Chinua Achebe

Chike and the River

© 1966

For my daughter, Chinelo,

and for all my nephews and nieces

1 Chike Leaves His Village

Chike lived with his mother and two sisters in the village of Umuofia. His father had died many years ago. His mother worked very hard to feed and clothe her three children and to send them to school. She grew most of the food they ate-yams, cassava, maize, beans, plantains, and many green vegetables. She also traded in dry fish, palm oil, kerosene, and matches.

Chike was now eleven years old, and he had never left his village. Then one day his mother told him that he would be going to Onitsha in the new year to live with his uncle who was a clerk in one of the firms there. At first Chike was full of joy. He was tired of living in a bush village and wanted to see a big city. He had heard many wonderful stories about Onitsha. His uncle’s servant, Michael, had told him that there was a water tap in the very compound where they lived. Chike said this was impossible but Michael had sworn to its truth by wetting his first finger on his tongue and pointing it to the sky. Chike was too thrilled for words. So he would no longer wake up early in the morning to go to the stream. The trouble with their village stream was that the way to it was very rough and stony, and sometimes children fell and broke their water-pots. In Onitsha Chike would be free from all those worries. Also he would live in a house with an iron roof instead of his mother’s poor hut of mud and thatch. It all sounded so wonderful.

But when the time actually came for Chike to leave his mother and sisters he began to cry. His sisters cried too, and even his mother had signs of tears in her eyes. She placed one hand on his head and said, “Go well, my son. Listen to whatever your uncle says and obey him. Onitsha is a big city, full of dangerous people and kidnappers. Therefore do not wander about the city. In particular do not go near the River Niger; many people get drowned there every year…”

She gave Chike many other words of advice. He nodded his head and sniffed because his nose was running. Chike’s nose always ran when he cried.

“Stop crying,” said his mother. “Remember, you are now a big boy, and big boys don’t cry.”

Chike wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Then he took up his small wooden box which his mother had bought from James Okeke, the local carpenter. Inside it were his few clothes and schoolbooks.

“Let us go,” said his uncle who had been waiting patiently. “If we don’t hurry now, we shall miss the lorry.” [1]

Chike set the box on his head and followed his uncle. They were going to the main road half a mile away to take the lorry that passed by their village to Onitsha. It was a very old lorry called Slow-and-Steady. It always had great difficulty going up any hill. Whenever it got to a steep hill the driver’s mate would jump down and walk behind it with the big wooden wedge. Sometimes the passengers were asked to climb down and help push the lorry. The forty-mile journey to Onitsha took Slow-and-Steady more than three hours. Sometimes it broke down completely; then the journey might take a whole day or more.

Chike was, however, lucky on the day he made the journey. Slow-and-Steady was in good form and did not break down at all. It only stopped after every hill to take a tin of water.

2 Chike in Onitsha

At first Onitsha looked very strange to Chike. He could not say who was a thief or kidnapper and who was not. In Umuofia every thief was known, but here even people who lived under the same roof were strangers to one another. Chike was told by his uncle’s servant that sometimes a man died in one room and his neighbor in the next room would be playing his gramophone. It was all very strange.

But as the months passed Chike began to feel at home in Onitsha. He made friends at school and became very popular among them. His best friend was called Samuel. They were about the same age.

Samuel was very good at football. [2] He could dribble past any opponent. Whenever he played particularly well his admirers clapped and shouted, “S.M.O.G.! S.M.O.G.!”

S.M.O.G. was Samuel’s nickname which he gave himself. His full name was Samuel Maduka Obi; so his initials were S.M.O. Then one day he saw that if he added a “G” to his initials he would become S.M.O.G. He immediately did so. In Onitsha the letters S.M.O.G. were said to bring good luck because they stood for Save Me O God.

Chike was also pretty good at football and very soon his friends gave him a nickname too. They called him “Chiks The Boy.” Chike liked the name very much and wrote it in his new reader.

It was from Samuel that Chike first heard how easy it was to cross the River Niger and come back again.

“I have done it many times on the ferryboat,” Samuel told him. “All you need is sixpence to go over and sixpence to return. Finish.”

“But I have no sixpence,” said Chike.

“What?” said Samuel, “a big boy like you has no sixpence. Don’t let people hear it. It is too shameful.”

Chike was really ashamed and so he told a lie to cover his shame. He said, “It’s not that I don’t have money. I have plenty but my uncle keeps it for me.”

“Then tell your uncle to give you one shilling out of it,” said Samuel. “What is the use of having money that you cannot spend?”

“I shall ask him sometime,” replied Chike, “but not yet.”

“Time and tide wait for no man,” said Samuel in English. It was their teacher’s favorite saying. “And have you not heard,” continued Samuel, “that they are building a bridge across the river? They will finish it soon and then there will be no more ferries.”

Chike had indeed heard of the bridge they were building. He was greatly troubled by what Samuel said.

A few days later Chike’s friends were again talking about the river. They spoke about Asaba on the other side.

“Do you know,” said Samuel to Chike, “that as soon as you step out of the ferry in Asaba you are in Midwestern Nigeria?”

The others agreed excitedly. They all had been to the Midwest. “And do you know,” said another boy whose name was Ezekiel, “that once you are in Asaba it is one way to Lagos?”

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