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By Kwesi Atta Sakyi 23rd March 2013
In 1967, in my second year at the Komenda Teacher Training College, one of our Literature in English books was the classical African novel by Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. The title of the book is said to have come from the Irish, William Butler Yeats’ epic poem, written in 1919, The Second Coming, part of which reads.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats was said to have written his poem after the end of the First World War, with reference to the The Russian Revolution of 1917, and it had biblical undertones of Christ’s second coming or the Apocalypse. Before 1966, when I entered teacher training college, the only novels I had read under the free education policy of Nkrumah, were all written by English and foreign writers. I remember authors such as Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe), Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), Jonathan Swift (The Ugly Duckling), Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, among others. There were also
Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Lorna Doone, Robin Hood, The Mill on the Floss, Arabian Nights, Sinbad the Sailor, Kidnapped, Secret Five Series, Perry Mason’s Detective Series, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Detective Series, Ryder Haggard, Edgar Allan Poe’s Allan Quarter- main, King Solomon’s Mines, Rip Van Winkle by Lewis Carroll, among others. Of course, we had read Aladdin and the Lamp, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, among others. We were brainwashed and made to look up to the so called first world for our classics and to interpret the world through the tainted glasses of Eurocentric values and norms.
We were made to acquire western-dominated mindsets. Achebe’s epic novel, Things Fall Apart, released in 1958, was to turn the tables and upset the applecart. Achebe was like a cat among pigeons, and a luminous star in a dark continental occluded sky. Before Achebe, little did we think that we could also savour and relish our own homegrown and spun yarns by master storytellers such as Camara Laye, Cyprian Ekwensi, Ayi Kwei Armah, Flora Nwapa, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Mongo Beti, Ferdinald Oyono, Mbelle Sonne Dipoko, among many other illustrious African writers. From the time I encountered Things Fall Apart in T2 in teacher training, at the age of 17 years, I made it a point to read as many writers as possible in the African Writers’ Series, which were published mainly by Heinemann Publishing.
I must thank the organizers of annual literary workshops at the time for young writers from secondary schools and colleges, which event was held at Achimota College. I happened to be a member of the Creative Writers’ Club at Komenda, and I was privileged to be nominated to attend the workshops where I rubbed shoulders with the likes of Prof Kofi Anyidoho, Efua Sutherland, Ellen Geer Sangster, Kwabena Asiedu, Prof Jawa Apronti, among others. Out of the workshops came the poetry publications known as Talents for Tomorrow. When I got to reading the African Writers’ Series, I remember reading some spellbound and riveting titles such as Narrow Path by Francis Selormey, Efuru by Flora Nwapa, My Mercedes is Bigger Than Yours by Nkem Nwankwo, No Longer At Ease, Man of the People, Things Fall Apart,and Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe, The Trials of Brother Jero (drama) by Wole Soyinka, The Catechist by Abruquah, Money Galore by Amu Djoleto, The Blinkards (drama) by Kobena Sekyi, Fragments, The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah, People of the City by Cyprian Ekwensi, The Marriange of Anansewa by Ama Ata Aidoo, The Dilemma of a Ghost by Efua Sutherland, Edufa, Sister Killjoy by Ama Ata Aidoo, Season of Migration to the North by Tayeh Salih, On Trial for my Country by Stanlake Samkange, The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams, Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiongo, The Old Man and the Medal by Ferdinald Oyono, African Child by Camara Laye, The Gods are not to blame (drama) by Ola Rotimi, The River Between by Ngugi wa Thiongo, Kongi’s Harvest by Wole Soyinka, Song of Lawino (poetry) by Okot p’Bitek, The Poor Christ of Bomba by Mongo Beti, Because of Women by Mbella Sonne Dipoko, Garb Boys by Cameroun Doudu, The Potter’s Wheel by Wincent Chukwuemeka Ike (former WAEC Registrar), and others. I decided to produce this long list to make sure that first, I evoke a flurry of nostalgia and sentiments among the older folk, second to celebrate the life of a maestro, and third to ask the younger generation to make reading as avid a culture as would nurture their creative talents. (I hope Cousin Paa Kwesi Mintah will not draw out his mental scalpel and aim straight at my skull, nor the ghanaweb critics to draw their cudgels and machetes and start doing me an Ikemefuna! Cousin lampoons me and calls me listologist.)
