The Plantation is a short story by Ovo Adagha, a Nigerian writer. The author describes the incident of a petrol leak in a village, which leads to the villagers’ greed and an unfortunate incident. This short story is written in third-person by an unnamed narrator and is split into four sections. There are three shifts in perspective between three different characters.
The Plantation | Summary
The story begins with a description of the plantation- a luxuriant screen of greenery in the underbelly of the Jesse swamps, owned by a man named Namidi. This plantation is Namidi’s representation of life, with an aura of nature that emanates from the chirping birds, the morning dew and musky air, the sap of the rubber trees and the green foliage. However, on that day as Namidi moves forward on his path, something seems amiss. The plantation glows with an air of mystery, and Namidi picks up on a strange smell coming from its direction. After a moment of silence, he looks a few feet beyond a thicket. A stream of fluid bursts from the ground and splashes through the greenery, and from the smell, he realises it is petrol.
Namidi remembers that several years ago, men from the city had come to the village and dug through the forests and plantations to bury their pipes. He realizes one of those pipes must have burst. For a second, he considers asking the village for help, but then greed overtakes him. He senses an opportunity for his own profit using the petrol, if only the villagers do not meddle. He does not want to share his discovery with anyone. He fills a rubber gourd with petrol before heading back to the village. Usually, he would spend time conversing with the villagers- but today, in his haste to conceal his secret, he greets them briefly and hurries on. That, along with the scent of rubber on him, leads them to feel suspicious.
Namidi takes a bush track back to the village clearing to avoid detection. Having lived there his whole life, he is well aware of the constant gossip of the village. As soon as he reaches home, he asks his six-year-old son, Ochuko, to call his mother. Ochuko cannot go to school because their family cannot afford it. The possibility that the petrol in the plantation may be able to pay for Ochuko’s schooling spurs Namidi on even more. Namidi explains the situation to his wife, insisting that they head to the plantation before anyone catches wind of it. She asks what would happen if a fire started, but Namidi ignores the pang of fear in his mind and reassures her that it will be okay. Though she is doubtful, she agrees. She and their three children follow Naimidi to the plantation, carrying empty cans to fill them with petrol.
Namidi’s wife, Mama Efe, feels a storm in her heart, and she knows that things will not end well for them. In the past, she used to oppose him when needed. But after years of battling with his stubbornness, she grew meek and tired. On their third trip, to the plantation, they run into a young man named Jackson who demands to know why Namidi reeks of petrol. He follows them at a distance when Namidi does not engage, and one the first whiff of petrol, he runs off in the opposite direction to tell everyone in the village.
As expected, soon all the villagers rush to collect as much petrol as they can, fighting and jostling to fill their cans. Namidi stations Ochuko at the embankment to watch over their family possessions, while the rest of the family continues collecting. But he is only a child, who is bound to be distracted. He and his friend Onome play games and swing from trees, quite confused by the villager’s show of greediness. As Ochuko hangs from a tree branch, a sudden burst from the plantation causes him to fall. He watches as people start running helter-skelter. On the sudden wave of heat and smell of burning, terror strikes him, as well, as he runs back to the village as fast as he can, hiding under his mother’s bed as smoke starts billowing out from the plantation.
Ochuko and his two siblings often pretend they are musketeers, and wait on their mother’s bed after an adventure gone awry. He remembers this as he waits now in fear, but there is no sign of them. He cannot go out, for it is dark, and all he can hear is the occasional sound of a woman wailing or footsteps past the hut. The small hurricane lamp lit by his mother sustains for hours, but soon dies out. In this complete darkness, the rats and ants emerge for the night, and Ochuko lies in complete silence as they climb all over him, too paralyzed by terror. In the silence, Ochuko waits and listens in hopes of hearing his family’s return. But hours go by, and all he hears are the sound of birds, signaling the upcoming dawn.
The Plantation | Analysis
The Plantation is a short story set in a small village in Nigeria. The vivid imagery paints a descriptive picture of the location, and the brief interactions between the characters depict the overall dynamic between the villagers, and the environment of the village. The Plantation is written in third-person with an unnamed narrator, which helps maintain focus on the characters. The story is split into four sections, and each section begins with the inner dialogue of a different character- first Namidi, then Mama Efe, and finally young Ochuko. Interestingly, the progression of emotion also goes from eagerness to trepidation to hopeless defeat along with these characters. The central themes of this story are poverty, greed, corruption and childhood innocence. There is an intricate display of polarity between wealth and poverty, shown through brief remarks and one-off thoughts. There are also subtle indications of male domination in marriage, which reflects the view of several rural societies. Adagha employs metaphors, symbolism and shifts in perspective, which aid the story in resonating with the readers.
In the beginning, Namidi says that the plantation is “an emblem of life to him” before going on to describe it. This represents two things- one is the plantation’s natural beauty, as its entirety is a very authentic part of the environment. This symbolizes the freshness of life. The other is the fact that the plantation is his livelihood. He lives and earns off his work there, and hence it symbolizes his life in a more literal sense. The plantation also symbolizes nature, which is very important, as the pipes are the only man-made thing in the story. This showcases the dichotomy between man and nature, as well as the villager’s earthly lifestyle.
“Once, many years ago, some men from the city of khaki uniforms had come to the village with long pipes and heavy trucks. They had dug across the village grounds through the plantation and the nearby forests; buried the pipes and then left.”
