral rites and dedicated mourning songs written by anguished friends.
Ancient practices like using the habits of birds to tell the future (augury) and complex divination by crafty medicine men drive the action forward into many interesting and different places. As does the irrationally human desire, here of Ekwueme the hunter, to be in control in a world full of chaos.
In particular, the description of the village shrine where much of the action in The Concubine takes place arouses the imagination:
The shrine was at the foot of a massive silk cotton tree. It was fenced off with a ring of tender palm shoots and their yellow colour blazed like a flame against the dark background… The floor of the shrine was ringed with earthenware pots each containing manillas, cowries, alligator pepper and feathers of animals many years old. There were skulls of animals on either side of the two carved figures. (p.17)
It’s not all doom and gloom though. How can one at least not smile at,
A goat can become an important member of a family. (p.154)
and the following exchange between friends:
“Do you do any tapping yourself?” he asked condescendingly.
“I used to,” Wakiri said, “but I stopped because I feared I would become a drunkard.”
“That is wrong,” Mmam put in. “He stopped when some bees stung him and he fell off a tree. (p.120)
The inhabitants of the village are witty and express their humour and wisdom through proverbs:
One can’t eat a crab in secret, of course. (p. 89)
Every mother thinks her child is a leopard for strength. (p.22)
Amadi really immerses us in their collective worldview which is sometimes in conflict with their idiosyncracies and chi, the Igbo conception of the unique inner self that acts as a protector and guide and links them to creator – Chugwu.
Although Amadi passed away in June of this year, his legacy lives on in books like The Concubine, Sunset in Biafra (1963) and Estrangement (1986) amongst others and what a fine legacy it is. I’d definitely recommend picking up a copy if you haven’t read it already. It’s a short read but story of Ihuoma and Ekwueme, their families and their fates is infinitely rewarding.