Chinua Achebe’s narrative about Okonkwo’s victory over Amalinze the Cat in Things Fall Apart presents an insight into indigenous Igbo philosophy on courage, industry, and leadership. It is indeed significant that Achebe’s novel begins with that narrative and links Okonkwo’s victory over Amalinze to his steady rise to prominence and growth as a leader. And just after presenting Okonkwo and how he rose to fame in his community, Achebe immediately presents the contrast that Unoka, who was a great failure, signifies. Unlike Okonkwo, Unoka was slothful and “incapable of thinking about tomorrow”. He lived to eat without working, and “always said that whenever he saw a dead man’s mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one’s lifetime”. A great debtor, Unoka loved to play his flute when his fellow folk artists like Okoye worked hard on their farms and built up their wealth from which the flutist came to borrow, recorded his debts in perpendicular lines of chalk on the wall, and never paid back. I have had to reflect on this failure of Unoka elsewhere, in which I tried to link his problem to an inability to understand that being just an artist, a flutist, was not just enough to create a successful future in a community that saw art as merely part of the several skills that a human being needed to possess in order to say “yes” without his or her chi saying “no.” The present discourse briefly reflects on Achebean “wrestling” as a figuration of a courageous acceptance of challenges in one’s personal affairs as well as in one’s involvement in community life.
It is significant that Achebe, in presenting Okonkwo’s victory over Amalinze the Cat relates the fight to an earlier one in which “the founder of (the) town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights”. Thus Achebe gives his readers a hint about how the founding of Umuofia was based on “wrestling” at the highest level – that of wrestling with a spirit and succeeding. If the fight had ended in the spirit’s favour, there would have been no Umuofia, implicitly. Obviously this is a suggestion about how individuals in the indigenous context had to make heroic sacrifices in the interest of their communities, or how personal heroism and success support the well-being of the entire society. One wrestles for oneself, one’s family, one’s community, one’s nation, where “wrestling” is not merely the physical struggle to throw an opponent in an arena, but dealing with the challenges of life, as we find in Okonkwo’s case.
Readiness to wrestle with the challenges of life is expected of every individual in the type of Umuofia community where Unoka lived and loved to play his flute. The Igbo say that one should not challenge one’s chi to a wrestling bout. But we also find that one’s chi often challenges one to rise and wrestle with the spirit as a way of testing one to find out whether one is worthy of being invested with wealth and honour. One’s chi does not just say “yes” if one is not ready to say “yes” in practical and pragmatic terms. One’s chi would not want to lavish kindness on one who is not ready to work hard or to work one’s way up as if a spirit-helper never existed. Wrestling with one’s chi is thus approved of if it is an affirmation of the courage to be, to succeed, to give honour to one’s chi in the long run. One who refuses to work hard, as in the case of Unoka, ends up being a disgrace to self and to one’s chi, for indeed the self and the chi are inseparably one.
There is always an Amalinze the Cat on one’s road to success and on one’s road to removing shame from one’s family and community. There is always an Amalinze between one and one’s effort at bestowing honour on one’s chi. Amalinze is the test. And through that test the indigenous Igbo community identified its prospective leaders, trained them, and encouraged them.
What avenues of training were provided? Diverse: family life, mmonwu cult initiation and membership, title-taking, participation in warfare, meetings of the kinsfolk and discourses at the ilo, et cetera. One should be able to cater for one’s family. In the case of a man, he should be the dibia ulo (literally, “physician of the home”), competently catering for the emotional, spiritual, and physical needs of his family. As a member of the mmonwu cult, he learns the sacred secrets and interfaces of artistic performance, spirituality, social engineering, and governance. In title-taking, he learns the ethics and values of being mmadu onu ruru n’okwu (One whose utterances matter in community). In participating in warfare, he learns the honour of patriotism and sacrifice for one’s community. During public meetings at the ilo, he learns the art of “doing things with words with people,” as Willis Edmondson would put it in his Spoken Discourse, and recognizes the rights of other kinsfolk to speak and be listened to. He learns. He does. He learns to learn. He learns to do.
And the community watches as one navigates one’s way through these contexts of training and how one wrestles with a slippery-bodied Amalinze in every sphere of social presencing of self. As witnesses to how one wrestles with Amalinze in one’s personal and community affairs, the kinsfolk may decide to invite one to come and perform a role in governance. So, one comes to governance with the skills one has learned from diverse engagements with Amalinze in soldiery, teaching, law enforcement, engineering, etc and then begins the higher form of wrestling with Amalinze, through one’s handling of policy, public affairs, budget, social welfare, etc. Of course, one learns even more, especially the fact that one as a leader has not got all the answers, by wrestling with Amalinze in the sphere of public governance.
It is wrong to think that governance is solely for people who were created and endowed with the skills to govern! Born-to-rule, is it? Rulers who are made-in-heaven? Where does one find such gods or angels? Anyone of any profession can govern the society, provided the person has had some preparation, including readiness to wrestle with the Amalinze in every sphere of governance, and the willingness to keep learning.
Wrestling with the human Amalinze is a corollary of wrestling with life's problems, however frightening or insurmountable they might seem; it also symbolizes wrestling with problems in one's family and community -- a sort of existential wrestling a human being should be ready to engage in and not excuse self from, as Unoka tried to do! Also, every leader, as we find in Okonkwo’s case, has personal flaws, which constitute a very serious type of Amalinze in one’s personal life and relationship with society. Okonkwo defeated the human Amalinze, but failed to defeat this other Amalinze in himself. He failed to defeat the Amalinze in himself that, from a narrow male-centered framework of knowledge, derogatorily referred to other men whose views were contrary to his as “women”. He failed to defeat the Amalinze in him that acted out of the fear of failure; that wrestled in anger and not rational thinking and rational talking. That was the tragedy of his life, and it could be the tragedy of anyone and any leader anywhere.