The book Things Fall Apart remains one of the best books ever written that shows how the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria evolved from practices of barbaric and primitive customs to western civilization, enlightenment, and Christianity.
What was the pattern of conflict between African and Western cultural values?
The Igbo people cherished their traditional customs, values, and beliefs. They saw coming of white men as evil that was only going to break their clan and bring destruction to their society. While Europeans spread civilization in the name of Christianity, the Ibos were not ready to trust them and stuck to their own gods.
Local people were mostly angry because white men were winning converts from their family members. This caused many families to break up. They also felt that white men were mocking the gods they had served and worshipped for a long time. They thought white men blasphemed and insulted their gods. In general, they felt that their sovereignty was threatened by strangers, who had just come to their territory from faraway. “These men must be mad. How else could they say that Ani and Amadioha were harmless? And Idemili and Ogwugwu too. And some of them began to walk away.”
What was the nature of relationship between the rich and the poor in Igbo society?
In contemporary Igbo society, a poor man is considered a failure. He lives an alienated life and is looked upon as being cursed by the gods. He has few friends and usually cannot achieve anything, as it is seen in the case of Unoka. While a rich man is an attraction to women, he also makes friends with kings and igwes of the clan, as evidenced by Okonkwo in the first chapter of the book. Okonkwo was a hard-worker, who enjoyed the fame of having conquered Amalinze, the cat in a wrestling bout. His father, Unoka, on the other hand, was considered a loafer and coward, who spent most of his time drinking palm wine, having fun with friends, and playing the flute. He thrived on merry-making and complacency. Unoka, a lavish spender, was an exact opposite of Okonkwo, who was thrifty. Another difference between the rich and the poor in the customary Igbo society is that rich people are shrewd, while poor people are extravagant. Wealth in the Igbo custom was measured by several indicators: barns of yams and by the number of wives one had. Rich people usually stay away from the poor. During Unoka's life and at the moment of his death Okonkwo kept him at arm’s length. This was because men of Unoka's status were considered poor, and Okonkwo’s greatest fear was to become a failure like his father. “And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible and shameful death”.
The Igbo Culture
Culture is dynamic, and Igbo culture proves this notion in the book. It was demonstrated how barbaric customs, such as sacrificing humans for appeasement and worshipping traditional gods, gave way to Christianity, which European missionaries brought to the clan of Umuofia. Even before the arrival of Europeans people of the clan moved on from some of their gruesome ways of punishing people, who broke native laws and customs. An example was the abolishment of the practice of dragging offenders of the Peace Week through the village until they died. Coming of Europeans played a significant role in many barbaric acts committed in Umuofia. Among the notable acts was killing of twins. It was described in the consequent chapters how Nwoye, Okonkwo’s son, had a change of heart when he heard hymns of missionaries, who came to preach in Mbanta. “The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul-the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed”. Perhaps, many of clan's dwellers had objections against killing twins as well as against other barbaric acts, but they could not speak out for fear of being castigated. This could be seen from Ogbuefi Ezeudu’s plea to Okonkwo not to have a hand in the death of a boy who called him father. The coming of missionaries helped wipe out all doubts that villagers had in their minds.
The Ibo people cared a lot about marriages and celebrated them accordingly. Marriages involved arrangements and celebrations, where the bride-price was as important as the ceremony itself. It also served as a catalyst to the whole event. There were detailed preparations preceding the marriage. These included the “uri”, which referred to a day on which the suitor would bring palm wine not only to bride’s parents and close relatives, but to numerous kinsmen called “umunna”.
As for the dead, men who died without titles and changeling children (children, who repeatedly died and returned to their mothers to be reborn, referred to as "ogbanje" in the book) were buried without appropriate rituals. This could be seen from cases of Unoka and Onwumbiko respectively. On the contrary, men who died with honors were buried in accordance with traditions, as it was seen with Ezeudu. Such deaths were announced with the “ekwe” early in the morning before cockcrow. They were followed by firing of guns, beating of drums, and brandishing of machetes before final rites. It was also one of the events where clan dwellers danced with frenzy and had sightings of warriors and ancestral spirits, who were believed to have come from the underworld. The most unique moment was the arrival of one-handed spirit, who uttered final words to the corpse, beseeching the departed to avenge his/her death on whoever might have caused it.
As with every other custom in Umuofia, the punishment for Okonkwo’s crime was barbaric considering the intent of the crime. His gun went off and killed the son of the deceased that was being buried at that time. Could it be said that the deceased was avenging his death already as one-handed spirit had requested such from the corpse? It was an irony, that men who came the next morning, although bearing no deep-seated hatred towards Okonkwo, set fire to his house, demolished his walls, and killed his animals. Like Obierika asked, “Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently?”
How did things fall apart and what was the outcome?
The whole custom, tradition, and deep-rooted beliefs of Umuofia clan fell apart. The center started to give way with the killing of Ikemefuna. The barbaric act changed Nwoye and affected Okonkwo’s household. Things got worse when Okonkwo was exiled to his mother’s village and had most of his properties destroyed. The climax was the arrival of missionaries. Firstly, one of them was killed. Others came back and were finally able to convert few villagers, among whom was Okonkwo’s son - Nwoye.
When missionaries did not die after building their church on the site in the evil forest, people of Umuofia started accepting that white men’s God was more powerful than all their gods. This made many of them convert to Christian faith. Okonkwo, who was an important person in Umuofia clan, lost a son to white men’s religion. Things changed drastically in Umuofia as more people became drawn to the new religion. “Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women.” He held white men’s religion in contempt until his last days when he took his own life.
It can be said that things fell apart for the better. This is because many barbaric customs were abolished when Christianity was introduced. With Christianity came the right of life for twin babies, who were previously considered evil. The practice of human sacrifice was also abolished, and people began to see things in the new light due to civilization. The coming of Europeans and introduction of Christianity to Igbo community helped stamp out primitive and extremely brutal cultures and traditions that were practiced at that time.