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2. The Igbo
2.1. The “White” View of the Igbo
2.4. Proverbs and Stories
2.5. Tolerance and Notion of Truth
2.6. Wealth and Manliness
3. Mission and Colonisation
3.2. The Missionary Characters
3.3. Intertwining of Mission and Colonisation
4. 1. The Changes
4. 2. Analysis of the Changes
In his novel „Things Fall Apart”, Chinua Achebe tells the story of how an Igbo village in the Niger region first encounters Christian missionaries and British colonial governors. He tells this story mainly from the view of the colonised, though in the language of the colonisers. This fact is noteworthy as it underscores Achebe’s aim, not to say his mission, as a writer: “What I think a novelist can teach is something very fundamental, namely to indicate to his readers, to put it crudely, that we in Africa did not hear of culture for the first time from the Europeans.” (qtd. in Gikandi 24). Accordingly, two thirds of “Things Fall Apart” is dedicated to the depiction of the way of life, the cults and traditions, beliefs and social rules of the villages of Umuofia and Mbanta before the coming of the white man.
Although the events related in the novel are fictional, they represent the real happenings of the time in Igboland. (cf. Obielu 181) “Things Fall Apart” is history transformed into literature. Therefore it is worthwhile to take a closer look at its historical background and relevance, which is what I will do in this paper, with a special focus on the role and effect of the Christian missionaries. In order to do this, I shall deal with the 19th century Igbo culture in comparison to the Christian world view, the relation of mission and colonisation, and the missionaries’ impact on the Igbo society.
2. The Igbo
The Igbo (or Ibo) are still today one of the biggest ethnic group in what is now Nigeria. Ethnologists are at odds about their origin, but most theories suggest that they have moved to the Niger region either from Egypt or from Israel (supposing a relation of the names “Hebrew” and “Igbo”). They brought their iron making technology with them and soon extended their area in wars against the neighbouring peoples (cf. Obielu 30ff).
In this chapter, I want to shed light on how the Europeans predominantly saw the Igbo in the 19th century. Then I want to point out some prominent features of the Igbo culture and society in the context of “Things Fall Apart”, and juxtapose these to the world view the missionaries have brought with them. Thus it will be shown how the cultural characteristics affect the relation between the local people and the white newcomers.
2.1. The “White” View of the Igbo
The first Europeans that observed the Igbo way of life naturally knew little of the aforementioned aspects of the Igbo culture. The anthropologist G. T. Basden writes that “it is a practical impossibility for the European to comprehend fully the subtleties of the native character” and explains: “Let not this be thought strange, for the black man himself does not know his own mind”, since “he is not controlled by logic.” (qtd. in Gikandi 28). Moreover, the Igbo are denied any “history before the coming of the Europeans” (qtd. in Gikandi 27), as stated in a 19th century study by Margery Pelham. Finally, “these people [can] not represent themselves […], since they have no tradition of writing” (Gikandi 27). Simon Gikandi summarizes these statements by asserting that “the colonial tradition represses the African character, African history, and African modes of representation” (27).
This repression certainly springs from a sense of superiority. As Jeffrey D. Sachs points out, “when a society is economically dominant, it is easy for its members to assume that such dominance reflects a deeper superiority – whether religious, racial, genetic, ethnic, cultural or institutional” (36).
With all these factors in mind, it is a corollary to understand that the Europeans of the 19th century believed in bringing culture to primitive savages of Africa: “Es [ist] außer allem Zweifel, daß die Mission durch ihre Einwirkung auf den Einzelnen wie aufs Volksganze eine soziale Umwandlung herbeiführt und dadurch ein Stück Kulturleben schafft, wo vorher keines war” (Steiner 4).
Achebe surely draws a different picture of the matter. The Umuofia elders even show a much greater insight, when they state that the white man “does not understand our customs, just as we do not understand his” (p. 191).
