The entire culture of a people is often sacrificed in the interest of forming civilized societies. Highlighted in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the Ibo tribe of lower Nigeria faced obliteration when confronted by British colonists in the late 19th Century. Although these individuals sought to bring peace to the Ibos, their actions led to severe ethnic trauma for the tribe. Achebe avidly emphasizes the functionality of the Ibos during the time they were able to freely practice their cultural traditions. However, as the British began to gain control, devastation became commonplace, and Achebe establishes the point that the destruction of society comes with the loss of a culture. Although the British perceive the Ibo way of life only to be primal and violent, it is their traditions that give them culture and makes them human, uniting them as a society. In their mission to remove such customs from Umuofia, the British inflict unnecessary acts of violence upon the tribe. When focusing on the Ibo tradition, it is crucial to first look at their established means of communication. As C.L. Innes points out in her book, Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart contains language reflective of a “‘collective voice’ reminiscent of oral storytelling”, which highlights “its more intellectual and introspective protagonist”, (169-70). With this statement, Innes defends Okonkwo, granting him respect. She suggests that he is a good father, despite his roughness, as he is able to provide for and protect his family. His character represents an acceptable father figure in Ibo society, and although the British do not approve of it, he is entitled to his adaptation to the Ibo decorum. There is, in fact, more to Okonkwo than his outward violence. He is a valuable member of Ibo society, and one of the individuals that help make Umuofia run efficiently. It is a conscious decision that Achebe has made to compose Things Fall Apart mostly of stories about Okonkwo’s tribe. The reader is able to gain empathy for the people of Umuofia through learning the histories of just a few of its inhabitants. Okonkwo is perhaps the most exceptional illustration of this tactic. His complex character aids readers in their understanding of the value of the Ibo culture. While on the outside Okonkwo appears to be nothing but an abusive, harsh man, he is one of the most notable leaders in his land. He has married three different women and is recognized for his strength as a warrior.
And it is through the conveyance of the account of Okonkwo and his tribesmen that it becomes increasingly clear to readers that the oral tradition of the Ibos is highly representative of the tribe’s lifestyle. As a people, they come together through the exchange of words. Their language connects them. “Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten” is perhaps the most notable cultural reference in Achebe’s acclaimed novel (Things Fall Apart, 7). It proposes that the language of the Umuofian community is as crucial to them as the food they eat. Specifically, palm oil was a staple in the culinary practice of Ibos. It was consumed daily, as it was used in almost every dish. One particular proverb that is presented to the reader addresses the cultural and social shift upon which the book focuses. “As the elders said, if a child washes his hands he could eat with kings” (TFA, 8) suggests that it has been the long-standing belief that when one is able to create a new foundation for himself—despite his past and despite the wrongdoings of those that came before him—he will be able to thrive. This quote must be considered in two ways. For one, Okonkwo seeks to liberate himself of his father’s shortcomings. In his desperation not to be judged as an efulefu1, he overcompensates with violent, commandeering actions. Where Unoka attempted to nurture his family by showing compassion, Okonkwo displayed commandeering actions, allowing him to maintain his role as a prominent ndichie2 who could provide security for his wives and children. Another way to reflect on this proverb is with the example of Okonkwo’s only son, Nwoye, choosing to convert to Christianity. Although it is against the customs he has been brought up with, Nwoye feels that in order to make up for the “sins” that he and his predecessors have committed, accepting this new religion will secure him a spot in heaven. On a larger scale, this parallels the Ibos’ general condition of the time. They had been convinced that their ways were wrong, and that they needed to reform their ways to be accepted into global civilization. These interpretations of the proverb are different in content; however, each one acknowledges a complex and respectable society. In a society that lacks government and written language, the Ibo oral tradition provides the structure that the tribe depends on. Not only do proverbs and stories unite the Ibos, but also they evoke a historical consciousness in members of the tribe. This allows for the Ibos to abide to a propriety that comes from a shared, collective memory. It can be said, therefore, that the spoken word is what the Ibos consider law. One vessel through which proverbs and other Ibo language is transported from one member of the tribe to another is the traditional gathering that takes place regularly. News, stories, and conversations are exchanged in this forum, allowing for a coming together of generations. This practice only adds to the tribe’s collective memory, enriching their culture. To force the Ibos to give up on this tradition is to rob them of their cultural identity. Unfortunately, the British sought to violate the Ibo tribe in this exact manner. Their motives for the spread of Imperialism were clear. Most importantly, it would provide them “a route to the fertile Buganda plateau…(which was) inhabited by three million people already and (had) a much greater potential for economic development” (Grant Sinclair). The British hoped to expand their economical empire to gain further control over lands. Through their attempts to do so, they hoped also to spread their morals, religion, and military ideals. It is these selfish motives that begin to prove the immorality of the British imposition in Africa. The national pride that compelled the British to take control of the Ibo land served as a blindfold through which missionaries were not able to see the destruction they brought about. These people did not understand the Ibos to be fully human; a psychological approach used to convince people during this time that tearing apart the Ibo society was a justifiable act. Of course, Achebe’s combative writing refutes this assumption. The Ibos’ culture was just as rich as that of the British, despite their inability to defend themselves from being overtaken by the Empire. In truth, the African tribes of the “Lower Niger” (TFA, 209) lived a life based around morals set by nature (Chinua Achebe Book Notes). This system was around for far longer, (centuries, even), than the British Empire. When the missionaries began to infiltrate the continent, problems arose. The process went as such: “First came the slave trade where Africans were picked up from the West Coast of Africa and shipped off to distant places where they were sold off as slaves. This disrupted tribal life and also impoverished the land, for now there were no able-bodied men to carry on the hard work of crop-raising” (Chinua Achebe Book Notes).
