In 1958, the news of Chinua Achebe’s newly published book, Things Fall Apart spread like wildfire throughout the crowded streets of Africa, at last giving the Africans what they have always longed for: a novel about European colonialism in an African perspective. Before the publication of Things Fall Apart, most novels about Africa were written by the Europeans who characterized Africans as savages in need of Barack Obama, in an endorsement on the back cover of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, calls the novel “a masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.” Narrated through the tale of a local Igbo warrior, Okonkwo, Achebe’s masterpiece details the rising presence of the European superpowers inside the land of the indigenous Nigerians. Although the contrast between the cultural and social values of the local Igbo community and imperial Britain highlight the imperfections of traditional Igbo customs, Things Fall Apart ultimately presents colonialism as a flawed system that cannot reconcile the social discrepancies between the colonizers and the colonized.
Nearly two centuries have passed since the start of the Scramble for Africa, yet traces and impacts of European imperialism are still evident today, be it socially, culturally, or politically. Beginning in the fifteenth century, European superpowers became hungry for the abundant natural resources in Africa, and between the 1870s and 1900s, Britain’s desire to assert their political and economic dominance in the ancestral African society increased exponentially. Notwithstanding, it wasn’t until the Berlin Conference of 1884 when Nigeria, one of Britain’s most important colonies due to their rich profusion of economic resources, was ceded to the British authority (Booker, Critical Insights… 113). Unsurprisingly, however, the European nations collectively decided to exclude African delegates at the conference, disallowing them to voice their own opinion on the matter of colonialism. Reasoned by the idea of White Supremacy and Eurocentrism, the British colonizers firmly believed in the superiority of western culture, thereby making Europe the core of humanity. Yet, under this idea, racism will inevitably classify the non-whites, especially that of the African tribe, an inferior status when associated with those of the white race. During the peak of the British invasion, the combination of a deterministically structured view and intolerant cultural imperialism wreaked havoc on the traditional African cultural norms and customs. Furthermore, Britain also established an extensive system of indirect rule that granted certain African officials administrative powers (Booker, Critical Insights… 113). Though the system of indirect rule was plagued with corruption and exploitation, the British also brought numerous advancements to African society, such as the development of roads, hospitals, and education. Perceived to be fundamental for the future of Nigeria, British missionaries also placed a great emphasis on the spiritual development of the locals (Achebe, 181). In the end, however, these apparent social and technological benefits were underplayed by the British officials, as history only remembers the atrocities and violence that the British inflicted upon the local tenants.
With the idea of Upon the arrival of Christian missionaries, Mr. Brown introduced to the local residents a new faith while explaining to the people of Mbanta that “[a]ll the gods you have named are not gods at all. They are gods of deceit who tell you to kill your fellows and destroy innocent children” (Achebe, 146). Without understanding the cultural and social differences between the two vastly contrasting civilizations, the missionaries introduced “[a] new concept of God [that] had no connection with the past experience and life of the African people” (Udeani, Interculturation as a Dialogue… 88). Furthermore, astonished at the sudden arrival of a white man and his nonsensical remarks, Okonkwo and the clansman of Mbata approached the matter rather facetiously by allocating a piece of the Evil Forest to the missionaries for the construction of a Christian church. But, in doing so, the people of Mbanta effectively signaled the weakness and susceptibility of the Igbo society. Luckily, however, Mr. Brown personifies the compassionate aspect of Christian missionaries, allowing the local dwellers to retain their traditional religion while making an effort to apprehend the cultural differences between the Igbos and Europeans. Despite so, Mr. Brown and the new faith were still regarded as a detestable force by the masses. Nevertheless, to those who were disregarded by the Igbo religion, Christianity served as a ray of hope that accentuates the blemishes of the traditional faith. Deemed to be the abominations of the Igbo society, twins were abandoned in the evil forest upon birth while outcasts, or osu, was “a thing set apart — a taboo for ever, and his children after him” (Achebe, 156). Nonetheless, Mr. Kiaga, a Christian missionary, states that “there is no slave or free. We are all children of God and we must receive these our brothers” (Achebe, 156). Influenced by the words of the Christian missionaries and kindled with the desire to end their misery, Christianity served as a haven and an opportunity for those who are struggling to escape their current condition. Notwithstanding, in doing so, Obierika notes to Okonkwo that “[h]e has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (Achebe, 176). As more and more people convert to the new faith, “[it destroys] the indigenous order of the society and [weakens] family ties among the members of the inner as well as extended families,” with clansman turning against clansman and sons cursing the religion of his father’s (Udeani, Interculturation as Dialogue… 87).
