The Oil Man of Obange
The Oil Man of Obange
by John Munonye
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in igboland, eastern Nigeria, circa 1945; published in English in 1971
A palm-oil seller sacrifices everything so his children can receive Western education.
John Munonye was born in 1929 in Akokwa, I Imo State, Nigeria. Like most young boys in the region, he was raised as the son of a farmer. But unlike his father, Munonye attended Christian schools and received a Western education. The experience of negotiating the cultural, psychological, and ideological differences between the Western and traditional Igbo worlds forms the backdrop of four of his novels: The Only Son (1966), Obi (1969), The Oil Man of Obange (1971), and Bridge to a Wedding (1978). In his own life, Munonye confronted the ideological conflict inherent in attempting to follow traditional beliefs while receiving a Western education. Educated first at Christ the King College in Onitsha and the University of Ibadan, Munonye later earned a Masters in Education at the University of London’s Institute of Education. He spent much of his professional career in the service of Nigerian education, as a teacher (1954-57), an administrator and school inspector (1958-70), and in the Ministry of Education of Eastern Nigeria as principal of the Advanced Teachers College (1970-73). In keeping with his professional posts, he wrote firmly in support of Western education. In The Oil Man of Obange, Munonye tells the story a palm-oil seller who literally works himself to death to earn enough to pay the school fees for his six children.
The Igbo family
The Igbo occupy the southeastern region of Nigeria in a territory bisecte by the Niger River, a major artery of trade in precolonial times. One of the most densely populated regions of Nigeria, Igboland is characterized by thousands of small villages, interconnected by familial and political alliances. The absence of a centralized authority during the colonial era gave rise to competition among villages, particularly in the realm of education. Outsiders describe the Igbo as highly democratic and adaptive to Western ways, while the average Nigerian speaks of them as hardworking and acquisitive. Indeed, say Igbo scholars, their society places high value on hard work, wealth, and success—accomplished through legitimate means.
The family remains the most important unit of socialization in Igboland. Its significance cannot be overstated. “Family” in this context refers to the extended family, including cousins, aunts, uncles, co-wives, and siblings. Polygyny, the practice of marrying more than one wife, is common in Igboland, as is the large family. Part of the “big compound” ideal, the large family has traditionally been a sign of prosperity and status; it has, however, gone through considerable permutations as a result of Christian influence. As more and more Igbo families have aligned their beliefs with Christianity and its attendant principle of monogamy, the “big compound” ideal has changed. In addition to choosing monogamy, many newly Christian couples are electing to have fewer children.
In Igbo culture marriage is viewed as a joining of two families, and it is expected that the union will produce offspring. Parenthood is revered and ushers an adult into a new status in Igbo society, since parents contribute heirs to the lineage. Children are the bridge to the future; their existence insures the survival of the family line and the future security of the parents. In Igboland, as in other parts of Nigeria, parents are expected to do their best for their children. By the same token, children are expected to take care of their parents when the parents grow elderly.
Land tenure in precolonial Igboland
Land was an extremely valuable asset in precolonial Igboland. A degree of private ownership existed among the traditional Igbo, but in most cases, territory was held communally, with the lineage owning a stretch of land. Technically no member of the lineage was without land; in reality, who had the right to control the land was often a basis for dispute. Munonye dramatizes this point by beginning his novel with a land dispute. After a vicious battle for the land, his protagonist renounces his claim to the ancestral holding, allowing other family members to keep it.
Land held such high importance largely because it was the basis for wealth. In precolonial times most Igbo were subsistence farmers, which meant that land was a source of security. The belief was that a people could not have too much of it. Yams were the staple crop, and although the farmers engaged in trade, most concentrated first on producing enough to feed their families. Before the discovery of petroleum in Nigeria in 1956, agricultural products were also the main source of national revenue. Trading in agricultural products, such as palm oil, could therefore be lucrative—albeit uncertain, because of factors such as price fluctuations, unpredictable soil fertility, and changes in the weather.
British colonial rule
Formal colonization of present-day Nigeria by the British occurred in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In 1914 the British extended their control over all of Nigeria, amalgamating the southern and the northern territories into one protectorate. But “it was not until 1928, when Igbo men were made to pay tax for the first time in their history, that it became clear to them that they were a subject people” (Uchendu, p. 4).
