The Potter's Wheel (1973) is the first novel I've read by the Nigerian Chukwuemeka Ike. He has written quite a few (I gather that Toads for Supper is his best known work) and I'll get back around to him sometime. It's a short novel that takes us in to a village Nigeria where one of the basic elements of the local idiom is sayings, much like a Bible-based community where people communicate through chapter and verse citations. Here the young boys have riddle and proverb contests to see who knows the most. They are at times convoluted and cryptic (\"The rat who follows a lizard into the river should come out with skin as dry as the lizard's\"), but after a while the cumulative weight of them is fun in itself.
The story is a simple one of an eight-year-old boy, Ubo, who, as the only son with six older sisters, has been badly spoiled by his adoring mother. His father, a kindly man but fearing for the boy's future, sends him off for a year to be a servant of Teacher and Madam, proprietors of the local school (a mere sixty miles away), where he and an assortment of other youngsters (some of whom are the children of Teacher's debtors) are beaten, abused, and work in semi-slavery. The moral of the story is ambiguous, however. While Teacher and Madam are clearly greedy, violent people with no scruples about lying and being dangerously cruel to the children, after a year of this Obu returns for Christmas and has indeed been transformed into a dutiful, hardworking young person. Despite his initial joy at his salvation from what he had experienced as an almost unbearable hell, after some talk with his father he even chooses to voluntarily return in January.
I can't quite work out in my own conscience the balance here between the idea that a child needs to learn to endure hardship and adapt to difficult circumstances, which is surely true, and my aversion to corporal punishment of children (I am a parent myself), especially the gratuitously cruel treatment that these children receive. There is some culture clash here between author and reader. Ike is telling us about a much harder, crueler (that is, poorer) world than my own so that is part of it.
Meanwhile as in so much African literature there is constant interplay between the (in this case Igbo) vernacular and the English language (and a glossary of terms at the end). Another ubiquitous element is the discussion of food which I found fascinating. Various roots and starchy fruits are pounded into mash that is shaped into balls and dipped into herb broths; that is the basic food. There is occasional meat that is much coveted, fried termites that are considered a treat, and great attention is paid to the cola nut that plays an important role in etiquette between hosts and visitors. I'm going to look into growing cola here in Puerto Rico where I have a number of fruit trees on my land. I also enjoyed the critical, sarcastic banter that is kept up between Igbo villagers who have known each other all their lives. There is an optimism and an innocence to much of the African writing of this period that belies the stereotype of the African novel as a politicized horrorshow (even as Ike does include some pointed satire of the British colonial authorities and their native lackeys).