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Social and Cultural Aspects of Pre-Colonial Africa in Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart Essay

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Updated: Dec 5th, 2019


‘Things Fall Apart’, is story written by Chinua Achebe in 1958. It talks of the social and cultural aspects of pre-colonial Africa and the effects of western civilizations (Ogbaa xv). The author criticizes imperialism and British colonization.

It is a tragic story where the protagonist is Okonkwo. It talks of a man named Okonkwo, who was a wrestler and an influential leader in an African village called Umofia, inhabited by the Igbo ethnic group. He initially amasses fame, and honor in Umofia through victorious wrestling but finally comes to a tragic downfall.

Okonkwo was polygamous with three wives and several children. The novel emphasize on the encounters of the pre-colonial Africa and the effect of British colonialism during the 19th century (Bloom 51). This paper shall discuss culture and tradition as a social issue involved in the Chinua Achebe’s Things fall Apart.

Culture and Traditions of Igbo

The author emphasize on cultural and social aspects on the brink of change thorough different characters, creating tension on if to embrace change or to remain for status quo. Okonkwo disregard the new system religiously and politically, may be because he would lose his social status.

The Igbo however, have been oppressed by these traditions and therefore find refuge in the new system, where once outcasts, are now be recognized. There exists a dilemma on the new dawn that scares them since it could interfere with their social life such as farming and trade.

Okonkwo is a rich and respectable African warrior in Umofia. However his late father, Unoka was a lazy man, a coward, disreputable and died with several debts since he concentrated on taking palm-wine, leaving his family to go hungry.

Unoka became the laughingstock of Umofia being referred to as Agbala to mean, ‘womanly weaknesses’ Unlike him, Okonkwo is resentful to his father and evades being like him by becoming ‘manly’ as a clansman, a wealthy farmer, and a respectable warrior not to mention him being a controlling family man. This parent-child relationship affects him to become violent, over-ambitious and disrespectful, associating masculinity with aggression and acts irrationally (Bloom 141).

Okonkwo‘s son, Nwoye is lazy and it disturbs Okonkwo that his son might take after his grandfather, Unoka. This indicates that the villagers believed in passing inheritable aspects to future generations. Moreover, they engage in adoption, for instance the village adopts a young boy called Ikemefuna whom Okonkwo takes guardianship as a surrogate son, for peace offering from the village, Mbaino to maintain peace after the boy’s father murdered an Umofian woman.

He has to live with the boy until further instructions are given to elders from the oracle. The two becomes so close to each other, as the boy regard Okonkwo as a father and Nwoye becomes friends with the boy. Ikemefuna coexist happily with the family for three years, becoming part of them.

In another instance, Okonkwo’s kinsmen particularly, Uchendu his uncle, welcomes him and his family in his maternal village called Mbanta after they are sent into exile. He seeks refuge in his motherland as Uchendu states that;

It is true that a child belongs to his father. But when the father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness, he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme (Achebe 134).

The quote not only emphasizes the position of women in the village but also the importance of having good family relationships. He is built his huts and given yam seed to plant in his motherland although he is still depressed, blaming chief his spirit for disappointing his greatness in the village.

After exile, he had gone back to Umofia after organizing a farewell ceremony to thank his kinsmen for the stay. This emphasizes on the significance of maintaining close family bonds to the Igbo (Bloom 39).

Wife beating and carrying out sacrifices are other practices in the village. Okonkwo proves volatile and easily provoked as he beats his youngest wife called Ojiugo during an important period referred to as Week of Peace, accusing her of neglect of the family.

This interrupts with the peace meant to prevail the whole week but Okonkwo has to sacrifice to pay up for his sins and to show repentance. Okonkwo also shoots Ekwefi, his second wife due to a small issue of wrapping food with Okonkwo’s banana leaves during Feast of the New Yam.

From this practice, the reader is enlightened of the significance of ceremonies and farming in Umofia. It is clear that the Igbo practice farming and trade as depicted where Okonkwo receives cowries from selling yams from Oberika who promise to sell them until he would go back to Umofia.