With the amalgamation of Nigeria, the protectorate’s governor, Sir Frederick Lugard, instituted in southeastern Nigeria the policy of “indirect rule,” by which the colonial officials would govern through local African authorities. However, because of the democratic tradition of governance in much of Igboland, there was no established tradition of chiefs or kings with supreme power over their subjects. Instead, the local ruling structures varied from place to place. Some Igbo villages were ruled by village councils, while others had chiefs. But even those who were regarded as chiefs did not have absolute authority. Underlying the various arrangements was a basic egalitarian ideal that anyone could rise to the top.
Because of these varied and less than hierarchical political structures, British colonial officials had difficulty figuring out how to rule Igboland indirectly. In fact, indirect rule worked best outside Igboland, in Northern Nigeria, where a hierarchical system of control was already in place. Colonial authorities in Igboland went through a great deal of effort to set up a system of warrant chiefs, creating the institution of chieftaincy in areas that did not have this tradition. However, because they did not understand traditional Igbo governing structures, they often vested authority in people who had no standing in the community.
The colonial economy
Extensive trading networks existed among the Igbo before contact with Europeans, particularly in the Niger Delta, which was a major crossroads of trade. Nigeria experienced several stages of forcible integration into the world economy, first because of the slave trade. Nigeria’s manpower was undermined by its participation in this trade, even if some groups, like the Aro (an Igbo people), profited in the short run. Despite the slave trade, the bulk of the goods exchanged at the time were raw materials, and most people were subsistence farmers.
The implementation of colonial rule forced a change in tune with British needs. British colonialism aimed to create new markets for manufactured goods and to ensure monopoly control of the raw materials coming from its colonies. At least two types of economy developed in Nigeria—one in which people continued to concentrate on subsistence agriculture, and another in which people produced or traded goods for the international markets. In this second economy, existing trade networks expanded and European currencies grew in importance. Western education became a valued commodity too, since there was a demand for Western-educated Nigerians to work as civil servants and clerks in British firms. Among Nigeria’s commodities for international trade were petroleum and palm oil. Discovered in 1956—primarily in the eastern region, where the majority of Igbos live—petroleum would surpass agriculture as the main source of revenue in the economy by the early 1970s. At the time of the novel, though, agriculture still dominated.
The trade in palm oil
Palm trees were common in eastern and western Nigeria. Harvesters would cut the palm fruits from under the leaves, then press the fruits to release the oil and the kernels. The kernels were themselves later crushed to release further oil, although much was lost using this method. Several parts of the palm plant became trade items. The leaves could be used to make mats, baskets, and other woven items. Tapped from the palm tree, palm wine was a common beverage in Nigeria, and its people used palm oil to cook soups and stews. In Europe, palm oil was in demand to make soaps, candles, and lubricants for industrial machinery.
Much of the trade for the international market was conducted by Nigerian middlemen at the coast, who purchased oil from smaller-scale traders further inland. Small traders, such as Munonye’s “oil man,” would buy the oil from its source or from another trader and then transport it to larger markets to sell to the middlemen. In Munyone’s novel, Jeri brings his oil to the market in tins attached to his bicycle. In the big towns and cities where he trades, the middlemen buy his oil, then store it in large barrels.
To protect producers from the fluctuation of prices on the world market, the colonial government created marketing boards that were supposed to buy the products from the producer at a fixed rate and invest the proceeds, thus protecting the economy in the event of a downturn in world prices. But the boards proved only moderately successful, leaving producers vulnerable to price fluctuations.
The development of Western education
Western education came to Nigeria by way of Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century. Initially the response to missionary activity was lukewarm; people regarded it with suspicion, many of them failing to see much value in Western education at first. In general, the missionaries posted to Nigeria concentrated their efforts almost exclusively on convincing the local chiefs and rulers to send their children to school. They hoped that others would become interested in Western education because they wanted to follow the lead of the rulers. In Igboland the missionaries were forced to adopt a somewhat different
The production of palm oil was a tedious, time-consuming process. There were two methods to process palm oil, the soft-oil press and the hard-oil press. In the soft-oil press, kernels were boiled in water until tender. Next, men pounded the kernels in a mortar, after which women and children separated the nuts from the fibers. The fibers were then pressed over heated pieces of stone to stimulate the flow of oil. In the hardoil method, people pounded the nut without boiling it. Next they poured water over the pulp and skimmed off the resultant oil. Workers recovered about 50 percent of the oil using the soft-press method, and 55 to 60 percent using the hard-press method. Even though less oil was produced by the soft-press method, people generally preferred it because this method yielded better cooking oil.
