Essay by Robert Baah, Associate Professor of Spanish

Photos by Jimi Lott

 

"The first time I read Things Fall Apart, I knew it was a good book," recalls Robert Baah, who was born and raised in Ghana. "I've read it many times since then and every time I see something new." As a youth, Baah gravitated toward the study of the French language. "Ghana is surrounded by French-speaking countries," he explains. In high school, he "fell in love" with the language and planned to make it part of his future career. Later, needing a second language while attending the University of Ghana, Baah decided on Spanish and, he says, "It turned out to be my strength." He's made an intense study of it ever since, but also speaks five other languages, including three African languages. Baah earned a master's degree in Hispanic literature from the University of Alberta, and a doctorate in Spanish literature from USC. He came to SPU as an associate professor of Spanish in 1995.

 

Art as Instrument of Change
Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, is a very rich novel. Set in a Nigerian village at the outset of the 20th century, it is the story of Okonkwo, an Ibo warrior and clan leader struggling to come to terms with the upheaval of his cherished way of life.

Proud, wealthy and respected by the members of his community, Okonkwo values above all his position in traditional Ibo society. With the arrival of Christian missionaries and colonial administrators in his home of Umuofia, however, he fears the loss of everything that is most important to him. As Okonkwo's story unfolds, Things Fall Apart moves steadily toward an inevitable collision between African and European culture and toward its central character's tragic demise.

The richness of the tale lies in many things, including its language and its local flavor. From the inside we glimpse the world of the Ibo people: their customs, rituals, festivals, beliefs and worship. Achebe's point in African Writers on African Writing that "The African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans" is clear from his sympathetic portrayal of a sophisticated and ordered society worthy of respect.

Ultimately, the rich tapestry of Things Fall Apart is rooted in Achebe's philosophy of art. He believes that the African writer cannot tell a story just for the sake of telling, cannot afford to create just for the sake of creating. Artistic endeavor must be an instrument of social change.

For Achebe, "the worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect," and the writer's duty is to "help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost." In this sense, the stakes are very high for African writers. They should know the history of their people and pass it on to posterity, and they should guide their people through the process of historical maturation.

A Proper Sense of History
What does Chinua Achebe mean when he says that the African writer needs a "proper sense of history"? He means that the African writer will be better off not engaging in magical fantasies but instead assimilating in his narratives the historical unfolding of his world. This assimilation may not be idealistic, magical or sentimental; instead it must be critical.

Achebe believes that the African writer should give a truthful picture of his or her society and should not at any point gloss over its weaknesses. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo's friend Obierika often plays the foil to Okonkwo's rigid traditionalism. Obierika, the measured skeptic, questions time-honored customs. He is skeptical, for instance, about the custom that forbids titled men from climbing tall palm trees. "I don't know how we got that law," he tells Okonkwo. "In many other clans a man of title is not forbidden to climb the palm tree." And he does not understand why he had to throw away his wife's twin children, or why Okonkwo is banished for an inadvertent crime.

Ogbuefi Ezeudu, perhaps the oldest man in Umuofia, also questions tradition. He recoils at the fact that people who die in another village during the Week of Peace are not buried but cast into the Evil Forest. "It is a bad custom which these people observe because they lack understanding," he says. Other characters clearly question such practices as the haggling over dowries and the exclusion of victims of the "swelling-disease" from all communal activities.

In my view, Achebe's standing today as one of Africa's premier novelists is due in large part to this strategy of "double articulation." He legitimizes Ibo cultural heritage, but he also delegitimizes those aspects of the culture that do more harm than good. He presents a balanced view of strength and weakness. He is honest.

In Things Fall Apart, we learn that pre-colonial Iboland was not intact, that things may well have been falling apart before Western civilization even arrived there. There were already cracks in the walls of Umuofia. One could say that "things were collapsing from within before they were overwhelmed from without."

It is in this context that W.B. Yeats, from whom Achebe borrowed the novel's title, becomes important. Yeats' vision of history includes what Achebe calls "a succession of alternating civilizations, each giving way to another." Or, as the Ibo proverb says, "Wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it."

Call to Wisdom
Throughout his works, Achebe's outlook on life is marked by open-mindedness, flexibility and suppleness. In Things Fall Apart, with the clear exception of Okonkwo, the majority of his characters survive the advent of the white man's culture because they move beyond culture as it is and adapt to new possibilities. They are the voices of restraint, and collectively they exemplify Achebe's voice of wisdom.

