Chinua Achebe 1971
One of Africa’s foremost contemporary authors and spokespeople, Chinua Achebe, has always taken as a primary concern understanding and accurately depicting the African people. In 1964, he wrote that the writer’s duty “is to explore in depth the human condition.” In his pre-civil war novels, Achebe focused on the culture of his people and their emergence from colonial powers. However, with the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war, Achebe embraced the revolutionary spirit. Not only did he serve as a diplomat, bringing eastern Nigeria’s message overseas, and write radio programs about the cause, he also found himself unable to work on long fictional works during this period. Even two years after the war ended, he felt no urge to work on a novel. He did, however, write three short stories concerning the civil war, all of which were collected in the short fiction volume, Girls at War and Other Stories.
“Civil Peace,” which first appeared in print in 1971, takes place in the immediate post-war period. Focusing not on the hardships and devastation of the war but on the new opportunities to rebuild, the story has struck many critics for its optimism and positive outlook. At the same time, “Civil Peace” insidiously demonstrates the similarities between Nigeria during the war and after the war—during both periods, violence and corruption can emerge at any time. Achebe believes that the African writer must function as a social critic, and in “Civil Peace,” he shares two co-existing views of the postwar Nigerian state.
Achebe was born in 1930 in the village of Ogidi in eastern Nigeria. His father worked for the Church Missionary Society, and his early education was through the society’s school. At the age of eight, Achebe began to learn English. When he was fourteen, he was one of a few boys selected to attend the government college at Umuahia, which was one of the best schools in west Africa. In 1948, Achebe enrolled at University College, Ibadan, which was a new school. He intended to study medicine, but he soon switched to English literary studies. The college at Ibadan was affiliated with the University of London, and Achebe’s course of study was very similar to that required by the University of London’s honors degree program. While at school, he contributed stories, essays, and sketches to the University Herald; these pieces were collected in Girls at War and Other Stories.
After he graduated in 1953, Achebe decided to make writing his life’s work. He made as his goal effectively and realistically communicating the stories of the African people, particularly the Igbo civilization. Achebe worked as a teacher in his first year out of school. Then he began a career as a producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He remained there for twelve years, and was appointed director of the external broadcasting show, Voice of Nigeria. In 1957, he went to London to attend the British Broadcasting Corporation staff school where one of his teachers was novelist and literary critic, Gilbert Phelps. Phelps recommended for publication Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, which presents an account of colonial history from the point of view of the colonized, and it appeared in the following year, 1958. His writing also encouraged Achebe to learn about his native culture to accurately depict it with his words. He did so by interviewing older people and reading the writings of colonial administrators and missionaries.
In 1967, civil war broke out in Nigeria. The eastern region declared itself the independent state of Biafra. Over the next thirty months, Achebe traveled to Europe and North America on Biafran affairs. During this period, Achebe retreated from long fiction, instead choosing to work on poetry and several short stories, including “Civil Peace.”
Achebe’s two follow-up novels to Things Fall Apart continue the story the first novel began. Together, these three novels span the pre-colonial Africa to colonial times to the days before Nigeria’s independence from Britain. In works published since then, Achebe has continued to explore twentieth-century Nigerian life. Achebe has also published essay collections on literary and political subjects, particularly focusing on the role of the African writer in society.
In 1994, Achebe fled to Europe from the repressive Nigerian regime, which threatened to jail him. He moved to the United States, becoming a professor at Bard College in New York. In 1999, he was named a goodwill ambassador to the world by the United Nations Population Fund.
“Civil Peace” opens in eastern Nigeria after the civil war has ended. Jonathan Iwegbu considers himself and his family lucky. He, his wife, Maria, and three of their four children are alive. He even has maintained possession of his old bicycle, which he puts to use as a taxi. His taxi service allows him to make money, and within two weeks, he has earned £150.
Jonathan then travels to Enugu, the capital city, and finds to his great surprise and delight his house still standing, even though some nearby structures are reduced to a pile of rubble from the war. The house needs some repairs, so Jonathan immediately collects available materials: zinc, wood, and cardboard. He hires a carpenter to complete the work and soon moves his family back home.
The entire family works hard to earn money and rebuild their lives. The children pick mangoes and Maria makes akara balls to sell. After he finds that he cannot return to his job as a coal miner, Jonathan opens up a bar for the soldiers, which he runs out of his home. Jonathan is thankful that he has a home and a job, unlike many of his fellow ex-miners.
Jonathan’s family does well, and then they get an added bonus when the government starts handing out egg-rashers—payments of twenty pounds in exchange for the Biafran money Nigerians turn over. Jonathan leaves the office with his money in his pocket, taking care so no thief should get it. At home that evening, Jonathan has trouble falling asleep. He finally does so, only to be awakened by violent pounding on the front door. He calls out to ask who is knocking, and the reply comes that thieves are here. Jonathan’s family calls out for help from the police and the neighbors but no one comes. Eventually, they stop calling.
