African Library: The Crippled Dancer by T Obinkaram Echewa

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Title: The Crippled Dancer
Author: T Obinkaram Echewa

This African Library entry hopes to return a now somewhat forgotten but fascinating text to readers’ notice: published in 1986 in the Heinemann African Writers Series, Obinkaram Echewa’s The Crippled Dancer was bound to evoke comparison with the author’s compatriot Chinua Achebe’s first and still most famous novel, Things Fall Apart (1959), since both texts vividly evoke Igbo village life. However, Echeba’s novel is set in a considerably later time, before and following the declaration of national independence, in an Igboland in which aspects of the traditional cultural norms have fallen apart; a tainting and deterioration against which the elderly, crippled Erondu – the grandfather of the focalising character Ajuzia – stands as one of the few custodians of an upright, time-honoured morality. Whereas the clan’s practices are in full health in the Achebean novel, Echewa’s depicts village life in Umu Njikara as severely contaminated by the “elected” chief, Orji: a manipulative bully and a thorough scoundrel who is Erondu’s chief persecutor. He achieved and maintains his power over the rural community by intimidation and bribery and by means of his swaggering, insolent demeanour. The author aligns Ajuzia with his grandfather not only by blood and upbringing (Ajuzia being the only surviving carrier of the family line), but by the image of the dancer who is “crippled” – in the case of the youngster not literally so, but because of certain humiliating experiences that make him feel that he is excluded from the village community. The text opens on Ajuzia’s musings as he (now nineteen) tries to understand himself and the obscure malaise that troubles his sense of himself – “in a drama that was supposed to be his, other people had a more commanding presence,” he feels (1). The sources of this lack of self-assurance, he believes, lie partly in the bullying he has been subjected to by an older youth (nicknamed Radio because of his ebullient spreading of news and gossip) as well as by Chief Orji. Bigger and stronger than he, Radio had often manhandled and hoodwinked the boy Ajuzia, whereas the unpleasant Orji had cruelly refused him the winner’s award that was his due after he had won a children’s race, and on another occasion chased the vulnerable, recently orphaned child away from a village celebration. At home, his beloved and ever cheerful grandmother comforts the child with the anecdote of how he had shown dancing talent even before he could walk – “a gift your chi has given you,” she tells him, “no one can ever steal or snatch from you,” for “it is like a spring bubbling up from inside you” (10).

Ajuzia’s other great talent is his first-class intelligence. What he gradually realises, however, is that his concentration on his studies, which his grandparents insisted on, left him less adequately equipped to deal with the wiles of his and his family’s village enemies. Nevertheless he feels morally obliged – or rather, profoundly and unfairly burdened – to redress the injustices to which his family has been subjected.

He felt like an osu agwu, a slave boy bought for the purpose of serving a juju, whose whole life was consumed in the service of that juju, or like a girl who, as a child, had been promised in marriage by her parents, so that when she grew up her loyalty was already committed, her options were used up and she had no choice. (14)

In contrast with this melancholic boy, Echewa portrays the village hooligan Radio as nevertheless an understandably more compelling personality. Radio is incorrigible in his pranks, but somehow this youngster in his exuberant vitality and daring conduct focuses the villagers’ attention on his various outrageous tales of sexual and other exploits more than on the scholarly achievements of bookish Ajuzia. Radio (real name Elewachi) is actually an ugly boy, but a brilliant gossip gatherer who draws people around him as he reports on events in the nearby town, shows off tricks on his bicycle, or wins draughts games against all challengers.

Radio was the hunter, the trapper, the boy whose litany of self-praise was longer than what was accorded the most exalted of Roman Catholic saints: One in Town! Artful Dodger! One Way Casanova! City to City! Olympic Boy! Most Dangerous Prick in town! He came and went as he pleased. (17)

A passage like the one above can serve to illustrate the liveliness of the author’s style, when suited to its topic, while one can simultaneously “hear” the inexpressible envy of the more timid boy, Ajuzia, in this vivid and entertaining description, and sense the sophistication and inventive intelligence of Radio, supposedly a dunce because of his lack of interest in school work and early expulsion from school for hooliganism. Ajuzia sees Radio as “unencumbered by thought or responsibility” (19) and as “free” (20), compared with himself. He also bitterly resents Radio, however, for certain childhood acts of persecution against himself and for this older boy’s demonstration of not merely defiance of his grandfather, but extreme disrespect towards the old man, which thoroughly humiliated Erondu.