The actions went on to include “expansion policies of many countries” and, finally, “the activities of Christian missionaries, who did not care to understand the religion of the people of Africa, whom they considered uncivilized and savage, and proceeded to convert them to Christianity” (Chinua Achebe Book Notes). Clearly, the British were cause for an incredibly large amount of destruction among Western African tribes, both physically and culturally. The Ibo culture, in particular, was eradicated due to those in power believing it to be insignificant. It is undeniable that Achebe sought to inform his audience that these practices of seizing land for the purpose of spreading the ideals of another country upon it was unjust. The reader is able to form his own opinion on this issue based on the informative context presented in Things Fall Apart. His tactic is to inform the reader of the valuable traditions and practice that occurred prior to the British invasion. In doing so, he points out the lack of necessity of anyone having brought his or her own ideals to this country. Things Fall Apart validates the long-standing African culture, providing the audience with a picture of a stable Ibo society. It is clear that the Ibos had an established way of life before confrontation with the British. But it is important also to consider the lifestyle that the British led during the time in which their infiltration began. More than anything, it is apparent that the Empire sought to influence the Ibos socially, establishing a new outlet upon which to spread their thoughts and ideals. Their intent was to provide stability, and ultimately, a government for these people that they felt to be primitive and violent. However, their actions proved just as vehement, if not more so, than those of the Ibos. Linguistic terrorism is a violent act that affects a culture emotionally. One of the most identifying features that a people can have is a shared tongue, and, as mentioned earlier, that of the Ibos was what gave them a collective voice. The British disapproval of Ibo language is apparent, such as when the District Commissioner interacts with Obierika, and is unable to understand his choice of wording. “One of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words,” was the reaction that the Commissioner had to this instance, criticizing the Ibos for their chosen way of communication (TFA, 207). This was one of the instances that drove the British to feel the need to “correct” the way in which the Ibos corresponded. But rather than solving a problem, the confiscation of their native tongue and means of communication subtracted from their quality of culture and life. Another cultural trauma inflicted upon the Ibos was the elimination of their religion. Believing that nature is the overruling force of all things, the Ibos were highly observant of weather patterns, which allowed them to prosper agriculturally. It is true that Ibo beliefs led them to sometimes commit violent acts, such as the disposal of tribe members that have fallen ill. This particular practice, however, can be defended in that it served to create quarantine between the healthy and sick members of the tribe. It helped eliminate the spread of disease, making Ibo lands healthy and resilient. In these instances, traditional Ibo religion was part of what made the tribe strong. It was hypocritical of the British to want to remove Ibo religion because the Christian religion is just as harsh. Christianity calls for the conversion of other peoples who do not have regard for its teachings. It is the very religion of the British that led them to believe they had to fulfill a missionary role in converting the Ibos. However, stripping the Ibos of their centuries-old religious views accomplished nothing but dispute between the natives and their oppressors. It also caused conflict between different members within the tribe. Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye, who had a long history of dispute to begin with, were pushed even further apart from one another when a new religion entered the tribe. When the British missionaries granted validity to Nwoye’s pre-existing thoughts that the Ibo tradition was unscrupulous, the young man took it upon himself to break ties with his tribe’s beliefs, and thus, his father, entirely. In this sense, the British tore apart families, dividing up the tribe as a whole, and creating more strife than ever was necessary.
The conclusive brutality brought about by the British was the forcing of their governmental ideals upon the Ibos. As pointed out by Laura Kunreuther in her piece “Pacification of the Primitive”, “Much of this reshaping of colonial desires is enacted through the force of the law.” The Ibos had their own governing force, prior to the arrival of the British: the unwritten laws passed down from generation to generation. There was no necessity for another country to force their laws upon the Ibos, and when the British did this, it had the opposite effect than was intended.
