Wednesday, July 21, 2010

THINGS FALL APART by Chinua Achebe

What word first comes to mind when someone says Nigeria? If you have an e-mail account, the word may be scam (someone urgently needs your help to get money out of a bank account and promises great rewards if only you give them lots of personal information...). If you are Anglican, the word may be Akinola, the name of the primate archbishop who for several years has been in a doctrinal and power struggle with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

But if you are like most Americans, you may not know that Nigeria has the highest population of Africa's 60 countries and territories, that it exports more oil than Iran,  or that 40% of the population is Christian (see the CIA World Factbook for more data about Nigeria).

Maybe you'd like to learn more about this important African country, but history books make your eyes glaze over. Try a novel written by a Nigerian: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for recent or contemporary Nigeria; Chinua Achebe for the clash between traditional African society and the British colonizers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Published in the late 1950s and still in print, Things Fall Apart is probably the best-known classic of African literature in English. Alix Wilber, calling it a "relentlessly unsentimental rendering of Nigerian tribal life before and after the coming of colonialism," summarizes it well in an Amazon review:
Achebe sketches a world in which violence, war, and suffering exist, but are balanced by a strong sense of tradition, ritual, and social coherence. His Ibo protagonist, Okonkwo, is a self-made man. The son of a charming ne'er-do-well, he has worked all his life to overcome his father's weakness and has arrived, finally, at great prosperity and even greater reputation among his fellows in the village of Umuofia. Okonkwo is a champion wrestler, a prosperous farmer, husband to three wives and father to several children. He is also a man who exhibits flaws well-known in Greek tragedy.... 
And the story is certainly tragic. Time after time, Okonkwo's fear of weakness drives him to actions that hurt others, and yet he is basically a good man, hard-working and respected. Eventually, however, he comes in contact with British missionaries and colonial administrators, and his strength fails him. Nothing he does can hold his people together. The white man, says his friend Obierika, "has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart."

As I listened to the first part of the book (masterfully read by  Peter Francis James), I found myself thinking about the popular view that all religions lead to the same place. The Ibo gods, though, did not seem to take very good care of women and children. Men were allowed - and sometimes even required - to beat or murder their wives and children. Maybe missionaries weren't such a bad idea, I thought. Or maybe the Ibo people just needed a good dose of the European Enlightenment.

And then the white missionaries came. One was a fool, one was likable, one was an intolerant bigot. The result was the same: the missionaries' strange teachings united with the colonial rulers' will to dominate, and Ibo society was doomed. Women and children ostensibly gained more protections, but their men were humiliated. Families broke apart. Democratic traditions were abandoned. European religion and government, aiming to help them (and, of course, to profit from them as well), ended up destroying an ancient civilization.

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," wrote William Butler Yeats in "The Second Coming." "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned."

Achebe's Things Fall Apart describes a triple tragedy. Okonkwo - noble but flawed - is a tragic hero. His village - indeed, the entire Ibo kingdom - is also a tragic hero. Its strength and goodness and beauty are real but imperfect, and in the end it cannot stand against the foreign invaders. And even some of those invaders are tragic heroes. The missionary Mr. Brown, for example, who respected the Ibo customs and was liked by the Ibo people, went home to England a broken man.

In 1901, Nigeria (so named by the wife of a British colonial administrator) became a British protectorate. In 1914, it became a colony of Great Britain. In 1960, just a year after Things Fall Apart was published, it gained independence and became the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Its official language is English.

1 comment:

Lucy said...

I've wanted to read this book for a while...thanks for reminding me that I wanted to! I love novels immersed in history, as they provide a springboard into learning more. I loved 'Half of a yellow sun' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; I had known so little about Nigeria previously.