Chinua Achebe

A great writer passes.

Achebe’s “objective was to challenge stereotypes, myths, and the image of ourselves and our continent, and to recast them through stories.”

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Post Colonial

 

A Brief Recap of the Biafran War (Nigerian Civil War)

From the years 1967 to 1970, the Biafra War was a terrible result of social unrest within Nigeria.  Despite its liberation from Britain in 1960, Nigeria was a country split into three (amongst many) large ethnic groups:  northern Hausa-Fulani, southwest Yoruba and southeast Igbo.  While Christian missionaries were banned from northern, mostly Islamic Nigeria, the British still ruled indirectly through appointed officials.

Southwest and southeast Nigeria embraced education.  The Yoruba consisted of monarchs and appointed officials, but were less conservative allowing upward mobility for their people.  Many of the Yoruban population became civil servants, doctors, lawyers and other professionals.  The southeast Igbo people were very democratic with officials based on heredity and or election.  The Igbo took education and ran with it sending family members to British universities and allowed free discussion of politics.  When Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1960, the north was severely underdeveloped compared to its southern counterpart.  To top this off, an abundance of natural resources such as oil were located in the south thus helping the economy in a globalizing world.

In 1966, a military coup led mostly by revolutionary Nigerian-Igbos overtook the government.  This act was seen as only benefitting the Igbo, so the north launched a counter-coup.  Soon after, large scale massacres of Christian-Igbo living in northern Kano only enhanced tension. 

Michael Peel’s book Swamp Full of Dollars discusses the tipping point when “negotiations failed after General Ojukwu, then the eastern region’s military governor, claimed that General Gowan (from the north) had gone back on agreements made.  In May 1967, General Ojukwu declared the secession of the eastern Biafran Republic, with himself as head of state.  General Gowan imposed an economic blockade on the east, and in July the first shots of the civil war were fired.” 

The war revealed stark regional divisions in post-colonial Nigeria.  With this was Britain’s continued interest in Nigeria’s oil.  Peel notes that “Britain would have a strong influence on the conflict’s outcome.  From start to finish, London’s position was one of unequivocal – and highly controversial – support for the Nigerian federal government.  Arms continued to flow to the then federal capital, Lagos… much to the Lagos authorities’ relief and the Biafran’s dismay.”  Eventually food became a weapon and blockades left the Biafrans malnourished and unable to continue.  Nigeria won and reclaimed the southeast territory.

Estimates of the death total range from half a million to six times that, according to Peel.

Didactic Learning with the Novel

Literature is important because it helps us learn of our past, present and future in a very creative way.  From Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Wole Soyinka’s Death and the Kings’s Horseman to Chris Abani’s Graceland readers can see the evolving country of Nigeria. 

The Pre-Colonial areas practiced no outside influence.  The soon to be called Nigeria understood its own identities and lived quite peacefully.  The tribes “would not go to war without first trying to find a peaceful settlement” (Achebe 12).  For example, a tribe who lost a member due to violence would demand a man price from the offending tribe as atonement for their loss.  While this was still bloodshed, it was far less than the thousands of innocent casualties of war.  There was much respect and understanding that the balance of a tribe was a priority that kept the medium gods and Chukwu [the one God] happy.  Striving for peace was everyone’s ultimate goal. 

Chris Abani’s Graceland, introduces this with the city of Lagos [Yoruba territory] representing a torn apart culture primarily dominated by Western Colonialism.  The result of poverty and education has combined to form a distinct separation amongst social classes.  Instead of rediscovering the authentic tribe, American music and movies provided an influential culture to the split society.  While parts of Lagos are very attractive, others are very run down and malnourished reducing the citizens into illegal behavior.  Abani’s protagonist, Elvis, became a character trying to survive by impersonating Elvis.  Like the city Lagos, Elvis finds himself constantly changing with the outside influence of the characters King and Redemption – the one who “hooked Elvis up spots at the beach and in Iddoh Park and kept the hoods off of him” (Abani 26).  Because of the poverty, these characters find themselves smuggling what they think is cocaine.  Instead, they discover they’re smuggling “six human heads sitting on a pile of ice” (Abani 237). 