The plot of Echewa’s text appears to unfold artlessly, as a narrative of village rivalries, but it is both carefully and intricately contrived, allowing the author to explore some profoundly difficult existential issues – particularly questions of individual development, destiny and duty intertwined with the evolution – or deterioration – of communal ethics and traditional morality; and family ties that bind, sustain, or constrain. The author is wonderfully even-handed in showing us both the ethical bases of the villagers’ communal existence and the extent to which customary morality has deteriorated and weakened, yielding both to the outside pressures of the modern ways brought by colonialism and to the force of contemporary, local exploiters and reprobates.

Some of their problems are merely caused by fate – the ill fortune that lost Ajuzia both his parents at a young age and his grandfather, the lives of all eight of his children – whereas others resulted from malice and envy among their fellow villagers. In the context of village politics, even a minor matter can be blown up out of proportion and manipulated to make trouble for those out of favour with Chief Orji. When Erondu (Ajuzia’s grandfather) makes a small ritual to nudge the gods to punish the boy for his disrespectful conduct, Radio’s subsequent life-threatening illness brings Erondu the first accusation of malign witchcraft – if “proven’, considered an abomination in the village. Erondu does not help matters by openly accusing Chief Orji of theft, while denying the witchcraft charge. One of the most enlightening and authoritative comments on the present state of village morality comes from Erondu’s best friend, Odemelam, who explains the situation to Ajuzia as follows:

There is a lot of evil that is native to this village. The White Man did not bring all of it. Never mind that often your grandfather and I lament the lost virtues of the old days. It is true that the old days had their virtues and their valour, but then they were also full of vice and folly, which have merely been washed clean by memory … (39)

This sober, balanced and deromanticising perspective on Igbo village life accords with the author’s own presentation throughout the text that justice is not automatically available but may be attained only after a long and hard struggle against the wicked and their hold on the public mind.

Odemelam proceeds to recall how even when, as a boy, Ajuzia’s grandfather went to aid his mother against assault by another bullying chief, indigenous justice blamed and fined the victims – a widow and a boy. In earlier times, he says, they might have been sold into slavery for daring to fight back against a chief and his family. Erondu as a prosperous adult was betrayed by one or the other malicious, probably envious, fellow villager for a minor transgression against colonial laws – brewing the banned local liquor, as most villagers did at the time – and jailed for a year among vicious criminals who assaulted him so severely for refusing to kowtow to them that he nearly died, and was left a cripple. To Erondu and his wife, emaciated by grief over the death of their last child and reduced to poverty in the village, their grandson Ajuzia offers their one hope of restoring the family fortunes. “Drowning, they did their best to hold him above the water” (45).

Ajuzia’s first successful intervention in village politics on behalf of his grandfather comes when he (as a schoolboy) writes an eloquent letter to the British District Officer, exposing collusion between Chief Orji and the keeper of the court roll who had illegally kept back repayment of a large sum of bail money. The grandparents are elated at Ajuzia’s sophisticated and strategic intervention. “Son of the son of my womb,” his grandmother declares, “I knew that something was going on behind that quiet face” and utters her usual charmingly idiosyncratic victory cry: “Hoo say? Gaw say before the Keengi!” (61).

