Recently I revisited the novel by Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. As a debut novel – first published in 1958 – it is extraordinary how he depicts the cultural tragedy as a tribe deals with the impact of colonialism and imperialism in Africa.
Things Fall Apart : Summary
‘Things Fall Apart’ tells the story of Okonkwo, the tragic hero, who finds it extremely hard to come to terms with changes happening in his tribe, the Igbo tribe (or Ibo) in Nigeria. As a wrestler and warrior, Okonkwo is a very important person in his tribe and throughout “nine villages and beyond” (p.3 Things Fall Apart). He is also a proud and hardworking man and doesn’t show any signs of weakness, not emotional, not physical. But his life falls apart when he, by accident, kills a member of his tribe during some kind of ritual. Penalty for this means he and his family have to live in exile for seven years.
While they live somewhere else, missionaries and colonial officers from the western world come to his village and introduce their way of life and religion to the villagers. With Okonkwo’s return to his own village, he finds it a different place. The end is tragic when he eventually becomes an eternal outcast from his own tribe.
Exploration of the story
Events in the book take place before and during the days of the expansion of the British Empire in Nigeria. It tells the reader about life in an African culture and how different this is from the Western culture. Certain aspects of the Igbo culture is revealed by the author, for example: the pattern of dialogue (see the quote below) used by this tribe in comparison with how Western cultures would use dialogue in a more direct way. One example of how easily this can lead to misunderstandings between the Igbo and the Europeans.
“Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” (p.6 Things Fall Apart)
My immediate feeling when I finished reading Chinua Achebe‘s book was actually sadness. That it might have been kinder if no one had interfered with the Igbo tribe’s way of living. But change in life is inevitable, so that didn’t happen and in reality, it would never have happened.
Some years ago, celebrating Africa Day – which celebrates African diversity in Ireland – in Limerick City, I was asked to be on a panel to discuss this specific book (being a journalist and coming from South Africa).
I still remember a member of the Igbo tribe also joined the discussion panel, among other writers and journalists. This man, who wore the traditional costume of the tribe, said that although the tribe still existed, many traditions had changed, which was irreversible. An example was that in the book it had been described that if a woman gave birth to twins there were severe implications. (p.45 Things Fall Apart). Fortunately, this is not the case anymore. Another tradition was that a warrior of the tribe always wore a crown on his head. The number of feathers in his crown would give an indication of the number of men he had killed. When asked about this, the panel member chuckled to explain that these days the feathers stood for the number of cows he had hunted.
In the book when Okonkwo came back from exile he noticed the foreign culture that had infiltrated his tribe. He asks his best friend, Obierika, who is more open-minded and reasonable, if the white man understood their custom about land:
Obierika answered: “How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (p.129 Things Fall Apart).
Yes, change is inevitable because of life and constant growth which results in changes happening in the world. Young people who are always looking to do things differently and not the same as their parents. It is extremely sad that so much of a tribe gets lost because of interferences. Respect I believe is the key word here. To try and understand other cultures and languages before you want to change them. To get to know tribes and nations better. Let us do that.