Book Club: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, pt 3/3

 

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Chinua Achebe, Author and Nobel Prize winner

Welcome back to our discussion of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Today I wanted to take a closer look at some of the aspects of traditional Igbo society mentioned in the book.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know by now that just as early modern humans (Homo sapiens) mated with Neanderthals and Denisovans somewhere over in Eurasia, some sapiens mated with archaic humans in Africa.

Unfortunately, the state of knowledge about African genomes and especially archaic African genomes is very primitive. Not only does ancient DNA not preserve terribly well in many parts of Africa, but the continent is also rather poor and so people there don’t send their spit to 23 and Me very often to get DNA tested. Thus, sadly, I do not have archaic DNA percents for the Igbo.

WAfricaAdmixture
“Approximate Bayesian computation estimates for the introgressing population across four African populations (Yoruba from Ibadan (YRI), Esan in Nigeria [ESN], Gambian in Western Divisions in the Gambia [GWD], and Mende in Sierra Leone [MSL]),” from Recovering Signals of Ghost Archaic Introgression in African Populations
However, we do have data for their neighbors, the Yoruba, Esan, Mende, and Gambians.

Keep in mind that so far, Eurasians measure about 1-4% Neanderthal and Melanesians about 6% Denisovan, so 10% Ghost in west Africans is a pretty big deal (if you’re into archaic DNA.) The authors of the study estimate that the admixture occurred about 50,000 years ago, which is coincidentally about the same time as the admixture in non-Africans–suggesting that whatever triggered the Out of Africa migration may have also simultaneously triggered an Into Africa migration. 

If you’re not familiar with some of these groups (I only know a little about the Yoruba,) the Esan, Mende, Gambians, and Yoruba are all speakers of languages from the Niger-Congo family (of which the Bantu languages are a sub-set.) The Niger-Congo family is one of the world’s largest, with 1,540 languages and 700 million speakers. It spread within the past 3,000 years from a homeland somewhere in west Africa (possibly Nigeria) to dominate sub-Saharan Africa. As far as I can tell, the Igbo are quite similar genetically to the Yoruba, and the admixture event happened tens of thousands of years before these groups spread and split, so there’s a good chance that the Igbo have similarly high levels of ghost-pop admixture.

Interestingly, a population related to the Bushmen and Pygmies used to dominate central and southern Africa, before the Bantu expansion. While the Bantu expansion and the admixture event are separated by a good 40 or 50 thousand years, this still suggests the possibility of human hybrid vigor.

Edit: A new paper just came out! Whole-genome sequence analysis of a Pan African set of samples reveals archaic gene flow from an extinct basal population of modern humans into sub-Saharan populations:

Here, we examine 15 African populations covering all major continental linguistic groups, ecosystems, and lifestyles within Africa through analysis of whole-genome sequence data of 21 individuals sequenced at deep coverage. We observe a remarkable correlation among genetic diversity and geographic distance, with the hunter-gatherer groups being more genetically differentiated and having larger effective population sizes throughout most modern-human history. Admixture signals are found between neighbor populations from both hunter-gatherer and agriculturalists groups, whereas North African individuals are closely related to Eurasian populations. Regarding archaic gene flow, we test six complex demographic models that consider recent admixture as well as archaic introgression. We identify the fingerprint of an archaic introgression event in the sub-Saharan populations included in the models (~ 4.0% in Khoisan, ~ 4.3% in Mbuti Pygmies, and ~ 5.8% in Mandenka) from an early divergent and currently extinct ghost modern human lineage.

So the ghost population that shows up in the Pygmies the same ghost population as shows up in the Mende? Looks like it.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this paper, but I’d just like to highlight this one graph:

Populationsize

I don’t really understand how they compute these things, much less if this is accurate (though their present estimate for the size of the Han looks pretty good,) but assuming it is, we can say a few things: One, before 100,000 years ago, all of the groups–except the Laal of Chad–tracked closely together in size because they were one group. Most of the groups then got smaller simply because they split up. But there seems to have been some kind of really big population bottleneck a bit over a million years ago.

The other really interesting thing is the absolute Pygmy dominance of the mid-10,000-100,000 year range. The authors note:

It is noteworthy that we observed by PSMC a sudden Ne increase in Baka Pygmy around 30 kya. A similar increase was observed in another study that analyzed several Baka and Biaka samples [25]. In addition, this individual presents the highest average genome-wide heterozygosity compared to the rest of samples (Fig. 1b). Nevertheless, such abrupt Ne increase can be attributed to either a population expansion or episodes of separation and admixture [60]. Further analyses at population level are needed to distinguish between these two scenarios.

