Interviewer: Welcome Sir, Please introduce our readers to todays book.
NC: The book on review is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It takes it’s theme and title from a poem by an irish poet:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
the falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
W.B Yeats – The Second Coming.
The German translation is titled Okonkwo. This is apt considering Okonkwo’s character is a worthy page turner. Every reader is an avid spectator to the macabre dance between Okonkwo and his clan before and during colonialism.
Interviewer: Are there any intriguing characters? Please give references.
NC: There are several. I will mention 10.
Okonkwo: Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the cat. Amalinze was the greatest wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the cat because his back would never touch the earth.It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a sport of the wild for seven days and seven nights. (Pg 3)
Unoka (Okonkwo’s father) : Okoye was a great talker and he spoke for a long time, skirting round the subject and then hitting it finally. In short, he was asking Unoka to return the two hundred cowries he had borrowed from him more than two years before. As soon as Unoka understood what his friend was driving at, he burst out laughing. He laughed loud and long and his voice rang out clear as the ogene, and tears stood in his eyes. His visitor was amazed, and sat speechless. At the end, Unoka was able to give an answer between fresh outbursts of mirth.
Look at the wall, he said, pointing at the far wall of his hut which was rubbed with red earth so that it shone. Look at those lines of chalk, and Okoye saw groups of short perpendicular lines drawn in chalk. There were five groups, and the smallest group had ten lines. Unoka had a sense of the dramatic and so he allowed a pause, in which he took a punch of snuff and sneezed noisily, and then he continued. Each group there represents a debt to someone, and each stroke is one hundred cowries. You see, I owe that man a thousand cowries. But he has not come to wake me up in the morning for it. I shall pay you but not today. Our elders say that the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them. I shall pay my big debts first. And he took another pinch of snuff, as if that was paying the big debts first, Okoye rolled his goatskin and departed. (Pg 6)
Ikemefuna: He was by nature a very lively boy and he gradually became popular in Okonkwo’s household, especially with the children. Okonkwo’s son , Nwoye who was two years younger, became quite inseparable from him because he seemed to know everything. He could fashion out flutes from bamboo stems and even from the elephant grass. He knew the names of all the birds and and could set clever traps for the little bush rodents. And he knew which trees made the strongest bows.
Even Okonkwo himself became very fond of the boy – inwardly of course. Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength. He therefore treated Ikemefuna as he treated everybody else – with a heavy hand. But there was no doubt that he liked the boy. Sometimes when he went to big village meetings or communal ancestral feasts he allowed Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son carrying his stool and his goat skin bag. And indeed, Ikemefuna called him father. (Pg 20)
Nwoye: As soon as his father walked in that night, Nwoye knew that Ikemefuna had been killed, and something seemed to give way inside him like the snapping of a tightened bow. He did not cry. He just hung limp. He had had the same kind of feeling not long ago, during the last harvest season. Every child loved the harvest season. Those who were big enough to carry even a few yams in a tiny basket went with grown- ups to the farm. And if they could not help in digging up the yams, they could gather firewood together for roasting the ones that would be eaten there on the farm. This roasted yam soaked in red palm oil and eaten in the open farm was sweeter than any meal at home. It was after such a day at the farm during the last harvest that Nwoye had felt for the first time a snapping inside him like the one he now felt. They were returning home with baskets of yams from a distant farm across the stream when they had heard the voice of an infant crying in the thick forest. A vague chill had descended on him and his head had seemed to swell, like a solitary walker at night who passes an evil spirit on the way. Then something had given way inside him. It descended on him again, this feeling, when his father walked in, that night after killing Ikemefuna. (Pg 43)
Ekwefi: Ekwefi had suffered a great deal in her life. She had borne ten children and nine of them had died in infancy, usually before the age of three. As she buried one child after the another her sorrow gave way to despair and then to grim resignation. The birth of her children which should be a woman’s crowning glory, became for Ekwefi mere physical agony devoid of promise. The naming ceremony after seven market weeks became an empty ritual. Her deepening despair found expression in the names she gave her children. One of them was a pathetic cry, Onwumbiko – Death I implore you. But death took no notice, Onwumbiko died in his fifteenth month. The next child was a girl, Ozoemena- may it not happen again. She died in her eleventh month, and two others after her. Ekwefi then became defiant and called her next child Onwuma – death may please himself. And he did (Pg 54)
Egwugwu (ancestral spirit): But the most dreaded of all was yet to come. He was always alone and was shaped like a coffin. A sickly odour hung in the air wherever he went and flies went with him. Even the greatest medicine men took shelter when he was near. Many years ago, another egwugwu had dared to stand his ground before him and had been transfixed to the spot for two days. This one had only one hand and with it carried a basket full of water. (Pg 85)
Royal Python: The royal python was the most revered animal in Mbanta and all the surrounding clans. It was addressed as “our father” and was allowed to go wherever it chose, even into peoples beds. It ate rats in the house and sometimes swallowed hen’s eggs. If a clansman killed a royal python accidentally, he made sacrifices of atonement and performed an expensive burial ceremony such as was done for a great man. (Pg 112)
White man: But apart from the church, the white man had also brought a government. They had built a court where the District commisioner judged cases in ignorance. He had court messengers who brought men to him for trial. Many of these messengers came from Umuru on the bank 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 the 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 the christians. They were beaten in prison by the kotma and made to work every morning clearing the government compound and fetching wood for the white commisioner and the court messengers. Some of these prisoners were men of title who should be above such mean occupation. They were grieved by the indignity and mourned for their neglected farms. As they cut grass in the morning, the younger men sang in time with the strokes of their matchets:
kotma of the ashy buttocks
he is fit to be a slave
the white man has no sense
he is fit to be a slave
The court messengers did not like to be called ashy buttocks and they beat the men. But the song spread in Umuofia. (Pg 124)
Reverend James Smith: Mr Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith and he was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battle field in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness. He spoke in his sermons about sheep and goats and about wheat and tares. He believed in slaying the prophets of Baal. (Pg 130)
District Commissioner: The commissioner went away, taking three or four of the soldiers with him. In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learnt a number of things. One of them was that a District commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting down a hanged man from the tree. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him. In the book which he planned to write he would stress that point. As he walked back to the court he thought about that book. Everyday brought him some new material. The story of the man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The pacification of the primitive tribes of the Lower Niger. (Pg 147)
Interviewer: What should a first time reader expect?
