Emeka Ikechi, PhD
Department of English and Communication Arts
Ignatius Ajuru University of Education
Rumuolumeni, Port Harcourt
This paper examines the attitude of leaders in the fictional Africa States of Amatu and Sologa and the resolve of Okolo to seek for the moral rejuvenation of the rulers and their subjects. Determined to achieve this feat, he challenges the powers that be and is liquidated by the oppressor together with Tuere. This is a society where evil thrives and the people are hopeless. They live in fear and are monitored round the clock by the agents of the oppressor. They are haunted down, oppressed, intimidated and eliminated at will and there is no justice anywhere. The hope however lies on the revelation of Ukule the cripple who reiterates that Okolo’s spoken words will not die. It is our hope that African States should return to the path of honour, good leadership and accountability to their citizens.
The most inferential moral critic of the 20th century. Irving Babbit states that “literature must help us recognize the reality of evil” (70). The literary writer does not write in a vacuum. He writes about the social experiences in his society using his characters in disserting human attitudes and behaviours. This agrees with the belief that writers have to identity with the problems of their society. They should not sit at the fence and watch their society degenerate into evil. It is their duty to speak out in such circumstances with the intention of correcting the ills in the society. Gabriel Okara does just this in The Voice where corruption arising from bad leadership has eaten deep into the fabric of the society.
In discussing this topic, we shall apply the Moral Theory of literacy criticism. The profound moral influence that literature is capable of exerting on the society has remained of interest in literary criticism since Plato banished all artistic works from his Ideal Republic except hymns to the gods and praises of famous men. Many writers and critics however including Aristotle and other Renaissance critics felt that poetry incited men to virtue through representing the beauty of noble actions. In an article entitled “Genius and Taste” published in 1918, Irving Babbit attacks critics who value “primitivism” and “enthusiasm” above decorum and restraint and calls such critics “corrupters of the literacy conscience” (54).
According to him, great literature conforms to standards, to “the ethnical norm that sets bounds to the eagerness of the creator to express himself” (54). To Paul Elmer More, it is the critic’s duty to determine the moral tendency of literary works and to judge them on that basis. The greatest critics he posits are
Discriminators between the false and the true, the deformed and the normal; preachers of harmony and proportion and order, prophets of the religion of taste (80).
Moral criticism therefore evaluates a work of art in moral terms, judging it according to the ethical principles which the critic feels should govern human life. Herein lies the appropriateness of this theory to Okara’s The Voice which discusses the societal issues of corruption, oppression, violence, murder, bad leadership, etc. In the novel, Okara aims at moral rectitude and a just society.
After his education, Okolo, the protagonist of the story returns to his village Amatu but realizes that his society has become morally and spiritually bankrupt. It has lost its human values and replaced them with materialism learnt from the Whiteman. He begins a search for ‘It’ which is the value of an individual’s life in relationship to the lives of his fellow men otherwise known as the meaning of life. The quest questions the status quo and Chief Izongo and his elders feel that the restive young man must be stopped. Okolo takes refuge in the hut of Tuere, a women from Amatu who had been exiled because she was branded a witch but later gives himself up when Izongo and his men threatened to burn down Tuere’s hut in the forest. He is arrested and taken to the palace of Izongo and asked to join them or be banished. He refuses and is finally ordered to leave Amatu. Izongo and the elders agree that if he showed up again in Amatu, they would make sure that they send him away forever.
He leaves for Sologa, a near-by town thinking he will find ‘It’ there but is arrested of attempting to seduce a girl in the boat on his way and is made to swear an oath before he is absolved of the accusation. Sologa, the big city across the rivers is also infected with the same moral disease of Amatu with the Big One in charge. The police, the informers on the street and the Whiteman who runs the lunatic asylum are all his agents. Like Chief Izongo, he represents the perverted ideals of democracy. Okolo finds himself in the lunatic asylum but is rescued by the family of the girl whom he had been accused of seducing who had come to take him, to swear an oath. Fed up with the situation of things at Sologa, he goes back to Amatu when Izongo was celebrating his victory over him and the earlier decision of the chief and his elders to make sure he never sets feet on Amatu forever is invoked. Men led by Izongo .ties him up with Tuere inside a canoe and set them adrift. They perish in a whirlpool but Ukule the cripple promises that his philosophy of life will live on. As with Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah Okara’s The Voice “is also a novel of hope, for the author shows that even the most devastating political and emotional turmoil gives way to renewal” (Ochaeto 252-253).
