The Compromising Culture of the Poor

“What is happening?”

“Today, Elvis, you are going to kill your first eagle.”

“But I’m too little.”

“Don’t worry,” Uncle Joseph said, laughing.

“But why must I kill the eagle?” 

“It is de first step into manhood for you, de next step is to kill a goat, and den from der we begin your manhood rites.” (page 18)

Elvis, as we learn basically from the outset, isn’t exactly fond of his father. He tries as best he can to make a living without having to rely on his step-mother and father. This passage comes from a flashback to before Elvis’ mother passed away, and Elvis is very young. Elvis’ father and uncles are describing a family ‘rite of passage’ that everyone seems to have to go through in order to become a man. But it hardly seems to be a very official process. The ‘ceremony’ has been degraded to a drunken family afternoon get together, and the eagle has somehow over the years become a chicken. The ritual gets even more pathetic however, when one of Elvis’ uncles hands him an arrow with the chicken already spiked upon the tip – Elvis didn’t even have to be man enough to kill the chick himself. If it wasn’t for the blowing of chalk, and anointing of oil, the process could just as well been recognized as tomfoolery as a rite of passage ritual.

Being from South Africa, I am well aware rite of passage rituals are a huge part of African culture, and they are often not too dissimilar from the ceremony originally described. However, I am also mindful that these ceremonies can become distorted in the poorer communities. Hardship can take its toll, as family’s such as Elvis’ take to alcoholism to soothe their problems, and lose track of their culture. It is blatantly obvious how far the culture has descended in the family, as they chose to rather buy alcohol than invest in Elvis’ rite of passage ceremony, which I have no doubt was very important to previous generations. They rush through the ceremony so they can get back to their Sunday afternoon drinking, and the tradition probably would die out soon.

Family is, in most African countries such as Nigeria, very important to their culture. However, this is another aspect of culture ignored in Elvis’ life. Instead of a loving environment, his step-mother “would not wait for (Elvis) until I give dog your food,” to which Elvis replied “God, I hate her” (page 15). This, in addition to the distant relationship he has with his father goes against the culture of family over all that underlies most African cultures.

Elvis’ situation is not dissimilar from millions across the African continent. It is often the case that families disregard the traditions and culture of their nation, because they are too impoverished to carry out its rituals, or they choose rather to numb their hardships with alcohol than maintain their culture. Elvis’ family, at least in the opening chapters, is a great example of how poverty can affect a family’s culture and traditions.

One thought on “The Compromising Culture of the Poor”

  1. Although I am not well educated in African customs, traditions, or culture, I would like to speak on behalf of a societal aspect that I think is constant through out the novel. The idea of modernization, the transformation of rural society becoming urban, is epitomized in the passage that you pointed out. As stated in your post, the funds that would have provided Elvis with a proper masculine ritual was nonexistent. An honorable tradition was eroded to a rather laughable attempt.
    I think that Abani wrote this particular scene in this way to emphasize the power that modernization has on society. Modernization is a force that has the capability, as described by German sociologist Tonnies, to have a community that shares beliefs and cultural ideologies (gemeinshaft) into a self interested, bureaucratic society (gesellshaft). Because of the competition to obtain fiscal surplus, social classes emerge. Since these classes exist, the importance of maintaining cultural traditions is overshadowed by the industrialization of modern society.
    Another example that can be found early in the novel on page 29. The passage describes Elvis walking home from work and seeing “petty traders, roadside mechanics, barbers, street urchins, madmen and other mendicants” (page 29). Special attention should be paid to this order of jobs. It is listed under the class system. One goes from a well off job, to a barber, to a beggar. It is listing the bureaucratic system.
    Due to the depiction of a watered down tradition and class order, it is clear that the author is trying to convey the message that modernization is a stronger force than one might think.

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