Chinua Achebe’s Biography
Albert Chinua Lumogu Achebe was born in a Christian family on November 16, 1930, in Ogidi, eastern Nigeria. He was fifth in a family of six children. This village was the centre of missionary campaign. His father’s name was Isaiah Okafo and his mother was Janet N. Achebe. His father had been the first man of the village to adopt Christianity. He was a staunch follower of this religion. Later on Isaiah became the member of the Church Missionary society. He also held the charge of the village church. It was his duty to watch the interest of the converts. Achebe married Christie Chinwei Okoli on September 10, 1961. He has four children named Chinelo, Ikechukuwu, Chidi and Nwando. He is settled in U.S.A. now.
He received his primary education in his native village. This school was run by the Church Missionary society of his village. Later on he was sent to Government college in Umuabia which was regarded as one of the best schools in west Africa. This school was modelled after British public schools. He had been the student of this college from 1944 to 1947. He was a very brilliant student. He got university education in university college in Ibadan from 1948 to 1953. He received B.A. degree from London university in 1953. At university college Ibadan, Achebe was introduced to famous European writers who had set their novels in Africa, such as Joseph Conrad, Joyce Gary, and Graham Greene. But by now, instead of identifying with the European adventurers against their African counterparts, Achebe felt impelled to represent, the historical encounter between Europe and Africa from an African perspective. The connection between Achebe’s reading of the colonial novel and his decision to become a writer is fundamental to our understanding of the cultural functions of Things Fall Apart.
Achebe is the man who invented African literature. He was able to show in the structure and language of his first novel, that the future of African writing did not lie in simple imitation of European forms but in the fusion of such forms with oral traditions. Achebe is the conscience of African literature because he has consistently insisted on the power of story-tellers.
He got an appointment as a convener in Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He became the Director of the Eastern Zone in 1969. During the course of his services in the Broadcasting Department, he earned a great fame due to his devoted performances. He was then appointed director in the Broadcasting at Lagos. During his services in the Broadcasting Corporation, he was provided with an opportunity to go to London for training in B.B.C., London. Thus, he served in various Broadcasting Corporations from 1961 to 1966.
He visited Brazil and Great Britain. He also travelled in east and central Asia. He was awarded Nigera’s biggest price for his wisdom viz. the Nigerian National Merit Award 1963. He got UNESCO award and got a chance to study in U.S.A.
Nigerian Civil war came to an end with the defeat of Biafra. He had to chuck his Broadcasting career to return to Nigeria for the fear of his life because he had given a wide puplicity and support to the cause of Biafra during the course of Civil war. He was then out of job and was at a loss to understand what to do. In 1971, he started working as a publisher. He published the works of young African authors and encouraged them to write more regarding African culture and traditions. He editted their works himself and thus came to be known as the publisher and editor of the African writers’ series. Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” was the first novel published in the so-called series. This novel had a thumping sale at home and abroad. In those days, there was no Nigerian publishing agency in existence and foreign publishers mostly Britishers held the monopoly in this field. They had the tendency to exploit the poor African writers. It was only with a purpose to restrict this tendency of the foreign publishers that Achebe had founded a Journal, ‘Okike’ which became very popular and encouraged African writers to write more.
Two forms of reading communities are involved: that of the family, and that of the school. Achebe grew up in a household in which books were revered and played an important role in the visualization of modern life: ‘As the fifth in a family of six children and with parents so passionate for their children’s education, he inherited many discarded books….’ I remember also my mother’s ‘Ije Onye Kraist’ which must have been an Ibo adaptation of ‘Pilgrim’s progress’ (Morning Yet, 68). Many of these books, most notably the Bible, were later to influence Achebe’s literary works as much as the Ibo stories he had heard as a child. The Ikemefuna episode in ‘Things Fall Apart’, to cite just one example, is fashioned after Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac in the Old Tastament to appeal to the morality and humanity of the readers and to give their life fuller meaning.
Introduction to Things Fall Apart
Achebe’s views were modest when he began to conceive and write Things Fall Apart in the early 1950s : “I was quite certain that I was going to try my hand at writing, and one of the things that set me thinking was Joyce Gary’s novel set in Nigeria.’ ‘Mister Johnson’, which was praised so much, and it was clear to me that this was a most superficial picture… and so I thought if this was famous, then perhaps someone ought to try and look at this from the inside.” Achebe’s project of looking at Nigerian culture from the inside was going to move more slowly than he might have expected. After sending the only copy of his manuscript to a typing agency in London where it was mislaid for near a year, he finally submitted his novel to William Heinemann, a famous British publisher of modern fiction. Heinemann did not welcome Achebe’s novel. There was no precedent for publishing modern African fiction, there were also concerns about its potential readership. “Would there be many readers for a novel by an African writer dealing with the colonial encounter?” the publisher thought.
Ultimately, William Heinemann decided to take a chance on this new writer, and about 2,000 copies of the novel were published in 1958. Things Fall Apart is the most widely read African novel. The English edition alone has been sold in millions of copies. It is the work of postcolonial literature that almost every student of English is bound to read at one time or another, often in high school, and most certainly in college and university.
But in thinking about the enormous success of this book and the influence it has had in the shaping of African and world literature, we should not forget its uncertain beginnings. Indeed, the history of this novel, which is also the history of the beginnings of modern African literature in English, is about how works of fiction create their own traditions, cultural contexts and reading communities.
The first question any introduction to this novel must pose is this. What enabled Achebe’s work to speak to its time in a way other novels could not? After all, Things Fall Apart was not the first African novel in English in the twentieth century. Achebe’s novel was preceded by other important African novels such as Casely Hayford’s Ethiopia Unbound, Sol Pleatje’s Mhudi and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard. If Achebe is now considered to be the man who invented African literature, it is not so much because he was a pioneer or an innovator. In the very simple and conventional story of Okonkwo, a strong individual and an Ibo hero struggling to maintain the cultural integrity of his people against the overwhelming power of colonial rule, Achebe was able to capture the anxieties of many African readers in the 1950s. We can understand these anxieties much better if we examine the important historical and psychological parallels between the years in which Okonkwo’s story is set and the years in which Things Fall Apart was conceived, written, and first published.
Similarly, the period in which Achebe conceived and wrote Things Fall Apart was also time of anxiety and crisis. By 1952, it had become apparent that the period of colonial rule in Nigeria was entering its final phase. After almost a hundred years of foreign domination, a period in which the culture of the country was often fashioned after that of Britain, and its destiny was often seen as somehow lying in Europe, the country was entering a period of self-government. And because this historical shift was as sudden as the initial imposition of colonial rule, critical questions arose: What was to be the nature of the Nigerian nation after colonialism? What kind of persons had colonial culture created? What was to be the language of the desired postcolonial culture? And ultimately, how was the history and destiny of this new community to be charted?
Things Fall Apart focuses Nigeria’s early experience with colonialism, from first contact with the British to widespread British administration. “Chinua Achebe creates in this novel a coherent picture of coherence being lost of the tragic consequences of the African-European collision.” Offers Robert McDowell in a special issue of Studies in Black Literature dedicated to Achebe’s work, “There is an artistic unity of all things in this book which is rare anywhere in modern English fiction.”
Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s first novel, was published in 1958 in the midst of the Nigerian renaissance. It tells the story of an Ibo village of the late 1800’s and one of its great men, Okonkwo, who has achieved much in his life. He is a champion wrestler, a wealthy farmer, a husband to three wives, a title holder among his people, and a member of the select Egwugwu whose members impersonate ancestral spirits of tribal rituals. “The most impressive achievement of Things Fall Apart . . .” maintains David Caroll in his book Chinua Achebe, “is the vivid picture it provides of Ibo society at the end of the nineteenth century.”
The order is disrupted, however, with the appearance of the white man in Africa with the introduction of his religion. “The conflict of the novel, vested in Okonkwo, derives from the series of crushing blows which are levelled at traditional values by an alien and more powerful culture causing, in the end, the traditional society to Fall Apart,” observes G.D. Killam. Okonkwo is unable to adopt to the changes that accompany colonialism. In the end, in frustration he kills an African employed by the British, and then commits suicide, a sin against the tradition to which he had long clung. Achebe achieves a balance in recreating the tragic consequences of the clash of two cultures. Killam notes that, “In showing Ibo society before and after the coming of the white man he avoids the temptation to present the past as idealized and the present as ugly and unsatisfactory.”
Achebe—As a Novelist
Achebe wanted to study medicine but he failed to do so far one reason or the other. He then studied literature, history and religion. He also acquired knowledge of Nigerian history, so that he might understand its ancient culture and the then existing traditions and rituals. When he was a student of the university he had started writing short stories and novels. The theme of his novels was based on Nigerian culture. His three novels Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God were published in 1958, 1960 and 1964 respectively. His other three novels are A Man of the People (1966) Chike and the River and Anthills of the Savannah (1988). All the Novels depict ancient culture of Nigeria and its opposition to missionaries campaign of attracting the people to Christianity.
Achebe is considered not only to be the inventor of African literature but also the conscience thereof. It has always been his purpose as a story teller to appeal to the morality and humanity of his readers and to give their life a fuller meaning. He states his mission in his essay “The novelist as teacher”, “Here is an adequate revolution for me to espouse to help my society regain belief in itself and to put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement.” And it is essentially a question of education in the best sense of that word. Here, I think, my aims and the deepest aspirations of society meet. Thus, Achebe believes that any good story, any good novel should have a message, should have a purpose.
Although he has also written poetry, short stories, and essays, both literary and political, Chinua Achebe is best known for his novels. Considering these novels, Anthony Daniels writes in Spectator, “In Prose of Great Elegance, without any technical distraction, he has been able to illuminate two emotionally irreconcilable facets of modern African life; the humiliations heaped on Africans by colonialism; and the utter moral worthlessness of what replaced colonial rule.” Set in this historical context, Achebe’s novels develop the theme of “traditional change” and offer, as Palmer observes, “A powerful presentation of the beauty, strength, and validity of traditional life and values and the disruptiveness of change.” Even so, the author does not appeal for a return to the ways of the past. Palmer notes that, “While deploring the imperialists brutality and condescention [Achebe] seems to suggest that change is inevitable and wise men reconcile themselves to an accommodating change.”
Salient Features of Achebe’s Novels
Proverbs and Folklore—Achebe, who believes that cultures use folklore to pass on great cultural richness thinks such folklore can provide solutions to a people’s questions and problems. Folklore, which is an important feature of the Ibo culture, finds appropriate place in the novels of Achebe. By the time we come to Ibo society in Nigeria in ‘No Longer at Ease’, most traditional values have disappeared but some of the proverbs that explicate moral, and spiritual wisdom remain with the people. Here are three examples: “Wherever something stands, another thing stands beside it”, “He who has people is richer than he who has money”, The impatience and the foolhardiness of the Obi Okonkwo’s are compared to that of “the young antelope who danced herself lame when the main dance was yet to come.” ‘A Man of the People’, Achebe’s fourth novel, has a number of proverbs that clearly trace the decay of cultural values in Nigerian society. Selfishness, greed and desire for power characterize political leaders like chief Nanga. The general motto of the people’s leaders is, “Ours is ours but mine is mine.” Achebe’s characters make use of folklore to make their arguments forcefully and effectively illustrate moral values.
The story of the title bird Nza occurs both in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. It brings home the fact that a man should never provoke his fate. He should know where to draw a line of limit in his pursuit of power. The same wisdom is evident in the story of the bird Eneke Oka and the story of the wrestler.
Among the Ibos an excellent wrestler is one who wins not only in the human world but also in the world of spirits. Thus, Okonkwo’s ability at wrestling is aptly compared to that of ‘the founder of the town’ who according to folktale, “engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.”
The Didactic Animal Tale—The didactic animal tale appears in almost all Achebe’s novels. In Things Fall Apart, the tales of the wily tortoise, expose the wicked nature of human beings, and the story of the mother kite shows the folly of the people of Abame. Such tales also point out indifference and inconsiderateness of human beings in ‘No Longer at Ease’, and in the same novel the story of the leopardess illustrates the ill effects of greed.
Men’s and women’s stories illustrate male and female values. While Okonkwo’s stories exemplify warfare and violence in order to inculcate courage in children, Ekwefi’s stories of the mosquito, Obiageli’s unending chain tale are meant for entertainment.
Legend—Legend is one of the many elements that lend fascination to ‘Things Fall Apart’ and Arrow of God. Several of them concern the origin of Ulu, the legend of Idemili, the legends of Egwugwu are a few of the many legends mentioned. Since market is important in the Ibo society, market legends are also mentioned. The popularity of the legends shows that the traditions of the clan are kept alive.
Ceremonies—The elaborate description of various ceremonies gives us a chance to have a closer look at the well-developed symbolic view of religion in ancient societies. They also lend charm to the narrative as do the stars to the night sky. Some interesting ceremonies include the appearance and proceedings of the Egwugwu, the first coming of Ulu, the Idemili festival. The ceremony of Akwunro and the ceremony of egbazulubodo are the examples of the same sort.
Customs—An example of Achebe’s use of customs appears in the description of the treatment given to a guest upon entering a friend’s Obi, a guest is seated either on a goatskin mat or on an earthen stool. Then he is given a piece of chalk with which he draws his emblem on the floor and paints his toe or face. The bond of goodwill is complete with the passing of the Kola around and sharing its contents.
The description of Okonkwo’s obi and shrine, Ezeulu’s shrine tells us of their architecture. Simultaneously, there are human sacrifices, mutilation of a diseased ogbanje child, the Osu practice, the belief in juju medicine, the belief in reincarnation, the spirit possession, the belief in the divinity of a Python, the belief of running over a dog for good luck and the taboo of running over a duck, cast a shadow on the culture of the society. Closely aligned to oratory are the salutation names. The naming system is important to the Ibos. Its importance is especially evident in Ekwefi’s attempts to save the children by the name she gives. Nine die before one daughter Ezinma survives. She names the children in such a way as to break the cycle of Ogbanje children. A few were onwumbiko, “Death, I implore you,” Ozoemena, “May it not happen again,” and finally Oneumna, Death may please himself. The naming system is shown to have importance in No Longer at Ease also. The respect shown to women is implied in calling a man “Son of our Daughter”. Name calling such as “Antihill nose,” “Long throat”, descriptive phrases such as the tongue with which to tell the story “looking with the tail of his eye” or the sensitiveness of a snail’s horn, in addition to curses, prayers, blessings and traditional taboos as the custom of forbidding titled elders tapping palm wine, forbidding outsiders into the meetings of elders, all contribute to give the readers a new experience of reading the same language.