strategy; since many areas did not have an established institution of chieftancy, they could not endeavor to simply convert the chiefs. Their first successes here were with the poor and with people considered to be social outcasts. As in other areas, gradually the Igbo became more receptive as they began to realize that reading, writing, and speaking English gave them more opportunities in the expanding economy.
WORLD WAR II AND THE PALM-OIL TRADE
T he Oil Man of Obange takes place during the final year of World War II, which affected colonial subjects in different ways. On the one hand, taxes were increased in order to help Britain pay for the war effort. On the other hand, producers of palm products benefited from wartime boosts in the demand for their oil. The following song from the novel was composed by young Nigerian men operating a palm-oil press:
Thanks be to Hitler
Thanks to him
He caused the great war
Thanks to him
Since that very great war
Oil’s been selling well
Thanks to him
Thanks be to him
But may his type never
Thanks to him
Step into our land
Thanks to him
(Oil Man of Obange, p. 113)
The first Protestant missions appeared in Igboland in the mid-to-late 1800s, followed by the Roman Catholic missions. Encouraging the spread of Western education was a source of rivalry between the Catholic and Protestant missions, both of which sought the most converts. Another rivalry encouraging education was the competition between villages. Coupled with the high value Igbo parents placed on children, these rivalries resulted in an early-twentieth-century explosion of Igbo interest in education.
With the expansion of Western multinational corporations into Nigeria and increased migration to cities, more people began to desire Western education to gain access to jobs. As peoplegained education, expectations rose for commensurate employment opportunities and salaries. Igbos who migrated to cities realized that they were at a disadvantage when competing with Yoruba job seekers (the Yoruba being another Nigerian people), who had received Western education sooner than the Igbo and thus received the best job offers. Whatever the ethnic group, colonial officers discriminated against blacks: educated Nigerians did not receive the same opportunity for advancement or the same salary and living conditions as their British counterparts, who often had less education and experience. Resentment festered among the educated black elite, who would become the vanguard in the struggle for national independence (achieved in 1960).
The introduction of Western education into eastern Nigeria ushered in new ways of understanding the world. Since education was initially tied to Christian conversion, becoming Western-educated meant renouncing (at least superficially) the traditional religion. Many missionaries believed that a society’s path to conversion was through its children, which meant that an entire generation of Igbos was being raised with an ideological outlook that differed from that of their parents. It is hardly surprising, then, that not everyone in a village gladly accepted the prospect of Western education for their children. Others, however, became pioneers, doing everything that they could so that their children might receive a Western education. The protagonist of The Oil Man of Obange is one such pioneer.
The Oil Man of Obange begins at the deathbed of Ogazi Oko. A land dispute involving one branch of Oko’s family has resulted in both branches resorting to witchcraft, poisons, and trickery. Gradually every man in his family is killed in the feud, except for Ogazi Oko, who is wasting away because of some incurable disease. His salvation comes in the form of a priest who baptizes him, changes his name to Jeremiah, and gives him something to drink that cures his illness. Upon recovery, Jeri decides to end the dispute. He gives up the family land, buries the family idols, converts to Christianity, and moves to another area. His only surviving sister, Onugo, is convinced he has gone mad. After several attempts to harvest yams on his new land, Jeri decides that instead of farming, he will earn his living selling palm oil. He sells off his remaining yam harvest and with the proceeds buys a bicycle and oil tins. These actions shock his extended family and neighbors. Why would a man want to sell palm oil when farming is his way of life?
