The coming of a new religion and some changes to culture affects many people in their lifetimes. Sometimes this raises a big question: if a culture is demonstrated as weak or troublesome, should society do away with it altogether or are their positives that can or must be retained. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the clash between cultures as highlighted via the introduction of Christianity to the villages of Umuofia and Mbanta resulted in the defeat of their African culture.
In effect, the impact of the missionaries to Umuofia is revealed to be both positive and negative for the Igbo in that while it presented an alternative belief system that answered against doubts over traditional practices, Christianity also destroyed what remained of African traditional culture.
The positive outcome of Christianity’s arrival is that it led to the opening doors of some questions that African traditional beliefs could not fill. The negative was that while Christianity could answer some questions that Africans held, the very act of filling that emptiness would also destroy some of the values those African communities held.
For Achebe, doubt over the value of African traditional practices and core values played an immense role in leading to its downfall. At the beginning of the story, Umuofia sees three large events that introduce the element of doubt. First, we learn of Okonkwo’s unfortunate circumstances, given his family history. Second, Okonkwo takes a leading role in the execution of Ikemefuna despite warnings. Lastly, the unfortunate killing of Ezeudu’s son by Okonkwo himself, leading to his family’s banishment.
What is critical to note is that for Okonkwo, it was necessary and crucial to work to repair his family’s honor. “Any wonder then that his son was ashamed of him?” (Achebe, 8) African traditional customs had their own processes that would allow one to redeem their name or station within society. As Achebe writes, “if a child washed his hands, he could eat with kings” (Achebe, 8). It was for this reason that despite his status as a hero and respected of his village, Okonkwo was ready to accept exile because it would be redeeming for him. For Achebe, Okonkwo establishes that African traditional values have the natural value that is so important to the native’s heritage.
The positives Christianity brought to Umuofia was that it could resolve conflicts within the African traditional beliefs. In chapter 17, both Nwoye and the arrival of the missionaries display the weakness of African religion during the critical moment where doubt in African traditions in highest. Nwoye is attracted to Christianity because “he felt a relief- his parched soul”. (Achebe, 147) It is because African beliefs failed to serve the deeper concerns of the people. Moreover, the missionaries in Mbanta demonstrate the falsity of African religion when they cut down the sacred woods of the Evil Forest to replace the plot of land with their Church. “The inhabitants of Mbanta expected all of them to be dead within four days…none of them died”. (Achebe, 149) African values, a sentiment held by many and expressed through Obierika visiting Okonkwo to ask about Okonkwo’s son’s circumstances in following the missionaries, were under attack due to the weakness of their belief structures. Then, Obierika’s thoughts following his friend’s calamity express the weakness of African traditions with especial insight into the invasive and crippling introduction of western religion.
On the other hand, the negative aspect of Christianity’s advent was that its entrance required the destruction of the previous socio-religious structures. African traditional beliefs represented an extensive structure where the values and traditions observed collectively built towards enforcing their core values. Therefore, destroying any part of the structure would result in the fall of the whole system. Consequently, Achebe’s intent appears to be an attempt at displaying that while Christianity was considered a boon for filling a void in African belief systems, it nevertheless had a destructive impact on the culture as a whole. Things Fall Apart, in effect, is an ideological struggle for survival where one either accepted all of one culture or parts of a culture. It was for this reason that Kiaga demanded the osu discard the articles demonstrating their social status their hair. The indication behind hair and status is a metaphor for the struggle between Christianity and its encroachment on African values. The children are decorated with their hair “shaved in beautiful patterns”. (Achebe, 38) A curse is reinforced by stating that “Agbala shave your head with a blunt razor” (Achebe, 105), and the outcasts themselves wear “long, tangled hair”. (Achebe, 157). According to Galvan and Galvan in “Gods Fall Apart” pointed out that Christianity’s approach to drawing converts lay in its attraction to the marginalized and destitute (Galvan and Galvan, 106). It was an alien culture that was, “a mad dog that had come to eat up”. (Achebe, 143) In discarding one’s hair or dressing one effectively destroys their link to their heritage. In the end, Okonkwo resolves suicide given what he sees as the destruction of his way of life.
According to Diana Rhoads in “Culture in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”, she praises and condemns Achebe’s approach in structuring the narrative of European and Christian interaction with Igbo society by fashioning African culture as both beautiful and destructive (Rhoads, 61). “What is remarkable about his Igbos is the degree to which they have achieved the foundations of what most people seek today… Achebe also presents its weaknesses which require change and which aid in its destruction”. (Rhoads, 61) The culture around Umuofia, certain rules and observations such as the out casting of undesirables like osu were part, and parcel of traditional beliefs. Also, these were the outcasts or osu that Mr. Kiaga and his mission once debated about admitting into among their ranks given their social status. (Achebe, 158) In doing away with one part of African value systems, Christianity effectively destroyed the whole.
In conclusion, the critical issue here is that Okonkwo lay on both sides of the divide in both revered as Umuofia’s greatest warrior while cast out and marginalized for his family’s history as well as his own actions. Achebe’s use of Okonkwo reveals that while Christianity was superior given how Umuofia refused to support Okonkwo. African pride cannot be dismissed as seen from Okonkwo’s suicide. Achebe’s use of Okonkwo’s experiences demonstrated that the two value systems were incompatible. At the same time however, he also demonstrated that it would be difficult to determine, which of the two was superior to save for the fact that ultimately, Christianity won out.