The abovementioned lines present the theme of corruption. The city men drove all the way to the village and dug through a plantation that did not belong to them. Rightfully speaking, the owner of the land- here, Namidi- should receive a portion of the payment or some sort of benefit for them, as he is providing his land for their use. However, it is clear that he does not get any such profit, and it is likely that the city men chose the village area to bury their pipes for that very reason- they did not want to spend money on it, and knew they would not have to do so there.
The theme of greed is brought in very gradually- Namidi’s first thought when he sees the petrol spill is to call the village for help. The urge to keep it from himself came only after that. While readers may have a rather negative impression of his mindset, he later mentions that he would like to get more money to send his youngest son to school, which helps the readers understand him better. Though greed itself is a natural yet negative emotion, the intent behind it is not a bad one. Interestingly, we may see this in connection to poverty- he is not able to send his son to school because they lack finances, and his willingness to do anything he can to secure that necessary money is what leads to greed.
Greed is represented in a bigger light when the entire village appears at Namidi’s plantation to collect petrol for themselves :
“Grown men charged and shoved riotously at each other; as here and there a woman lost her footing, and rolled in a heap in the slimy soil.”
This is a description of chaos and mayhem caused by greed. When there is one aspect of prosperity in the village’s reach, they wage war against each other rather than working together, because they focus purely on individual sustenance and wealth. The fact that they disregard each other’s physical well-being and engage in actions such as shoving and charging, depicts how greed can blind a human. It also indicates how poverty affects them- they live in difficult conditions, and hence even a possibility of gaining wealth is enough for them to lose sight of rationality and submit to greed. Here, we see the “emblem of life” which once represented nature turned into a pit of petrol. The petrol symbolizes wealth and greed- it is worth far more than anything the villagers earn from their rubber plantation, and its presence evokes greed. The pipes also represent the man-made side of the world which the villagers are not often exposed to.
Mama Efe as a character symbolizes the foreshadowing of an unfortunate event.:
“Trouble lay in wait for them, she knew.”
and she also imagines a fire when she first hears about Namidi’s plan. She is the only character who displays rationality. She is well aware of the dangerous possibilities and does not allow herself to get swept away by greed. The nervous anticipation and trepidation of the story is built through her feelings and words. Until then, Namidi had continuously expressed excitement and “doggedness” which created an air of curiosity among the readers. However, with Mama Efe’s doubtfulness and sensible words, the readers start to feel a similar anxiety. Mama Efe almost plays the role of the Devil’s Advocate, reminding Namidi of what could go wrong, though he refuses to heed her advice. He feels fear for a moment, but brushes it away, which represents the strength of greed and desire.
Mama Efe also mentions this :
“There was a time when she could have derided or opposed him in some way, but years of waging lost battles in her marriage had doused her spirits with meekness and tiredness.”
This brings up the topic of the female voice in marriage. In several areas, including villages, there is still an unjustly heavy patriarchal norm in society. Often, the wife, no matter how much she argues, is expected to follow the husband. This part of the story- which talks about Mama Efe following her husband despite not wanting to, him not heeding her advice at all, and her being too tired from years of being shut down to argue further- symbolizes the unfortunate reality that many women face in the society or in marriage. Their opinions being overlooked or not considered, and having to comply with things they may not agree with.
As all the villagers head to the petrol-filled plantation, Adagha uses imagery, describing the plantation to “glitter with a wave of sweat-drenched, dark bodies.” Here, the perspective shifts to the six-year-old Ochuko, who represents childish innocence. He acts as the lens, through which the reader may understand what is happening as an observer, without feeling the eagerness of Namidi or the trepidation of Mama Efe. Ochuko sees what is happening exactly as it is, for he is too young to understand the reason for the villager’s behavior. He and his friend do not understand why they act so wildly, grappling and slipping in the petrol- to them it is abnormal to behave in such a manner, almost amusing. They provide an outside perspective of what the situation looks like and help the readers feel the shocking reality of what greed and the hope of wealth can do to human beings.
The story ends on a sorrowful note, with a fire taking place at the plantation- Mama Efe’s foreshadowing had come true. As most of the village was at the plantation, we can assume a majority of them had died in the tragedy. The last section mentions “woman wailing” and “footsteps” which means some people had been left behind, hence escaping. Ochuko, who had managed to run away, survived the fire. It is unknown how the fire was started. But it is interesting to note that nearly the entire village died together outside the village- their huts were safe; their village was safe. But they were not. This also shows the power of nature- fire is an element of nature, and at any moment can overtake the human emotions of greed and desire.
Ochuko waiting on his mother’s bed and listening in hopes of hearing his family is quite a heartbreaking conclusion. The mother’s bed symbolizes warmth and comfort, as a child always returns to their mother at the end of the day. Here, it shows that he seeks comfort, and considers it a place he can wait safely. The small hurricane lamp usually lit by his mother turns off after a few hours, which may symbolize the family’s death. It is saddening but important to note that a boy of merely six years old is now left by himself- he needs to take care of himself completely. This is a stark contrast with the joyful and innocent games he was playing mere hours earlier, and it shows how suddenly life can take a turn.
Ochuko allows ants and rats to crawl over him, remaining silent and still. This depicts fear and helplessness- he does not know what to do and is too afraid even to move. It may also symbolize his feeling numb after the shocking occurrences. He continues to listen for the sounds of his family, but the story ends with the chirping birds indicating the upcoming dawn. This shows two things- one is the confirmation that the family is indeed dead, and is not returning to the house. The other is the indication that when the sun rises, it is a new day, and despite all the tragedy, life will go on. And Ochuko hearing the birds’ chirp, which symbolizes the new dawn, represents the fact that even at this young age, he will have to move forward and take care of himself.