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 wereliving by their own social and religious laws. Then the white man came with hisown culture and enforced it to the locals. “Chinua Achebe describes the way of life before themissionaries arrived and then records some of the changes, which occurred dueto the changed belief system introduced by these missionaries. Achebe did not idealize bothcommunities with their cultures or desire to portray Igbo community as anidyllic pre-colonial utopia.” (56)  as NiyonkuruYves 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 beaware of elements which created harmony among Igbos before the colonialism.

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People “acted like one” because of four important elements: land, language,customs and religion. The Igbo tribe was caught between resisting and acceptingchanges 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 whichmay turn out to be dispensable.”Things Fall Apart” is set in the 1890s and portrays the confrontationbetween Nigeria’s white colonial government and the traditional culture of theautochthonic Igbo people. Achebe carefully depicts social institutions,religious believes, traditions  andeveryday life  of Igbos culture beforethe arrival of Europeans. The majority of the story takes place in the villageUmuofia on the east bank of the Niger River in Nigeria.

Umofia was a closedsociety intact until the coming of the Europeans in the 1860s. The Portuguesewere the first to explore Nigeria and their influence remains in many Nigeriansurnames, although  they are notmentioned by Achebe. The British established in 1886 The Royal Niger Colony andlater the British protectorate.

Kalu Ogbaa in “Understanding Things Fall Apart”divided the history of colonialism in Africa into three phases. First was theactual conquest when invaders introduced new form of administration usingforce. Later came the period of resistance when conquered nations were tryingto remove alien system. Finally, in the present post-independence stage African society tries to reorder itself. “Things FallApart” is mainly focused on the first stage, showing destructive influence ofwesternization.

The practices described in the novel mirror those ofthe actual Onitsha people who lived near Ogidi and with whom Achebe wasfamiliar. The portrayed culture is similar to the Achebe’s birthplace in Ogidiwhere people lived together in villages ruled by titled elders. Within fortyyears of the British arrival by the time Achebe was born in 1930 themissionaries were well established. Chinua Achebe was growing up inChristianised family, his father was baptised by Anglican missionaries as oneof the first autochthons, in region of Nigeria peopled by Igbo.

Since hisinfancy he witnessed religious conflicts inside his family. As an orphan Achebewas raised by his grandfather who was not against Achebe’s conversion toChristianity and allowed his grandson’s Christian marriage to be celebrated inhis house.  Achebe graduated from schoolsin Africa founded by Europeans although through the whole life he wascriticising colonialism by analysing every aspect of it, revealing evilness, his aim was to find a medicine forsocial diseases caused by invaders. The damage was done also by those who cameto help, in their opinion, undeveloped societies. Achebe’s presentation oftraditional Igbo life might not be mirror image of the truth, however it is theway he was seeing it. The whitemissionaries saw Igbo as uncivilised, in desperate need of their help. To theIgbo community the motive of the arrival of missionaries in Umuofia has notbeen important.

It is crucial to recognise both the benefits as well as thechallenges 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 tribesubmitting to tradition and beliefs. He is strong and assiduous, his highposition is self-made, based on his hard work. His ambition is to be high inhierarchy in the ruling elite of the tribe.

While reading we can see thatcommunity works according the rules, even if they are drastic. There is nothingoutrageous in having three wives or taking a child hostage, who has to dieafter becoming a member of the family because oracle said so. When heaccidentally 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 hehas offended. While Okonkwo is away, white men begin to arrive in Umuofia withthe intent of introducing their religion. Igbo people lived for centuriesholding to their laws until the appearance of Europeans, beginning of the endof aboriginal Igbo civilization. The missionaries brought new religion andmorality, their culture gradually replaces everything Igbo knew so far.

Whitemen starts to dominate by enforcing different new rules. During the second yearof Okonkwo’s exile he receives a visit from his best friend Obierika who bringssorrowful news about the extermination of the whole village of Abame as therevenge for killing one men. After a white man rode into the village on abicycle the elders consulted their Oracle which told them that the newcomerwould destroy their tribe and others so they decided to kill him.

Okonkwo andUchendu agree that the villagers were foolish to kill a man whom they knewnothing about.  Austerity in thetreatment of the protest of the ruling elders influence on the growth of theconflict. Through “Things Fall Apart”at the end of the novel, Okonkwo who is considered to be a leader ofthe village Umuofia is not recognised. The tribe he rejoins is not the sametribe he left.

