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“Things Fall Apart” as well as West Africa and Sundiata (Sunjata) Essay

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In this essay I will be talking about the book “Things Fall Apart”, as well as West Africa and Sundiata (Sunjata).  I will look at the unique personal relationships among the people in West Africa, and how this affected the economy and trade, especially following the infiltration of the Europeans in 1450.  In analyzing the book “Things Fall Apart” I will further look at a fictional, but poignantly portrayed, story of life and death and drama in West Africa in the late nineteenth century.

  I will discuss the role of women in the book, the role of religion, and the decision-making process.

The book “Things Fall Apart” was published in 1958 and written by Chinua Achebe as a college work.  Mr. Achebe was actually born in, and grew up in, a village in Nigeria.  However, the book was set in the 1890s, so the story in the book was not written as any kind of a memory of Mr. Achebe.  The book is both entertaining and informative about tribal relations in West Africa.

There is a unique relationship between the people of the tropical rainforest, the savannah (sudan), the Sahara Desert, and the Mediterranean coast of Africa in the period down to 1450 CE.  The savannah in West Africa is a climate and vegetation zone with grass and some trees.  In the savannah horses could survive.  This caused the people in the savannah to form empires.

In the rain forests horses could not survive.  Across the Sahara Desert, trade was conducted by the use of caravans.  A caravan was a source of trade across the desert.  It took place mostly between Arabs and West Africans.  Caravans were initially comprised of donkeys, but later came to be made up of camels.  Finally, the people on the coast traded with the Europeans the things that were brought from the interior of Africa, as well as things found along the coast.

            Certain patters of trade and cultural influence existed in these areas during this time period.  After 1450 when Europeans settled along the Western coast of Africa, more Africans moved to that area.  Slaves and gold were big moneymakers in the coastal villages.

  The people in the book “Things Fall Apart” lived in the coastal rain forest.  Gold was mostly mined along the “Gold Coast”, and along the coast Africans would also help the European slave trade.  They would go into the interior of Africa and bring other Africans out to be sold into slavery.  Some coastal Africans were thus able to become rich from the pay they received from the Europeans.  Many Africans died in the process of being transported within Africa, and many also died during the boat transport after they left Africa.

Although the role of women in “Things Fall Apart” is limited and mostly submissive, there is a certain power of women in the book.  When Chielo decreed the death of Ikemefuna she may have had a female motive for it.  Normally she is a widow and a very ordinary woman.

However, as the Priestess and the oracle she can say what happens to other people and their lives.  By forcing the death of the boy, using claims that she had the gift of prophecy from the gods, she was able to gain control over the life of a child.  In her normal life as a woman she did not have this much control.  However, using her role as the oracle she was able to elevate her position in society above what her gender would normally allow her.

            Additionally, women exerted certain limited police and judicial powers over the market place.  The incident of the escaped cow is a good example of this.  When the cow escaped in Chapter 12 the women preparing for the bridal feast quickly push the loose cow back home and away from the neighboring farmers crops (Achebe).  Their quick intervention, coupled with the cow’s owner immediately paying the find for the cow being in another farmer’s crops, led to a fast dissipation of any potential conflict entering the joyful feast.  The women were able to use their womanly ways to avert attention from the fact that the cow was eating another person’s crops, in order that the bridal feast could happily continue.

Religion is very important in community decisions in Umuofia.  The gods in Umuofia made many decisions.  Actually, people dressed up as gods or speaking on behalf of the gods made the decisions.  A religion based on multiple gods, such as that in Umuofia, is called polytheism.  Animism is another religion common in Africa.  Animism is a religion whereby people worship and revere animals.

In Umuofia there were also decisions made by people speaking simply as people.  An example of this is the assemblies of male warriors.  Various people speaking as people, in numerous capacities, have made decisions in West Africa, throughout history.  A chieftain in West Africa is .  A king in West Africa is important because the kings of Western Europe rules in Africa when they colonized West African nations and when West Africans were forced into slavery.

Sometimes tribes also had kings.  An emperor in West Africa is another kind of ruler within the tribal culture.  The people of Igbo in “Things Fall Apart” did not have any Emperor or king, however.  They generally dispensed justice internally, with a system of democracy among the men in the tribe.  Additionally, the Igbo people had a high sense of social mobility and were not predestined into a certain class. (Classic Note On Things Fall Apart)

There are reasons for the two types of decisions making processes.  When people are speaking as gods they are deferring to the decisions of the gods to actually make their own decisions.  For example, when the oracle makes decisions she is probably allowing her own bias to influence what she believes the gods are telling her.  When the British commissioner is speaking, he is speaking as a person for himself because he does not want to be seen as deferring judgment to anyone else.  He wants the credit for all of his judgments.

In contrast, when people are speaking as people they take credit, as well as blame, for what it is that they are saying.  They do not try to shift their opinions onto anyone else.  Instead, they stand up and say what it is that they believe.  The new Christian converts and the missionaries in “Things Fall Apart” were speaking on behalf of themselves and their own beliefs when they spoke.  They did not claim to have the gift of prophesy and speak on behalf of gods.  Neither did the British commissioner when he dispensed justice; when the British commissioner dispensed justice he spoke as a person speaking as a person, not as a person speaking for a god.

In conclusion, the tribal people in West Africa were vastly affected by the infiltration of Europeans beginning in 1450.  Trade had historically been done by caravan on donkeys between Arabs and West Africans, but caravans later changed to be comprised more of trade on horses.  After 1450 Europeans were also actively involved in trade in West Africa, mostly of Gold, along the Gold Coast, and of slaves.  The slave trade made many Africans rich, and many Africans initially brought other Africans out of the interior of Africa out to be sold into slavery.

Religion was also affected by the colonization of West Africa by the Europeans; Europeans brought Christianity to West Africa in a way that it had not been brought before by just missionaries.  Additionally, justice changed dramatically when Europeans arrived.  Europeans brought their own justice and their own white men to administer it.  In general, “Things Fall Apart” showed all of these aspects of West African society in the later nineteenth century.  And, importantly, “Things Fall Apart” served to realistically remind readers that the people in West Africa were intelligent tribal people who were hurtfully affected by British rule.

REFERENCES

“Classic Note On Things Fall Apart.” GradeSaver. 28 May. 2005            <http://www.gradesaver.com/ClassicNotes/Titles/things/about.html>.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: DoubleDay & Company, Incorporated,  1994.

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