Fifty years ago, Africa was a continent struggling to find identity and freedom, despite centuries of control and change that destroyed the cultures of a diverse group of people. As Africa struggled to free itself from colonial rule in the second half of the 20th century, there were many who wondered if Africa could survive in the industrial age and move beyond colonialism.
In 2008, it's hard to say whether Africa's independence from colonial rule has resulted in freedom. It has certainly allowed many nations, such as Nigeria and South Africa, to compete globally, but it has also left many others in the throes of poverty, genocide, and war. As African nations found their independence throughout the '60's and '70's, many hoped Africa would become a new world superpower, but it never happened. It has been a tumultuous time, and Africa continues to struggle with the scars left by colonial rule.
Recognizing Africa's struggles between the traditions of the past and the turmoil left by colonialism, Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart shows how these struggles are not always simple to understand. Originally published in 1958, Things Fall Apart has become a modern classic, and a 50th anniversary edition was released this month to celebrate the novel's lasting impact.
Things Fall Apart follows Okonkwo, a village leader who becomes one of the most powerful men in Umuofia, his ancestral village. As Okonkwo strives to rise from obscurity to importance, he brings along with him the traditions that his village requires of him. Even though Okonkwo faces hardship throughout the novel, Achebe shows us that the cultural expectations and beliefs of this region are complex and difficult to understand, but more powerful than the Western world portrays it, especially in 1958.
Okonkwo's rise to a powerful position in Umuofia also reveals the struggles of a man torn apart by a multiplicity of emotions, and Okonkwo faces these throughout the novel. At one point, Okonkwo breaks the customs of Umuofia, and Okonkwo and his family are exiled from the village for seven years. Okonkwo is forced to start over, and he does so, building his power and manhood back.
Achebe's novel takes an interesting turn when Okonkwo returns to Umuofia, and he finds a village changed by outside forces. British missionaries have set up a Christian church in the village, and are trying to convert the villagers to Christianity. While many of the villagers convert to the new religion, Colonial forces take over the political and cultural beliefs and customs of the region, and Okonkwo, a man rooted in the traditions of the past, feels lost. Instead of portraying the British empire as the enemy and the villagers as the heroes, Achebe puts these political changes within their historical context; it becomes clear that the events take place at the height of Victorian Britain, and the fervor surrounding the Colonial government becomes a fact that Okonkwo must face. By showing the nuances and multiple customs and traditions that Okonkwo knew as a young man, Achebe shows how difficult it is for Okonkwo to face these outside forces.