In those halcyon days in the 60s and 70s, when I was a young adult, we did not have the luxury of the internet and other social networks as we have now such as Mixx It, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Viper, Linkedln, among others. We neither had i-pads, iphones, ipods, tablets, gizzmos and other fanciful e-books such as Kindle. We read hard copies. ICT was non-existent and the only way to pass time then was to head for the library to borrow books and read them quickly before the due date lapsed.
Even up to today, some of us do not enjoy reading e-books because they are so stressful, even though hardcopy books are not green. In those heydays, whenever teenagers who were swots or bookworms met, they would only discuss the latest novels they had read and compare notes. 46 years since I last read Achebe’s masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, I still can recollect snippets of the enduring parts of the storyline. This is because it was very engaging reading as it was replete with humour, vigour, tragedy, comedy, panache, catharsis, tension, human sensitivities and sensibilities, romance, politics, culture, conflict, suspense, ethos, liturgy and lyrics, African Cosmogony, literary finesse, above all, his apotheosis of the African way of life in rural settings.
The main character in Achebe’s book is Okonkwo, a traditionalist par excellence, with many wives and perhaps concubines and paramours. Achebe has a flair for developing his characters to the extent that most of them are prima donna in their own rights in their spheres of life. However, Okonkwo’s exploits, escapades, actions and inactions are the fulcrum around which the others revolve in their own orbits. Okonkwo does not suffer fools easily as he rules his household with iron fist. He regrets having a weakling for a first born son, Nwoye, and a more weakling father, Unoka, whose world revolved around perambulating the nine villages surrounding Umuahia, (forming their microcosmic cluster), and plying his trade of singing at funerals and being paid in kind in the form of the intoxicating, frothy palm wine. In Iboland, such a person cannot be elected to the high society of the Ndichie (elders), nor can he be nominated to take a title as an Obi. Okonkwo overworked himself to the marrow, perhaps trying to impress the ladies.
No doubt, his second wife Ekwefi, before tying the nuptial knot with Okonkwo, had ran away from her husband to seek asylum and solace in Okonkwo’s household, and she became a second wife to Nwoye’s mother. Okonkwo was a wife-beater as he committed a lot of gender-based violence in his household. He was a man who demanded to be worshipped and to be doted upon by his numerous wives, because, perhaps, he was industrious, illustrious, indomitable, and like a pride of lions, the monarch of all that he surveyed and purveyed, for the simple reason that he could provide for the basic, Maslowian physiological needs of the women.
In those days, men of substance like Okonkwo treated their wives as extensions of their beasts of burden. This is still extant in the most remote areas of Africa, where education has not yet ingressed or penetrated or permeated. Okonkwo is depicted as a terribly impatient and tempestuous person whose leadership style was action-oriented and result-oriented. He sorely laments the sloth of his father and that of his apparent heir and first son, Nwoye. He would rather have had Ezinma, daughter of Ekwefi, as a boy, as the girl evinced and displayed exceptional traits of intelligence, industry and malleability.
In the mind of Okonkwo, perhaps his father and elder sons were those genre of humanity who are born congenital fools and laggards. What does Achebe say of Okomkwo’s anger? Hear this, ‘If a man comes to my house to defaecate, what do I do? I take a stick and break his head.’ Achebe’s sarcasm, humour and candidness are captured in one scene where some man is described as having a brain size no bigger than the head of his penis (the glans). At another time, we see Achebe’s forthrightness of language when he writes, ‘the penis that will not die young will surely taste bearded meat’ Hmmm! Achebe’s book is replete with African wise sayings and proverbs, for he intones that proverbs are like palm oil with which food is eaten. When pouring libation in one scene, he writes, ‘he who brings kola brings life. It is only when the gods get to drink that we also get to drink.
Make us prosper.’ That was traditional or ancestral worship, which is a form of social glue cementing the bonds of kinship and unanimity of collective purpose of the people or clan, and invoking the ancestors to watch over them, and to instill fear in those who would be social deviants. It seems Achebe was a very keen observer of his customs and traditional ways of life, and a strong believer in African culture. Achebe puts words in the mouths of his fictional characters to say things for him, with him being a passive and objective onlooker lurking furtively behind the scenes. His fierce and implacable anti-colonialist and anti-racist sentiments and misgivings are canalized through his fictional characters. I am sure he might not have made some white readers happy.
