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

 

Chinua_Achebe_-_Buffalo_25Sep2008_crop
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.