Soon after this, another type of unspoken tension builds up between Ajuzia and his grandparents, however. Years earlier, when he had been terribly ill, the grandfather had decided that it would be wise to take a second, much younger wife to ensure the propagation of their family line. By the time the second wife, Nwanyiaku, only four years older than Ajuzia, is old enough to bear children, he has become impotent; however, he believes that when his grandson becomes sexually mature he will do what comes naturally and beget a child with her – all safely within the family. Ajuzia, however, has severe scruples about sleeping with his grandfather’s wife, despite her clearly demonstrated willingness and his grandparents’ attempts to encourage the relationship. Nwanyiaku is still a virgin after years of marriage and flirts openly with Ajuzia, who feels too awkward to accept her invitations. When he eventually does attempt to have sex with her, Nwanyiaku’s evident desire and his own awkwardness combine to result in his sexual failure. He is then sexually initiated by the village prostitute, but mortified at being discovered in bed with her by his grandmother and her co-wife. Not long afterwards, Ajuzia (home from school as it is a holiday) does attempt to take up his sexual “duty” with Nwanyiaku, only to discover that the detested Radio has responded to the young woman’s sense of sexual frustration. He sees them emerging together from his grandfather’s house. Drawing the inevitable confrontation, Ajuzia attacks Radio, but the older youth is considerably stronger and easily resists, eventually mercilessly beating up the schoolboy that Ajuzia still is. Since this is the only way he believes he can retrieve some honour from this humiliation, Ajuzia rushes off in fury to lay a charge of assault against Radio – paying the exorbitant bribe money required by the local clerk.

The law (in the sense of different systems of law, such as those propounded as part of ancient Igbo practices and upheld by creditable leaders, in contrast with the “White Man’s Law” and the crooked dealings of “chiefs” like Orji, who build their power and wealth by exploiting both systems to their advantage) is given considerable attention in this novel. This is so because the law involves both the ideals of justice and just dealings and the practical issues of legalised power and the administration of government – also at village level. Ajuzia’s second attempt to use the law as a protective agent misfires badly, however. Radio has fled the village, so cannot be arrested (despite Ajuzia’s payment for this to happen). According to village practice, Radio’s father is taken into custody in his stead, prompting the village council to request that Ajuzia withdraw the charge, as they feel he should respond to the unfairness of an uninvolved man being jailed by getting him freed. Ajuzia, for the first time speaking up among his elders, refuses to do this. Chief Orji then puts up bail money for the imprisoned man to be freed, and three days afterwards Radio (who has now returned to the village) lays a counter-charge of assault against Ajuzia – who had in fact struck the first blow. Moreover, when his grandfather attempts to obstruct Ajuzia’s arrest, he too is locked up, and their bail is set at an unaffordably large sum of forty pounds.

While they are jailed together in the stiflingly hot lock-up for days before the bail money can be raised, bitterness erupts between the two prisoners. Ajuzia erupts first, fiercely reproaching Erondu with thoughts he had been bottling up when the old man attempts to suggest that the youth bears some blame for their present situation in not having satisfied Nwanyiaku’s sexual needs, leaving her prey to a sexual adventurer like Radio. He himself, he says, had two wives and children at the age Ajuzia is, declaring his sexual reluctance incomprehensible. But, Ajuzia shouts at Erondu, if the old man did all that was right and wonderful in his time, “why are things as they are now?”. He adds that ever since he can remember, “the family has been in some kind of arrears I was supposed to make up …” Erondu, now incensed at his grandson for daring to question him, slaps Ajuzia (twice) for his disrespectful attitude, reiterating the refrain the grandson knows too well – that he wants Ajuzia to understand that “the torch in [his] hand” is “sacred” (129). Although he refrains from articulating it (again), Ajuzia feels contempt for his grandfather at this point, deeming his actions and attitude “heroics instead of heroism” (130), though subsequently acknowledging that the same might be said of himself.

When they are at last released (after four days in captivity), the two are dismayed to hear that the bail money was raised by pledging a piece of land he had been coveting to Chief Orji.

