on 5 December 2016
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart uniquely transcends its reader to a whole new world, and offers an invitation to an awakened imagination. Centered around Okonkwo - a wrestling champion and acclaimed warrior of Umuofia - the book sheds light on the value of Igbo culture, beliefs and traditions, and the historical dependence on deism and religion as a determinant of fate. Achebe delves into precolonial Igboland, using proverbs, folklore and the Igbo language to highlight indigenous social and cultural norms. The author subtly renders the conception of colonialism as an extension of enlightenment and revolution as a fallacy, and though imperfect, illustrates a demise in the system of self governance and the use of Igbo language, following the invasion of European missionaries and governments.
Wherever possible, Okonkwo never failed to seize the opportunity to express his masculinity. Through the village fights, meetings with the elders and interactions with his family members, the preservation of his tough, manly, undefeated and fearless figure was of paramount importance. So much so that he coldly murdered Ikemefuna - who looked up to him as a father - just to protect this ‘masculine’ image. The irony in Okonkwo’s story is the fact that the display of masculinity and the desire to be feared and respected was an exhibition of a different form of fear in itself. That is, the fear of being anything close to the legacy of his late father - lazy, weak, and in turn, feminine. The need to dissociate himself from his father, Unoka, was the bane of Okonkwo’s existence and simultaneously, the shovel for which Okonkwo dug his grave.
The desire to be alienated from the negative legacy of his father is however not synonymous to Okonkwo. It is an innate feature that unconsciously drives majority of people, especially young people. The fear of failing or mirroring the thing(s) loathed in familial relationships, unbeknownst to us, shapes our decisions, and who we strive to be. This, from conversations engaged in with young people, is increasingly apparent in the Nigerian society today. Particularly in broken homes, the residual bitterness that lingers often lays a foundation; for which many tend to build glass houses out of, in the bid to refute certain characteristics of their parent(s).
Conversely, the fear of not living up to one’s parent’s legacy likewise shapes us, and influences the standards we set for ourselves. They redefine our idea of success, and remind us that failure - at any stage in life - is certainly not an option. Equivocally, the fear of failing to walk in - or perhaps, create bigger - footprints of one’s parent often subconsciously becomes one’s biggest conquest in life. Similar to Okonkwo, one is clothed with societal pressure, and the need for recognition and status; armed with the sword of parental burdens, expectations, inadequacies and responsibilities; perpetually fighting to break free from the shadow of the legacy of their parent(s).
To be considered more of a man - because possessing male genital organs is simply insufficient in Nigeria - one’s assets as well as the number of wives, especially in the precolonial and traditionalist setting, spoke volumes. Mutually non-exclusive, the more wealth and power you possessed either by working hard, claiming titles or winning inter-village fights, the more you were respected as a man by your peers, elders and more importantly, women, in Igboland. This was indeed the case in Umuofia - the village from which Okonkwo’s father hailed, and Okonkwo’s place of residence. His ‘manliness’ as exhibited by the number of fights under his belt not only scored him his title as a clan leader and warrior in Umuofia, but also won him the heart of his second wife, Ekwefi, who had earlier married another man because Okonkwo, at that time, was poor.
Without endorsing the idea of adultery and cautiously noting, the setting of the story portrays polygamy as the true and traditionalist nature of Nigerian men. In precolonial Igboland, as Achebe casts in Things Fall Apart, polygamy and status went hand in hand. In contrast to modern Nigeria where monogamy as enforced by the Christian missionaries is “respected” in most - mainly Christian - households, a man was not a man unless he had more than one wife. Similarly, the ‘real’ men - that is, non-effeminate - were known by the fruits they bore. That is, the number of children they had, and the gender of the offspring - as male children were better valued.
The dominance of men in the household and society is a recurrent theme in Things Fall Apart. As simple as emotions, these were for women...
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