The Impact Of Christianity On Igbo Society And Culture
The novel by Chinua Achebe called Things Fall Apart was first published in 1958. The story takes place in the 1890s and displays the conflict between the culture of the indigenous Igbo people and the white colonial government of Nigeria. The book tells the story of Okonkwo, the main character in the book, and his approach towards Christianity and the new Umuofia after being sent in exile. The novel shows us the effect of western culture on the Igbo community and displays how the Igbo have to adapt to fit the modern standards, dictated by new changes and beliefs brought on by the Europeans. Achebe, through this story, attempts to demonstrate that objects, culture, and relationships indeed do fall apart as contrasting sets of beliefs clash over the control of a community. This essay will seek to analyze the impact of western civilization on the Igbo culture, legal system, education, and trade.
The introduction of Christianity into Igbo society brings about a religious clash between the two. The white missionaries carry a different set of beliefs and laws which are impossible to exist along with Igbo traditions and practices (we can see this as the book progresses). A key example of this inability to coexist is fueled by the construction of a Church within the Igbo community. The church which is built by the Christians facilitates the weakening of the Igbo tribe, as the missionaries begin to impose their beliefs upon the vulnerable native community. As a result of the Church being built, fueled by the many workers attempting to spread their western ideas throughout Umuofia, much of the Igbo tribe decides to convert to Christianity. The converts feel that by becoming Christian, they will receive more freedom and comfort, and will have the ability to go against some aspects of Igbo culture they did not believe in before. The converts are initially misfits within Igbo society, people with no titles, those who had received little respect from their community. Christianity provides such people with self-respect, as the converts are finally given the chance to find their true identity. As the story progresses, the foreign missionaries continue to establish themselves in Igbo society through the Church. The white men build a Church in the Evil Forest, a forest seen as wicked by the Igbo. They survive the challenges of the Evil Forest, as the church still stands and the dark powers hidden in the trees seem to not affect the white men. As a result, their power increases within Umuofia as the white men survive the Evil Forest. The missionaries say ‘We have been sent by the Great God to ask you to leave your evil ways and false gods and turn to Him so that you may be saved when you die’ (Achebe 145). The power of the Igbo gods is challenged by the survival of the missionary huts and Church in the Evil Forest. Christianity defies the Igbo gods and consequently challenges the beliefs of the Igbo culture. For many within the Igbo community, Christianity is a solution to all their problems. People strongly come to believe that converting to Christianity leads to peace and that Christianity is superior to the Igbo religion and its beliefs (in the power of magic, bad luck, spirits). ‘Three converts had gone into the village and boasted openly that all the gods were dead and impotent and that they were prepared to defy them by burning all their shrines’ (Achebe 154). The quote displays how the converts and the missionaries don’t respect the views and beliefs of the Igbo society anymore, as people are converting to Christianity at huge rates. The converts acknowledge that they are protected by the white men and their imposed laws, and feel that they have a ‘superior god’ in relation to the Igbos. In Chapter 18, through the python folktale, the Igbo belief in God is strengthened, and the death of the convert proves that the Igbo gods remain alive and strong, and are still there to protect their people. This shows how even though there is a strong Christian influence in Umuofia, there are still Igbo people who remain faithful and display a firm belief in their gods.
Another noteworthy influence is on the legal system in the Igbo tribes, which largely contributed to the collapse of the relationship between the Igbo and the Christians. The new, Christian laws also apply to the Igbo tribe members, which at this point consisted of those who did not convert to Christianity. The enforcement of a foreign legal system confuses the Igbos and adds to the hatred the Igbos display towards the white men and the former Igbos (converts). “But stories were already gaining ground that the white men had not only brought religion, but also a government. It was said that they had built a place of judgment in Umuofia to protect the followers of their religion. It was even said that they had hanged one man who killed a missionary’ (Achebe 155). Previous to the arrival of the white men in Umuofia, decisions were made by the clan leaders, the men with respected titles throughout the communities. However, with the arrival of the Christian missionaries, the Igbo clan leaders have lost their place in the social hierarchy. Now, there is the Christian police to pass laws and give final legal decisions and punishments. The new legal system proves to be neither just nor worthy of praise. While the ‘egwugwu’ (masked ancestral spirits represented by village elders) often settle land arguments both effectively and fairly, the colonial court’s decisions often result in murder through conflict. The formerly accepted traditions now are punishable offenses. Shortly, the prison will grow ‘full of men who had offended against the white men’s law. Some of these prisoners have thrown away their twins, while some have molested Christians’ (Achebe 174). This displays the idea that to a large extent, the Igbo members of the community neither fear the Christians nor fear their laws and newly imposed legal system. Through the construction of the Christian church and the creation and enforcement of a new legal system consisting of western laws, the colonial government slowly turns the Igbo legal procedure less effective, and in the process, destroys traditional Igbo beliefs. The idea that is being conveyed is that western culture is interfering with the daily running of the Igbo government, and in the process is destroying much of what Igbo culture consisted of for so long.
