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Examining the Social and Cultural Impact of European Colonialism in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

Published on May 20th, 2016 at 11:21 pm

by Biniyam Asnake

Chinua Achebe’s widely acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart, takes a post colonial look at the social and cultural consequences of arriving European missionaries to Africa and specifically Nigeria in the novel. His novel is widely considered to be a response to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which takes a European or imperialist perspective on the same issue. In his book Achebe explores the tragedy that takes place, contradicts the stereotypes set forth by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and takes back Africa from Conrad. The novel takes place in pre-colonial Nigeria where the protagonist, Okonkwo, is the head the Umuofia clan, a Nigerian tribe. Okonkwo is described as a strong, hard- working and courageous warrior who is obsessed with his masculinity. While his father, also a chief, is described as a cowardly and ineffective leader who left many debts and loan unpaid and died in disgrace. In order to escape his father’s reputation as a coward and weak leader, Okonkwo often makes tragic mistakes to prove his lack of masculinity. As the novel progresses, European missionaries come to his Nigerian village to convert his villagers to Christianity. Tensions develop and through a missionary’s misguided effort to talk to a village woman, he kills an ancestral spirit by unmasking her egwugwu. The villagers retaliate by burning the missionaries hut. The district commissioner then responds by arresting the elders of the Umuofia clan. Finally once they are released, the elders and Okonkwo hold a meeting to discuss their course action until suddenly court messengers come and tell the elders to desist from meeting. Okonkwo impulsively kills one of the messengers in his anger. He then realizes that he has made a tragic mistake because his clan is not willing to go to war with the Europeans missionaries. Okonkwo decides the only solution to the quandary he has put himself in is to commit suicide. Throughout the novel, a Marxist approach can be taken to observe the social and cultural consequences of colonialism by examining the pre and postcolonial Igbo tribe.

The goal of Marxism is to bring about a classless society and for everyone to have ownership of production, distribution, and exchange. This can be seen in the pre-colonial Umofia tribe:

One day a neighbor called Okoye came in to see him… Unoka went into an inner room and soon returned with a small wooden disc containing a kola nut, some alligator pepper and a lump of white chalk. ‘I have kola, he announced when he sat down, and passed the disc over to his guest. ‘Thank you. He who brings kola brings life. But I think you ought to break it,’ replied Okoye, passing back the disc. ‘No, it is for you, I think,’ and they argued like this for a few moments before Unoka accepted the honor of breaking the kola. (Achebe 7)
Before European colonization, it can be seen in the novel that the kola nut has a significant role in the welcoming of another into one’s household. The men argue over who is to break the kola but show their respect for another, which is typical for an African community. The kola nut is symbolic of the traditional elements that take place in the novel. Similarly one critic argues the importance of tradition to Achebe and his tribe, “ In them, festivals are ancient, people are concerned with subsistence farming, and speech is peculiarly accented with proverbs” (Borman 2015). Borman stresses the importance of basic duties such as subsistence farming, ancient festivals, and communication based on proverbs to this particular tribe. Clearly in this pre-colonial period, industrialization has not taken over and the Africans are sustaining themselves on subsistence farming. Subsistence farming revolves around the concept that one should only make enough food as one needs for oneself. This allows for everyone in the tribe to east as much food as they need. Contrasted with the post-colonial Africa, the Marxist model has been abandoned and a more capitalistic approach has taken over. Western companies encourage farmers to grow much more than they need and to sell their goods on the open market. This falls in line with postcolonial criticism because Achebe rejects the notions of universalism and that a universal ideal representation, such as surplus goods being sold on the global market, is applicable to all human beings. Due to the European colonization of the Achebe people, they have lost their freedom and more importantly their dignity in choosing how to grow their own food, which is contributing to their declining culture. Another literary critic, Gikandi, disagrees:
… the yam was essential to agricultural production among the Igbo of Eastern Nigeria, and that it had, together with palm oil, been a major part of the regional economy before the discovery of coal at Enugu. In those days it made sense to see African life as the movement from primitive (agricultural) practices to industrial production, and we were thus not interested in questioning the logic of this narrative of modernity. (Gikandi 2010)
Although Gikandi shows the significance of palm oil and yam in the Marxist economic framework, he brings up the “discovery of coal” as the impetus that causes the Igbo people to industrialize and lose their culture. Gikandi suggests that this modernization was inevitable. I disagree because if the Marxist economic framework hadn’t been abandoned and the village controlled the means of productions, the discovery of coal wouldn’t have to constitute industrialization and the loss of their culture through European imperialism. They could have kept a tighter control on what the Europeans wanted and not succumb to the consequences of imperialism. In the novel, European colonization clearly has an adverse effect on the Igbo people and their culture.

