Things Fall Apart: Historical Background of Nigeria

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Things Fall Apart: Historical Background of Nigeria

The country of Nigeria has long been a crossroads of African cultures. Today, the Protestant Yoruba people (see Lesson 3 for more on them and their literature) live in the western section of the country, while the Muslim Hausa-Fulani occupy the north. Achebe's novel deals with the Catholic Igbo of the east, specifically with their nineteenth- and early twentieth-century associations with British missionaries and imperialists. (Note: While Okonkwo's people are referred to as "Ibo" in Things Fall Apart, the modernized spelling is "Igbo." I will use the modern spelling throughout this lesson.)

Nigeria was initially populated between 5000–2000 B.C. by Saharan inhabitants who fled south, away from the expanding deserts. By 900 A.D., the region was organized into states, which traded slaves, salt, ivory, metal, and weapons. By the fifteenth century, the Portuguese had arrived on the western coast to trade, and the Aro priestly class was managing a famous oracle much like the one in Things Fall Apart. The Aro class also managed an active slave trade, which grew throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1861, Great Britain, which had outlawed the slave trade in 1807, occupied Lagos on the western edge of the Nigerian coastline. Slowly England began to occupy the rest of Nigeria, and at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885—during which European nations carved up Africa among themselves like so much cheese—England gained what is now the state of Nigeria, gave it its name, and declared it a colony.

Table 2.1

Nigeria: A Timeline


Great Britain outlaws the slave trade that had been operated on the western coast of Nigeria by the Portuguese throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.


Great Britain begins to occupy portions of Nigeria.


England gains control over Nigeria.


Natives kill a white man in southern region; the British retaliate against the Igbo.


The British institute the Collective Punishment Ordinance.


England institutes a ten-year plan for Nigerian independence.


Nigeria gains independence.


Nigeria becomes a republic.


Nigeria undergoes a civil war.


Nigeria continues to face struggles brought about by internal strife, and economic decline.

In 1905, a white man on a bicycle was killed by natives in the southern region of the country, an episode that strongly influenced the massacre at Abame depicted in chapter fifteen of Things Fall Apart. The British killed natives in reprisal and organized an expedition to root out Igbo opposition to British colonialism. In 1912, the British instituted the Collective Punishment Ordinance, which held entire villages accountable for crimes committed against colonists. The British administrative system, which replaced old tribal systems of justice, was backed by the military. Yet this system also served to educate large numbers of Nigerians, sending many of them to England. This policy led to the rise of several well-educated Nigerians, such as Chinua Achebe, who later agitated for independence from England.

In 1947, the English instituted a ten-year plan for Nigerian independence. In 1960, Nigeria gained its independence and became a republic in 1963. However, like many other emerging African nations, Nigeria underwent a civil war, lasting from 1967–1970. The discovery of oil under Nigerian land led to an economic boom after the period of internal strife, but destabilizing oil prices in the 1980s led to economic decline, then a series of coups throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Today, Nigeria is one of the largest nations of Africa, with a vast array of natural resources, yet it is still plagued by internal struggles and a difficult past.

Background of Author

Chinua Achebe, the author of Things Fall Apart and several other novels, was born in an Igbo village in eastern Nigeria in 1930, when the nation was still a British colony. Named Albert after Prince Albert of England (the husband of Queen Victoria), Achebe later chose the Igbo name of Chinua. After learning about and developing an appreciation for Igbo language and culture, Achebe began learning English at age eight. He attended Government College in Umuahia, where he excelled, and he studied medicine at the new University College at Ibadan. At this time, there was a demand for educated Nigerians to replace the British civil servants, who were expected to leave once Nigeria became independent. Yet Achebe, perhaps influenced by the growing sense of Nigerian independence and nationalism, changed his studies from medicine to liberal arts—specifically history, religion, and English—and he began publishing stories that portrayed conflicts between Western culture and African society.

In 1953, Achebe graduated to become a radio producer and went to the BBC school in London in 1956. At that time he submitted a manuscript of Things Fall Apart to a publisher with BBC encouragement. Published in 1958, Things Fall Apart brought Achebe almost instant international fame; Achebe himself has said that he never experienced the troubles of a struggling artist.

Achebe returned to Nigeria and rose rapidly within the Nigerian Broadcast Corporation, but then became embroiled in the turmoil and civil war, following a 1966 coup led by Igbo officers. Six months later, another coup was staged, this time by non-Igbo officers, and the new government targeted Achebe, among others, for aiding the earlier Igbo coup. Achebe left for eastern Nigeria and became a senior research fellow at the University of Nigeria. In 1967, eastern Nigeria declared independence as the nation of Biafra. Thirty months of civil war culminated in Biafra's defeat, and Achebe fled to Europe and America to write and talk about Biafran affairs.

Like many other African writers, Achebe believes that artistic and literary works must deal primarily with the problems of society and should have a message that speaks toward those problems. He has written about Nigerian problems, corruption, and lack of leadership, and for a time taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and at the University of Connecticut. In 1976, he returned to Nigeria to teach for a while at the University of Nigeria. In 1990, he became a professor of literature at Bard College in Annandale, New York. He has received numerous awards and honorary degrees for his work, which includes several novels, children's books, collections of short stories and essays, and magazines that he has founded, published, and edited.