The withdrawal of Great Britain and the introduction of American culture after World War II contributed to the globalization of Nigeria.  As foreign interests play their roles, many controversial topics also surface in referencing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in relation to debt.  But the topic of a Post Colonial world is not just about Britain and Nigeria.  Forms of colonialism are seen through many societies.  Here are a few events to consider: 

  • The Conference of Berlin saw that Spain, France, Belgium, Britain, Portugal, Italy and Germany gained fair shares of Africa in 1884-1885. 
  • Early U.S. policy had a “Manifest Destiny” to gain North American territory.  This practice relocated and destroyed thousands of Native American lives. 
  • French governed Martinique focused on the cash crop of Sugar Cane.  This led to exploitive labor practices of uneducated blacks in the 1930s Martinique.  See Euzhan Palcy’s film Sugar Cane Alley

The list goes on as many of our histories are actually far darker than we’d like to acknowledge. Some even say that colonialism and globalization did more harm than good, and if anything good is to come out of this practice it is a valuable lesson learned:  That we should not play the blame game.  Yes, there is a mess, and as Morgan Freeman said in the movie Bruce Almighty:  “No matter how filthy something gets, you can always clean it right up.”

I once saw a Granny D. Haddock quote on an office door at Wright State University reminding us that “life is about living, and helping other real people get through the world with a minimum of pain and a maximum of human dignity.  We simply can’t do that with authoritarian politics and its deadly abstractions.  We have a duty to look after each other.  If we lose control of our government, then we lose our ability to dispense justice and human kindness.  Our first priority today, then, is to defeat utterly those forces of greed and corruption that have come between us and our self-governance.”  This reminded me that we are all in this together.  It reminded me that the future possesses something special for us all… Hope. 

  Below is the Biafran Flag.

Works Cited

Abani, Chris. Graceland. New York: Picador, 2004.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. 50th anniversary Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. 

Peel, Michael.  Swamp Full of Dollars.    Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010.

 

Things Fall Apart

Colonialism in the Name of Religion:  The Coming of a New Age

By Kyle Lyman

European colonialism introduced the coming of a new age for the continent of Africa.  Many traditions and customs fell to pieces as Nigerian author Chinua Achebe recounts in Things Fall Apart.  British expansion introduced the white man, bible in one hand a gun in the other, and his influence over the Nigerian Igbo tribe.  By comparing and contrasting colonial religion to the Igbo animism the motives to assimilate Igbo culture will be better understood.

During the early 1900s, mainstream society believed that African ideology was both primitive and savage.  Most published literature at this time only reflected European perspectives.  Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as an attempt to encourage society to understand both sides of colonialism through a limited, third person perspective.  This lens captured the life of Okonkwo and his reactions to the new age of religion and colonialism.  Through an Igbo perspective Achebe’s audience would perhaps be able to empathize with this now-strangled culture.

Primitiveness in African culture was condemned to be polytheistic, sinful and a lesser religion than Christianity.  Part I gives the audience details of Igbo customs and law, and Part II shows two opposing religions colliding: British Christianity and Igbo animism.  The influence of Christianity was rooted within the Jewish law forming what western society now calls Judeo-Christianity.  This movement alluded to the potential afterlife with one God through His son, Jesus Christ.  Assimilation required a culture to forfeit all false worship of idols and live a life pleasing to Christian worship.  Polytheism was not going to gain entry into Heaven. There was no room to expand upon Christianity and the British never took into account the other side’s worship.  Missionaries sought to impose their own ideology upon the “uncivilized” culture.  They failed to realize that what seems strange to one culture could have been a different interpretation of the very same practice.