The third influence is on the education provided in the Igbo community. Educating people of different age groups in Umuofia helped those who were eager for self-progress, who soon acknowledged the true benefit of a good education system. Due to this eagerness to learn, by educating the people of Umuofia, the Christians believed they were contributing to the community. Mr. Brown, one of the Christian missionaries who traveled to Umuofia, teaches at one of the local schools. Mr. Brown is described as patient, friendly, and understanding, which encourages people to study, as they are in a comfortable and healthy school environment. ‘More people came to learn in his school, and he encouraged them with singlets and towels. They were not all young, these people who came to learn’ (Achebe 181). The quote displays the effect that Mr. Brown has upon the community, and shows how people within the Igbo are eager to learn. ‘A few months in it were enough to make one a court messenger or even a court clerk. Those who stayed longer became teachers’ (Achebe 181-182). Students now have access to higher quality learning, and, assuming the entire education system follows this trend set by Mr. Brown, the future of Umuofia would be looking more promising. On the other hand, however, Mr. Brown is attracting the Umofians to convert through education. He specifically aims to teach people of different age groups, in hopes to influence the greatest possible number of converts who would accept the switch to Christianity. Mr. Brown attempts to improve his status and tries to become a godly figure in the eyes of the Igbo community, and his caring and polite personality aid him in this quest to lure the Igbo towards Christianity.
The final major influence seen is that on trade. Although Christianity storms through Umuofia and greatly impacts the Igbo lifestyle, it does bring about economic developments to the community. This is seen in Chapter 21, where the economic influence of the westerners is introduced. ‘The white man had indeed brought a lunatic’s religion, but he had also built a trading store and for the first time palm oil and kernel became things of great price, and much money flowed into Umuofia’ (Achebe 178). The implementation of Christian trading techniques has proved to be very beneficial to the Igbo people. Through witnessing the way in which the westerners traded, the Igbo expand their knowledge about trading and grew more aware of the characteristics of foreign markets. Umuofia now boasts a trading store, which highlights the impact of the westerners and their trade within the Igbo community. This exchange of goods, products, and services develops Umuofia into a more economically diversified and secure community. The westerners’ success through trade attracts many Igbo people to convert. This conveys the idea that the arrival of Christianity brought about both negative and positive changes that impacted the Igbo people. This drastic increase in trade in Umuofia due to the arrival of Christian missionaries has changed the Igbo perception of money. Before western influence, borrowing and sharing were key components of Igbo culture, and money was not seen as essential. The increase in trade that has been seen leads to the concepts of friendship and brotherhood to lose importance within the Igbo community. There is new greed in Umuofia, a greed that is created through the chase of power and money. Through the introduction of western trade, a contest has been created within Umuofia, one in which people aspire to obtain the greatest financial success possible.
In conclusion, the impact of Christianity upon the Igbo culture and society can be seen as both negative and positive, depending on the lens through which it is looked. From a social and cultural point of view, Christianity has destroyed much of the Igbo values, traditions, and beliefs. It has lured many loyal servants of the Igbo gods away from their religion and has replaced Igbo oracles and an effective legal system for Churches and an unfair set of new laws. However, from a purely economic standpoint, the introduction of western trade techniques and foreign goods was extremely lucrative for the Igbo. Umuofia, after the arrival of the Christians, has experienced a period of economic growth and prosperity as a result of new and improved trading mechanisms, in addition to a more diverse and unique market. In Part 1 and Part 2 of Things Fall Apart, Achebe describes an orderly and traditional African society with its own religious and cultural beliefs, composed of a firm hierarchy of gods, elders, and respected men. As from the end of Part 2 (beginning of Part 3), the white missionaries arrive in Umuofia and begin their mission to convert the Igbo into Christians, disrupting the native culture and sparking hatred among Igbo citizens, even though new foreign technologies and techniques are introduced into Igbo methods. This drastic shift in culture and overall societal development displays how the arrival of the white missionaries leads to a few positive impacts within Umuofia but predominantly leads to an internal detestation and uncertainty within the Igbo community as a whole.
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