Wisdom rejects rigidity, recklessness, extremism, impetuousness and impatience qualities that are all so dear to Okonkwo. Yes, Achebe believes in nationalism, the need to protect one's cultural heritage. He is against colonialism and its attendant exploitation. He despises the invitation to throw away one's own identity in exchange for an alien one. But he is also aware that customs may change over time, that the best way to deal with changing times is not a fanatical adherence to culture alone.

That is why Okonkwo is not Achebe's best spokesman. Okonkwo's nationalism, characterized by violence, virility and fanaticism, runs contrary to Achebe's judicious love of country. In my view, the character in Things Fall Apart who best represents Achebe's voice of wisdom is Obierika. Two sets of terms are linked in his name: "obi" heart, soul or mind, and "rika" great, fulsome, capacious. Biodun Jeyifo writes that together, Obierika would imply "great-heartedness, generosity of spirit, capacity for fellow-feeling, the mind/soul/heart of an individual, a group, a people [as] infinite in its potentialities."

What is in Things Fall Apart for the Seattle Pacific community? Most importantly, I think, Achebe invites us to become people of wisdom, and people of gentle and generous hearts. Gentle and generous hearts welcome inclusiveness, understand redemption, and shun all manner of oppression.

The voice of Gamaleil in Acts 5 is very present, I believe, in Things Fall Apart. If you recall, Gamaleil, a Pharisee and teacher of the law, stopped an angry crowd from killing the apostles by preaching restraint: "Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. . . . For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God."

We are using the phrase "the scholarship of wisdom" to describe the particular kind of academic pursuit in which Seattle Pacific is engaged. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe uses the voice of wisdom to tell a true story of Africa. I believe that wherever wisdom can be found, we must embrace it even if it comes to us all the way from Nigeria.

 

 
By Donald Holsinger, Professor of History

Professor Donald Holsinger teaches "The West and the World" to sophomores.

 

In the tradition established last fall with the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the Seattle Pacific University community is again drawn together in discussion about a Common Curriculum text, Things Fall Apart. Written by a renowned Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, this addition to the "SPU Canon" was selected by the teaching team for the sophomore University Core class, UCOR 2000 "The West and the World."

Historical in approach, "The West and the World" traces the development of the modern West within an emerging global world from the time of Columbus to the present. The new course affirms the best of our Western heritage while at the same time encouraging students to cultivate a global perspective by viewing the West from non-Western vantage points. Achebe's Things Fall Apart is admirably suited to this task.

Choosing a text was not easy, however. Our course development team examined scores of recommended novels, biographies and ethnographies, and consulted students and colleagues across the University and around the world. The book we were seeking had to be concise and engaging, while raising the central questions of "The West and the World." Having narrowed our search to three finalists, we found ourselves at an impasse. We turned to an SPU student consultant to help us take a fresh look. Her review of the texts helped tip the balance in favor of Things Fall Apart. Enthusiastic discussions at fall faculty and staff retreats, along with responses from students, have affirmed the team's choice.

Born in 1930 in the British colony of Nigeria, Chinua Achebe grew up with his feet planted in two cultures. He was raised in the parsonage of his evangelist father, an early convert to Christianity, while some of his close relatives remained firmly attached to traditional Ibo culture. Achebe excelled in school and majored in religious studies, English literature, and history at University College in Ibadan. As a student reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, he was faced with the disturbing fact that "he" was supposed to be one of the nameless, faceless "savages" lurking in the shadows of Africa. Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, can be seen as his answer to the colonial myths that were prevalent about "traditional Africa."

The novel is a remarkably complex portrait of both traditional Ibo society and the changes brought about by British intervention near the end of the 19th century. It romanticizes neither one culture nor the other, but holds up a mirror that allows the reader to see himself or herself in relation to both. Profoundly and richly African, Things Fall Apart contains numerous biblical metaphors and has often been compared to great Greek tragedies. Like other classic works of literature, it both evokes and provokes, inviting the reader to return again and again to experience new subtleties of meaning.

The course description for "The West and the World" concludes this way: "The virtue of hope motivates service as the Christian response to a constantly changing world." The SPU faculty's desire is that as students read and reflect on Things Fall Apart, they will experience a sense of things falling together, of balance restored, and of hope that leads to serving God and global neighbors in a spirit of humility and love.


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