"The Headstrong Historian" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2008)
Nwamgba had been determined to marry Obierika; they seemed the perfect match. Only, her family had concerns because his family was not known for their fertility. Obierika was an only child as was his father. Nwamgba was stubborn, however, and demanded that her family accept Obierika's family's offer of marriage. His family was a good family, after all. Generous and successful.
Nwamgba and Obierika suffer through many miscarriages before giving birth to their only son. Anikwenwa is a quick learner and a good child. Tragedy strikes when Obierika dies of suspicious circumstances, or so Nwamgba believes. She fears for the life of her son, as Obierika's two good for nothing cousins look on, their greed clear on their faces.
Word comes that white men are visiting villages, sometimes resorting to violence when the clans will not cooperate. There are the missionaries who preach about their god and establish a school, and then there are the bureaucrats who set up courthouses and deal out their own law and justice.
Wanting to protect her son, Nwamgba takes him to the Catholic mission so that he can learn English. She wants to empower him to fight against the cousins and protect what is his in the white man's court should the need arise. Anikwenwa does learn English and a lot more. He changes before his mother's eyes and, while she is proud, she is also saddened by how much of his family's tradition he now rejects.
In one simple and yet powerful story we see how one culture can wipe away another. The white men brought their beliefs and traditions to Nwamgba's village, wanting to "civilize" the natives, in essence trying to destroy a culture and way of life. History is full of such stories, and this one brings it home.
I was moved by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, when I read it years ago, and I was no less moved as I read her short story, "The Headstrong Historian". Nwamgba was a strong-willed woman who knew her own mind. No one, least of all she, could have known the direction her life would take once she made the decision to send her son to the white man's school. The story follows three generations of Nwamgba's family, and, while at once tragic and sad, there is also hope that comes in the end. A sad sort of hope, but a hope nonetheless, that not all will be forgotten.
You can find the story, "The Headstrong Historian", and read it for free on the New Yorker website.
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