The thieves call out then, repeating the family’s pleas for help. Jonathan and his family are in terror. The children and Maria are crying, Jonathan is groaning. The leader of the thieves speaks again, mockingly asking if he should call for the soldiers, but Jonathan says not to do so. Now the thief wants to get down to business. Jonathan asks what they want and tells them that he is a poor man who lost everything in the war. The thief demands £100, or else they will come inside the house. The voice trails off, and a volley of automatic rifle fire bursts through the air. Maria and the children start crying again. The leader tells them not to cry, that they just want some money and then they will go away.
Jonathan says that although he does not have £100 he does have twenty pounds from his egg-rasher. He swears that this is all the money he has, and the thief agrees to accept the money. Some of the thieves mumble that he has more money and they should come inside and look, but the leader tells them to shut up. Jonathan goes to get the twenty pounds out of his locked box to give to the thieves.
The next morning, the neighbors come over to commiserate with Jonathan, but he and his family are already setting about their day’s work. Jonathan tells his sympathizers that the loss is nothing; the week before he did not have the egg-rasher money, and he does not depend on it. It has gone easily, as did many other things in the war.
Jonathan Iwegbu has survived the Nigerian civil war, along with his wife and three of his four children, and now he faces the uncertain future with optimism. He gives thanks for what he does have rather than regret what he has lost. He counts all the blessings he has been given, chief among them his family, and after that, his scant material possessions, his bicycle and his home. He uses these possessions to immediately begin rebuilding his life; the bicycle becomes a taxi, and the house becomes a bar. The one thing that Jonathan cannot cast a positive light on is the thieves’ assault; however, he still never complains about losing twenty pounds, a significant sum. Instead, the next morning finds Jonathan, and his family, hard at work again, already looking ahead to the future.
Maria is Jonathan’s wife. Like her husband, she works hard to rebuild their family’s life after the war.
Leader of the Thieves
The leader of the thieves mocks Jonathan’s family’s efforts to rouse help. He understands that the neighbors and even the police are too frightened to come to the family’s aid. The leader of the thieves, who is well armed, threatens violence against the Iwegbus to get Jonathan to turn over his money.
“Civil Peace” takes place in the year after the Nigerian civil war has ended. Nigerians such as Jonathan feel fortunate simply to still be alive, as evidenced by the “current fashion” of greeting people with the words “Happy survival!” Now they face the monumental task of rebuilding both their country and their lives. Their difficulties are described throughout the story, both through the plight of Jonathan’s family and that of his neighbors and acquaintances. A wealthy neighbor’s home has been reduced to a “mountain of rubble,” and many other poor Nigerians are also rendered homeless. The tools of the “destitute” carpenter who Jonathan hires consist merely of “one old hammer, a blunt plane and a few bent and rusty nails.” The coal mine in Enugu does not reopen, leaving many men with no means of support. Meanwhile, in the midst of this economic chaos, bands of thieves roam the region, stealing money without fear that anyone— even the police—will stop them. The difficulties of this post-war period are also obliquely referenced in Jonathan’s gratefulness at what he does retain: the house that is standing even though it lacks doors, windows, and part of the roof; and his old bicycle, which he places into service as a taxi.
Law and Justice
During the war, lawlessness prevailed, as demonstrated by Jonathan’s recollection of the requisition of his bicycle. A man, who was falsely masquerading as a military officer, commandeered the bicycle and then accepted a bribe of two pounds for its return; in reality, he was a thief.
In the aftermath of the war, this lawlessness continues, and institutions of justice are unable to— or choose not to—perform their duties. The watchman has fallen silent, failing to alert the residents to potential danger. The police do not respond to the Iwegbu family’s pleas for help, failing in their duty to protect Nigeria’s citizens. The thieves, armed with automatic weapons and threatening to enter the flimsy house, pose a possibility of real violence, which the family must thwart without help from anyone else. Additionally, the band of thieves who attack the home are likely soldiers or former soldiers themselves, as was often the case in post-civil war Nigeria. Jonathan’s negative response when the leader asks, “[Y]ou wan make we call soja?” provides justification for making such an assumption.
One of the themes of “Civil Peace” is the work ethic and its positive results. Jonathan makes use of everything at his disposal to achieve economic gain in the lean post-war year. He transforms his bicycle into a taxi, and in the course of two weeks, he pedals
Topics for Further Study
- Pick a scene from the story, other than the robbery. Rewrite it as a short dramatic piece. Do you need to lessen Jonathon’s optimism to make the piece more dramatic? How could you expand on Jonathon’s optimistic outlook through his dialogues with other characters?
- Research the Nigerian civil war and its aftermath, and then compare your findings to Jonathan Iwegbu’s experience. Do you think his character accurately portrays what life was like during this period?
- Research Achebe’s role in Biafra during the civil war. What were your findings?
- Whose attitude do you think is healthier: Jonathan’s or that shared by most of his neighbors? Explain your answer.