In the story, Okolo seeks for the essence of things in Amatu where “fear has locked up the insides of the low and the insides of the high are filled up with nothing but yam” (34). His search for ‘It’ which is his quest for moral rectitude brings him into conflict with chief Izongo who has the elders and the towns’ people on his side. He reminds Okolo that “asking the bottom of things in this town will take you no place” (35). Before Okolo, only the woman Tuere, eventually ostracized as a witch, had dared to confront Izongo and he does not see her treatment as a moral norm that should govern human life.
Outside Okolo, others have different interpretations of ‘It’. The carver, a prototype of the artist, seems to have found his own form of it: ‘It’ is to believe in everything or believe in nothing. The carver believes and puts even his shadow into creating faces out of wood and his inside is sweeter than sweetness” (85). A group of people whom Okolo meets in •a scene in an eatery in Sologa themselves believe that “the people who have the sweetest insides are the think nothing people and we here trying to be like them” (84). Also, a Whiteman, an archetype of a modern administrator advises Okolo: “Be sensible and be a good lad. This country will need men like you if only you learn to shut your eyes at certain things” (88). Okolo embarks on the search for ‘It’ because what was there was no longer there and things had no more roots” (23). His primary goal is to dig out and reinstate a system of values repudiated, concealed or even suppressed by the political elite in Africa which thrives in corruption and prides itself in its own subservience to the indoctrination brought about by the white dominators. Chinua Acheba puts it succinctly:
The writer cannot except to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. In fact, he should march right in front. For he is after all as Ezekiel Mphalele says in his African Image – the sensitive point of his community (45).
This political class is dictatorial discernible in the novel’s central theme of the corrupting effect of dictatorship. Its atmosphere is dark with evil and fear. To Emmanuel Obiechina, the novel
reflects the mood of frightened disillusionment in which contemporary African intellectuals have watched the high democratic expectation of the nationalist period give way to crushing dictatorship in different parts of Africa (103).
Chief Izongo, the villain in the story represents a post independent dictator and the faceless dictator as well as the Big One ruling over Sologa. Such autocrats enriched themselves after the departure of the colonial administrators.
In agreeing that “literature is a criticism of life” (Preminger et a1 172), Okara portrays authoritarianism as compelling and destructive of human dignity. All Chief Izongo’s counsellors including the pompous Abadi are stooges and so is the white official who as security chief in the service of the Big One supervises the concentration camp where political opponents are imprisoned. They have pawned their consciences and speak the language of opportunism. Obiechina describes how the people are held hostage thus: “Violence and bribery, threats and intimidation, imprisonment and psychological cruelty, surveillance, fear and propaganda are all used to keep the people down” (105).
In Amatu, Izongo keeps the people in line through violence and other dictatorial ploys such as gifts and bribes. He uses Okolo to show how to use terror to crush an opponent. He uses propaganda first to isolate him by declaring him insane and when that fails, he uses terrorism. He is arrested after a nightmarish chase in which he is manhandled by a mob. When he failed in the first attempt, he has him banished but annihilates him when he returns. What chief Izongo wants of his subjects is blind, unquestioning allegiance. He is in no mood for criticism or. dissent. In Amatu, there is therefore no democracy but puppetry.
The people crawl around, enslaved by fear. They talk in whispers and visit one another at night because of the network of surveillance employed by •the dictator. The messengers that went to arrest Okolo reveal that what they say might be used against them by the dictator. One of them “throws his eyes back and front, left and right and speaks with lowered voice” to the other one: “speak of this thing no more. The ears of Amatu are open. If this the ear Izongo enters, we will fall from our jobs. You know this yourself’ (12).
Surveillance is even more pronounced in Sologa of the Big One. The agents named “listeners” stand at street corners, appear in public places, and filter into private accommodations, their ears in all direction and their eyes “looking at no one but looking at everyone like portraits hanging on a wall” (94) . On the night of his arrival, Okolo is accosted by two security men who detached themselves from the darkness and take claim to him to where he would find ‘It’, only to drag him through the darkness and fling him into a dungeon containing human skeletons. Okolo’s crime is that he thinks and transforms his thinking into words, questioning words. Thinking and questioning distinguish him from the “think-nothing”, pliable citizens and this quality marks him out as a danger to the authorities. After all as Obechina puts it, “questioning is one way of answering opposition, because implicit in the question is a certain defiance, a refusal to acquiesce in what is” (108).He revolts against the new materialistic society in which “everybody’s inside in now filled with money, cars and concrete houses and money being scattered all around” (48). His search is for authentic values as against the capitalist tendencies of the new African states. Thus, the clash in this novel is between the forces of light and darkness, between tradition and modernity.