As the “white man” does not understand the cultural background of the Igbo’s strange ways and cults, he can hardly make a fair judgement on them. However, some traditional practises of Umuofia must strike the Europeans as utterly barbarian. Among these are polygamy (see also 2.4.), the condemnation of osu (outcasts), who are compelled to live separated from the village and wear “long, tangled hair” as a “mark of [their] forbidden caste” (p. 156), and the throwing away of twins shortly after their birth (p. 61f); Ikemefuna is killed because “the Oracle of the Hill and the Caves has pronounced it” (p. 57); a child’s dead body is mutilated when it is suspected to be an ogbanje, a child that keeps dying and returning to its mothers womb to get born again. (p. 78)
The inscrutable will of a god or an oracle is generally accepted as reason and justification for these practises – even though from an objective point of view, they must rather be termed violations of human rights.
The reason given for the exclusion of the osu is a spiritual one, namely that an osu is “a person dedicated to a god” (p. 156). Moreover, lawsuits are brought before the egwugwu, the masked spirits of the ancestors (p. 93), and the ancestors are also prayed to with the breaking of the kola nut (p. 6). There seems to be a religious background for almost every paradigm of the Igbo society. D.E.O. Ogudo states that a “deep religiosity permeates all aspects of their life – social, cultural, political” (37). As E.N. Emenyonu observes, “devotion to gods and ancestors is taken for granted”, and “no one dared question the decree of the gods as pronounced by the high priests” (84). While the ancestors play a role in prayer and social rites, the Igbo belief in gods (and God) is thus described by Ogudo: “Along with [their] belief in God (Supreme Being), the Igbo […] believe also in a multitude of minor deities which are […] subordinate to this supreme being” (37).
Given these facts, the major difference between the Christian and the Igbo belief seems obvious: Christians believe in salvation through Jesus Christ and do not worship their ancestors or any spirits of nature. However, the Igbo, despite their ancestral cults and fear of spirits “need no-one to tell them that without God, not even the strongest ‘alusi’ (spirit) can do anything” (F.A. Arinze, qtd. in Ogudo 38).
This God, Chukwu, is not only “generally acknowledged to be the ultimate recipient of every acts of cult” (Ogudo 41), he also shows some strikingly Christian features: “[He] is the supreme head and creator of all things, a benevolent and just God” (B.K. Nwazojie, qtd. in Ogudo 43).
Nevertheless, the Igbo “think it more courteous and more within man’s range to appeal to the spirits to obtain requests from God” (F.A. Arinze, qtd. in Ogudo 40), whereas the Christians exclusively worship the one and only God, according to the Biblical Commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (The Holy Bible. Ex. 20,3). In “Things Fall Apart”, it is at this point that the tensions turn to conflicts: the killing of the sacred python (p. 157) and the unmasking of the egwugwu (p. 186) are both affronts against the belief in spirits.
2.4. Proverbs and Stories
Another significant feature of the Igbo society is the importance of proverbs and stories. As the narrator from “Things Fall Apart” eloquently remarks: “Among the Ibo, the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palmoil with which words are eaten” (p. 7). Gikandi even calls Umuofia a “community in which mastery of figurative language is the core to social survival and control” (39).
Stories, too, play an important social role. In the evening, “each woman and her children told folk stories” (p. 96). Stories manifest the special relationship between Ekwefi and her daughter Ezinma, and stories mark a difference in the socialisation of boys and girls (p. 53). Furthermore, it is often by stories that otherwise inexplicable things are accounted for, for instance the success of the market in Umuike (“They made a powerful medicine”, p. 113) or the scale pattern of the tortoise’s shell (p. 99).
The Igbo’s deep respect for stories shows in Uchendu’s statement: “There is no story that is not true.” (p. 141)
When the missionaries first address the people of Mbanta, their speech surely does not strike the villagers as eloquent. Mr Kiala speaks plainly, without proverbs or figurative expressions; worst of all, he has a “dialect [that] was different and harsh to the ears of Mbanta” (p. 144). In this respect it is emblematic that the villagers’ first reaction is punning on the missionary’s dialect (“Your buttocks understand our language”, p. 145).
