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Chinua Achebe’s highly acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart, is largely a polemic against British colonialism and the havoc it once wrought on Africa (Achebe, 1959).  It is also a critique as well as subtle, of African tribal society:  its clans, religious superstitions, patriarchal family structure, and unproductive agricultural practices that left it so vulnerably economically and susceptible to outside manipulation – through religious missionaries, alternately benevolent and brutal, and standing behind them the British colonial administration that whenever necessary, exerted the force of arms to quell rebellion.
This is, in effect, historical fiction, or perhaps, better said, political allegory.  What Achebe portrays, though the rise and fall of the proud Okonkwo – a clan leader abandoned by his own people who ultimately commits suicide – is the deterioration of African autonomy and independence under the inexorable pressure of the West.
The story’s trajectory could not be more sweeping.  In Part One, we see the proud Okonkwo shake off the terrible legacy of his father and emerge as a forceful and industrious – and much feared –  local leader. He has a large spread of property to grow yams – a source of local wealth – and enjoys the company of his three wives acquired over a number of years, and each strictly subservient to him.  Outward, he is emotionless – and deeply angry, and often taking it out on his family.  Sometimes he takes it out in defiance of local custom – such as during an annual peace week, when no conflict is permitted – and is punished.   But for the most part he is the envy of his clan.  
In Part Two, Okonkwo is unexpectedly forced into exile after a dispute with other tribal leaders.  He is formally banned for a period of seven years and must return to the villages of his parents, with his family in tow.  For the proud Okonkwo this is a debilitating blow, and one from which ne never recovers, try as he may.  He rebuilds his wealth, but not his prestige; his own family looks down upon him for his lost social status.  For the length of his exile he plots his return to recapture his lost glory against all odds.  
However, village life throughout his nation is changing.  There are signs of outside cultural influences with the arrival of Christian missionaries, led by a British white man.  At first, the clan leaders disparage the newcomers and laugh at their religious beliefs and hectoring of local villagers for their “animist” beliefs, decrying them as inferior.  Over time, though, some villagers soften, in part because the missionaries bring schools and medicines, which are effective.  They win converts, including some of Okonkwo’s family, which deeply angers him.  He sees yet another threat to his local prestige and authority which at this point exists largely in his own head anyway.
Achebe’s depiction of African tribal life in starkly gendered terms is a hallmark of this novel.  A man’s prestige appears to be related to his ability to “control” his women – often through beatings, but above all through a warrior fierceness that allows for no outward displays of affection.  Okonkwo is something an extreme exponent of patriarchy, as becomes clear when women upbraid him at one point.   He regularly calls into question the manhood of fellow villagers who refuse to stand up to the missionaries – or simply to work hard.  He’s long prided himself for his industry which does set him apart from his peers.  He was able to rise because he didn’t expect life to be easy and curried favor with the powerful and wealthy men in his village, who supported him generously, while denying others.
Part of the wondrous appeal of Achebe’s novel is the way he takes us deep into tribal life to show us the customs that predominated among its people: The celebrations at harvest time, the exchange of palm wine as a gift, the ceremonial wrestling matches, and the joy of a locust swarm that allows villagers to enjoy a special, unexpected food treat.  Above all, we see a people living in harmony with the land, with a natural religious philosophy that celebrates the earth as a goddess to be worshipped and obeyed.
All of this seeming grace is threatened by the arrival of the British colonists, even though their presence, while intrusive, actually helps shore up the local economy by creating a stronger market for palm oil. Once Okonkwo returns to his village from which he was expelled, he barely recognizes the place because so much as changed. He realizes that he will be unable to recover his lost glory – not any time soon, at least. However, Okonkwo’s hopes rise when he convinces clan leaders to fight the missionaries, who have installed a new less accommodating priest who constantly berates them and even expels members for defying him.  Okonkwo suddenly feels like the warrior of old and relishes the renewed attention and respect he receives from his old village.
Some of the villagers including Okonkwo confront the priest and try to drive him away.  They say he can stay but that he can n o longer dominate the village with his foreign religion.  When the priest stands his ground, they burn the church to the ground. However, it proves to be a pyrrhic victory.  
Predictably, the authorities come looking for Okonkwo, but find his home abandoned.  Villagers insist that he has fled but the authorities threaten them and they agree to show the police his hiding place. When they arrive they find that he has hanged himself.  
It’s the ultimate disgrace, a violation of tribal custom, and the villagers refuse to handle the body. They tell the authorities they will have to dispose of the body themselves, which leaves the British dumbfounded.
Achebe ends his novel on a wry and almost humorous note that illustrates the disempowering trajectory of this allegory. The point of view suddenly shifts form Okonkwo and the villagers to the police chief. He muses about the bizarre customs of these Africans, and about the story he plans to write about the “pacification” of these primitive people.  
In this fashion, somewhat subtly, Achebe is tracing the triumph of the colonialists and the destruction of indigenous African life. He even gives the colonialists the last word.
For Achebe, Akonkwo seems to symbolize the strength and prowess of a proud and deeply grounded African manhood cut down by the British. His vivid portrait of this man doubtless echoes some male figures that shaped his on young life growing up in Nigeria. While laying bare Akonkwo’s excesses, he makes no excuses for therm.   
Akonkwo’s downfall is not simply the fault of the colonialists. There’s a strong suggestion in this tale that the villagers succumbed to less vital – and virile – outsiders and thereby set themselves up to be subdued. They underestimated what they were up against and were too easily distracted and seduced.
Writing in the mid-to-late 1950s, Achebe might not have anticipated the anti-colonial rebellions that took root and flourished throughout Africa in the 1960s (Malik). Or perhaps he did:  by the time the book was finally published in 1958, these rebellions could already be glimpsed. In fact, there were stirrings of Nigerian anti-British nationalism in Achebe’s Nigeria as early as the 1920s, and the great Nigerian civil war (1967-70), which featured separatist movement in Biafra, was just around the corner (Uche). Achebe’s account clarifies the stakes in this conflict at the level of the village: A deeply grounded way of life encroached upon, and the thinly disguised hostility and conquering aims of the intruders. Stay unified and find a way to resist, or die without dignity, Achebe seems to be suggesting. Our very identity as a people is at stake.

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