TBBNQ Reads: Things Fall Apart - Review

By Tobi

Image:  Marianne Paul  for The Book Banque

Image: Marianne Paul for The Book Banque

As previously expressed in an initial review, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart uniquely transcends its reader to a whole new world, and offers an invitation to an awakened imagination. Centered around Okonkwo - a wrestling champion and acclaimed warrior of Umuofia - the book sheds light on the value of Igbo culture, beliefs and traditions, and the historical dependence on deism and religion as a determinant of fate. Achebe delves into precolonial Igboland, using proverbs, folklore and the Igbo language to highlight indigenous social and cultural norms. The author subtly renders the conception of colonialism as an extension of enlightenment and revolution as a fallacy, and though imperfect, illustrates a demise in the system of self governance and the use of Igbo language, following the invasion of European missionaries and governments. 

Reviewing our TBBNQ read of September, below are a few themes that stood out.

The Okonkwo In Us

Wherever possible, Okonkwo never failed to seize the opportunity to express his masculinity. Through the village fights, meetings with the elders and interactions with his family members, the preservation of his tough, manly, undefeated and fearless figure was of paramount importance. So much so that he coldly murdered Ikemefuna - who looked up to him as a father - just to protect this ‘masculine’ image. The irony in Okonkwo’s story is the fact that the display of masculinity and the desire to be feared and respected was an exhibition of a different form of fear in itself. That is, the fear of being anything close to the legacy of his late father - lazy, weak, and in turn, feminine. The need to dissociate himself from his father, Unoka, was the bane of Okonkwo’s existence and simultaneously, the shovel for which Okonkwo dug his grave.

The desire to be alienated from the negative legacy of his father is however not synonymous to Okonkwo. It is an innate feature that unconsciously drives majority of people, especially young people. The fear of failing or mirroring the thing(s) loathed in familial relationships, unbeknownst to us, shapes our decisions, and who we strive to be. This, from conversations engaged in with young people, is increasingly apparent in the Nigerian society today. Particularly in broken homes, the residual bitterness that lingers often lays a foundation; for which many tend to build glass houses out of, in the bid to refute certain characteristics of their parent(s).

Conversely, the fear of not living up to one’s parent’s legacy likewise shapes us, and influences the standards we set for ourselves. They redefine our idea of success, and remind us that failure - at any stage in life - is certainly not an option. Equivocally, the fear of failing to walk in - or perhaps, create bigger - footprints of one’s parent often subconsciously becomes one’s biggest conquest in life. Similar to Okonkwo, one is clothed with societal pressure, and the need for recognition and status; armed with the sword of parental burdens, expectations, inadequacies and responsibilities; perpetually fighting to break free from the shadow of the legacy of their parent(s). 

To Be A Man

To be considered more of a man - because possessing male genital organs is simply insufficient in Nigeria - one’s assets as well as the number of wives, especially in the precolonial and traditionalist setting, spoke volumes. Mutually non-exclusive, the more wealth and power you possessed either by working hard, claiming titles or winning inter-village fights, the more you were respected as a man by your peers, elders and more importantly, women, in Igboland. This was indeed the case in Umuofia - the village from which Okonkwo’s father hailed, and Okonkwo’s place of residence. His ‘manliness’ as exhibited by the number of fights under his belt not only scored him his title as a clan leader and warrior in Umuofia, but also won him the heart of his second wife, Ekwefi, who had earlier married another man because Okonkwo, at that time, was poor.

Without endorsing the idea of adultery and cautiously noting, the setting of the story portrays polygamy as the true and traditionalist nature of Nigerian men. In precolonial Igboland, as Achebe casts in Things Fall Apart, polygamy and status went hand in hand. In contrast to modern Nigeria where monogamy as enforced by the Christian missionaries is “respected” in most - mainly Christian - households, a man was not a man unless he had more than one wife. Similarly, the ‘real’ men - that is, non-effeminate - were known by the fruits they bore. That is, the number of children they had, and the gender of the offspring - as male children were better valued.

Femininity And Boundaries

The dominance of men in the household and society is a recurrent theme in Things Fall Apart. As simple as emotions, these were for women. Even in his own privacy - be it after killing Ikemefuna or thinking about Ezinma his daughter - Okonkwo preferred to suppress emotions in his bottle of ‘snuff’ and his bed. Any sign of weakness in Umuofia and neighbouring Igbo communities, was attributed to femininity, and vice versa. This is further emphasised in latter chapters where Okonkwo and his family are exiled for seven years to his mother’s hometown - Mbanta - as a form of punishment for accidentally killing Ezeudu’s son. Residing among his maternal kinsmen in Mbanta was a symbol of failure, weakness and defeat for Okonkwo.

Achebe certainly does not hold back in expressing a conflict in gender roles; he portrays a patriarchal Nigeria. While this may allude to criticisms of sexism and an objectification of women, it is important to note that the author simply attempts to plunge his readers into the traditionalist setting of Igboland - for which, as much as the feminists may hate to admit, was and arguably is, representative of how many Nigerian communities are socially conditioned. Through the book, Achebe ideologically leads the horse to the water but does not force it to drink. That is, he highlights a historical background to gender inequality in Nigeria; however not for the purpose of a forced acceptance, nor conformation.

Though written in the context of the late 1800s, Things Fall Apart remains relevant on the topic of gender distance in Nigerian households, workplace, communities and politics. Women, as severally illustrated in Okonkwo’s family and in preparation for ceremonies, were mainly for cooking, taking care of the children and satisfying their husbands in bed. This, despite the waves of ‘westernisation’ that may have swept through the country, is unfortunately a prevalent concept in Nigeria, and not a figment of Achebe’s sexist imagination. As recently exemplified by the comment passed by the current President Buhari, the average Nigerian man still limits the relevance of a woman “to [his] kitchen and [his] living room and the other room.”

What Was Versus What Is

Christianity, in itself, was also considered as an effeminate ordeal. When introduced by the European Missionaries in Igboland, the new converts were regarded as efulefu - that is, men with no status, and likened to an “agbala” or woman. You can thus imagine Okonkwo’s fury on discovering that his own seed, and first son, Nwoye, had converted to Christianity - a total abomination! Okonkwo considered this as a form of betrayal to the clan, and a warrant to disowning his son. The introduction of Christianity was not only a threat to the religion, traditions and cultural norms of Umuofia, but also signified a loss of Okonkwo’s justification for violence, and everything that put him on a societal pedestal. The way of the gods and tradition followed in Umuofia and neighbouring villages fostered the power distance that thrived in the communities, and served as a basis of inequality.  

Similarly, the invasion of the colonial British government signified an extinction of traditions - a concern expressed by Uchendu during the feast of gratitude organised by Okonkwo for his mother’s kinsmen, as he approached the seventh year of exile. The presence of Reverend Smith, the district commissioner and the ‘Ashy-buttocks’ (nickname coined by the Igbo people for the court messengers) and the implementation of its judicial laws represented more than a clash of culture. It oversaw a different form of segregation in Umuofia - one in which things were clearly seen in “black and white.” Achebe, in the latter chapters of the book, presents a battle between what was versus what is to be; the loss of self governance, the Igbo language, beliefs and cultures consequent of the white man’s desire for “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.”