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).


Religion and Culture

In this article, I will be engaging with Religious Relativism as a cultural religious element versus the Uniqueness of Christ as a Christian worldview. Obviously, we live in a culture where many people are embracing the worldview that ‘everything is relative’, and there is no absolute truth. Part of this essay will point to the fact that security comes from knowing the truth. At the hub of this article is the theological argument that everything isn’t relative – there is absolute truth.

In order to establish that there is an absolute truth, the discussion will border on The Inerrancy of the Bible (i.e., the Bible is true in all it affirms). So, I will answer the controlling question, “Is the Bible Relevant in the 21st Century?” Also, I will attempt a contrastive analysis between inclusivism and exclusivism.

As the Church universal is faced by confusion that is perpetrated by the emergent church, my basic thesis is that “The Bible is the infallible and inerrant word of God which provides the greatest wisdom and hope for  men and women in the 21st Century.”

A bible from 1859.

A bible from 1859. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Surely, the  emergent Church is very liberal, they raise questions without providing answers, they are moving away from the orthodoxy of Scriptures thereby raising such questions as, “Do we hold on to the account of the virgin birth of Jesus?” “Is homosexuality wrong?” Like Lee Strobel or Ravi Zacharias, I am presenting an argument for the credibility of the Christian world-view in a way that is free from arrogance, and sympathetic to the world-views of others.

On one hand, I agree with the argument of the emerging Church (not emergent Church) that there is a prophetic calling for the Church to change. On the other hand, I will emphatically say NO, NO, NO, to those who are clamoring for reforming the core principles of Christianity. Backers of such reform posit lots of arguments that I will not buy. Do I believe in a humble hermeneutic versus a fixation with propositional truth? Yes. I certainly believe in a critical realist epistemology. I also concur that we can go in search of a new ecclesiology (the theological study of the Christian Church) in a way that is positive, creative, and effective.

I do not necessarily kick against a tendency towards a particular kind of inclusivism that gears towards an openness to discovering God in the midst of others. This does not necessarily suggest that anything goes – which is at the heart of this article. Many aspects of postmodern culture try to push the church to make reforms – reforms that are not foundational to Biblical Christianity.

Western culture is becoming post-Christian. This means that the barriers erected out of the world-views of naturalism, universalism, and humanism are very real. Unless we take these barriers into account our evangelistic communication will be understood by an ever-decreasing number of people in the West. That is, even though many people have geographical and cultural access to existing churches, they cannot enter because they are confronted and prevented by the barriers of naturalistic, universalistic, and humanistic world-views.

George Barna, who has been tracking religious beliefs and behavior for more that a quarter-century supplies the following statistics about young people (as it is true among adults) in the United States:

There are many pieces of evidence exposing the theological confusion that plagues the minds of millions of young people.

         Three-quarters believe the following:

  • The devil does not exist – Satan is just a symbol of evil.
  • A good person earns entry into heaven by doing enough good works.
  • People are born morally neutral and make a choice as to become good or bad.
  • All of the sacred books from different religious traditions (i.e., the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and so forth) are merely different forms of expression of the same spiritual truths and principles.
  • Spiritual and moral truth can truth can only be discovered through logic, human reasoning, and personal experience.

                 Two-thirds believe the following:

  • Praying to deceased saints can have a positive effect on your life.
  • The Bible discourages sin but never describes it as an innate behavior.

               Half or more than half contend for the following:

  • Life either has no meaning or the meaning is realized through hard work, which produces the resources to enjoy comfort, and security.
  • There are no absolute standards for morals and ethics.
  • Life is either a random series of acts or predetermined, but we have no real say in how our lives unfold.
  • When Jesus Christ lived on earth, He committed sins.
  • The Bible does not specifically condemn homosexuality.

Placing the above views into context helps us to realize that a very small percentage of people in this culture have a biblical worldview which serves as the foundation for their decision-making. I believe that that there is hope, because God is still in the business of raising gifted and inspiring communicators or preachers who will be strategic in winning people that are skeptical of faith!

I strongly believe that there is something wrong when a great percentage of a given population don’t know what to believe in by the time they are twenty-five years of age. I strongly agree with the proposition that the ‘new morality’ of permissiveness is no morality at all. Inclusivists basically argue that all that one needs to do in order to gain salvation is to be a moralist. They further argue that one does not necessarily need to be a Christian; if a person belongs to another religious faith, he or she only needs to be a good person. The point at issue is that, WE CANNOT SUBSTITUTE MORALITY FOR SALVATION.

There is a spiritual longing in the hearts of people that no one can fill except Jesus! This suggests that Christians need to have the ability to see the religious practices of pagans as an evidence of spiritual interest and preparation for the Gospel. While we attempt to preach and write apologetically, Rick Richardson reminds us that, “Changed lives are our greatest apologetic for the Gospel.”

One of the major problems of relativists is that they pick-and-choose their own beliefs as if they were the creators of their own lives or the universe at large. The following is a student’s argument against absolutism, which is entitled A Quantum-level Shift. This will be followed by a series of expose on John 14: 6-15 where Christ professes himself as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

Einstein showed us that time and space are not absolutes but  relative to each other, that matter and energy are interchange-able, that space is curved, and that what you see depends on your frame of reference. So, scientific truth is relative to the frame of reference of the observer. So is any other sort of truth, in my thinking. Thus your evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is evidence you can see from your frame of reference. That’s all it is. 

