Culture and Tradition in the Pre-Colonial Africa in Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine

The strength of The Concubine rests on the fact that it is not folklore but realistic-style fiction, in spite of its strong penetration by the supernatural

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Igbo family in traditional attire Wikimedia Commons

The story is a tale of a young woman, Ihuoma, who belongs to Nigeria’s Igbo ethnic group. Her plight involves her past life, when she was said to be the wife of the mythical Sea King deity. This gives her great status in the present, but portends doom for any mortal man who seeks to marry her. As the novel progresses, Ihuoma is wed and widowed three times, as a result of the wrath of the Sea King toward those who would usurp his bride. Though it seems a traditional cautionary tale on the surface, Dictionary of Literary Biography essay that “the strength of The Concubine rests on the fact that it is not folklore but realistic-style fiction, in spite of its strong penetration by the supernatural.

From his first appearance as a novelist, with The Concubine in 1966, Elechi Amadi established himself as a unique figure in African fiction. He was not alone in attempting to convey the day-to-day texture of traditional, pre-colonial life in an African village: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart had already done this, at least to an extent. But he distinguished himself by not offering any explicit contrasts between that traditional world and the one that replaced it. Whereas Things Fall Apart and many other African novels are concerned, in part at least, with the coming of the white man and the effect of that event, Amadi’s novels have never emphasized alien influences at all. The action of any of his three novels could have taken place either five years or a century before the colonial intrusion upon the area. Likewise, the dilemmas that confront and finally destroy his heroes or heroines derive entirely from the beliefs, practices, and events of their indigenous culture.

In the novel, Ihuoma whose beauty attracts all men and women in the village of Omokachi and Omigwe, maintains rational behavior, intelligence, and social decorum. her good reputation spans in the three villages including Chiolu. As a woman, she is a model of perfect beauty as the narrator attests by narrating that she was a pretty woman: perhaps that’s why she married so early… She was young; it was easy to reckon her age. Ihuoma’s complexion was that of an ant-hill. Her features were smoothly rounded… Ihuoma’s smiles were disarming. Perhaps the narrow gap in the upper row of her white teeth did the trick. At that time a gap in the teeth was fashionable. Ihuoma’s gap was natural and other women envied her. Her beauty is the scale of all women who want to be considered beautiful. Everybody envies her. Everybody likes to be her. Further, in truth she wanted to gaze at herself. That she was beautiful she had no doubt, but that did not make her arrogant. She was sympathetic, gentle and reserved. It was her husband’s boast that in their six years of marriage she had never had any serious quarrel with another woman. She was not good at invectives and other women talked much faster than she did. The fact that she would be outdone in a verbal exchange perhaps partly retrained her from coming into open verbal conflict with her neighbors. Gradually she acquired the capacity to bear neighbor’s stinging remarks without a repartee. In this way her prestige among the womenfolk grew until even the most garrulous among them was reluctant to be unpleasant to her. She found herself settling quarrels and offering advice to older women.

For the village people, these characteristics of Ihuoma place her on the pedestal of the tribal and communal center of exemplary womanhood and motherhood. Needless to say, all men in the village desire her. Most men envy her husband Emenike who married her at the young age of twenty-two. The couple behaves like a perfect family blessed by the gods with four children. With a great sense of balance, they have two sons and two daughters whom they really love.

The concept of beauty and power for the males is measured by his features or looks, his strength in wrestling, his power in hunting, his willingness to go in a battle with their matchet always ready to defend the village against the enemies and his ability to maintain and raise his wife or wives and children well. Physical deformities and incapacity or abnormality are considered ugly. A man who is not able to win a wrestling match is denigrated and labeled weak. The village has strong patriarchal system as husbands control and dominate the house. Their wives are subservient and steadfast in attending to their needs.

Emenike, Ihuoma’s first husband is praised and liked by the elders of the tribe. They consider him as an ideal young man. He was good looking and well formed, a favourite with the girls. He was just an average wrestler but had the devil’s luck in throwing people in spectacular ways which onlookers always remembered long afterwards. He had won the old men’s confidence and they always let him run errands that required intelligence and extensive use of proverbs.

In contrast, Madume, though considered a successful man at the age of early thirties, was not considered strong. He was not a good wrestler (although he danced well to the beat of the drums) and many a young man had liked him.

Madume had one fault most villagers disliked. He was “big eyed”; that is to say, he was never satisfied with his share in anything that was good. He would roar until he had something more than his companion’s shares. Consequently he was always quarreling over land, palm wine trees, plantain trees and other such things. That was how he came to quarrel with Emenike.

Ekwueme, Ihuoma’s most patient suitor is also seen to be handsome, industrious and respectful of his parents Adaku and Igwe.

On the other hand, his best friend and song-making partner in many events of the villages like wrestling match, death of a member of the village, market day, planting, worship to the spirits and or gods is considered abnormal because of his deformed feet.