Jeri approaches his new occupation, the oil trade, with determination. Each morning he rises before dawn, dons a tattered shirt and threadbare shorts, and mounts his creaking bicycle in search of palm oil. After filling his tins with oil, he rides several miles to sell the oil to the middlemen stationed in the larger towns. Despite extreme hardship and poverty, he insists that each of his six children, including his daughter, will be educated in Western schools. His entire purpose in life is to earn enough money to subsist and to pay for his children’s school fees. In contrast to other parts of Igboland, whose inhabitants have begun to see the need for their children to be educated, Jeri’s neighbors cannot understand why he works so hard to educate all of his children. His decision to educate his daughter causes particular consternation.
Still, the neighbors and family are impressed with how intelligent Jeri’s children are. Jeri envisions the future prestige of his children, believing that they will grow up “wise in the new way of life—the way of educated men, prosperous, well-known, highly regarded” (Munonye, The Oil Man of Obange, p. 119). This vision drives him.
Despite poverty and the difficult circumstances that come with being pioneers, his family is happy. His wife, Marcellina, supports the family’s endeavors, caring for the children and encouraging her husband. It is a strong marriage—they “behaved towards each other like brother and sister—one heart, one mind and one will in nearly everything” (Oil Man, p. 21). Jeri needs her support since there are many things he has no time to do for his family, a fact made apparent by the decaying compound walls and the rotted door of their home, already half-eaten by termites.
Repeatedly Jeri must defend his decisions to his extended family. The voice of tradition emanates loudly from his sister, Onugo. On each visit to the family home, she implores her brother to return to the farming life and is most disturbed when she realizes Jeri’s determination to keep his daughter in school. “She had warned them many times now to stop sending the girl to school. One could perhaps overlook the case of the boys, but not a girl, who had to be watched from her earliest years, and should spend most of her time assisting her mother and in turn getting used to family chores and routine” (Oil Man, p. 28). Onugo believes that Jeri and his wife are mad for continuing on this course.
These criticisms are minor irritations for Jeri, who is determined to achieve success for the sake of his children. Hard work and stubborn resolve take him only so far, however. Selling palm oil is a career marked with calamities. He is injured in several falls and is often forced to travel through Ukeleke, “the land of strange people and strange happenings!” (Oil Man, p. 9). Jeri always approaches Ukeleke with a sense of foreboding. Ukeleke is unpredictable. It poses the threats of armed robbery and of people who are not to be trusted. Obange is a small village compared to Ukeleke, a fictional place that dramatizes how Jeri’s trading efforts take him through treacherous terrain.
Each fall from his bicycle highlights Jeri’s vulnerability to circumstances beyond his control. An unexpected rut in the road is all that it takes to pitch him from his bicycle and spill his oil for the day. One fall leaves him with a fractured arm and unable to trade for a while. Because of the dangers of potential injury or theft, Jeri takes extreme care when he sets out to trade. Unpredictable income will not do for a man who must have enough money to pay school fees for all his children.
The tragic death of Marcellina initiates the downward spiral of the family. Marcellina dies of tetanus after cutting her leg with a machete, and a local healer cannot save her. Both the treatment and the costs associated with the funeral are borne by the family. After a brief period of mourning, Jeri must continue the trade. His daughter, Celia, leaves school in order to care for the family.
Shortly after resuming work, Jeri is injured in an accident that damages his bicycle. Because of the cost of the funeral expenses and the continued cost of school fees, Jeri does not have enough money to pay Ogonabo, the greedy and dishonest bicycle repairer, for fixing his bicycle. In lieu of payment, Jeri allows Ogonabo to farm on his only remaining parcel of land for one season, until Jeri can pay for the repairs.
A short time later, Jeri is seriously injured in another accident, which this time destroys the bicycle. His leg is broken and, when a local healer is unable to alleviate his pain, he turns to a Western-trained medical doctor. He has a lengthy stay in a Western hospital, suffering terrible pain and depression. He gains the strength to go on only when he learns that his children are hungry. His children are forced to begin working after school: one son sells palm kernels; another son goes to live with a teacher to serve as his houseboy. At each juncture of failure and frustration, Jeri’s sister appears to beg, cajole, and threaten him in her attempts to get him to return to the family land.
The children are saved by the intervention of Onugo, who brings them yams and looks after them. After Jeri’s return from the hospital, she again encourages him to return to farming, and to fight the other relatives for the family land, something he still refuses to do. He ransoms his remaining land to Ogonabo to borrow a new bicycle from him.
