A Critical Analysis of Achebe’s Presentation of the Umuofian Society Before the Arrival of Colonial Masters


Chinua Achebe (Photo credit: briggz5d)

Chinua Achebe is the author of the novel ‘Things Fall Apart.’ Achebe was born in 1930. He hails from Ogidi, Nigeria. Achebe is the most celebrated African novelist. Things Fall Apart, published in 1958 is his most famous novel.

Achebe is the author of other novels such as, ‘No Longer at Ease’, ‘Arrow of God’, ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ and so on. He has won many prizes, awards, and over twenty honorary doctorates have been conferred on him in countries like Great Britain, the United States, Canada, and Nigeria. Chinua was married to Christie – and they had four children. He lived and lectured in the United States.

Achebe coined the title of his book from lines of W.B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming.” The lines are

          Turning and turning in the widening gyre
 The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
           Things Fall Apart; The center cannot hold;
      Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

In the genre of the development of the African novel, Things Fall Apart belongs to The Culture Clash Phase. This novel is divided into three parts.

Chinua Achebe - Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart (Photo credit: lungstruck)

Part one exhaustively deals with the indigenous, pre-colonial, traditional Igboland (chapters 1-13). Part two deals with the protagonist, Okonkwo in Exile at Mbanta, his matriarchal village (chapters 14-19). Part three is about the final showdown that leads to Okonkwo’s hamartia or tragedy, which leads the end of the book.

Okonkwo is the hero in the novel. In this text, Achebe tells us about what happens in Igboland; that is, their religion, cultural attitude and tradition prior to the arrival of the White man in his mission of colonization. During this time of colonization we realize that there is a clash between African and Western cultures, and the conflict rages.

Since the advent of the White man, the indigenous people experience a split. Some of the members of Umuofian society (one of the nine villages) are converted to Christianity and others remain loyal to their traditional system.

Okonkwo utterly fails in his effort to root out Christianity and its influence because he did not receive the anticipated cooperation of his clansmen. Like a fish, he is thrown to a dry land, and this leads to his fatal demise. In his failure, frustration, and lack of resourcefulness to face the consequences of executing a court messenger, Okonkwo eventually commits suicide.

Achebe presents a society that is at one point indigenous, pre-colonial, and traditional. In the other section of this literary work, the Umuofian society is influenced by colonial masters, and this inevitably led to the relegation of the tradition, culture, and administration of the clan to the backwaters.

In Achebe’s masterful presentation of the outlook of Nigeria’s Iboland prior to the post-colonial era, the following observations are made.
First, the members of the society practiced traditional worship or religion. It is argued that in West African Traditional Religion, the people worshipped gods. Their lives are influenced by these gods, and they adhere to them. At the command of the gods, Ikemefuna is executed (chapter 7).

These gods exhibit unusual behavior. In their speeches, they refer to human beings as “bodies.” Their influence on the society is, on one hand, positive because they resolve conflicts as in the case of Uzowulo versus his wife (chapter 10). Justice in this case is administered by egwugwu. On the other hand, their influence is negative because whatever decisions these gods make have dominant effect. In chapter 11, for example, Chielo (“The Priestess of Agbala, the oracle of the Hills and Caves”) takes away Ezinma to the shrine of the oracle of the Hills and Caves without the consent of her parents, Okonkwo and Ekwefi.

Second, the society contracts marriage by both conventional and unconventional means. However, both kinds of marriage are acceptable. An example of the former is in chapter 11, where Ekwefi marries to Okonkwo. In chapter 12, Ibe weds Akweki. The marriage contracted in chapter 12 is somewhat classical since it places premium on bride price and consensus of both relatives of the bride and bridegroom. The bride uses brazen anklet and she presents a cock to the musicians. The marriage ceremony is chapter 12 is fantastic! It is a colorful and memorable feast where everyone eats to his or her fill, and drinks plenty of palm-wine! Professional dancers and girls entertain people at delightful feasts like this!

Third, communal life is a case in point. Oral tradition runs throughout the novel.  According to Achebe, “ Proverbs are the palmoil with which words are eaten.” When the moon shines brightly in the sky, folktale stories, myths and riddles are told. This practice is prevalent across Africa, especially in the countryside. In chapter 11, for example, Ekwefi and Ezinma tell each other stories.

