Because it is Ours: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

Yes, caring about your own stuff or your own culture’s stuff over another people’s stuff shows in-group bias. That was inherent back there in the words “your own.” It’s yours. Of course you care about it.

Only deities achieve perfect love. Even Jesus does not call on people to love strangers; he commands his followers to love each other and love their neighbors.

What does tamed mean?” [asked the Little Prince] …

“It means to create ties,”… the fox said. “For me, you’re only a little boy, like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you, and you have no need of me, either. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you.” …

And [the Prince] felt very unhappy. His flower had told him she was the only one of her kind in the whole universe. And here were five thousand of them, all alike, in just one garden! ….

And then he said to himself, I thought I was rich because I had one flower, and all I own is an ordinary rose… and he lay down and wept. …

Then [the fox] added, “Go look at the roses again. You’ll understand that yours is the only rose in all the world.”

The Little Prince went to look at the roses again. “You’re not at all like my rose. You’re nothing at all, yet,” he told them. “No one has tamed you and you haven’t tamed anyone. You’re the way my fox was. … But I’ve made him my friend, and now he’s the only fox in all the world.” …

“Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I watered. … Since she’s my rose.”

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

3The inverse of loving what is yours is that you do not love what is not yours.

Part of the bittersweetness of the Little Prince is how closely it parallels the author’s own life, for not only did Saint-Exupery crash land in the Sahara, and not only was the rose based on his own wife, but he also fell from the sky and died when his plane was shot down over the Mediterranean during WWII.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart follows the life of Okonkwo, a (fictional) Nigerian Igbo man who lived in a small village in the 1890s. The story follows Okonkwo’s determination to rise from nothing, slough off the shame of his father’s laziness, cowardice, and debt, and make a name for himself. Through Okonkwo’s eyes, we see the culture of the Onitsha Igbo, a real people, prior to the arrival of the British.

Then Okonkwo murders his foster son because the village authorities decided he should be killed (to avenge the death of a woman from Okonkwo’s tribe) and, as the title says, things fall apart.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming

It’s an interesting work from a cultural, historical perspective.

We cannot justify Okonkwo’s culture, nor Okonkwo himself. I do not think Achebe means to. It was a culture that murdered innocent people, forced some to be permanent “outcasts,” and sanctioned the beating of women and children. Okonkwo beat his wives and children (and as mentioned, murdered his foster son to avoid looking “weak” or “cowardly” in front of the other villagers.)

And yet, we hear Achebe’s voice saying, it was theirs.

My mother is not perfect, yet she is mine. My people are not perfect, yet they are mine. My culture is not perfect, yet it is mine. Okonkwo was a beloved husband, friend, leader, and father. And people love what is theirs.

Of course, taking another perspective, we could also read the novel as “Sure, the British put a stop to many terrible things, but they were SMUG about it!”

I can’t put much stock in the position that otherwise moral people committed evil acts simply because of their culture, since culture itself comes from the people in it. “I was only following orders” stopped being an excuse during the Nuremberg Trials. We moderns are expected to question and resist our culture at every turn, and I am not inclined to extend to Oknkwo generosity that would not be extended to me.

Of course, the Igbo are not the only people to have done terrible things. We all have sinned. Yes, the French committed crimes in the course of colonialism. So did the British:

The British had difficulty conquering Igboland, which lacked central political organisation. In the name of liberating the Igbos from the Aro Confederacy, the British launched the Anglo-Aro War of 1901–1902. Despite conquering villages by burning houses and crops, continual political control over the Igbo remained elusive.[41][42] The British forces began annual pacification missions to convince the locals of British supremacy.[43] … 

After establishing political control of the country, the British implemented a system of taxation in order to force the indigenous Africans to shift from subsistence farming to wage labour. Sometimes forced labour was used directly for public works projects. These policies met with ongoing resistance[71][72]

Of course, the British also did their best to put an end to the international slave trade and stopped the Igbo practice of human sacrifice:

However, animals were used to remove evil from the land. At times during pestilence, palm fronds, an animal or a human being will be tied at the entrance of the town with hope that the disease will enter into these objects and spare the inhabitants. To be attacked by such animal is regarded as ill luck and these living sacrifices are not eaten by anyone. In the past, two living beings were buried along side chiefs as servants to serve him in the spirit world. Slaves were usually used for this.

You can appreciate the good in a culture–and people–without accepting their evil.

Have you finished the book, yet? What do you think of it?

If you haven’t started yet, don’t worry–we’ll continue this conversation in a week.

 

8 thoughts on “Because it is Ours: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

  1. Haven’t read the book, but the Igbo have tried and lost a war for independence against the North, basically by being starved into submission. So they probably hate the British most of all for amalgamating them with the North for budgetary reasons. Interestingly enough, despite or maybe because of the fact the the Igbo and other Southern Nigerians took to Christianity and western values, the muslim North were ruled indirectly and left in charge. The Northern Nigerian sultanates I think were the last bits of the empire to elimate slavery in the 1930s.

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  2. Started it, but have not gotten to the point where Okonkwo kills the boy. Now I am spoiled!

    Two main things I notice about it: one is the political incorrectness of the society, which you remarked on. Such is the nature of primitiveness I guess. Patriarchy, red in tooth and claw. The other is the simplicity of the writing itself. I suppose it parallels the simplicity of the culture and people — should be interesting to see if/how it changes when the British appear. But I don’t like it. It feels like reading a children’s book.

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  3. I read it many years ago in school. I think even then, the thing that kind of shocked us was how we’d basically been taught the “white man bad” narrative, but it was kind of hard not to feel sympathy for the British in this story, unless you’re willing to give up on values like not beating women, etc. I suppose the jargon is “problematic”?

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    • It’s one of those awkward facts that beating women (and other forms of violent abuse) is actually more common in non-white societies than white ones (Asians might be an exception, I don’t know.) So, for example, African American women facing abuse at home basically have to turn to the police for protection, but black ppl don’t really trust the police that much and don’t like turning each other over to the police.

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      • I think to some extent, a good question is whether women wrote stuff (obviously not very informative if the society isn’t literate…) So, Jane Austen indirectly complained about women’s ability to make a (gentry class) living without male relatives, but she did publish writing, and was far from the first in that part of the world. And Japan has a tradition of women writing, too. Not sure about elsewhere… (I think there are Roman writers discussing the freedom of Germanic women. The modern romantic notion of women warriors is almost definitely overblown, but they weren’t sitting inside in burqas…)

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