. When the clan takes no special notice of his return, Okonkworealizes that the white man has been too successful in his efforts to changethe tribe’s ways. Many of the elders have joined the missionaries, tribalbeliefs and customs are being replaced.

Okonkwo grieves the loss of his tribeand the life he once knew,  also feelsbetrayed by his clan. He does not understand why his fellow tribesmen have notstood up against the white intruders. The story ends with a meeting of thecommunity too weak to fight, deciding to subordinate.

Okonkwo chops the headoff a colonial messenger, something the old tribe would have found heroic, butsomething the new tribe does not endorse. Okonkwo understands everything haschanged, the world he knew ended. In the consequence he commits suicide, deathof conservative character seems to be symbolic, he did not longer belong tocommunity and could not be buried by his tribe.

Chinua Achebe tells a story of a single men and thecommunity at the same time. “Things Fall Apart” incorporates two types ofcharacters among Igbo and English. Indigenes are divided into two groups, thosewho are for change and against it. What is interesting people without titles orhonours in Igbo society and people somehow hurt by rules are outcasts prochange. Men like Okonkwo are in opposition to change fearing of losing theirsocial status and rank. On the opposite side are Christian missionaries who area major cause of the things falling apart or rather methods that they wereusing to undermine the African culture. However, the form used by missionariesare slightly different. Reverend Smith is intolerant, aggressive and causes themain conflicts in clan while Mr.

Brown tries to establish a good relations withcommunity. 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 tolearn about the Igbo culture and becomes friendly with some of the clanleaders. 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 allIgbos as fast as possible without allowing them to retain their culturalheritage. For Igbos it was crucial to remain its language and religion because it formed their identity andkept them unified. In the conversation between Obierika and Okonkwo isclarified how arrival of the missionaries divided their community.”Doesthe white man understand our custom about land?””Howcan he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that ourcustoms are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up hisreligion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fightwhen our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly andpeaceably with his religion. We wereamused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay.

Now he has won ourbrothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knifeon the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (Achebe 124) Changesaffected every area of life, from language to religion, customs and education. EvenEnglish governmental system replaced traditional one in order to changeprevailing laws. Some among Igbo communityrealised that losing their traditions for something new is unacceptable andthreatens not only their culture but also themselves.

The Igbos fought in orderto protect community, however changes were unavoidable. Those who converted toChristianity as firsts were outcasts looking for hope in the newness, likewomen who gave birth to the twins few times. This is one of the main reasonpeople switched to their religion. The Christian missionary in Mbanta opposesto the Igbo gods in the belief that tell people to kill each other in warsagainst another village. In fact Europeans turned out to be more cruel, inrevenge for the killing of one white man they slaughtered the whole village ofAbame. As  Diana Rhoads mentioned in heressay “Culture inChinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”: “whilethe European tradition allows men to fight their brothers over religion, theIgbo law forbids them to kill each Rother, it is an abomination to kill amember of the clan. Further, the long history of Crusades and holy wars and ofreligious persecution in Europe occurs because men can fight for gods, but itis not the Igbo “custom to fight for their gods.” Rather, heresy is amatter only between the man and the god.

” (63). Igbos reveal themselves more tolerant than the Europeans Uchendu, for example, isable to see that “what is good among one people is an abomination withothers” in opposition to white men telling autochthons that their customsare bad and their god are not true gods. “Culture in Achebe’s Things Fall ApartChristian religion are equally irrational, but both operate along similar linesto 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 andsuperstitious. However the Igbos developed a democratic system of government,gathering of all elders. The rules can be established only by the group. “Each man isjudged on his own merits, “according to his worth,” not those of hisfather, as would be appropriate in an aristocracy or an oligarchy” (Rhoads 63).But apart from the church, the British also brought a government.

They hadbuilt a court where the District Commissioner judged the men brought to him fortrial by court messengers. They were called “kotma” and “Ashy-Buttocks” becauseof the colour of their shorts and hated position in Umuofia. Messengers alsoserved as guards in the prison full of men who ignored or offended the new lawsby still following Igbo rules. Traditions associal institutions were handed down from generation to generation. Igbofolklore took various forms including narrative customs, means of expressingand transmitting a culture orally and through body language, folk music, tales,legends and traditional naming. Numerous rituals and ceremonies were heldduring rites of passage or title-taking.

