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Things fall together: Chinua Achebe is Okonkwo of Things Fall Apart

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Chinua Achebe

For Chinua Achebe, the standard fare is that he was not autobiographical in his novels. But is it? Whatever, the scandal is not that Achebe was actually autobiographical in writing Things Fall Apart, the scandal is that Achebe’s readers, scholars, and researchers, have missed out on this largely self-evident fact for sixty-odd years.

The question is why? Perhaps the explanation will require another paper. For justice, the best way to go about tracking the Achebe analog in Okonkwo of Things Fall Apart is to match the key and character-defining moments and highlights of the lives of the two men; the man as God made him, and the other as created a character.

Okonkwo was born, Achebe tells, as the son of a lazy but impoverished man. The key point is that Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, was not one of the leading personages or as Achebe may prefer, one of the lords of the clan. Okonkwo was born into the lower strata of society. One telling fact is this. Achebe writes in Things Fall Apart, a sociological truth that resonates with historical veracity.

“The church had come and led many astray. Not only the low-born and the outcast but sometimes a worthy man had joined it.’’ Later he writes, [Mr. Brown] went from family to family begging people to send their children to his school. But at first, they sent their slaves or sometimes their lazy children. (Achebe 2008, 139).”

So, it is obvious that the bulk of the Igbo who first went to school or converted to Christianity were not from the dominant strata of the Igbo society. In fact, the fact of ‘’A worthy man joining,’’ was much later. And since Achebe’s parents were the first of the converts, it is reasonable to affirm that his fathers did not belong to the elite strata of society or the lords of the clan.

In other words, Achebe was like Okonkwo. He was born underprivileged. This is especially so in the eyes of the extant, ‘’the status quo ante,’’ not the transitional society he is reporting in Things Fall Apart. That these underprivileged ones later became leaders and lords of the clan were due to the self-fulfilling prophecy of the white man. The white man fixed it. It was ‘’his century’’ and consequentially, the century of his local agents in Igbo land. And these local agents were the Achebe fathers and sons who pioneered going to schools and churches.

So, it is not out of place to read an Achebe memoirist excerpt, under a chapter appropriately titled: “Pioneers of a New Frontier: “My father was born in the last third of the nineteenth century, …. And so, my father was raised by his maternal uncle, Udoh. It was this maternal uncle, as fate would have it, who received in his compound the first party of English clergy in his town…. My father was an early Christian convert and a good student. (Achebe 2012, 7).”

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe writes: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages. As a young man of eighteen, he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat.… It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight, which the old man agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights. (Achebe 2008, 1)”

This too is the story of Achebe, if especially we read Things Fall Apart, philologically. The point is that we miss doing so. The details are as follows. Today, we see wrestling as street brawls and not the haute couture cultural fiesta it was for the Igbo of Umuofia. That is, an Okonkwo of Things Fall Apart is the equivalent of a George Weah or an Arnold Schwarzenegger of today, if you liked. Weah and Schwarzenegger are all popular sportsmen who rode on their entertainment value to become a President of Liberia and an American State Governor [California], respectively. Thus, the rite of Okonkwo’s winning, not to speak of the millennial upset he staged set him out as one of the – all-American, sorry, all-Liberian, sorry – all-Umuofian boys of all ages. In today’s world, Okonkwo would be one of the world’s most eligible bachelors.

One of the world’s most eligible bachelors? Yes. The point is the nine villages and beyond constitute the equivalent of the whole known world for the Umuofians and there is nothing odd or exotic in this. The sages of the Greek city-states wrote and performed as if they constituted the world. The only ‘’Prisoners they took’’ was that the unknown world was made up of barbarians, men who were outside history, and thus of no consequence. Injustice, it is thus obvious that Okonkwo’s fame was worldwide, in philological or new-reality adjusted terms. Even today, when Americans say, ‘’It is a worldwide hit,’’ they really mean that it is a hit in America, the larger West, and Japan. Africa and other provincials are not members of their known cultural universe or kit.

If one thing can be said of Things Fall Apart, it is that it is an upset, a worldwide upset. Achebe was an outlier, a provincial lad. In this, he was just like Okonkwo. While Okonkwo’s handicap was cast from the perspective of sociological lowliness, Achebe’s, was of his being a colonial. Colonials like Achebe were not proper citizens of any part of the known world. They were more chattels than citizens, at least to the British who colonised them. And just at the tender age of 28 [adjusted for the years of his education, it would probably come to 18 or so], as against Okonkwo’s 18, Achebe pole-vaulted to the top of the known world just like Okonkwo. Of course, Achebe must be writing of himself principally, when he ostensibly writes of Okonkwo that: ‘’ His fame rested on solid personal achievements.’’ The point is if ever there was such an achiever it is Achebe. Things Fall Apart, a dazzling accomplishment, is Achebe’s singular, solid, personal achievement, as there ever was. And that ensured that Achebe like Okonkwo became a pan-world icon.

