PART TWO – SPEAKING WITH OUR SPIRITS: BEFORE PALM SUNDAY
Mama brings Kambili’s school uniform inside before it rains. Although it is not proper for older people to do chores, Mama does not mind. Kambili thinks there is a lot that Mama does not mind. Mama tells Kambili that she is pregnant, due in October. It is a relief for Mama. After Kambili was born, she suffered miscarriages. The women of their village gossiped about her, even suggesting Papa take other wives to help propagate the line. But Papa refused. Kambili agrees that her father should be praised – he is not like other men.
Mama hosts members of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, a prayer group consisting of women in Enugu. They pray and sing praise songs in Igbo, their native tongue. Mama prepares a lavish spread for the group, going above and beyond the normal fare. As she is the wife of one of the most prominent men in their village, she must uphold certain standards.
Jaja comes home from school, dressed in his crisp uniform. Last year he was named neatest boy at St. Nicholas, to the delight of Papa. Jaja goes to Kambili’s room and they talk about Mama’s baby. Kambili believes they speak a special language with their eyes – sharing thoughts that can’t be spoken out loud. Jaja says the baby will be a boy, and they both promise to protect him. Though they do not say his name, they will protect him from Papa.
Jaja goes downstairs to eat lunch and Kambili glances at her schedule. Her father draws up a daily schedule for both of his children. Each activity is clearly delineated and must be strictly adhered to. Papa allows time for studying, prayer, family time, siesta, eating and sleeping. Kambili wonders when her father will create a schedule for her new brother.
The next day, during scheduled family time, the family plays chess and listens to the radio. A general comes on air and declares that a new coup has been carried out in Nigeria. The new head of state will be revealed the following day. Papa excuses himself to call Ade Coker, editor of the paper that Papa publishes. When he returns, Papa tells his family he is uneasy about the coup. In the 1960s, a cycle of bloody coups led to civil war. Military men will always violently overthrow other military men, he says.
Papa’s paper, The Standard, is critical of its government. Ade Coker often runs scathing editorials, reporting on secret bank accounts of cabinet members who take money that belongs to the state. Even though the politicians are often corrupt, Papa wants a renewed democracy in his country. The Standard publishes an editorial the following day urging the new military head of state to implement a return to democratic rule.
Papa reads the headlines printed in other papers. He maintains the Standard is the only paper that tells the truth. His family praises his work, but he is not comforted. Papa thinks Nigeria is in decline. Kambili tells him God will deliver them. Papa nods and Kambili is pleased with the positive reinforcement.
Mama brings Kambili her uniform even though it is not proper for older people to do the chores of young people. “…there was so much that Mama did not mind.” Mama is thoughtful and caring and, in subtle ways, flouts convention if it is unreasonable. Unlike Papa, she will not insist on following only “what is done.” It is a simple gesture, but meaningful in the context of the issues presented in the book – authority vs. reason, duty vs. love, and familial relationships. Though Mama is not as liberal and independent as Aunty Ifeoma, her love for her family allows her to break certain minor rules.
Mama’s pregnancy is cause for much celebration as she has had miscarriages in the past. Her pregnancy will also quell town gossip. Papa has refused to take another mistress or wife even though propagating is traditionally the most important convention. Mama believes he should be praised for staying with her, as does Kambili. However, Papa is conforming to his Catholic beliefs. He does not consider enacting on any local, ancestral traditions. His strict adherence to his religion has both positive and negative effects on his family. Papa maintains the nuclear family unit, but lords his power over his children in the name of God. Religion is not deemed overall “good” or “bad.” Faith is portrayed as realistically complex.
Religion can be corrupted by those who wield it. Aunty Ifeoma’s children argue that Europeans introduced Christianity as a way to subdue the natives of countries they colonized. Papa’s abuse of his family is his interpretation of wielding God’s love. Power corrupts as well. Papa uses his prosperity for good, unlike government officials. He donates to charities and helps his neighbors in need. Papa is a man who lives by his own unique moral code. He is uncompromising in his fight for what he believes is right. News of the latest military coup makes Papa uneasy. Having witnessed several bloody coups culminating in a civil war, Papa understands that his country will face several difficulties in the future. Papa takes a stand against political corruption by publishing pro-democracy editorials in his newspaper. Papa cannot be considered either a hero or a villain, but rather a complicated human being.
It is important that the Achickes keep up appearances. Mama puts out a lavish spread for her prayer group, going above and beyond what is necessary. Papa takes pride in Jaja’s award of neatest boy at school. The portrayal of the Achike family to the outside world must be spotless. Even though at home Papa allows himself a moment of pride in his work at the Standard, he insists his family be impassive when they are praised for the same deeds in church. The Achikes must be paragons of virtue, humble and faithful. But this moment of pride reveals hypocrisy in Papa. He holds his family to an impossible standard of perfection.
Kambili believes that she and her brother communicate through a secret language in their eyes. As illustrated by their respectful silence both in church and at home, speaking the truth is not an option. Jaja tells Kambili that they will protect their new brother, but do not dare to utter that it is from Papa that he will be protected. Though Kambili, 15, and Jaja, 17, are teenagers, they are sheltered and immature for their age. The considerable strain placed on their backs by their father has rendered them childlike. Kambili’s secret language reveals an innocence but also a naivete. This is the beginning of a coming-of-age story.