Beauty of Nature—Frequent references to flora and fauna imply the proximity of the Ibos to nature. Here are examples from ‘Things Fall Apart’ : Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush fire in the harmattan and he “drank palm wine from morning till night and his eyes were red and fierce like the eyes of a rat when it was caught by the tail and dashed against the floor.” “He felt like a drunken giant walking with the limbs of a mosquito.” “Okonkwo felt as if he had been cast out of his clan like onto a dry sandy beach, panting.” “Obierika’s house is as busy as an ant hill.” “The earth burned like hot coals.”
Yam is also used as a metaphor for manliness, as in “Yam the king of crops was a man’s crop” and Yam stood for manliness and he could “feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed.”
Post Colonial Literature
African literature exists in a historical continuum. For example, neo-colonialism prevails today in Africa because of the continuation after “independence” of the economic, political and social practices established by colonialism. An analysis of the economic, political and social contradictions created by colonialism is, therefore, necessary in understanding and effectively countering neo-colonialism. For the contradictions created by colonialism are still realities in contemporary Africa’s development.
Walter Rodney’s How Europe Under-developed Africa analyzes the colonial relations of production …. and the economic and political contradictions …. that produced Africa’s underdevelopment and continue to plague Africa today. Rodney, who describes colonialism as a “one armed bandit” claims that colonialism, more than anything else, underdeveloped Africa. According to him, colonialism laid the roots of neo-colonialism in Africa by creating Africa’s economic dependency on the international capitalist system. The introduction of capitalist relations of production and distribution …. for instance, the international trade commodity (ITC), exchange system and values …. created such dependency. Rodney (1981: 244) asserts that, “Previous African development was blunted, halved and turned back” by colonialism without offering anything of compensatory value.
Many works of African literature record the kind of exploitation, Rodney describes. In Mayombe, for example, the narrator notes that: “My land is rich in coffee, but my father was always a poor peasant … In Dembos, men lived wretchedly in the midst of wealth. Coffee was everywhere higging the trees, but they stole from us in the prices, sweat was paid for with a few worthless coins.” (Pepetela, 1986: 18/156)
Meka the protagonist in Ferdinand Oyono’s the Old Man and the Medal, and the other peasants grew cocoa for export to France. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the opening of a trading post and selling of yams, marks the beginning and entrenchment of the capitalist money economy. Similarly, in Mongo Betis Mission to Kala, the poor Christ of Bomba and King Lazarus, the production of cocoa for export marks the beginning of an international capitalist economic order, so detrimental to Africa. Mono-culture, “introduced by colonialism made the African producer helpless in the face of capitalism manoeuvres. There was little development of local industry (a trend that persists in contemporary Africa). In, ‘I will Marry When I Want, Gicaamba says:
I would not mind, son of Gathoni,
If after selling away our labour,
Our village benefitted.
But look now at this village!
There is no property, there is no wealth.
If after selling away our labour,
Our village benefitted.
But look now at this village!
There is no property, there is no wealth.
Rodney writes that, “Roads were built to make business possible,” and argues that, “any catering to African interests was purely accidental.” For instance, in Mongo Beti’s Remember Reuben, the colonial road in Ekoudom is a symbolic means of the oppressive exploitation of the African. The narrator says that, “The road was world apart from ours, and it was chance alone which had made it brush.” Again he says that, “The road was a world apart certainly not by any wish of ours…” (1980). In Ferdinand Oyono’s the Old Man and the Medal, the road constructed by forced black labour, symbolizes the visible exploitative means linking Africa to Europe. Rodney notes also that the social services in colonial Africa reflected the pattern of domination geared towards the well-being of the settlers. In Mayombe the narrator says:
‘You earn twenty escudos a day, for chopping down trees with an axe …. And how much does the boss earn for each tree? A pile. What does the boss do to earn this money? Nothing, nothing … so, how can he earn many thousands a day and give you twenty escudos? What right has he? This is colonialist exploitation. (Pepetela: 1983: 19)
What the narrator notes above, claims Rodney, is what resulted in the underdevelopment of Africa.
Rodney observes that the African dependency upon the European also ultimately produced neocolonial class stratification and Africans who manipulated the colonial economic structures for their own benefit. In Mission to Kala, the colonial authorities nominate the chief of Vimili who goes on to live an opulent life at the expense of the people.
The colonial administration (who had nominated him in the first place) buttered him up. In return, he obeyed their commands, like a robot and knew they would not throw him out. In the days of the forced labour gangs he had been feared by everyone, because he betrayed fugitives to the authorities and acted as an informer. He used our traditional tribal hierarchy as a vehicle for his underhand intrigues, and flouted our laws and customs when he no longer needed them. (Beti: 1964: 18)
Like the chief of Kala, he works in league with the colonial administrators to exploit the local society. Medza’s father also becomes rich from collecting money and livestock from his insolvent debtors. He is, to Medza, an epitome of the successful grafting of Western hypocrisy and commercial materialism into a first rate African intelligence. This class of petty accumulators and the educated black people form the basis of neocolonialism. They are the progenitors of characters like Critutu uila. Gataanguru and Kinauuha Wa Gatheera in Ngugi’s Devil on the Cross, the corrupt civil servant, Obi Okonkwo, in Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, the honorable M.A. Nanga “the bush politician” and the young intellectual, Odill, in Achebe’s A Man of the People, the railway freight clerk in Arman’s, Tlie Beautiful Ones are not yet born, and Ahab Kioi Wa Kanoru and Ikuua Wa Ndikita in Ngugi’s I will Marry When I Want.
Rodney discusses at length the role of education in producing Africans to serve the colonial system and subscribe to its values. He notes that class stratification, which leads to neocolonialism, begins with the linking of colonial education to material gain. Rodney points out that education is crucial in any type of society for the preservation of the lives of its members and the maintenance of the social structure … the most crucial aspect of pre-colonial African education was its relevance to Africans in sharp contrast with that which was later introduced (that is, under colonialism) … [T]. The main purpose of colonial school system was to train Africans to participate in the domination and exploitation of the continent as a whole … colonial education was education for subordination, exploitation, the creation of mental confusion and the development of underdevelopment. (263)
In Mission to Kala, Medza’s colonial education makes him a privileged political and economic functionary in a colonial system that militates against the interests of his own people. Colonial education, therefore, creates a black elite to succeed it and perpetuate its political and economic interests in the post-independence period.
In discussing the role of colonial education, Rodney shows that the roots of neo-colonialism lie in colonialism. This links African literature of the two periods because neo-colonialism is the result of a historical process of class formation by colonialism. According to Colin Leys (1975) “…Absolutely central of neocolonialism, is the formation of classes or strata within a colony which are closely allied to and dependent of foreign capital, and which form the real basis of support for the regime succeed the colonial administration.” The neocolonial situation in Ngugi’s Devil on the Cross is a legacy and a logical consequence of the situation depicted in Beti’s Mission to Kala. Rodney also observes that the colonial machinery created a military elite that later became military dictators in the post-independence era. A good example is Sam, the military despot in Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah.
