Although Things Fall Apart was published in 1958 at the threshold of Nigerian independence, the book is a thesis in pre-colonial Africa. Chinualumogu Albert Achebe realised the primordial importance of describing Nigerians as they really were, as against the shallow description given by other foreign authors. Fifty years later, Things Fall Apart still reflects the eternal tension between African traditions and forces of globalisation.
Tradition has been described as “the living faith of the dead”, while traditionality as the “dead faith of the living.” Tradition has a bad connotation; it is always associated with the resistance to change, to hold on to a forlorn hope of an idealistic past. However, it is not tradition, rather traditionality that carries the blame. Traditions evolve and change; excising the worst, retaining the good and absorbing the best of their world.
Two characters in Things Fall Apart – Okonkwo and Enoch – capture this tension between traditionality and globalisation. The protagonist, Okonkwo’s obstinacy in the culture of his ancestors was one of the destroying features of his life. Apart from the fear of being branded a ‘woman’ he was convinced that the white man has no business in Umofia. This explains his angst against his people for allowing the missionaries to settle down in the first place. Enoch is an overzealous new convert, who eats a sacred python and publicly unmasks an egwugwu spirit. For the Igbo’s, the essence of the sacred is captured among other things in the masquerades who serve as the police of the community. This incident precipitates a chain of events that finally results in Okonkwo’s suicide.
Since the setting of Things Fall Apart was in Umuofia a fictional village in South-East Nigeria of the late 1800’s, the story has a lot to say about the culture of the Igbo’s. While resisting any attempt to turn this essay into a parochial exercise that tends to glorify one ethnic nationality above the others, the truth be told, Achebe wrote about a civilisation he was conversant with.
Have things really fallen in place? Have the Igbo’s established a balance between traditions and globalisation? I don’t think so, in most cases traditionality – the dead faith of the living – is still king. Some harmful practices like the subjugation of women still persist. Although presently, the percentage of educated women far exceeds those of men in some parts of the East, however, their lot in most cases are not inspiring. For instance, harmful conventions associated with widowhood still hold sway in most parts of the East and women are still not allowed to inherit communal land. And please don’t remind me of Mojekwu vs. Mojekwu, the courts have pronounced judgement, yet it takes the will of a people to carry it out.
Most Ndigbo can rarely sustain a conversation in Igbo without it being punctuated by a mixture of English and pidgin. The Vice-Chancellor of Anambra State University recently proposed that his colleagues in other state universities of the region work more assiduously to prevent the language from being extinct. What is our identity? It’s a shame that most of the studies on Igbo arts and culture are done abroad or by foreigners.
In a book review I had stated that, “Obviously some traditions are bound to die under the pressure of modern life. To be alive means to grow and change. But how can Africans forge a distinctive response to a globalised world without losing what is most precious about their rich and proud heritage? An Igbo proverb says that ezi afa ka ego, “a good name is worth more than wealth”. But today, if you refuse to stick your hand in the public till, you are an efulefu, a ne’er-do-well, a traditional word with a contemporary twist”.
It may be convenient for us to wail and whine over the marginalisation of Igbo’s; the sorry state of social structures in the East attests to this. Nevertheless, who would we blame for not craving out a collective identity, UFO’s perhaps? This ethnic business has made entrepreneurs out of many, who hop around claiming to protect our interest – their pockets. It’s time to look inwards, to revive that essence that made us proud as a people, which Achebe’s Things Fall Apart brought to international acclaim.
No doubt Things Fall Apart will remain one of the best works about African history. Nonetheless, this timeless novel that was set in the heartland of Igbo civilisation still remains relevant, as some of the questions it raised are yet to be fully addressed. It will be disastrous to bask in the pride of a fellow Igbo man, for Achebe only used an Igbo setting to tell a universal story. While the Igbo’s are industrious and seem to be charting a part from themselves against all odds, we seem to have forgotten the basics. It would not be too much to reflect on the traditional values we cherish. Let us tell our own story, lest others do so for us.