Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What Is The Meaning Of These Sentences In Chapter 16 Of Chinua Achebe's Novel "Things Fall Apart"

Edited by Azizi Powell

In researching the various vernacular English use of the word "ass" as an intensifier*, I happened upon two comments about Chapter 16 of Chinua Achebe's 1958 novel which appear to me to provide different explanations for villagers saying that a man who spoke a dialect of Ibo (Igbo) said "my buttocks" for "myself".

Before quoting those comments, in the interest of "sussing" out the meaning of those sentences, here's an excerpt of that chapter.

*Here's a link to the pancocojams post that I was working on when I found those comments about "my buttocks" in Chinua Achebe's novel: Comments & Examples About "Ass" As An Intensifier

(Chinua Achebe; (Heinemann Educational Books, Ltd, London, originally published 1958, reprint 1968; pages 131-133)

Page 131
"The arrival of the missionaries had caused a considerable stir in the village of Mbanta. There were six of them and one was a white man. Every man and woman came out to see the white man. Stories about these strange men had grown since one of them had been killed in Abame and his iron horse tied to the sacred silk-cotton tree. And so everybody came to see the white man. It was the time of the year when everybody was home. The harvest was over.

When they had all gathered, the white man began to speak to them. He spoke through an interpreter who was an Ibo man, though his dialect was different and harsh to the ears of Mbanta. Many people laughed at his dialect and the way he used words strangely. Instead of saying 'myself' he always said 'my buttocks'. But he was a man of commanding presence and the clansmen listened to him. He said he was one of them, as they could see from his colour and his language. The other four black men were also their brothers, although one of them did not speak Ibo. The White man was also their brother because they were all sons of God. And he told them about this new God, the Creator of all the world and all the men and women. He told them that they worshipped false gods, gods of wood and stone. A deep murmur

page 132
went through the crowd when he said this. He told them that the true God lived on high and that all men when they died went before Him for judgment. Evil men and all the heathen who in their blindness bowed to wood and stone were thrown into a fire that burned like palm-oil. But good men who worshipped the true God lived for ever in His happy kingdom. "We have been sent by this great God to ask you to leave your wicked ways and false gods and turn to Him that you may be saved when you die," he said.

"Your buttocks understand our language," said someone light-heartedly and the crowd laughed...

At this point an old man said he had a question. "Which is this god of yours, " he asked, "the goddess of the earth, the god of the sky, Amadiora of the thunderbokt, or what?"

The interpreter spoke to the white man and he immediately gave this answer. "All the gods you have named are not gods at all. They are gods of deceit who tell you to kill your fellows and destroy innocent children."

There is only

Page 133
one true God and He has the earth, the sky, you and me and all of us."

"If we leave our gods and follow your god" asked another man, "who will protect us from the anger of our neglected gods and ancestors?"

"Your gods are not alive and cannot do you any harm," replied the white man. "They are pieces of wood and stone."

When this was interpreted to the men of Mbanta they broke into derisive laughter. These men must be mad, they said to themselves. How else could they say that Ani and Amadiora were harmless. And Idmili and Ogwugwu too? And some began to go away.

Then the missionaries burst into song. It was one of those gay and rollicking tunes of evangelism which had the power of plucking at silent and dusty chords in the heart of an Ibo man. The interpreter explained each verse to the audience, some of whom now stood enthralled....

After the singing the interpreter spoke about the Son of God whose name was Jesu Kristi. Okonkwo, whoonly stayed in the hope that it might come to chasing the men out of the village or whipping them, now said:

"You told us with your own mouth that there was only one god. Now you talk about his song. He must have a wife, then." The crowd agreed.

"I did not say He had a wife," said the interpreter, somewhat lamely.

"Your buttocks said he had a son," said the joker. "So he must have a wife and all of them must have buttocks."

The missionary ignored him and went on to talk about the

page 134
Holy Trinity. At the end of it Okonkwo was fully convinced that the man was mad. He shrugged his shoulders and went away to tap his afternoon palm wine."...

