Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, was a lazy, improvident man who was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow. If any money came his way, and it seldom did, he immediately bought gourds of palm-wine, called round his neighbours and made merry. He always said that whenever he saw a dead man’s mouth, he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one’s lifetime. Unoka was, of course, a debtor, and he owed every neighbour some money, from a few cowries to quite substantial amounts.
He was tall but very thin and had a slight stoop. He wore a haggard and mournful look except when he was drinking or playing on his flute… Unoka, the grown-up, was a failure. He was poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat. People laughed at him because he was a loafer, and they swore never to lend him any more money because he never paid back. But Unoka was such a man that he always succeeded in borrowing more, and piling up his debts.
One day, a neighbour called Okoye came in to see him. He was reclining on a mud bed in his hut playing on the flute. He immediately rose and shook hands with Okoye, who then unrolled the goatskin, which he carried under his arm, and sat down. Unoka went into an inner-room and soon returned with a small wooden disc containing a kola nut, some alligator pepper and a lump of white chalk.
“I have kola,” he announced when he sat down, and passed the disc over to his guest.
“Thank you. He who brings kola brings life. But I think you ought to break it,” replied Okoye, passing back the disc.
“No, it is for you, I think,” and they argued like this for a few moments before Unoka accepted the honour of breaking the kola. Okoye, meanwhile, took the lump of chalk, drew some lines on the floor, and then painted his big toe.
As he broke the kola, Unoka prayed to their ancestors for life and health, and for protection against their enemies. When they had eaten they talked about many things: about the heavy rains, which were drowning the yams, about the next ancestral feast and about the impending war with the village of Mbaino.
Unoka was never happy when it came to wars. He was, in fact, a coward and could not bear the sight of blood. And so he changed the subject and talked about music, and his face beamed. He could hear in his mind’s ear the blood-stirring and intricate rhythms of the ekwe and the udu and the ogene, and he could hear his own flute weaving in and out of them, decorating them with a colourful and plaintive tune. The total effect was gay and brisk, but if one picked out the flute as it went up and down and then broke up into short snatches, one saw that there was sorrow and grief there.
Okoye was also a musician. He played on the ogene. But he was not a failure like Unoka. He had a large barn full of yams and he had three wives. And now he was going to take the Idemili title, the third highest in the land. It was a very expensive ceremony and he was gathering all his resources together. That was in fact the reason why he had come to see Unoka. He cleared his throat and began:
“Thank you for the kola. You may have heard of the title I intend to take shortly.”
Having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs. Among the Ibo, the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten. Okoye was a great talker and he spoke for a long time, [diplomatically] skirting round the subject and then hitting it finally.
In short, he was asking Unoka to return the two hundred cowries he had borrowed from him more than two years before. As soon as Unoka understood what his friend was driving at, he burst out laughing. He laughed loud and long and his voice rang out clear as the ogene, and tears stood in his eyes. His visitor was amazed, and sat speechless. At the end, Unoka was able to give an answer between fresh outbursts of mirth.
“Look at that wall,” he said, pointing at the far wall of his hut, which was rubbed with red earth so that it shone. “Look at those lines of chalk;” and Okoye saw groups of short perpendicular lines drawn in chalk. There were five groups, and the smallest group had 10 lines. Unoka had a sense of the dramatic and so he allowed a pause, in which he took a pinch of snuff and sneezed noisily, and then he continued: “Each group there represents a debt to someone, and each stroke is 100 cowries. You see, I owe that man a thousand cowries! But he has not come to wake me up in the morning for it. I shall pay you, but not today. Our elders say that the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them. I shall pay my big debts first.” And he took another pinch of snuff, as if that was paying the big debts first.
The above excerpt is from Chinua Achebe’s book, “Things Fall Apart”. The famous Nigerian fiction novel writer was telling a story of a brave warrior called Okonkwo, who was born from a lazy coward known for his arrogance at paying back his debt. In Zambia, this is not fiction; it is happening in real life and in real time.
President Edgar Lungu’s government says it has chosen not to pay the Eurobond holders their US $42 million in interest payment because they owe many other people a lot of money. According to the government of Mr Lungu, paying the Eurobond holders would anger other creditors, who have not been paid for a long time and are not making noise about their money. This is not an exaggerated statement; it is an official statement from the Minister of Finance, Honourable Dr Bwalya Ng’andu.
“We shall not pay because of the principal of pari passu, meaning treat everybody equally. I have already defaulted with some other creditors. I have told you I have been building arrears with other creditors and they are upset that I am building arrears with them while I continue to service the Eurobond, that’s where the problem is. You can’t continue with the situation where you pick one set of creditors and treat them differently from the others in this kind of situation,” said Dr Ng’andu through the national broadcaster on November 15, 2020.
Zambians must feel ashamed to have novel characters in critical government leadership positions. There must come a time when a leader admits failure and passes on the mantle to the next person.