The “Between Change and tradition: Achebe’s Suggestive Existentialist Models

The Africa was not always under European rule. It had clans, villages,
kingdoms, culture and its own unique civilization. Autochthonic tribes were
living by their own social and religious laws. Then the white man came with his
own culture and enforced it to the locals. “Chinua Achebe describes the way of life before the
missionaries arrived and then records some of the changes, which occurred due
to the changed belief system introduced by these missionaries. Achebe did not idealize both
communities with their cultures or desire to portray Igbo community as an
idyllic pre-colonial utopia.” (56)  as Niyonkuru
Yves noticed in his master thesis entitled “Between Change and tradition:
Achebe’s Suggestive Existentialist Models of Conduct in Things Fall Apart”. “Things Fall Apart” requires reader to be
aware of elements which created harmony among Igbos before the colonialism.
People “acted like one” because of four important elements: land, language,
customs and religion. The Igbo tribe was caught between resisting and accepting
changes and facing the dilemma of trying to resolve how to adapt to new reality.
Some of the Igbos were enthusiastic about new opportunities that the British bring.
However, this European influence threatens the traditional Igbo culture which
may turn out to be dispensable.

“Things Fall Apart” is set in the 1890s and portrays the confrontation
between Nigeria’s white colonial government and the traditional culture of the
autochthonic Igbo people. Achebe carefully depicts social institutions,
religious believes, traditions  and
everyday life  of Igbos culture before
the arrival of Europeans. The majority of the story takes place in the village
Umuofia on the east bank of the Niger River in Nigeria. Umofia was a closed
society intact until the coming of the Europeans in the 1860s. The Portuguese
were the first to explore Nigeria and their influence remains in many Nigerian
surnames, although  they are not
mentioned by Achebe. The British established in 1886 The Royal Niger Colony and
later the British protectorate. Kalu Ogbaa in “Understanding Things Fall Apart”
divided the history of colonialism in Africa into three phases. First was the
actual conquest when invaders introduced new form of administration using
force. Later came the period of resistance when conquered nations were trying
to remove alien system. Finally, in the present
post-independence stage African society tries to reorder itself. “Things Fall
Apart” is mainly focused on the first stage, showing destructive influence of
westernization.

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The practices described in the novel mirror those of
the actual Onitsha people who lived near Ogidi and with whom Achebe was
familiar. The portrayed culture is similar to the Achebe’s birthplace in Ogidi
where people lived together in villages ruled by titled elders. Within forty
years of the British arrival by the time Achebe was born in 1930 the
missionaries were well established. Chinua Achebe was growing up in
Christianised family, his father was baptised by Anglican missionaries as one
of the first autochthons, in region of Nigeria peopled by Igbo. Since his
infancy he witnessed religious conflicts inside his family. As an orphan Achebe
was raised by his grandfather who was not against Achebe’s conversion to
Christianity and allowed his grandson’s Christian marriage to be celebrated in
his house.  Achebe graduated from schools
in Africa founded by Europeans although through the whole life he was
criticising colonialism by analysing 
every aspect of it, revealing evilness, his aim was to find a medicine for
social diseases caused by invaders. The damage was done also by those who came
to help, in their opinion, undeveloped societies. Achebe’s presentation of
traditional Igbo life might not be mirror image of the truth, however it is the
way he was seeing it. The white
missionaries saw Igbo as uncivilised, in desperate need of their help. To the
Igbo community the motive of the arrival of missionaries in Umuofia has not
been important. It is crucial to recognise both the benefits as well as the
challenges that resulted from European culture on Igbo society.

The main character in “Things Fall Apart” is Okonkwo,
well situated conservative farmer who always obeys the law of the tribe
submitting to tradition and beliefs. He is strong and assiduous, his high
position is self-made, based on his hard work. His ambition is to be high in
hierarchy in the ruling elite of the tribe. While reading we can see that
community works according the rules, even if they are drastic. There is nothing
outrageous in having three wives or taking a child hostage, who has to die
after becoming a member of the family because oracle said so. When he
accidentally kills someone at a ritual funeral ceremony when his gun explodes,
he and his family are sent into exile for seven years to appease the gods he
has offended. While Okonkwo is away, white men begin to arrive in Umuofia with
the intent of introducing their religion. Igbo people lived for centuries
holding to their laws until the appearance of Europeans, beginning of the end
of aboriginal Igbo civilization. The missionaries brought new religion and
morality, their culture gradually replaces everything Igbo knew so far. White
men starts to dominate by enforcing different new rules. During the second year
of Okonkwo’s exile he receives a visit from his best friend Obierika who brings
sorrowful news about the extermination of the whole village of Abame as the
revenge for killing one men. After a white man rode into the village on a
bicycle the elders consulted their Oracle which told them that the newcomer
would destroy their tribe and others so they decided to kill him. Okonkwo and
Uchendu agree that the villagers were foolish to kill a man whom they knew
nothing about.  Austerity in the
treatment of the protest of the ruling elders influence on the growth of the
conflict. Through “Things Fall Apart”
at the end of the novel, Okonkwo who is considered to be a leader of
the village Umuofia is not recognised. The tribe he rejoins is not the same
tribe he left. . When the clan takes no special notice of his return, Okonkwo
realizes that the white man has been too successful in his efforts to change
the tribe’s ways. Many of the elders have joined the missionaries, tribal
beliefs and customs are being replaced. Okonkwo grieves the loss of his tribe
and the life he once knew,  also feels
betrayed by his clan. He does not understand why his fellow tribesmen have not
stood up against the white intruders. The story ends with a meeting of the
community too weak to fight, deciding to subordinate. Okonkwo chops the head
off a colonial messenger, something the old tribe would have found heroic, but
something the new tribe does not endorse. Okonkwo understands everything has
changed, the world he knew ended. In the consequence he commits suicide, death
of conservative character seems to be symbolic, he did not longer belong to
community and could not be buried by his tribe.

