Portia Mahlodi Phalafala (Uhuru by reputation) is back in her Afro-literature essay series. This time she brings you a critical analysis of that much acclaimed book of Afrikan literature Things Fall Apart.

It is said that when the colonisers came to Africa they had the gun and the bible and the natives had the land, then they closed their eyes to pray only to wake up with a bible in their hands and their land stolen. This notion is not far removed from the theme of Achebe’s Things fall apart. He tactfully deals with issues around the colonial penetration and the imposition of the British into the Igbo society through missionaries. Things fall apart was one of the first English novels by an African to be published on an international scale. I therefore feel that Achebe should be commended for not focusing on the notion of ‘gun and bible’ that I’ve mentioned earlier only, but also has strived to show us the status quo of the other side. As he puts it in his essay, The novelist as a teacher, “what we need to do is to look back and try to find out where we went wrong, where the rain began to beat us.” As a writer he was careful not to lay all the blame of the social ills and disintegration on colonialism, but to put a mirror on society to show it its own flaws. He says, in the novel, “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (Page 5). His proverb, upon which he has based the notion of showing us both the organised structure of Umuofia and the flaws that led to the disintegration thereof, help us see the reasoning behind his objectivity. The proverb, which I speak of, says, “He who does not know where the rain began to beat him may never know where he dried up.” Every society has an ordered structure. Achebe, throughout the novel, shows us that the Igbo people had their agrarian economy, spiritual beliefs, a justice system and more importantly, culture. He shows how power is distributed to emphasize on this organised structure. Within these corrective views of history, he also shows us the weaknesses that the society had; the cracks through which colonialism were able to penetrate. The social structure and values of Umuofia disintegrate because of these internal weaknesses as well as a destructive external force from the missionaries.

I will start by focusing on the internal weaknesses that I have mentioned above. Through the hierarchical distribution of power, there was social divisions and inequalities within the Igbo society and hence Umuofia. The efulefu and osus were pariahs, constantly marginalized by society and not considered worthy. The community believed that “the Evil Forest was a fit home for such undesirable people” (Page 110). An osu was despised by the village and forbidden to function in their council, forbidden to marry or even socialise with them. These pariahs were not seen as people and came last in the hierarchy, even under the children. These sort of social divisions were a mould that formed a bigger rot in society, a rot that the missionaries came to disinfect. As it is mentions in Isichei, “the bulk of the first Christian converts were drawn from the poor, the needy and the rejected: the mother of twins, women accused of witchcraft, those suffering from diseases such as leprosy which were seen as abominable” (Page 162). This statement is fitting to elaborate on the flawed internal structure and values of Umuofia. A woman who bore twins would suffer the injustice of having them immediately thrown away in the Evil Forest. More over, such a woman would loose respect from the society and viewed as inadequate. For example, Nneka’ “husband and his family were already becoming highly critical of scuh a woman and were not unduly perturbed when they found she had fled to join the Christians. It was a good riddance” (Page 107). Also, leprosy was abominable to the earth goddess hence anybody who had a swelling in the stomach and the limbs was not allowed to die within society. He was taken to the Evil Forest where he was to join his evil counterparts. This is exactly how Okonkwo’s father died. Such a person would be considered not to have joined his ancestors at his death because the body is not properly buried therefore his spirit would roam around the Evil Forest. So it does not come as a surprise that when Christianity accepted everybody and offered these outcasts refuge they ran there with certain eagerness and devotion. It is through this space that was created between these outcasts and the rest of society that the missionaries/colonialists penetrated. They gave a voice to the voiceless and some support to the weak.

