A Clash Of Civilizations Writ Small

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Title: Things Fall Apart

Rating: 5 Stars

Things Fall Apart is not just well written but tells a story from a point of view that I’ve never read before.

It is the story of Okonkwo, growing up and living in a small African village, apparently somewhere in Niger. The story appears to be taking place in the late 19th century.

Okonkwo’s father is a weak man more prone to playing his instruments than building up his wealth. He borrows money and seldom pays it back. He is considered a weak man in the village.

Okonkwo is humiliated by his father, and after his father dies and as he grows into adulthood, is determined to erase the stain of his father’s actions. Okonkwo grows up to become a successful farmer. He has multiple wives and many children. He becomes a powerful warrior and a respected elder in his clan.

Even though he becomes successful, he never loses his brutal nature. He beats his wives and children. He even beats one of his wives during one of his clan’s designated peaceful time. This is a break in tradition that he must atone for through sacrifice to their local gods.

He treats his sons roughly. His eldest son, who he expects to take on his duties, has more of the air of his music loving grandfather, much to Okonkwo’s disgust and disappointment. He essentially adopts a boy from another village. The elders of his clan requires that the boy be sacrificed. Although he has grown fond of the boy and the boy turns to him for safety as others from the clan attempt to kill him, Okonkwo does not hesitate to kill the boy himself to prove his strength.

Eventually there is an accident involving Okonkwo’s gun that forces him into seven years of exile. While there, Okonkwo hears rumors of white men intruding upon the local villages. In fact, after the clan in one village kills one of the white men, the white men come back and raze the village.

When Okonkwo comes back from his exile, a Christian church has been built in his village. His eldest son becomes a member of the church, an action for which Okonkwo disowns him.

In disgust, Okonkwo waits for the village elders to rise up and to fight the white men. Okonkwo sees the white men as a threat to the village and to its practices. He is dismayed at the weakness and inaction of the elders.

Ultimately, there is a riot in which the Christian church is destroyed. The white men come back for justice. This leads to a fatal crossroads for Okonkwo and his traditional life and the Christian ways that are on the ascendant.

This story is the clash of civilizations. What is interesting here is that the point of view is that of the African civilization. The tribal customs go back before time. They have defined the ways of the clans, everything from market days to marriage ceremonies to justice.

Achebe does not paint these customs as perfect. Clearly they are absolutely patriarchical. They are violent. The elders rely upon superstition to rule over their clan.

However, even given that, these traditions have provided stability to the clans for all memory.

The white men come and, even though clearly well meaning (simple earnest missionaries), they completely disrupt these timeless traditions. Sons no longer obey fathers,  sacred religious customs are no longer observed, and previous village outcasts are welcomed into the Christian church.

Although to the modern western eye, these seem to be advances, such things fray at the timeless traditions that have knit together the clans. At this crucial point in time, as one set of traditions begin to supplant the older set, there will be inevitable clashes and there will be inevitable pain and suffering.

Things Fall Apart tells the story of this junction with great sensitivity.

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