Christian missionaries came into Igbo territory [southeast Nigeria] attempting to share the gospel for two reasons:  to save souls and to mold the soon to be Nigerians into a British lifestyle.  One missionary, Mr. Brown, attempted to understand the culture.  Another, Mr. Smith, sought only to cut and divide bringing only the “worthy” into Christianity. Each missionary had it wrong.  They didn’t realize that the fundamental Christian concepts of God were actually similar to Igbo theism.  This is revealed when Mr. Brown debates with a villager named Akunna stating that “We also believe in Him [the One Creator] and call Him Chukwu [Christianity calls him Jehovah].  He made the entire world and the other gods” (Achebe 179).  The problem was that Mr. Brown still believed that the “other gods” [animistic sculptures or human mediums] were idols, not speakers of God.  Without success, Akunna reminds Mr. Brown that if God “finds that he cannot do the work alone, then he appoints” (Achebe 180) others to serve for him. This is quite similar to contemporary ministries in which God is found through charismatic leaders.

Devout tribe members like Akunna refused to convert, but the missionaries were successful in converting Igbo osu, or outcasts, preaching messages such as “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).  Christianity was a religion for the broken and the ambiguous struggle of light vs. darkness was quite appealing for outcasts such as Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye.  Those who didn’t convert had to deal with the establishment of a British government.  Since there was no such thing as separation of Church and State, the monarchy issued a legal system to be established “in Umuofia to protect the followers of their religion.  It was even said that they had hanged a man who killed a missionary” (Achebe 155) upholding God’s law.  This is where the problem lies.  This wasn’t just an attempt to share God’s word.  Instead it was an opportunity for the British to expand territory in an attempt to become a global power.

A British colonist, Frederick Lugard, argued in defense that “a higher civilization was brought into contact with barbarism, with the inevitable result, as history teaches, that boundaries were enlarged in the effort to protect the weak from the tyranny of the strong, to extend the rule of justice and liberty, to protect traders, and missions, and to check anarchy and bloodshed on our frontiers” (Lugard 40).  He goes on to argue that their sole purpose was to protect humanity, but only if a foreign land were under colonial rule.  As my professor Dr. Alpana Sharma stated: “This is language pertaining to British colonial interests, and not the interest of the natives.”  Igbo culture would be forever changed from this experience.

Non-converts recognized this and went on to call the missionaries “efulefu”, or the “worthless empty man who sold his machete and wore the sheath to battle” (Achebe 143).  Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel would consider the “name calling” part of the coming of a new age.  The older existing ideology [Thesis] would always find disharmony with the new ideology [Antithesis].  No generation wants to let go of their habitual customs, but typically the newer generation prevails [Synthesis] (Orenstein).  This is taken into account with Okonkwo fighting back in the end without success.  Upon realizing that there wouldn’t be a revolution he resides to hanging himself.  This act is a symbolic reflection of the dying Thesis being replaced by the post-colonial Synthesis of Igbo culture.  While suicide was an abomination to the Igbo tribe, Okonkwo believed that there was no such thing as Igbo culture anymore – it was now a white man’s culture and he would rather die.

The Igbo learned that “the white man was very clever in coming quietly and peacefully with his religion.  The Igbo tribe were amused at the missionary’s foolishness and allowed them to stay, but the clan could no longer act as one.  The white man put a knife on the things that held them together and now the Igbo tribe has fallen apart” (Achebe 176).  Colonialism in the name of religion brought the coming of a new age that would inevitably leave future Nigeria in political unrest.  An example is the Biafran War.  Had this been about peacefully sharing western gospels, then perhaps Okonkwo and the Igbo tribe would still be alive with a choice in what direction to take.  Achebe’s writing reveals that cultures must always be aware of ulterior motives within an offering.  Things may have fallen apart for Igbo culture, but through their texts an authentic culture and be restored – to an extent.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. 50th anniversary Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

Lugard, Frederick. “The Value of British Rule in the Tropics.” (1920), 35-45.

Matthew. Biblegateway. 25 Apr. 2009 <www.biblegateway.com>.

Orenstein, Dr. David M. “Hegelian and Neo-Hegelian Perspectives.” Philosophy of Social Sciences Class.  Wright State University, Dayton, OH. Jan. 2009.