The Ambivalence of the Colonized

by , 2003

Homi Bhaba writes that "colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite" (86). The colonizer wants and needs the colonized to be similar to himself, but not the same. If the native continues to behave in his traditional ways, he brings no economic gain to the colonizer. But, if the colonized changes too much and is found to be exactly the same as the colonizer, the colonizer is left with no argument for his supremacy. As Bhaba puts it, "in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference" (86). These slippages, excesses, and differences are brought to the modern, colonized world by the natives in all aspects of their existences, but especially in their beliefs on religion and family. The characters in Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman and Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood serve as good examples of this ambivalence that colonialism depends on. Native characters living in the colonial world bring their own traditions and beliefs with them which prevent them from ever fully becoming the same as the white man.

Religious beliefs are at the core of what makes up a person. Even when an individual travels from one world to another, such as from traditional life to colonial life, his religion rarely leaves him entirely. Religious beliefs help keep the colonized from fully emulating the colonizer. In Death and the King's Horseman, the appearance of the white Mr. and Mrs. Pilkings in ceremonial death masks elicits a fear in both the Muslim Amusa and the Christian Joseph, proving that they have not completely left their traditional religious beliefs behind. After Mr. Pilkings orders Amusa to speak to him, Amusa responds, "Sir, it is a matter of death. How can man talk against death to person in uniform of death?" (19). Because of his traditional beliefs, Amusa sees Pilkings in the mask as a representative of death, not just as a man wearing a mask. And, judging by Pilkings' comments about Amusa, it would seem that Amusa had abandoned much more of his religion than the other natives: "I swear by you at the club you know--thank God for Amusa, he doesn't believe in any mumbo-jumbo. And now look at you!" (19). The man whom the colonizer thought had abandoned his native religion turned out to still hold many of his core beliefs.

Even though Joseph, a servant to the Pilkingses, had more thoroughly converted to Christianity than Amusa had to Islam, Mr. Pilkings still does not recognize him as a full Christian. Upon seeing Mr. Pilkings in the death mask, Joseph confirmed that "it has no power" to him anymore (21). Mr. Pilkings was happy that Joseph's conversion to Christianity had created some "sanity" in him, but just moments later made a course remark that would have offended any Christian: "It's only two years since your conversion. Don't tell me all that holy water nonsense also wiped out your tribal memory" (24). Joseph, thinking himself a true Christian, is horrified by this remark, as is Mr. Pilkings' wife. She responds to her husband, "Calling holy water nonsense to our Joseph is like insulting the Virgin Mary before a Roman Catholic" (24). Mr. Pilkings' finds his wife's worries ridiculous. He, the colonizer, cannot see the colonized Joseph as being an absolute member of the Christian religion. This again points back to the ambivalence that colonization depends on: even though a native may have converted to Christianity, he is not truly a Christian because he is expected to have brought some of his traditional beliefs with him, keeping him separate from the white man.

In The Joys of Motherhood, Nnaife and Nnu Ego bring their traditional beliefs to the modern religion even more than Amusa and Joseph did. Nnaife only attends church so that he is able to keep his job. He worries when he learns that his wife is pregnant that because they had not yet been married in the Christian church that "they will remove our names from the church register and Madam will not like it. I may even lose my job" (50). Here Nnaife shows that he only affiliates himself with the church to protect his job. Later, when he no longer works for Dr. and Mrs. Meers, Nnaife disobeys the church rules on monogamy and inherits one of his deceased brother's wives. Because he no longer needed the church to keep his job, he abandoned it, displaying that he was not truly a believer of the Christian faith. Nnu Ego appears to be even less converted to Christianity. She never truly abandons her traditional beliefs. Throughout the novel, she refers to her chi and, in the end, she is even made into a goddess herself. When she first moved to the city, Nnu Ego admitted that she "did not understand what Christianity was all about," and as she continued attending church she found that it had become "monotonous attending week after week" (48). Unlike Joseph and Amusa, Nnu Ego never even appears to accept the colonial religion as her own. Her traditional beliefs continue to guide her throughout the story. Nnu Ego first realizes that she is pregnant for a second time because of a conversation with her chi, long after she has been living in Lagos, the white man's city. After the conversation in a dream with her chi, Nnu Ego realized that it would be "difficult to explain it to him. This she knew was a bond between her and her chi and her coming child. Nnaife had little to do with it. He was just the father" (78). She believed that the upcoming child was more closely related to her chi than to its father. This belief blatantly contradicted both Christian and scientific views held at the time that said the father was very important in the process. Even after her death, Nnu Ego shows that she is not a true Christian, even though she may have attended church. She is made into a fertility goddess. Certainly, no Christian woman could become a goddess. Neither Nnaife nor Nnu Ego's traditional religious views were ever superceded by colonial religion. They lived in the ambivalence of being modern, colonized individuals yet retaining traditional, native religious beliefs.

Another core element of what makes up an individual is his beliefs on family life. Therefore, the native's traditional family roles were also carried into the colonial world, further contributing to his ambivalence. The previously mentioned inheritance of a second wife by Nnaife serves as a good example. Even though he was working in a low paying job as a grass cutter, he was expected by his family to inherit his deceased brother's wife Adaku. If he had inherited his brother's wives in the traditional farm setting, he would have been able to support the suddenly larger family by increasing his farming profits by using the children as additional labor. However, in Lagos, he did not have a farm that needed workers. Instead, he had to pay for schooling for his children; they were an expense, not a source of income. The traditional family structure clashed with colonial modernity and Nnaife was forced to try to feed a large traditional family in the colonizer's new world.

A more dramatic instance of traditional familial beliefs clashing with colonial life comes at the end of Death and the King's Horseman when Elesin's son, Olunde, fulfills the duty that Elesin failed. In Yoruban tradition, the king's horseman, Elesin, was required to die at a specific time in order to accompany his king to the afterworld. Olunde had come home from medical school in England upon hearing of the king's death, expecting his father's to follow soon after. When his father failed to die, Olunde takes his father's place because, as a local market woman put it, "he could not bear to let honour fly out of doors" (61). Even though Olunde had traveled to the colonizer's world and was well on his way to becoming a colonial doctor, his sense of duty to his family was so strong that he died because of it. Very much like Nnaife, Olunde is here brought into a state of ambivalence by being required to both be a modern, colonial man and to respect his traditional family beliefs.

The incomplete mimicry that the characters in The Joys of Motherhood and Death and the King's Horseman have to face creates many problems for them. They are forced to face conflicting religious beliefs, poverty, and even untimely death because they are not able to leave all their traditions behind them when they move to the colonial world. The natives' traditions, mixed with new ideas from the colonialist's world, create a structure of ambivalence that traps the colonized and prevents him from ever becoming the same as the colonizer.

Works Cited

Bhaba, Homi. The Location of Culture.

Emecheta, Buchi. The Joys of Motherhood. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1994.

Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King's Horseman. New York: Norton, 2003.