- Imagine that you are a Nigerian visual artist. What might one of your works of art look like? Describe it or create it yourself.
approximately eighty miles to earn money. His ability to return his home to a livable condition is also reliant on his work ethic. Because Jonathan goes back to Enugu before his neighbors do so, he is able to collect the zinc, wood, and cardboard that is needed to repair the damage the war has inflicted on the structure. Once resettled in their home, all members of the Iwegbu family set to work. The children pick mangoes to sell to soldiers’ wives and Maria makes breakfast balls to sell to the neighbors. Jonathan uses these earnings to open a bar. While embarking upon this business, Jonathan still continues to regularly check in at the offices of the coal company, where he formerly worked as a miner, to see if it will reopen. The reader can assume that if returning to his former profession would earn him more money, Jonathan would do so. Even the day after the thieves’ terrifying visit finds Jonathan and his family up before dawn already hard at work as if nothing had happened. The descriptors Achebe chooses in these last paragraphs underscore the family’s work ethic; Jonathan is “strapping” a five-gallon container to his back; his wife is “sweating in the open fire.”
The setting of “Civil Peace” is Enugu, the former capital of Biafra (eastern Nigeria) and the surrounding countryside. The most important aspects that define both settings are not the physical geography but the human geography. Both settings are populated with official functionaries and neighbors. These two groups provide a sort of economic protection—for the Iwegbu family makes their living from them—but fail to provide any physical protection. In both the countryside and the city, the Iwegbus carry out business dealings. While living in the countryside outside of Enugu, Maria barters with camp officials for needed goods, and Jonathan is able to earn money by taxiing them and their families to the nearest tarred road. Soldiers and other “lucky people” are some of the few Nigerians with money, and in Enugu, the family is able to earn money by selling mangoes to the soldiers’ wives and homemade food to neighbors “in a hurry to start life again,” and by opening a bar that caters primarily to soldiers.
The Iwegbus live within a community where people know each other but fail to care about its welfare. On the morning after the robbery, the “neighbours and others assembled to commiserate” with the family, and Jonathan regards them as his “sympathizers.” Still, these people failed to respond to the alarm the night before. Clearly, they heard the commotion, for only hours earlier Jonathan was able to hear “all the neighbourhood noises die down one after another.” In their selfish actions, these neighbors define the setting of the Iwegbu’s home in Enugu, which is most likely representative of the settings in other communities within the city.
Dialogue and Dialect
Achebe uses dialogue with great discretion in “Civil Peace.” In the early sections of the story, only two phrases of dialogue are presented, both of which support Jonathan’s optimism: “Happy survival!” and “Nothing puzzles God.” Much of the scene with the thieves, however, is rendered through dialogue that emphasizes the negative aspects of post-war Nigeria. The verbal exchanges between Jonathan and the thieves, concerning physical threats and demands for money, focus on the potential for violence.
The verbal exchange also starkly contrasts the broken English spoken by the thieves and the proper English spoken by Jonathan. The thieves’ mocking of the family’s call for help only reinforces these differences. For example, the family cries out, “We are lost!” but in broken English, this plea becomes “we done loss-o!” Achebe employs broken English for three reasons. The differences between these manners of speech implies that Jonathan is better educated than the thieves are. Also, the use of broken English accurately reflects eastern Nigerian society. Lastly, Achebe often used broken English for comedic affect. So in the robbery scene, the thieves’ role as an instrument of violence is downplayed, which heightens the tension; despite how ineffectual the thieves may sound, they pose a serious danger.
Point of View
The story is told from the third-person point of view. All the events in the story are filtered through Jonathan’s eyes and thoughts. Because of this point of view, the reader is better able to comprehend the unfailing optimism with which Jonathan regards the world and his circumstances. The story’s opening line— “Jonathan Iwegbu counted himself extraordinarily lucky”—also emphasizes this positive frame of mind. This limited point of view, however, does not share how the rest of the Iwegbu family regard their new life and the hard work that it requires. Rather, Maria and the children only exist in the story as an extension of Jonathan, feeling what he feels and valuing what he values.
In Chinua Achebe, C. L. Innes suggested, “The second half of this story, the account of the robbery, suggests that Achebe might well, if he so wished, prove a dramatist.” Innes found that the “episode mingles fear, suspense and hilariously grim comedy.” The thieves never appear “on stage,” that is, the unfolding of the action remains inside the Iwegbu house at all times; the leader of the thieves becomes an off-stage actor and his band of thieves a “horrible chorus.” This section also relies almost primarily on dialogue. The descriptions that are included are generally auditory. “Maria and the children sobbed,” “Jonathan groaned,” “automatic fire rang through the sky”—these are a few examples of descriptions that most resemble play directions.
The First Governments
Nigeria, a British colony, gained its independence in 1960. Each of Nigeria’s regions was the center of one of the major ethnic groups—the Muslim Hausa and Fulani in the north, the Christian Ibo in the southeast, and the Yoruba, who were Muslim or Christian, in the west. The new country’s first government was a parliamentary system, with each region represented in the federal government. The northern region, however, with its large population, soon dominated the entire country politically. Friction increased, particularly between the Hausa/Fulani and the Ibo in the southeast. In January 1966, an Ibo-dominated group of eastern army officers, hoping to rid the country of political corruption, led a coup that toppled the government. They handed over control of Nigeria to the commander-in-chief of the army, Maj. Gen. Johnson T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, who abolished the federal constitution and established a military government.
As Aguiyi-Ironsi attempted to promote national unity by doing away with the traditional regional power structure, political tensions led to tribal conflict. In July 1966, a group of northern army personnel launched another coup, placing Lt. Col. Yakubu Danjuma Gowon in power. He restored the federal system of government in August.