One of the most elaborate cultural traditions practiced in the novel is the custom of marriage. John Mbiti in the book African Religions and Philosophy relates that marriage is a complex affair with economic and religious aspects which often overlap so firmly that they cannot be separated from one another… For Africans, marriage is the focus of existence. It is the point where all the members of a given community meet: the departed, the living and those yet to be born. Marriage is a duty, a requirement… he who does not participate in it is a curse to the community, he is a rebel, and a law breaker, he is not only abnormal but “underhuman”. Failure to get married under normal circumstances means that the person concerned has rejected society and society rejects him in return.

Thus in the tale, we can see how the parents are highly concerned about the marriage of their children. They openly discuss an early arranged or matched marriage, like what happened to Ekwueme and Ahurole. Even if Ahurole is yet in the womb of her mother, she is already matched to Ekwueme. And when the time comes, the parents of the man have to inform the parents of the woman for the formal talk of the marriage. A year is given for the formal talk with the first visit of the family of the man bringing gifts and wine for the family of the girl. The subsequent visits will include the elders to bargain for the bride price or dowry. When the guide is able to reach an agreement, a date can be set for the final day which is manifested and celebrated by colorful dances and nights of drinking. This custom is performed to forge familiarity and friendship between the family of the newlywed and of the villagers.

He said his parents selected Ahurole as soon as she was born. He could hardly pull a bow by then. He really had no choice’ Ekwe said to Ihuoma.. the days that followed observed the negotiation for Ekwe’s wedding. Ahurole was engaged to Ekwe when she was eight days while Ekwe was about five years old.

Mbiti says that marriage is a long process, the key moments of which may be marked with rituals. When a child has been born physically, it must also be born ritually or or religiously in order to make it a social member of the family. At a later age it goes through a series of initiation rites… Only after initiation, where it is observed, is a person is socially and religiously born into full manhood and womanhood with all secrets, responsibilities and privileges and expectations. The whole community participates in it.

There are many customs and of the wedding procedure. In some societies the ceremony lasts for many days and is really full of rituals.

And so Ahurole’s parents were justly proud of their daughter’s engagement. For years they had exercised extra care and vigilance over her. The time had come at last for formal negotiations. Negotiations might well have started two years back but Wagbara said he was not in a hurry, which implied two things: firstly that he was not too keen on his daughter’s bride price, which implied he was well off; secondly that he was sure of his good influence over his daughter.

The days that followed were full of wine and gifts. Until the uncle of Ahurole became the appointed guide. After six months, the bride price was agreed. The entire family rejoiced and hurried to bring Ahurole home to Ekwe’s village. It is their fear that Ekwe might insist on marrying Ihuoma. It is the parents’ duty to guide their children for the proper marriage. And Ekwe, reluctant to marry Ahurole, followed his parents advice for he never wants his parents to have problems with the villagers and he never wants to be ostracized by defying the tradition even if his heart goes for Ihuoma.

Ekwe tries his best to make his marriage work but Ahurole is immatured and emotional, much to his disappointment. His desire for Ihuoma increases as it decreases to his legal wife.

Another custom that is highly elaborate is the observance and superstition of death of a member of a family and the community. When Ihuoma’s first and legal husband Emenike died because of lock chest, Wigme village mourned for eight days for his demise and Ihuoma’s lamentation. People showed much care for their neighbors. Much songs were sung and wines poured during the wake until he is buried within his rich compound, preferably his backyard. It is believed that his spirit will guide his property and his family.

His arch enemy, the greedy Madume, who claims a piece of land settled by the elders to be Emenike’s continues to impose ownership. This materialism of Madume leads to his death as one day, desiring Ihuoma, catches her harvesting plantains in the disputed land. He takes advances and abuses Ihuoma. The widow runs for her life until his brother-in-law, Nnandi, comes to a rescue. People run after Madume until he is caught and was spat by a cobra’s venom. His life changed after the incident, for that brings him swollen eyes and he becomes blind. His wife Wole escapes from her husband’s violent behavior. Upon her return, Madume is seen hanging in the door. The whole village could not believe Madume’s abominable act of suicide. Hence, his body is considered impure. No ordinary man or woman can touch his body for his body is impure. A medicine man is obliged to to perform the burial for he can cleanse himself. Madume’s body is thrown in the forest with the eveil spirits.

The last and tragic death of Ihuoma’s last suitor, Ekwueme is the most dramatic. A night before their hardly fought relationship, which the village in the beginning disapproves, is proven dark and portentous of Ekwu’s death. Agwoturumbe, the medicine man, who will perform sacrifices for their marriage, prepares all the herbs, animals and amulets so they can go to the river to meet the Sea King. The follwing day, as Ekwu is about to ready himself, is shot by an barbed-arrow shot by Ihuoma’s son. The arrow is meant for the lizard necessary for the sacrifice. The doom is finally set as the wrath of the spirits of the sea go against the fate of Ekwe even his parents hired the services of the medicine man, Agwoturumbe.

