Chinua Achebe, a former radio script writer in Nigeria, eloquently challenges such stereotypes in his novel Things Fall Apart (1958). The story takes place among small tribes, where the protagonist Okonkwo has a simple life with his wives and children. The setting is the village of Umuofia in the Nigeria of the past. British missionaries come into the village, build churches, and gradually gain converts. Triggered by a convert who has killed a prestigious masquerader during a ritual, the battle between villagers and Christians begins. When it ends, Okonkwo kills himself just after murdering one of the missionaries. Throughout the novel, Achebe realistically depicts the life of tribes, which counters wide-spread stereotypes of Africa as an uncivilized continent. His mixture of English and realistic African dialogues is definitely a powerful means of making Western readers aware of such stereotypes.
Why do people see Africans as uncivilized? One reason might stem from their original religion and customs. Unlike Christianity where only one God exists, the Ibo people believe in animism — the idea that objects, places, and all parts of Nature possess spiritual qualities — as well as personal gods, of which everyone has their own.
In Chapter 21, village member Akunna has a discussion with British missionary Mr. Brown. Akunna finds that both religions have one supreme God, but there is a discrepancy in how they perceive natural objects such as rocks and woods. He believes that things themselves are minor gods, which act as “messengers” sent by God, whereas Mr. Brown maintains that God is “the only God and all others are false.” (Achebe 179) Although they do not change their beliefs, the conversation is never intimidating or insulting. Achebe here shows logos and sensitive mind in the tribe; this contradicts the Western stereotype and also teaches us that understanding differences is the first step to respecting each other.
The Ibo culture includes somewhat abhorrent customs, especially from the Western perspective. Clan members must throw away their twin babies in the forest because twins are seen as an offense that infuriates the earth. They also sacrifice a boy from another clan in order to follow the oracle’s words. They believe in ogbanje — a child repeatedly dies and returns to its mother to be reborn. Parents beat their dead child hoping he/she will not go back to the mother’s womb. These customs enrage the British preachers. But Achebe also details the cultural context and reasons behind such customs.
In African tribes back then, death is much more frequent than in Europe. Quite a few children die in their youth. Here, the priestess Chielo talks to Okonkwo’s second wife about her daughter:
“How old is she now?”Because of this, men are allowed to have multiple wives, while women are supposed to bear and raise as many children as possible. The sustainability of the clan can outweigh one individual’s life. Masculinity and discipline are very much valued so that men can control their families and hunt for food, along with fighting hostile clans. In addition, the native people are extremely afraid of gods. They never question their traditional system until the white folks come and take over. Achebe depicts these backgrounds so vividly that readers likely sympathize with such cultural context to some degree.
“She is about ten years old.”
“I think she will stay. They usually stay if they do not die before the age of six.” (Achebe 48)
Another stereotype that Westerners probably hold is that the African tribe members are inherently cruel, violent barbarians. Again, Achebe refutes this idea by utilizing the perspective inside the tribes. In Chapter 15, Okonkwo knows that the village of Abame has been “wiped out” by Westerners. (Achebe 138) One white man with his iron horse came to the village, but people were unable to communicate with him. Afraid of him summoning his friends, Abame’s men kill him. Several weeks later, another white man finds that horse, and, eventually, his armed group slaughters nearly all the Abame villagers. Okonkwo and his friend both conclude that “Never kill a man who says nothing. Those men of Abame were fools.” (Achebe 140) They know that irrational murder may lead to tragic consequences, as their proverb says, “if one finger brought oil it soiled the others.” (Achebe 125)
When Okonkwo and other clan members are being captured by the Christians in Chapter 23, the District Commissioner deceives them with a surprise attack: “There was only a brief scuffle, too brief even to allow the drawing of a sheathed machete. The six men were handcuffed and led into the guardroom.” (Achebe 194) The commissioner harshly tortures Okonkwo until the clan pays a substantial fine. Achebe ironically asks readers, “who is the cruelest?” They are just in a whirl of vengeance; no one is intrinsically brutal.
Achebe finishes the novel with the District Commissioner’s monolog. After finding Okonkwo dead, the Commissioner thinks about writing, such as: “The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. … He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: ‘The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger’.” (Achebe 209) Perhaps we can infer Achebe’s intention from this last paragraph.
Imagine how this Commissioner would write about Okonkwo. He must portray Okonkwo as a violent, inhuman character because Okonkwo kills the Commissioner’s comrade. He would strongly believe that his messengers do good for the world, thus justifying themselves. This is contradictory to Okonkwo, who hangs himself in a painful way, surrounded by his bare-breasted wives. This material can be propaganda for Christianity. And this is what the whole literature industry has long been, in reality.
Achebe, on the other hand, details Okonkwo’s brave story. Okonkwo is a revered man with a title, wives, and children, but also he is racked by misfortune as a result of too much emphasis on manliness.
Literature always brings readers virtual experiences. Achebe’s meticulously-crafted English and vividly-illustrated African life suggest a new way of perceiving the world, although it might be unpleasant sometimes. This is quite meaningful for Westerners who might have been overwhelmed by Western ideologies and self-justifications. By knowing another perspective, we can respect other individuals instead of sticking to inaccurate stereotypes. Otherwise, we can never negotiate with others without violence, as the Umuofia villagers claim to the church, “he does not understand our customs, just as we do not understand his. We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his.” (Achebe 191) Achebe has challenged not only stereotypes of the African but also the “standard view” of world literature by publishing this novel, “Things Fall Apart.”