Chinua Achebe tells a story of a single men and the
community at the same time. “Things Fall Apart” incorporates two types of
characters among Igbo and English. Indigenes are divided into two groups, those
who are for change and against it. What is interesting people without titles or
honours in Igbo society and people somehow hurt by rules are outcasts pro
change. Men like Okonkwo are in opposition to change fearing of losing their
social status and rank. On the opposite side are Christian missionaries who are
a major cause of the things falling apart or rather methods that they were
using to undermine the African culture. However, the form used by missionaries
are slightly different. Reverend Smith is intolerant, aggressive and causes the
main conflicts in clan while Mr. Brown tries to establish a good relations with
community. As Fagrutheen pointed in his article “Downfall of Traditionalism in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God”: “Mr.
Brown the white missionary respects the Igbo traditions. He makes an effort to
learn about the Igbo culture and becomes friendly with some of the clan
leaders. He also encourages Igbo people of all ages to get an education”(26).
Although he is more sympathetic his intentions are the same, to convert all
Igbos as fast as possible without allowing them to retain their cultural
heritage. For Igbos it was crucial to 
remain its language and religion because it formed their identity and
kept them unified. In the conversation between Obierika and Okonkwo is
clarified how arrival of the missionaries divided their community.

“Does
the white man understand our custom about land?”

“How
can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says

that our
customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up

his
religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we

can fight
when our own brothers have turned against us? The white

 man is very clever. He came quietly and
peaceably with his religion.

We were
amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he

has won our
brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has

put a knife
on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (Achebe 124)

 

Changes
affected every area of life, from language to religion, customs and education. Even
English governmental system replaced traditional one in order to change
prevailing laws. Some among Igbo community
realised that losing their traditions for something new is unacceptable and
threatens not only their culture but also themselves. The Igbos fought in order
to protect community, however changes were unavoidable. Those who converted to
Christianity as firsts were outcasts looking for hope in the newness, like
women who gave birth to the twins few times. This is one of the main reason
people switched to their religion. The Christian missionary in Mbanta opposes
to the Igbo gods in the belief that tell people to kill each other in wars
against another village. In fact Europeans turned out to be more cruel, in
revenge for the killing of one white man they slaughtered the whole village of
Abame. As  Diana Rhoads mentioned in her
essay “Culture in
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”: “while
the European tradition allows men to fight their brothers over religion, the
Igbo law forbids them to kill each Rother, it is an abomination to kill a
member of the clan. Further, the long history of Crusades and holy wars and of
religious persecution in Europe occurs because men can fight for gods, but it
is not the Igbo “custom to fight for their gods.” Rather, heresy is a
matter only between the man and the god.” (63). Igbos reveal themselves more tolerant than the Europeans Uchendu, for example, is
able to see that “what is good among one people is an abomination with
others” in opposition to white men telling autochthons that their customs
are bad and their god are not true gods. “Culture in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
Christian religion are equally irrational, but both operate along similar lines
to support morality. To the Christians it seems crazy to worship wooden idols,
but to the Igbos it seems crazy to say that God has a son when he has no wife.”
(Rhoads 65)