All the same, those readers could and would have forgiven him because he was the messenger and not the message. Besides, fiction is make-believe and full of hype and hyperbole. He was, besides, a voice of his people (all Africans), and by extension, vox populi, vox deo (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Achebe’s unfortunate car accident in 1990, which paralysed him from the waist downwards, could have physically affected him. Thank God, his patrons in the USA at Boston and Brown Universities looked after him well to a ripe age of 82 years.
In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo’s friend, Obierika showcases true friendship and exemplary loyalty. That was when Okonkwo commits female crime or ‘osu’ and he is banished from his native land, Umuahia, to live in another village. It was at a funeral ceremony that Okonkwo attended, and in a brazen display of his bellicosity and gallantry, he accidentally fired a loaded musket which instantly killed an innocent bystander. Obierika tends Okonkwo’s farm in his absence and harvests his yams after which he sells and remits the money intact to his friend. What a show of true fidelity.” This is the type of friendship in the bible between David and Jonathan, and Antonio and Basanio in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
When Okonkwo finally breaks under extreme social pressure, amidst local political machinations from the white colonial administrators and missionaries, (he was diametrically opposed to the idea of his first son converting to Christianity, and again he detested the suzerainty of the colonialists), he commits suicide by hanging himself. This was a great abomination or taboo against the earth godless, Ani. The missionaries on their arrival, were allocated the land, the equivalent of the biblical Golgotha (valley of skulls), by being asked to settle in the dreaded Evil Forest where twins were often thrown away to die. (Ibos in those bygone years discountenanced twins as they believed it was bad luck to have twins). Mary Slessor, a white Scottish missionary in the Calabar area, rescued many of them long ago in her indelible service to humanity.
Twins (Ochechi and Ochenna) were often dumped in the Evil Forest to die. At Okonkwo’s death, Obierika gives an oration, perhaps quite equal to that of the Roman Cicero, or that by Mark Anthony at Julius Caesar’s funeral or surpassing it. In his funereal oration, Obierika accuses the white colonialists for destabilizing their political and social setup by using divide and rule tactics and causing families to break up because of introducing a new religion, the whiteman’s religion of Christianity. He praised the valour and industry of his dead friend and called on the colonial administration to clear up their mess because it was against their custom to take down the body of one who had hanged himself. Achebe gives us plenty of sideshows in his book such as how the villagers came out at night at the full moon to sing and make merry under the romantic ambience cast by the moon.
He entertains us to horseplay and love overtures by the young and heady courting teenagers, whose place years back were taken by a generation who had since retired and resigned themselves to inextricable domestic obligations. The young and beautiful were idealistic about romance and were yet to taste their baptism of fire when reality of bringing up children would dawn suddenly on them and some young adult men might run away from their onerous conjugal obligations and filial responsibilities. Until then, let them indulge in their joyous abandon as they got carried away and swooned in their dreamy sexual and erotic dances and surreal expectations of life. Achebe also treats us to some Ibo superstitious such as the belief that some children persistently trouble their parents by repeatedly going through the cycle of being born and shortly after, dying, a phenomenon called Obanje.
The village fetish priest or priestess would be summoned by the family concerned to come and exorcise that infant of that curse of short life cycles. The infant would be led by the exorcist to go and show where he or she had buried their ‘iri ewa’ or charm which would make them return so often and quickly to the bowels of the earth. Hmmm! Obanje children could be Aj3? (witches or wizards). Achebe was said to have trained as an engineer from the University College of Ibadan in 1953, and had worked as a broadcaster in Western Nigeria before going on to work for the BBC in London, where in 1958 he wrote Things Fall Apart.
It is revealing that as a scientifically-trained person, he believed in supernatural and extra-sensory perception (ESP) and phenomena. Who says even scientists are not superstitious? Achebe presents Okonkwo as a man who acts before he thinks, as he talked more often with his fists than with his mouth. I am sure gender-based violence was galore in his fiefdom. Okonkwo’s first wife is Nwoye’s mother, and his favourite wife is Ezinma’s mother, Ekwefi. It is not strange that his first wife is not mentioned by name as a great mark of respect to her as the indisputable first lady. It is on record that Okonkwo treated her, and her daughter with kid gloves and often bestowed many gifts on them.