Rodney also observes that, “the educated Africans were the most alienated Africans on the continent. At each further stage of education, they were battered and succumbed to the White capitalist system, and after being given salaries, they could then afford sustain a style of life imported from outside … that further transformed their mentality. (275)
Colonial education did more than corrupt the thinking and sensibilities of the African. It filled him/her with abnormal com-plexes which de-Africanized and alienated him/her from the needs of his/her environment. Colonial education has thus dispossessed and put out of the control of the African intellectual the necessary forces for directing the life and development of his/her society. The narrator in Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, for instance, is culturally alienated because of his western education. In Mission of Kala, Medza’s role model is America. Medza cannot make decisions in relation to the needs of his society nor have a new vision relevant to African society.
Then, to make my ideas more intelligible, I decided to illustrate them with an example. I found myself if (Somewhat to my surprise) telling these simple people about New York … It was child’s play describe New York, probably because my only knowledge of it derived from the cinema. (Beti. 1964 : 65)
Colonial education taught Medza everything that is irrelevant to his African life, in Charles Mungoshi’s Waiting for the Rain, Lucifer similary feels alienated from his homeland because of his colonial education. In song of Lawino and song of Ocal, Okot P. Bitek laments a situation in which colonial education emasculates the emerging African elite, “My husband’s house is a dark forest of books … Their manhood was finished in the classrooms, their testicles were smashed with big books.” (P. Bitek: 1985 : 117) In Decolonizing the mind, Ngugi observes that the lack of congruency between colonial education and Africa‘s reality created people abstracted from their reality. Little wonder, therefore, that the negritude poets try to achieve disalienation through identification with Africa, African values and African origins. They fear for their lost identity and the lost African heritage. Leon Dumas writes that, “The Whites have stolen the space that was mine.” Tchicaya V’Tamsi laments that the Whites have left the blacks in a dark corner portrayed in African literature because of the working out of broader historical forces.
Amilcar Cabral’s, “National Liberation and Culture,” which defines the relationship between culture and colonialism, explores the relationship between culture and social class. Cabral’s analysis aids the readers’ understanding of African literature by putting into its proper historical perspective, the crisis of identity and its implications portrayed artistically by many African writers. Cabral defines culture as the result of economic and political activities as they appear on the ideological and idealist levels. Culture has its basis in a society’s level of productive forces and in the character of the dominant mode of production. Thus:
“Culture is the result, with more or less awakened consciousness, of economic and political activities. The more or less dynamic expression of the type of relations prevailing within that society, on the one hand, between man (considered individually and collectively, and nature, on the other hand, among individuals, groups of individuals, social strata or social classes.” [1980 : 141]
Culture may be dynamic, but only in the sense of being a continuing record of a society’s achievements and an important element in sustaining resistance to foreign domination. .
Colonialism’s Destruction of Indigenous Culture
Colonialism, however, denied Africa the right to cutural development and self expression and set up a state of siege that it justified with theories about cultural assimilation. In Oyono’s House boy, colonial culture plays the role that Cabral observes above. The implications behind Toundi’s question, “What are we black men who are called French,” pervade the whole novel. He asks this when he becomes aware that his culture and values of his oppressors. In Charles Mungoshi’s Waiting for the Rain, old Mandengu and Garabha’s Drums with Uncle; Kuruku’s Ndungu become symbolic vestiges of an African culture besieged by colonialism. In Oyono’s The Old Man and the Medal, colonialism perpetuates cultural imperialism by setting up, “whiteness” and its values as a superior quality that deserves emulation, Cabral’s conclusion that National Liberation is an act of culture parallels. Osumane’s views in Man and his Culture that, in tempestuous periods like that of the anti-colonial struggle the only artistic expression is the armed struggle. Liberation struggle, to Cabral rejects cultural domination by the foreign power by denying the culture of the oppressor. Thus, Cabral argues that the tie between a people’s identity and the reproduction and maintenance of the social system of a specific set of institutions affects both culture and the people’s intimate sense of selfhood.
Colonialism by “denying to the dominated people their own historical process, necessarily denies their cultural process.” (Cabral: 142) In Mongo Beti’s The Poor Christ of Momba and King Lazarus, the structures that the colonialists introduce affect both the people’s culture and their sense of selfhood. In the two novels, Tala and Essazam societies respectively are culturally transformed the introduction of the capitalist cash nexus, bourgeoisie religions, and European educational systems. Oyono, in House boy and The Old Man and the Medal, portrays colonialism as undermining and suppressing indigenous culture and its institutions. The alternatives colonialism provides for these are schools, stores, roads and hospitals structures that the colonialists provides for these are consolidate their own culture on the thereby altering the African culture. Cabral argues that imperialist domination, “for its own security requires cultural oppression and the attemp at direct or indirect destruction of the essential elements of the culture of the dominated people.” (142).
Cabral also proves that culture reflects the aspirations of the “Petty bourgeoisie,” which like those of all other classes, drives from their class. The New African ruling middle class is underdeveloped has no economic power, and, therefore, reflects the culture of the metropolitan bourgeoisie with whom it economically allied itself to exploit the own people. Members of the new African ruling middle class have assimilated the colonizers mentality and regard themselves as “culturally superior”. Their imitative culture reflects the political and economic dependence of this class on the metropolitan bourgeoisie and this has been the focus of many African writers who deal with the theme of cultural influence. In Xala and the Last of Empire, Osumane criticizes cultural imperialism in the francophone post colonial state. In Xala, Osumane satirizes Oumi N’doye’s Worship of Everything from France. Osumane also uses El Hadji Kader Beye’s sexual impotence (“Xala”) to symbolize the lack of creativity and the economic impotence of the new middle class who are not, in the words of Frantz Fanon, “Engaged in production, nor in invention, nor building, nor labour, it is completely canalized into activities of the intermediary type its innermost vacation seems to be to keep in the running and be part of the racket.” El Hadji says to the chamber of commerce:
Are we businessmen? I say no. Just clodhoppers … we are nothing better than crabs in a basket. We want the ex-occupier’s place? We have it … yet what change is there really in general or in particular? The colonialist is stronger, more powerful than before, hidden inside us … What are we?
Clodhoppers ! Agents! Petty traders! In our fatuity we call ourselves “businessmen!” Businessmen without funds. (Osumane: 1976-91-2)
In the Last of Empire, Osumane portrays the young generation as avid to embrace the foreign colonial culture that the older generation had fought to remove. Mamlat Soukube has an extreme fondness for clothes from Europe and America. This is a clear demonstration of cultural imperialism that the shoes and jackets that Meka buys in The Old Man and the Medal also symbolize. Professor D. Western Mann in the African Today (P. 331) writes that, “The wearing of European clothes, whether, rags or the most up-to-date style; using European furniture … contribute (from the Black Man’s Point of View) to a feeling of equally with the European and his achievements.” In Devil on the Cross Ngugi satirizes the worship, by the new middle class, of all that is foreign and their revulsion for all that is local. He portrays the new ruling class as reluctant to embrace the revolutionary culture of the masses because they have developed into an coincides with Cabral’s objective analysis that the class character of cultures gives National Liberation, a positive or negative appeal to each class.
