Perhaps the greatest and most relevant African book ever written is Chinua Achebe’s greatest work. It is also arguably this is the most reviewed piece of Nigerian literature I’ve ever come across.
Things fall apart is truly a beautiful work of art.
Set in pre-colonial times before Mungo Park ‘discovered’ the River Niger and Benue protectorates, this novel is one of communal living, respect for tradition, and the importance of hard work, which are the core values of the Igbo people.
There is a sharp contrast between the protagonist, Okonkwo, and his father, Udoka. Okonkwo vehemently refuses to be his father all over again. Lazy and unambitious are some of the best qualifiers to describe Udoka, which is why he became a pariah amongst his people. On the other hand, Okonkwo is passionate about succeeding so much that fortune smiles on him. He becomes one of the richest men in the village and a warlord.
The book highlights several traditions that are synonymous with the Igbo people, including the Ogbanje myth and other crucial features of Igbo socio-political culture.
One special attribute of the people of Umuofia is community life. Family life is of great value to these natives, who manage to find a balance between the community and family. These two are separate but the same. This is manifested in the wedding of Obierika’s daughter, Akueke, which sees the women and children in Okonkwo’s household going over to assist Obierika’s family in the wedding preparations. In Okonkwo’s family, any of the wives could take care of the other wives’ children, and the children are helpful to their father’s other wives, not necessarily their mothers alone. For example, Nwoye’s mother takes care of Ojuigo’s children when she goes to fix her hair, and Nwoye and Ikemefuna are seen helping out the women with more difficult tasks that boys do for their mothers.
Communal living is embraced amongst the people of Umuofia, in line with their cultures and traditions.
Ogbanje and Ikemefuna’s role
Ekwesi’s child, Ezinma, is labeled as an Ogbanje, a sickly child who is simply tired of ‘going and coming back,’ which is a term to qualify children who die as soon as they are born.
Ikemefuna, a young man, is seen as the ‘spoils of war’ and has to be sacrificed to appease the land. The latter’s death is the beginning of the dissolution of things in Okonkwo’s life and the eventual ‘falling apart of things.’
Marital affairs, civil matters, and ceremonies
Polygamy reigns supreme in Umuofia and other neighboring villages, but in the case of titled men, only the first wives are mandated to wear the anklets of their husband’s titles.
Feasts, events, and ceremonies are used to maintain family ties, and rules and regulations guide these ceremonies. One example is the ‘Peace Week,’ which Okonkwo broke with his volatile behavior. He was fined for his error.
Okonkwo is also shamed for mistakenly taking the life of Ezeudu’s son at his father’s funeral, a taboo that goes against the tenets of the Earth goddess, Ani.
As punishment, he has to be exiled for seven years, and his houses and farms are burnt to appease the land. Okonkwo’s ostracization because he committed homicide is important in Umuofia culture to prevent pseudo accidents in the name of settling a score.
The people of Umuofia have certain organs of governance. They have the clan assembly, akin to a modern-day federal government, the apex decision-making board. This clan assembly has the association of titled chiefs, the Ndichie.
Below the clan assembly is the Umunna and Umuada, who discuss family matters. There is also the Egwugwu, the masquerades that serve as the judicial body, administering justice and fairness to all.
Indeed, the Igbo traditional setting was well-organized. Law and order broke down with the coming of the white men who came with their methods of social integration and ill-suited political system to disrupt the otherwise peaceful and working system adapted by the people of Umuofia.
Eventually, these white men forced their system of governance on these natives, a system of oppression and tyranny, and brought untold suffering on titled family men who did nothing wrong but resisted strange men from taking over their lands.