Indeed, she was the sweet in his heart, despite occasionally being a victim of his flights of temper tantrums, when she would receive a dose of what was the lot of all his wives- being beaten to put the women in their rightful places, and for him to stamp his indelible mark as the in-charge or major-domo or supremo. Some say an African woman who is not beaten by her husband thinks that the husband does not love her. I leave it to the women to disprove this hypothesis. It is however, strange to note that however hard a man’s heart is, there is always an Achilles heel hidden somewhere, which can be plumbed and fathomed by one particular woman who strikes the right chord in you, and as it were, also locates the man’s G-spot.
I am sure every Samson has his Delilah. (It reminds me of the Welsh, Tom Jones’ classic song of 1968,‘Delilah’ which was sung decades ago). Concerning Nwoye, Okonkwo considered him a failed heir to his throne and if he had his own way, he would have strangulated the poor boy in the vice grip of his great arms and huge frame, till the boy had passed out as the hulky wrestlers do on TV in their WWF fights. Okonkwo’s wrestling prowess was not in doubt as he was revered in all the nine villages, as the only one who once downed the wiry and seemingly unbeatable Amalinze the cat. Perhaps, that singular victory had gone into his head and made him pompous and arrogant. When Okonkwo walked, it was as if he was walking on springs.
He really exuded ambition and confidence. When he snored at night, the whole compound of coagulated and coalesced huts under his control could hear it like the vibrations of a super-jumbo jet, revving to gain upward thrust for take- off. Okonkwo and Ibo men of his time would load steins of powdery tobacco down their olfactory orifices. And Okonkwo was depicted as a man with such a big, ugly and intimidating nose whose orifices could perhaps be a garage for two Renault or Citreon or Peugeot or Albion or Bedford or Volkswagen trucks. Achebe employed all the literary terms in the book, hyperbole, proverbs, humour, irony, paradox, simile, metaphor, sarcasm, idoms – you name it.
When the rival village of Mbanta abuse some traders from Okonkwo’s village of Umuahia, his village council of elders or Ndichie hold counsel and lay an ambush for retaliation. (This reminds me of the perennial squabbles in parts of Ghana between the Nkonyas and Alavanyos in the Volta Region, between the Abudu and the Andani clans of Yendi, between the Gharteys and Ayirebi Acquahs in Winneba, between the Konkombas and Nanombas, among others in Ghana). Okonkwo and his elders capture two young teenagers from Mbanta, a virgin and a boy called Ikemefuna. Perhaps, those two unfortunate souls had bad ‘chi’ (alter ego) or guardian spirit, hence their capture. Perhaps, at birth, their heads were not properly washed by their parents, hence being original suffer heads with bad luck galore following them. (Apologies to Fela Anikulapo Kuti of blessed memory)
Okonkwo and Ikemefuna become the tragic casualties in Achebe’s epic. Okonkwo first slays Ikemefuna under peer pressure to demonstrate his resolute manliness, perhaps in a foolhardy way, and then he goes on to hang himself. Was it Antigone or Oedipus enacted in another format? Did Achebe read Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark? Did he read Sophocles’? Did he read Lysistrata and the rebellion of the wives? Don’t ask me. Go ask his peers at Brown University or at Nsukka or at Boston or at Ibadan or at Legon. Back to Ikemefuna the abductee. I am wondering what happened to the virgin abductee. Never mind, in most plays, women are often relegated to the sidelines and back scenes.
I am not a misogynist. Ikemefuna takes to Okonkwo’s elder son, Nwoye, as a duck takes to water. They set traps and go hunting with slings. They make yam mounds on Okonkwo’s farm in preparation to await the onset of the rains. The village elders sometimes discuss the rainfall patterns, astronomy, agronomy, metaphysics and entomology. They observe the changing winds and the arrival of certain insects or birds as harbingers of things to come. Ikemefuna and Nwoye do things in common and their friendship grows and deepens. Okonkwo notices Ikemefuna to be intelligent, hardworking and above all malleable. But as they say, blood is thicker than water. Ikemefuna was a stranger. There was no way a chicken would dance to impress a hawk or there was no way a chicken would take her case before a court presided over by hawk and expect equity and jurisprudence to be administered honourably.
