Chinua Achebe, one of the most popular contemporary writers from Africa, describes the Nigerian culture in the beginning and effects of the European colonization upon it in the later part of his novel Things fall apart.
This novel can also be considered as a response to the stereotypical notion of western people on Africa and Chinua Achebe is very critical of such Europeanizing of Africa and of European writers who generate their own view on the African people from their biased perspective without truly understanding the Africans and their culture as a whole. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness is a good example of European perspective and their deep sense of prejudice on the African people.
Most of the novels written by European writers, before Things fall apart was published, largely portray Africans as savage, backward and uncivilized who need to be enlightened by the white people. The way they presented Africans did not cross the line of their colonialist stereotype which was challenged or broke apart by Chinua Achebe in his novel Things fall apart.(1958)
The impact of constructed notion of white people on Africans was strong and deep in the mind of people across the world in general and African people in particular that the coming generation of Africa might suffer from this stereotype, Chinua Achebe wrote Things fall apart to show Africans, not as primitive and wild, from the view point of a native.
Achebe’s Things fall apart derives its title from Yeat’s poem The second coming and depicts the dilemma of Okonkwo who was fixed with the traditional way of life in an extreme way who could not deal with the undergoing change in his Igbo society . Things fall apart deals with the conflict clash of culture and rapid transformation in life and values which brought about by western colonizers in Nigeria.
Okonkwo is not an ideal character in the novel, who tries to protect the distinct culture of Africa which the missionaries likely to destroy in the name of “civilizing people”. His rigid and violent nature however breed opposite of his intended goal which in a way perpetuates the stereotype of the wild and savage in the colored eyes of European people/readers. Achebe’s vivid description of African village life and various traditions give an alternative view of Africa and its rich culture. He wants his story about Africa, from his own view, to project the sophistication of African society and culture which shape the identity, dignity and personality of African people before the arrival of European people and to reveal the deep wound the colonizer inflicted on social, culture and political sphere of Africa.
Many western writers have harbored strong sense of prejudice towards Africans and in Heart of darkness, all the black people are generalized as savage and compared to animals or the wilderness of jungle. Achebe countered that notion of colonialist and celebrated the African culture, history and society.
In order to capture the attention of larger audience, Achebe took strategic decision to write in English. He blended the western linguistic form and literary tradition with Igbo society’s word, proverb and other elements of oral storytelling tradition to preserve and retain African oral tradition while subvert the colonial culture and their notion. In the novel, Achebe describes the day to day life of Igbo people and the way stories are narrated in the manner of their oral history without translating some of African words gives the readers a different flavor of literature which is unlike the Europeans’. Achebe projects a different image of Africans in the mind of readers through the perspective of his native prism.
Achebe’s use of English has created heat debate among the African writers of his time but he argued that English should be used as a powerful weapon in the fight to regain what is yours and counter the arguments of colonizer to build one’s identity and dignity. Achebe’s portrayal of Igbo people and use of many narrative terms in the text have influenced other African writers too.
Chinua Achebe grew up under the colonial rule and he got the opportunity to attend the prestigious university where he was benefited and privileged in terms of education during his university time, there was a conscious movement going on in Africa and more and more African writers were questioning the European justification of bringing enlightenment to the Dark Continent. Achebe found the novels, insulting and racist, which were written by western writers.
After reading many novels written by European writers on Africa, Achebe drew the conclusion that the story of Africa could not be told to the African people by anyone else no matter how it’s good intended.
Chinua Achebe,in his Things fall apart ,has successfully presented the real tribal life and their culture, though it was fictional but the more like a documentary account of the day to day life in Igbo society without sophistry and evasion. Achebe rejected the European assumption that colorized only can be the subject of their story. By telling the story of colonized from “within”, he presented different version of Africans which was likely to be disgusting and uncivilized in the eyes of Europeans.
Achebe was not feeling ashamed of narrating the detail account of native people’s daily routine but rather taking pride in African culture and their way of life .Through his story, Achebe resists the European stereotype and retrieves their own history to regain their identity. European version of African history is rejected and white people’s way of looking at Africans is undercut in the novel. Chinua Achebe’s novel has given Africans a mirror to see them in their true color and people realized that they were autonomous individual rather than half-people.
Okonkwo is a typical masculine figure in the novel whose nature is extreme and inflexible. He is unable to adjust the situation and ready to act with violence. His violent nature has further supported the European stereotype of Africans as violent and savage. However we can’t assume the whole Africans through the figure of okonkwo because many of qualities which okonkwo sees as weak (feminine) are respected in the Igbo society. Umuofia’s tolerance, openness and responsiveness we see in the novel are different from okonkwo.
Are Africans truly savage?
Beneath the violent nature of okonkwo, there lies certain softness too in his personality. He repents over his beating of wife during the week of peace. He possesses a soft corner to his daughter Ezinma and his reaction to her in all time is totally gentle and positive. He was driven by pain and sadness after he had killed ikemefuna.
In umuafia, yam plays an important part in determining a man’s status in the sense people’s status is based on their individual hard work rather than inheritance.
The eldest men in the village have more power in the decision making process and resolving conflicts. The system of giving title has encouraged “hard work” and spread wealth in their society.
Okonkwo has called a feast before he left Mbanta- his mother’s kinship, in order to show his gratitude. At the feast, “the meat was shared so that every member of the umunna had a portion. Every man rose in order of years and took a share. Even the few kinsmen who had not been able to come had their shares taken out for them in due return”. In this passage, we can clearly see an order of seniority and juniority not in terms of hierarchy but respect. The beauty of African culture presented here in the novel, the biased European readers may easily neglect or may not notice at all. And the strong bond of kinship exists in the Igbo society is extraordinary and something that everyone should look up to, however it hardly can find in the mechanized western world and among its people.
In Achebe’s novel, because of missionary’s act of religious conversion, the earlier strong kinship and culture of Igbo people have been destroyed. A new era of conflict and division was emerged in the Igbo society and Africa as a whole whereby the ethnic groups have been split, leading towards an internal tension and violence. The cohesiveness of traditional society and its culture was gone, due to the reordering of a culture and religion by the white colonizer.
At the end of novel, when the European district commissioner sees the dead body of okonkwo, he thought to write a book with “the pacification of the primitive tribes of the lower nigers” as its title. This demonstrates the commissioner’s sense of prejudice against the native Africans. The European stereotype of Africans is universal in the sense they see Africans as savage and uncivilized, they rarely take initiate to un-earth the roots of African culture. Chinua Achebe rejects the European notion of African history by showing the civilized and structured society of Africa in Things fall apart.