By Chet Yarbrough
Things Fall Apart
By Chinua Achebe
Narrated by Peter Francis James
Chinua Achebe explains what happens when civilizations collide in “Things Fall Apart”. Achebe lived a life that reinforces hope. He was born in Nigeria but educated in English at the University of Ibadan, the oldest university in Nigeria (founded in 1948). Achebe wrote “Things Fall Apart” in the 1950s (published in 1958). It sold more than 12 million copies and was translated into more than 50 languages. Sadly, Achebe died on March 21, 2013.
Without knowing Achebe’s background, a first reading of “Things Fall Apart” begins in confusion but as the story progresses its meaning becomes clear. Two thirds of the book explains life in an African village that is untouched by a white man’s world or any civilization outside of its clan and their related communities. The listener is being offered an understanding of a 1950s African village’s culture.
This clan’s insular existence creates an independent patriarchal culture that believes in many gods, supernatural forces, and rigid rules for life. Being a man means following rules of the culture. Any transgression is considered womanly, a cultural euphemism for cowardice. Women are respected but only within the context of their duty as the source of tribal growth. Women have restricted roles in this society as maternal caregivers. In all respects women become property of men. They may be beaten and treated with near impunity. Boys are raised to be tough, outwardly unemotional, and obedient. They are expected to revere and emulate their fathers. Wrestling prowess is a measure of male respect in the tribe. Farming productivity and honor of tribal tradition are measures of value to the tribe.
War among the villages is rare because negotiated peace and village interdependence make war too wasteful. Negotiated peace may mean the sacrifice of children to nearby tribes for transgressions of communal laws but overt war between tribes of the same clan is rare. Violation of communal laws can be mortal offenses. A story is told of a father murdering his adopted son because he is told it is necessary to please the Clan’s gods. Though this murder troubled the adoptive father, he accepts the Clan’s admonition and rationalizes his grief by knowing he has other sons.
The most serious consequence to a violator of Clan’ law is banishment from the community. Banishment can be either permanent or for a number of years, depending upon the gravity of the violation. Murder out of anger means permanent banishment. Murder by accident means 7 years banishment.
Achebe explains women having twins are ordered to kill them at birth because twins are unnatural and a curse of the gods. One woman has twins three times; all are murdered.
As Achebe explains these local customs, he describes how an intruding civilization is introduced to his village. The intruders are Christian missionaries. The first intruder is a white man riding an iron horse. This is the first white man who native villagers have ever seen. The engendered fear causes natives of one of the tribes to murder the white man and tie his iron horse to a tree. The murder is revenged by returning outsiders that destroy the population of the village. Neighboring villages hear of the massacre. They choose to respond to the next intruder more circumspectly.
New intruders come with plans to build a church on tribal property. They ask for permission and tribal leaders meet to discuss the request. The decision of the tribal leaders is to offer land in the worst part of the village; i.e. land that is used to bury evil shamans, tribal criminals, and diseased bodies. The tribal leaders believe the Christians will die from their location in this forbidden human and mystical dumping ground.
The irony of the tribal leader’s decision is that it strengthens the Christian movement. The Christians do not die and the church begins to attract tribal followers that begin to believe Christian’ beliefs are stronger than Shaman’ beliefs. The woman who had been told to kill her twins joins the church.
Over many generations, some tribal members have become outcasts from the tribe. Their outcast position draws them to the Christian movement because they wish to become part of a community again. Some women turn to Christianity because it offers a refuge from the violence of their husbands. Some sons turn to Christianity because it offers escape from the iron rule of their fathers and the tribes’ cultural laws.
From the perspective of any individuated culture “Things Fall Apart” when change comes from the outside. Achebe gives the world a first-hand account of how a tribal culture is destroyed. One culture is replaced by another culture; first with small steps, and then generational leaps. The good and bad of one culture is replaced by the good and bad of another. One guardedly hopes cultural change moves humanity toward a better life; not just cosmetic change.