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The Western Conception of Africa in “Things Fall Apart“ by Chinua Achebe Term Paper

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The Western conception of Africa has always been shaped largely by the novelists and travel writers who have journeyed there. Not until relatively recently have any novels been published by native peoples who understood the more intricate natures of the societies that have called the continent home for centuries and adapted to its cycles. Until Dr. David Livingstone and Sir Henry Morton Stanley in the mid-1800s, no white man had ever reached the interior of Africa, making it very apt for the adoption of its label as an unknown entity. Although these explorations did little to further Western understanding of the people or the land, they did instigate plenty of speculation and conjecture, which became the stuff upon which misunderstandings to last centuries were founded. As a result of this almost exclusively one-sided depiction, Africa has traditionally gained a reputation as being a land of possibility for Western enrichment through the exploitation of its resources – agriculture, gold, even people. The West’s understanding of African people holds that they are mostly child-like in their primitive understandings, only slightly more than bestial in their natural environment and as naturally benefiting from any attention more civilized societies might care to bestow upon them. The black woman is regarded, when she is considered at all, as barely above feral, weak and beaten by the life she must live. In these portrayals, it becomes clear which culture and people are considered the more advanced, the white men full of their Christian faith, the ones telling the story. It took several more years before native writers, such as Chinua Achebe were able to bring some light into the darkness of Africa’s story as can be illustrated through a close reading of Things Fall Apart (1959).

Africa as a land has long been considered a region open and available for every kind of exploitation white men might choose to inflict upon it. Its resources were rarely, if ever, considered of necessity to the native peoples as the white men who arrived there began adding up the vast wealth they would acquire through exportation. Achebe’s presentation of the land is quite different, first portraying it as a land with little to exploit as well as illustrating how the black men who live there do a fair amount of exploitation in their own right. In Achebe’s novel, the people spend a great deal of their time subsistence farming, surviving primarily on yams, which are considered a man’s crop, and the various types of vegetables and fruits that the women are able to grow out of their individual kitchen gardens. In the story about Unoka’s visit to the priestess Agbala about why his crops always fail, her answer provides the clue that even the native tribes people had a tendency to view the land as something to be exploited. “When your neighbors go out with their ax to cut down virgin forests, you sow your yams on exhausted farms that take no labor to clear” (Achebe 17). This statement reveals that the common practice of the tribes was to indiscriminately cut down the virgin forests, thus exploiting the resources of the land rather than learning more effective means of soil maintenance. In this regard, Achebe suggests that the Igbo were wanting in more sophisticated methods of farming and agriculture, but were disinclined to pursue the same kind of trial and error techniques required to accomplish greater crop yields. In making this illustration, the author suggests that the African people, with or without white men, were capable of both exploiting and appreciating their lands. At the same time, Agbala hints that the land is not greatly abundant for the people to begin with.

It requires an author such as Achebe to convey the deep sense of loss Africa experienced as a result of the imperialist process. While his story stops with the incursion of the missionaries, with only a beginning introduction to how white man’s laws interfere with and overtake the traditions and customs of the tribes, he is nevertheless able to illustrate how a rich and vibrant culture was devastated and lost as a result of white man’s insistence that their way was the only ‘right’ way. Describing why he sees the story as a tragedy, Moses says, “a traditional hierarchical society based on archaic heroic values is giving way to a more modern and egalitarian society” (cited in ten Kortenaar 85). From within the context of the land and the people of it, it is demonstrated that a great culture was already in the throes of change, again reclaiming the power for the people while still lamenting the passing of an age.

Within the impressions of Africa that had been conveyed to the Western world was an insistence on painting the black man as somehow less than the white man. It is perhaps most educative to look to the work of philosopher Edward Said for an explanation of the ‘other’ as he places it within the context of Orientalism, a term he used to define the way in which the English-speaking world sought to contain images of other nations within a single, non-threatening image (Said 1979). Within this viewpoint, everything regarding the ‘other’ nation, such as how they behaved, what they wore, etc., was made to seem backward, simple and non-threatening by placing it in the context of a passive action. Like the concept of the Orient illustrated by Said, the concept of the black man was purposefully established within the public discourse as a means of bringing this region under the control of the empire, virtually subduing it by subduing its voices and belittling its achievements.

It is nearly impossible to pass off the black men of Achebe’s story as mere beasts of labor, although it is possible to determine some elements of naiveté in their ways of life. An example of this may be found in the ceremonies of the ancestors in which the various clan leaders dress up in raffia and take on the form of the tribal gods. As the figure of Evil Forest is described, Achebe comments, “Okonkwo’s wives, and perhaps other women as well, might have noticed that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo … But if they thought of these things, they kept them within themselves. The egwugwu with the springy walk was one of the dead fathers of the clan” (Achebe 89-90). Another example is the story of Ikemefuna, the child ransom charged by the Umuofia to Mbaino for the murder of one of their own daughters. Although the boy is easily supported by Okonkwo, has proven himself to be a willing and able member of the group, has assisted in bringing about positive change in Okonkwo’s household and has been a member of the family for three years, it is eventually determined that he must die. There is apparently no argument to be made as Ogbuefi Ezeudu simply advises Okonkwo to take no hand in the boy’s death because he calls Okonkwo father. “Yes, Umofia has decided to kill him. The Oracle of the hills and caves has pronounced it” (Achebe 57). While Okonkwo is surprised, he makes no attempt to argue on behalf of the boy and even takes part in the killing when the first blow is not successful. In both of these examples, the society is illustrated as being barbaric and unsophisticated because of their willingness to accept without question their traditional beliefs despite real and deeply emotional evidence to the contrary.

