I read this book many years ago and took it up again in the hope of finding a book still relevant to our time, although it was first published in 1958. The author, deceased just this past year at age 82, was Nigerian, and considered foremost in a movement which introduced African literature to the world, showing the coherence and complexity of tribal traditions and how they were often misinterpreted and vilified by those seeking to colonize these tribes for religious or civil purposes.
The chief character in the book, Okonkwo, is a man of good standing in his village in Nigeria, a skilled wrestler, a hardworking farmer, and a brave warrior. Achebe, through simple narrative depicting Okonkwo and his family and fellow villagers, brings the reader into familiarity with all the aspects of their existence. Their cooking, their farming, how Okonkwo’s compound, with his own and his three wives’ houses, is run and managed on a daily basis. Simple details like the dark night, the silence of the forest around them, how one can hear the pounding of the woman’s mortar who always cooks later rather than in the daytime – all of these quietly inform us, so in a while it feels like we know this routine ourselves. All the villagers are governed by strictures handed down from their ancestors, which can change sometimes in the form of demands made by their resident spirit, who lives in a nearby cave and communicates through one of the female villagers.
Achebe does not hold up this world as a paragon of virtue, then to be sullied by the outside colonial forces. There is injustice, as in the stricture commanding any twin babies to be cast into the forest on their birth, as an affront against nature. But there is justice as well. When Okonkwo’s rifle explodes in a noisy celebration, inadvertently killing a young participant, he must leave and take refuge in his mother’s village. Because the killing was accidental, he can return after seven years. And the missionaries, when they make their appearance, are not pictured as wholly negative in their influence. Okonkwo’s son, a convert, seems to hear an answer in the images of the missionaries’ songs, of a light in darkness, an answer to the suffering he has seen in his life.
Achebe’s power is in depicting the strength of the tribal traditions which have been sifted for so many generations, and yet showing their vulnerability to the foreigners, those who come on “an iron horse” (what they call a bicycle). Okonkwo disowns his son when he converts to Christianity…he wanted his son to be like him, a warrior. But a warrior’s days, like Okonkwo’s, are numbered. The colonial administration, first there to protect the missionaries, is soon to be reckoned with as an established presence, one that will thwart tradition rather than try to accommodate it.
We have this book as the first in a trilogy. To see it in our catalog, click here. For learning about Africa, even a part of Africa that is fast disappearing, Achebe seems to be one of our best resources.