Things Fall Apart: A Chronicle of Cultural Collision
By Katlego Mereko
Chinua Achebe’s debut novel is the most widely read among modern African literature. It has been translated in over 50 languages and has been accessed on a global scale. It is a fictional precolonial account of Igbo life and reads as a beguiling exposition of Achebe’s divine gift as a social engineer.
Things Fall Apart is divided into three parts; one looks at Igbo life in Umuofia through the contentious character, Okonkwo, undisturbed by Christian invasion. The other records Okonkwo’s life in exile –, and the third details the early impact of Christianity when Okonkwo has made his way back to Umuofia.
The story follows Okonkwo, an ambitious man with an unfortunate background who has worked his way to the very peak of clan life in his village of Umuofia. Through him, a rich account of indigenous life is given, without an uncritical glorification, but fraught with flaws and loopholes that would be expected of any given society.
“The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others.”
Nevertheless, Achebe succeeds in creating an image of a people who had a sustainable way of living; participating intelligently in the communal affairs of commerce, politics, law and religion. Some of the events in which he gives vivid imagery include the story of Ikemefuna – essentially an account to do with ethics and the clans’ sense of justice, and Ezinma sickness of sickle cell anaemia, which in Igbo was seen as a spiritual manifestation called Ogbanje.
As in the case of the Bantu speaking cluster of people, the Igbo share a love for the proverbial to make their point.
“Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.”
Okonkwo hated this, as it reminded him of his destitute father Unoka, who at the end of his shameful, debt-laden life had taken no title in the clan. Okonkwo’s response to this was to work himself hard so as to avoid altogether the possibility of being like his father. He had had a taste of reverence as youth when he usurped the best wrestler in the village, Amalinze “the cat”, and knew that such acts of personal resilience would bode well for his future.
“Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings.”
Chinua Achebe stressed in an interview that Okonkwo’s hyper-masculinity was intended to expose the flaws inherent in such a position when it is undertaken, even suggesting that African cultures are not inherently patriarchal.
“A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme. Is it right that you, Okonkwo, should bring to your mother a heavy face and refuse to be comforted? Be careful or you may displease the dead.”
Okonkwo’s world is turned upside down when he returns to Umuofia in a bid to reconstruct his life. He realises that too much had already changed and that much of the customs that he had left behind do not have the same value anymore. Christianity and its accompanying Western culture had connived to usurp the existing culture, and Okonkwo internalised the success of this conquest and responded in an act unspeakable in the Igbo conception of life.
“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.”