In all of his tribulations, Jeri’s honesty, dignity, and determination remain paramount. Even when he is clearly cheated by men he considers to be friends, Jeri makes no effort to avenge the injustice. He remains unflagging in his determination that his children will have a different life.
When it is time for the two youngest children to go to school, Jeri still does whatever he can to send them there. He is rewarded by his children’s academic performance. His son Mica is one of only three students to pass his examinations with distinction and has an opportunity to enter the prestigious College of the Blessed Trinity (C.B.T.), a place where the “boys moved with an arrogant confidence … their handkerchiefs stuck out from their trouser pockets; and they spoke English all the time” (Oil Man, p. 187). Mica, who has inherited his father’s determination, studies doggedly for an arduous examination and is accepted to C.B.T. News of his success spreads throughout the town, filling others with admiration and Jeri with great pride.
Unfortunately, the school fees and related expenses are exorbitant. It is clear that this school is a ticket to the boy’s future success, beyond even the wildest dreams of his father. The sacrifice that must be made in order to pay the fees, however, is great. At first, Jeri decides not to send the boy to the secondary school. With a primary school degree, Mica could become a teacher and earn a satisfactory salary. But Mica grows despondent at the news that he will not be able to attend the school. Witnessing his son’s despair, Jeri agrees to try to raise the money. He redoubles his efforts to trade. Fortunately the palm-oil trade is beginning to experience a great boom. Things are finally improving for him, and his only fear is that political unrest will cause the District Officer to close down the trade. While riding to different towns to trade his oil, he hears talk by agitators who argue that the District Officer has not benefited the people. But Jeri has his own concerns and shows little interest in politics as long as it does not affect the trade.
On the return from one of his most lucrative trading trips, Jeri is tricked by thieves and robbed of all of his money and his borrowed bicycle. The ransomed land is gone forever, as are the school fees for his children. The indignity is devastating. So distraught is Jeri that he considers suicide. By the time he returns to his village, he has gone completely mad. Shortly thereafter, he dies in his sister’s arms. The story ends with neighbors and family members talking about what really killed Jeremiah Ogazi Oko. Was it love for his children? Did he do too much for them? Is the love of the Igbo parent too self-sacrificing?
But should this not be a lesson for the living and sane? Was it fair that a man should practically destroy himself in the interest of his offspring? In his efforts to bring up his children? Must child-rearing mean self-effacement?
(Oil Man, p. 238)
The struggle to educate girls
Jeri has only one daughter, Celia, whose story illuminates prevalent attitudes at the time towards the education of girls. The narrator makes much of the fact that Celia is a very smart girl—in many ways, smarter than her brothers. Her parents recognize this fact, and it enables them to ignore Jeri’s sister, Onugo, when she complains about their sending their daughter to school.
One incident, however, highlights the circumstances under which many Igbo girls ended up dropping out of school. Realizing that they may not have enough money to pay for school fees and books, Jeri and Marcellina decide that Celia should be the one to stop attending. Despite the fact that girls did not have to pay fees at this time because there were so few of them in school, Jeri still reasons that he will save money by not having to buy her books and clothes. When Celia is told of his decision to take her out of school, she becomes extremely distraught:
Celia wept aloud and openly. The day was Saturday. They thought her sorrow would be spent before the sun would begin to set. But the following day she continued to weep. She wept on her way to church and on her way back. And when she went to bed at night she resumed weeping.
(Oil Man, p. 42)
Celia’s despair quickly touches her father and after three days, he relents, telling her, “Don’t cry yourself to death, my daughter. I will do my best to see that you—all of you—continue at school” (Oil Man, p. 43).
Jeri’s attitude towards educating his daughter was not common in Igboland during the time when the novel takes place. In fact, many parents were adamantly opposed to sending girls to school. Because of this, girls lagged behind boys in Nigerian education. In the early 1950s girls made up only 21 percent of the primary school population (UNESCO, p. 18). Between 1960 and 1972 their numbers increased but still remained less than 40 percent of the total primary school enrollment (Women in Nigeria Today, p. 150). There were societal reasons for the lag. While parents might view the education of a male child as an investment, they did not always see the value in educating a girl. It was expected that a girl would eventually marry and leave the household; as for the present, she was often needed around the home to perform domestic duties. Also, many parents desired to keep a close watch on their daughters for the sake of their chastity. They feared that going to school would expose the girls to unscrupulous men and that the girls would run the risk of becoming pregnant.
