Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is widely acclaimed for its vivid capitulation of the crisis of African society finding itself in transition—that moment where change has become inevitable, but uncertainty remains on how it will happen.
That decisive moment of change in the story happens when Okwonkwo returns to his home village, after being banished to his mother’s land for 7 years. On his return Okwonkwo discovers that things are not the same. The very culture which had made him who he was, and established him as a powerful man in the whole land because he adhered to its traditions, was gone. This realization is what eventually kills him. On the day when the elders of Umuofia village decide that they are not going to fight against the clansman (and their European allies) who have forsaken the tribal life of Umuofia, Okwonkwo hangs himself on a tree.
It cannot be doubted that the harsh realities of the colonial experience hastened the crisis of change that Achebe unfolds. But perhaps that would be to give to the European too much sway! Crisis is after all the natural order of the day when an idea whose time has come causes friction with the old.
In Achebe’s writing, the image of African society before the arrival of the colonial empire is given credibility. We are given a picture of an African community with its own coherent structure that forms the institutional fabric of a universe of meanings and values. We see the life of a vibrant community with its own social rhythms, moving entirely on its own terms, with all the internal tensions typical of human life.
But we are also shown how some of the unresolved tensions in the community; like its treatment of outcasts and women who are barren, or women who are suspected of witchcraft (essentially all those who do not quite fit the mould) becomes the basis for its own destruction. Upon the arrival of the missionaries these are the first people to pull-out of the clan.
So essentially part of the downfall of the community comes as a result of its handling or failure to handle difference. The extent to which a community is able to accommodate difference is related to its ability to withstand external pressures. The life of Umuofia, and the achievement-orientation of its existence—that rewarded athletic men like Okwonkwo and frowned upon the laziness of men like his father Unoka, for example—become the very issues that expose the community’s integrated structure as fraught.
Unoka is an unconventional man. His interests are more in the ‘soft’ skill of flute playing than in the wrestling competitions prized by other men in the village. Okwonkwo’s desire is to be everything that his father is not. He adopts the clan’s masculine ideal:
He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of blood. In Umuofia’s war he was the first to bring home a human head. That was his fifth head, and he was not an old man yet. On great occasions, such as the funeral of a village celebrity he drank his palm-wine from his first human head. (page 8)
The elaborate fan-fare of Okwonkwo’s prestige in warfare and the grotesque cannibalism of its public procession reveal him not only as one who embodies the clan’s social ideal, but also as one who exceeds it.
The culture of Umuofia is kept together by its collection of beliefs that appear at every level of existence, which serve as a means of social control. The laws and customs of the land are endowed with the sacred sanction of the ancestors, but they are carried out by human agencies.
The weakness in the rules and traditions of Okwonkwo’s clan lie in the fact that, although these traditions are given sacred significance, they are ultimately carried out by human beings. For instance, decisions to ban clansmen for offending the ancestors are exercised by the elders of the clan.
So what can we learn from Okwonkwo’s experience in our own take on tradition?
Tradition can be understood as a collection of man-made rituals and ceremonies, and a way of doing things (practises, customs). These are done repeatedly over a long time and are handed down from generation to generation.
But at some point we humans tend to forget that the customs, beliefs, practises and rituals are man-made. They can begin to take on a reality of their own, in a way that can be deeply overwhelming to the individual—who finds him/herself caught in the whims of good intentions from the family and her own will to choose.
In most instances where people have created traditions it is out of a deeply human desire to connect with other human beings, to feel and experience the sense of belonging and coming together. This is a good thing. All means must be made to keep the integrity of this human endeavour.
There arises a problem, however, when tradition changes to obligation. When in order to be in right standing with people, within families, clans and cultures people obliged to participate. When tradition becomes a set of rules and expectations that must be done: That is the point where tradition stops being beautiful. It has turned violent!
Human beings are prone to manipulation in whatever position of power. This is a lesson we have learnt very well in the area of politics. But the difference here is that in tradition, power is assigned a sacred significance, and thus an unquestionable authority. Hidden agendas become concealed in sacred garments of ukuhlonipha and appeasement.
This leaves outmoded ways of looking at the role of women, for example, unquestioned.
We all know that this country has an unusually high rate of rape and domestic abuse. We would be fooling ourselves if we were to simply blame the lack of sex education and poverty for this. The problem may have to do with prevailing attitudes towards women. That men turn a blind eye on. That our convenient interpretations of tradition and culture preserve. Let us take an example:
While it is true that in traditional Zulu culture lobola was understood as a tremendous accolade for any woman, determining a whole set of affirmations such as (1) the seating position during ceremonies, (2) the opportunity to mingle with peers of other married women with their colourful head-gear woven onto their heads. It is also true that sex outside of marriage was extremely frowned upon and any woman found to be pregnant pre-marriage brought dishonor not only to the woman but to the man who had impregnated her.
These two commitments one of lobola and the one of sexual purity held balancing ends of the same cultural and spiritual significance. For to have slept with a woman was to commit your soul to her and vice versa. To hold in high regard lobola without holding regard for sexual purity is to indulge in a double-standard.
Strong supporters of tradition have a tendency of dismissing disagreements by labelling them as Eurocentric. While this may have its uses, the danger in this line of thinking is that it risks becoming the easy response to all disagreement. We can begin to ignore all kinds of perspectives—even good ones—under the arrogance that these are from Europe. It can even start to look as if no good argument can come out from Africans themselves, against anything, without the influence of European surrogates. This can result in a kind of powerlessness, that shuts out self-criticism. In the absence of ‘good sense’ from within, our vision of having legitimate African forms of expression begins to look jaded.
We are then left with rituals without meaning, a false sense of peace and of “getting along”, and forsaken personal convictions. All in the name of being African! The world we create is then closed-in on itself and limited in its capacities to reason and introspect. It becomes driven by inflexible social norms that place a tremendous psychological and moral burden on individuals who may see things differently.
So much of the emancipatory ideals of our freedom are lost when we suppress difference. We too become like that community of Umuofia in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Pretty soon in the arrival of new alternatives, that promise relief from the burden of cultural sensibility, many will flea.
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