Religious ceremonies later turned intosecular, in the missionaries opinion those practices were pagan. Igbo peoplebelieved in Chukwu, omnipotent and omniscient creator of the universe, almostequivalent of the Supreme Being in other religions in the sense of beinggreater than other gods and goddesses who derive their powers from him.Nonetheless he was far removed form humans after creating them, unlikeChristian God. As creatorgod, he is Chi-na-Eke, Chi and Eke. While the Christian concept of Godemphasizes 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 creatorgod, Chi-na-Eke, has been misrepresented by both foreign and native Christianclergy as Chineke. Chukwu is not represented with any religious icons becausehe is beyond human reach and comprehension. Concept that derives from Igbobelief in duality is person’s spirit double, Chi. Chi is person’s spirit beingin the spirit world, always close to people like guardian angel. One of theproblems Igbos had to face in religion is having several gods and goddesses andtheir envy and jealousy towards one another. To avoid offending the gods, people always had to watch out for signsand consult priests and priestesses who divine the will of the gods. Accordingto Igbo’s cosmology, there are three levels of the world, visible andinvisible, human beings, dead-living ancestors and unborn children in the womb,all of those forces interact together. Ceremonies brought together all thepeople regardless of title, position, wealth or sex.

This brief descriptionshows that Igbo believes where much more complex than it might seemed to themissionaries and governed peoples’ lives long before they arrival to Igboland. Soonafter the British began to teach Ibos about the Christian faith, their originalbeliefs began to be questioned by part of community. Igbo people started questioning the old traditions and customs which theyhave been following without any doubt since birth this caused growing conflicts in the tribe.

Themissionaries were trying to bring new ways of life, better ones in theiropinion. Throughout thenovel, cultural change and its impact on people is seen as the development ofindividuality and social disintegration. From the beginning till the end Achebedeals with disappearance of native culture and power of white civilisation.  Religion and customs were important factors increating the harmony that existed before colonialism, as well was the language.Igbo was an oral language before the coming of the Europeans and it remainedunwritten until the late 1800s. The missionaries developed the Igbo alphabetand orthography in order to translate the Bible for their new converts. TheBritish established schools in Igboland teaching pupils translated Englishchildren’s literature and educating future catechists and translators.

Ibolanguage also developed enabling the Igbo writers to share their literature andculture with the rest of the world. Due to British education system, educatedIgbo became bilingual, speaking English in school and Igbo at home. It ishighly significant that Achebe chose to write the novel in English, he aimed asreaders the Westerners as much, if not more, than the Nigerians. His goal wasto portray the real pre-colonial Africa and struggles the colonialism broughtand by using words and tales translated from the Igbo language he still managedto capture it’s beauty.

Aspresented in “Things Fall Apart” cultural and social changes are unavoidable.Achebe shows how diverse cultural influences play an important part in socialchanges. “Things Fall Apart”  was thefirst novel written by African portraying how Africans perceived the arrival ofcolonizers. Umuofia is described as vibrant, coherent society with its owncomplex culture. Achebe portrays the Igbos culture as developed, havingreligion, tradition and government, as well as a judicial system. Against the stereotypicalview that it is primitive like so far was presented by European writers. Descriptionof Africa is represented from completely different perspective unlike in “Heartof Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, where the African culture and people are shown asbackward, retarded, animalistic.

In “Things Fall Apart” the clash of cultures andthe tension between accepting the changes or preserving the tradition is the centralpoint of the novel. Achebe did not present Igbo culture without any defects, hepresented some weaknesses which were the internal factor of the collapse. Divisionsin the community quickly escalated threatening the unity of the tribe and generatingconflicts.

The Igbo society was enriched but as soon as the British came thecultural values started falling apart and the old way of life got disrupted, thecommunity of Umuofia was unable to withstand thechange 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 inThings Fall Apart and Arrow of God. The English Literature Journal,Vol. 1, No.

1 (2014), p. 21-30 3)    Ogbaa, Kalu Understanding Thingsfall 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 StudiesReview, Vol. 36, No.

2 (1993), p. 61-72 5)    Yves, Niyonkuru BetweenChange and Tradition: Achebe’s Suggestive Existentialist Models of Conduct in Things Fall Apart. Kasdi Merbah University-Ouargla, AcademicYear: 2013/2014