The Civil War
Since the first coup, the Ibo, now living in the north, had experienced violent persecution. Many Ibo were killed, and hundreds of thousands of others fled to their traditional homeland in the south. They began to fear that the July coup was an attempt by the north to gain control of all of Nigeria. These concerns led Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of eastern Nigeria, to boycott the constitutional talks held in October 1966. He pressed for a loosening of the bonds of the federation. Negotiations broke down, however, and in March 1967, eastern Nigeria announced that it no longer recognized Gowon as its head of government. In May 1967, the Ibo declared their secession and the formation of the Republic of Biafra.
A bloody civil war broke out in July as the federal government attempted to reclaim its territory. The Ibo experienced initial military victories, but soon the momentum was swinging in favor of Nigeria. The Biafran capital of Enugu fell to federal troops in October 1967. By April of the following year, the Nigerian army had reconquered most of the eastern territory. In May 1968, federal forces occupied Port Harcourt, Biafra’s last remaining supply link with the outside world. Although the Biafran forces were surrounded, the rebellion continued until January 1970, when they surrendered. Along with heavy military casualties, perhaps as many as one million civilians died during the war, many the result of severe malnutrition.
Post-Civil War Nigeria
Col. Gowon remained in control of the Nigerian government. He initiated a policy of reconciliation with the Biafran rebels and announced his intention to stay in power until 1976, which he set as his target year for the country’s return to an elected civilian government. Many Nigerians criticized this six-year plan, worrying that the military would retain power indefinitely. The Gowon regime also was attacked for its widespread, blatant corruption. Graft (illegal or unfair gain, such as in money), bribery, and nepotism were an integral part of all levels of government. In 1973, the federal government established a special anticorruption police force, known as the X-Squad, whose investigations revealed ingenious forms of extortion and fraud among private businesses and professions, as well as in the government and public corporations. Crime also posed a serious threat to internal security. Armed gangs, often composed of former soldiers, roamed the countryside, robbing, extorting, and kidnapping Nigerians. Sometimes the gangs operated with the approval of the local police or included moonlighting soldiers. Although punishment for these crimes was severe, including public executions, the government was unable to curb the crime rate.
In the face of such difficulties, Gowon came to increasingly depend on a small group of advisers. He also backed off from the 1976 date to return to civilian rule, declaring that it would only worsen the nation’s plight. Protests staged in May and June brought essential services to a standstill. In July
Compare & Contrast
- 1970s: The population, according to the official 1963 Nigerian census (which has many inconsistencies), is about 56 million.
Today: Nigeria’s population is about 123 million.
- 1970s: In 1965, about 152 babies per 1,000 live births in Nigeria die.
Today: In 2000, about 74 babies per 1,000 live births in Nigeria die.
- 1970s: In 1970, life expectancy averages 40 years in Nigeria.
Today: In 2000, life expectancy averages 52 years in Nigeria.
- 1970s: A military government retains power in Nigeria.
Today: In 1999, a new constitution is adopted in Nigeria after nearly sixteen years of military rule, and a civilian government begins to be installed.
- 1960s: Ethnic conflicts lead to the bloody Nigerian civil war, which takes place from 1967 through 1970.
Today: Although ethnic conflict remains in Nigeria, the federal government carefully controls it, bringing a quick end to any serious outbreaks of violence.
1975, Gowon was deposed in a bloodless military coup, and a new government emerged.
“Civil Peace” was first published in the Nigerian journal Okike in 1971, and it was collected in the volume Girls at War and Other Stories, published the following year. Girls at War brought together all of the short stories Achebe had written over the past twenty years. As such, the twelve pieces dealt with a wide range of the Nigerian experience, most notably, custom and religious beliefs, the contrast between traditional and contemporary society, as well as the Nigerian civil war. “Civil Peace” is one of the latter, and takes place after the war has ended.
At the time that the collection was published, most contemporary critics responded favorably. The New Yorker extolled Achebe’s short pieces as “worldly, intelligent, absorbing.” I. A. Menkiti wrote in Library Journal that “the stories are a delight. . . Achebe deals deftly and with unforgettable wit.” The Saturday Review complimented Achebe’s prose as “masterfully simple and concise without ever being mannered.” The reviewer for Choice prophesied two audiences for Girls at War: “people who already admire Achebe’s work [who] will want to discover a new dimension of his talent; [and] others [who] will find a series of engaging African tales.” The war stories, “impressive and moving for dealing so obliquely with the actual carnage,” according to Choice, demonstrated Achebe’s ongoing involvement with the political situation. The Saturday Review lauded them as “the most effective in the book.”
Because Achebe even then was known primarily for his novels (by 1972, four novels had already been published), many contemporary critics compared Girls at War to his longer works. Choice noted that the individual stories were “somewhat slender” and bemoaned the
brevity of the short story form [which] does not allow Achebe to demonstrate his major skill—the contrivance of an inexorably intensifying series of circumstances that produce human disaster for the characters and a rich catharsis for the reader.
The Saturday Review noted a similarity in the “underlying theme” of Achebe’s stories and his longer pieces while Menkiti found that the “collection yields valuable insight into the development of
the author’s narrative style as well as the thematic concerns which were later to shape his major works.”