This is a society where people share one another’s feelings for better or for worse. They believe in sharing kola-nuts between hosts and guests. They believe that this practice can be used to pacify one’s anger or wrath. Additionally, they share and drink palm-wine delightfully.

Fourth, traditional beliefs and practices are common since this society practices West African Traditional Religion. They believe in the Obanje Syndrome (chapter 9). The irony of the matter is that these obanje children that are mutilated after death as a means of preventing them being born twice or more times come back to be born just to die afterwards. In the case of Ezinma (an obanje), she was prevented from dying by a powerful medicine man.

The Umuofian society also believes in ancestral veneration. They believe that ancestors play pivotal roles in their lives. The people believe in oracles such as the oracle of the Hills and Caves (chapter 7).

Fifth, they undertake social activities including feastings, and other practices where male chauvinism dominates. Brasen anklets are worn by married women as a sign of submission to their husbands. The highest position of eminence attained by a female is that of a Chielo.

Sixth, the leadership administrative set up is one that comprises council of elders and spirits. In decision-making, more often than not, all the males gather to deliberate on matters of clanal interest, and make conclusion. The egwugwu is the last and final court (chapter 10). In the incidence of husband-wife saga, the egwugwu is not bent on apportioning blames, but enhances peaceful conflict management and resolution.

Seventh, premium is placed on status. There are four titles that a man can achieve in Okonkwo’s clan. One gains eminence by virtue of titles achieved. Leadership emergence is also a function financial prosperity. Also, it is as a result of the number of wives and children in one’s household – what the society views as “maximized manhood.” Okonkwo achieves all but one title. He wanted the highest title; he considers his seven years in prison as “seven wasted years.” He is in despair (chapters 14-19).
However, he knew that his chi (personal god) was not made for great things. So, his potential was not fully maximized.

Eight, the political arena is one that is championed by chiefs, elders, and title-holders. Punishment is prescribed for culprits. In terms of political decisions, women make little or no contribution, and men without titles are considered inadequate, worthless or efulefu.

Finally, in relation to funeral rites, we see Ezeudu’s funeral ceremony. It is important to note that the shortcomings of this traditional indigenous Igboland society. Human sacrifice is a common practice. Ikemefuna is executed (chapter 7). Classical worldview sees human sacrifice as barbaric, negative, and devilish.

The Osu Syndrome is also evident. These Osu’s were outcasts. They are contemptible to the entire society. Ordinary men and women are not permitted to contract marriage with an Osu. In Scriptures, Apostle Paul is quoted as saying, “There is neither bond nor free; neither Greek nor Jew.” Christian worldview generally shuns at this state of affairs. These people prefer male children to female children. The sick people in this community are isolated and left to die. Unuoka, for example had swollen foot and swollen stomach, and he was considered as an abomination to the land. In consequence of that, he was thrown to the evil forest. You may imagine how direly such people needed medication in order to be cured so that they will become healthy and profitable members of the society. All these people needed was compassionate evidence-based medical attention and therapy.

The society also practiced the derogatory act of throwing away children. The new religion, Christianity does not approve this practice; no wonder, Mr. Smith suspends one of the members of the church who consented with her husband to throw away their twin children in the evil forest. At the advent of colonial masters, the political, economic, and social systems are questioned and revolutionized. The new political system of the society is one in which council of elders, chiefs, and egwugwu’s are relegated to the background in order to facilitate a well-organized political system characterized by commissioners, court messengers, and so on.

In terms of the economic system, Achebe objectively recreates the history of the Umuofian society (the history of Africa as a whole). He highlights the improvements that the colonial masters bring. There is trade, education, and other forms of development. This society, clearly presented by Achebe (chapters 14-19) is improved, whereby the twins that were previously thrown away are shown love, and they grow well. Achebe makes the society real to the reader. He is a connoisseur and his literary work is philosophical. Like Thomas Hardy, Dr. Chinua Achebe uses gloomy presentation of characters and ideas:

‘What has happened to that piece of land in conflict?’ asked Okonkwo. ‘The white man’s court has decided that it should belong to Nnama’s family, who had given much money to the white man’s messengers and interpreter.’ ‘Does the white man understand our custom about land?’ ‘How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.’ (PP. 124,125).


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