The people highly place their lives, their love and fear of the spirits of the ancestors and their gods. Each part of the earth is ruled by a god. Often mentioned and feared by the villagers is the god of thunder, Amadioha and Ojukwu, a god of the air and the forest, Ani, god of the earth. Each person is ruled by his personal spirit, and one is bound to follow. No one can go against the spirit but the spirit can go against the person like what happened in the wrestling between Emenike and Madume.

Polytheism-the worship of many gods-was characteristic of precolonial Igbo society. However, this did not preclude the belief in a supreme deity. Once close to people, the supreme being, Chukwu, was thought to have withdrawn from direct intervention in their affairs.

Igbo mythology repletes with examples illustrating the fact that this supreme being used to be close to individuals, and in fact used to intervene in the affairs of individuals and communities, until it was annoyed by the aberrant behaviour of some individuals, women especially, who transgressed one overriding code or the other…. From all accounts, it appears that the supreme being having decided to abscond from intervention in the day to day activities of human beings decided to vest some of His powers on beings with lesser and localized powers.

There was no equivalent of Satan, or the devil, in the precolonial faith. While the Igbo ascribed one evil or another to various deities in the pantheon, no single spirit was thought to embody all evil. Likewise, the precolonial faith did not include a concept of hell.

The traditional Igbos appear to have preoccupied themselves most often with their own guardian spirit. The supreme being is nominally supposed to be in charge of all things. At the individual level, however, the chi, variously interpreted as the guardian angel or the personal spiritual guardian of every individual, appears to play a more active role in the affairs of any individual. The belief was that a person’s chi had a direct hand in his or her affairs. Igbo ideas of destiny and free will were bound up with chi. “Each individual,” taught the Igbo, “has a destiny ascribed to his life” and his personal god controls his destiny.

The practice of the medicine men is accepted as holy, healthy and cure. The medicine man may pray to the gods on behalf of the people; he acts as a village doctor, he acts as a prophet who can see the future. Both Anyika and Agwoturumbe see the death of Ekwueme. Both are afraid of the Sea King who legally own the Sea goddess Ihuoma who chose to be human. Hence, the medicine man is as ubiquitous as the needs of the people.

Basic to all his works is the concept of life as an ongoing struggle. There is a rather ironic contradiction between Amadi’s philosophy about man’s insignificance and ultimate impotence in the hands of the gods, and the fact that his characters struggle to the very end, irrespective of obstacles and threats even from the gods, as demonstrated in The Concubine Although Amadi never specifies that the characters in the novel are Igbo (or Ibo), they are supposed by critics to belong to Igbo society. The Igbos reside primarily in southeastern Nigeria. Amadi’s fictional term for them is “Erekwi”; a little shuffling of the letters produces “Ikwere,” the ethnic group to which Amadi himself belongs. The Ikwere speak a distinct language within the Igbo language cluster, and they are a riverine people, which helps explain the appearance in their pantheon of a sea-king deity, who enters into the plot of The Concubine.

The traditional Igbo lived in small self-governing villages, each comprised of kin who traced their origins to a mutual ancestor. They did not base their society on a centralized government or supreme political authority, such as a king or chief. Rather the Igbo vested power in the people themselves or in a council of elders. These elders, drawing on the wisdom of the ancestors, settled land disputes and other fractious or crucial matters. There were public forums, too, at which the poor, the rich, and the young, as well as the old could voice opinions before decisions affecting the whole village were made.

In the novel, the village of Omokachi corresponds closely to this model. It has no single leader; instead the villagers themselves govern their community, giving particular weight to the judgment of the elders. At one point, the protagonist Ihuoma reminds her greedy neighbor Madume that a land dispute between him and her late husband, Emenike, has been decided in Emenike’s favor by the village elders. At another juncture, the domestic disputes of the unhappily married Ekwueme and Ahurole are arbitrated by the elders of Omokachi and of Ahurole’s home village, Omigwe. The proverb if one attempts to run in front of one’s chi, the person would run himself to death alludes to the power of destiny; in order to succeed, one’s objectives for oneself must be aligned with those of one’s own chi. Other proverbs allude to free will, and taken together the two types of proverbs (on destiny and on free will) reflect the duality in Igbo thought. The belief was that everyone had hidden powers, supplied by his or her chi. A person had only to make use of these powers to score achievements in life. In other words, one can affect one’s own destiny, or, as a proverb says, “if a man wills, his personal chi wills also.”

A man and his chi were not thought of as perennially tied together. There are areas of life in which one must struggle to achieve something by oneself, with or without the active support and collaboration of one’s chi. It was, however, believed that a man must at all times be on good terms with his chi, so that when called upon, it would come to his support. When someone failed to mobilise his chi to support a particular undertaking, the spirit was commonly said to be asleep or away.

Source by Wilfredo M. Valois