Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Things Fall Apart details the agonizing road to being colonized in Nigeria

I have always wanted to read the classic 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian Chinua Achebe. While there have been many other authors who have since told the story of colonization from the colonized perspective, this is one of the originals if not the original. Also, it is a very enjoyable story.

And it goes like this: Okonkwo was once a great wrestler, a tribal war hero, had three wives, and a barn full of yams, and could not tolerate lazy and debt-ridden men like his father, Unoka, who had died 10 years previously. 

It is announced that a daughter from his town of Umuofia has been murdered in a nearby town. His town proclaims that the other town would have to either go to war or offer a young man and a virgin. They choose the latter: the young man's name is Ikemefuna and the virgin goes to the man who lost his murdered wife. 

Ikemefuna joins Okonkwo's family of three wives and eight children. The father is mean to his new son, as he is to everyone, but he does love him. During the week of peace, he beats one of his wives for not being home to make his lunch one day. When the festive New Yam Festival arrives, he beats one of his wives for destroying a tree that was actually still very much alive.

After three years, Ikemefuna has integrated well into Okonkwo’s family, and his once-beaten and defeated younger brother Nwoye has been re-enlivened by his presence. But then an elder visits and tells the father that Ikemefuna will be taken into the woods the next day and sacrificed, as part of the deal that brought him to town in the first place. Okonkwo is the one assigned to kill him with a machete.

Meanwhile, in other vignettes (which this book consists of a lot of) Okonkwo serves on a panel of judges who make up rules about wives and kidnappings and also, a wedding ceremony takes place that includes lots of jostling for gifts of farm animals, one of which escapes from a gated area.

Okonkwo is later found to have caused the deaths of his adopted son (obviously) and one of his wives. Because of this, it is ruled that he must leave the village with his remaining family for seven years. Before they leave, members of his village - even his best friend - proceed to destroy his home and cows as an order from the gods to cleanse that area.

He arrives in his new village and is informed that he is not suffering as badly as he could. He could have been exiled for life, but instead he was exiled from the village where his father lived to the one where his mother was from.

A couple of years after he arrives at his new village, missionaries, including a white man on an iron horse (what we would call a "bicycle") visit and, although Okonkwo thinks they are insane, his first (and who he considers lazy) son Nwoye becomes hooked. The missionaries are given land in the Evil Forest and, when nothing bad happens to them, more villagers begin to go with them.

Before heading back to his former village, Okonkwo has friends rebuild his houses. As the missionaries secure more of his villagers, Okonkwo ends up killing a white man and subsequently hangs himself from a tree, an act considered to disgrace him further in the end. The lead colonizer ends the book by noting that Okonkwo’s story would make for a good paragraph in the how-to colonize book he is writing.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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