'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe. I encountered post-colonial Nigeria a few years ago with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 'Half of a Yellow Sun' but 'Things Fall Apart' takes us way back in time to pre-colonial times and follows the life of Okonkwo and his family and village and the impact of the arrival of Christian missionaries and colonialists.
Reading a book like this evokes some very mixed reactions. To begin with there is cultural curiosity. The story comes to the reader from a tradition of oral story telling, and it reads as if it is being spoken aloud, almost spontaneously but not invented in the moment, it is a story that has been told many times. The purpose of the story is to say, 'this is how we live, these are our traditions'.
"Oknokwe's prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his three wives had her own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi. The barn was built against one end of the red walls, and long stacks of yams stood out prosperously in it. At the opposite end of the compound was a shed for the goats, and each wife built a small attachment to her hut for the hens. Near the barn was a small house, the 'medicine house' or shrine where Okonkwe kept the wooden symbols of his personal god and of his ancestral spirits. He worshipped them with sacrifices of kola nut, food and palm wine, and offered prayers to them on behalf of himself, his three wives and eight children." (p.11)
"'Listen to me,' he said when Okonkwe had spoken. 'You are not a stranger to Umuofia. You know well as I do that our forefathers ordained that before we plant any crops in the earth we should observe a week in which a man does not say a harsh word to his neighbour. We live in peace with our fellows to honour our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops will not grow. You have committed a great evil.' He brought down his staff heavily on the floor. 'Your wife was at fault, but even if you came into your obi and found her lover on top of her, you would still have committed a great evil to beat her.' His staff came down again. 'The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish.' His tone was changed from anger to command. 'You will bring to the shrine of Ani tomorrow one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries.' He rose and left the hut." (p.23)
Although I enjoyed the story of the community and their lives I felt very aware of how remote their experiences and beliefs were from my own. A young boy, Ikemefuna, comes to live with Okonkwe's household, as a tribute from another village after a young woman is killed. He becomes part of their family for three years, at the end of which he is taken into the bush and killed. At this point I was not shocked but saddened that the human relationships between the people in the story were trumped by these arbitrary cultural rules. You see in the portrayal of their community all sorts of valuable things that modern western society has lost, but I would not want to go back there. The book was not inviting me to make moral judgements so I tried not to; as a reader you can only try to understand the motivations and actions of the characters based on their lives and experiences rather than your own, but sometimes it is hard.
When Okonkwe's gun caused the accidental death of a young boy he and his family are exiled from the village for seven years, and he bears this punishment with fortitude. On his return he finds things have changed a great deal with the arrival of christian missionaries. It is at this point that my reactions began to change. It shows how much, in spite of myself, I did form a bond with the character of Okonkwe. The missionaries, and in their wake a new colonial administration, are here to civilise the natives, to make them change their ways, by force if necessary.
"But apart from the church, the white men had also brought a government. They had built a court where the District Commissioner judged cases in ignorance. He had court messengers who brought men to him for trial. Many of these messengers came from Umaru on the banks of the Great River, where the white men first came many years before and where they had built the centre of their religion and trade and government. These court messengers were greatly hated in Umuofia because they were foreigners and also arrogant and high-handed. They were called kotma, and because of their ash-coloured shorts they earned the additional name of Ashy-Buttocks. They guarded the prison, which was full of men who had offended against the white man's law. Some of these prisoners had thrown away their twins and some had molested Christians. They were beaten in the prison by the kotma and made to work every morning clearing the government compound and fetching wood for the white Commissioner and the court messengers. Some of the prisoners were men of title who should be above such mean occupation. They were grieved by the indignity and mourned their neglected farms." (p.127-8)
Finally there is a confrontation when Enoch, one of the converts, unmasks one of the egwugwu (ceremonial masked spirits) during the annual worship of the earth goddess. There is a showdown with Reverend Smith:
"Mr Smith said to his interpreter. 'Tell them to go away from here. This is the house of God and I will not see it desecrated.'
Okeke interpreted wisely to the spirits and leaders of Umuofia. 'The white man says he is happy you have come to him with your grievances, like friends. He will be happy if you leave the matter in his hands.'
'We cannot leave the matter in his hands because 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. Let him go away.'
Mr Smith stood his ground. But he could not save his church. When the egwugwu went away the red-earth church which Mr Brown had built was a pile of earth and ashes. And for the moment the spirit of the clan was pacified." (p.138-9)
But things can only get worse and having studied the colonial history of Africa I know where it is heading. As an atheist I read with horror as the British come in and replaces one set of superstitions with another set of superstitions. As a resident of the colonial nation my response becomes one of shame, at the arrogance with which the colonial government rides roughshod over every aspect of the indigenous culture and beliefs. I watched Okonkwe's suffering as he sees the village and way of life he loves being destroyed, and he knows he is powerless to prevent it. It's not even subtle; it is simultaneously bludgeoned with a cross and throttled with a British flag. This is not fiction, this is the modern history of Africa. The ending left me subdued and horrified by turns.