The evangelists achieve a much greater effect with their song, which has “the power of plucking at silent and dusty chords in the heart of an Ibo man” (p. 146). The people of Mbanta have probably never heard anything like this “gay and rollicking tune” (p. 146), which stands in contrast to the tunes of “sorrow and grief” (p. 6) Unoka used to play on his flute. Moreover, the story told in the song conveys something unknown, or at least neglected, in the Igbo religion: that there is comfort in the love of God. In the Igbo religion, a man’s only comfort is in his own strength, or at best in that of his clan (cf. p. 17f).
This song and story especially captivate Okonkwo’s sensitive son Nwoye, who has a special relation to stories, as he has always preferred his mother’s animal tales to his father’s bloody war stories. Now it is “the poetry of the new religion” that attracts him and gives him a feeling of relief, despite the “mad logic of trinity” (p. 147).
The novel relates little about how the stories of the Bible were received in Umuofia or Mbanta. But at least for Nwoye they are highly important: “He was already beginning to know some of the simple stories they told” (p. 150).
2.5. Tolerance and Notion of Truth
Uchendu’s acknowledgement that there is some truth in every story is followed by his wise remark: “The world has no end and what is good among one people is an abomination with others” (p. 141). The Igbo in “Things Fall Apart” show a striking awareness of the diversity of cultures (e.g. Obieriku’s eldest brother, p. 73), accompanied by the insight that there is no simple and absolute truth: an Igbo saying goes, “Spirit, your secrets are never completely known” (qtd. in Gikandi 51).
From this dialectic notion of truth emerges a kind of principal tolerance towards foreign ideas and customs (cf. Obielu 154). “It is good that a man should worship the gods and the spirits of his fathers” (p. 190), the egwugwu says. An idiom from the ritual morning prayer also illustrates the ideal of tolerance and hospitality: “Let the kite perch, let the eagle perch. Whichever says the other must not perch, let its wings break off!” (qtd. in Ogudo 42).
However, the villagers’ readiness for hospitality and tolerance has been marred by the news of the destruction of Abame. Yet when the first white man arrives in Mbanta, the people’s initial reaction is guided by neither mistrust nor hospitality, but rather by curiosity: “Every man and woman came out to see the white man” (p. 144).
By the derogatory and ignorant way the missionaries talk of the Igbo deities, they evoke resentment as well as amusement. So the Mbanta elders do “not really want them in their clan” (p. 148), but remain polite in offering them a piece of land in the evil forest. As E.N. Emenyonou a little officiously states: “a stranger who turns unbearably presumptuous and arrogantly insulting automatically forfeits his welcome”, notwithstanding the Igbo custom of “hospitality and effusive generosity to strangers” (85).
The missionaries also challenge the philosophy of co-existence. ‘There is no story that is not true’ also means that there is no belief that is not true – but the missionaries claim that the gods the people of Mbanta worship are “false gods, gods of wood and stone” (p. 145).
In Umuofia, the clan’s tolerant attitude prevents bloodshed after Enoch has desecrated the egwugwu, when the elders allow Reverend Smith to stay and worship his own god (cf. p. 190). It is their awareness of otherness that allows them to be indulgent: “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.” (p. 191)
2.6. Wealth and Manliness
“Age was respected […], but achievement was revered” (p. 8) among the Igbos, so the narrator of “Things Fall Apart” reports. A man’s success in farming, the number of wives and children he has, and the size of his obi (compound), are crucial to his esteem and influence in the clan. The man of repute “wears title as signs of the authority and power that comes with prosperity” (Gikandi 37).
In the agricultural society of Umuofia, the basis and epitome of wealth is the yam, “the king of crops” (p. 23). “Yam stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed” (p. 33). Wealth and manliness mutually imply each other, and both rate high with the Igbo.
This ideal of wealth and manliness is one to which Christian teaching is clearly opposed. Jesus himself expressly turned towards the weak and the poor. Hence it is not surprising, that in Mbanta, those who fail to meet the Igbo standard of success and hard work are the first to convert to the new faith: “None of them was a man of title. They were mostly the kind of people that were called efulefu, worthless, empty men.” (p. 143)
In the argument about whether or not the osu should be admitted in the congregation, Mr Kiaga stresses that “we are all children of God and we must accept these our brothers” (p. 156). That the church accepts the unworthy makes it look weak in the eyes of the clan, but it turns out that it is rather the weakness of the clan, being incapable of integrating all of its members (this point will be elucidated in 4.2).