In the decades following initial publication of “Civil Peace,” literary scholars also analyzed the relationship of the stories to the novels. Whereas G. D. Killam concluded in The Writings of Chinua Achebe that the short stories in Girls at War “reveal the same interests as the longer fiction” thematically, C. L. Innes carried this comparison further in Chinua Achebe. Wrote Innes,
Whereas the novels have told the stories of those who aspired to be central to their communities or the nation, these stories dwell on the perspectives and situations of those who have never seen themselves as holders of power—for the most part they are concerned with physical and psychological survival.
Like Jonathan Iwegbu in “Civil Peace,” Innes writes, “they generally see themselves as more or less lucky rather than good or clever.”
Readers have also responded to and questioned other aspects of “Civil Peace.” In his essay “Politics and the African Writer,” Kolawole Ogungbesan stated his belief that while Achebe’s war stories “minutely recapitulated the ugly facts of life in Biafra” during the war period, they were not “good work[s] of art.” Ogungbesan compared Achebe’s efforts to those of a journalist: “A work of art should create, not just copy,” he declared. Innes, however, found that the story surpassed even the boundaries of short fiction, suggesting that the second half of the story showed that Achebe “might well, if he wished prove a dramatist. The episode mingles fear, suspense and hilariously grim comedy.” Innes did raise one possible point of disputation: the reader’s response. Wrote Innes, the
reader might well view the wit, energy, compassion and muted optimism of this story in the aftermath of the civil war with something of the admiring incredulity with which he or she responds to Jonathan Iwegbu’s unfailing optimism as he counts his blessings after the devastation of the war.
Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses the optimism and pessimism in Achebe’s short story.
Achebe’s “Civil Peace” shares one man’s experience in a tumultuous post-civil war period. Published
What Do I Read Next?
- Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, first published in 1958, is one of the most widely read African novels and is considered an international classic. It chronicles the life of an Ibo community leader in colonial Nigeria.
- Wole Soyinka is a Nobel Prize-winning writer. His 1965 play, The Strong Breed, reveals his disillusionment with African authoritarian leadership and Nigerian society.
- Destination Biafra (1982) is Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta’s novel about the Nigerian civil war.
- Ngugi wa Thiongo’s (also known as James Ngugi) novel, A Grain of Wheat(1967), focuses on the social, moral, and racial issues of the Kenyan struggle for independence from its colonial rulers and its aftermath.
in 1971, only a short time after the war in Nigeria ended, the story chronicles a perilous era at the same time that Nigerians were still undergoing the sort of trials that it describes. As in his other short stories focusing on the war, Achebe does not attempt to maintain an authorial sense of detachment. “Civil Peace” represents Achebe’s ongoing social commitment to his culture, his people, and the fight against injustice.
“Civil Peace” captures a spirit of optimism. After three years, the bloody, deadly war is finally over. Though the people of eastern Nigeria, the former Biafra, have lost their bid for independence, with the end of the conflict, they can refocus their attention. Now, instead of funneling their energies into either the war effort or merely getting by, they can work for better, more prosperous times. The story opens on an extremely positive note:
Jonathan Iwegbu counted himself extraordinarily lucky. ‘Happy survival!’ meant so much more to him than just a current fashion of greeting old friends in the first hazy days of peace. It went deep to his heart.
Jonathan is sensitive to his plight and that of other Biafrans. He knows he is lucky to have escaped the war with “five inestimable blessings— his head, his wife Maria’s head and the heads of three out of their four children.”
After the war ends, wherever Jonathan goes he encounters yet “another miracle waiting for him.” He digs up the bicycle that he buried for safekeeping during the war, and he is able to put it into service as a taxi after only a little greasing with palm oil. Thus, at a time when many people had few material possessions at their disposal or lacked the means to make a living, Jonathan is able to embark on building his new life. His occupational success, which he deems good fortune, is later contrasted to the occupational disarray that his former colleagues at the coal mine experience. Whereas, he has created the job of running his bar, many of them are unemployed and spend their days and weeks waiting outside the mining offices, hoping to hear news of its reopening.
Upon his first trip back to Enugu, another “monumental blessing” stands before Jonathan: his “little zinc house.” While other people might bemoan its loss of doors, windows, and five sheets off the roof, Jonathan brushes any concerns aside. Again, he chooses to spend his time and energy being grateful for what he still retains, not regretful for what he has lost because of the war. He also rationalizes any misfortune. For instance, with regard to his house, since he is one of the early returnees to Enugu, he is able to readily collect enough materials to repair it. Soon, the “overjoyed” family is able to move back in. The house even becomes a “greater blessing” as it allows Jonathan to open a bar, which turns out to be his primary source of income.
“Nothing puzzles God,” is Jonathan’s favorite saying to express his wonder as he encounters all of these miracles. Writes C. L. Innes in Chinua Achebe, “[f]or Jonathan, every small act of recovery—even the money earned by the hard work of his wife and himself is ex gratia, an act of grace bestowed upon the lucky by the unfathomable gods.” Indeed, when he receives his “egg-rasher” payment from the government, even after waiting in lines for five days, he compares the egg-rasher to a “windfall” and the day to Christmas. In his eyes, the twenty pounds is a gift from the government, not personal earnings. He thus denies the hard work that he performed in the past, which led him to possess the Biafran rebel money that he then exchanged for the ex-gratia payment.
