Today is the birthday (1930) of Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, commonly known as Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic. His first novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is considered a milestone, and the most widely read book in modern African literature.
Achebe was raised by his parents in the Igbo town of Ogidi in South-Eastern Nigeria, where he won a scholarship for university studies. He became fascinated with world religions and traditional African cultures, and began writing stories as a university student. After graduation, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) and soon moved to Lagos. He gained worldwide attention for Things Fall Apart in the late 1950s; his later novels include No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Achebe wrote his novels in English and defended the use of English, a “language of colonisers”, in African literature. In 1975, his lecture “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” featured a famous criticism of Joseph Conrad as “a thoroughgoing racist”; it was later published in The Massachusetts Review amid some controversy.
When the region of Biafra broke away from Nigeria in 1967, Achebe became a supporter of Biafran independence and acted as ambassador for the people of the new nation. The war ravaged the populace, and as starvation and violence took its toll, he appealed to the people of Europe and the Americas for aid. When the Nigerian government retook the region in 1970, he involved himself in political parties but soon resigned due to frustration over the corruption and elitism he witnessed. He lived in the United States for several years in the 1970s, and returned to the U.S. in 1990 after a car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Achebe was a titled Igbo chieftain himself, and his novels focus on the traditions of Igbo society, the effect of Christian influences, and the clash of Western and traditional African values during and after the colonial era. His style relies heavily on the Igbo oral tradition, and combines straightforward narration with representations of folk stories, proverbs, and oratory. He also published a number of short stories, children’s books, and essay collections. From 2009 until his death, he served as David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University in the United States.
Things Fall Apart, set in pre-colonial Nigeria in the 1890s, highlights the struggle between colonialism and traditional societies. The protagonist Okonkwo is famous in the surrounding villages for being a wrestling champion, defeating a wrestler nicknamed “the cat” (because he never lands on his back). He is strong, hard-working, and strives to show no weakness. Okonkwo wants to dispel his father Unoka’s tainted legacy of being effeminate (he borrowed and lost money, and neglected his wife and children) and cowardly (he feared the sight of blood). Okonkwo works to build his wealth entirely on his own, as Unoka died a shameful death and left many unpaid debts. He is also obsessed with his masculinity and makes no compromises about it. As a result, he is brusque with his three wives, children, and neighbors, he is wealthy, courageous, and powerful among the people of his village where he is a leader.
Okonkwo is selected by the elders to be the guardian of Ikemefuna, a boy taken by the village as a peace settlement between Umuofia and another village after Ikemefuna’s father killed an Umuofian woman. The boy lives with Okonkwo’s family and Okonkwo grows fond of him. The boy looks up to Okonkwo and considers him a second father. The Oracle of Umuofia eventually pronounces that the boy must be killed. Ezeudu, the oldest man in the village, warns Okonkwo that he should have nothing to do with the murder because it would be like killing his own child. But to avoid seeming weak and feminine to the other men of the village, Okonkwo participates in the murder of the boy despite the warning from the old man. In fact, Okonkwo himself strikes the killing blow even as Ikemefuna begs his “father” for protection. For many days after killing Ikemefuna, Okonkwo feels guilty and saddened.
Shortly after Ikemefuna’s death, things begin to go wrong for Okonkwo. During a gun salute at Ezeudu’s funeral, Okonkwo’s gun explodes and kills Ezeudu’s son. He and his family are sent into exile for seven years to appease the gods he has offended. While Okonkwo is away in Mbanta, he learns that white men are living in Umuofia with the intent of introducing Christianity. As the number of converts increases, the foothold of the white people grows and a new government is introduced. The village is forced to respond with either appeasement or resistance to the imposition of the white people’s nascent society.
Returning from exile, Okonkwo finds his village changed by the presence of the white men. He and other leaders try to reclaim their hold on their native land by destroying a local Christian church. In return, the leader of the white government takes them prisoner and holds them for a ransom of two hundred cowries for a short while, further humiliating and insulting the native leaders by doing things such as shaving their heads and whipping them. As a result, the people of Umuofia finally gather for what could be a great uprising. Okonkwo, a warrior by nature and adamant about following Umuofian custom and tradition, despises any form of cowardice and advocates war against the white men. When messengers of the white government try to stop the meeting, Okonkwo kills one of them. He realizes with despair that the people of Umuofia are not going to fight to protect themselves — his society’s response to such a conflict, which for so long had been predictable and dictated by tradition, is changing.
