Best known as one of the major voices of contemporary African literature ever since the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe has made it one of his goals to be a spokesman for his native culture and its values. In a world still in many cases dominated by colonialist ideas about the dark continent, his work clearly demonstrated the falsity of those ideas. It emphasizes both European ignorance and African social norms. There is a clash of cultures played out in Things Fall Apart, and although the Europeans with their religion and their armies win out, an impressive traditional culture has been lost. The advocacy for this tradition has been the work of Achebe’s life.
Chike and the River a novelette written for children back in 1966 is now being published in the United States for the first time. It is the story of the 11-year old Chike who is taken from his village to live with his uncle and go to school in Onitsha on the banks of the Niger. When he hears exciting tales about the town on the other side of the river from his school friends, the dream of crossing to the other side and seeing this fabulous place consumes the boy. The problem is he has no money for the ferry fare. The story goes on to describe his various attempts to get the money, and his eventual discovery when he does that things don’t always live up to their hype.
Chike is an endearing character in his naiveté and wonder who learns valuable lessons about life as his story progresses. He is set in contrast to his friend S.M.O.G. who is seemingly more worldly wise and Ezekiel, a trouble maker, nicknamed “Tough Boy.” Even here though, the boys are more mischievous than they are evil.
As in Things Fall Apart, although without interspersing any of the Ibo words and phrases, Achebe uses a prose style reminiscent of fable and the primitive folk tale. He includes traditional stories like that of the quarrel between the bird and the river. He includes proverbs: “little drops of water make the mighty ocean.” He includes metaphoric adages on how to live: “Why should we live on the River Niger and wash our hands with spittle.” It is a style rich with the wisdom of a continent and its culture, and it is told in a style likely to capture the imagination of the younger reader. It is a style echoed in the Edel Rodriguez’ primitive folksy illustrations for the edition. Chike and the River is a book that can both teach youngsters about other cultures and entertain them while doing it.