Even after losing this enormous sum of money to the band of thieves, Jonathan does not forsake his optimistic outlook. In this respect, he stands in stark contrast to another man who lost his egg-rasher money and then “collapse[d] into near-madness in an instant.” When Jonathan’s neighbors come over to sympathize with his loss, Jonathan displays composure. He has neither the inclination, nor the time, to share their regret. Significantly, as they are speaking their words of commiseration, Jonathan has mentally and physically already moved on. “‘I count it as nothing,’ he told his sympathizers, his eyes on the rope he was tying.” His eyes are fixed on the future—the rope that represents the earnings that will come his way through his hard work and that of his family. Also significantly, Jonathan imputes no blame on his neighbors or manifests any bitterness toward them for not coming to the aid of his family. The story closes with Jonathan’s oft-repeated expression of hope: “Nothing puzzles God.”
Despite the many notes of optimism that ring throughout the story, a darker undercurrent runs through it, which is discernible from the very first paragraph. When the narration enumerates Jonathan’s most important blessings as the lives of three of his four children, no regret for the little boy who was lost is evident. In the second paragraph, the narrative style turns even grimmer as the boy is obliquely compared to the bicycle, which Jonathan buried during the war “in the little clearing in the bush where the dead of the camp, including his own youngest son, were buried.” After the war had ended, the bicycle is metaphorically and physically brought back from the dead, becoming a “miracle,” but the boy is never mentioned again. Another dark note is tacitly raised by the Iwegbu children’s mango-selling business. They collect the fruit near the military cemetery, and with this minor detail, the narration implies that any present success of Nigeria
“Now, instead of funneling their energies into either the war effort or merely getting by, they can work for better, more prosperous times.”
will be based only upon the deaths of those who suffered during the war.
Similarly, while Jonathan downplays the psychological effect of the thieves’ visit, the menace posed by this band alludes to the dangers inherent in contemporary Nigerian society. The house is hardly a miracle anymore, for behind “its rickety old door [that] could have fallen down,” Jonathan and his family can find no true safety. The thieves represent modern devices of carnage. They are armed with automatic weapons that “rang through the sky.” Their leader’s voice carries “like a lone shot in the sky.” They make threats to enter the house if they don’t get the money they demand. To keep them out, Jonathan is forced to swear on the lives of his wife and children, his “inestimable blessings,” that he only has twenty pounds. With this declaration, Jonathan shows the close linkage between life and death in post-civil war Nigeria.
Jonathan also explains to his neighbors why he does not care about the loss of his “egg-rasher” payment. As he points out, he did not “depend on it last week” and instead relied on his own labor to rebuild his life. However, the words that he uses to express the insignificance of this loss actually shows that Jonathan—and Nigerians like him—have experienced terrible losses solely because of the war. He compares the “egg-rasher” to “other things that went with the war.” But the reader knows that Nigerians lost precious, irreplaceable possessions in the war: children, homes, the ability to earn a living, a sense of security and safety. Therefore, despite Jonathan’s disavowal, the egg-rasher must be a serious loss. “I say, let egg-rasher perish in the flames! Let it go where everything else has gone,” Jonathan declares, but likening the theft of the money to its immolation in fire acknowledges that the war has actually brought about useless, devastating destruction, the kind that cannot be so easily forgotten or mended. G. D. Killam points out the discrepancy between what Jonathan claims to feel and what he must be feeling in The Writings of Chinua Achebe: “And though he says that he can accept his losses in peacetime as he has accepted those in war . . . there is really faint consolation for him and little to distinguish ‘civil peace’ from civil war.”
The words of the leader of the thieves also supports Killam’s assertion. “Trouble done finish,” the leader tells Jonathan. “War done finish. . . . No Civil War again. This time na Civil Peace. No be so?” Jonathan and his family lost almost everything during the civil war. Now, when the war is over and the country should be at peace, they once again lose their most valuable possessions. The implication seems to be that there is really little difference in Nigeria during the civil war and after the civil war. In both times, lawlessness prevails with little hope for substantial improvement.
That a reader can find both optimistic and pessimistic, both earnest and cynical, messages within the text of a story as brief as “Civil Peace” should come as little surprise. The instability of a post-war period may easily engender ambiguity within all aspects of society and generate vastly different responses from those who live through it. Jonathan Iwegbu and the energetic hope with which he approaches the reconstruction of his life, combined with the undercurrent of insecurity inherent in Nigeria, represent a wide gamut of that country’s experience. In a 1969 interview, Achebe declared, “I believe it’s impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest.” “Civil Peace” is Achebe’s protest against the anguish the Nigerian civil war has brought and his message of brighter hopes for the future.
Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on “Civil Peace,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer. In this essay, she examines how Chinua Achebe’s ideas about the roles of the story and the storyteller in society are reflected in his short story.
