In the late nineteenth century, industrialization came to be seen as the hallmark of a progressive society. As Britain spread across the globe, bringing progress and Christianity to the masses, many ancient yet still viable societies suffered under the yoke of their new masters, facing an almost certain extinction of their cultures. The Igbo of Nigeria in particular struggled to retain their identity in the face of overwhelming British odds. The richness of the Igbo belief system and a tribal way of life that had existed for centuries was in danger of being whitewashed into nonexistence.
Many of the novels that began to come out about Nigeria, and the larger African continent, presented a view of the inhabitants as nothing more than primitives who could only benefit from the arrival of the white man. It wasnt until 1958 that a novel was published that would provide a more realistic portrayal of Nigerian tribal life and the values and morals inherent in that life, as well as the dangers and difficulties.
Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart is a stark portrayal of the beauty and violence that coexisted in the primitive Igbo culture and the wanton destruction and loss of identity that followed in the wake of British colonization in the late nineteenth century. Within the narrow confines of one-hundred and seventy pages, Achebe laid out a detailed study of tribal tradition, gender politics, and the unavoidable conflicts that arise when two seemingly different cultures meet for the first time.
The novel is centered on Okonkwo, a tribesman of the Umuofia. Raised by Unoka, a cowardly and debt-laden man who was unable to sufficiently support his family, Okonkwo determined that he would not take after his father and that he had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had no patience with his father. (Achebe 7). This lack of patience drove Okonkwo to take over and begin providing for his mother and siblings, even at a very young age. Stern and determined, Okonkwo became a man of harsh discipline and unyielding principles. Even though he built himself into a successful yam farmer, husband, and father, his true place was not cemented until the victorious wrestling match when he overthrew the wily (Achebe 7) Amalinze the Cat.
In the twenty years following the match Okonkwos fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan (Achebe 7). He became a respected man of his tribe, with titles, wives, children, and many yams in his barn. Unfortunately for Okonkwo, his downfall was coming, in the form of a young man named Ikemefuna, who was brought back to the village as a potential sacrifice, in retribution for the killing of a village daughter.
Ikemefuna was given to Okonkwo to watch over, and over the course of several years, came to be like a son to Okonkwo. The fact that Ikemefunas life was on the line seemed to have been forgotten by everyone until the debt was finally called in, and the village elders decreed that it was time to make the sacrifice. Okonkwo was not happy about this decision, and was told by one of the elders that he should not take place in the sacrifice because that boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death (Achebe 45). If the caprices of fate, and the gods, can be said to have a hand in the lives of man, that was surely the case when Okonkwo, fearful of appearing weak or womanly, ignored the advice given to him and took part in the sacrifice of Ikemefuna.
Okonkwos split-second decision to take part in the sacrifice of a boy who called him father touched off a series of events that would lead the self-made man into eventual poverty and exile, left to rely on the kindness of his late mothers family. Even after surviving the exile and a less than triumphant return to Umuofia, Okonkwo finds his village much changed by the arrival of British missionaries and bureaucrats who are intent on civilizing a nation of perceived savages, sometimes by using punishments that are far in excess of the behavior of their subjects. Okonkwo laments the loss of his clans cohesion, the breaking up and falling apart (Achebe 133) which has caused the men of his clan, once proud and warlike, to unaccountably become soft like women (Achebe 133).
Not only are his clansmen perceived to be weak, but Okonkwo must also face the fact that his eldest son, Nwoye, has turned traitor and joined the Christians missionaries, abandoning his family completely. Driven by fear and anger, Okonkwo encourages his tribesmen to storm and burn the village mission. After the successful attack, Okonkwo was riding on a high, believing that perhaps all was not lost for his village and way of life.