Achebe presents characters whose humanity simply cannot be denied. Okonkwo is a very complex individual with numerous strengths and faults. Okonkwo “did everything to avoid the path of his father. He understood the communal responsibilities and expectations and internalized the principles of acquiring titles, working hard, and being strong” (Ikuenobe 123). At the same time, these character traits of strength, discipline and adherence to tradition would prove to be his failings as he proves unable to accept the changes taking place in his world. While he was deeply aware of the social norms of his community, Okonkwo was not always able to constraint himself within acceptable bounds, such as when he almost shot his wife during the New Yam Festival. Because he cannot always control his emotions, he is eventually found hanging from a tree after having killed one of the white men’s messengers, no longer able to abide by the new laws being enacted.

Achebe provides a great deal of information about the traditional tribal life of the black woman. There are plenty of women included in the story, such as Agbada, who is the prophet of the caves and hills and one of the most respected and listened to members of the community. While Okonkwo’s first wife is never given a name, his second and third wives are both named and discussed with stories and histories of their own. The pain of Ekwefi as she suffered through pregnancy after pregnancy only to lose her children while still in early childhood is poignant and heartrending, causing the reader to fully sympathize with her when the beloved Ezinma falls ill. Although Okonkwo has three wives at once and seems to rule his compound like a tyrant, women are also seen to have a measure of their own space as well as the right to divorce an abusive husband. By including the scene with Uchendu following Okonkwo’s exile, Achebe makes the position of women clear within the social group. “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 … And that is why we say that mother is supreme” (Achebe 134). Should she need to, an African woman seems perfectly capable of supporting herself and her children, yet can seemingly always fall back upon her birth family for support whenever it becomes necessary.

Achebe acknowledges the higher aspect of white men as he reveals the efforts of Mr. Brown, the white missionary, in attempting to both bring his religion to Africa and to understand the beliefs of the natives. Although Okonkwo has little understanding of the white man’s beliefs, Achebe includes a discussion held between Mr. Brown and Akunna in which the two religions and the role of the gods are compared by the men in peaceful debate. “In this way, Mr. Brown learned a good deal about the religion of the clan and he came to the conclusion that a frontal attack on it would not succeed” (Achebe 181). Instead, the minister concentrates on building hospitals and schools for the people as a means of teaching the children what they will need to know in the world that’s coming and to provide more advanced medicine to the tribes. However, this is almost immediately revealed to be an oblique approach to subjugating the African belief systems.

Achebe also emphasizes the level of greed and corruption the white men introduce into African society. Perhaps the most insidious form of colonization is represented by the relatively peaceful ways of Mr. Brown, who manages to subvert Okonkwo’s son Nwoye to the Christian religion as well as many other members of the villages by promising to accept them if they will revoke their traditional beliefs. However, Mr. Brown’s successor introduces a much more violent element as a means of gaining control over the population. “Mr. Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith … He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness” (Achebe 184). Under his influence, tribal members were actively encouraged to turn against one another, members were brought in from other tribes and white men’s laws were enacted as a means of imposing white man’s civilization on black men through murder, coercion and fear.

Achebe’s insights can be seen to reach deeper than traditional ‘white’ accounts of Africa, illustrating the death of a rich and vibrant culture rather than the simple imposition of unfamiliar practices on an otherwise blank slate of African peoples. While Achebe’s portrayal suggests that the Africans might have benefited from improvements in agricultural technology as a means of more appropriately utilizing their land, he indicates that his society was equally capable of exploitation and abuse when given the opportunity. He provides indications that the black man can be reduced to little more than a beast, but this process is equally attributable to the white man as it occurs as a result of the twisting of the mind and the loss of self-control following the loss of an entire way of life as expressed by Achebe. The women, too, are highly misunderstood. Achebe reveals that the women of Africa are actually largely constrained in much the same way as those found in Europe, but retained a much higher level of honor and respect from their men as well as the strength to affect change in their lives. Achebe does not provide any greater criticism of the white man per se, but his illustration of the white man’s role in destroying the traditional society is much more insightful than ‘normal’ thanks to its internal viewpoint. Through this type of analysis, it can be seen that it takes an internal viewpoint such as Achebe’s to fully present the African case on more equal footing with the white man.

Works Cited

  1. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
  2. Ikuenobe, Polycarp. “The Idea of Personhood in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” Philosophia Africana. Vol. 9, N. 2, (2006): 117-131.
  3. ten Kortenaar, Neil. “Chinua Achebe and the Question of Modern African Tragedy.” Philosophia Africana. Vol. 9, N. 2, (2006): 83-100.
  4. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
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