The verdict for Ikemefuna from Mbanta was guilty, guilty, guilty. Ruled, signed, sealed and delivered; a done deal. At a point in time, Okonkwo begins to like Ikemefuna and perhaps, begins to believe that he can reflect and reproduce himself in his mentee or protégé, who of course was not his biological son, not even a bona fide citizen of Umuahia but an abductee slave and a condemned soul. The Ndichie (elders) and Okonkwo secretly set a date for Ikemefuna’s execution in revenge for their citizens who were assaulted and slain by the villagers of Mbanta. Ikemefuna had grown to admire and hero-worship Okonkwo, his guardian, so much so that he begins to address him as ‘my father.’
Unbeknown to the poor lad, the Rubicon had been crossed, the die was cast and no amount of wizardly could reverse the decision of the Ndichie to have him executed. Had his bosom friend, Nwoye, known about the diabolical intention and fate awaiting him, perhaps he would have helped him to escape from the jaws of imminent death. The ominous clouds were gathering and the day of his execution was a heavily guarded state secret. Okonkwo would inwardly have detested it but he would and could not play cowardice, given his rising star and the certain possibility of his one day being beaded an Obi, a highly prized honour and title.
Unbeknown to the poor and innocent Ikemefuna, the Ndichie had chosen his adopted father to do him the dastardly deed. One day, Ikemefuna is asked to prepare for a journey. He, in his servile innocence, carries the pot given to him and leads an Indian file of elders, including Okonkwo in the direction of the Evil Forest. Deep in the dank recesses of the forest, quite far from all settlement and civilisation, Okonkwo gets the signal to act. He delivers the deadly blow from behind with his concealed machete. Ikemefuna exclaims, ‘Father, they have killed me.’ I think Achebe puts the words in the mouth of the dead Ikemefuna because it is illogical that the boy could have uttered any word if the blow was delivered from behind his neck without any warning. Achebe’s novel makes us feel nostalgia for rustic and laidback village life, where everybody knows everyone, and where traditional niceties and norms are observed to the letter.
Where food is natural and fresh, and where there is no mad rush to work or where there is no traffic din, and hustle and bustle of artificial city life, amidst concrete jungle of skyscrapers. In the village, there is no cause to worry about diseases of the rich, such as coronary thrombosis, cancer, high blood pressure, among others. This is because people walk long distances and engage in field work on the farms. They reach ripe old age and even most of their old people have their full sets of teeth. In Okonkwo’s days, perhaps, backward diseases prevalent could be yaws, malaria, guinea worm, bilharzia, trypanosomiasis, elephantiasis, among others. Next time you are approaching an Ibo village from afar and you hear the drum beats of the ‘ogene’ (drum), remember Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, perhaps he would be taking on a new wife, or it might be the people of Mbanta rallying their forces to wage a war on the people of Umuahia or Ohafia. Or there is a festival with a mountain of pounded yam and ‘isi ewu’ (goat head meat) and bitter leaf aplenty, whereby in-laws cannot see each other until the yam mountain has been bored into by celebrants so much so that the level then allows them to greet each other and exchange pleasantries by shaking hands over the leveled mountain.
Remember, Achebe said in his book that ‘so far as the hunter learns to shoot without missing, the bird will also learn to fly without perching.’ So long as Achebe’s books remain after him, we shall forever read them to his lasting memory. A great iroko tree has fallen. A great mahogany tree and obeche tree has been uprooted. An African intellectual titan and ebullient academic colossus has finally gone home to roost. His good works will forever live after him. When shall we have another Aesop in the person of Achebe to conscientise us and tell us folkloric fables and weave us intricate poetic lines? Adieu, Baba. Adieu Igwe. Adieu Oga. Adieu Kaabiesi. Biko. Kedu. I leave you with Henry Wadworth Longfellow’s poem:
The heights by great men reached and kept,
Were not attained by sudden flights,
For they, whilst their companions slept,
Were toiling upwards all the night
Here goes Longfellow’s The Psalm of Life
The Psalm of Life
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal,
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, however pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time…
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Tribute written by Kwesi Atta Sakyi
23rd March 2013
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