The most widely read, translated and studied African novel you should know

Ben Ebuka January 07, 2023
Photo Credit: abebooks.co.uk

Things Fall Apart, the maiden novel of the literary giant from Nigeria, Chinua Achebe, remains the most widely read, translated, and studied African Novel and occupies a vital role in African literature.

The maiden publication was in 1958 (in the English language). The first publication in the United Kingdom was in 1962 by William Heinemann Ltd, and it became the first book published by Heinemann under the African Writers Series. Since then, the novel has been re-printed in more than 50 languages and sold more than 20 million copies globally. It is widely used in literature, world history, and African studies and studied in Africa, Europe, India, and North America.

Things Fall Apart is about the life of an Igbo man wrestling champion called Okonkwo (the novel’s protagonist) in the fictional town of Umuofia.

Background

The story was set in the fictional town of Umuofia, located west of the present-day city of Onitsha, Nigeria.

Plot

Okonkwo was a strong, courageous, and hardworking man who became famous in Umuofia because of his wrestling feats. His popularity soared more after he defeated ‘Omalinze The Cat’, another famous wrestler whose back never touches the ground. Okonkwo disliked his father’s ignoble attitude of neglecting his family, owing so many debts, and cowardice. Okonkwo was obsessed with his masculine strength and abilities and always quick to decimate any opposition.

His determination to stand as the opposite of his father made him work hard and become wealthy and powerful, and he eventually became the leader of his village.

Okonkwo became the father of Ikemefuna, a boy from the Mbaino clan, who was used as a peace settlement to appease the people of Umuofia after Ikemefuna’s father murdered a woman of Umuofia.

Unfortunately, Ikemefuna was later killed according to the instruction of the Oracle of Umuofia. Ezeudu, the oldest man in Umuofia, warned Okonkwo not to take part in the killing of Ikemefuna, but Okonkwo didn’t heed the advice in other not to be seen as a weak man. Okonkwo struck the killing blow despite repeated cries from his ‘son’ Ikemefuna to save him. A few days after the death of Ikemefuna, Okonkwo became depressed and traumatized by his role in the death of Ikemefuna.

Ezeudu later died, and during his funeral, Okonkwo’s local gun discharged unexpectedly during a gun salute and killed Ezeudu’s son. Consequently, Okonkwo and his entire family were banished for seven years. They moved to a nearby town called Mbanta, Okonkwo’s maternal hometown.

While in exile at Mbanta, Okonkwo received news regularly about the appearance of white men in his hometown and their activities that was contrary to the traditions of his people. In the final year of his exile, Okonkwo held a party for his maternal kinsmen, where an elder lamented the unacceptable state of their tribe and its future.

On returning from exile, Okonkwo noticed the changes in his village due to the activities of the white men. One of the Christian coverts committed an abomination by unmasking an elder who was carrying the ancestral deity and spirit of the Umuofia clan. In response to the taboo, the villages destroyed the Christian church in the community. 

The District Commissioner arrested and imprisoned Okonkwo and other village leaders, pending the payment of two hundred bags of cowries. They faced humiliation and harsh treatment at the hands of the court messengers. The villagers gathered for a somewhat uprising, but Okonkwo, a warrior by nature, never wanted to follow the custom and traditions of his people. He wanted war against the white men.

When the messengers of the white men tried to stop their meeting, Okonkwo beheaded one of them. Unfortunately, Okonkwo realized that other villagers allowed the remaining messenger to escape, and he felt disappointed that the Umuofia people were not ready to protect their land. Later, the District Commissioner came with his men to arrest Okonkwo but realized that Okonkwo had hanged himself to evade any trial in the colonial court.

Okonkwo’s actions tarnished his image and reputation because it was strictly against the Igbo culture and tradition for anyone to commit suicide.

Characters

Okonkwo: The protagonist who married three wives and had ten children. He was the opposite of his father Unoka, who was weak and gentle.

Ekwefi: The second wife of Okonkwo who fell in love with Okonkwo after watching him in a wrestling contest.

Unoka: Okonkwo’s father. He was unable to take care of his wives and children. He left huge debts after his death.

Nwoye: Okonkwo’s son. He was among the early villagers that converted to Christianity, taking the name Isaac.

Ikemefuna: The little boy from the Mbaino clan. He became the adopted son of Okonkwo and was later killed due to an order from the Umuofia deity.

Ezinma: Ezinma means Crystal Beauty. She is the only child of Ekwefi and Okonwko’s favorite daughter. She is the exact antithesis of a normal Igbo woman. Okonkwo wished she was a boy. She is similar to her father in character and behavior.

Obierika: He is Okonkwo’s best friend, but he is less violent and arrogant and always weighs options before he acts.

Ogbuefi Ezeudu: He is one of the elders of the Umuofia community.

Mr. Brown: An English missionary in Umuofia who was more compassionate and kind to the villagers. He also made efforts to learn Igbo traditions.

Mr. Smith: The English missionary that replaced Mr. Brown. He was very strict and mean towards Africans.

Creative Adaptations

Things Fall Apart was adapted into several creative works. In 1961, a radio drama was adapted from the novel by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.

In 1970, the novel was adapted into a film directed by Jason Pohland and featured Johnny Sekka, Orlando Martins, and Princess Elizabeth of Toro. In 1987, the book was adapted into miniseries by the Nigerian Television Authority featuring prominent African actors like Pete Edochie, Nkem Owoh, and Sam Loco Efe.

Legacy

Things Fall Apart inspired and paved way for other African writers. Before Things Fall Apart was published, most of the novels telling the story of Africa were written by European writers who erroneously portrayed Africans as savages and uncivilized. But Chinua Achebe’s story told from an African point of view, countered the notion that African culture had been savage and primitive before the coming of the white man.

Several authors, including Chimamanda Adichie, Binyavanga Wainaina, Helon Habila, Prof. Okey Ndibe, and Uzodinma Iweala, have named Chinua Achebe as a significant influence on their writing career.

Encyclopædia Britannica listed Things Fall Apart as one of the 12 Novels Considered ‘Greatest Book Ever Written’. On November 5, 2019, Things Fall Apart was listed among the ‘100 Most Influential Novels’, by BBC News.

The Author

Things Fall Apart was written by the Nigerian novelist, poet, and critic Chinua Achebe. He is referred to as the ‘father of African literature,’ and he is seen as a dominant figure of modern African literature.

Chinualumogu Albert Achebe, popularly known as Chinua Achebe, is a Nigerian from the Igbo tribe, born on November 16, 1930, in Ogidi, Anambra State, Nigeria. He died on March 21, 2013

Aside from Things Fall Apart, other novels written by Chinua Achebe include:

No Longer at Ease (1960)

Arrow of God (1964)

A Man of the People (1966)

Chike and the River (1966)

Anthills of the Savannah (1987)

He also personally wrote and co-wrote several other articles, criticisms, essays, poems, and short stories.

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