At first blush, Achebe’s short story “Civil Peace” appears to be a sad tale of one man’s failure to cash in on the meager rewards of post-civil war Nigeria. Jonathan’s windfall of twenty Nigerian pounds is taken from him in a midnight scene filled with portents of violence and bloodshed. But, if the reader examines Achebe’s own words about the storyteller’s responsibility in society, “Civil Peace” can be construed as a story that teaches its readers about survival and about the merits of a never-say-die attitude.
In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, aired in January 1994 on the Canadian Broadcasting System’s show Writers and Company and later reprinted in The Malahat Review, Achebe talked about the writer’s role:
I don’t think the world needs to be told stories of despair; there is enough despair as it is without anyone adding to it. If we have any role at all, I think it’s the role of optimism, not blind or stupid optimism but the kind which is meaningful, one that is rather close to that notion of the world which is not perfect, but which can be improved. In other words, we don’t just sit and hope that things will work out; we have a role to play to make that come about. That seems to me to be the reason for the existence of the writer.
As with many of his stories, Achebe presents “Civil Peace” in the form of fable or a traditional tale—a story that teaches a lesson and culminates in a moral. In his interview with Wachtel, Achebe noted that he grew up fascinated with the tales of the Ibo, Achebe’s tribe of origin in Nigeria, and remembers choosing to listen to the Ibo storytellers even while being reared as a Christian to reject many of the indigenous ways of his ancestors. Like a traditional tale, “Civil Peace” is told in the third person, and Achebe tells readers little about his main character except the information critical to the telling of the tale. This makes for a lean and clear account proceeding directly to the message Achebe wishes to deliver, the importance of making right choices in the face of challenges. “I think good stories attract us and good stories are also moral stories . . . and I think there is something in us which impels us towards good stories,” said Achebe.
The tone Achebe uses for his story of Jonathan and his experiences after the civil war between Nigeria and the state of Biafra, which declared its independence in 1967, is that of a man who understands the limitations of his position but seeks to function as successfully as he can within those limitations. Jonathan never complains but is cautious and careful in his dealings and always looks toward what he has been able to save from the years of bloody conflict in which hundreds of thousands of his countrymen have died. This is not a man who is blind to the great tragedy around him, so whatever he has gives him strength to push on.
At the same time, Jonathan does not operate with the blind optimism of the philosopher Pangloss, a character in Voltaire’s play Candide who embraces the attitude that he lives in “the best of possible worlds,” despite the numerous misfortunes and calamities that befall him. The greeting of the day after the civil war, “Happy survival,” is Jonathan’s doctrine, indicating his willingness to surmount almost any calamity with endurance and hard work. As well, this greeting makes clear that Jonathan understands the circumstances in which he and his neighbors find themselves.
Achebe presents Jonathan immediately as a confidently resourceful man, despite the loss of one of his four children, ready to put his family’s life back together again. Instead of fighting with the soldier for his bicycle, Jonathan “suspecting that he might be amenable to influence,” gives the soldier money in exchange for the bicycle. Even though this costs him money that was meant for his family’s immediate provisions, Jonathan’s quick thinking and pragmatism pays off in the end because he is able to use the bicycle a year later to make money. In fact, Achebe uses this scene to illustrate a moment of post-war rebirth: after burying the bicycle to prevent any further challenges to its ownership, Jonathan unearths it, giving the valuable machine a new and lucrative life as a taxi.
Jonathan sees any good fortune that comes his way as a miracle, a gift from God. In fact, his response to much of what happens in the story— both good and bad—is to say in amazement “nothing puzzles God.” But these are not the words of a man giving in to circumstance; rather the phrase echoes Achebe’s belief that the world is not meant to be perfect, but a work in progress, with humanity’s participation. The Ibo people have a different notion of creation than do most Western societies. In his interview with Wachtel, Achebe acknowledged that, in the Ibo view, “God is constantly having a conversation with humanity on how to improve the environment. It was not finished in six days; we have a role to play.” He adds that the Ibo do not struggle against the fact of imperfection, but believe that it is their duty to make the world a better place through their work. Evil is to be expected and recognized—this is the only way to proceed in the world.
Readers who come to “Civil Peace” without at least a brief acquaintance with Achebe’s ideas about
“To allow Jonathan the possible satisfaction of reprisal, in Achebe’s mind, would be negligent and in blatant disregard of the influence a storyteller traditionally holds in the Nigerian and Ibo societies.”
the roles of writing and writers in the development of a nation and its people might find themselves confused. Why doesn’t Jonathan fight the injustice occurring amid the breakdown of civil society? Why doesn’t he fight off the criminal gang at his door? Why isn’t he angry that his neighbors, as well as the police, are so unresponsive to his cries for help? But in the Ibo setting, Jonathan’s responses to the events around him are perfectly reasonable. A close examination of those characters in the story who do call out for revenge or expect assistance against wrongdoers makes clear that those who recognize the power of evil and, instead of ranting against it, move toward a practical solution, are the most successful. For example, Jonathan recounts the story of a man who received his post-war ex gratia payment (or “egg-rasher” payment, as “few could manage its proper official name”), only to have it stolen almost immediately. The unlucky man’s response was to “collapse into near-madness,” a reaction that the unsympathetic surrounding crowd, as well as Jonathan, thinks unnecessary and unproductive. Jonathan makes sure that when he receives his payment, it is deposited into his pocket and protected by his hand.
