Chike’s School Days by Chinua Achebe: A Tale of Alienation and Belonging
Literature can be extremely personal and serve as a reflection of the experiences of the author. Chinua Achebe is one of the most prominent contemporary Nigerian writers, with a unique writing style and even more remarkable stories to tell. In his works, Achebe sheds light on the cultural disparity between different communities. This essay aims to discuss one of Achebe’s works, Chike’s School Days, and examine how the theme of alienation, culture shock, and religious discrimination are portrayed in the story. The essay will argue that religion and culture shock in the story are utilized to show the importance of belonging to a like-minded community.
Chike’s School Days is viewed as one of the most prominent works of Chinua Achebe. Although the story is relatively short, it incorporates many themes, including freedom of religion, culture shock, cultural and identity crisis, and alienation. Christianity, in particular, is given the center stage in the story, with Achebe masterfully portraying the naivety of the African community showing it as a force hindering the pursuit of knowledge. Achebe begins his story by introducing Chike, an outsider in his community, and his family. Because of his Christian upbringing and being born in an unconventional family, the boy is viewed as an outcast.
Chike’s parents, who converted to Christianity before he was born, chose to raise him and his sisters “in the ways of the white man” (Achebe 28). The parents of the protagonist effectively alienate him and his sisters from their local community, culture, and traditions, making them foreigners in their own hometown. From the beginning of the story, Achebe shows that Chike and his family are outsiders in the village, despite being born and raised there.
Alienation is one of the main themes of the short story. The hero is isolated from others in the community. Chike and his siblings lead a completely different life compared to the other children in his village. They pray and sing Christian hymns and are even prohibited from accepting food from their neighbors, with his mother saying that it is the heathen food offered to pagan idols (Achebe 28). As a dutiful son, Chike obeys his parents, refusing to take a piece of yam from a neighbor (Achebe 28).
This refusal is criticized by the neighbor, who did not mean offense by offering food. However, the woman criticizes Chike and his mother, an Osu, a person not born free, stating that they are “full of pride” (Achebe 28). Overall, the parents’ decision to subscribe to a religion alien to the country and to follow foreign traditions robs Chike of a chance to connect with his community and culture.
Another prominent theme of the short story is the clash between cultures. Chike is alienated from his community because he is the product of another culture and a new way of thinking. For example, as his father was free-born and his mother was an Osu, they would not be allowed to marry if they followed the faith of their people (Achebe 30). Notably, the only person who supported Amos and Sarah in their decision to marry was a white missionary (Achebe 29).
As converted Christians, they adopted other values, which they later passed on to their children. Thus, Chike is left struggling for identity, relevance, and acceptance in a community that would have accepted him if it were not for his Christian faith. The clash of cultures is emphasized by the incident with the neighbor, when the young boy refuses the yam, showing his allegiance to his mother’s religion without being able to fully understand it. Overall, the young boy is raised with a foreign religion and culture that will always put him in conflict with others in his country.
Symbolism is widely implemented in the story to illustrate the protagonist’s identity crisis. African names are extremely meaningful, with each of them having a particular significance in society. Chike’s full name, John Chike Obiajulu, despite containing two African names, still begins with an English one, further separating him from his peers and reminding them that he is different (Achebe 27). Moreover, the name John is of great religious significance and is highly symbolic.
Saint John is one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ and is one of the most recognized figures in Christianity (Cecilia 6). Thus, by giving their son the name John, Amos and Sarah symbolically make him the disciple of Jesus Christ and announce his belonging to Christianity. Meanwhile, the name Obiajulu is the name of the Igbo people, meaning “the mind, at last, is at rest” (Cecilia 6). It can be argued that the names John and Obiajulu are representative of two different cultures and show that the boy belongs to two contrasting worlds: one of the Igbo community and one of baptized Africans.
The culture clash and the identity crisis of the protagonist finally come to an end when he begins attending school. Chike is sent to the “religious class,” where local children spent time learning more about Christianity and signing Christian hymns along with English nursery rhymes and learning catechism (Achebe 31). According to Cecilia (7), the catechism is the practice of teaching “Christian doctrine and morals to the people who are baptized.” Thus, the school can be viewed as the extension of the teaching Chike received at home. His primary education is indoctrination into Christianity. However, the boy is described as enjoying school and learning more about the English language (Achebe 31).
It can be asserted that school is the first time Chike experienced belonging to a community, as other children at school are engaged in the same learning. Before the religious class, the boy was an outcast in his village, but he found a community with other baptized children within the school. Achieve (32) finishes the story with the poignant phrase, “and he was happy.” In school and education, Chike found belonging he lacked all his life.
In summary, the short story Chike’s School Days written by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe is a tale of alienation and belonging. Chike and his family are effectively foreigners in their hometown because they subscribe to Christianity and raise their children differently. However, religion can be viewed as a backdrop for a more resounding theme of isolation and the need for belonging to a community that shares similar customs and traditions.
Before he begins school, Chike is an outcast in his village but remains strong as he has the support of his family. However, once Chike attends school, he finds the feeling of belonging he lacked before, and he is finally happy. The story is an eye-opening piece of work that shows that one’s ties to the community can be severed by choice of religion, but social belonging can always be achieved again.
Achebe, Chinua. Girls at War: And Other Stories. Penguin, 1973.
Cecilia, Fetnani. “Chike’s School Days” and “Dead Men’s Path” by Chinua Achebe: A Phenotextualization of Religionwise Culture Shock and Achebe’s Early Schooling.” 2020, pp. 1-27.