Catastrophic Colonization Kills

Chris Abani, in his TED Talk, states that if you want to learn about the African culture, read the literature. All of the literature–not just Things Fall Apart. Of course, I heavily agree with this, especially after taking a world literature class with Dr. Clemens where I was asked to think of everything that came to mind when I thought of ‘Africa.’ Although Things Fall Apart is not wholly representative of African cultures (obviously…think of how many different cultures, clans, etc.), it is a powerful story that dictates the horrors of colonization.

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Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart is powerful, tragic, and, quite honestly, a bit overwhelming. In the first third of the novel, we are introduced to Okonkwo, a brutally violent, misogynistic warrior from Umuofia. We are introduced to the culture of the Umuofia clan and we are told that there are other clans with similar, yet different cultures and practices. In this section, Achebe establishes the Umuofian culture as distinct. The most important aspects of this beginning section of the novel, in my opinion, are this establishment of a culture. Thinking back to when I was sitting in my world literature class, I remember (ashamedly) being one of the people that had a somewhat monolithic view of Africa; it was not completely monolithic, but my thinking definitely needed a reality check (which I certainly got as I read Things Fall Apart for world literature and imagesdiscussed the novel in depth, and again, as I revisit the novel and consider its discussions about colonization). Now, older and not quite as naive, I adore the first third of Things Fall Apart because Achebe is fighting the idea that Africa is monolithic by exploring Umuofia, as well as a few of the other surrounding clans. At one point in the novel, Okonkwo and his friend Obierika discuss the differences between customs of different clans as they discuss the customs of bride-prices. Noting the differences, Obierika’s brother smartly claims,” What is good in one place is bad in another place” (Achebe 74). We are introduced to the traditions and customs of the Umuofian clan, not of every clan. That is a very important distinction.

By part two of the novel, we begin to see the creeping effects of colonization. Okonkwo, who has been banned from his clan for seven years for killing, is paid a visit by his friend Obierika. Since Okonkwo is not in Umuofia, he is still unaware of the wrath of the colonizer. Woefully, Obierika explains that Abame, first, was wiped out after a white man had appeared in their clan. Despite the Oracle’s warning that “the strange man would break their clan and spread destruction among them” and that “the other white men were on their way,” the Abame clan stood no chance against the ruthless hand of the oppressor (Achebe 138). It is here that fear begins to disperse. Unfortunately, Uchendu, Okonkwo’s relative, begins to understand the oppression that will soon snuff out entire clans just as they did Abame: “What is good among one people is an abomination with others” (Achebe 141). This quotation is a woeful foreshadowing of what is to come for the other clans.

For the remainder of the novel, we witness the horrors of colonization and the oppression associated with it as the white man settles into different African clans. It started with Abame, but soon after, Umuofia was affected too, as missionaries were built that represented the beliefs of these foreign white men. One of the most tragic moments associated with colonization occurs when Nwoye, son of Okonkwo, falls into the trap of the oppressor; he is appealed to their strange ways. Although only a brief paragraph is dedicated to this, we come to understand how tragic this is as Nwoye declares, “I am one of them,” and then when asked about his father’s well-being replies, “I don’t know. He is not my father” (Achebe 144). This is a critical example of some of the effects of colonization such as a type of ‘brain-washing’ (for lack of a better term) of the native. Nwoye, at this point, disregards his customs and his culture and even his family for a new life, the life set forth by the colonizer.

Achebe continues to paint the horrid picture of colonization as he describes the oppressors and their beliefs that they intend to instill upon the natives. The colonizers, or the white men from the western world, begin to establish the civilized/savage dichotomy. According to Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, “The term ‘savage’ has performed an important  service in Eurocentric epistemologies and imperial/colonial ideologies…it takes the West as norm and defines the rest as inferior, different, deviant, subordinate, and sub-ordinateable (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 192). This idea is depicted through the colonizers in the novel as they declare that their religions, customs, and beliefs are the ‘norm.’ This is specifically depicted when the colonizers land in Mbanta (where Okonkwo is staying during his ban from Umuofia).

“He told them that they worshipped false gods, gods of wood and stone….Evil men and all the beaten who in their blindness bowed to wood and stone were thrown into a fire that burned like palm-oil. But good men who worshipped the true God lived forever in His happy kingdom” (Achebe 145).

The quotation above explains this savage/civilized dichotomy. It depicts how the colonized believed that anyone who wasn’t from the ‘west’ or white was savage, uncivilized, or in this case, a heathen.

As if this is not already tragic and upsetting to read, the horrors of colonization continue to unravel as the novel progresses. We learn that “the white man had not only brought a religion but also a government” (Achebe 155). The colonizer is moving in, settling down, and ripping up anything that belongs to the native. He is stripped the natives of their own traditions, customs, and now, their own governmental system.

Okonkwo and Uchendu alike see the horrors and refuses to succumb to the white man’s beliefs, despite some of his fellow clan members new followings. Uchendu sadly proclaims,

“An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse the gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you; I fear for the clan” (Achebe 167).

The colonizers continue to poison the customs and traditions of the Umuofia, Mbanta, and other clans, and things begin to look bleak for those natives that have not succumbed to the will of the white man.

“It is already too late. Our own men and our sons have joined the ranks of the stranger. They have joined his religion and they help to uphold his government…He (the white man) says out customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that are customs are bad…The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (Achebe 176).

The above quotation by Obierika perfectly states the effects of colonization as it strips away the native’s customs and forces his own Eurocentric beliefs upon the native. The colonizer moves in with his own Christian religion, with his own missionary, with his own school that teaches Eite man told him so. He loses his identity as a native, images chinuaas a Umuofian, just because the white man told him so. And that, that is the tragedy of colonization. It’s ability to manipulate an entire land of peoples, instill fear in them, control them, thrust their ownurocentric customs and language, as well as his own government. Tragically, the native begins to lose who he is. He no longer is Nwoye, but he is now Isaac because the Eurocentric beliefs upon them because the native’s beliefs are that of a heathen or a savage. It is so tragic, so debilitating, that it eventually causes Okonkwo to take his own life, which is a sin in his Umuofian customs and beliefs. Okonkwo, by the end of the novel, can no longer bear the hand of the oppressor. He never succumbs, rather he tries to fight it, but that is no longer enough. Okonkwo the warrior proves to be defeated by the tragic wrath of colonization.

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One thought on “Catastrophic Colonization Kills

  1. Laura,
    Thank you for the great post. Reading through what you had to say about “Things Fall Apart” helped me synthesize my thoughts about the novel. I haven’t read this piece for years, and obviously the second time around I am looking at the words from a completely different lens. Just like you, I abashedly had a very monolithic view of Africa the first time I interacted with this text. Albeit a view from a person with good intentions, it still had me cringing at various accounts of customs of the Umofian culture. Reading this time around I forced myself to stop wincing at the various customs that are contrary to what the Western world has taught me, and I’ve found that I’ve grasped so much more about the overall message that Achebe wished to convey through this remarkable piece.

    Liked by 1 person

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