Nevertheless, despite his precautions, Jonathan later loses the money to a gang that robs him at his house. He calls out to his neighbors and to the police for help, but soon realizes that the situation’s outcome is entirely up to him. Jonathan is upset but practical in his response: “What is egg-rasher? Did I depend on it last week?. . . Nothing puzzles God.” The morning after the robbery, his family is back to their usual activities, trying to survive in the harsh post-war economy, as the egg-rasher was no greater than “the other things that went with the war,” according to Jonathan. Achebe’s words are echoed here: the world is a progressive effort, and man’s job is to work with God to make it a better place. Crying over the lost money would not bring it back, but getting on with the day’s efforts would soon bring more wealth to his family.
Jonathan, with his practicality, is also contrasted to his neighbors, who insist on endlessly waiting at the Coal Corporation, expecting to be hired back to their pre-war jobs. Jonathan checks back with the company a few times, just in case work does become available, but after a period he decides that what he has now is far better than what could be at the mining company. He takes matters into his own hands and “faced his palm wine bar” and his family’s other entrepreneurial efforts. While he could have given in to anger at not getting his old job back, he believes that a successful person cannot rely on capricious events.
In Charles H. Rowell’s 1989 interview with Achebe, published in Conversations With Chinua Achebe, the author stressed the educational responsibility of his fellow African writers. “The story of today has to do with raising the standards of education of the country, you see,” remarked Achebe. This sentiment is a guiding force for Jonathan’s actions in “Civil Peace.” To have Jonathan violently strike out against those who do him harm— whether it is the government of the army or a group of thieves—would run counter to Achebe’s understanding of the power of writing and storytelling. Achebe feels a great responsibility in the telling of his tales and expects his readers to see the morality in his protagonists’ actions and decisions. To allow Jonathan the possible satisfaction of reprisal, in Achebe’s mind, would be negligent and in blatant disregard of the influence a storyteller traditionally holds in the Nigerian and Ibo societies. Speaking of his readers, Achebe commented to Rowell, “They are not expecting frivolity. They are expecting literature to say something important to help them in their struggle with life.”
Achebe places Jonathan in the midst of this struggle—the same one faced by many of his fellow Nigerians after the Biafran civil war. After a war, when the rules of civil society have been bent and broken, each person must daily make decisions that impact the survival of his or her family. The temptation to join others who simply wait around for help, to fall to larcenous behavior, or to become bitter at the sight of so much unpunished wrongdoing, can be especially great. In “Civil Peace,” Achebe celebrates the uncelebrated heroes of a war, the ones who come back to their homes and try to pick up the pieces of a shattered nation, one small affirmative act at a time.
Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on “Civil Peace,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Achebe, Chinua, and Charles H. Rowell, “Chinua Achebe with Charles H. Rowell,” in Conversations with Chinua Achebe, edited by Bernth Lindfors, University Press of Mississippi, 1997, pp. 165–84.
Achebe, Chinua, and Eleanor Wachtel, “Chinua Achebe with Eleanor Wachtel,” in Malahat Review, No. 113, December 1995, pp. 53–66.
Innes, C. L., Chinua Achebe, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Killam, G. D., The Writings of Chinua Achebe, Heinemann, 1977.
Menkiti, I. A., review in Library Journal, May 1, 1973, p. 1507.
Ogungbesan, Kolawole, “Politics and the African Writer: The Example of Chinua Achebe,” in Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe, edited by C. L. Innes and Bernth Lindfors, Three Continents Press, 1978, pp. 37–46. Originally published in African Studies Review, Vol. 17, 1974, pp. 43–54.
Review in Choice, October 1973, p. 1203.
Review in New Yorker, April 14, 1973, p. 155.
Review in Saturday Review, April 1973, p. 95.
Achebe, Chinua, Conversations with Chinua Achebe, edited by Bernth Lindfors, University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
The collected interviews span from 1962 through 1995 and offer a representative sample of Achebe’s public views.
_______, Home and Exile, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Based on three of Achebe’s lectures, this work examines the Nigerian culture and Europe’s influence on its development.
_______, Trouble With Nigeria, Heinemann, 1984.
Achebe discusses the problems faced by contemporary Nigeria, including tribalism, political corruption, and prejudice.
Lyons, Robert, and Chinua Achebe, Another Africa, Doubleday, 1998.
This work fuses Lyons’ photographs with Achebe’s poetry and an essay to create a view of present-day Africa and the issues it faces.
Ohaeto, Ezenwa, Chinua Achebe, Indiana University Press, 1997.
Written by a former student of Achebe’s, this biography pays special attention to Nigerian history and Achebe’s support of human rights in the country.
Palmer, Eustace, An Introduction to the African Novel, Heinemann, 1972.
Palmer examines the works of twelve African novelists for their literary significance.
Petersen, Kirsten Hoist, and Anna Rutherford, eds., Chinua Achebe, Heinemann, 1991.
To honor Achebe’s sixtieth birthday, writers and academics from around the world contributed essays to this collection examining his role as a writer, editor, and literary spokesperson.