Another factor is the polygamy practised by the Igbo, who saw wives also as a kind of status symbol. Obielu reports that the missionaries in Igboland struggled to root out polygamy from the beginning (cf. Obielu 97, 159). However, no such instance is mentioned in “Things Fall Apart”.
In Part I (and to some extend Part II) of “Things Fall Apart”, Achebe depicts the Igbo way of life before the contact with the Europeans from an inside perspective, in a narrative voice that David Carroll imagines to be “that of a sympathetic elder who has witnessed time and time again the cycle of seasons” (qtd. in Gikandi 44), and to whom the rules and rituals of this society are perfectly self-evident.
This voice is also a “communal” one, as Derek Wright points out, that provides “eye-witness account of Iboland in the 1890’s […] in which the emphasis is on experience that is shared rather than as it appears to any individual consciousness.” (76) The idea of community is indeed a basic value of the Umuofia (and Mbanta) society: “We are better than animals because we have kinsmen” (p. 165), Uchendu says at Okonkwo’s feast, and another man adds: “We have come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” (p. 167). Also the breaking of the kola nut is primarily a community-rendering ritual.
Derek Wright observes that in Umuofia “the laws governing the punishment of individuals […] are community-enhancing, geared as they are to the maintenance of the whole society” (77). In the dispute between Odukwe and Uzowulu (p. 93), it is the supreme and only criterion” that “the disputants should be reconciled in a way that makes for the peaceful continuation of the tribe” (Wright 77f), rather than to punish the offender according to his crime.
However, a community always defines itself not only by its members, but also by those it excludes. In Umuofia, twins are not accepted into the community, and the osu are excluded. Their exclusion is so absolute that they are not allowed to mix with the free-born and have no opportunity to improve their status (cf. p. 156).
With the Coming of the Europeans, this community undergoes profound changes.
“Umuofia is of course defeated because it is disunited” states Gikandi (35), and indeed, the thing that falls apart is chiefly the village community based on the general commitment to its rules, cults and traditions. As I have shown in the preceding paragraphs, the Christian converts no longer orientate themselves by these coordinates. And so, as more and more people become Christians, the community as we know it from Part I loses its fundament. In Obierika’s words: “[The white man] has won over 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.” (p. 176) Again, it is mainly those who struggle to find their place in the old community of the clan who take their refuge to the new community of the Christians (e.g. Nwoye, Nneka (p. 151) and the osu).
3. Mission & Colonisation
It goes without saying that “mission” and “colonisation” are two different things. Yet in 19th century history, and hence also in “Things Fall Apart”, they are so closely linked, that, especially from the perspective of the Africans, they can hardly be distinguished. I therefore want to point out the fundamental differences as well as the connections of mission and colonisation, and their relevance for the story told in “Things Fall Apart”.
Mission of course goes back to Jesus’ order “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (The Holy Bible. Mt. 28, 19), and seeks to win over converts for the Christian faith.
Colonisation (at least the type practised in Nigeria) is the taking of control over an area (dominion) for economic purposes (cf. Brockhaus, “Kolonialismus”)
With a definition of culture as “the customs and beliefs, art, way of life and social organisation of a particular country” (Oxford), we find that both mission and colonisation inevitably affect culture: Mission is about beliefs and religion, and colonisation concerns not only trade customs, but also local law and government, since the colonisers in Africa established their own government and judicious system, and declaredly wielded power over the native people.
Consequently, the villagers of “Things Fall Apart” oppose this oppression almost from the beginning: “the District Commissioner judged cases in ignorance” (p. 174); the song about “Kotma of the ash buttocks” (p. 175) also expresses their contempt for the white man’s government and its supporters.
With mission, in contrast, there has always been the idea of accommodation, a type of evangelism that is considerate of the native culture and seeks to adapt the Christian belief to the local traditions and world view (cf. Brockhaus, “Akkommodation”). Even the first missionary, the apostle Paul, said that “unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews” (The Holy Bible . 1 Cor. 9,20).