Cabral believes that, essentially the colonial country and the neocolonial country suffer from the same problem, “Violent usurpation of the freedom of development of the national productive forces.” According to him, National Liberation frees the nation’s productive forces from all kinds of foreign domination. In other words, it destroys imperialist control. This helps to explain in African literature, the initial failure by the writers to distinguish between juridical and economic independence. Anti-colonial African literature like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart tended to impute African society’s problems of colour prejudice rather than class conflict. It was only after none of the promised benefits of independence occurred, that African writers began producing works like Ngugi’s Petals of Blood that show African society’s contradictions to be rooted in class conflict. Cabral believes that among the peasants, who are “the repository of the national culture,” are also the source of cultural resistance. According to him, contact with the rich cultural tradition of the peasants may transform the mentality of the “Petty bourgeoisie” and make them play a leading role in the struggle for national liberation. The bourgeoisie must, thus, commit suicide as a class and then align themselves with the peasants. There is no better, more graphic example of this than the closing scene in Osumane’s Xala where the beggars spit on El Hadji.
The quest for identity and cultural dignity is peculiar only to the petty bourgeoisie. This accounts for the negritude poetry of Senghor and other works of cultural national struggle. Cabral also shows that the cultural of the people is a culture of resistance and struggle and that it historically opposes the culture of the oppressor … that of counter revolution and violence. Thus, in Oyono’s House boy and Old Man and the Medal, the colonized people’s culture of resistance expresses itself in the illegal brewing of beer, in lying to whites and in manipulating the aggressive structures of colonialism to further the struggle. In Ngugi’s Matigari, the main character wages a guerilla war against the colonial regime. According to Carbal, “The armed liberation struggle is an act of making history bear fruit, the highest expression of our culture and our Afri-canners. At the moment of victory, it must be translated into a significant leap forward of the culture of the people who are liberating themselves. If this does not happen, then the efforts and sacrifices made during the struggle will have been in vain. The struggle will have failed in its aims.” (Cabral: 153)
Ngugi’s “Writing Against Neocolonialism” shows that African literature developed as a direct response to concrete historical conditions, which transformed the function and both ideology of the African writer and the artistic forms used. Ngugi argues that the African writers who emerged after the second world war experienced three model stages in their growth: (1) Anti-colonial struggle, (2) independence, and (3) neocolonialism.
The Decade of Hope
The 1950s was the decade of hope during which most African countries gained independence as anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, yet hopeful mood, which explains the assertive and optimistic nature of the writing of the period. Colonialism had tried to justify its oppression and exploitation by resorting to claims of racial superiority. The new African writer countered such claims by producing artistic works that showed that Africa had its own history, culture, and civilization that were equal if not superior to that of the imperialists. The writers saw their societies, “Put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self abasement imposed on them by colonialism.” The most representative works of this period include Achebe’s Things Fall Apart set in Umuofia, an independent and progresive society before the intrusion and entrenchment of colonialism. However, while reshaping Africa’s distorted history, Achebe does not idealize it. He shows that African society had its own contradictions and spiritual crises before the intrusion of colonialism.
Achebe’s approach sharply contrasts to the negritude writers of the same period, such as Senghor, Laye and others, whose artistic works idealize Africa. The ideological concerns of the African writers reflected the general mood of African nationalism. These writers erroneously analyzed imperialism and social situations from the standpoint of racial instead of class conflict. African writer remolded the English language to suit their subversive purposes. Thus, Achebe in “Things Fall Apart” and “the Arrow of God” used Ibo modes of expression to reflect Ibo culture. The development of the novel in Africa, was also due to the rise of a class. All the authors, Achebe, Laye, Ngugi, were members of an emerging educated African elite, and their works were directed at foreign audiences and local audiences who belonged to their own socio-economic classes.
The Period of Moral Critique
The rise of government by dictatorship throughout Africa, which characterized the 1970’s, perpetuated the political, economic and social practices of colonialism. The age of independence also witnessed the emergence of social classes and class contradictions,…. a development that disappointed and shocked any African writers, who created artistic works expressing disillusionment with postcolonial African society. Achebe’s “A Man of the People” and Armah’s “The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born”… the novels most representative of this period did not fully grasp the source of the manifest contradictions. They mistakenly argued that the cause of Africa’s problems lay in the new leader’s lack of moral direction. At this time, writers, therefore, saw their role as that of transforming society (and its leaders) by means of moral enlightenment. The works of this period, thus, subscribed to a liberal humanist ideology that pleaded with the oppressed. In Oyono’s House boy, the protagonist, Toundi, dies because of the oppressive neocolonial system.
The writers of this period intended the pathos and emotive power of their works to instigate the oppressors to initiate a political and economic reorganization of society in the interest of the oppressed. However, some critics maintain that the intentions (of the pathos and bitterness of these novels) were to whip the emotions of the people into revolutionary action. The artistic forms reflect the ideological content, for writers used satire and ridicule as “corrective narrative techniques” to enlighten their society morally. The despair that pervades these works, which portray the oppressed as trapped and helpless, arises in the writers, political misunderstanding.
The historical events of the 1970s “revealed even more clearly the transition from colonialism to neocolonialism that had begun during the 1960s. Writers began to understand that the roots of social contradictions and conflicts lay in class differentiations not colour. Some works representative of this period include Ngugi’s Tlie Devil on the Cross, pepetela’s Mayombe, and Sahle Sellasie’s Firebrands. These novels portray conflict in terms of class conflict and from the perspective of the oppressed—the workers and the peasants. The writers delegate the revolutionary vanguard role to the people themselves. The authors were implicitly disgusted with the educated elite who cannot initiate a struggle and bestow their faith in the peasants themselves or suggest ways to solve Africa’s contradictions. The writer saw his or her role as that of instigating the people into a revolutionary struggle. There is also the realization that women are the most exploited in an aggressive society. Thus, Mumbi in Ngugi’s “A Graim of Wheat”, Sophie in Oyons’s Houseboy, Adji Awa Astow in Osumane’s Xala, and Waringa in Ngugi’s Devil on the Cross, are all women exploited.
While socialist ideology form the basis for these works, the artistic forms of oral songs and other dynamic orator techniques show that they are directed to a new audience, the peasantry. The later factor has led to a fierce debate about what consitutes African literature. Ngugi argues that writing in foreign languages perpetuates neocolonialism and that all African literature in English is really Euro-African literature and not African literature. Ngugi, in rebellion against foreign domination, wrote his novel “Devil on the Cross” in Gikuyu because “Writing in Gikuyu does not cut me off from other language communities because there are always opportunities for translation.” (on writing: 155) Ngugi, however, overlooks the fact that something is always changed, added, or lost in translation. “Ngugi’s insistence on Gikuyu also raises the problem of the ‘double’, Audience.” In African literature, since the writer wishes to address both internal and external audiences, there has to be a natural language. That natural language is English, but then, Ngugi considers English a colonial language. According to him, the African writer of the 1980s has no choice but to join in the people’s struggle for survival. In that situation, he will have to confront the languages spoken by the people in whose service he has put his pen, such a writer will have to rediscover the real language of struggle in the actions and speeches of his people, learn from their great optimism and faith in the capacity of human beings to remake their world and renew themselves … He must be part of the song of the people.