Neils Bohr, Max Planch, and Werner Heisenberg are quantum theorists, scientists, who have mapped out a whole new vision of reality. They and others have shown that there is a lower limit to our abilities to measure things. They have shown us that when we measure reality to the smallest level, there is only probability.

Quantum theory has immense consequence for our view of reality. First, logic can no longer be seen as either-or. Either Christianity     is true or false. Reality is also-and. Light is a wave, and it’s also a particle. So, when you give me your arguments, you’re operating with old-time dichotomizing logic that went out with the downfall of Isaac Newton’s world of simple, certain scientific truth. Logic is synthetic. It creates contradiction in order to achieve a new and greater synthesis. 

Second, all reality is participant reality. There is no such thing as an independent, objective world that you can observe without changing. You can’t measure light particles without changing them, without creating the reality you observe. You probably want to make me think that early Christians just reported the historical facts. They helped create facts they observed, and then reported them out of their interpretation of reality. Scientists do that. Writers do that. Religious people like you do that.

Third, uncertainty and chaos rule the behavior of life at small and individual level. Patterns only emerge at the macro level, and those patterns are complicated and beautiful. Your simple explanation of life in black and white is too easy. It erases the complexity and imposes authority on life that is fundamentally spontaneous, a world of probability and playfulness.

Jesus professes Himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life in John 14:6-15. “I am the way….” A ‘way’ or ‘guide’ is most often understood as a person or thing that conducts strangers through a region or serves as a model for conduct. ‘Guide’ is also associated with an old English word for being wise. The meaning of that word suggests that Jesus’ intention is to provide us wisdom necessary to conduct our lives.

There are more than three hundred portions of Scripture that elucidate the point that salvation is only found in Christ Jesus. Indeed, Jesus is the way! Salvation is facilitated with the blood of Jesus.  Obviously, ‘intelligent design’ necessitates a Designer. Christians can be sure that that the Holy Spirit is guiding us. In the face of the daunting dilemmas of life, we will always have Him to turn to, when we are not sure of the way!

Jesus is the messiah. “We have found the messiah”, said Andrew to Simon. Every Israelite knew what that meant. The messiah represented the Jewish hope, as El-Hady does that of Druce, and El-Mahdy that of Islam, both being from the same root, meaning “guide” – He who shall guide His followers to final triumph. Even so, but with greater eagerness did Israel hope for “the Anointed’s” coming. Having once met Him, ordinary avocations might be resumed for a time but His final call found them ready to leave all and follow Him.

Matthew 9-2-7 clearly sets Christ above all the Old Testament order, and commands us to hear Christ above them (Hebrews 1:1; Acts 3:22,23; Matthew 28:18-20; Hebrews 2:1-4; Ephesians 2:19-22. The Old Testament, a valid revelation needs the Head Stone, Romans 16:25,26; Acts 26:22; Galatians 1:8-12; Hebrews 2:1-1,3,4; Colossians 1:13-19; and in type Genesis 41:37-46. “This is my Son, the Beloved, hear Him” Mark 9:7. Who will reject these words?

At the end of this piece, is my personal testimony about how a literal dream about the veracity of the Word of God impacted my conversion from Islamic faith to Christianity. Currently, there is a rising number of testimonies about many Muslims coming to faith in Christ through dreams. The circumstances that led to my acceptance of Jesus Christ as my personal Savior (about a couple of decades ago), evolved around a supernatural change from an uncreative and negative attitude towards the Bible to a very deep sense of value for the Bible. While I was in high school, a classmate called Ernest befriended, but I did not know his motive at that time. Ernest quickly realized that I was a voracious reader. Therefore, he started suggesting certain portions of Scripture that I can read when I am at home!

On a certain day, he suggested that I read II Kings Chapter 2 at home. That evening, I read the story about Elijah taken up to heaven by a by a fiery chariot and it was thrilling. Some thoughts started flooding my mind about the era in which Bible events took place as opposed to the times in which we live. I doubted the relevance of the Bible to me as a modern man. I concluded that the Bible was an obsolete anthology and it cannot be used to influence my generation. I went to bed that night with the persuasion that Economics, Accounting Business Methods and other courses that I was taking can better educate me than the Bible. Also, I decided that whenever anybody discusses the Bible with me, I must dismiss him or her with the argument that the Bible is irrelevant.

In a dream that night, I found myself at the school campus with my friend, Ernest and I told him about the ‘irrelevance’ of the Bible. In our discussion in the dream, he referred me to Romans 15:4. When I woke up, the dream was fresh in my mind, and I read Romans 15:4, KJV, quoted as, “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have HOPE.” You see where I got the ‘HOPE’ thing from! That Scripture grabbed my heart, changed my perspective about the Bible; and I developed reverence for God and His Word.

I started honoring Ernest’s invitation to go to church. I was led to Christ in one of the Bible Study meetings on a glorious Tuesday evening! My life is forever changed.

CT Sowa, Communicating the Gospel of Hope

C.T. Sowa, Communicating the Gospel of Hope

Sometimes the sermons or messages that I heard in Church hit me hard and I did not want to attend another service, but the Holy Spirit kept reminding me of Romans 15:4, “… that we (I) through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.”  The Bible was written for our learning. This presupposes that it is relevant. It is not out-dated. It is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. God uses Paul to educate his generation that even the Old Testament stories as old as they seemed, were written for people of all time so that it will influence everything that concerns humankind. Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord! Free at last! This is my story. Alleluia to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world with His precious blood!