By Laksiri Fernando –
One of the penetrating novels that I have ever read was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. When I read it for the first time, sometime back, Okonkwo’s character reminded me of Silidu in Leonard Wolf’s Village in the Jungle. Both Okonkwo and Silidu indulged in violence, of course in different ways, but ended up in a similar tragedy.
I read the novel for the second time in late 2014 by purpose, impending Mahinda Rajapaksa’s fall or even predicting it. Okonkwo reminded me of Mahinda this time. Ironically, he also came from Hambantota like Silidu. But Silidu didn’t indulge in violence against innocents like Okonkwo or Rajapaksas.’ Those were the differences. This occasional story was in fact written after Rajapaksas’ fall in early 2015, to draw some lessons for myself, but now published with few changes. It is more fitting to publish it now given the efforts on the part of some to repeat the cycle again.
The background to Okonkwo’s story is the conflict between the ‘white man’ and his Christian mission, on the one hand, and the traditional tribal society in Nigeria and its beliefs and customs, on the other. Part one of the story portrays the traditional tribal society of the Ibo community with nuanced variations from one village to the other. From the prism of the twenty first century, it is a society of strengths and weaknesses; admirable and abominable customs.
The story centres around Okonkwo, who is the main character. Unoka was his father. “In his day, he was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow.” I am quoting from Achebe with double quotation marks for you to identify. Okonkwo was different. “Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness.”
He was reacting to his father. Authority was also the ethos of the tribal society. “That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush fire.” Tribal societies are closely knit societies. The ‘centre holds.’ Authority, tradition and brutal punishments against violations of tradition are the things that hold the society together. It is full of myths and mysticism. They believed in the Oracle pronounced by a witch type woman called Agbala. She is a priestess. Everyone had a Chi and that is a personal god. If Chi is favourable, you are well off or otherwise you are doomed.
They had some sort of a democracy. Most of the decisions concerning the village were taken by the elders or the kindred meeting. All other family decisions were taken by the head of the family or the man. Okonkwo had three wives. They lived in separate huts with respective children in Okonkwo’s compound. Okonkwo had his Obi. That was a large living quarter. The set up was very much similar to what the Vedda’s had in Sri Lanka until recently. I have seen them during Thisa Harmy’s time in early 1970s.
Once, “Okonkwo was provoked to justifiable anger by his youngest wife, who went to plait her hair at her friend’s house and did not return early enough to cook the afternoon meal.” This was like a modern-day quarrel in an old fashion marriage in the Sri Lankan or Indian society. The tradition was each wife to cook a plate for the husband and bring one by one to his Obi.
“Where is Ojiugo?” he asked the second wife.
“She has gone to plait her hair.”
“Where are her children? Did she taken them?” he asked them with unusual coolness and restraint. It was the Week of Peace.
“They are here,” answered his first wife.
“Did she ask you to feed them before she went?”
“Yes,” lied the first wife trying to minimize Ojiugo’s thoughtlessness.
Okonkwo knew she was not speaking the truth. “And when she returned he beat her very heavily. In his anger, he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace.” This was like indulging in violence during peace time or breaking humanitarian law during war time.
This was not appreciated in the community. “Okonkwo’s neighbours heard his wife crying and sent their voices over the compound walls to ask what was the matter. Some of them came over to see for themselves. It was unheard-of to beat somebody during the sacred week.” Okonkwo committed a great evil in the eyes of the tradition. The priest of the earth goddess, Ani, called on Okonkwo’s Obi. He declared:
“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.” Because it was the Week of Peace. Okonkwo was punished.
That was not the downfall of Okonkwo. That was the beginning. Okonkwo was too authoritarian. That was not warranted or permitted by the tradition. Okonkwo had a sort of an adopted son, Ikemefuna. He was brought to the village as a payment from another village in settlement of a dispute. That was some time ago. Now he was part of the family and Okonkwo liked him.
However, after the appearance of Locusts on the village, which was considered a bad omen, the elders decided to kill the boy. It was permitted as he was an outsider or a son of another village. The Oracle of the Hills and Caves had pronounced it. When Ogbuefi Ezeudu, the oldest man in the village came to know about it he came to Okonkwo and said “That boy calls you father. Do not bear hand in his death.” Okonkwo didn’t listen. He said the elders have decided to kill the boy.
“Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him. They will take him outside Umuofia as is the custom, and kill him there. But I want you to have nothing to do with it. He calls you his father.”
Okonkwo did not heed the advice. He wanted to avoid the feeling of weakness or failure. That was the moral degeneration of Okonkwo. When his own son, Nwoye, came to realize that his father had killed his ‘brother,’ he was disdainful of him. Okonkwo was not the only one who was responsible for the ‘things falling apart.’ But according to Achebe’s story he was symbolic.
There were several other similar events that led to Okonkwo’s downfall. It was not only his down fall, but the downfall of the whole clan. One day a white man appeared. “He was not an albino. He was quite different. He was riding an iron horse. The first people who saw him ran away, but he stood beckoning to them. In the end, the fearless ones went near and even touched him. The elders consulted their Oracle and it told them that the strange man would break their clan and spread destruction among them.” So, they killed him.”
“What did the white man say before they killed him?” asked Uchendu.
“He said nothing,” answered one of Obierika’s companions.
There was a long silence. Uchendu ground his teeth together audibly. Then he burst out: “Never kill a man who says nothing. Those men of Abame were fools. What did they know about the man?”
He ground his teeth again and told a story to illustrate his point. This story is also telling.
“Mother Kite once sent her daughter to bring food. She went, and brought back a duckling. ‘You have done very well,’ said Mother Kite to her daughter, ‘but tell me, what did the mother of this duckling say when you swooped and carried its child away.’ ‘It said nothing’ replied the young kite. ‘It just walked away.’ ‘You must return the duckling,’ said Mother Kite. ‘There is something ominous behind the silence.’
And so, Daughter Kite returned the duckling and took a chick instead. ‘What did the mother of this chick do?’ asked the Old Kite.’ It cried and raved and cursed me,’ said the young kite. ‘Then we can eat the chick,’ said her mother. ‘There is nothing to fear from someone who shouts.”
Achebe’s story went on, and on, and on. Finally, Okonkwo also killed a white man with his Machete and hanged himself.
Let me finish the story here and highlight its lessons briefly as I see it. Anyway, Achebe’s story ends with Okonkwo’s tragedy.
Lessons of the Story
‘Things fell apart’ because of internal and external reasons. All societies have certain ethics, ethos or customs in both ‘war and peace.’ These moral principles may be akin by and large to all societies and maybe there are universal elements. Okonkwo was one who did not follow some of these sacred principles, for greed of power, wealth or simple pleasure of authority.
He bet his wife during the ‘Week of Peace.’ He killed Ikemefuna who called him father, for fear of feeling weak or failure. Not only he was responsible, but the whole society. The people in Abame killed a ‘white man’ when he was silent. It was against the sacred principles of the tribe. Finally, Okonkwo could not control his rage and killed the head messenger of the ‘white administration’ and hanged himself thereafter in desperation.
Of course, the ‘white man’ also or primarily was responsible for the whole calamity, whatever the pronounced pretexts again for greed of power, wealth or simple lust for authority. But they perhaps followed certain principles although pronounced by themselves for ulterior motives. As Okonkwo’s wise friend, Obierika, said: “Now he [the white man] has won our brothers, 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.”
Achebe took the title of the novel from a verse by W. B. Yeats in The Second Coming which says the following:
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.