Until we get more information on the possible Pygmy-cide, let’s get back to Things Fall Apart, for the Igbo of 1890 aren’t their ancestors of 50,000 BC nor the conquerors of central Africa. Here’s an interesting page with information about some of the rituals Achebe wrote about, like the Feast of the New Yams and the Egwugwu ceremony:

 The egwugwu ceremony takes place in order to dispute the guilty side of a crime taken place, similar to our court trials… Nine egwugwu represented a village of the clan, their leader known as Evil Forest; exit the huts with their masks on.

Short page; fast read.

The egwugwu ceremony I found particularly interesting. Of course everyone knows the guys in masks are just guys in masks (well, I assume everyone knows that. It seems obvious,) yet in taking on the masks, they adopt a kind of veil of anonymity. In real life, they are people, with all of the biases of ordinary people; under the mask, they take on the identity of a spirit, free from the biases of ordinary people. It is similar to the official garb worn by judges in other countries, which often look quite silly (wigs on English barristers, for example,) but effectively demarcate a line between normal life and official pronouncements. By putting on the costume of the office, the judge becomes more than an individual.

I have long been fascinated by masks, masquerades, and the power of anonymity. Many famous writers, from Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Clemens, published under pseudonyms. The mask implies falseness–on Halloween, we dress up as things that we are not–but it also allows honesty by freeing us from the threat of retribution.

It is interesting that a small, tightly-knit society where everyone knows everyone and social relations are of paramount importance, like the Igbo, developed a norm of anonymizing judges in order to remove judicial decisions from normal social relations and obligations (as much as possible, anyway). Since most Igbo villages did not have kings or other aristocrats to dictate laws, rule was conducted by notable community members who had effectively purchased or earned noble titles. These nobles got to wear the masks and costumes of the egwgwu.

Ok, so it’s getting late and I need to wrap this up. This moment comes in every post.

I know I haven’t said much about the book itself. The plot, narrative, pacing, structure, writing style, etc. To be honest, that’s because I didn’t enjoy it very much. It was interesting for its content, along with a sense of “I’ve been trying to tell people this and I could have saved myself a lot of time by just pointing them to the book. And if this is a book taught in schools (we didn’t read it in my highschool, but I have heard that many people did,) then why aren’t people more aware of the contents?

What was tribal life like before the Europeans got there? Well, women got beaten a lot. Children were murdered to avenge tribal conflicts. Infant mortality was high. In other words, many things were pretty unpleasant.

And yet, interestingly, much of what we think was unpleasant about them was, in its own way, keeping the peace. As Will (Evolving Moloch) quotes from The Social Structure of Right and Wrong on Twitter:

“Much of the conduct described by anthropologists as conflict management, social control, or even law in tribal and other traditional societies is regarded as crime in modern [nation state] societies.” This is especially clear in the case of violent modes of redress such as assassination, feuding, fighting, maiming, and beating, but it also applies to the confiscation and destruction of property and to other forms of deprivation and humiliation. Such actions typically express a grievance by one person or group against another.

See, for example, when the village burned down Okonkwo’s house for accidentally killing a villager, when they burned down the church for “killing” a deity, or when they took a little girl and killed a little boy in revenge for someone in another village killing one of their women. To the villagers, these were all legal punishments, and the logic of burning down a person’s house if they have killed someone is rather similar to the logic of charging someone a fine for committing manslaughter. Even though Okonkwo didn’t mean to kill anyone, he should have been more careful with his gun, which he knew was dangerous and could kill someone.

Unlike penalties imposed by the state, however, private executions of this kind often result in revenge or even a feud—Moreover, the person killed in retaliation may not be himself or herself a killer, for in these societies violent conflicts between nonkin are virtually always handled in a framework of collective responsibility–or more precisely, collective liability–whereby all members of a social category (such as a family or lineage) are held accountable for the conduct of their fellows.

And, of course, penalties so meted out can be incredibly violent, arbitrary, and selfish, but ignoring that, there’s clearly a conflict when traditional, tribal ways of dealing with problems clash with state-based ways of dealing with problems. Even if everyone eventually agrees that the state-based system is more effective (and I don’t expect everyone to agree) the transition is liable to be difficult for some people, especially if, as in the book, they are punished by the state for enforcing punishments prescribed by their own traditional laws. The state is effectively punishing them for punishing law-breakers, creating what must seem to them a state of anarcho-tyranny.

