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. But today Okonkwo reminds me somebody else. It would not be so difficult for you to guess. The tragedy of Okonkwo and Silidu was determined by the conditions of colonial transition in two societies, Nigeria and Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. But today, it can be of post-colonial transformation, painfully in the context of conflicts between communities and with the ‘international community’ in any country, let alone Sri Lanka.
Both Okonkwo and Silidu walked in the ‘war path’ of aiming what they perceived as ‘correct’ by unleashing violence against the supposed perpetrators or enemies. They both ended up unfortunately in immense tragedy. I am not going to compare the two novels or the two characters, but wish to highlight some of the interesting experiences or episodes of the former and that is of Things Fall Apart for pleasure or possible wisdom.
One reason to write this ‘roundabout story’ is what is now happening in Sri Lanka and what happened recently in particularly Libya and other Arab countries. Also look at what is happening in Syria, as I write or you read this. Just because somebody or a clique wants to hold on to power, disregarding all norms of civility, the whole society is suffering.
The background to the story proper 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 hand. The author, Chinua Achebe was born in 1930 and during his time, and that is post 1930s, the conflict was still going on. Achebe furthermore was privy to the events and stories of the previous generations when the conflict was more intense. The setting of the story perhaps goes back to the end of the nineteenth century (although not mentioned) with the initial arrival of the ‘white man’ and missionaries in Nigeria.
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 and also admirable and abominable customs. The story centres on Okonkwo, who was the main character. “Unoka, for that was his father’s name, had died ten years ago. 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 perhaps, to be strong and authoritarian. That 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 presumably 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. In ancient village Sri Lanka it was different. According to the Sinhala Tele-drama, Arundathi, there is a chi – but that is for the whole village of Hathveliya.
They had some sort of democracy. Most of the decisions concerning the village were taken by the elders or the kindred meeting. However, only men were allowed in that, like in ancient Greece or until recently of ‘modern democracy.’ 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 or the indigenous people had in Sri Lanka until recently.
Breach of Peace
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 is like a modern day quarrel in an ‘old fashioned’ marriage in the Sri Lankan or the 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 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.” “You know as well as I do that our forefathers ordained that before we plant any crop in the earth we should observe a week in which a man does not say any harsh word to his neighbour. We live in peace with our fellows to honour our great goddess of the earth without whose blessings our crops will not grow.” Okonkwo was punished.
Killing ‘the Son’
That was not the downfall of Okonkwo. That was the beginning. Okonkwo was too authoritarian. That was not necessary, 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.”
“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” he repeated. 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.
‘White Man’ and the Iron Horse
First the white man had appeared in Abame. The story was something like the following. “During the last planting season a white man had appeared in their clan.” “An albino,” suggested Okonkwo.
“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….And 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.
“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.’ Those men of Abame were fools.”
Achebe’s story went on and on and on. The missionaries came and built a Church right in the middle of Okonkwo’s village, Umuofia. The first priest was one Mr Brown who was a spiritual man. He had good relations with the clan and its elders. He tried to convince the villagers that his religion was correct and superior to the religion of the clan. But villagers also had their own arguments.
“You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,” said Akunna during 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 carve a piece of wood – like that one” (he pointed at), “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.” Akunna argued.
In this way there was a dialogue between the two sides and a growing understanding. Thereafter came a change. Mr Brown was replaced by Mr Smith. He condemned openly Mr Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He virtually saw things as ‘black and white’ so to say.
The conflict became intense. The most violent men in the village, Okonkwo being the head among them, in the form of ancestral spirits, Egwugwu, went against the Church and destroyed it. They also destroyed the houses of the converted Christians. By that time the ‘White Administration’ also had come to the area. The District Commissioner sent his messengers to ask the elders of the village to meet him. When they went to see him they were cunningly arrested. The Commissioner announced the following.
“We have brought a peaceful administration to you and your people so that you may be happy. If any man ill-treats you we shall come to your rescue. But we will not allow you to ill-treat others. We have a court of law where we judge cases and administer justice as it is done in my own country under a Great Queen. I have brought you here because you have joined together to molest others, to burn people’s houses and their places of worship.”
The sermon went on and on. And thereafter, all the heads of the elders were shaved. “They were not given any water to drink, and they could not go out to urinate or go into the bush when they were pressed. …At night the messengers came in to taunt them and to knock their shaven heads together.”
As Achebe said, they were simply humiliated. The whole village was punished and only after the villagers paid a huge fine, that the elders were released from custody. A few days later, almost the whole village, of course except those who were converted to the Church or the colonial administration, gathered to decide what to do.
There were ‘soft liners,’ ‘hard liners’ and very few ‘middle ground’ people and so on. They were arguing and discussing. At this point there was a sudden stir. There were messengers. The head messenger declared, “The white man whose powers you know too well has ordered this meeting to stop.” In a flash Okonkwo drew his Matchet. The messenger crouched to avoid the blow. It was useless. The District Commissioner himself came to arrest Okonkwo.
“Which among you is called Okonkwo?” he asked through his interpreter. “He is not here,” replied Obierika, one of the close friends of Okonkwo, but a wise and sober man. “Where is he?” the Commissioner asked. “We can take you where he is, and perhaps your men will help us.”
The Commissioner could not understand what Obierika meant by ‘perhaps your men will help us.’ “One of the infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words, he thought.” They went into the bush. “Then they came to the tree from which Okonkwo’s body was dangling, and they stopped dead.”
“Why can’t you take him down yourselves?” the Commissioner asked. “It is against our custom,” said one of the men. The Commissioner was puzzled.
Let me finish the story here and highlight its lessons briefly as I see it. Anyway Achebe’s story ends with Okonkwo’s tragedy.
‘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. Most of them are now called Humanitarian and Human Rights Principles. Okonkwo was one who did not follow some of these sacred principles for greed of power, wealth or simple pleasure of authority.
He beats 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 killed 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, like what Mr Smith or the Commissioner demonstrated. But they perhaps followed certain principles although pronounced by themselves for ulterior motives. As Okonkwo’s wise friend, Obierika, said:
“Now he 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.