In saying this, Ngugi overlooks two problems. First, can writers say effectively, through a “native” language, what they have to say? We have to consider that sometimes we cannot find the right word to express what we feel. Indeed, Ngugi himself is not well versed in the Gikuyu. He brandishes as a weapon against neocolonialism. Second, even if writers can say what they want effectively, there is no guarantee that the readers will decipher the intended message.
We cannot, however, ignore what Ngugi says about language. There is nothing wrong in theorizing on the use of a “native” language in literature, which works well in the theatre. The problem is in its practicality. The one point on which one can agree completely with Ngugi is his emphasis that African writers of the 1980s should align themselves with the masses, even if it means risking jail or exile. For the only alternative would be for the writer to become a State functionary via self-censorship.
In conclusion, a reading of the three articles makes African literature clearer and easier to understand for they bring out the truth about African literature. They examine the political, economic and social circumstances that impelled the sensitivity and ideologies of African literature and writer’s on colonialism respectively. They also discuss the historical connections that make it possible to analyze African literature dealing with pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial phase of African history.
Now the one way forward is for the middle class to “betray the calling fate has marked out for it.” That is, its subservience to the bourgeoisie of the motherland and the exploitation of its own people that leads to a psychic split. However, there is a gradual (globalization) and consequent disapearance of the middle class which according to Scott Lash and John Uroy (1933: 300), has resulted (in western societies) from the “decentralization of population and industry, the declining attractiveness of mass organizations, the increased emphasis upon the (Elocal, the pursuit of sectional interests, the declining salience of class, and the transgression of fixed boundaries by a set of new cultural forms.” In the light of this, another way forward (for the arts) is the formation of what Gramsci calls organic intellectuals—writers who are in touch with the masses—as opposed to the traditional intellectuals of the ruling class who write from sequestration. Having said this, literature or art in general, needs to be freed from politics and history. It must address the question of change—it must adapt and become spontaneous in its response to things as they happen in society. It must write about today for today is tomorrow.
Women in Achebe’s World
When literary activities marking the sixtieth birthday of Chinua Achebe reached feverpitch in 1990, the greatest accolade given him was summed up in one metaphor: the eagle on the iroka. Now, anybody familiar with the African landscape knows that the iroka is the tallest, strongest tree in the forest and that the eagle is, of course, the king of the birds. It is not an easy feat to scale the tree; that is why the Ibo proverb insists: “One does not climb the iroka twice.” Having succeeded in climbing the iroka, the climber should appropriate all that he finds there, he may not be able to do so again. The eagle, however, can both scale and soar above the tree over and over.
In this metaphor, the iroka then represents the field of African literature, the eagle, Chinua Achebe, has, of course, literarily climbed and soared above the iroka several times. More than those of any other African writer, his writings have helped to develop what is known as African literature today. And the single book which had helped him to launch his “revolution” is the slim, classic volume called Things Fall Apart (1958). Having been the first, so to speak, to scale the top of the iroka, this eagle Achebe, and other male eaglets after him, arguably have found there.
This paper will explore what is left for female eagles. The focus of my study includes: (1) Achebe’s portraiture of women in his fictional universe, the existing socio-cultural situation of the period he is depicting, and the factors in it that condition male attitudes towards women; (2) the consequences of the absence of a moderating female principle in his fictions; (3) Achebe’s progressively changing attitude towards women’s roles; and (4) feminist prospects for African women. In the context of this study, the Ibo people whom Achebe discribes will represent the rest of Nigeria and a great many of the nations of Africa.
Were Nigeria and Africa oppressively masculinist? The answer is, “Yes”. Ghana was known to have some matrilineal societies, such as the Akans, but Nigeria‘s traditional culture, Muslim as well as non-Muslim had been masculine-based even before the advent of the whiteman. The source, nature, and extent of female subordination and oppression have constituted a vexed problem in African literary debates. Writers such as Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana and the late Flora Nwapa of Nigeria have insisted that the image of the helpless, dependent, unproductive African woman was one ushered in by European imperialists whose women lived that way. On the other hand, the Nigerian born, expatriate writer Buchi Emecheta, alongwith other critics, maintains that African women were traditionally subordinated to sexist cultural mores. Achebe was merely putting literature to mimetic use, reflecting existing traditional mores. Colonial rule merely aggravated the situation by introducing a lopsided system in which African men received a well rounded education while, like their European counterparts before the mid-nineteenth century, African women received only utilitarian, cosmetic skills in Domestic science centres—the kinds of skills that only could prepare them to be useful helpmates of educated, premier nationlists and professionals such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president, and the late Obafemi Awolowo, the Yoruba tribalist leader.
Things Fall Apart is significant because it began the vogue of African novels of cultural contact and conflict. It has been translated into over twenty major world languages, commensurate with its popularity, images of women receive attention. In a style that is expository rather than prescriptive, Achebe’s novel mirrors the socio-cultural organization existing in the Africa of the era, he describes like Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie Mae Crawford (when married to Jody Starks). Achebe’s women are voiceless. But where even Janie is highly visible, his women are virtually inconsequential.
In “of Woman Born” (1977), Adrienne Rich unwittingly captures all the nuances of the African traditional social melieu when she describes patriarchy as:
The power of the fathers: a familial, social, ideological, and political system in which, by direct pressure … or through tradition, law and language, customs, etiquette, education and division of labour… men determine what parts women shall or shall not play, and the female in everywhere subsummed by the male. (57-58)
The world in Things Fall Apart is one in which patriarchy intrudes oppressively into every sphere of existence. It is an androcentric world where the man is everything and the woman nothing. In domestic terms, women are quantified as part of men’s acquisitions. As wives, women come in multiple numbers sand-wiched between yam barns and titles. These three—wives yam barns, social titles—are the highest accolades for the successful farmer, warrior and man of worth. These determine a man’s social status, as illustrated by Nwakibie who has three huge barns, nine wives and thirty children, and the highest but one title which a man can take in the clan. (21).
The society that Achebe is describing (1850-1900) is an agrarian one in which the crop the yam…is synonymous with virility. Achebe explains that this all-important crop [stands] for manliness, and he [can] feed his family on yams from one harvest to another [is] a very great man indeed…yam, the king of crops, [is] a very exacting king (3435)? Consequently, to produce an abundant harvest, the traditional farmer needs a good workforce. Women constitutle and (still do), the core of the rural workforce—farming, tending animals, nurturing children, among other activities. To echo the Nigerian critic, Juliet Okonkwo, Achebe’s cultural universe is one in which women (are) to be seen not heard, coming and going with mounds of foo-foo, pots of water, market baskets, fetching Kola, being scolded and beaten before they disappear behind the hut of their compound (36). It would not be out of place to ally the existence of such women to that of other diasporic black women described by Zora Neale Hurton’s metaphor “mule (5) uh de world” (14). Indeed, Zora’s Janie is robbed of her voice by her own husband Jody, who like Okonkwo chauvinistically believes that women’s place is in the home (41), lumps together women and children and chickens and cows (67), and wants to be a big voice, (27) in the affairs of the community.