Unfortunately this was the last high point in Okonkwos life. The British district commissioner swiftly captured the ringleaders, under a false flag of parlay and held them until the village agreed to pay a fine. The fine was paid but Okonkwo was furious once again and took action against one of the hated village messengers, murdering him with his machete. Once this act of aggression was committed, Okonkwo walked away and ended his own life with a noose around his neck. His final thoughts were not made known to the reader; instead the reader was shown a momentary insight into the drives of the district commissioner, who was deciding how much space he should give to Okonkwos story in his book, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger (Achebe 153).
The rather abrupt ending to both Okonkwos life, and the novel, strike a final discordant note to the song of a man who never truly found peace or happiness in his situation. Throughout his life, Okonkwo struggled to be a man of substance and standing, a man to be respected and feared throughout the villages of the Umuofia. However, no matter how high he rose Okonkwo was perpetually beset by fears of failure and haunted by the weakness of his father.
It can be said that Okonkwo cultivates his masculinity as a defense of personal honor in the face of potentially overwhelming circumstances in an antagonistic universe (Osei-Nyame 151). In a culture where masculine and feminine are clearly delineated, where the word agbala not only means woman, but also refers to weak and lazy men, Okonkwo would have all know, in no uncertain terms, that he is indeed a man worthy of great respect. Throughout much of the novel, it appears that the only one who is not sure of Okonkwos worth is Okonkwo himself. The fact that Okonkwo was given custody of Ikemefuna is a clear demonstration of his worth within the tribe. It was said by the elders that if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings. Okonkwo had clearly washed his hands and so he ate with kings and elders (Achebe 10). It is only his constant push to prove himself, time and again, his constant need for affirmation, that leads to his eventual downfall, and the downfall of his family.
Acting as something of a backdrop to Okonkwo and his much-belaboured masculinity are the struggles of the women in his life. Okonkwo has three wives and several daughters and they lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper (Achebe 13). Okonkwos inability to express any kind of gentleness was a direct result of his hatred for his father Unoka. Unoka, though debt-laden and cowardly, was a gentle man and Okonkwo would not allow himself to be comparable in any way to his father, even if this meant that he would end up being unaccountably cruel to his family on more than one occasion. In fact, the only one of his children that Okonkwo truly seems to care for is his daughter, Ezinma, who was the only surviving child of his third wife, Ekwefi.
Okonkwo never vocalizes his love for the girl but his inner monologue reveals his pride in her, and his disappointment that she was not born a boy, because of all his children, she alone understood his every mood (Achebe 125). However, as much as he might value her, she was still a female and so her only true value was in her marriage prospects.
The lives of the wives of Okonkwo, as with all the wives of Umuofia, were harsh, filled with hard work and little rest. Even though their crops were considered of little worth next to the King Yam, the women subsidized the family meals with cassava root and coco-yam. They prepared all meals, kept separate houses from their husband, raised the children, and maintained hearth and home. As with many cultures throughout history, the men were nominally in charge but the women were the true rulers and protectors of the family. This is most exemplified when the priestess Chielo comes for Ezinma.
Ezinmas mother Ekwefi, unable to bear the thought of her only daughter being carried away in the night, decides to follow Chielo as she journeys through all the villages of the Umuofia, carrying Ezinma on her back. The night is long, and frightening and at one point Ekwefi was so afraid that she nearly called out to Chielo for companionship and human sympathy (Achebe 78) but she does not give up whereas Okonkwo, celebrated for his bravery, chooses to stay behind. It is only some hours into the ordeal that Okonkwo decides to visit Chielos shrine, looking for his wife and daughter. He does not find them and leaves, only to return several more times throughout the night. Ezinma and Ekwefi eventually return, tired but unharmed.
In this instance, the gender divisions are overturned. Chielo is merely the priestess and handmaiden for the god Agbala. Ekwefis decision to follow Chielo, despite admonitions not to, can be seen as direct defiance of the god, and therefore, defiance of men. Ekwefi however never considers this; she is simply a mother in fear for her only child. Okonkwo is the one who waits anxiously at home, fearful of angering the god. As is often the case, when it comes to matters of spirit, and the heart, the women are often the ones to take the lead and face their fears, especially when the life of a child is on the line. However, the reader cannot help but consider this defiance in light of the fact that the downfall and exile of Okonkwo and his family happens a mere two days after the pseudo-underworld journey of Ekwefi and Ezinma. It seems that the narrative foregrounds the emasculation of Okonkwo at precisely the point where it constructs alternatively viable significations around the women (Osei-Nyame 159).
