Chinua Achebe: A Reflection of When Things Fall Apart

The death in a Boston hospital on March 21, 2013 of Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, about whom it was said that his writings were “concerned with universal human communication across racial and cultural boundaries as a means of fostering respect for all people” came just at the start of the UN-sponsored 2013-2022 International Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures. Chinua Achebe as a novelist, professor of African literature in US universities and editor of cultural journals was an important figure in the efforts to share African culture with others and to advance the multiple currents of contemporary African life.

His quartet of major novels Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, No Longer at Ease, and A Man of the People were largely planned as a reflection of pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial life in the Ibo (now more usually written as Igbo) area of southern Nigeria.  The novels, however, were to reflect wider African trends, and have been widely appreciated in other parts of Africa, especially in East Africa where Achebe taught at the University of Kenya.

As is common in much modern African writing, the source of his novels is autobiographic.  He was born of Christian parents whose paternal family had held important village posts both political and religious — the two functions often combined. For Things Fall Apart the title is taken for W.B. Yeats’ poem Second Coming “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The novel is a picture of pre-colonial village society on the eve of colonization and the introduction of Christianity.  Achebe paints an over-idealized picture, underplaying the tensions, struggles for power, and family conflicts that existed in southern Nigerian society.  There is no mention of the impact of either the Atlantic or Saharan slave trade on the society.  However, the picture of a stable, largely harmonious village society is to serve as a sharp contrast to the changes — largely seen as disintegration of what is to follow. Achebe’s basic view is one of a society (which also represents the whole world) steadily disintegrating, falling apart by the impact of centrifugal forces in the political-economic world.

The Arrow of God reflects the early years of British colonialism in southern Nigeria.  Following the First World War, Lord Lugard was the chief theorist of colonial policy in Nigeria as expressed in his book The Dual Mandate. Lugard knew well that in northern Nigeria there were strong Islamic chiefs who controlled the population and thus suggested the extension of “Indirect Rule,” with chiefs who would be responsible for order and thus made responsible for colonial administration.  The problem with “indirect rule” arose in southern Nigeria where there were no powerful chiefs, especially among the Ibo, a highly independent people, with only clanic chiefs.  Thus the British had to create chiefs. The villagers often proposed “straw men” as chiefs, people who held no local power, but since the English wanted a chief, they would be given a village chief even if he had no authority.  However, some of the straw chiefs took their new role seriously and wanted to have authority.  Arrow of God paints the portrait of a man who had been a religious leader without political power and who is suddenly appointed village chief.  The novel deals with the predictable conflict between the village members, its new chief, and the local British administration — all of whom fail to communicate.

No Longer at Ease takes its title from T.S. Eliot’s poem Journey of the Magi: “We returned to our places,…but no longer at ease here…with an alien people clutching their gods.”  The Magi, the sages of a passing world and the harbingers of a new one, feel themselves torn by the conflicting pulls of both.  Likewise in Africa, Achebe notes, there will be no new golden age but no return either to an age of traditional empires and kingdoms symbolized by the newly chosen names of the states of Ghana and Mali, names of 11th and 12th century African empires.

The last of the quartet, A Man of the People, is the weakest from a literary point of view. It is a satire of the Chief, the Honorable M.A.Nanga, M.P., a school teacher who becomes minister of an unnamed African state with official residences each having seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms, one for each day of the week.

At the end of the novel, there is a change of government. “Overnight everyone begins to shake their heads at the excesses of the last regime, at its graft, oppression and corrupt government; newspapers, the radio, the hitherto silent intellectuals and civil servants — everybody said what a terrible lot,  — and it became public opinion the next morning.”  Manga, M.P. is both corrupt and unprepared for the highly complex obligations in a modern State.

Achebe’s own participation in politics and its tragic complexities came with the May 1967 – January 1970 Biafra-Nigeria civil war. Achebe was both the editor of the cultural journal of Biafra with some ill-defined responsibilities for cultural activities within the break-away state and an informal ambassador-spokesperson for Biafra in the USA and Western Europe where his novels were known.

At the end of the war, he reintegrated academic life in Nigeria but spent more and more time abroad.  After 1990, he was permanently in the USA as professor first at Bard College in New York and later at Brown in Rhode Island — thus his final days in a Boston hospital.  Achebe knew the value of “speaking truth to power” but also the value of not pushing too hard.  As one of his characters says to his son “It is praiseworthy to be brave and fearless, my son, but sometimes it is better to be a coward.  We often stand in the compound of a coward to point at the ruins where a brave man used to live.”  Achebe waited until nearly the end of his life to write his account of his experiences during the Biafra war: There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.

His work as a novelist, a writer of books for children and as an editor made him an important agent of understanding between Africa and the USA and Europe.  His writing was innovative, drawing upon traditions of myth, song and proverbs as well as on oral history of his area and his personal experiences. He has set out a path which others can follow creatively.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.