These quotes are given in no particular order.
Quote #1
From Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Critical Essays Use of Language in Things Fall Apart
..."In a 1966 essay reprinted in his book Morning Yet on Creation Day, he [Igbo (Nigerian) novelist Chinua Achebe] says that, by using English, he presents "a new voice coming out of Africa, speaking of African experience in a world-wide language." He recommends that the African writer use English "in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. [The writer] should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience." Achebe accomplishes this goal by innovatively introducing Igbo language, proverbs, metaphors, speech rhythms, and ideas into a novel written in English...

Pronunciation of Igbo Names and Words
Like Chinese, the Igbo language is a tonal one; that is, differences in the actual voice pitch and the rise or fall of a word or phrase can produce different meanings. In Chapter 16, for example, Achebe describes how the missionary's translator, though an Igbo, can not pronounce the Mbanto Igbo dialect: "Instead of saying 'myself' he always said 'my buttocks.'" (The form k means strength while k means buttocks.)”...
My understanding of that quote is that the interpreter thought that he was saying "myself" but the way he pronounced those words in his dialect of Igbo, the Mbanto (Mbanta) villagers heard the words "my buttocks".

Quote #2
From Google Books edition of "Yo Mama!: New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes, and Children's Rhymes from Urban Black America" by Onwuchekwa Jemie (Temple University Press, 2003), page 20 (introduction)
"Closely allied to "shit" is "ass". These two words rank ahead of all others as the omnibus word, the word-of-all-works in all Ebonics. "Get your ass over here. Set your black ass down. I’ma beat your black ass. Being Captain’s good while it last/But if you can’t swim, that’s your ass. Money good but money don’t last/Shine gotta save his own black ass... They drug his ass out of the sun and laid him in the shade/The animals walked by a viewed his ass like GIs on parade."

page 21
the Delta Igbos use the term the term ike-mu (my buttocks/my ass) and instead of gi (you), they say ike-gi (your ass):

Ike-gi na-akakari anya! Ike-mu na ike-gi anyi bu ogbo? You are very bold and disrespectful! Do you think you are my equal? (lit. [literally] Your ass is very bold and disrespectful. My ass and your ass, are they age mates?)

Among the Igbos, these usages are greeted with laughter, especially by those hearing them for the first time, and speakers of that dialect are teased continually. Chinua Achebe, the great novelist and scholar of Igbo culture captures the fun in Things Fall Apart. A white missionary has arrived at the village of Mbanta, bringing an Igbo interpreter from the Delta:

But he was a man of commanding presence and the clansmen listened to him...

“Your buttocks understands our language” said someone lightheartedly and the crowd laughed. (Achebe, Things, 134-135

Then the interpreter spoke of “Jesu Kristi”, who he said was the “Son of God”. A villager queries him:
You told us with your own mouth that there was only one god. Now you talk of his son. He must have a wife, then.” The crowd agreed.

“I did not say He had a wife,” said the interpreter somewhat lamely.

“Your buttocks said he had a son,” said the joker. So he must have a wife and all of them must have buttocks”. (Achebe, Things, 136-137

How did this laughable exception on the mother continent become the rule in settlements across the ocean? How did this lowly part of the anatomy, elevated in personhood in a comical synecdoche in a remote corner of Igboland, come to usurp the African-American kingdom? The Delta was the corridor through which virtually all the Igbo captives passed into the Middle Passage. The Delta dialect was, as it were, the last word they heard on the Motherland. Was it also the word they best remembered?”...
The words in italics were written that way in that passage.

Onwuchekwa Jemie identifies the Igbo interpreter who spoke a different form of Igbo as being from the Delta State of Nigeria. Jemie is also from that same part of Nigeria:
"Onwuchekwa Jemie is a Nigerian scholar, poet, journalist, and professor. He was born in Abia State, Nigeria".

"Abia is a state in the south eastern part of Nigeria.[4] The capital is Umuahia and the major commercial city is Aba. The commercial hub, Aba was formerly a British colonial government outpost in the region. Abia state was created in 1991 from part of Imo State.[5] It is one of the constituent states of the Niger Delta region."
Does Jemie mean that the interpreter actually meant to say the words "my buttocks"? Do Delta State Igbos really use "my buttocks" the same way that African Americans (and by extension other Americans) use "my ass" i.e. "Get your ass over here.", Set your black ass down" etc.? Is Onwuchewka Jemie correct that the Delta State Igbos' use of "my buttocks" is the source of African Americans' use of the word "ass" to represent a person's entire body? Or is it the Delta State Igbos' use of "my buttocks" one of the sources of one of the vernacular ways that African Americans use the word "ass"?

