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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: The Igbo Culture
A rich culture, fueled by the Niger River and hidden within the dense forests, is cut loose and unravels chapter by chapter in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Deemed the West African equivalent to The Odyssey, Mr. Achebe’s acclaimed epic is far from a myth. It exposes the dark sides to staying loyal or abandoning your faith, and whether tradition can ever survive a forever-changing world. In the center of our tale is Okonkwo, a strongman searching for power within his community. Dedicated yet stubborn, Okonkwo is able to obtain his own home, farm, and family after years of hard work. A feared warrior and skilled wrestler, Okonkwo holds a high position in his society, and although his village of Umuofia considers him to be successful, he is far from stable on the inside. It is with the perils of Okonkwo do we explore the complex and foreign yet completely human lifestyle of the Igbo People. This intricate civilization can be structured into three main components: the gendered roles and behaviors, the use of proverbs in conversation, and the constant fear that drives their religion.
“Looking at a king’s mouth, one would think he never sucked at his mother’s breast,” (Achebe 27). This proverb is spoken by a wise, old man, who observes how quickly Okonkwo has risen from misfortune and poverty. However, the old man also sees Okonkwo’s harshness towards men with little success, forgetting that he had walked their paths when he was younger. This proverb’s meaning translates to “Leaders do not become leaders without the help of others.” However, when this proverb is taken literally, the meaning greatly contradicts with the beliefs the Igbo men have towards women. In the Umuofia society, women are deemed the weaker sex, and are raised from their youth to be submissive and servant to their future husband. Men who have taken multiple wives reflect on others as affluent and powerful, while women are tightly bound to a code of virginity until they are married.
Men and women are also separated from performing certain tasks. For example, women were allowed to attend the fields, however “they grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans, and cassava. Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop,” (Achebe 23). The punishments given by their legal system are not based on an individual’s intentions, but rather where the crime falls on the spectrum between masculine and feminine forces. When Okonkwo accidentally kills a man because of a gun misfire, “Okonkwo had committed a female, because it had been inadvertent,” (Achebe 124).
Okonkwo strongly believes in the inferiority of women, and he controls the actions of his wives by beating them. The catalyst for his hyper-masculinity was due to his father’s distaste of battle and gore. His father instead enjoyed observing the bountiful wildlife and drinking palm-wine at festivities. The young Okonkwo views his father’s outlook on life as very feminine, therefore the cause of his penury. The strongman’s irrationality is exposed when he falsely accuses his second wife of killing a banana tree, and “without further argument Okonkwo gave her a sound beating and left her and her only daughter weeping,” (Achebe 38).
Despite the imbalance of gender among the inhabitants of Umuofia, many of its male citizens view Okonkow’s rash acts against his wives and daughters as barbaric. What Okonkwo fails to realize is that women are also given qualities worthy of worship, such as the ability to bear children. The hidden female power within the daily aspects of life is what gives the villagers the ability to survive. Although yams are considered to be a crop solely worthy of man, Things Fall Apart does not mention that the women’s crops are any easier to grow. In fact, the most powerful deities are identified as female, such as the goddess of the Earth, “Ani.” When Okonkwo beats his young wife for leaving her post during the Week of Peace, the high priest condemns Okonkwo; “We live in peace with our fellows to honor our great goddess of the Earth withouth whose blessings our crops will not grow,” (Achebe 30). What keeps Okonkwo constantly searching for power is his imbalance in both masculine and feminine forces, which help humankind such concepts as rationality.
The language of the Igbo people provides a neutral ground for both genders. What is interesting about this language is how individualized it is. In modern-day America, the art of conversation is “one-size fits all.” We can structure our words differently, but however descriptive or plain our speech of choice is, our message always gets received in the same way. This is because we have no code or regimen on how to communicate with others. This “free ground” of discourse is not to be confused with the rights given to us by the First Amendment.
In Umuofia, in order to have a conversation with someone or to ask a question, there is a strict process one must follow to lead up to the desired discussion. The Igbo value respect over the Western straightforwardness. For example, when the young Okonkwo wants to ask an elder if he can have a quantity of yam seeds, he first announces “I have come to pay you my respects and also ask a favor. But let us drink the wine first,” (Achebe 19). After offering your respects to an elder, one must then continue by conversing about recent happenings. To speak plainly is considered weak, so to properly carry out the body of your dialogue, an Igbo must lace their words with proverbs.
“Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words were eaten,” (Achebe 7). The proverbs of the Igbo were not something a child could simply pick up while listening. Proverbs were inherited like genes from one generation to the next. To translate an Igbo proverb into a concept that we could understand would be the equivalent to translating hieroglyphics; hieroglyphics rendered to modern languages are able to decipher a message, however the visual emphasis is completely lost.
Proverbs tell the history of the Igbo people, and the proverbs mentioned in Things Fall Apart even have the ability to foreshadow future events in the plot. Our Western culture likes to think of proverbs as certain sayings that hold universal truth. On the contrary, Igbo proverbs allow the individual to interpret the meaning their own way. For example, “A chick that will grow into a c*** will be spotted the very day it hatches,” (Achebe 66). One might interpret this as saying that “Leaders are born, not made.” Others might interpret this proverb as “Children who are strong-willed will only be seen as competition.” Perhaps it was the idea of proverbs that confused the villagers of Umuofia and Mbaino about the Christian religion, which preaches universal standards.
This brings us to our final component of the Igbo culture. Fear is what drives every religion on this Earth, no matter how much love and peace they preach. In the Igbo religion, they live to please their deities, as their gods control the sanctity of their crops, weather, and family health. Many of the characters’ individual fears is related to the lack of consistency within their religion. Okonkwo fears of being like his father and not getting the worship from his family he deserves after he passes. Ekwefi, Okwonko’s wife, fears losing her daughter, since she does not want the Earth goddess to think she is any less of a woman because of her inability to bring forth life. When Okonkwo is banished from Umuofia for seven years, his fellow villagers “Set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn,” (Achebe 125). The villagers had not hatred towards Okonkwo, they were simply purifying the land where blood was shed in order to avoid the wrath of the Earth goddess.
The fears towards the gods will make the villagers blindly follow orders, however they do not publicly show remorse over these actions. Obierika, the trusted friend to Okonkwo, fathered twins. Since it is considered bad fortune to have twins, Obierika took the children to the Evil Forest and left them there to die. He secretly worries whether he made the right decision, since the children themselves had committed no crime. He justifies his decision by claiming the Earth goddess had intended him to do so, and that he made the right choice for the majority of the village. What is so interesting about this religion, or any religion in general, is how fear both affects personal ethics and loyalty.
Things Fall Apart does not have a definitive beginning, middle, or end. The beginning, we’d have to assume, is when man first evolved to stand on two feet. We then journeyed on walk around the world, each step creating a branch of people all with different traditions and beliefs. The middle of the story, like a proverb, is up to the reader’s interpretation. Let’s just say that for now, this book is the middle of our story, showing how humankind has progressed to such complex social order. The end is either in the near future or even located on another planet. The end will tell us whether our traditions or language today have been able to survive the test of time, or even if we will need a faith to continue on.