The Culture of Things Fall Apart vs. Western Culture
Many societies have beliefs rooted deep in ancient religion. Some beliefs include polygamy, polytheism, and patriarchy, or rule by men. One such culture is that of Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Polytheism and polygamy are custom in the clan, and the role of each family member is very defined. The men are overly domineering. The women and children are treated poorly and often beaten. Life in Achebe's Umuofia would seem very different to someone living in modern day America.
Chinua Achebe's 1959 novel, Things fall Apart, takes place in the 1890s, just before British colonization. The novel focuses on the nine Ibo-speaking villages of Umuofia, which is Ibo for "People of the Forest." Umuofia is the village in which Okonkwo, Achebe's protagonist, prospers in everything and is able to secure his manly position in the tribe. Now known as Nigeria, this land was a primitive agricultural society completely run by men. Umuofia was known, and as Achebe says, ."..feared by all it's neighbors. It was powerful in war and in magic, and priests and medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country" (11). Perhaps, its most powerful and feared magic was called .".. agadi- nwayi, or old woman it had its shrine in the centre of Umuofia ... if anyone was so foolhardy as to pass by the shrine past dusk he was sure to see the old woman"(12). The people of Umuofia are very devoted to their religion and their magic. These ancient beliefs were believed to give the people some sort of power over their oppressors.
One custom of Umuofia that would be very different from Western culture is Polygamy, the practice of having many wives. This custom is practiced in the connected nine villages of Umuofia. In fact, a man's wealth is partially measured by the number of wives he has. A wealthy man described in Things Fall Apart, had nine wives and thirty children. Okonkwo had three wives and eight children.
Polygamy is not something many Americans are accustomed to. Western culture teaches that monogamy, as opposed to polygamy, is the proper, accepted form of marriage. Western culture places that morality into it's people, often from youth. In Western culture, having more than one partner in a marriage is often cause for divorce; however, in Umoufia it is practiced and even encouraged by most of it's people.
Another common belief in Umoufia is polytheism, the worship or belief in many gods. Included in their practice of polytheism is their chi, or personal god. Achebe says, "A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi" (131). He goes on to say, "Unoka was an ill-fated man. He had a bad chi, or personal god, and evil fortune followed him to the grave..." (18). Achebe demonstrates that this is a god of great importance that foretells one's future. It is custom to make sacrifices to the gods, like Unoka in Achebe's novel tells, "Every year... before I put any crop in the earth, I sacrifice A cock to Ani, the owner of all land. I also kill a cock at the shrine of Ifejioku, the god of yams" (17). This shows the importance of ritual, and religion in Ibo society. Okonkwo believed he was successful because he killed a couple of roosters, not because he planted good crops.
Western culture does not practice the ritual of sacrifice; most western religions look down upon living sacrifices. Judaism, a religion that used to practice sacrifices, has now opted to remove the ritual from its teachings in favor of a non-violent rite. Other western religions have never sacrificed animals to their gods. In most states, killing an animal sacrificially would violate animal cruelty laws, which would make animal sacrifices illegal in most of the U.S.
Members in Umuofia's society often found flaws in their beliefs. The religion bothered and hurt many clan members, and aided their convertion to Christianity. Twins, who were outcasts, often left the religions of Umuofia for Christianity. Christianity offered them a spot in society when they would otherwise be hated. The western religions seem to offer the Umuofian people comfort and acceptance in a place were they would be disliked and treated badly. The western religion offered acceptance and love when the Umuofian religions offered banishment, and hate.
Their religious beliefs dictate many customs and rituals including communal ceremonies. These take place in the evenings once the sun becomes less brutal. It is clear when the ceremony is for men by the way that the crowd stands or sits. Even if there are many women, they are forced to stand off to the sides like outsiders. The titled men sit on stools while they wait for the trials to begin. In front of them are nine stools reserved for the egwugwu, the most powerful and secret cult in the clan. Two little groups of people stand at a `respectable' distance from the stools. Before the ceremony begins, it is required for them to speak as loud as they can. Everyone is speaking at once, and it sounds as if they were in a market place. Once an iron gong sounds, every one looks in the direction of the egwugwu house with anticipation. The drums sound and flutes blow, creating a chaotic atmosphere. Once the egwugwu appear, it is instinctive for women and children to flee out of fear. "And when... nine of the greatest masked spirits in the clan come out together, it was a terrifying spectacle," Achebe goes on to say, " (the egwugwu) looked terrible with the smoked raffia body, a huge wooden face painted white except for the round hollow eyes and the charred teeth"(88). Since, the egwugwu are in fact members of the clan, this ritual seems to emphasize that the men of the clan are like gods, and that women and children should fear them.
This religious rite seems like one performed by the American Indians. This ritual would not be done by anyone in today's society. No western religions practice customs as frightening or elaborate as the Umouofian one practiced here.
