As we mourn the death of our great literary scholar, Chinua Achebe, here is a review of what is arguably his magnum opus, Things Fall Apart.
Review: Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
In “Things Fall Apart”, Chinua Achebe did what Joseph Conrad could not do in “Heart of Darkness”, that is present faithfully, in its stark simplicity and grand complexity, African culture from the perspective of an African who has lived it and has no apologies for it. Conrad and many of his contemporaries including anthropologists failed significantly to discharge a minimum duty of care and faithfulness to the humanity and culture of the African people. They could not have written like Achebe because they have not lived the culture and certainly do not understand the many nuances and subtle complexities. Neither do they understand the history, the folklore and the social relations that form the basis of culture. But even still, the minimum duty of faithfulness in description was quite simply abandoned. Thus Achebe says indeed, “…travelers can be blind.” This is what in some ways, creates a provocative context for Things fall apart, which forces Achebe to be blunt and blatant in his defense of the African, his humanity and his culture. Achebe writes “Things Fall Apart”, in the late 1950s, a time of great African consciousness with regard to African identity which also contributes to the context, even though the story itself is set in the 1890s.
Generally, Achebe introduces the various aspects of any civilization in “Things Fall Apart”: an economy, family, a system of justice, language, socio-cultural relations, foreign relations, warfare, sports etc. He also introduces the many values of traditional and modern African society: honesty, self-determination, hard work and humility. We easily see that African society represented by Umoufia was an agrarian one with a significant dependence on yams and others like what Okonkwo describes as ‘women’s crops’ – cocoyams etc. Like any other society, there are developments of complex mythologies and rites around the system of economic activity. There is the sacred week of peace which Okonkwo inevitably violates with his uncontrollable temper, the rites and sacrifices to Ani, the earth goddess of fertility and even the feast of new yam. Generally, even with all the differences in the many African cultures, the similarities and striking. The Yam festival for example is also celebrated in Ghana by various tribes. So while Achebe writes about the Ibo, it is indeed an expression of African culture itself. Family is generally a patriarchy with polygamy. Okonkwo has multiple wives including Ekwefi, his second, and Ojiugo, his third. The man is expected to be the head of the household, and the controller of his wives which may include beating them. But there is allowance for romance in the classic sense. Achebe refers to this when he speaks of “not so young children playing in pairs” and even in the story of Ogbuefi Ndulue and his wife Ozoemena which speaks of love lasting into old age. Obierika says “It was always said the Ndulue and Ozoemena had one mind.” Achebe also presents a system of justice administrated by the elders and the priests and priestesses of the Gods. Indeed, it is this justice that begins Okonkwo’s fall after his gun mistakenly goes off and kills a young boy during the farewell dances at Ezeudu’s funeral. Justice extends to foreign relations which includes diplomacy before warfare as one would expect. So that, when a woman of Umoufia is killed, the elders accept Ikemefuna and a virgin in return rather than go to war and waste lives needlessly.
As for Language, Achebe is sure to make a good case for the Ibo and indeed the African people. His lays bare his famous argument that the Westerner’s refusal to call African communication, “language” but instead preferring the lesser word “dialects” is indicative of a Eurocentric disposition. He writes beautifully weaving local words into the story - ocho, uli, iba etc. But the most impressive are the proverbs. He says himself that “proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.” Achebe includes numerous proverbs: "A man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness," "The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did," and “if one finger brought oil, it soiled the others." Sporting activity is rife and the passions evoked by a good wrestling match are very much akin to one in a football stadium. Achebe also deals with the values of the people. They abhor laziness as was clearly seen in the case of Unoka, Okonkwo’s father who had no wealth or titles. They respect strength and bravery. A man was defined by his usefulness to the community in times of warfare and hence Okonkwo’s bravery had helped catapult him into greatness. Like the Ibo say, “When a child washes his hand properly, he eats with elders.” The communities believed in hard work and self-determination as is epitomized by Okonkwo himself, even as they relied on the Gods and understood the incontrollable and unpredictable nature of nature. They say, “If a man says yes, his chi says yes as well.” They valued humility hence the general disapproval of Okonkwo when he called Osugo a woman. "Those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble." They also value tolerance. When Okonkwo visits Nwakibie, it was said, "Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too. If one says no to other, let his wing break."
