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Africa has long suffered from a single story narrative. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.” (Adichie) Many people are unaware that there is more to Africa than poverty and wildlife. Through various forms of media the Western world is constantly presented with images of Africa as being entirely different from Western culture. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one major source for the stereotypes that plague Africa.
Since it was published in 1899, it has been regarded by many as a great work of literature. According to Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africans – Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, the book “projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality.” (3)
However, that is not the reality of African culture. Due to the commonality of Heart of Darkness and other works like it, Europeans, and later Americans, have suffered from a false perception of Africans.
In truth, Africans are complex diverse people just like any other group of humans. Chinua Achebe seeks to reveal the truth of African people. Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart shines light on this true culture of Africans. The book seeks to break stereotypes and portray Africans as they really are. The book also helps to reveal the truth about colonialism. Things Fall Apart portrays Africans and African culture from a realistic perspective.
Things Fall Apart centers around Umuofia; an Igbo village in Niger. The main character of the story is Okonkwo. Okonkwo devotes his life to being successful; the opposite of his father. Achebe explains how in African culture, a man is not judged by his heritage, but by his own hard work. This is very reminiscent of the classic “American dream”. Wherein, supposedly anyone who works hard has the chance to succeed.
Therefore, Okonkwo has the opportunity to succeed despite his father’s lack of work ethic and “unmanliness”. Okonkwo strives to earn wealth and a title unlike his father. By the time Okonkwo is eighteen he is “known throughout all nine villages and beyond” for his achievements such as winning a wrestling contest. Okonkwo prospers through hard work. He marries three wives and takes multiple titles. He also has a large barn full of yams.” Thus, Okonkwo should be content, but he is a deeply flawed man. Simply having wealth is not enough to satisfy Okonkwo. Due to his father, Okonkwo feels the need to be strong and “manly” at all the times. He is often harsh to his family frequently beating his wives. Thus, Okonkwo is not a very likeable character. However, he is a dynamic character. Achebe is not trying to paint Africa as anything other than human. By showing Okonkwo’s flaws, he also shows his humanity. Okonkwo’s fear of being like his father is understandable and relatable even in a modern Western context. In order to break the stereotype of Africans, Achebe shows Okonkwo’s strength and determination while simultaneously showing his faults. This reminds readers of the complexity of African society.
The society portrayed in Things Fall Apart also has their own governmental system that is in some ways very similar to that of many Western societies. For example. disputes come before the egwugwu; a group of nine masked ancestral spirits. They handle instances ranging from domestic violence to murder. Each of the spirits “represented a village of the clan” which developed from “the nine sons of the first father of the clan”. (Achebe, Things Fall 89) The society is rich in history and values respect. They honor their ancestors in many ways. The egwugwu is a key example of this. Their system is also reminiscent of the court system wherein people are given a “fair” trial and it is decided whether or not they are guilty. The punishments doled out seem fair in relation of the crime committed.
One example of this is when Okonkwo accidentally kills a fellow clansman he is exiled to his mother’s homeland for seven years. As further punishment, Okonkwo’s property is destroyed and his animals are killed. While this is certainly not a perfect culture, it is a relatable culture. It is a culture that is complex with tradition and systems just like that of Western society. In showing this essential part of culture to readers, Achebe further breaks down the wall between African society and Western culture. In addition, Things Fall Apart addresses colonization. The Christian missionaries that come to Africa have often been portrayed to the Western world as doing good works; however, Achebe shows the truth behind colonization. The colonists seek to erase the intricate culture of the Igbo in favor of enforcing their own culture on the people. The colonists practically destroy the Igbo culture. They force them away from belief in their own gods by claiming that their gods encourage war. This is not true.
The Igbo attempt to settle their disputes in other ways and only use war as a last resort. For example, when a young girl is murdered by a neighboring clan the Umuofia people issue an ultimatum asking to the village “asking them to choose between war on one hand, and on the other the offer of a young man and a virgin as compensation.” The village accepts this agreement and offers up two of its children to Umuofia. It is obvious the Igbo try to avoid war whenever possible. However, there are time when war is unavoidable. As explained in “Culture in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”, “The Igbos do not fight each other because they are primitive. Achebe implies the existence of the conditions in Nigeria which historically led to a need for war as a matter of survival.” (Rhoads 65) The missionaries fail to see this or simply fail to care. They overthrow the Igbo’s customs and traditions. One convert even unmasks an egwugwu during a ceremony. As a result, the egwugwu burn the Christian church. However, the leaders of Umuofia suffer as a result. Okonkwo tries to fight back against the colonizers but nobody else from the clan seems to have the courage to do so. Okonkwo goes so far as to kill a Christian messenger.
However, without the support of his clan this act is seen as radical and near senseless. Okonkwo can not exist in this society the same way as in the past. His culture and customs have been destroyed by the colonists and nobody seems to be standing up for the rights of the clan. Okonkwo is led to suicide. This is a shocking conclusion as suicide goes against the beliefs of the Igbo people. However, it shows what a drastic effect colonization had on Africans. The complex African society shown in Things Fall Apart is realistic. African cultures can be as complex and varied as any other society. However, this has long been ignored. As seen in the book, colonization attempted to erase this culture. A lack of understanding led to untrue assumptions about African societies.
Colonization was and continues to be a real problem. Societies just like the Umuofia have had their culture erased by the Western world in a misguided attempt at help. It is important that stories like Things Fall Apart overpower the untrue messages about African culture. “Stories can break the dignity of a people but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” (Adichie). Achebe’s story attempts to repair the dignity of the African people broken by Heart of Darkness and other dehumanizing stories.
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