The social structure and values in Umuofia were organised and the pillar of those structures were built on certain beliefs, practices and conduct. I believe some of those beliefs increasingly became intolerant. This intolerance can be seen in Okonkwo; he embodies the society’s sentiments around conduct. The same way he is a man of action, not a man of thought, so is the society/village. I say this looking at formalised rules and practices that cannot, no matter the specialised occasion, be re-evaluated. This takes me to the event of the killing of Ikemefuna. He lived in Okonkwo’s household for three years and everybody was fond of him. He had grown to love everybody around and even called Okonkwo father. Okonkwo himself loved him dearly and treated him as his son, having him carry his chair to meetings, as a son would do. No consideration to this was taken during their decision to have him killed. When Ikemefuna first arrived the elders had decided that he should stay with Okonkwo for a while. It became three years. “They seemed to have forget all about him as soon as they had taken the decision” (Page 20). So clearly nobody thought about the bond that could have formed between the young boy and Okonkwo’s family. They just took decisions without evaluating the matter at hand; the men of action and not thought. Another incident that reflects this intolerance from society is the event leading to Okonkwo’s send off to exile. He is a respected man throughout the village and other neighbouring villages. He is a titled man who is feared as a warrior, respected for his hard work and many wives. But when he shoots a clansman by mistake none of these personality traits are taken into consideration. You would think the village is proud to have him as a resident, that he is an asset to his village; but when he mistakenly shoots a clansman he is send off to another village for seven years. I personally think this was a severe punishment for such an unintended mistake. It seems Obrieka agrees. It says on page 87 that he was a man who thought about things. He asked himself “why should a man suffer so grievously for an offence he had committed inadvertently?” In the same instance he questions the tradition of throwing the twins away since he had to throw away his own. I think it is these formalized practices that cause social disintegration and inequalities in Umuofia because those who are in a position to make decisions make them on a general level and don’t consider individual consequences.

Every society has its flaws and these are some of the ones found in Umuofia. It’s a pity they were to be invaded by a strong external force that penetrated through these cracks in the societal structure. The missionaries arrived in Umuofia and offered an alternative to certain Igbo practices, offered refuge to those that are not wanted by their society. As I have mentioned from the quote from Isichei, the Christians accepted the mother of twins and their twins, those suffering from diseases like swelling and men without titles, also know as the efulefu. Through this they won a handful of converts and erected state apparatuses like schools and courts, started a government and trade system. They basically started a way of living that was never seen before and, because the outcasts were part of their movement, nobody took them so serious at first. Chielo, the priestess, “called the converts the excrement of the clan, and the new faith was a mad dog that had come to eat it up” (Page 101). The Igbo society believed that no man can survive in the Evil Forest and therefore offered it to the missionaries to erect their church. They expected them to all be dead within four days. So when the church survived beyond those days, it started winning more converts. This way an external force arrived in Umuofia and made the natives undermine and doubt their religion and beliefs. Problems were to start from here. The missionaries and their government imposed a transition in society that would introduce further divisions. The converts and the rest of the Christians fought with the clan. “It was even said that they had hanged one man who killed a missionary” (Page 110). There was a lot of tension and conflict between these binary opposing forces. The conflict did not only arise in society but also within family structures. When Okonkwo found out that his son, Nwoye, had been seen at the church he decides he want nothing further to do with him and that he is no longer his son. To this division the missionary, Mr Kiaga, exclaims that “blessed is he who forsakes his father and mother for my sake” (Page 108). This family division is symbolic to the division in society.
At this stage the attack and questioning of some of the Igbo beliefs were rife. The church welcomed the osus regardless of the belief of some of their converts that they were dedicated to a god and were in fact forbidden from attending an assembly of the freeborn. Although some of the converts left the church after it accepted the osus, other osus converted the church became stronger. The tension between the church and the clan would survive under a knife. The biggest conflict ensued when one of the osu converts killed the sacred python that the clan refer to as ‘Our father’. So there was, in general, an attack on fundamental Igbo beliefs that was part of the reason for disintegrating values and social structure in Umuofia. As it can be studied that later Enoch would unmask an egwugwu, which is considered “one of the greatest crimes a man could commit” (Page 131). But the biggest destructive force, arguably, is the ruthless shape their imposed change took. The way in which the six leaders, among them titled elders, were captured is a disgrace, if not a transgression, to the village of Umuofia. The treatment they received while incarcerated was not fitting for even an animal, never mind respected elders. The village without its leaders was like a body without a head. “Umuofia was like a startled animal with ears erect, sniffing the silent, ominous air and not knowing which way to run” (Page 139). The social structure was shaken and at a risk of being broken by these external forces.

Achebe approached this sensitive theme of the penetration of colonialism in Africa with a remarkable objectivity. He has clearly discussed how this happened by showing us internal discrepancies of the society and external destructiveness from the colonisers. He has tactfully shown ‘where the rain began to beat us’ and how colonialism seeped through the cracks found in the social structure. I think this is the reason the novel carries so much weight. He has managed to point out existing pre-colonial structures and values of Umuofia, their strength and weaknesses, and showed how they were threatened under the destructive force of colonialism.

**Primary text referenced: African Writer’s Series, Heinemann 1958

1 comment:

  1. 'Okokwo was a great man, well known throughout the seven villages and beyond' those words have been pasted permanantly in my mind since I read that book way back in 1999.


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