“In the first week of the New Year Nwanyiaku’s people sent word that she was suing for a divorce.” The sad, small family group now depleted, Erondu brings a powerful “medicine man” from far away to make protective potions for all three. Inclined to scoff, Ajuzia holds his tongue: “recent events had taught him some humility,” the narrator drily states (134). Even before the fight and the imprisonment, he had registered his growing maturity:

He had an awareness of himself, a memory, and a consciousness no matter how alloyed [by “Western” knowledge systems]. For good or ill, he had to take what he had been given and multiply it. At least invest it. Definitely not bury it. That, perhaps, was the true meaning of the parable of talents. Probably also the meaning of his grandfather’s oft-repeated personal anthem about the crippled dancer. On his way from court, the crippled man had kept dancing, whether he had won his case or lost it. (107)

In such a passage the author conveys a more general insight: that modern African citizens need to persist in the battle for social justice, unbowed and undefeated in attitude, even though they may lose many fights against exploiters and powermongers of whatever ilk. The passage itself also serves – in combining a Biblical reference with an Igbo proverb – to illustrate the authorial creed of the need for a utilisation of combined skills and lore. The complexities of the African present require this.

The further trajectory of the narrative confirms the above insight. Ajuzia discovers that as a court official Orji is entrusted with bail money which he is supposed to pay into the district treasury. Instead, he and the court clerk Enoch conspire to let him keep such money. In their family’s case, it means that Chief Orji holds both the bail money paid (ostensibly to the court)and Erondu’s land that was pledged to him to raise the bail. Ajuzia’s grandmother has accounted for the Chief’s implacable enmity to their family by describing Erondu to Ajuzia as “the one dissenter” (150) among all of Orji’s village supporters and co-optees. Erondu then informs his grandson that the “medicine man” he had hired discovered evidence of the third attempt to hex their family, the second having been followed by Ajuzia’s father’s death. The latest juju, known as an okoro eto, was aimed at the young man – Ajuzia being the brilliant hope of their family, whose talents and achievement had provoked deep envy among their neighbours.

The malice permeating all this had been earlier described by his grandfather – referring to the time when he, a successful trader at the time, had to go to jail when betrayed by some envious neighbour. For Ajuzia’s safety, his grandparents want him to go and work in the nearby town. Though he takes his grandfather’s point that if they were to retaliate in kind against their enemies, they would be no better, Ajuzia has a new resolve: “After I get to Aba I will do something,” he declares (152). What Ajuzia does is to get a lawyer to write a stern letter to Orji, inducing the Chief to return their bail money. When the youth comes home to visit, his grandparents are jubilant at the repayment. Next morning, Ajuzia then goes with Erondu to redeem the pledged land – which Orji allows, if very unwillingly, and only after extorting four pounds’ additional money from them as “interest”. They have triumphed for now, but the court case is still to come and, as Erondu says, “Orji will be Orji” (159).

A new development in Ajuzia’s life comes with his meeting the delightful Stella, a vivacious girl in her last school year, daughter of the assistant superintendent of police (ASP) in the town – a formidable father and guardian to his nubile daughter. Their relationship develops rapidly, both of Stella’s parents giving tacit approval. Ajuzia also coaches Stella in maths and science, so that her marks improve dramatically – he himself having matriculated with top marks. As he learns to trust and respect Stella, Ajuzia responds to her request that he tell her what clearly so troubles him in his life, “and he poured out his heart to her, from the circumstances of his birth to his most recent squabble with his grandfather” (163).

Before the court case brought by Radio against Ajuzia (probably at Chief Orji’s instigation, as he and others surmise) can be heard, however, an unforeseen event intervenes. Radio, showing off on his bicycle as usual, falls under the wheels of a passing vehicle and is crushed. Radio’s senseless death and the flatness it leaves Ajuzia feeling makes the young man realise that he is now, at last, resolved to give his own life meaning. But in the see-sawing, never-letting-up pattern of the narrative (and Ajuzia’s life), the next threat to their family’s peace of mind is not slow to come: in the aftermath of Radio’s death, Chief Orji has inflamed his bereaved father’s resentment against Erondu and the latter is now being charged with “engineering” the young man’s death by means of witchcraft. Appealing to a lawyer won’t do, as the presiding court will be a traditional village assembly of the kind known in Igbo as ikpe nsi – a “witching judgement”. Ajuzia despondently informs Stella that he is obliged to go to his grandfather’s aid, stating simply, “I cannot abandon him” (178). If the men (traditional religious leaders from each village in the cluster of which Umu Njikara forms a part) find against Erondu, he will be ruined; damned as bringing defilement to the land.

