Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart” tells the story of Okonkwo, an ambitious man from the Igbo village of Umuofia, in modern day Nigeria at the onset of the Colonial era. Okonkwo is a rising member of the society until he inadvertently kills a kinsman and must flee for seven years to his mother’s clan so as not to offend the earth goddess of the village. During this time, British Colonialism reaches the Igbo people and quickly alters their traditional way of life. Through this tale of the Igbo Achebe seeks to illustrate the complexities of African societies and how deeply these African societies were affected by Colonialism.
Many Europeans entering Africa during the colonial period viewed African society as “primitive” and lacking the depth of western society. Achebe’s novel seeks to illustrate that far from being unstructured and chaotic, African society was very complex. Umuofian society was not parceled into different spheres of practice but instead maintained a delicate balance in which all aspects of society, from religion to gender roles, are intertwined in order to keep the society running smoothly.
The village was lead by elders or men “of title” who earned their status mostly through personal achievements rather than inheritance (Achebe, 7). Achievements, wisdom, and age all merited respect. Essentially, this respect was a type of social capital that the man could exchange for political capital in a informal power structure. At times this leadership structure was stronger than others. Sometimes the elders of the village were distinguished in their position of authority, such as the times they perform religious tasks for the community.
However, even when the role of the village leaders if defined they feel a responsibility to the community, as the only members of the society qualified to fill such prescribed roles. These social responsibilities did not officially come with their titles. Umuofia seemed to function on a consent basis, meaning that each person had to choose to keep society running smoothly. It was not uncommon for all the men to be called together to make a collective decision. For example, all the men of Umuofia were called to one large corporate meeting to decide a course of action when a neighboring village murdered a woman from their village.
At this meeting, the elders of the community had no official political distinction, however, the respect accorded them by their social position helped their voices to be heard. Consent and collectivity were major facets of the Umuofian society that allowed for informal leadership. For example it is said that the “the village [collectively] imposes” a fine on anyone who lets his cow loose (Achebe, 68). The reason that Igbo society could function with such informal structure was the importance and knowledge of traditions.
These traditions were taught to the children and young adults so that they would be able to participate in the script of village life. It is almost as if these formal traditions allowed for the informal leadership structure by tacking the role as the backbone of society. Nearly all aspects of life in the village were run by such formal traditions. For example, upon receiving a visitor, the owner of the house always presented a Kola nut, which they ate together as a sign of hospitality.
The meeting of all the men is an additional example of this tradition because it was organized by a system of drums and “callers” under the expectation that the people would be able to interpret the call (Achebe, 8). There is social power in knowledge of these traditions. Kinship was an additional level of social control in the village of Umuofia and had two social consequences. Kinship was traced through patrilineage, with great respect given to the eldest male members of the family. This familial hierarchy reproduced the traditions that dictated social interactions by instilling these customs in the younger generations.
The second consequence was the ties of kinship that connected the nine Igbo villages. While descent and clanship was traced through the father’s line, intermarriage among the villages created ties to the mother’s village and connected multiple clans. In this way, the Igbo society maintained nine autonomous, though interlinked, villages without a direct formal hierarchy of social or political power such, as a head chief or king between them. The greatest of all elders were the ancient ancestors and founders of Umuofia.
These ancestors essentially filled the highest political roles in the village. They resided as judges over disputes and gave advice in troubled times. In this way it was not necessary, and would in fact have been an insult to the ancestors, for a man to fill the highest political role in the village because the ancestors had the final power anyway (Achebe, 55-57). It was said that “the land of the living was not far removed from the domain of the ancestor” and that “a man’s life from birth to death…brought him nearer and nearer to the ancestors” (Achebe, 73).
The deep complexity of Umuofian society meant that colonialism’s effects were devastating to the village’s way of life. The British administration which colonized the area did not understand the Umuofian traditions and instead decided to treat them like children who needed to be taught the proper ways of society (Achebe, 109). The beliefs and practices of the Christian missionaries were especially in contradiction to the traditions and beliefs that structured Umuofian society because the missionaries considered the ancestors to be false gods.
They preached against them and effectively left the society without leaders. The colonial administration always saw situations from their perspective. As Achebe says “they had built a court where the district commissioner judged cases in ignorance” (99). For example, the British punished the elders of the clan for destroying the missionaries’ church because they thought they had the responsibility to keep order in the colony, while the clan leaders had thought they too were keeping order in the community by avenging the death of an ancestor and had the right to do so because it was their community.
To compare the political structures of these two cultural groups, in Britain one person had ultimate political power, and society enforced this power, while Umuofian society required cooperation of all members and thus, I believe, showed a greater level of social integration than Britain, which relied heavily on its chain of command in order to function. Because of the intricacies of Umuofian society Britain was able to destabilize the whole of Umuofian society simply by affecting certain aspects of the society. Inversely the Umuofians would have had to dispose of the Queen of England to bring down the colonialists.