Sunday, August 01, 2010

Reflections: Things Fall Apart

Okonkwo is a formidable warrior in Nigeria’s Igbo clan. He grooms himself to be tough and ruthless to erase his shame of a father who wasted his life in idleness and disgrace. Although deep down Okonkwo is a tender-hearted person, he forces himself to wear a prickly, hard facade. He is so fearful of being termed weak-hearted that he overcompensates it by externally portraying himself as a brutal, fearsome person. This characteristic of his leads to impulsive acts of violence and accidents, causing him to be temporarily banished from his village. When Okonkwo returns to his village after his exile, he grapples with the loss of his status. To add to his misery, Christian missionaries had started to slowly dissolve his village’s way of life in the name of civilization and spiritual evangelism. This is a story of the clash between two starkly different ways of living, causing us to question if the meaning of civilization is objective enough for one culture to bulldoze itself on another culture.

Achebe takes his time to introduce the culture of the Igbo tribe - their ways of living, their superstitions and Gods, and their sense of justice and morality. As barbaric and crass as some customs may sound to us, Achebe shows that underneath it all lies the same fundamental elements of human nature - feelings of camaraderie, love, affection, fear, insecurity, jealousy, anger etc. Yet, it is unequivocally apparent to us that the tribe’s ignorance is perpetuating mindless cruelty and misery among its own members. But those like Okonkwo, who are threatened by change, resist coming out of their rigid perspectives. However, the point that Achebe makes is, how much authority do we have to force a change? To us, the tribe’s culture is rudimentary and barbaric, and to them, our culture and views on morality are foolish and incomprehensibly weird. Can there be an objective ruling that one culture is more “civilized” than the other?

Since we are armed with Science and rationality, it’s easier for us to make a solid argument of being on the “right” side. Major civilizations have already traveled the path of medieval barbarism, the renaissance and revolutions to get to this point. It indeed is hard for us to sympathize with a culture teeming with inane superstitions that result in heinous crimes. But the story gives a humane face to such a culture, so that we can look beyond the surface barbarism to connect with a common thread. They too deserve some respect and dignified treatment. And in the end, the choice lies with the individual. It is contradictory if the evangelists themselves resort to aggressive and disruptive means to bring about betterment.

The story vividly captures the essence of African villages. It is a tragic, yet honest depiction of the hypocrisies of colonialism.

1 comment:

SecondSight said...

Only colonialism? I enjoyed the many interpretations/ applications possible of this classic.. and the lyrical writing, of course :)