Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
This morning, I found myself reading of pre-colonial life in a fictional village located near the east bank of the Niger River in south-eastern Nigeria that was marked by tradition and respect and promoted an environment of peace. By evening, I turned the last page of this book with a heavy heart after reading a story of how colonialism and missionaries affected the culture and customs of the Umuofia village and neighboring villages of the novel, leading to the loss of language and traditions and resulting in deaths.
Things Fall Apart is one of the most influential books written in world literature, inspiring “generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world” (Barack Obama), making it required reading as a world citizen.
Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author, tells the story of Okonkwo, from the fictional Umuofia village, who desires to earn many titles in his lifetime to undo the failures of his father Unoka, who was in debt to all his neighbors and left nothing for his son to inherit. Okonkwo first earns the respect of all surrounding villages as a young man while wrestling when he “threw the Cat.” Into adulthood, Okonkwo demonstrates strength in his farming of yams and in controlling his children and wives to combat his fear of becoming weak as his father had been. Above all, tradition, respect for elders, honor, and strength are displayed by Okonkwo.
Okonkwo becomes the character through which Achebe describes in detail many rituals of the Umuofia village to build a view into the way of life which will be challenged and begin to disappear in the book’s later parts upon the arrival of colonialism. The art of conversation, respect for egwugwu, and the practice of the religion of the clan are the foundational aspects of the Umuofia village presented by Achebe and lived by Okonkwo.
In sharing a few moments from the novel that display the foundation of the Umuofia village, I hope to inspire you to read Things Fall Apart so that you may see the peaceful traditions and customs of Part I that colonialism attempts to eradicate in Part II and III. I have chosen quotes and scenes that do not spoil the plot.
The Art of Conversation
The art of conversation includes speaking in proverbs and taking turns telling stories to build a tightly-knit, connected community for the people of Umuofia. The importance of language is demonstrated in the lyricism of the novel told by writing in Ibgo vocabulary, proverbs, and creation stories, written in English.
Chinua Achebe received criticism for choosing to write Things Fall Apart in the language of the colonizer. Achebe explained that the uniform Igbo (written Ibo in the novel) language, which became law and eliminated dialects, “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 choosing to write in English, Achebe’s words sing with emotion and convey the art of conversation of the Umuofia clan while reclaiming the language as a weapon of decolonization.
Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.Achebe, 7
In one scene Okonkwo joins his friend Obierika in his obi or hut along with many other men to discuss the bride-price for Obierika’s daughter Akuke. In many scenes of Things Fall Apart, men meet and drink palm-wine for hours prior to discussing their reason for visiting. The same is true in the following quote which demonstrates the importance of relationships and connecting for the Umuofia clan:
As the men drank, they talked about everything except the thing for which they had gathered. It was only after the pot had been emptied that the suitor’s father cleared his voice and announced the object of their visit.Achebe, 72
Respect for Egwugwu
egwugwu: a masquerader who impersonates one of the ancestral spirits of the village
Things Fall Apart presents various scenarios to show how the spirits of ancestors are regarded by the Umuofia village, highly respected and feared. The society is built upon respect, tradition, and honor, which will begin to fall apart under the laws of colonialism as the traditional hierarchy of Umuofia is ignored by the English government’s leaders and church officials.
Regardless, from start to finish, Things Falls Apart demonstrates the role in society of the egwugwu and the affect that it has upon the elders in Umuofia. I greatly admire the respect granted to the ancestors and believe it creates a community of respect.
The land of the living was not far removed from the domain of the ancestors. There was coming and going between them, especially at festivals and also when an old man died, because an old man was very close to the ancestors. A man’s life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors.Achebe, 122
The spirits are seen in Umuofia when titled men and elders of the village dress in costume to represent the ancestral spirits of the village, inspiring fear and acting as judges deciding punishments or resolutions to problems in the clan.
Okonkwo’s wives, and perhaps other women as well, might have noticed that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo. And they might also have noticed that Okonkwo was not among the titled men and elders who sat behind the row of egwugwu. But if they thought these things they kept them within themselves. The egwugwu with the springy walk was one of the dead fathers of the clan.
He looked terrible with the smoked raffia body, a huge wooden face painted white except for the round hollow eyes and the charred teeth that were as big as a man’s fingers. On his head were two powerful horns.Achebe, 89-90
Women and children are fearful upon seeing the egwugwu. Their fear being inspired by masks, smoke, and drumming. Within their fear is a respect for the spirits of the ancestors, which explained in the first quote is closely related to the elders of the clan. The result is respect for elders within the society, and a clan were elders rule together protecting the best interests of the clan.
The Practice of Religion
Things Fall Apart depicts the religion of the Umuofia village though various stories of the medicine man, the priestess of Agbala, and the Gods. I hope that you will read Things Fall Apart to better understand the beautiful respect for the earth that comes from being faithful to Chukwu, creator of the world, rain, plants, and everything good, which in an agrarian village equals livelihood.
In Part I of Things Fall Apart, the Igbo religion is introduced and developed, and in Parts II and III, the Christian religion arrives in the Umuofia village.
The following passage is a discussion of religion from Things Fall Apart. I hope that you too are able to see similarities between the two religions and a lack of acceptance from Mr. Brown.
Whenever Mr. Brown went to that village he spent long hours with Akunna in his obi talking through an interpreter about religion. Neither of them succeeded in converting the other but they learned more about their different beliefs.
“You say there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,” said Akunna on one of Mr. Brown’s visits. “We also believe in Him and call Him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.”
“There are no other gods,” said Mr. Brown. “Chukwu is the only God and all the others are false. You carve a piece of wood–like that one” (he pointed to the rafters from which Akunna’s carved Ikenga hung),” and you call it a god. But it is still a piece of wood.”
“Yes,” said Akunna. “It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach Him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church.”
“No,” protested Mr. Brown. “The head of my church is God Himself.”
“I know,” said Akunna, “but there must be a head in this world among men. Somebody like yourself must be the head here.”
“The head of my church in that sense is in England.”Achebe, 179-180
I come from a mindset that any religion practiced in any corner of the world is valid as long as it promotes peace and love. Once those criteria are met, all religions are equal in my eyes and no religion is better or more real or correct.
Christianity will be spread to many new countries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by colonization. In reading Things Fall Apart, regardless of religious beliefs, I believe it is essential to see validity in belief systems different than that of the colonizers.
As the title suggests, Things Fall Apart
I share the importance of the art of conversation, respect for egwugwu, and the practice of religion to demonstrate the value of the customs and practices of the Umuofia village, many of which will be changed and destroyed due to colonization and missionaries.
I will leave the rest of the story unspoiled; however, the long shadow of colonialism may already have spoiled the novel’s ending for you.
Things Fall Apart is required reading. If you have not yet read Chinua Achebe, begin now.
“Then the missionaries burst into song. It was one of those gay and rollicking tunes of evangelism which had the power of plucking at silent and dusty chords in the heart of an Ibo man.Achebe, 148
Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart, William Heinemann Ltd, 1959.
Brooks, Jerome, “Chinua Achebe, The Art of Fiction No. 139”, The Paris Review No. 133 (Winter 1994).