In “Things Fall Apart”, Mr Brown is a representative of this moderate approach to mission.
3.2. The Missionary Characters
At his first appearance in Mbanta, Mr Brown is accompanied by an Igbo interpreter, Mr Kiala, who asserts that “he was one of them, as they could see from his colour and language”, and that “the white man was also their brother, because they were all sons of God” (p. 144f). This declared fraternisation mirrors both a Christian world view and the missionary’s intent to associate with the villagers on an equal footing; and that he lets Mr Kiala speak first (and not only translate) may be taken as a sign of respect for the Igbo and their customs of communication.
Mr Brown is also described as “very firm in restraining his flock from provoking the wrath of the clan”, and he “came to be respected even by the clan, because he trod softly on its faith” (p. 178). He even “made friends with some of the great men of the clan”, and in his discourse with Akunna, he adopts the Igbo name Chukwu for God (cf.p. 179). On one of his “frequent visits to the neighbouring villages”, he is even “presented with a carved elephant tusk, a sign of dignity and rank” (p. 179).
Also his name gives a significant hint: Brown being a compromise between black and white, Mr Brown is indeed a character that mediates between the natives and the Europeans.
His considerateness and diplomacy become evident also in juxtaposition to the methods of his successor Reverend Smith, who “condemned openly Mr Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation” and “saw things as black and white” (p. 184).
Reverend Smith does not seem to care about understanding the Igbo’s way of thinking; instead, he sets great store in “such things as the Trinity and the Sacraments” (p. 184), which are exactly the things that the natives find incomprehensible and awkward (cf. p. 147). He is tough on those who have not entirely given up all of the old superstitions, whereas the “over-zealous converts” now “flourished in full favour” (p. 185).
The substitution of missionaries also marks a general change in the Europeans’ behaviour towards the natives, shifting from supercilious yet benevolent to intolerant and aggressive. This is a turning point in the novel. Under Reverend Smith’s leadership, a “great conflict between church and clan in Umuofia” gathers and is finally touched off when Enoch unmasks the egwugwu (p. 186). When the elders of the clan eventually burn down the “church which Mr Brown had built” (p. 191), it is not only Mr Brown’s church that turns to ashes, but also his policy of accommodation.
3.3. Intertwining of Mission and Colonisation
Although pursuing a basically different aim, the missionaries often depended on the support of the colonial power. In the protectorate treaties between local indigenous governments and the British administration there was usually a stipulation that guaranteed the protection of all white clergymen of the Christian religion (cf. Obielu 162). (Note that in “Things Fall Apart”, the Umuofia elders are imprisoned by the District Commissioner for burning down the church.)
The missionaries also depended on the financial aid the colonial administration granted them. Hence they inevitably wore the stigma of being allied to imperialism (cf. Brockhaus, “Mission”).
The colonisers certainly profited from the missionaries’ efforts: their educational work not only enabled co-operation between locals and Europeans, it also prepared the soil for the establishment of a colonial government. Achebe’s missionary Mr Brown is aware of these connections when he says “that the leaders of the land in the future would be men and women who had learned to read and write” (p. 181).
The Christian faith, despite all efforts to adapt it to the Igbo culture, was chiefly perceived as the white man’s religion. In “Things Fall Apart”, the white man’s religion and the white man’s government always belong together in the eyes of the Umuofians.
So far, I have analysed the encounter of an Igbo society with Christian missionaries, as it is depicted in “Things Fall Apart”. Now, in referring to this analysis, I will turn to the central questions of this paper: What is the actual effect of the missionaries on the societies of Umuofia and Mbanta? Do things really fall apart because of them?
4.1. The Changes
According to what has been shown in 2.1., the missionaries strongly believed in the effect of their work and strived to change (that is, in their sense: improve) the indigenous society.
Summing up the points made in chapter 2 of this paper, it seems evident that the missionaries do cause a number of fundamental changes in the lives of the villagers: They challenge their belief, telling stories yet unheard of; they reject their customs and values and condemn their gods. The community splits up as a consequence of their influence. In their wake, the colonisers establish their suppressive government.