Another key aspect in the dynamic between the pre and postcolonial analysis of Achebe’s Thing’s Fall Apart is language and communication. Achebe purposely uses traditional Igbo language throughout the novel to show the longevity of his people’s language and that although the Europeans may have imperialized their homes and villages, they cannot remove their culture from their nature. Achebe writes, "The Igbo has a generous store of proverbs which are continually brought into use. They are so profuse that often it is impossible to understand the full meaning of a conversation without knowing some of the more common ones" (Achebe 436). Achebe talks about the complexity of the proverbs and the importance it plays in pre-colonial Africa. "Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten" (Achebe 7). Essentially, proverbs are integrated into the everyday language of the Igbo people. It is a hallmark of their identity and one that cannot be easily forgotten. This is why Achebe in his writing uses proverbs to keep the African culture ingrained within his writing. Borman agrees, “…using proverbs is essential in the Igbo culture being described…” (Borman 2015). Another reason that Achebe keeps traditional Igbo words in his writing is to show that although he has to write in the hegemonic, or dominant language, to convey his point, he wants to keep elements of his African culture in the book. This can be seen in many instants throughout the book:

Okonkwo had just blown out the palm-oil lamp and stretched himself on his bamboo bed when he heard the ogene of the town crier piercing the still night air. Gome, gome, gome, gome, boomed the hollow metal. Then the crier gave his message, and at the end of it beat his instrument again. Again this was the message. Every man of Umuofia was asked to gather at the market place tomorrow morning. Okonkwo wondered what was amiss, for he knew certainly that something was amiss. He had discerned a clear overtone of tragedy in the crier's voice, and even now he could still hear it as it grew dimmer and dimmer in the distance. (Achebe 21)
Achebe inserts the Igbo language in the form of the words “ogene” and “gome” to show the distinct African culture. It can be assumed that the town crier is banging two metals together to create an alarm sound for the village. The use of these words goes to show that every culture can hear the sound of words in a unique way. While the banging of two metals may sound like “thump thump thump” to a European, it sounds like “gome gome gome” to the natives. That interpretation is part of their culture and cannot be criticized by the Europeans. All languages have been developed over time and no one language is inherently superior over another. The colonization of many Europeans to the sub Saharan African region has caused these unique and special languages to become eradicated as many of the natives feel pressured to speak the new hegemonic language. Okonkwo also foreshadows the imminent European colonization, “Okonkwo wondered what was amiss, for he knew certainly that something was amiss” (Achebe 21). Achebe knows that the Europeans coming is not a good thing for the natives, “He had discerned a clear overtone of tragedy in the crier's voice, and even now he could still hear it as it grew dimmer and dimmer in the distance” (Achebe 22). Achebe is similarly foreshadowing the soon to become extinction of the Igbo language. The sounds becoming growing “dimmer and dimmer” is symbolic of the culture and language of the Igbo people disappearing due to the European language becoming the hegemonic language by forcing their new language onto the native people.

European colonialism has had an adverse effect on the Igbo tribe. Achebe writes about the claim that European customs are inherently superior to those of the Igbo people’s, “Does the white man understand our custom about land?” “How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad” (Achebe 183). In this exchange, Okonkwo is voicing the concerns of the writer, Achebe. He points out the absurdity of deprecating the customs of a people who one hasn’t even had the chance to become familiar with. The consequences of this ignorant mindset by the Europeans is that they are too willing to fulfill a “white man’s burden” role to the Igbo people and try and convert them to Christianity, when in fact they don’t even have the faintest clue of the native’s original religions and customs. This is what causes the tension between the European missionaries and the tribe members as seen through the incident when one of the European missionaries unmasks a woman’s egwugwu which is a cultural taboo, which he would have known if he had spent the time studying their culture before coming to conquer it. Further evidence of the detrimental impact of the European colonization is the title of the book the District Commissioner comes up with after discovering Okonkwo’s dead body, “He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” (Achebe 219). The last sentence of the novel derides the western ethnography and imperialism brought forth by the Europeans. Achebe uses the title to ridicule the District Commissioner’s ignorance in his knowledge of African customs and affairs. It is ironic because the Commissioner purports to know a lot about the African culture as his title suggests, but in reality his knowledge of Africans customs is very limited. The claim that the District Commissioner came up with this title “after much thought” highlights the ignorance of the Europeans in not considering the customs and culture of the Igbo people. This clearly will and currently has negative consequences on the Igbo people. Also in the novel, the Europeans lack of understanding of the African culture causes many instances of disdain, coming from the Europeans, to be felt by the Igbo tribe.

The social and cultural ramifications of European colonialism on the Umofia tribe are deplorable. Through a Marxist economic framework the detrimental effects of colonialism can be exemplified by the loss of economic freedom on the part of the Igbo tribe and coercion into participating in the global market. While it is beneficial to some extent for primitive tribes to become more globalized, I believe we should take a step back and assess if we are doing enough to protect the near extinction of African and other declining global cultures. In Things Fall Apart, The Igbo tribe struggles to maintain it’s identity as its customs and traditions are no longer being valued in a colonized world. Similarly the Igbo people’s unique language and dialect is becoming more and more obsolete as English, due to colonization, becomes the hegemonic language. All these effects of colonization are eradicating a rich and rare culture that the world will never see again. We see this happening currently with Cuba as it starts to become part of the globalized network. It will most likely lose its customs and traditions that made it so unique in the first place, as more companies seek to transform the economy and essentially the country. To prevent the disappearance of many beautiful and invaluable cultures, I believe certain pockets of the world should be kept untouched so that future generations can value the history and culture of those places.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
Borman, David. "Playful ethnography: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Nigerian education." ARIEL 46.3 (2015): 91+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
Gikandi, Simon. “Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Culture." Research in African Literatures 32.3 (Autumn 2001): 3-8. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 278. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.