Speaking to Erondu, Ajuzia tries to dissuade his grandfather from co-operating in what he fears may be a manipulated outcome. But Erondu will have none of it: “If I must have justice,” he says, “I must have it where I live, in my body as well as in my spirit.” He says he wants to allow for the possibility that he may be treated justly, as he knows he is innocent of the charge. If the outcome is unjust, he says, “that will only mean that this village and its gods will owe me a greater debt of justice” which, if not paid out to him, will come to Ajuzia or his descendants, in time. “Ajuzia swallowed hard but could find no rejoinder for a faith so deeply rooted in Ultimate Equity” (188). On the day of the trial, Stella’s father gives Ajuzia a lift, as he is travelling in the same direction. He also asks to be told the whole story of the pending trial and its background, asking to be informed of the result.

The onset of the trial is vividly evoked:

“To bind ourselves to truth and justice,” the elders said, as they dipped their ofo sticks in the basins, “everyone who participates in these deliberations must first swear himself in by drinking from the consecrated wine.” However, a provision was made for churchgoers, who would not swear the pagan oath. A Bible was provided by the catechist from the nearby CMS church, who opened it to the Book of Kings, specifically to the page where Solomon rendered the famous judgement between the two squabbling mothers. A barber’s razor, identified by the catechist as the Sword of Damocles, was laid across the open pages, and salt was sprinkled on them, so that people could swear by licking up a few crystals with their tongues. (196)

The two main “plaintiffs” (or accusers) are Radio’s father and the local leading elder, Izhima. Erondu is also given the opportunity to state his innocence. In the end, however, the case is postponed for a fortnight, despite Chief Orji’s blustering objections. The judges say they need time to deliberate on the intricacies of the case. On the day of the resumption of the trial, Ajuzia is again present. Having been told that the second accuser, Izhima, is grievously ill, he asks his grandfather who would become the custodian of the communal lands were Izhima, the oldest man in their village, to pass away. The answer is interesting: Erondu is the man next in line to play that role – suggesting another major reason why Orji, who long ago co-opted Izhima, would want to strip Erondu of his credibility in their village, for he knows the latter is not only incorruptible, but a man who knows him to be a crook.

The plot twists or the see-sawings of fate in this story bring another surprise: Izhima on his deathbed, fearing to die with a guilty conscience, withdraws his accusation, admitting that it was a fabrication. The case proceeds nevertheless, and when Radio’s father, Owunna, gives his testimony, the flimsiness of the charge becomes evident. Still, the court proceeds by asking whether anyone present there can testify in support of Owunna. This is where Orji weighs in: he harshly refuses to take the swearing-in ceremony by swallowing a sip of the consecrated wine, but the elders are too weak against his bullying style and allow him by default to proceed, despite his shocking and insulting conduct, denounced by at least one elder. Orji brings more circumstantial evidence to “prove” Erondu guilty of witchcraft, inter alia recalling the time when he had invoked a traditional “remedy” in a ceremony in order to punish Radio, then a stripling, and the latter had fallen seriously ill. Surprisingly, after Orji has tried to manipulate Odemelam (Erondu’s best friend) to implicate the accused by acknowledging that some of the medicine men he had consulted declared him guilty (and others not), the Chief now summons Oriala, Erondu’s wife and Ajuzia’s grandmother, to testify. She takes the ceremonial sip and then stages a most dramatic and unprecedented performance, incensed by Orji’s disrespectful conduct. She calls down shame on the elders and the entire assembly for allowing this crook to intimidate and humiliate them, ending her “testimony” by baring her ancient bottom at all of them in an age-old gesture of contempt! Then, when Erondu himself testifies in his defence, he reveals to the court that the dibia, or medicine man, from afar whom he had recently hired had discovered the evidence of witchcraft practised against Erondu – specifically aimed at Ajuzia. When his testimony is concluded, the court gives its judgement, revealing that they themselves sent off two delegations in opposite directions to consult seers living far away from their village, seers who concurred that indigenous witchcraft practices could not control “the White Man’s machines” (205), such as the car that ran over Radio. Accordingly, they unanimously find Erondu innocent of the charge.

