Things fall apart is a literary novel written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in 1958.
Back at school we all studied the history of colonialism, we all remember something of the events and tales in our literature about the white man who discovered and conquered new countries and continents.
Many of us certainly read “Heart of Darkness”, the symbol of this genre telling of ivory hunting in Equatorial Africa (try to read it by replacing the word “ivory” with “oil” and I can assure you that you will find the novel very modern, at least as far as Nigeria is concerned). But how many have read something that tells about the other side of history, something that shows the point of view of those conquered? How would history and literature be today if they had not been written only by those who won the wars and conquered other countries?
There is one author that has tried to answer this question.
In his novel Things fall apart, written in the fifties, Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian writer, uses literature to try and put back together pieces of an original culture, the one that existed before the white man arrived in Nigeria, the one that Africans have lost sight of and that they risk completely forgetting.
The aim is to offer his people a possibility of rediscovering their authentic roots, in order to understand who they are and where they come from. In this sense his literary work is a wonderful occasion for non-Africans to submerge themselves into another culture and to understand something more about human nature. Because of this I think his novels should be introduced as textbooks in literature courses in schools.
But let’s get to the novel : the story takes place in the Ibo area, the region that presently corresponds to the south-east of Nigeria, the River Niger Delta, the same territory which years ago suffered so terribly during the Biafra war.
The novel is set at the time immediately preceeding the arrival of the white man, of Christian missionaries and of the socio-juridical organization imposed by colonialists.
With a language near to the present dialect, Achebe conveys a presentation of the social life in the villages of those people that European literature texts defined at that time as “wild”. Actually the life of those “wild” people was organized and regulated by a social order that came from a culture and a series of norms only apparently primitive, because deeply rooted in the necessity to survive in the difficult equatorial jungle.
By reading this novel with the mind of someone charged with handing on an ancient wisdom, the art of survival accumulated from generation to generation, even cruel traditions like that of abandoning newly born twins in the forest acquire a meaning, even if it is difficult to accept, considering the real life perspectives that children had at that time.
And there is something of extremely soothing, human and at the same time devastating in this dialogue between two mothers that meet at the village :
“…and how is my child Ezinma?”
“She has been really well for a while. Perhaps she came to stay”.
“I think so, too. How old is she now?”
“I think she will stay. They usually stay if they do not die before six.”.
“I pray for her to stay” said Ekwefi [the mother], with a deep sigh.
There is no violence and there are no wars in this story: the white man arrives in these villages and sometimes he is even accepted with no big conflicts; missionaries and governors settle in the village life almost unnoticed. But the white man’s presence soon upsets and changes the order of the tribal society and empties it, causing the annihilation of the culture and humanity of Ibo society, symbolically represented by the protagonist of the novel.
Achebe has written about the beginning of colonialism in order to give these people the possibility to get part of their culture back. For us this novel and the two that come right after and continue the story are a different proposal for those who also want to listen to the other “side” of literature and somehow of history.