Clansmen preside over public trials in Umofia, where nine clansmen have met to signify the ancestor’s spirits. The nine clansmen also referred to as Egwugwu, signify the nine Umofian clans. Okonkwo is separated from the rest of the clansmen to settle a domestic case where Mgbafo, a woman has suffered assaults from his husband, taken back to her motherland, but the husband needed her to go back. The Egwugwu, advices the man to offer palm wine to his in-laws to appease the wife to return home. This case is too trivial to be presented to the Egwugwu as some elders perceive it (Heiser 26).

The villagers believe in unnatural phenomenon, which have to be prevented through human sacrifice to appease the gods. When locusts invade the village, the elder informs Okonkwo the Oracle’s guideline, which require killing of Ikemefuna to avenge for Umofian woman murdered in the previous year in Mbaino.

He is warned of killing Ikemefuna as it would despise the earth goddess who could show his vengeance to the village. Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna irrespective of being warned by a village elder, Ogbuefu Ezeudu. Following this event, he lie to the boy that he is to be returned to his home village as the entire family mourns his departure. However, the boy is excited to reunite with his family but he is unfortunately attacked by Okonkwo’s clansmen.

On seeking help from Okonkwo, he kills the boy to showoff his might to the clansmen irrespective of the Oracle’s caution. Consequently, things start to fall apart. This emphasize on the need to adhere to elders and more so, the religious directives. As Okonkwo becomes greatly saddened, he loses his appetite and spends sleepless nights and decides to visit Obierika who is disappointed with Okonkwo’s act.

He is however consoled and is able to find sleep. Bad omens follow consequently, as his daughter becomes ill. As a result, the use of herbal medicine among the Igbo is manifested as Okonkwo prepares some for his daughter, and she recovers after taking the medicine.

The Igbo are religious as seen through various rituals. Besides, there are priestess e.g. Chielo, who advice the second wife of Okonkwo, Ekwefi that Agbala required the sight of Ezinma, which makes Okonkwo to argue. Chielo present Ezinma to the nine clans and moves inside the cave of the Oracle.

Ekwefi has been following in secret despite being warned by Chielo and stands beside the entrance to be surprised by appearance of Okonkwo as they wait together. The following morning Ekwefi is offered Ezinma by Chielo and they sleeps together.

Moreover, the Igbo conduct funeral ceremonies where clansmen take the lead. When the elder, Ogbuefu Ezeudu dies his death is announced using ekwe. This depresses Okonkwo more since he failed to adhere to the elder’s advice.

During his funeral ceremony, Okonkwo’s gun fatefully shoots at teenage boy, who is Ogbuefu Ezeudu’s son unexpectedly. Since causing death of a village elder is a despicable act for the earth goddess, he is taken hostage in exile for a period of 7 years for atonement. Moreover, his properties are burnt in order to cleanse. Additionally, Enoch, a Christian convert reveals Egwugwu on an occasion meant to adore earth god. This act is so despicable and is compared to putting to death ancestral spirits (Whittaker & Msiska 120).

The upset of these traditions and cultural practices begins as missionaries and colonialists arrive in the village as tension and dilemma prevails. Okonkwo is informed by Oberika, who visit him in his second year that Abame, which is a neighboring village, was put to destruction by a white man who arrived with a bicycle.

After conferring from the oracle, they became aware that the foreigner and his fellows would put into devastation, the clans, which led him to be killed but the villagers. In vengeance, the villagers were killed in mass by the white men. Okonkwo see the villagers as having acted foolishly to murder a stranger.

Later, six missionaries arrive in Mbanta led by Kiaga, the interpreter of Mr. Brown who addresses the villagers on Christianity, and whom Okonkwo sees as being cynical. Conversely, Nwoye is converted to become a Christian. Brown points out that the villagers serve a false god and having several gods for worship is idolatry, advocating for Holy Trinity as the supreme deity.