Yet Ernest N. Emenyonu’s claim that the Christian missionaries “convert the people from their old ways and religious beliefs and practises […] by sheer force of an obtrusive dogma” (85) cannot hold. Instead of an ‘obtrusive dogma’, it is the attractiveness of the new faith to all those who found themselves disadvantaged in some way or other under the old one; later on, it is also the attractiveness of the mission school, due to its connection with the colonial government. And although the Christians show some aggressive traits, ‘sheer force’ is always left to the colonial power.
In the Europeans’ way of dealing with the local people, there is a development from dialogue to confrontation to suppression. Dialogue is what Mr Brown stands for; violence erupts under Reverend Smith’s policy of confrontation, but Christian ethics prevent his church from going any further than provocation (cf. p. 188). Consequently, in the dramatic finale of the novel, when the Umuofia elders are imprisoned and maltreated (p. 194f), it is no more a religious conflict between the clan and the Christians, but a political conflict between the clan and the colonial government.
4.2. Analysis of the Changes
On close examination of the mechanics of the social upheaval in “Things Fall Apart”, the missionaries do not play such a decisive role as it seems at first sight.
Derek Wright states that “it is now a critical commonplace that the coming of the white man’s missionary Christianity is only an indirect influence, as much a symptom as a cause” (79), bringing into play W.B. Yeats’ model of history. According to Yeats, every civilisation gives way to another due to “its inability to contain all human impulses within one enclosed scheme of value”, and will consequently be “replaced by all that it overlooked or undervalued, all that its own heritage had incapacitated it from understanding” (Wright 79). I have already shown in this paper what the major weak points of Umuofia’s civilisation are, namely its strict though arbitrary exclusion of certain individuals, and its valuing a man only according to his strength and achievement (and one might add the belief in a somehow physical power of evil spirits; cf. p. 149). So what happens in Achebe’s novel is not a head-on collision of two antagonistic cultures, but rather that “things collapse from within before they are overwhelmed from without and that one process is continuous with the other” (Wright 79). Wright’s statement that “it is a hallmark of [the Yeatsian] pattern that the misfits and rejects of one civilisation become the ready converts for the conquering faith of another one” (80) is also very well in line with the findings described in chapter 2 of this paper.
Now that the historical-critical analysis has led to the result that evangelism and colonisation are merely the occasion, not the cause, for things to fall apart, it must be noted that the novel also presents the opposite point of view. It is the point of view of the protagonist, Okonkwo. In his eyes, everything was perfectly in order before the missionaries came and undermined this very order. The Umuofia community falls apart not because of its own unconscious shortcomings, but because the white intruders (and Okonkwo does not distinguish between missionaries and colonisers) have not been fought back in time (“We should have killed the white man if you had listened to me”, p. 195). Reading the novel as a piece of literature, this view, subjective as it is, must be considered just as true as the historical (Yeatsian) analysis, for it is presented as the truth that Okonkwo believes in. This tension is not resolved, but its effect becomes visible in the end: Umuofia manages to adapt to the new situation (cf. p. 178), “it changes in order to go on” (Wright 81), whereas Okonkwo, constituting a rigid element in the otherwise highly flexible community, breaks under the force of these rapid changes.
The role of the missionaries in “Things Fall Apart” is a complex one. First of all, from the Yeatsian viewpoint, the changes they bring about are mostly predetermined by the way the Igbo society is constructed. From this follows that those aspects of Christianity that are neglected in the world view of the Igbo must be of special importance. These are the love of God that includes every-one without difference, and the disbelief in the power of spirits and ancestors.
Yet Achebe tells the story rather from the Igbo point of view, and therefore one must allow that the missionaries at least set the tone for these changes. There is a certain antagonism of clan versus church from the beginning, but under Mr Brown’s policy of accommodation, the situation remains tense but calm. That the conflicts that flare up under Reverend Smith’s policy of confrontation soon shift from religious to political is for a good deal due to the church’s close relation to colonial government. The eruption of violence towards the end of the novel and Okonkwo’s death are in direct relation to the change in the way mission is carried out.
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