A similar near-invisibility of women in Things Fall Apart is acknowledged by the omniscient narrator. Describing a communal ceremony, he confesses, “It was clear from the way the crowd stood or sat that the ceremony was for men. There were many women, but they looked on from the fringe like outsiders.” (85)
For centuries African women made to feel like outsiders. They were not invited to stay when men were engaged in any discussion, they were not included in councils of war, “They did not form part of the masquerades representing the judiciary and ancestral spirits.”
Achebe’s sexist attitude is unabashed and without apology. Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, is considered an untitled man, connoting femininity (20). Coco-yam of smaller size and lesser value than other yams, is regarded as female. Osugo has taken no title, and so, in a gathering of his peers, Okonkwo unkindly tells him, “This meeting is for men” (28). Guiltridden after murdering Ikemefuna, his surrogate son, Okonkwo sternly reprimands himself not to “become like a shivering old woman” (72)—this he considers the worst insult. Fleeing after the murder, Okonkwo has no other refuge than this mother’s town, which of course has to be called Mbanta—”small town”—which I read as being opposed in Okonkwo’s thinking to the rugged, wild, violent, strong, somewhere … gone are the forests where sung and danced the inspired priestess… the great western world holds me in fee… something in me is lost forever.
Christianity, Education, and
Colonial Administrative Systems
Colonial Administrative Systems
Rodney also analyzes the inter-relatinoship between Christianity, colonial education, and administrative systems. In Homecoming Ngugi says that to gain “acceptability and perpetuation, the colonialists enlist the services of Christianity and Christian oriented education…to capture the soul and the mind…” (1982). In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the newly converted Christians renounce their traditional lifestyle, thus, advancing the cause of colonialism. In Oyono’s The Old Man and the Medal, Meka gives up his land to the priests.
And now lived in a small wretched hut in the village which has given its name to the mission and lay at the foot of the Christian cemetery. (Oyono: 1967: 9)
In Houseboy, Toundi renounces his natural father in favour of father Gilbert, the head of the colonial church. In Beti’s The Poor Christ of Bomba and King Lazarus, father Drumont and father Le Guen respectively use Christianity to consolidate their control over the indigenous people and thus, maintain the security of the oppressor. Gicaamba in I’ll Marry When I Want notes that:
Religion is not the same thing as God.
When the British imperialists came here in 1895.
All the missionaries of all the churches
Held the Bible in the left hand,
And the gun in the right hand.
The white man wanted us
To be drunk with religion
In the meantime,
Was mapping and grabbing our land
And stalling factories and businesses
On our sweat. [Ngugi: 1982: 56-7]
When the British imperialists came here in 1895.
All the missionaries of all the churches
Held the Bible in the left hand,
And the gun in the right hand.
The white man wanted us
To be drunk with religion
In the meantime,
Was mapping and grabbing our land
And stalling factories and businesses
On our sweat. [Ngugi: 1982: 56-7]
The European exploiters, oppressors and grabbers use Christianity as a tool to explain the manifest contradictions masculine connotations of his Umuofia (meaning children of the forest) such excessive emphasis on virility, sex role stereotyping, gender discrimination, and violence create an imbalance, a resultant denigration of the female principle.
Such denigration brings Okonkwo to ruin just as much as it presages the demise of his society’s way of life. Okonkwo largely embodies “all the virtues and some of the excesses of this society … [Far] around (him are) heard the rhythmic beats of Umuofia’s heart.” (Awooner 253). One gets the impression of a strange hold on individuals; especially on the weak; the untitled, considered as efulefu or “worthless”, and the outcast embittered mothers of twins. Even designed to break the weak and the women are the welcoming arms of christianity…an alien religion which steals quietly into the clan, gathering adherents from these oppressed by Umuofia’s rigid insistence on allegiance to gods, customs and laws.
The Absence of a Moderating Female Principle
Things Fall Apart is redolent of violent conflicts occasioned by the utter lack of a moderating female influence. One example of this absence can be found in Achebe’s employment of the folktale narrating the conflict between Earth, representing fertility or the female principle, and Sky, representing the male principle. Donald Weinstock and Cathy Ramadan argue “that [Folktale’s] initial quarrel between Earth and Sky represents the struggle betwen masculine and female powers and principles.”
They assert that Okonkwo, who occasionally but reluctantly yields his tender emotions most often expressed perversely towards Ikemefuna and Nwoye, is a paradigm for [S] ky who withholds rain but releases it reluctantly and perversely, since rain (Falls) as it [has] never fallen before, providing vulture, who represents the female principle, from returning to deliver his message, just as Nwoye, with his effeminate nature, [does] not return to Okonkwo’s compound.
In the manner of the tragic hero, Okonkwo’s consequent despair and fall represent the despair and break-up of the Ibo clan before the inexorable, invincible forces of the whiteman’s religious and political organizations, all because of the absence of that female principle that could have maintained balance and sanity. This is echoed by Chikwenye Okonia Oownemi’s nostulation the present-day Nigeria finds itself in the same anarmire as Umuofia of old because of a similar degree of machism. It is any wonder that the country is in shambles when it has failed to solicit the help of its better half [women] … for pacific pursuits, for the betterment of the country.
Achebe’s female characters are generally stunted individuals as above, or they are idealized as mothers in the manner of such Negritude writings as Camara Laye’s Dark child (date). The later, maternal valorization is indicated by the meaning of Nneka…”mother is supreme” as provided by Okonkwo’s uncle Uchendu.
It is true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness, he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. (124)
The only women respected in Umuofia are those like Chielo, the priestess of the Oracle of the Hills and Caves, who is removed from the pale of normalcy clothed in the mystic mantle of the divinity, she serves Chielo transforms from the ordinary. She can reprimand Okonkwo and even scream curses at him: “Beware of exchanging words with Agbala [the name of the Oracle of the Hills and Caves]. Does a man speak when a God speaks? Beware!” (95). Yet if Okonkwo is powerless before a goddess’s priestess, he can, at least, control his women. So, when Nwoye’s mother asks if Ikemefuna will be staying long with them, Okonkwo bellows to her! “Do what you are told woman. When did you become one of the ndichie [Clan elders]?” (18)
Perhaps Umuofia’s shabby and degrading treatment of women and wives stems from unconscious fear of, rather than reverence for, the ubiquitous and capricious Earth goddess Ani or Ala, who wreaks such havoc on the towns people’s lives. She is the goddess of fertility. She also gives or withholds children, she spurns twin children who must be thrown away; she prohibits anyone inflicted with shameful diseases from burial in her soil. To the men of Umuofia, she must seem the embodiment of the twofaced Greek furies and Scylla and Charybdis joined together… vengeful, unavoidable, and incomprehensible. Umuofia’s men can compare to the ancient Greeks who were noted for similar female images such as Pandora, Circe, Medea, and Clytemnestra. In helpless, mortal dread of a fearsome divine female principle, they come down heavily indeed on ordinary women whose lives they can control as they like.