Further emasculation of Okonkwo and all the men of Umuofia will occur later in the narrative, when the British Christians arrive, and begin to attempt to strip all authority and meaning from the tribes. A way of life that, while not perfect, has existed for centuries and has seen the tribe through good times and bad, is in danger of being crushed by a culture that has no use for such primitives. In fact, it seems quite true that the Igbos as a whole reveal themselves more tolerant of other cultures than the Europeans, who merely see the Igbos as uncivilized (Rhoads 63). The British belief in their superiority, and the Igbo belief that there is room for everyone quickly comes into conflict as British might overtakes everything. The installation of Christian missions and bureaucratic offices, many staffed by natives who have quickly been assimilated, is at first viewed with mild derision.
It is not long however before the derision turns to worry, and anger. The native messengers, the kotma, become a symbol of hate within the villages; their ash-gray shorts earn them the nickname Ashy-Buttocks, a name they take great offense to, the court messengers did not like to be called Ashy-Buttocks, and they beat the men (Achebe 128). This abuse, heaped on the villagers by their own people, begins to cause strain and cracks within the life of the tribes.
The British, in their arrogance, cannot understand the resistance of the tribes and only crack down harder, culminating in the aforementioned capture of six of the village men, and their subsequent humiliation and ransoming. This episode caused the final snap of anger that set Okonkwo upon the unfortunate messenger with his machete followed by his own suicide. Even knowing of these events, the British official, the district commissioner, cannot bring himself to truly care about the feelings that led to this incident. It is seen as only one more example of the savage ways of the primitive culture.
The behavior of Britain during the colonial period is a well-known and much belaboured point but at the time the novel was written, much was still coming out, and many of the subjugated cultures had only just begun to push back, requesting, demanding, and fighting for their independence. Achebes novel was a fresh take on the Nigerian mindset, written by a child of that nation, who felt that his duty as a writer in a new nation was showing his people the dignity that they lost during the colonial period (Rhoads 61). His decision to write the novel in English, which was considered somewhat controversial, was made because of the changes that had been made to the Nigerian language by the colonials:
There is a problem with the Igbo language. It suffers from a very serious inheritance which it received at the beginning of this century from the Anglican mission. They sent out a missionary by the name of Dennis. Archdeacon Dennis. He was a scholar. He had this notion that the Igbo language which had very many different dialects should somehow manufacture a uniform dialect that would be used in writing to avoid all these different dialects.
Because the missionaries were powerful, what they wanted to do they did. This became the law. But the standard version cannot sing. There’s nothing you can do with it to make it sing. It’s heavy. It’s wooden. It doesn’t go anywhere.” (Brooks)
In point of fact, Achebes feeling about the way the Igbo language was changed could conceivably be applied to the overarching changes that were made to Igbo life as a whole. One gets the feeling that the song of Igbo life was taken away, and it would be up to writers like Achebe to return that song to his people.
In Things Fall Apart, and subsequent novels, Chinua Achebe labored to bring national pride and a sense of self back to his people. While short, harsh, and ultimately very sad, the story of Okonkwo was an important one to tell, and Achebe achieved his purpose with remarkable acuity and insight. He demonstrates, for European and American readers, as well as his own people, that under the skin most cultures operate in very similar ways despite the differences in location and beliefs.
The struggle to balance masculine and feminine, the drive to accumulate wealth and provide for family, the ability to create beautiful works of art and music, is intrinsic to all cultures, whether we have the ability to recognize it or not. However, it is the very ability to recognize these similarities among the differences that will allow us to come together as a functioning human society.
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