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In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is a wrestling champion who also acts as a leader in Umuofia, a village occupied by the Igbo ethnic entity. He is portrayed as a servant of the tribal dictates who is ready to do everything, even to kill, for the sake of his tribe, its laws, customs and traditions. The book focuses on how Okonkwo treats his children and three wives and how the Christian missionaries impact on the Igbo ethnic community in the late 19th century.
Okonkwo is not a reckless man who cannot show any weakness or reveal his true feelings. He is revered in the entire village for his courage and power. This prompts the village elders to put Ikemefuna, a boy taken as a prisoner for purposes of peace settlement, into his custody. Ikemefuna’s father, who hails from another village, has killed an Umuofian, that is why Ikemefuna is to be given away to the people of Umuofia to make peace between the two tribes.
Ikemefuna grows in Okonkwo’s household, and Okonkwo becomes very fond of him (Achebe, pp. 28). However, when the oracle instructs that Ikemefuna is to be killed, Okonkwo severs his head with a machete even despite the fact that he is warned by the elder that he did not need to deal with this case, the murder of the boy, because it could be hard for him as he should consider Ikemefuna as his son.
Okonkwo does not pay attention to this permission because he thinks that it could make him feminine and weak. Things begin to ‘fall apart’ for Okonkwo after the murder of Ikemefuna when he is exiled for seven years for accidental killing of a man when his gun explodes.
While Okonkwo is in exile, European colonizers come to Umuofia and try to convert the villagers to Christianity. Soon, a new government is introduced. Achebe’s literary work espouses many cultural issues about Igbo’s way of life that are raised in the late 19th century. This essay seeks to highlight the cultural peculiarities that Achebe exhibits carefully in the book.
A Patriarchal Society Dominated by Men
Many pundits consider the Igbo a patriarchal society because men literally dominate every aspect of the tribal life. Achebe particularly wrote Things Fall Apart to counter Joyce Carry’s Mister Johnson that tried to portray the Africans as people without motives, forethought, and knowledge on other issues apart from environments where they live.
The colonialists have a perception that the African population are uncontrollable, chaotic, unattainable, and evil. Achebe wants to prove the incorrectness of such an image by portraying the Igbo as an ethnic group with definitive and intricate social systems, values, and traditions (Carry, pp. 1). Achebe depicts the Igbo, or better to say, the Umuofians, as an ancient civilization when he reveals some forms of governance and law that exist in that society.
Okonkwo is shown as a traditional hero who would do anything to achieve his goals. He contributes to his own downfall, thus the white men cannot be blamed. While he is in exile, the Whites’ religion and rule are introduced.
This literary piece is written in English, the language of the white men who came to colonize Umuofia. However, this does not deter Achebe’s work from being authentically African. Achebe expresses his African experience in English while still preserving African authenticity. The actions of the characters in the book represent a culture that undergoes a slow transition.
Cultural practices that can be only perceived to be awful to the foreigners are ordinarily accepted within. This is exemplified when members of the Igbo community, especially women, seek for refuge in a Christian church for being accused in having multiple births and giving birth to albinos. In the Igbo cultural setting, those females are to be punished. Fearing for harsh consequences, they hide within the Christian church premises (Obiechina, pp. 57).
Role of Women in the Igbo society
Ekwefi, Okonkwo’s second wife, is a character used by Achebe to portray the role of women in the society where this novel is set. Through her, it is shown that women should be only child bearers and helpmates for their husbands. Women are to produce many male children.
In fact, Ekwefi is considered to be cursed because out of the ten births she gave, only one daughter managed to survive. Ekwefi is a very bitter woman because of the loss many children. As a result, she has hard feelings that oppress her because being Okonkwo’s first wife, she cannot bear a male child.
This implies that Ekwefi cannot be a part of the Okonkwo family lineage because she has not given birth to male children. Menfolk are the reference point of this culture while the womenfolk’s role is reduced to ensuring the survival of tradition. Because Okonkwo is afraid of the survival of his family tree when Ekwefi loses her second child, he takes it upon himself to go and consult Dibia, Dibia is believed to have powers to tell the source about Ekwefi’s misfortunes.
When Ekwefi loses her third child, Okonkwo decides to consult another Dibia because of the frustrations arising from the fact that there will be no one to be the head of the family after his demise (Palmer, pp. 40). He blames Ekwefi for this because it is the women who are supposed to provide their husbands with male progenies too carry on the family name, and specifically the father’s name.
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Ekwefi has to endure the pain of losing her child as well as watch helplessly as the Dibia mutilates her child, drags him through the streets by his ankles, and finally buries him in the evil forest where obanje children and other outcasts are laid to rest (Palmer, pp. 41). No one bothers to console Ekwefi after all this traumatizing ordeals. Because of cultural intuition, Okonkwo believes that Dibias have the solutions to all the problems that he has.
The Igbo have a tradition of wife beating exemplified by the suffering of Ekwefi who has to endure Okonkwo’s manhandling. When a banana tree is killed, Okonkwo beats his wife, and she makes no complaints regarding this treatment. Later, the attention of the reader is drawn to an instance when Okonkwo threatens his wife with a gun after hearing her murmur under her breath.
Everybody else is quiet about this heinous act (Culler, pp. 45). This is a culture where women are supposed to be submissive and do not show any sign of rebellion. Indeed, Ekwefi has an undying love for Okonkwo because she even left her former husband to be with him. However, the reward she receives for her loyalty to her husband is regular beatings.
The fact that Okonkwo believes that wives are to be beaten is not limited to Ekwefi. This also applies to his youngest wife, Ojiugo, whom he constantly flogs. There is a public outcry not because of what Okonkwo does to her, but because he breaches the dictates of The Week for Peace, which is considered a great evil according to the Igbo.
The Igbo men are portrayed to be only concerned with preserving the patriarchy as opposed to protecting the physical safety of the women. Elders are not particularly concerned about Ojiugo’s woes and are assertive that this is her own fault. The other wives cannot condemn Okonkwo for the flogging that Ojiugo goes through. Ekwefi is beaten one week after the Week of Peace, and this does not raise any concern because to them, this is normal.
The women, especially Ekwefi, is disturbed about the fate that belies the woman who decides that the winner of the next wrestling duel will be her man (Palmer, pp. 42). Okonkwo’s inhuman treatment of his wives, especially Ojiugo, does not even bother the gods of the tribe who only reprimand him to pay a compensation for breaching the requirements of the Week of Peace by battering his wife Ojiugo.
Okonkwo loves his daughter Enzinma, but he is saddened by the fact that she is just a girl. Okonkwo reckons that he would be happier if Enzinma were a boy. This treatment points out a low position held by females extending to the rest of the womenfolk in Umuofia.
Okonkwo’s treatment of his wives and male children are a representation of how the Umuofians treat their female children. However, all this must be stressed that such a treatment of females forms a part of the culture of the Igbo since everyone, including the females themselves, rarely complains for the current way of life.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
Carry, Joyce. Mister Johnson. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1989. Print.
Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982. Print.
Obiechina, Emmanuel N. Language and Theme: Essays on African Literature. Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1990. Print.
Palmer, Eustace. African Literature Today. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983. Print.