Achebe’s Progressive Vision of Women
A cursory look at the place of women in Achebe’s other works ill confirm a diachronic development. In No Longer at Ease (1963), there is a discernible change in the style of Achebe’s female portraiture. At the end of the novel, Obi, Okonkwo yeilds to the implacable force of traditional ethos when choosing between his mother (representing traditionalism), who threatens to kill herself if he marries an outcast or Osu, and the outcast protagonist Clara (representing the modern female.) The pregnant Clara gets an abortion and fades out of the story. But at least she is cast as an educated, financially independent woman. She has the makings of a spirited, independent character, by virtue of her overseas education and profession as a nurse. She can afford to do without Obi Okonkwo.
In a Man of the People (1966), there are images of women playing traditional roles such as singers and dancers, or women adoring rich politicians like chief the Honourable M.A. Nanga. Mrs. Eleanor John, a tough party woman and board member—rich, independent, assertive—lamentably is cast as a semiliterate business woman with no note-worthy role. We see chief Nanga’s wife, a beneficiary of the colonial, utilitarian education, dissatisfied with her husband’s extramarital relationship and impending marriage to the young Edna. Mrs. Nanga complains to Odili, but when the latter sets out to unseat her husband, she reverts to her traditional role of help mate fighting to retain her precarious social and economic position. Consequently, she remains a dependent, peripheral figure, deriving validity as a human being only from her husband.
A strong characterization in Man of the People is Eunice the lawyer. She is the fiancee of Odili’s schoolmate Max, and founder of the common people’s convention that opposes corrupt chief Nanga and his ilk. When Max is shot by thugs of a political adversary, Eunice takes decisive, retaliatory action, “[s] he opens her handbag as if to take out a handkerchief, [takes] out a pistol instead and [fires] two bullets into chief Koko’s chest” . To this strong portrait, Achebe adds pointedly; “Only ten [does] she fall down on Max’s body and begin to weep like a woman … A very strange girl, people said” (160). In a story of the total breakdown of law and order, where looting, arson and political killings have become rife, a single act of relation by an injured girl is considered “strange”.
The inexorable winds of change have caused Achebe a consummate pragmatist, to make a volte-face. The secret of his revisionist stance can be deduced from the central theme of his two tradition-based novels, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God (1964). In a world of change, whoever is not flexible enough will be swept aside profiting from the mistakes of his tragic heroes, Achebe become flexible. On Anthills of the Savannah (1987) speaking through his alter ego Ikem, a journalist and writer, Achebe acknowledges that the malaise the African party is experiencing results from excluding women from the scheme of things. Beatrice of Anthills who has an honours degree from Queen Mary College, University of London, projects Achebe’s new vision of women’s roles and clarifies Ikem’s hazy thoughts on the issue. Ikem accepts that his former attitude towards women has been too respectful, too idealistic. In the best Negritudinal manner, he had reverently put every woman on a pedestal as a Nneka, where she is just as irrelevant to the practical decisions of running the world as he was in the old days (98). Beatrice gives Ikem insight into a feminist concept of womanhood. She is articulate, independent, and self-realized, and she re-evaluates women’s position, resort is a damn sight too far and too late (1991-92). In Beatrice, Achebe now strives to affirm the moral strength and intellectual integrity of African women, especially since the social conditions which have kept women down in the past are now largely absent. Urbanization and education have combined to broaden women’s horizons. Therefore, Ikem tells Beatrice, “I can’t tell you what the new role for woman will be. I don’t know. I should never presume to know. You have to tell us” (98). Achebe’s newly envisioned female roles are to be expounded, articulated, and secured by woman herself, and the modern African woman is doing just that.
It is insufficient that Achebe the icon merely acknowledge the injustice of his earlier treatments of women. Feminist ideology lays the task of self-actualization on women ourselves. Like Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s female characters Wanja (Petals of blood, (1977) and Wariinga (Devil on the Cross, 1982). African women are playing active roles, their national histories by resisting “being pushed or tempted into accepting subservient or degrading or decorative roles” (Evans 134). They are developing what I have termed “the will to change.” (Mezu 217).
In 1966, Elora Nwapa published Efuru significant in African feminist scholarship, it signals a long awaited departure from the stereotypical female portraiture in male-authored African literatrue. The eponymous Efuru chooses her own husband and marries without his paying a dowry. She decisively deals with conflicts, radically departing from the script of the traditional African woman. “In the peripheral, tangential role of a passive victim of a masculine-based cultural universe.” (Mezu 27-28). But Efuru is plagued by infertility, polygamy, infidelity, and abondonment by two undistinguished husbands. She finally abjures marriage, opting for meaningful singlehood as priestess of the goddess of the river, Uhamiri, indicator of victimized womanhood.
In Idu (1970), Nwapa again embarked on a revisionist course, now making a man responsible for infertility. Though in a similar vein the Ghanaian writer Ama-Ata Aidoo published a play, Dilemma of a Ghost (1965), Nwapa was for a long time the lone African female novelist’s voice lamenting patriarchy. The prolific Buchi Emecheta joined the fray with the foys of Motherhood (1980). As the female Nigerian critic, Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, writes:
If Nwapa is the challenger, Buchi Emecheta is the fighter… For the first time, female readers through female characters are aware of their subjugation by their fathers, uncles, husbands, brothers and sons. (62)
All of Emecheta’s novels expound “the theme of female oppression, the slave girl becoming her leitmotif … the archetypal. African woman buried under the heavy yoke of a traditional mores and customs” (Ogunyemi 62). This list of African feminist novelists, dramatists, poets, and literary critics is growing. African women feature equally in publishing—Nwapa with her Tana Press and Emecheta with Ogwugwu Afor.
African women must acknowledge gratitude to women and men—to mothers, fathers, uncles, and brothers—who, disregarding patriarchy and traditionalism, ensured them education. It is only through such enlightenment that African women writers have been able to dismantle the myth of female irrelevance by challenging such archetypal roles as witches, faithless women, femmes fatals, virages, and playthings of capricious gods. In achieving this, such women writers have been supported by some male writers, labelled gynandrists: Isidore oppewho, Osumane Sembene, Nggwa Thiong’o, Mango Beti, Henri Lopes.
Given the intensely patriarchal nature of traditional African cultures, African feminism cannot be considered radical. For white European and American women, Feminism has predicated itself on ending gender discrimination and demanding equal job opportunities and voting and property rights. For African and African-American women, feminist ideology reflects specificities of race, class, and culture. It is for this reason that the former has failed to make any lasting appeal to African and its diaspora. Because African women do not wish to alienate men, because African women do not wish to alienate the bulk of their tradition-based sisters, because many traditions African customs and mores are worth preserving, most African feminists espouse womanism, which Alice Walker defines as a philosophy that celebrates black womanhood—its aim is the dynamism of wholeness and self-healing.
The Iroka is there for women to climb, after all. Educated African women, those African women and men in exalted, decision-making bodies, must and do realize their duty to make society an equitable place for their less-privileged sisters. Equipped with education, resilience, and the will to survive, female eagles can scale and even soar over irokas, placing no limitations on their capabilities. African women are making meaningful contributions: as lecturers, professors, and presidents of universities; as commissioners and ministers, senators and governors, and chairpersons of political parties; as directors and others involved in literacy movements and campaigns against forced marriages, clitoridectomies, and obsolete widowhood practices. African women can outstrip their fictive counterparts to be partners with men in national progress and development, and to gain invidividual self-realization and fulfilment.