The missionaries are offered a land to build the church by the elders whose intention is to kill them all since the land lies within the Evil forest, a cursed land. Unexpectedly, they do not die and villagers maintain that the missionaries have unusual power or magic. This depicts their conservativeness and permittivity in thinking, being led by traditions rather than rational thinking or reason.

However, the social outcasts such as women and some men are given a privilege in the new system. The first convert is Efulefu, a useless villager, followed by women. However, the system has no place for conservatives such as Okonkwo, whose term in exile has ended. He is surprised how things have changed in the village with many Christian converts.

In Umofia, the missionaries start a school in which Nwoye attends, leaving his family behind. There is even a prison built by the whites having a governmental legal court, used for trying the law breakers, where native Umofians have been employed.

He wonders why the villagers have not reacted back to chase away Christianity and oppressive government. The villagers have been assimilated in the new political system. As a way to show cultural assimilation, Mr. Brown shows regard for the traditions of the natives and aspires to learn of their culture and even befriends the clansmen. He advocate for education for all, as seen by Nwoye who now is called Isaac and has been attending the teacher’s college.

However, Okonkwo is not pleased with the changes. Mr. Brown only hopes to convert the villagers to Christianity (Ogbaa xix). His health deteriorates and he is forced to go back home and Reverend James Smith takes over. He is stricter and does not tolerate the traditions of the clans, though he amasses several converts e.g. Enoch an extremely zealous convert.

When Egwugwu puts Enoch’s compound on fire and brings down Reverend Smith’s church, the acts disappoints the District commissioner who demands meeting with the six leaders. They are arrested an imprisoned and fined 250 cowries bags where the villagers gather them and the six are released.

On their freeing, a gathering is held by clansmen but is dispersed by a court order. Okonkwo resists courageously and portray his bravely expecting support from clansmen as he murders the messenger leader using a machete.

The crowd releases other messengers, which makes Okonkwo to realize he is alone in the fight and the village has surrendered since the social values and cohesion has been compromised in his absence realizing that, things have fallen apart. The DC goes to Okonkwo’s compound only to realize that he committed suicide through hanging, an act which he ironically meant to express his manliness and forever escape to be defeated. Oberika, his friend claims that suicide is inauspicious thus the tradition prevents the clansmen to touch him (Achebe 125).


The novel handles the experiences during the 1890s in Umofia, a small village along the Niger River in the African nation, Nigeria. After the British colonialists arrived in the village, there were missionaries already and people sought solace in the churches.

Western civilizations interfered with cultural, economic and social values of the village. Villagers inhabited Umofia in patriarchal political system where decisions came from council, made up of nine clansmen who sometimes, got directives from religious leaders. British arrival however, upset this socio-political system and began to interfere with social disputes, even establishing courts and prisons.

This disregarded the traditional social setup and the reallocation of power in this village, leading to the tragedy of Okonkwo, who would rather be seen dead than alive but helpless (Whittaker & Msiska 66).

Igbo people are depicted by the author as having powerful social institutions such as wrestling, practice of human sacrifice, religious rituals, ceremonies, and family. They rely heavily on traditions regarding justice as the people are led by the council made of elders, in this democratic village.

The males are decision makers and leaders while the position of a woman is home making. Gender disparity is clear in this village and the crimes are identified with gender where the accidental killings by Okonkwo are referred to as female.

Women are underrated in the village and oppressed by culture and traditions seen as child bearers, properties to their husbands, to be beaten and reprimanded. Men are allowed to marry as many wives for a status symbol. However, the colonialists interfere with these social setups, and introduce new ones.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers. 1958. Print.

Bloom, Harold. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. New York: Infobase Publishing. 2010. Print.

Heiser, Fred. Things Fall Apart. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press. 2002. Print.

Ogbaa, Kalu. Understanding Things Fall Apart: A Student Casebook To Issues, Sources, And Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 1999. Print.

Whittaker, David and Msiska, Mpalive-Hangson. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. New York: Routledge. 2007. Print.

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