In the conflict, the three social outcasts: Okolo, Tuere and Ukule are on one side against the other members of the society. Chief Izongo, Tuere and Okolo represent forces in a changing African society. Izongo represents the old resistant political order. Tuere shows discontent with the old, but she is uneducated and inarticulate; Okolo manifests a voice which bids the people to seek the “straight thing” in their new society. For Eustace Palmer, “The Voice is a cry of protest against the spiritual sterility, inhumanity, and materialism that Okara sees everywhere about him…” (158). He therefore calls for a revolution and like Christ and other prophets who questioned the bases of their society he is liquidated. His prophet-like figure is reinforced by the little we know about his past and the next-to-nothing information about his physical appearance and personal habits.
The style of Okara in The Voice is worthy of special mention. Ijaw idioms are woven as rhetorical devices which complements the experience of the protagonist. The novel is written in the style of folklore. Fairy-tales and the symbolism of a fable or religious quest as well as the repetition of words emphasizes the connotative effects of the action. This device is used by Okara during Okolo’s visit to Sologa:
So Okolo walked in Sologa of the Big One passing frustrated eyes, ground-looking eyes, harlot eyes, nothing-looking eyes, hot eyes, cold eyes, bruised eyes, despairing eyes, nothing-carrying eyes, grabbling eyes, dust filled eyes, aping eyes (90).
The eyes reflect not just their outward appearance but also the inner recesses of the minds of their bearers. The key world here is ‘eyes’ and by the simple act of repeating it with different qualifications, Okara gives us not only a vivid sense of the hero’s reaction to the clamour of the city, but at the same time, a sketch of collective humanity. The canoe with which the protagonist travels to and from Sologa is a macrocosm of the world of the novel in which lies, accusations, injustice and division are rife. People in the boat as in the world of the novel try to undo each other.
Morally speaking, Okolo is involved in a moral regeneration of a society that has lost its soul to corrupt leaders. His assistance to the young bride in the boat scene is considered part of his duty to humanity. He offers shelter to her as assistance to the needy which was misunderstood. In pursuit of morality in the society he abandons his training and focuses on the moral values of his society. The protagonist’s relocation to Sologa from Amatu was also for this same purpose.
On the other hand, his quest amounts to a revolution in line with the Marxist principle. He revolts against the evils in the society and suffers many condemnations, imprisonment, ostracism and finally pays the supreme sacrifice for the good of the society and its people. Before him, Tuere also spoke against the evil in Amatu and like Okolo, she was also ostracized having been declared a witch. She also suffers on behalf of the society and dies with the protagonist. The revolutionary tendency has however taken root in the society for Ukule promises to keep Okolo’s ideas alive.
A clear look reveals the story of Okara in The Voice as a political, economic and social satirization of newly independent African States. Politically, those who have taken over the government of the newly independent African States are very corrupt. They have succeeded in silencing the people through intimidation, violence, murder and other wicked acts. The governed must obey and summit to their high handedness without questioning them as those who do so end up in their bad books. They have cornered the resources of the people and converted them to private use. Fear, as revealed by Izongo’s messengers has eaten deep into the hearts of men. The people are therefore forced to submit to the whims and caprices of the powers that be. Christopher Nwodo writes: “At the level of the obvious, the failure of leadership is the major issue” (134).
The wealth of the land has also been corned by the rulers leaving the masses as poor folks. They do not have the interest of the people at heart. What matters to them are the many ceremonies and parties organized with the people’s money. In Amatu as in Sologa, only the rulers and their cohorts are sure of their tomorrow as they squander the wealth of the land on themselves. Capitalism is the order of the day in both communities and to continue to enjoy themselves, they declare an enemy anybody that ask questions concerning morality in the land.
Socially, Amatu as well as Sologa is rotten. Things have turned upside down and what was there is no more. The society smells of corruption. There is no justice anywhere and equity is lacking in the society. Anybody who tries to ask for them has to be eliminated. People’s fundamental rights have been bridged and taken away from them.
The society is hostile and uninhabitable for the people. Okolo could neither find peace of mind in Amatu nor in Sologa. The boat scene testifies to the level of degradation and disunity among the people. People are prepared to accuse others of crimes they did not commit and went at length to convict the innocent. Those in the streets are hypocritical. They are there to serve the interest of the powers that be as was demonstrated by the police, surveillance agents and officers of the asylum. An evil ridden society indeed. Udemagwuna Isaac Uzoka summarizes the state of evil in our society: “The terrible evils of indiscipline, lack of faith and commitment and corruption have eaten deep into the nations fabric… greed, dishonesty, armed robbery… ostentation, selfishness, abound in our society” (207).
The faint hearted may think that darkness has enveloped both Amatu and Sologa with the demise of the conscience of the people. Hope is however restored in the promise of Ukule the cripple that Okolo’s wonds will not come to nothing. Examined against the fear that had reigned in the land after the death of Okolo and Tuere, a new dawn is assured.
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