The society itself was highly patriarchal, stratified, religious and
superstitious. However the Igbos developed a democratic system of government,
gathering of all elders. The rules can be established only by the group. “Each man is
judged on his own merits, “according to his worth,” not those of his
father, as would be appropriate in an aristocracy or an oligarchy” (Rhoads 63).
But apart from the church, the British also brought a government. They had
built a court where the District Commissioner judged the men brought to him for
trial by court messengers. They were called “kotma” and “Ashy-Buttocks” because
of the colour of their shorts and hated position in Umuofia. Messengers also
served as guards in the prison full of men who ignored or offended the new laws
by still following Igbo rules. Traditions as
social institutions were handed down from generation to generation. Igbo
folklore took various forms including narrative customs, means of expressing
and transmitting a culture orally and through body language, folk music, tales,
legends and traditional naming. Numerous rituals and ceremonies were held
during rites of passage or title-taking. Religious ceremonies later turned into
secular, in the missionaries opinion those practices were pagan. Igbo people
believed in Chukwu, omnipotent and omniscient creator of the universe, almost
equivalent of the Supreme Being in other religions in the sense of being
greater than other gods and goddesses who derive their powers from him.
Nonetheless he was far removed form humans after creating them, unlike
Christian God. As creator
god, he is Chi-na-Eke, Chi and Eke. While the Christian concept of God
emphasizes the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit,
the Igbo concept of Chukwu emphasizes duality, Chi-na-Eke. The Igbo creator
god, Chi-na-Eke, has been misrepresented by both foreign and native Christian
clergy as Chineke. Chukwu is not represented with any religious icons because
he is beyond human reach and comprehension. Concept that derives from Igbo
belief in duality is person’s spirit double, Chi. Chi is person’s spirit being
in the spirit world, always close to people like guardian angel. One of the
problems Igbos had to face in religion is having several gods and goddesses and
their envy and jealousy towards one another. 
To avoid offending the gods, people always had to watch out for signs
and consult priests and priestesses who divine the will of the gods. According
to Igbo’s cosmology, there are three levels of the world, visible and
invisible, human beings, dead-living ancestors and unborn children in the womb,
all of those forces interact together. Ceremonies brought together all the
people regardless of title, position, wealth or sex. This brief description
shows that Igbo believes where much more complex than it might seemed to the
missionaries and governed peoples’ lives long before they arrival to Igboland. Soon
after the British began to teach Ibos about the Christian faith, their original
beliefs began to be questioned by part of community. Igbo people started questioning the old traditions and customs which they
have been following without any doubt since birth this caused growing conflicts in the tribe. The
missionaries were trying to bring new ways of life, better ones in their
opinion.

Throughout the
novel, cultural change and its impact on people is seen as the development of
individuality and social disintegration. From the beginning till the end Achebe
deals with disappearance of native culture and power of white civilisation.  Religion and customs were important factors in
creating the harmony that existed before colonialism, as well was the language.
Igbo was an oral language before the coming of the Europeans and it remained
unwritten until the late 1800s. The missionaries developed the Igbo alphabet
and orthography in order to translate the Bible for their new converts. The
British established schools in Igboland teaching pupils translated English
children’s literature and educating future catechists and translators. Ibo
language also developed enabling the Igbo writers to share their literature and
culture with the rest of the world. Due to British education system, educated
Igbo became bilingual, speaking English in school and Igbo at home. It is
highly significant that Achebe chose to write the novel in English, he aimed as
readers the Westerners as much, if not more, than the Nigerians. His goal was
to portray the real pre-colonial Africa and struggles the colonialism brought
and by using words and tales translated from the Igbo language he still managed
to capture it’s beauty.

As
presented in “Things Fall Apart” cultural and social changes are unavoidable.
Achebe shows how diverse cultural influences play an important part in social
changes. “Things Fall Apart”  was the
first novel written by African portraying how Africans perceived the arrival of
colonizers. Umuofia is described as vibrant, coherent society with its own
complex culture. Achebe portrays the Igbos culture as developed, having
religion, tradition and government, as well as a judicial system. Against the stereotypical
view that it is primitive like so far was presented by European writers. Description
of Africa is represented from completely different perspective unlike in “Heart
of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, where the African culture and people are shown as
backward, retarded, animalistic. In “Things Fall Apart” the clash of cultures and
the tension between accepting the changes or preserving the tradition is the central
point of the novel. Achebe did not present Igbo culture without any defects, he
presented some weaknesses which were the internal factor of the collapse. Divisions
in the community quickly escalated threatening the unity of the tribe and generating
conflicts. The Igbo society was enriched but as soon as the British came the
cultural values started falling apart and the old way of life got disrupted, the
community of Umuofia was unable to withstand the
change leading to destruction.

Bibliography and works cited:

1)    
Achebe,
Chinua Things Fall Apart.  Oxford :
Heinemann, 1986 repr

 

2)     Fagrutheen, S. Syed (2013) Downfall of Traditionalism in
Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. The English Literature Journal,
Vol. 1, No. 1 (2014), p. 21-30

 

3)    
Ogbaa, Kalu Understanding Things
fall apart : a student casebook to issues, sources, and historical documents.
Westport
(CT) : Greenwood Press, 1999

 

4)     Rhoads, Diana Akers Culture in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. African Studies
Review, Vol. 36, No. 2 (1993), p. 61-72

 

5)    
Yves, Niyonkuru Between
Change and Tradition: Achebe’s Suggestive Existentialist Models of Conduct in Things Fall Apart. Kasdi Merbah University-Ouargla, Academic
Year: 2013/2014

 

 

 

 

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