Introduction to Things Fall Apart

Achebe chose lines from a poem by William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming," to introduce his novel and to give it its title. (You can read these lines in the introductory pages of Things Fall Apart.) Ironically, Yeats was an Irish (European), not an African, poet. In this poem, Yeats describes an apocalyptic vision of the world, in which all order and stability collapses into anarchy ("Things fall apart; the center cannot hold") because of an internal flaw in humanity. This vision works on two levels in this novel. On the one hand, we see the protagonist, Okonkwo, as a great man of Umuofia, who succumbs to tragedy due to his own flaws (see below for a discussion of "Okonkwo as a Tragic Hero in Things Fall Apart"). On the other hand, we see the disintegration of the complex Igbo society under the intrusion of European government, religion, and technology.

Besides being a classic example of a tragedy, Things Fall Apart also has a social purpose. Achebe has argued that European novels have treated Africa as a dark, savage continent, and little else. Africans are reduced to primitive, mysterious creatures, which in Achebe's (and others') opinion is racist stereotyping. Even "good" African characters are flat and non-developed and are often portrayed as "noble savages," which is no better than any other stereotype. According to Achebe, colonialism—the forceful impression of one culture's beliefs onto another culture—leads to this kind of thinking. As Achebe himself has put it, Europeans portray Africa as having experienced "one long night of savagery, from which the first Europeans, acting on God's behalf, delivered them." Achebe is extremely opposed to this vision, which he says is enforced by such novels as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and he has said that his role as an author is, in part, to teach fellow Africans and others that this "one long night of savagery" is an inaccurate depiction of a tribal past that denigrates the rich and sophisticated cultural traditions and values of the Igbo people, among others.

Achebe has written his works in English rather than in Igbo for several reasons. One is practical: there are far more readers of English than there are readers of Igbo. Another is that English enables Achebe to reach a world community with his messages. A third is that, by using English, Achebe uses the very language that others have employed to portray Africa in racist terms, resulting in a sort of poetic justice. However, Achebe is strongly committed to portraying Igbo culture accurately and powerfully, so he uses several Igbo words and phrases within Things Fall Apart, until those words and phrases no longer need to be defined. After reading the novel, for instance, a reader is much more familiar with terms and concepts like chi, egwugwu, and ogbanje than before reading the novel. Also, the novel preserves several Igbo tales and proverbs throughout, such as the tale of the tortoise in chapter eleven. All of this helps to bridge the cultural divide between the Igbo and Western readers, revealing an African culture to readers who in all likelihood know little, if anything, about African tribes, apart from stereotypes in movies, print, and television.

Igbo Society and Western Intrusion in Things Fall Apart

For most Western readers, the Igbo people may at first seem barbaric or uncivilized. They are quite superstitious from a Western perspective, believing in such supernatural creatures as ogbanje, for example. Some of their social practices seem extraordinarily cruel as well, particularly the abandonment of twins at birth and the mutilation of infant corpses thought to be ogbanje. However, behind such practices lies a society which, while quite different from European cultures, is nevertheless sophisticated and complex.

Any reader of Things Fall Apart is struck by the complexity of rituals in Igbo society. Consider the wedding ceremonies, for example, or the trials at which the egwugwu preside over legal disputes. The preparation of food is also quite important, and specific foods have specific values. Yams are the most difficult crop to harvest and therefore are considered manly (the king crop), while cassava and beans are easier to harvest and thus less worthy than yams. Yams are the centerpiece of important feasts, furthering their cultural significance. Greetings between hosts and visitors center around the breaking of a kola nut, revealing the hospitality of the Igbo.

The religion of the Igbo, while considered heathenish by such characters as the inflexible missionary Mr. Smith, is also extraordinary for its complexity. Consider the conversation in chapter twenty-one between Mr. Brown, the first Christian missionary, and one of Umuofia's leaders, Akunna. Akunna claims that the Igbo do believe in one all-mighty God, and have given Him the name Chukwu. Mr. Brown objects, however, to the Igbo practice of polytheism (the belief in more than one deity) and points to an idol carved of wood hanging from Akunna's rafter. But Akunna explains patiently that the Igbo do not wish to disturb Chukwu out of respect for His power and greatness, so they approach Him through subordinate gods, as a man would approach a powerful landlord through his servants. Such a religious concept could not come from ignorant, barbaric people.

What is perhaps most noteworthy is the idea that every man in Igbo society has an equal chance to rise within that society and gain success through his own efforts. While Okonkwo's father Unoka was widely regarded as lazy and weak, the people of Umuofia do not regard Okonkwo in the same fashion. As the narrator tells us in chapter one, "among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father" (page 8). In Igbo society, worth is based on individual accomplishment and hard work, not on class systems or connections with powerful figures. Okonkwo achieved his powerful status in Umuofia because of his relentless work on his farm.

The European characters in this work, such as Mr. Smith and the District Commissioner, ignore much of the complexity and richness of Igbo society. Although Mr. Brown respects the Igbo ways and merely preaches his faith, while derailing attempts to confront Igbo ways directly, Mr. Smith believes that such an attitude is weak and damaging to the Christian church. The District Commissioner is even harsher in his attitudes toward the Igbo, whom he sees as primitive and uncivilized, and he is somewhat amused at Okonkwo's death and at the reactions of Obierika and the other people of Umuofia who cannot, according to tribal custom, take down Okonkwo's body from the tree and bury it. The novel ends with the title of the District Commissioner's forthcoming book, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, a title that sums up the basic attitudes of Europeans in Africa: native Africans are primitives who must be pacified and colonized, brought into civilization, and saved from what Achebe described as "one long night of savagery."

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