When Okonkwo finally returns to Umuofia after his seven-year exile, the lenient and benevolent Mr. Brown is replaced by the radical and uncharitable Reverend Smith. Unlike Mr. Brown, who respected the Igbo religion and sympathized with the people of Umuofia, Rev. Smith made negligible efforts to perceive the traditional customs and norms of the Igbo culture. Similar to the intolerant cultural imperialism that was practiced at the peak of imperialism, Rev. Smith “condemned openly Mr. Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And Black was evil” (Achebe, 184). Rather than influencing the locals to convert to Christianity, Rev. Smith’s blatantly attacked traditional Igbo customs and demanded the people of Umuofia to accept Christianity. Furthermore, with the desire to eradicate the traditional Igbo due to the make-believe religious superiority, missionaries, like Rev. Smith, were reluctant in respecting and communicating the cultural differences between the Igbos and Europeans. Perhaps, if all missionaries approached the situation like Mr. Brown, who maintained a harmonious relationship with the residents and “ reflect[ed] on the doctrines or the respective aspects of African traditional religion,” then the works of missionaries would have resulted in a more amicable outcome (Udeani, Interculturation as a Dialogue… 88).
In additional to the coming of Chritianity, the British officials also instituted a British type government and court system with no correspondence to the previously functional legal regime, thereby encapsulating the idea of Eurocentrism and the British’s lack of respect for traditional Igbo customs. Before the arrival of British missionaries, the people of Umuofia thrived on an ancestral judicial system administered by the nine greatest and most powerful masked spirits of the clan: the egwugwu (Achebe, 89). With the wisdom and knowledge that the egwugwu possessed from their ancestral gods and forefathers, the Igbos trusted them to conduct a fair and unbiased hearing. However, antithetical to the judicial procedures of the indigenous people which allows both parties to voice their situation on the matter, the British system first imprisons the prosecuted and later sides with the party that gives more money to the court messengers and interpreters. Accordingly, furious toward the new government, Okonkwo asked “[if] the white man [understood] our custom about land,” and Obierkia answered, “how can he when he does not even speak our tongue” (Achebe, 176). To prove the superiority of western civilization, minimal effort was made to establish a dialogue and communication between the British and Igbos. Furthermore, the British style government appoints a single leader to execute their indirect rule, and in the case of Things Fall Apart, the District Commander regulates all affairs that happens in Umuofia. On the contrary, traditional Igbo government relies multiple clan elders that reaches a final verdict through discussion and collaboration. Therefore, both the British and Igbos were unaware of the cultural and social discrepancies between the two societies, thus inciting a clash between the two parties. The British, in particular, “did not realize that there were basic human values that sustained consonant existence of the Igbo people through the ages,” such as the abandonment of twins and the ostracism of osu. (Njoku, Interface Between Igbo… 141). Yet, without consideration of the traditional Igbo customs, the District Commissioner blatantly outlawed the abandonment of twins in the evil forest and the ostracism of osu. However, in reality, these so called atrocious conventions provides a sense of identity and community for the Igbos. Moreover, in an attempt to voice their dissatisfaction toward the new British regime, the leaders of Umuofia approached the British officials and declared, “We cannot leave the matter in his hands because he does not understand our customs, just as we do not understand his. We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his” (Achebe, 191). Perhaps the European missionaries and officials were only trying to introduce a new form of government to help the Igbo society advance from their antiquated social structure. Unfortunately, however, in the attempt in the attempt to “civilize” and pass on what they perceived to be rational, virtuous, and beneficial to the stereotypical African “savages,” the British colonizers effectively shattered the cultural habits and identity of the local residents (Udeani, Interaction as a Dialogue… 91). Ultimately, British colonizers failed to acknowledge that the cultural and social imperfections of the Igbo traditions were foundational to their society; likewise, what seems acceptable for a particular society will not necessarily thrive once introduced to a new civilization.