Lazy, no – Achebe’s Unoka was just unlucky to live in the wrong economy

By Azuka Onwuka

Chinua Achebe. Photo: ©2007 Frank Fournier

Given the popularity of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, his character “Unoka” has become the personification of laziness, weakness and cowardice. Unoka was the father of the main character, Okonkwo. He was a good flutist known for his deep thoughts, but he hated farming and war. He eventually suffered the swelling of the stomach and limbs and was taken to the “evil forest” to die, because in the cosmology of the Igbo town of Umuofia, such an illness was an abomination to the Earth goddess, and such a victim could not be buried in her bowels. Unoka took along his flute while he was being taken to the ajo ofia.

Because of these traits of Unoka, Okonkwo grew up detesting everything about his father, and wishing never to be thought weak like his father. He, therefore, worked hard and rose to become the best wrestler and warrior among the towns around Umuofia. He was also a wealthy farmer and one of the most revered men of his clan. Unfortunately, the fear of failure that ruled Okonkwo because of his father led him to kill a messenger of the British colonialists with the hope that his people would support him and wage a war against the colonialists. But his people did not support him, and he subsequently hanged himself rather than be arrested and hanged by the colonialists. By taking his life, he committed an abomination against the Earth goddess, which meant that he would be buried without any ceremony.

However, the problem was not solely that of Unoka but that of his non-diversified economy. Unoka was a musical artiste and philosopher who lived in an environment and time when only those with brawns excelled. If he were born in a diversified economy, he could have been as rich, successful and celebrated as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti or Kenny Rogers. Given the depth of his thoughts, Unoka could also have ended up as a professor teaching philosophy, history, literature, political science or music. Nobody would have seen him as a weakling, a coward and a failure.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Unoka did not like the exertion of tilling the soil for farming was that he had a problem with one of his vital organs like the heart or the liver, leading to a disease like edema, ascites or liver cirrhosis. That was probably why he eventually experienced the swelling of his stomach and limbs, which was wrongly interpreted as a sign that the Earth goddess was not happy with him.

Think of the millions of journalists, musicians, novelists, playwrights, poets, actors, visual artists, lecturers, teachers, bloggers, telecoms experts, comedians, sports men and women and other professionals whose jobs do not involve the use of physical strength or the production of any physical product. Imagine if they were living in the same environment like that of Unoka. They would be deemed lazy and weak unless they excelled too in physical activities like farming and war.

Mike Tyson the boxer faced a similar problem. He was strong but used his strength wrongly and ended up in a reformatory. His father was not available; his mother who was physically available was technically unavailable in terms of the duties of a parent and the relationship between a parent and the child. Tyson belonged to different street gangs and committed petty crimes. He fought repeatedly with those who made fun of his high-pitched voice and lisp as well as for other reasons.

Speaking about his childhood at an event hosted by ValuetainmentTV in 2021, Tyson said: “All the time [I was street-fighting], for money, yes. I must’ve had like three or four fights a day. For money or I was robbing somebody. I’m talking about from like age nine, ten. This stuff just came natural; that’s what I was made to do. All of the tough guys and the criminal guys wanted to hang out with me. They put me in their gang. I was 200lbs [90kg] at 12 years old. I was fighting the kid, then I was fighting their fathers. I might’ve hit them too hard, they were crying, went home and got their father. Then I would fight the father.”

By the time he was 13 years old, he had been arrested 38 times. While at the Tryon School for Boys in Johnstown, New York – a juvenile detention centre for boys – his fighting passion, strength and skills were noticed by Bobby Stewart, a former boxer, social worker and counsellor at the detention centre. Stewart trained him for a while before handing him over to renowned boxing trainer Cus D’Amato, and a world boxing champion was born! Tyson became the world’s youngest heavyweight boxing champion in 1987 when he was 20 years old.

If Tyson had grown up in a different country or era, he could have been lynched as a child or he could have turned a full-time armed robber as an adult. His boxing skills could have been wasted. The world would not have heard of him nor watched him knock down great boxers in a matter of seconds.

In Nigeria, there are similar stories of footballers, athletes, musicians, actors, comedians, and business moguls who engaged in street fights, petty crimes, mischiefs and truancy, but were lucky that someone or something gave them a turnaround in life. If they lived in the era of Unoka, they would have been condemned to a life of misery and fruitlessness.

Even though the Nigerian economy has long transited from the agrarian one described in Things Fall Apart to a modern one, it is still not well rounded. The United States is perhaps the most-rounded economy in the world. It is an economy where a person can achieve fame and wealth through anything, no matter how seemingly ridiculous. While it offers entertainers the opportunity to make millions of dollars and achieve stardom, it also offers scientists the opportunity to come up with discoveries which solve global problems. In addition, it is a great market for those who engage in invention and production of products and services. It is not surprising that whenever the richest people on earth are listed, the USA occupies the top spots and also has the highest number of billionaires. If you mention the richest actors or musicians or writers or comedians or sports people, the US tops the list.

If Unoka and Okonkwo were living in the United States of today, both of them would have excelled in their respective areas of competence. While Okonkwo would have excelled in professional wrestling, boxing, farming, business or military, Unoka would excel as a flutist or composer or music producer or music teacher. Both of them would have added value to their society or even the world with their different skills from different fields. They would have led a happy, productive and respectable life.

That is the type of society Nigeria, Africa and other developing economies should strive to become. Today, only a few sectors are functional and considered as respectable and deserving of aspiration in most developing countries. For example, in Nigeria, the number one is politics, which does not produce anything tangible for Nigeria and Nigerians. The only thing politics and politicians contribute to Nigeria is depletion of the resources of the nation and impoverishment of the masses. But because there is too much unclean money that flows from politics, many Nigerians want to be involved in it directly or indirectly.

The other area that is thriving is entertainment, especially music, acting and comedy. But that is so because it is powered by individuals with the government not having any influence on it. But with the success of Nigerian musicians locally and internationally, many other sectors have been neglected because they are not giving immediate wealth and fame.

Writing and reading books is one of such abandoned areas. The manufacturing sector, which used to be buoyant decades ago, has also been neglected for importation, because of wrong politics, leading to increased poverty in the country.

There is a need for government to pursue policies and actions that will return Nigeria to a robust economy that will be modelled after the US economy where all fields of human endeavour have the capacity to give wealth and respect to the practitioners.

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