Traditional Life versus Modernization
The major conflict of the story revolves around the traditional ways of Nyagar’s clan as represented by the clan leader, Olielo, and by Nyamundhe, both of whom defy the condescending views of the European policeman who epitomizes the rational, modern subject in his need to charge one individual with the murder of the supposed thief and then subsequently, after the discovery of Nyagar under the leaves, to take the body away to do an autopsy rather than respect the death rituals of the clan. The differing rules and regulations that structure Luo and Western societies regarding death and justice result not only in misunderstanding between the clan members and the policeman but also contribute to the attitude of superiority of the European policeman when he claims, “How many times have I told you that you must abandon this savage custom of butchering one another?” This form of cultural superiority contributed to the colonial mentality of dehumanizing Africans as a way of rationalizing their exploitation and oppression.
Ogot does not glorify the old ways but instead brings them to the attention of the reader as a way of revealing how easy it is to dismiss indigenous peoples as barbaric and inferior due to social rules that may appear backwards to those unfamiliar with them. She seems to suggest that these traditional views are significant because they help define the clan as a community. Although some of their superstitious aspects may appear frivolous, such as Nyamundhe’s sighting of the black cat as they walk towards the pile of green leaves, others, such as appeasing the clan’s ancestral dead through proper burial rites, are indelibly related to how the group perceives its relationship to previous generations. Also, Nyagar’s downfall is that he defies the traditional wisdom that forbids him to go back to the body of the thief until morning. His greed for the thief s money despite his fears and lack of want reflects a counter value system that privileges acquiring material possessions over the safety and security of him and his family. (His need to keep checking gates reveals the importance of keeping intruders away from his hut.) Excessive desire is a negative effect of modernization because it overemphasizes material wealth as a reigning mark of success and happiness.
Community versus Individualism
The increasing influence of modernization in colonized countries resulted in the breakdown of social customs and traditional values that bound communities. Throughout the story, there is an emphasis on what the community will do in relation to the cattle thieves and then later to the European police officer. In this respect, Olielo speaks for the community when he declares that they will bury the thief in the morning to prevent a bad spirit from descending on their village. Because Nyagar takes the law into his own hands, he defies the wishes of the clan leader and thus disrupts the social order. By the end of the story, the clan members, particularly Nyamundhe, look at each other with suspicion, wondering who killed Nyagar. Ironically, this is the exact opposite response that Olielo had foreseen since his plan was that the whole clan would take responsibility for the thief’s death and thus undermine the European police officer’s attempt to blame one man. In this respect, the power of colonialism is revealed through one of its most effective strategies: to divide and conquer. Thus, by pitting individuals and groups against each other, colonial powers could avert mass organizing and actions against them. This common strategy is understood by Olielo when he remarks to the clan members, “If we stand united, none of us will be killed.”
Questioning Traditional Female Roles
The men and women in the story are seen at the beginning of the story as having very specific gender roles. It is the men of the clan who go after the thief and attempt to kill him, whereas the women remain behind. The men of the clan try to protect their women from what has happened by planning on getting up early to deal with the dead thief. The women, on the other hand, remain quiet about the evening’s events. In the morning, they gather to hear Olielo address the clan about what has happened and follow the men to the river. However, Ogot focuses on Nyagar’s wife, Nyamundhe, at the end of the story, because she represents a traditional way of life that values security and community. Whereas Nyagar has been infected with greed and self-interest, qualities associated with a colonial mentality of acquiring as much material wealth as possible, Nyamundhe clings to the traditional ways, as when she sings a song of mourning over the death of her husband. At the same time, Nyamundhe is not afraid to challenge both the clan members and the European police officer about Nyagar’s death. She even questions the Western methods of justice that are based on rational scientific inquiry such as carrying out an autopsy. In this respect, Nyamundhe is similar to Olielo, the clan leader, who also challenges the methods of justice the European police officer attempts to carry out.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Grace Ogot, Published by Gale, 2002.