When the local leader of the white government comes to Okonkwo’s house to take him to court, he finds that Okonkwo has hanged himself to avoid being tried in a colonial court. Among his own people, Okonkwo’s actions have tarnished his reputation and status, as it is strictly against the teachings of the Igbo to commit suicide.
Achebe wrote his novels in English because written Standard Igbo was created by combining various dialects, creating a stilted written form. In a 1994 interview with The Paris Review, Achebe said, “the novel form seems to go with the English language. There is a problem with the Igbo language. It suffers from a very serious inheritance which it received at the beginning of this century from the Anglican mission. They sent out a missionary by the name of Dennis. Archdeacon Dennis. He was a scholar. He had this notion that the Igbo language—which had very many different dialects—should somehow manufacture a uniform dialect that would be used in writing to avoid all these different dialects. Because the missionaries were powerful, what they wanted to do they did. This became the law. But the standard version cannot sing. There’s nothing you can do with it to make it sing. It’s heavy. It’s wooden. It doesn’t go anywhere.”
Achebe’s choice to write in English has caused controversy. While both African and non-African critics agree that Achebe modeled Things Fall Apart on classic European literature, they disagree about whether his novel upholds a Western model, or, in fact, subverts or confronts it. Achebe continued to defend his decision: “English is something you spend your lifetime acquiring, so it would be foolish not to use it. Also, in the logic of colonization and decolonization it is actually a very powerful weapon in the fight to regain what was yours. English was the language of colonization itself. It is not simply something you use because you have it anyway.”
Achebe is noted for his inclusion of and weaving in of proverbs from Igbo oral culture into his writing. This influence was explicitly referenced by Achebe in Things Fall Apart: “Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.”
Things Fall Apart is a milestone in African literature. It has come to be seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English, and is read in Nigeria and throughout Africa. Of all of Achebe’s works, Things Fall Apart is the one read most often, and has generated the most critical response, examination, and literary criticism. It is studied widely in Europe, India and North America, where it has spawned numerous secondary and tertiary analytical works. It has achieved similar status and repute in India, Australia and Oceania. Considered Achebe’s magnum opus, it has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide. Time included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. The novel has been translated into more than fifty languages, and is often used in literature, world history, and African studies courses across the world.
Egusi soup is a classic Igbo dish, which may or may not be to your taste because of its fatty bitter taste. Westerners may have a hard job getting hold of key ingredients, such as egusi seeds and bitter greens unless they have access to West African markets run by immigrants. I found one once in a shady section of Brooklyn after much fruitless searching. These markets come and go without much warning, and the internet is no help except in locating the general region where you might find one. When I did find one the people were incredibly friendly and helpful. Palm oil is one of the main ingredients of much of Igbo cuisine, but if you have a social conscience you need to be careful. Palm oil is commonly used in all manner of commercial products and, in consequence, its production is leading to the destruction of vast areas of forest lands in SE Asia, leading to the endangerment of many species, notably the orangutan. Internationally certified sustainable palm oil is available on the internet. Otherwise I’d forego its use.
675 g beef, chicken or fish, cut in chunks
½ cup of dried shrimp or crayfish
1 ½ cups tomato paste
2 cups bitterleaf or other greens, finely chopped
1 cup palm oil
½ cup onions, sliced
½ cup onions, finely chopped
1 cup egusi seeds
Simmer the meat with 1 cup of water, ½ teaspoon of salt, and the sliced onions about 10 minutes.
Sauté the finely chopped onions, tomato paste and chiles for 5 minutes in palm oil.
Grind or crush the egusi seeds, and mix them with enough water to make a paste (this can be done in a blender or food processor). Add the paste to the soup with the shrimp or crayfish.
Add the meat and cook until tender.
Add the bitterleaf 10 minutes before the end of cooking time.