Things Fall Apart: thoughts and challenges
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is one of the first pieces of African literature to achieve global critical acclaim. It was of the first books from the continent to be published in English in 1958, it takes a bold and critical stance towards the continents near one hundred years of colonization. Set amongst the Igbo people in Nigeria, Achebe follows the story of Okonkwo a man who aims to follow the moral and social order of his people and perceiving that his life ‘from birth until death was a series of transition rites’ bringing him closer to the ancestors.
However, rather than start at the beginning of his narrative, I want to start sharing my thoughts on this book from its ending. Precisely because I think that’s exactly what the author is warning us against.
In the end of Things Fall Apart the reader is presented with the thoughts of a District Commissioner (a European government official) states that the suicide of Okonkwo would make for interesting material in a book he is writing on the Igbo people to be entitled The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
This interest however is not because Okonkwo was of any significance to the Commissioner, in fact Okonkwo’s story went from being considered worthy of one page, to less than a paragraph, but rather because Okonkwo’s death represents some of the important ways in which to establish a relationship between colonizer and colonized. Through Okonkwo’s death, the Commissioner is able to detail the appropriate action to take (that of not touching, removing and burying the body) in order to exert power and authority over the people he seeks to colonize.
The reality is that for the previous 200 pages of the book, the readers have been regaled with the tales, thoughts, tribulations and triumphs of Okonkwo. A complex and at least for me, a mostly disagreeable character. I personally didn’t enjoy the perspective of Okonkwo, his nature was brash, and he displayed strict adherence to rules and traditions I would consider debasing, precisely because I am from the culture and country which sought to usurp these very traditions.
What I appreciated about him was his determination to walk through life in a manner that would honour his forefathers. Following these regulations from deceased leaders of the community, Okonkwo experiences an initial rise to power, his exile from his community and then a long awaited return. Upon Okonkwo’s return Umofia, his homeland had become a land which had wrought with significant changes due to the arrival of a new people to the region: the white man referred to as ‘leper’.
Much like the way we are taught to consider the history of the Americas as beginning only with the arrival of Columbus, in Things Fall Apart the reader is challenged to see the history of Nigeria specifically, and the continent as a whole as extending far beyond the reaches of a colonial grasp. It’s one small work which helps to see the context behind the processes that narrating African history as we know it, was able to take place.
It will be a longer work, trawling through hundreds of novels, historical accounts and personal interactions for me to continue to expand my knowledge of the continent, and undo the lies I’ve been told.
If you have any other recommendations, please share!