As for polygamy, Achebe seems to gloss over some of its downsides. From Christakis’s Blueprint: The Origins of a Good Society (h/t Rob Henderson), we have:

Co-wife conflict is ubiquitous in polygynous households… Because the Turkana often choose wives from different families in order to broaden their safety net, they typically do not practice sororal [sister-wives] polygyny… When co-wives are relatives, they can more easily share a household and cooperate… But while sororal polygyny is especially common in cultures in the Americas, general polygyny tends to be the usual pattern in Africa. An examination of ethnographic data from 69 nonsororal polygynous cultures fails to turn up a single society where co-wife relations could be described as harmonious. Detailed ethnographic studies highlight the stresses and fears present in polygynous families, including, for example, wives’ concern that other wives might try to poison their children so that their own children might inherit land or property.

Anyway, let’s wrap this up with a little article on human pacification:

There is a well-entrenched schism on the frequency (how often), intensity (deaths per 100,000/year), and evolutionary significance of warfare among hunter-gatherers compared with large-scale societies. To simplify, Rousseauians argue that warfare among prehistoric and contemporary hunter-gatherers was nearly absent and, if present, was a late cultural invention. In contrast, so-called Hobbesians argue that violence was relatively common but variable among hunter-gatherers. … Furthermore, Hobbesians with empirical data have already established that the frequency and intensity of hunter-gatherer warfare is greater compared with large-scale societies even though horticultural societies engage in warfare more intensively than hunter-gatherers. In the end I argue that although war is a primitive trait we may share with chimpanzees and/or our last common ancestor, the ability of hunter-gatherer bands to live peaceably with their neighbors, even though war may occur, is a derived trait that fundamentally distinguishes us socially and politically from chimpanzee societies. It is a point often lost in these debates.

I think we should read Legal Systems Very Different from Ours for our next book. Any other ideas?

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Book Club: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, pt 2

 

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Chinua Achebe, Author and Nobel Prize winner

Welcome back to our discussion of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Today I thought it would be interesting to look at the history of the Igbo (aka Ibo) people, past and present.

The modern Igbo are one of the world’s larger ethnic groups, numbering around 34 million people, most of whom live in south east/central Nigeria. About 2 million Igbo live abroad, most of them in Britain (which, Chinua recounts, colonized Nigeria.) The Igbo diaspora is well-known for its intelligence, with Igbo students outscoring even Chinese students in the UK:

Although the Chinese and Indians are still very conspicuously above even the best African nationalities, their superiority disappears when the Nigerian and other groups are broken down even further according to their different tribal ethnicities. Groups like the famous Igbo tribe, which has contributed much genetically to the African American blacks, are well known to be high academic achievers within Nigeria. In fact, their performance seems to be at least as high as the “model minority” Chinese and Indians in the UK, as seen when some recent African immigrants are divided into languages spoken at home (which also indicates that these are not multigenerational descendants but children of recent immigrants).

Africans speaking Luganda and Krio did better than the Chinese students in 2011. The igbo were even more impressive given their much bigger numbers (and their consistently high performance over the years, gaining a 100 percent pass rate in 2009!). The superior Igbo achievement on GCSEs is not new and has been noted in studies that came before the recent media discovery of African performance. A 2007 report on “case study” model schools in Lambeth also included a rare disclosure of specified Igbo performance (recorded as Ibo in the table below) and it confirms that Igbos have been performing exceptionally well for a long time (5 + A*-C GCSEs); in fact, it is difficult to find a time when they ever performed below British whites.

Of course, Igbo immigrants to the UK are probably smarter than folks who didn’t figure out how to immigrate to the UK, but Peter Frost argues that even the ones who stayed at home are also pretty smart, via a collection of quotes:

All over Nigeria, Ibos filled urban jobs at every level far out of proportion to their numbers, as laborers and domestic servants, as bureaucrats, corporate managers, and technicians. Two-thirds of the senior jobs in the Nigerian Railway Corporation were held by Ibos. Three-quarters of Nigeria’s diplomats came from the Eastern Region. So did almost half of the 4,500 students graduating from Nigerian universities in 1966. The Ibos became known as the “Jews of Africa,” despised—and envied—for their achievements and acquisitiveness. (Baker, 1980)

The Ibos are the wandering Jews of West Africa — gifted, aggressive, Westernized; at best envied and resented, but mostly despised by the mass of their neighbors in the Federation.(Kissinger, 1969)

