achebe-300.jpgAfter the incident of the leopard skin Chike lost some of his eagerness for crossing the Niger. He did not see how he could obtain one shilling without stealing or begging. His only hope now was that some kind benefactor might give him a present of one shilling without his begging for it. But where was such a man, he wondered. Perhaps the best thing was to take his mind off the River Niger altogether; but it was not easy.

On the last day of term, all the pupils were tidying up the school premises. The boys cut the grass in the playing fields and the girls washed the classrooms. Chike’s class was working near the mango tree with all the tempting ripe fruit which they were forbidden to pick. They sang an old prisoners’ work song and swung their blades to its beat. The last day of term was always a happy, carefree day; but it was also a day of anxiety because the results of the term’s examination would be announced. Still an examination was an examination and nobody liked to fail.

“It is the price you have to pay for being over curious,” said the headmaster and he told them the proverb about the over curious monkey who got a bullet in the brain.

Chike heard the headmaster shout: “Abraham!” and stood up to see what was happening. Some other boys had also stood up. It was a trap. The headmaster picked out all those who had stood up and sent them to carry a missionary’s luggage to the village of Okikpe.

“It is the price you have to pay for being over curious,” said the headmaster and he told them the proverb about the over curious monkey who got a bullet in the brain.

achebe-302.jpgEveryone laughed at the boys who had fallen into the headmaster’s trap.

Okikpe was six miles away by road. Somewhere on this road there was a bridge across the River Nkisa. But this bridge had been washed away by heavy rains. The missionary’s luggage was loaded into a lorry. The seven boys who had been picked out were to travel in the lorry as far as the bridge. Then they would get down and carry the loads across the stream and on to Okikpe, which was two miles from the river.

The boys were scared. But the driver of the lorry told them that the river was shallow at that point. Still they were afraid, especially Chike who did not know how to swim.

The lorry started and Chike felt like a condemned prisoner. Some of the older boys frightened him more by telling stories of people who had been drowned while fording the river.

“There are stones on the riverbed and if you miss your step once you are finished,” said Mark.

Mark was a very big boy who was no good at his classwork. The other boys made fun of him and called him Papa.

“I know someone who went across it yesterday and he said it was five feet deep,” continued Mark.

“I shall refuse to go across,” said Chike.

“Well, you can wait with your own share of the luggage until they rebuild the bridge,” said Mark, who was enjoying himself enormously. Some of the bigger boys laughed.

At last they got to the river and the lorry stopped.

Chike had taken a private decision to turn round if the water rose higher than his waist. After the luggage had been unloaded Mark said that it should be divided into seven equal loads. “After all we are all in the same class. We are equal.”

The water rose to Chike’s chest at its deepest point but he did not turn back.

But the driver of the lorry was very kind and gave only a small basket to Chike.

achebe-301.jpgThen each boy took off his clothes, wrapped them into a bundle, and carried them with the load on the head. Mark walked straight into the river and began to ford it. Some local people were coming over from the other side. A sudden feeling of defiance came upon Chike and he followed Mark. Some of the bigger boys who had been laughing and boasting were now hanging back. The water rose to Chike’s chest at its deepest point but he did not turn back. Once he stepped on a slippery stone and nearly fell. But he quickly regained his balance. The water which had been growing deeper and deeper was now becoming shallow again. Chike was pleased with himself. Soon he was on dry ground. He turned round proudly to see the others struggling through.

The rest of the journey was uneventful. But the experience had been very important to Chike. It had given him a good deal of confidence in himself. He felt that any person who could ford a river deserved praise. There was one proverb which Chike’s uncle was fond of saying: It is bad that a man who has swum in the great River Niger should be drowned in its small tributary. It means that a man who has passed a big test should not fail a small one. Chike made a new proverb of his own. He said: A man who can walk through the Nkisa with his bare feet should not be afraid to sail the Niger in a boat.


Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria. He is the author of five novels, including the widely acclaimed international bestseller Things Fall Apart, two short-story collections, and numerous other books. In 2007, Achebe was awarded the Man Booker International Prize. He lives with his wife in Providence, RI.

Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez

Excerpted from Chike and the River by Chinua Achebe. Copyright © 1966 by Chinua Achebe. Reprinted with permission by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Available in a new Anchor Books paperback August 2011. 

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