Until this weekend, I was among the few Ghanaians who had never read Chuninua Achebe’s critically acclaimed work, Things Fall Apart. I was familiar enough with the title and the name of the main character – Okonkwo – but much like those village-bound JSS students who made flatulent claims about going abroad for the long vacation and gorging themselves on McDonald’s and watching all the new Will Smith films, I would lie and switch the subject when queried about my impressions of the work.
“Things fall apart! The center cannot hold!” I would exclaim exuberantly, as though familiar with the forward and theme of the book. In reality, I was merely parroting my sister’s favored phrase from the work and not one that I had seen written with my own eyes. Not to worry! That error has been remedied and I have absolved myself of this great disgrace.
Books like Things Fall Apart are unique in a singular sense: They do not lead the reader to any conclusions, but rather meet the reader in the physical and spiritual space they occupy. Achebe does not judge his characters. He merely serves as the narrator and leaves us to analyze their deeds for ourselves. This is a difficult task for a writer, as we are lords and creators of the beings that populate the worlds we create in fiction and can influence the reader with our personal biases. Many writers are seduced into judging their characters, a lure Achebe masterfully avoids. After I concluded the work, I wondered what my impressions of Okonkwo and the mores that governed his homeland, Umuofia, might have been if I’d read them in high school. It’s no secret that I was chauvinist while I was growing up. (Most African women are.) And if I wasn’t a complete chauvinist, my sympathies were certainly chauvinistic leaning. I have had to unlearn that way of thinking, and now having finished high school 21 years ago (when I should have first encountered the book) I shudder to think about what kind of defense my 18 year-old self might have offered for Okonkwo and his pervasive perniciousness.
However Things Fall Apart has met me as a 39-year-old woman and assessing Okonkwo (and his contemporaries) at this juncture in my life can only lead me to one conclusion: that patriarchy killed Okonkwo… and needlessly so.
Okonkwo was a man raised by a father who was deemed a failure by all standards set by his society. He had no titles, he was lazy, he was an unapologetic debtor, and raised Okonkwo in perpetual poverty. But his father was a man who also had a certain joie de vivre. He loved music and mirth and was not a violent man. Okonkwo resented the father who raised him, the one fellow villagers called agbala (trans: woman/ man who has taken no title) and vowed to be as opposite as he could in every aspect.
Okonkwo grew to regard kindness, remorse and gentleness as feminine traits, and therefore demonstration of weakness. He never learned to reconcile these valid (and necessary) expressions of humanity within himself, so much so that they served as a torment when circumstances provoked a confrontation with those feelings. He was not alone in this. This was how most men in Umuofia (his friend Obierika being the notable exception) operated. Indeed, his life was ruled – and ultimately taken – by the same toxic masculinity that was the eventual undoing of his entire clan. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the way the men of Umuofia treated and related to their women.
“Okonkwo was inwardly pleased at his son’s development, and he knew it was due to Ikemefuna. He wanted Nwoye to grow into a tough young man capable of ruling his father’s household when he was dead and gone to join the ancestors. He wanted him to be a prosperous man, having enough in his barn to feed the ancestors with regular sacrifices. And so he was always happy when he heard him grumbling about women. That showed that in time he would be able to control his women-folk. No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man. He was like the man in the song who had ten and one wives and not enough soup for his foo-foo.” – Things Fall Apart, chapter seven.
Umuofia’s traditions, like many patriarchal traditions today, placed women, the disabled and the effeminate/gentle hearted on the fringes of society. It robbed them of their right to full expression of abundant human life. It often oppressed them. But as that great philosopher Akeem once said, “It is also tradition that times must, and so change my friend.” It is unfortunate for the citizens of Umuofia and the surrounding clans that this change comes as a result of a siege; a siege in which the oppressed were used as pawns of a wily enemy to further its selfish gains. That enemy was Western Christianity (in the form of the church cum imperial government) and White Feminism (in the form of an English queen), both which used, and continue to use, Black bodies and Black suffering as catapults for their own ambitions.
As Efe Plange notes in her piece Heritage Africa: A National Assignment:
“In an oppositional reading of Chinua Achebe’s well acclaimed “Things fall Apart,” you will discover that in the land of Umuofia, things couldn’t have fallen apart as the society was not entirely one, or together. The existence of the Osu caste system, the heavy losses of mothers whose twin babies had to be sacrificed at birth, boys and girls ridiculed for their non-gender conformity, and the gross display of male to female violence created certain imbalances in the society. Therefore, if you notice, the first people to convert to Christianity (the otherwise foreign intrusion) were these “social outcasts” who were warmly welcomed by priests who had been literally tasked to be “fishers of men.” A theory can therefore be derived, that a society divided and riddled with various forms of injustices, is very prone to division and would not be able to hold its center for long.”
Had the men of Umuofia learned to value all members of their society and striven to create a more egalitarian system, the British invaders would’ve found it much more difficult to divide, conquer and overrun their land. However, like the soldier who slaughters the innocents of war, the men of the clan defer to their Oracles and medicine men for the poor decisions that they take. They are merely men “under orders”, never questioning and leaving no room for doubt or introspection. It is because of this failure to interrogate the aspects of culture that clearly are not working and/or seem evil that Okonkwo’s own eldest son, Nwoye was lured in by the teachings of a theocracy that decimated the culture that his father loved so dearly.
Okonkwo’s legacy lives on. It lives in our politicians, in our pulpits, in our classrooms, by the gutters from which men spew lurid words and threaten to beat women who dare to answer back. Incidentally on the day that I finished the book, a man that I follow on social media alluded to as much.
His assertion was met with dismissal and incredulous laughter. That mockery is (in part) why things in Africa continue to fall apart.
Have you read this book? Were you shocked by the ending? Did it make your blood boil as much as it did mine? Discuss!