There are common, misguided beliefs globally held about Africa and Africans. These beliefs perpetuate the stereotype that Africa is a primitive continent without civilization. Western writers such as Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary have aided in creating such stereotypes through their literature. In response, African writers such as Chinua Achebe, set out to write literature which dispelled these stereotypes, by revealing the cultural beliefs and practices of Africans prior to Western colonisation. In doing so, Achebe has opened the minds of readers worldwide to the complex and multi-layered structures within and amongst African people. In his award-winning and highly acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart, Achebe demonstrates the complexities of community in the Igbo nation of Nigeria. The novel extensively deals with the themes of spiritualism, community, family structures, conflict resolution, wealth, and the art of storytelling, which carefully brings the reader’s attention to the understanding that Africa is neither primitive nor without history. This essay will explore these themes in order to show that Achebe’s literary work counters the bias and misinformation in Western literary works about Africa.
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe creates a society which is rich in culture. There are traditions, values and laws within this society which shows the reader that African societies had their own ways of governing themselves before the arrival of Christian missionaries and European colonists. African civilisation is different from the East and West, but nevertheless still meaningful and important. Though African societies are not perfect, it does not mean that they are any less than Eastern and Western civilizations. Every civilization has its own flaws and strengths; African civilizations are no different in this respect. There are also commonalities between African cultures and the rest of the world. In Things Fall Apart, African civilization is profoundly displayed – Achebe writes a story which goes into depth explaining the practices and beliefs of the Igbo nation in Nigeria.
Umuofian society is based on a clear hierarchy. At the top, are the gods, spirits, and ancestors. Below them are the prophets, oracles and traditional healers. Next come the elders made up of men. Below the men are the boys, and at the lowest level of the hierarchy are the women and girls. Within Umuofian society, there are also social classes based on power and wealth. Okonkwo and his father demonstrate this distinction of class in the story. Okonkwo being rich and strong hence admired and respected, whilst his father was mocked and cursed for being poor and gentle.
Disruption to the order of the hierarchy is not tolerated in Umuofia. Each person knows their place and how they should behave accordingly. Ultimately, each level of the hierarchy is under the authority of the levels above them. Men must obey the gods and elders. Women must obey the gods, elders, and men. Children must obey the gods, elders, men, and women.
Each clan tries to live peacefully without interference into other clans, however when conflicts arise, the Igbo have their own laws and means of resolving conflict. It would seem that their aim is to minimize loss of life, when conflicts occur. Guilty clans are asked to hand over clan members instead of going to war, which would result in mass loss of life. Within clans, when members break the rules, they are banished for a specific time period.
Another aspect of tradition which Achebe focuses on, is the art of storytelling. The Igbo rely on the oral tradition of storytelling to pass wisdom and morals onto younger generations. Pre-colonial African literature included song, dance, proverbs, idioms and oral stories about culture and daily life. These stories contained moral lessons to educate children. Achebe demonstrates this in the stories shared between Ekwefi and Ezinma. The language is rich with metaphor and allegory. For this reason, storytelling from the Bible, by the missionaries, appeals to some Igbo, who later convert to Christianity.
Achebe tells us a story about the Igbo, by using the literary devices which the Igbo themselves use when storytelling. Most of the story takes place at night, and the moon is often referenced when describing the atmosphere – these foreshadow impending doom. Yams and palm oil are also used throughout the narrative to symbolise wealth, and quality of life. As the narrator says, “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” The character, Okonkwe, is also a means of proving that Africans have their own heroes and legends.
Some readers may view Umuofian society as primitive because of their belief in spirits, instead of science. The entire society lives in fear of the spirit world, and they engineer every aspect of their lives to appease the gods. They are dependent on the gods for health and sustenance. Umuofians’ lives are controlled by this fear, hence some of them find relief from this fear in Christianty. The Igbo believe that the gods control the natural elements, and the destinies of people. They believe, “When a man is at peace with his gods and ancestors, his harvest will be good or bad according to the strength of his arm.” Spirits are believed to enter humans which can cause havoc (as seen with Ekwefi’s babies’ deaths) or peace. Umuofians need the gods to make sense of the natural world which they do not understand. Life’s traumas and the complexity of human life are explained through a belief in supernatural beings who decide what happens on earth. Whilst this may be viewed as primitive, it should also be considered that both the East and West also believe in God or gods. Western countries largely believe in the Biblical God, and the Eastern countries believe in supernatural spirits.
Some critics might also argue that Umuofians are uncivilised because of their mistreatment of females. Women and girls are regarded as the lesser valued gender in Umuofia. Okonkwe is called a woman in a mocking tone, “How can a man who has killed five men in a battle fall to pieces because he has added a boy to their family number? Okonkwo, you have become a woman indeed.” Females have no claim to freedom and safety within the patriarchy. Polygamy is the norm. Women are not afforded justice when emotionally and physically abused by their husbands, if the elders do not believe the women. Fathers are regretful of having daughters, and wish to rather have sons. Yet again, one can respond by saying that patriarchy and gender inequalities exist in Eastern and Western societies too. The feminist struggle is one experienced worldwide, and is not exclusive to Africa.
Writers like Chinua Achebe and other African writers have played a significant role in reshaping the global perspective on Africa. Though stereotypes still exist, and Africa is marginalised, powerful African voices cannot be ignored. Stories about Africa told by Africans carry weight – the authenticity of these stories cannot be denied. As readers encounter African literature, questions arise about the perspectives portrayed in Western literature about Africa. And for as long as readers are questioning, there is an expansive need for Africans to write their own stories.
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Achebe, C. An Evening With Achebe Chinua Achebe [Online] Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5OAjnG6rKo&list=PLAN4Q5iN3oRKvl6eFqFH0cTfvFbdoLMF9&index=15 [17 May 2022]
Achebe, C. Things Fall Apart. Penguin Random House LLC., New York, United States of America. 2017
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