Okonkwo’s story is one of a tragic hero. He in ennobled in the classic sense by his own hard work since his lazy sentimental musician father - Unoka, had no wealth and could not pass him a barn or a young wife. He had no head start in life like his colleagues. He works hard to establish himself. He wins a wrestling match that brings glory to his village as a very young man. He borrows yams from Nwakibie and plants them and slowly grows into an important member of the society. But his great flaw, his Achilles' heel, is excessive pride over his achievements and even more, his fiery temper. He calls Osugo, a woman; he breaks the peace in the week of peace; He nearly kills his second wife Ekwefi after an insignificant provocation. But what begins his downfall was the inadvertent explosion of his gun that kills a young boy and leads to his banishment from the village. This is deeply humiliating and the humiliation continues in his resistance to the acceptance of the white man’s ideas. His own son, Nwoye joins the white man and he is ultimately beaten in a white man’s jail, where he goes for three days without food and water. We can easily see that, Okonkwo own flaws, despite his greatness precipitate his downfall, primary among them his lack of emotions, pride and uncontrollable anger.
Achebe writes “Things fall apart” in a way that lends itself to academic literary analysis. He used the tragic hero, the pivot of any deep and highly meaningful novel. Perhaps, it is to prove that Africans are capable of such “higher art” as classical literature rooted in the concept of the tragic hero; or perhaps, it is to meet Europeans and Western academics on their own literary terms, in a way that they can understand and forces them to look at Africa seriously. African stories seem generally geared towards poetic justice, that’s virtue rewarded and vice punished. The seemingly grandiose importance of the tragic hero itself may be deeply rooted in only Western tradition. So Achebe in some ways, inevitably falls into what could be called “the African intellectual’s dilemma” The African intellectual has to defend African culture but still on Western terms to be considered serious. While the tragic hero is a serious component of literature, it need not be a critical component for serious African literary analysis. Things fall apart, must be considered first and foremost a reflection of African cultural, social and psychological framework. And to a large extent, Achebe displays this culture in extraordinary detail. And this was not for nought. He could have censored all the gory details if he chose to - like polygamy and patriarchy and the violence it sometimes engenders against women; the killing of Ikemefuna who had become a part of Okonkwo’s family; the throwing of twins into the evil forest etc. All of these fly in the face of our general human values today. These values, of course, come to some extent from the humanism of the late 40'sand 50's which was precisely when Achebe was writing. Achebe therefore writes with a stubborn insistence on respect for African culture as it is - with a general nonchalance for what a Westerner might perceive to be unacceptable. He makes no apologies and writes without that crippling sentiment. Indeed, the dubious idea of Western unacceptability is itself prejudiced by the double-standards that has so often characterized Western analysis of African culture. The only allowance Achebe makes is for a bit of self – correction, in the form of Obierika who wonders aloud about their traditions, and whether they are indeed fair.
Colonialism has put the post-colonial African intellectual automatically on the defensive. There is this perceived need to stand up for African and other previously colonized indigenous cultures. But the values of the 21st Century, in which the African intellectual grows like human rights, women’s rights, homosexual rights, sexual rights (defined in the Western context), sometimes appear incompatible with what may be considered African. Most of these, of course, are deeply rooted in Western culture – liberalism and individualism. But are they wrong only because they are Western? Are they right? Are they right and just happen to have originated in the West? Herein lies the dilemma for the modern African intellectual; and perhaps, even the Western reader who begins to appreciate African culture, often without the knowledge that some components of the culture described in the book are no longer existent either because of self correction or cultural imperialism. Should some "backward" practices be valued and held in good light because of cultural relativism? Is there a debt to be paid by the Western academic for the past unfaithfulness to African culture? These are the questions; these are the complex questions we have to come to terms with. So the next time you hear the discussions and debates, on culture and rights, pray, do not forget Achebe - one of the first and perhaps, the foremost intellectual to mount a comprehensive defense of the African.