NC: The settings are village like, however the book says among the Ibo, the art of conversation is regarded very highly. Chinua Achebe fully gives expression to this through proverbs or wise sayings: the palm oil with which words are eaten. A few:
One cannot live by the bank of a river and wash his hands with spittle.
A child cannot pay for it’s mothers milk.
An animal rubs its aching flank against a tree, a man asks his kinsman to scratch him.
Living fire begets cold impotent ash.
The clan was like a lizard: if it lost it’s tail, it soon grew another.
Never kill a man who says nothing. There is nothing to fear from someone who shouts.
Those whose palm kernels were cracked by benevolent spirits should not forget to be humble.
When mother cow is chewing grass, it’s young ones watch it’s mouth.
When the moon is shining, the cripple becomes hungry for a walk.
Looking at a king’s mouth, one would think he never sucked his mother’s breast.
A childs’s fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which it’s mother puts into it’s palm.
Effort was also made on the part of the natives to engage and understand the white man and his religion:
Mr Brown preached against such excess of zeal. Everything was possible, he told his energetic flock, but everything was not expedient. And so Mr Brown came to be respected even by the clan because he trod softly on it’s faith. He made friends with some of the great men of the clan and on one of his frequent visits to the neighbouring villages he had been presented with a carved elephant tusk, which was a sign of dignity and rank. One of the great men in that village was called Akunna; and he had given one of his sons to be taught the white man’s knowledge in Mr Brown’s school.
Whenever Mr Brown went to that village he spent long hours with Akunna in his obi talking through an interpreter about religion. Neither of them succeeded in converting the other but they learnt more about their different beliefs.
You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth, said Akunna on one of Mr Brown’s visits. We also believe in him and call him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.
There are no other gods, said Mr Brown. Chukwu is the only God and all others are false. You carved a piece of wood – like that one (he pointed at the rafters from which Akunna’s carved ikenga hung) and you call it a god. But it is still a piece of wood.
Yes, said Akunna. It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But he made them for his messengers so that we could approach him through them. It is like yourself, you are the head of your church.
No, protested Mr Brown. The head of my church is God himself. I know, said Akunna, but there must be a head in this world among men. Somebody like yourself must be the head here. The head of my church in that sense is in England. That is exactly what I am saying. The head of your church is in your country. He has sent you here as his messenger. And you have also appointed your own messengers and servants. Or let me take another example, the District commissioner. He is sent by your king.
They have a queen, said the interpreter on his own account. Your queen sends her messenger, the District commissioner. He finds that he cannot do the work alone and so he appoints kotma to help him. It is the same with God, or Chukwu. He appoints the smaller gods to help him because his work is too great for one person.
You should not think of him as a person, said Mr Brown. It is because you do so that you imagine he must need helpers. And the worst about it is that you give all the worship to the false gods you have created.
That is not so. We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu. It is right to do so. We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them more because we are afraid to worry their master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka – “Chukwu is supreme”. (Pg 126)
Corruption – ever present in the Nigerian dictionary makes an introduction in page 139 -On the morning after the village crier’s appeal the men of Umuofia met in the market place and decided to collect without delay two hundred and fifty bags of cowries to appease the white man. They did not know that fifty bags would go to the court messengers, who had increased the fine for that purpose. (Pg 139)
Interviewer: Any parting words?
NC: Things fall apart has been adopted in several educational curricula. It reinforced my belief in motherhood: A child belongs to his/her father, but when the father beats the child, it seeks sympathy in his/her mother. 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. (Pg 94)
I learnt the solution to ending an ogbanje’s cycle of deaths and births: And this faith had been strengthened when a year or so ago a medicine man had dug up Ezinma’s iyi -uwa. Everyone knew then that she would live because her bond with the world of ogbanje had been broken. Ekwefi was reassured. But such was her anxiety for her daughter that she could nto rid herself completely of her fear. And although she believed that the iyi – uwa which had been dug up was genuine, she could not ignore the fact that some really evil children sometimes misled people into digging up a specious one.
But Ezinma’s iyi – uwa had looked real enough. It was a smooth pebble wrapped in a dirty rag. (Pg 56)
I found out why newly married men are addicted to palm wine. A quote had me in stitches – A snake was never called by it’s name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string.
Finally, I wondered if Ezeudu’s sixteen year old son had a hand in Ezeudu’s death. This is because Okonkwo inadvertently shot him after the dreaded one handed egwugwu’s speech.
Ezeudu! he called in his guttural voice. If you had been poor in your last life I would have asked you to be rich. If you had been a coward, I would have asked you to bring courage. But you were a fearless warrior. If you had died young, I would have asked you to get life. But you lived long. So I shall ask you to come again the way you came before. If your death was the death of nature, go in peace. But if a man caused it, do not allow him a moment’s rest. He danced a few more steps and went away. (Pg 86)
Interviewer: Thank you for your time Sir.
NC: You are welcome, always a pleasure.
©Ndi Charles 2015