On the triumphant walk home after the trial, Erondu, on reaching home, had “stamped his foot on the ground like a man in a ritual braggadocio before ese drummers, feinted and thrust and shrieked at the top of his voice as if in battle with a fierce monster” and shot off his cap gun in celebration several times, while Oriala in turn “had whooped and danced with friends and accepted hugs of congratulation” (206). The family surmises that the now defeated Orji may nevertheless try another trick against them, but for now, they have won, and after Izhima’s ritual burial, Erondu is installed as the custodian of the communal lands and fruit trees.

Not long after, Orji makes his next move, this time laying a charge with the society of first sons of Ama Iteghte (ancestral founder of the village) to claim that, since Erondu’s grandfather was born three months after his father’s demise, he may be an illegitimate heir to the honour of being the leading elder of Umu Njikara. Discussing this challenge with Ajuzia, Stella suggests that the Chief be given a taste of his own medicine. Taking the hint from her, Ajuzia goes to lay a charge of conspiracy to murder (his grandfather) against Orji, warning the police to come in full force. By chance, Stella’s father, attending a nearby event, also offers to drop by at the hearing. Just before he leaves to attend the trial, Ajuzia is told by a worried Stella (recently matriculated with excellent marks) that they have not been careful enough: she is pregnant!

More highly dramatic events unfold at the trial, where initially the balance of opinion in this familial assembly seems to go against Erondu. But then two police officers arrive and proceed to arrest Orji. He resists violently and vociferously and his supporters come to his aid, assaulting the policemen and setting fire to their motorcycles. But just as this chaos is raging, a Land Rover with three senior police officers and a grey police Mercedes pull up, from which emerges the tall, imposing figure of Stella’s father, the ASP. Taking command of the situation, he orders Orji’s arrest for resisting arrest and causing public mayhem, while the crowd of Orji’s supporters flee, since they, too, fear arrest as two lorry loads of armed police arrive next.

That evening there are once again victory dances in Erondu’s compound, while Oriala declares her grandson a “giant”, uttering her usual celebratory shout: “Who say? Gaw say before de keengi. Madu nforo! Madu di na ezi Adighmadu!” (224). Ajuzia is still only twenty, but on his return journey to his town lodgings that evening (he has a job at the brewery),

Ajuzia felt as if he had relived a whole lifetime in the past six months, and […] that if he dared to relax his will, his body would collapse into a heap on the lorry’s floor. He thought of the two trials, what they had accomplished and what they represented. […] In that day’s trial, he had won. But then there had been no verdict. Whatever justice or injustice the Isi Opara Society was getting ready to do had been swept aside. In all of this, where was the truth, and what was its infallible source? (226)

He knows now that elders “sometimes did not know and often lied”. And “[w]ould the ASP have come today if he had known that Stella was pregnant?” Stella, he thinks, “was now carrying a child for Chigbundu’s line” and he and she have big decisions to make. But finally, Ajuzia concludes, since “[l]ife was truly a court case, […] he […] had best be like the crippled man of the popular proverb” and “go home swinging and dipping as if he were dancing” (227). With this final image, Echewa seems to suggest that honour and self-respect are achieved by battling for justice, by never giving up that struggle, and that justice is neither “traditional” nor “modern”, but a deep urge in each of us to achieve integrity and to fight for social justice as well.

Echewa’s novel proceeds as quietly as its protagonist and his grandfather to demonstrate profound insights into the difficulties of negotiating the changing African scene and into the vital need to do so with courage and patience. This remarkable novel may have been published (and set) decades ago, but its topics are as urgent now as they were then, and the skill of the author, in the stylistic finesse of the writing, the absorbing interest of the narrative and the affective delicacy and vitality with which it depicts its characters and their context, should assure it far greater recognition than it appears to have been given.

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