One of the enduring lessons in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is that the ethical interests of the Umuofia community assert themselves, again and again, over the overweening pride and impulsive actions of the novel’s tragic hero, Okonkwo. It’s true that the protagonist “was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond,” and his “fame rested on solid personal achievements.” Yet, it is the community that ultimately lends meaning to Okonkwo’s extraordinary prowess as a wrestler, his valor as a warrior, and his success as a farmer. As Achebe narrates, “As a young man of eighteen [Okonkwo] had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat.” It is a carefully phrased detail, underscoring that Okonkwo’s impressive resume of accomplishments is significant to the extent that it ennobles the community.
Often, students misapprehend the import of that dramatic moment towards the end of Things Fall Apart when Okonkwo beheads a messenger of the white administration, arrives at the shocking understanding that his fellows are in no haste to embrace his precipitate declaration of war, and decides to go off to a quiet place to hang himself. It is all too tempting to view Umuofia’s action in the way that Okonkwo does as evidence of mass cowardice. Yet, a more careful reading reveals Okonkwo’s reaction as shallow and reductionist, rather like an unthinking man’s rush to a judgment that lacks context and nuance.
Umuofia has a settled protocol for going to war. That elaborate procedure involves several steps: establishing a consensus among the male citizen that an external provocation rises to a probable cause for war; sending a delegation to the offending community to demand some form of reparation in order to avert war; in the event that the preceding gesture is repudiated, consulting the Oracle of the Hills and Caves, the deity that superintends war affairs to discern whether the impending war is a just, warranted one. In sum, these steps that must precede the declaration of war point to Umuofia’s deep commitment to the ethos of balance and harmony. It may well be the case that Umuofia’s will to wage war has been dealt a blow by the invading whites. Yet, the community’s reluctance to let Okonkwo’s rash homicidal action stampede them to war is a decisive rebuke of a man so bereft of thought and so deeply obsessed with raw strength as to represent for the people of Umuofia the very embodiment of the horrors of inharmoniousness.
Earlier in the novel, we’d seen Okonkwo contemplate, both to himself as well as in a conversation with his best friend, Obierika, the idea of fighting alone. It is that heretical fantasy that he actualizes by beheading an emissary of the British machinery. That beheading translates into a brusque summons to the warriors of Umuofia to fight a war that Okonkwo has “personalized.” By balking at that invitation, the people of Umuofia testify to the firmness and rootedness of their ethical code. Umuofia’s institutions are too solid to say nothing of its citizens’ shared sense of balance for the community to be easily swayed by the whims of their strongest man.
Part of Okonkwo’s curse is to lack the mental wherewithal to realize how the white man, though outnumbered, has nevertheless radically transformed Umuofia. Achebe’s tragic hero goes to his death without understanding how thoroughly the white man has redrawn Umuofia’s nay Africa’s map. Okonkwo has no inkling that his nine villages had become, in effect, the tiniest dot on a much larger map of a space the British would name Nigeria.
The consequences of that colonial redrawing of Africa’s map persist with us today. It was as if Okonkwo went to sleep one night in an autonomous space called Umuofia and awoke the next morning in a nightmare called Nigeria. A small organic space saw itself swallowed whole, subsumed within a larger, inorganic and incoherent space. And this new larger space was designed, delineated, acquired and named entirely by British fiat.
Nor did the British or the French, Spaniards or Portuguese set out to make the territories they annexed in Africa into nations in the likeness of the colonizing powers. No, Africa was carved up in a wholly cavalier fashion, with the profit motive figuring as the imperial powers’ motive never mind their claptrap about the civilizing mission. In his short novel, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad writes forthrightly about imperialism: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”
How did the colonial powers acquire addresses like Okonkwo’s Umuofia? Let’s take two examples from history, both testimonies from British colonial officials. Following British and French agreement on the areas of British possession in northern Nigeria, Lord Salisbury triumphantly stated: “We have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s foot has even trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.” In similar vein, Sir Claude Macdonald, reflecting on how the British and Germans decided the boundaries of their territories in eastern Nigeria, said that “in those days we just took a blue pencil and a rule and we put it down at Old Calabar and drew that line up to Yola.”
It is no surprise that the new spaces cobbled together by the British or the French, or the Portuguese continue to exhibit pathologies of incoherence. Nigeria’s two major writers, Wole Soyinka and Achebe, have argued that Nigeria yet awaits its founding. The space called Nigeria is otherwise an illusory idea, at best a promissory note awaiting redemption. The African Guardian magazine of November 16, 1992 reported a dramatic exchange at a public lecture: “The atmosphere became charged when [Ken] Saro-Wiwa, an uncompromising champion of minority rights, was called upon to comment on Professor Ade Ajayi’s 17-page lecture titled ‘The National Question in Historical Perspective’. As silence enveloped the entire hall, Saro-Wiwa…caused a stir with his opening remarks: ‘We don’t want Nigeria.’ The audience roared in affirmation. He went on to pour scorn on the current state of affairs in the nation…’This country as presently defined cannot stand because it is anchored around wicked principles of the subordination of the minorities by the majority.’”
Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s unflattering assessment was made more than twenty years ago. Today, a man from the minority area and Nigeria’s oil-rich hub as well occupies the highest political post in Nigeria. Even so, many would argue count me among them that Nigeria remains every bit as messy and depressing and as unwanted as when Mr. Saro-Wiwa hanged by the Nigerian state he once championed but later came to execrate delivered his jeremiad.
This is the second part of a lecture I delivered at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. The concluding part will be published next week.