The British instated a court upon their arrival in Umuofia, meant to keep order in what they observed to be a violent tribe. However, the new British government seemed to work regressively in its attempt to rid the tribe of their cruel acts. Instead of creating a peaceful environment, they resorted to their own acts of colonial violence. The most apparent instance is what drove Okonkwo to kill himself. After some provocation from the District Commissioner, Okonkwo reveals that he had taken to arming himself with a machete due to the presence of the British. Immediately thereafter, Okonkwo is ambushed and taken prisoner, and then is punished in a humiliating manner by which his pride is taken from him completely through physical assault and verbal abuse. This, of course, was a strong contributing factor in Okonkwo’s suicide. It can be concluded that the Empire’s attempts to create an orderly government within Umuofia only led to more violent acts (Kunreuther).
Raising another highly relevant point in her essay, Kunreuther goes on to ponder, “Where does one draw the line between violence that is purposeful and necessary and violence that is excessive and wasteful?” For an Empire that was so vastly different from those who they were attempting to convert to their ways of life, it is decidedly apparent that there was no validity in the colonial violence brought into Umuofia. The British were essentially the clear opposite of the Ibos. Their skin colors, ways of thinking, and traditions were entirely different from one another. With this said, the fact that the British felt that their cultural traditions were more ethical and legitimate than those of the Ibos was what made them unjust in their pursuit.
Again, belittlement of the Ibos occurs when in the last chapter of the book, the District Commissioner deliberates over the book he is writing. He reflects upon Okonkwo’s suicide, making it seem utterly insignificant, as if such a thing is a common occurrence in each of the tribes his people have tried to take over in Africa. Achebe notes of the Commissioner, “In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learned a number of things. One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend such undignified details as cutting a hanged man from a tree. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him” (TFA, 208).
Ironically, the natives already have a poor opinion of the Commissioner. And it is this exact disregard and deprecation of the Ibos that causes them to think of him with such contempt. Further demeaning the Ibo culture, the Commissioner continues his deluded reflection, going on to consider the book he has set out to write about the tribes he has attempted to “bring civilization to”. “As he walked back to the court he thought about that book. Every day brought him some new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details” (TFA, 208-209).
Achebe includes this selection to highlight the thought process of the British to the reader. Of course, Achebe has written an entire book focused on Okonkwo. The protagonist’s story is obviously deserving of more than a “reasonable paragraph” in the Commissioner’s book. The skewed idea that the British have is representative of their misunderstanding of the tribe in its entirety. They do not realize that each member of the Ibo tribe has their own individual story and importance, and they do not respect individual members of the tribe as people. To the Commissioner, Okonkwo’s brutal death was nothing but material that “would make interesting reading”. This testimonial is a severe understatement of an event that Achebe’s readers are meant to interpret as the climax of the story.
In a final act of hypocrisy, the British demonstrate violence in their condemnation of the Ibos that they find to have gone against British cultural laws. The decorum expected in British society was obviously very different than in the Ibo tribe. When the British entered these lands, though, citizens of Umuofia were instantly judged and thought of as barbaric for killing those who were believed to have gone against Ibo cultural laws. The new government, in response to such actions, implemented punishments, and the British attempted to even start an organized church to discourage people from committing such acts. Nevertheless, it is crucial to bear in mind that the British practiced similar traditions in their own country during the time that they invaded Africa. During this time, the country still allowed for capital punishment as a legal method of penalizing criminals. It was thusly unfair of the British officials to attack the Ibo people for an action that they supported themselves in Great Britain.
The ideas presented in Chinua Achebe’s acclaimed novel Things Fall Apart are vividly supported through his depiction of the acceptable condition of the Ibo people before and during the time that their lands were invaded. There is no question that the book was created as a “counter-text”, aiming to discourage widespread racist thoughts of the public during the early 20th Century, which at the time were validated by books such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Achebe was undoubtedly successful with this tactic. Still discussed today, his book has withstood the test of time, making relevant points even in a more enlightened and racially sensitive society. He conveys the fact that differing cultures do are neither better nor worse than one another. The only way for separate lands to exist in peace beside each other is through tolerance and acceptance of opposing traditions.
It is without question that violence cannot be resolved with the implementation of more violence. The British officials who invaded Africa with intentions to “fix” the lifestyle of the native people had no reason to do so. It is plain to see that there was nothing inherently wrong with the Ibo culture. Not only did they not need to be reformed by another country’s ideals, but the way in which the British attempted to do just that was uncalled for and out of line. Simply because the British did not approve of Ibo traditions, they violently invaded the country and began to rid the natives of their cultural identity. They did so with selfish intentions that in no way justified their actions.
1. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Random House, Inc., 1994. Print. Anchor Books.
2. Innes, C. L. "Conclusion." 1992. Chinua Achebe. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990. 169-70. Print.
3. Kunreuther, Laura. ""Pacification of the Primitive": The Problem of Colonial Violence."Philosophia Africana 9.2 (2006): 67-79. Web.
4. Sinclair, Grant. "British East Africa." Heliograph. The Journal of Historical Science Fiction Role Playing, 4 May 2009. Web. .
5. The Best Notes. "Chinua Achebe Book Notes." N.p., 15 May 2008. Web. .