Igbo phrasebook; Igbo Nsibidi.png
"Igbo (Igbo: Ásụ̀sụ̀ Ìgbò) is a Niger-Congo language spoken primarily in Nigeria. There are between 18-25 million Igbo speakers living primarily in southeastern Nigeria in an area known as Igboland. Igbo is a national language of Nigeria and is also recognised in Equatorial Guinea. Igbo is made up of many different dialects which aren't mutually intelligible to other Igbo speakers at times...

Through the transatlantic slave trade, the Igbo language has influenced many creole languages in the Americas, especially in the former British Caribbean, including islands such as Jamaica, Barbados, Dominica, and Trinidad and Tobago. Variations of Igbo known as Suámo can be found in Cuba. Igbo is spoken by a significant number of people on Bioko island in Equatorial Guinea, formerly known as Fernando Po, and in micro-communities in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, and it is also spoken by recent migrants of Igbo descent all over the world.”

Click for a related post about Delta State Igbos.

Pancocojams posts about "Shine And The Titanic" and about "The Signifying Monkey" (parts of which were quoted in the first paragraph of Onwuchekwa Jemie's passage) can also be found by clicking the tags below or by using the blog's internal search engine.

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  1. One explanation for the sentence "They are gods of deceit who tell you to kill your fellows and destroy innocent children" from Chinua Achebe's novel "Things Fall Apart" was that the traditional custom was to "throw away" twins who were born to Igbo people.

  2. For the record, here's some information about Chinua Achebe:
    "Chinua Achebe ... born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe; 16 November 1930 – 21 March 2013) was a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic.[2] His first novel Things Fall Apart (1958) was considered his magnum opus,[3] and is the most widely read book in modern African literature.[4]

    [Achebe was] Raised by his parents in the Igbo town of Ogidi in South-Eastern Nigeria."...
    Note that Achebe wasn't raised in what is now the Delta State region of Nigeria.,_Anambra
    Ogidi is an Igbo town, the headquarters of Idemili North Local Government area, Anambra State, Nigeria.

  3. Here's a comment that I came across from a discussion about whether Delta State Igbos are actually Igbos. I'm sharing the comment here because of its beginning point, but I think that the entire comment is worthy of sharing here.

    Re: Delta Igbo, Bendel Igbo: What Does That Even Mean. by oweniwe(m): 9:07pm On Jun 15, 2010
    ..."Once again, i apologise for my earlier outburst. I was irked and annoyed by the way eastern igbos point finger at western igbos and make them a subject of ridicule. I was pointing out the reasons why some people deny that they are igbo eg in delta state when applying for jobs, if u write igbo as your tribe, u won't get the job coz they'll say you're not a deltan. I am a proud igbo- being an igbo makes one unique. Our duty here is not to blame this man or praise that man, but to settle the differences. We have to know the reasons why we have a problem before we can solve it. So we ought to ask: why do some western igbos deny that they are igbo? I have stated some reasons above and in my earlier posts, ie the civil war, geographical difference, betrayal of western igbos, etc. Now lets share views on why some igbos deny igbo so we can understand why they do so and reconcile the differences. Can someone come forward and give some other meaningful reasons pls?"
    Chapter 16 in Chinua Achebe 1958 novel "Things Fall Apart" revolves around the Delta State Igbo interpreter being ridiculed because of the way he talked.

  4. For the record, Onwuchekwa Jemie's quote "Being Captain’s good while it last/But if you can’t swim, that’s your ass. Money good but money don’t last/Shine gotta save his own black ass" is from the classic African American toast "Shine and the Titanic".

    And I think that his quote "They drug his ass out of the sun and laid him in the shade/The animals walked by a viewed his ass like GIs on parade" is from another classic African American folkloric poem "The Signifying Monkey".