I recently read about the death of the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, age 82.
It brought me back some years ago when I, being a journalist and coming from South Africa, was asked to be on a panel at an Africa Day here in Ireland. This specific panel had to discuss the debut novel by Chinua Achebe, namely Things Fell Apart.
This novel which deals with the impact of colonialism in Africa, has sold more than 10 million copies and has also been translated into more than 50 languages.
Interesting that a book written and published in the 1950’s could still be so relevant.
It tells the story of Okonkwo, the tragic hero, who finds it extremely hard to come to terms with changes happening in his tribe, the Igbo tribe. He is a very important person in his tribe, being a wrestler and warrior, also proud and hardworking. He doesn’t show any signs of weakness, not emotional, not physical. But his life falls apart when he, by accident, kills a member of his tribe during some kind of ritual. Penalty for this means he and his family have to live in exile for seven years. During this time missionaries and colonial officers from the western world come to his village and introduce their way of life and religion to the villagers. With Okonkwo’s return to his own village, he finds it a different place. The end is tragic when he eventually becomes an eternal outcast from his own tribe.
My immediate feeling when I finished reading this book was that it might have been better if no one had interfered with the Igbo tribe’s way of living, no colonial or missionary interference. But that didn’t happen and in reality it would never have happened.
I remember, we actually had a member of the Igbo tribe on the discussion panel, among other writers and journalists. This man, who wore the traditional costume of the tribe, said that although the tribe still existed, many traditions had changed, which was almost irreversible. An example was that in the book it had been described that if a woman gave birth to twins there were severe implications. Fortunately this is not the case anymore. Another tradition was that a warrior of the tribe always wore a crown on his head. The amount of feathers in his crown would give an indication of the amount of men he had killed. When asked about this, I remember the panel member chuckled to explain that these days the feathers stood for the amount of cows he had hunted.
The fact that this book is still relevant goes for the fact that most people find it hard to accept changes, culture changes. Culture is not static, change is unavoidable and people need to adapt and change to accept others into their circle, wherever they live. In the book Achebe touches on how important it is for people who come from the outside to show respect for people’s culture in order to understand and accept them. Because people usually have a limited view of people of another culture and background, clear communication is key to prevent misunderstanding.
Apparently Achebe deliberately wrote this book in English as he wanted Westerners to read his novel and learn from it. The book also informs about African cultures and traditions, but is also a reminder to Africans to value their heritage.
Chinua Achebe has won numerous prizes and awards for his work. Amongst others he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 in recognition of his contribution to world literature.