Jeri, then, is a pioneer in deciding that his daughter will receive Western education and agreeing to see to it that she can continue to attend. Even with such a progressive father, Celia is the first to be taken out of school in a crisis. After Marcellina dies, Celia effectively becomes the mother of the house. In spite of her previous resistance to leaving school, she voluntarily remains home to care for her youngest siblings, who are not yet ready to be left alone.
Sources and literary context
The Oil Man of Obange dramatizes the struggle of the common man to achieve success in colonial Nigera. Although Obange is a fictional location, Munonye makes it clear that Jeri is a typical character, modeled after many hardworking individuals in Igboland. In a 1973 interview Munonye stated, “There are plenty of men like him who have sacrificed themselves to bring us up, though not all have had stories as sad as his. He is a typical man, a common man in our society.” (Munonye in Lindfors, p. 37) What is common about Jeri in Igbo society is his determination to succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
In the 1950s Munonye began a lifelong career in the service of Nigerian education, serving first as a teacher, then later as an administrator and principal. He began to write while working for the Ministry of Education because he “didn’t feel that the civil service set-up provided enough scope for self-realization” (Munonye in Lindfors, p. 35). He was a close friend of Chinua Achebe (see Things Fall Apart , also covered in African Literature and Its Times), and Achebe’s success encouraged him as a writer. Along with Achebe, Wole Soyinka (see Death and the King’s Horseman , also covered in African Literature and Its Times), and Chukwuemeka Ike, Munonye is part of the “first generation” of Nigerian writers to publish their initial literary works after Nigeria gained independence in 1960. In the 1970s Munonye retired from his career in education to concentrate on his writing. Munonye’s final post was as writer-in-residence at Alvan Ikoku College of Education in Owerri, Eastern Nigeria. He died in 1999.
Nigeria in the 1970s
The Oil Man of Obange was published in 1971. By this time, the resistance to education expressed by many of Jeri’s neighbors in the novel had been eradicated. Changes in the Nigerian economy had shown the Igbo the importance of Western education in gaining a competitive edge in Nigerian society. As a result more Igbo parents were sending their children to school.
In the 1950s both the eastern and western regions of Nigeria embarked on massive educational expansion programs with the goal of providing free primary education. “By 1960 each region was devoting over 40 percent of its annual recurrent expenditure to education” (Aber-nethy, p. 19). By 1971 primary education had become free in the city of Lagos, and in the mid-western and western states; it had become partly free in the eastern states (Nigeria Year Book, p. 153). The North, however, lagged behind these regions.
Although petroleum surpassed palm oil as Nigeria’s largest export, palm-oil production remained important. In 1971 Nigeria provided 50 percent of the world’s trade in palm kernels and over 50 percent in palm oil, its eastern states providing the bulk of the palm oil (Nigeria Year Book, p. 127). Nigeria would remain the world’s dominant producer of palm oil until it was surpassed by Malaysia in 1977. However, by the early 1970s, when the novel appeared, the focus on agricultural products as a source of wealth among the Igbo had changed. Migration to cities meant that many Igbo no longer relied on farming for their livelihood, preferring wage labor instead. There was still a strong commitment to village life, though. In 1971 many parents continued to believe that the village was the best place for their children to be raised.
The Oil Man of Obange was described by one critic as a novel “in a class by itself and a book with the makings of a classic; this same reviewer lamented that Munonye has not received more critical acclaim, declaring that the “critics are determined to ignore him” (Nnolim, p. 164). According to another reviewer, Munonye has been favorably compared to, but most likely overshadowed by, his friend and countryman Chinua Achebe (Carter in Nnolim, p. 164). His protagonist, Jeri Oko, is described as
An enduring Igbo cultural/mythic hero who is both an antithesis to, and a complement of, Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo [the protagonist of Things Fall Apart]. Achebe’s hero is a symbol of initial Igbo resistance—to colonial change by uncompromising defenders of the integrity of the indigenous society and its values. Munonye’s hero is a symbol of later Igbo adjustment to that change.
(Iloeje, pp. 95-96)
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