The men and women of the village hold very set places and positions in the society. In Umuofia, men are considered the rulers and leaders of the village; and just like all patriarchies, the women are viewed as objects. One example of an Umuofian male is the novel's protagonist, Okonkwo. Okonkwo had done well in his life and earned a dominant role in Umuofia, he had three wives with many children, and was a successful farmer of yams. Yams were important because they "stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed" (33). This would show that the people of Umuofia felt that as long as a man could feed his family in abundance, he was successful as the head of the family, and a leader of the clan. As long as Okonkwo showed the qualities of a man: strength, courage, and wealth; he could not be challenged by someone of lesser position. In one village meeting a man contradicted Okonkwo. Achebe wrote, "Without looking at the man Okonkwo had said: `This meeting is for men.' The man who had contradicted him had no titles. That was why he had called him a woman. Okankwo knew how to kill a man's spirit" (26). This shows that Okonkwo knew that calling a man a woman would break his feelings of self-worth and value. Okonkwo's comment also seems to show that all men in Umuofia would be insulted if they were called women. Most of the men of Umuofia seem to hold the same ideals that Okonkwo has, that women were placed here to be objects and trophies, not for companionship and comfort.
The women of Umuofia are treated very poorly. Women were required to cook, clean and take care of the children. If these duties were not taken care of, the women of Umuofia could be beaten. The Ibo tribe not only allowed, but encouraged wife beating. Achebe's Things Fall Apart describes beatings on a few occurrences. The first happens when Okonkwo's second wife does not come home to cook him an afternoon meal. Achebe says, " Okonkwo was provoked to justifiable anger when his youngest wife... did not return early enough to cook the afternoon meal." Achebe goes on to say, "Okonkwo bit his lips as anger welled within him ... when she returned (Okonkwo) beat her heavily" (29). Okonkwo beats Ojiugo again when she calls him a "gun that never shot." Here is one severe case of beating in the tribe, but not involving Okonkwo, Achebe describes as, .".. my sister was with him for nine years... no single day passed ... without him beating the woman." Achebe goes on to say, "when she was pregnant he beat her till she miscarried" (91). After this trial was finished, Achebe quotes one of the elders by saying, "I don't know why such a trifle should come before the egwugwu"(94). This would show the overall indifference towards the suffering and ill-treatment of the women of the tribe. Achebe shows that the Ibo women have valuable parts in the society, though. The women paint the houses of the egwugwu. A man's first wife is also shown additional respect. Achebe shows this through the palm wine ceremony at Nwakibie's obi, "Anasi was the first wife and the others could not drink before her, and so they stood waiting" (20).
The importance of woman's role appears when Okonkwo is exiled to his motherland. His uncle, Uchendu, explains how Okonkwo should view his exile: "A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland" (133). A man has both joy and sorrow in his life and when the bad times come his "mother" is always there to comfort him.
A wealthy man in Okonkwo's village, Nwakibie, was described as having three huge barns, nine wives, and thirty children. These are the factors in prosperity, but the author states that, "No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and children (and especially his women) he was not really a man" (53). Because of this, Okonkwo was pleased when he heard his son grumbling about women. It showed that in the future he would be able to control his women. Achebe expresses the importance of beating women in Umuofian society.
Western culture will no longer accept any type pf beating. American laws dictate that no one can be beaten, prisoners are not even allowed to be beaten. American women are quickly becoming viewed more like men. They are out in the work place in force, and are even on the front lines in war time. Western society has slowly but surely incorporated women in the work place and raised the standard of equality. Such actions would never be allowed in Umuofia.
Achebe goes on to talk about Umuofia's most powerful being, the earth goddess. The fact that the ruler of life, Ani, is female, shows a great contradiction in Okonkwo's beliefs. Ani being feminine could also reflect Okonkwo's failure to seek balance between the manly virtues and the womanly virtues as understood in Umuofia. Each of the disasters that afflicts him can be seen as a crime against the earth. This could also be Okonkwo's tragic flaw: he is a man who lives in a culture that requires a balance between "masculine" and "feminine" that he would not accept. Okonkwo feared being like his father who failed to be a "real man." This may have been the root of his inability to accept the true role of women in society. Okonkwo's idea of manliness is different from that of the clan. Okonkwo felt masculinity was anger and agression, and that was often the only way he acted. Okonkwo feels that showing any other emotion would be considered weak.
Achebe did an exceptional job at showing the idea of balance. Okonkwo is very contrary to his emotions and feelings. His "manly" emotions are very conflicting to his "female" feelings. Okonkwo is so fond of Ikemafuna and Ezinma, in fact he even chases Ezinma into the forest. This act shows that he really is a loving, worried father. Okonkwo has no patience for unsuccessful men and anything considered "womanly", such as music, conversation, and above all else, emotion. His feelings for his daughter are, in his eyes, weak. Weakness contradicts his motives and actions in the end when he kills the white man's messenger. Okonkwo thought he was doing the correct, masculine thing to be done. He thought he could resist cultural change and keep his societal status. It is because he is so angry and narrow minded that Okonkwo cannot accept these changes. In his quick-to-anger attitude he destroys himself; and in the end, he ironically becomes just like his father: a failure.
Achebe's Things Fall Apart brings to light the great cultural differences found in Western society and African society. Most of the differences in the religion, and the role of the male/female in Umuofia would not be easily accepted here in America. Okonkwo did everything he could to fight weakness, and change. In the end he lost, he failed. Achebe teaches us that there is a real balance between what we believe and what Ibo culture teaches. There must be some middle ground where women and men can exist, and excel, as equals. Until we are able to accept our weakness, and treat one another as equals we will all end up like Okonkwo.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Random House, 1994.
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