So what makes the Igbo so smart? Frost attributes their high IQ to the selective effects of an economy based on trade in which the Igbo were middlemen to the other peoples (mostly Yoruba and Fulani) around them, along with an excellent metalworking tradition:

Archaeological sites in the Niger Delta show that advanced economic development began much earlier there than elsewhere in West Africa. This is seen in early use of metallurgy. At one metallurgical complex, dated to 765 BC, iron ore was smelted in furnaces measuring a meter wide. The molten slag was drained through conduits to pits, where it formed blocks weighing up to 43-47 kg. …

This production seems to have been in excess of local needs and therefore driven by trade with other peoples …

This metallurgy is unusual not only in its early date for West Africa but also in its subsequent development, which reached a high level of sophistication despite a lack of borrowing from metallurgical traditions in the Middle East and Europe.

Here is a fun little video on Igbo bronzes (I recommend watching on double speed and pausing occasionally to appreciate the work quality):

So between the bronze, the river, and long-distance trade, the Igbo became the local market dominant minorities–and like most MDMs, with the arrival of democracy came genocide.

Nigeria achieved independence in 1960 and became a Republic in 1963. Periodic military coups and conflict kept disturbing the peace:

From June through October 1966, pogroms in the North killed an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Igbo, half of them children, and caused more than a million to two million to flee to the Eastern Region.[76] 29 September 1966, was considered the worst day; because of massacres, it was called ‘Black Thursday’.[77][78]

Ethnomusicologist Charles Keil, who was visiting Nigeria in 1966, recounted:

The pogroms I witnessed in Makurdi, Nigeria (late Sept. 1966) were foreshadowed by months of intensive anti-Ibo and anti-Eastern conversations among Tiv, Idoma, Hausa and other Northerners resident in Makurdi, and, fitting a pattern replicated in city after city, the massacres were led by the Nigerian army. Before, during and after the slaughter, Col. Gowon could be heard over the radio issuing ‘guarantees of safety’ to all Easterners, all citizens of Nigeria, but the intent of the soldiers, the only power that counts in Nigeria now or then, was painfully clear. After counting the disemboweled bodies along the Makurdi road I was escorted back to the city by soldiers who apologised for the stench and explained politely that they were doing me and the world a great favor by eliminating Igbos.

… until the Igbos decided they’d had enough and declared themselves an independent country, Biafra, triggering a civil war. The Nigerian and British governments blockaded Biafra, resulting in mass starvation that left nearly 2 million dead.

Why the British government thought it was important to use money to starve children, I don’t know.

(Hint: the answer is oil.)

During the war, Britain covertly supplied Nigeria with weapons and military intelligence and may have also helped it to hire mercenaries.[102] After the decision was made to back Nigeria, the BBC oriented its reporting to favour this side.[103] Supplies provided to the Federal Military Government included two vessels and 60 vehicles.[104]

Go BBC!

(Richard Nixon, always the voice of morality, was against the blockade.)

Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart in 1959, the year before independence–so he was awfully prescient.

As news got out about the genocide, people began demanding that food be airlifted into Biafra, but there were some problems getting the food off the ground:

800px-Starved_girl
Just “enemy propaganda” of little girls starving to death

Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant, refused to support the airlift.[5] The position of the Organization of African Unity was to not intervene in conflicts its members’ deemed internal and to support the nation-state boundaries instituted during the colonial era.[6] The ruling Labour Party of the United Kingdom, which together with the USSR was supplying arms to the Nigerian military,[7]dismissed reports of famine as “enemy propaganda”.[8] Mark Curtis writes that the UK also reportedly provided military assistance on the ‘neutralisation of the rebel airstrips’, with the understanding that their destruction would put them out of use for daylight humanitarian relief flights.[9]

Soon Joint Church Aid, a combination of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and other NG organizations, chartered airplanes and began running the Nigerian blockade (three relief workers were killed when their plane was shot down.) The Biafra Airlift is second in scope only to the Berlin Airlift in non-combat airlifts.

Since the end of the war, the state of the Igbo people has steadily improved (the presence of oil in the area is finally benefiting them.)

Modern Nigeria has about 200 million people with a fertility rate around 5.5 children per woman (I don’t have data specifically about the Igbo) and a per capita GDP around $2,000, which is high for the area.

It’s getting late, so I’d like to end with some modern Igbo music, a reminder that the people we read about in anthropology books (or literature) never stay in anthropology books:

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.