In other words, Achebe’s first great and crowning achievement, Things Fall Apart, is the moral or urban equivalent of Okonkwo’s unbundling of Amalinze the Cat, and it was just as monumental. So monumental, that it was compared in the case of Okonkwo with the epic fight of the founding fathers. And in the case of Achebe it was so monumental that it is compared with the epic fathers of world literature. Today, alongside immortals, the greatest of the greats, like Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, etc., Achebe is ranked as their equal. (“The 100 Best Books of All Time From the Norwegian Book Club.” https://www.listchallenges.com/the-100-best-books-of-all-time-from-the) It is thus safe to state, that if Umuofians made such urban lists as the “100 greatest men, etc. of all time,” Okonkwo would have made it alongside their founding fathers and ‘’urban’’ names like Einstein, Nietzsche, Napoleon, etc. Okonkwo would have ‘’philologically’’ topped the lists just as Achebe does today.

Okonkwo’s undoing was a largely innocuous event. A “Friendly or such fire” killed a maiden, and a lad etc. was substituted for her. The lad, Ikemefuna, stayed in the Okonkwo household as was befitting one of the lords of the clan. And it so happened that in the wisdom of the day, Ikemefuna – Okonkwo’s adopted son – had to be killed or sacrificed. Okonkwo heeded the call to swing the machete and did. And a little later, unrelated to the death of Ikemefuna, things took a bad turn; and Okonkwo never quite recovered. Like Achebe’s Ikemefuna, an inauspicious event also befell him because of his solid personal achievement, because of his genius. Achebe authored a novel, A Man of the People. It was a prescient and prophetic novel.

The novel predicted the coup that quickly followed its publication. That alone made Achebe guilty in the eyes of the genocidal Yakubu Gowon and or his agents, and they sought out Achebe to murder him. To these genocidaires, Achebe was a part of the Igbo conspiracy to dominate the known world. Luckily, Achebe escaped, but things tipped in the manner it did for Okonkwo. Just, as the white man came and brought his pestilence, the Biafra war erupted, no thanks to Gowonism, and the Gowon-exacted genocide against the Igbo.

And just like it happened to Okonkwo with the coming of the white man, Achebe never quite recovered from the Biafra war. It is not only that it cut short his writing career – organically at least -– he now saw the country he once loved slip into the darkness with the direst of consequences, and this was not just for him but for his people also. This too was similar to Okonkwo’s understanding of the consequences of the white man and his new ways, that devastated not just Okonkwo but Umuofia.

Again, and insistently, Achebe and Okonkwo live out parallel lives. Okonkwo never quite listened to advice or alternative opinions, especially after he became a successful man. We may recall: “Looking at a king’s mouth… one would think he never sucked at his mother’s breast. He was talking about Okonkwo, who had risen so suddenly from great power and misfortune to be one of the lords of the clan…. But he was struck, as most people were, by Okonkwo’s brusqueness in dealing with less successful men…. Without looking at the man Okonkwo said: “This meeting is for men.” (Achebe 2008, 21).”

But was Achebe in real life any different? Historical data suggest that Achebe lived up to be an analogue of his character, Okonkwo, in these matters. A pivotal and character defining event in Achebe’s literary life and career must be the critical revelation by Professor Charles Nnolim. Nnolim ‘’unearthed’’ the source of one of Achebe’s great novels, Arrow of God. Quite some din was raised over the matter and Achebe faltered, Okonkwo-like – it is apparent –in his responses. For instance, Nnolim reports on Achebe’s written response. Achebe writes: “A certain fellow was claiming that Arrow of God was written by his uncle, which led to a rather curious situation in which the fellow was dismissed as irresponsible by a white critic. It really should have been expected that some Igbo critics would have shown as much concern as the white critic about matters of critical responsibility in our literature.(Charles Nnolim, “A Source for Arrow of God,” University of Port Harcourt. Okike, No 52, 01 November 2014. https://www.unn.edu.ng/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Charles-E.-Nnolim-%e2%80%98A-Source-for-Arrow-of-God%e2%80%99-Matters-Ari1.pdf).”

“A certain fellow,” Achebe’s epithet for Nnolim, whom he knows personally, and who was at the time a well-known and distinguished critic, is the urban equivalent, of Okonkwo calling another, a man, a woman; and Achebe did and in print!

Even more interesting is that Okonkwo rationalized his killing of his adopted son by recourse to the higher authority of the clan, though he needed not, at least according to his equally brave and well-achieved friend, Obierika. In other words, that act of murder by Okonkwo was superfluous as far as Okonkwo, a foster father, was the actor-subject. This is despite conceding that the act may be done. But not done by Okonkwo, was Obierika’s very reasonable position. In the telling words of Obierika: “If I were you, I would have stayed at home. [And not participated in the killing of Ikemefuna.]
“The Earth cannot punish me for obeying her messenger,” Okonkwo said. “That’s true,” Obierika agreed. “But if the Oracle said that my son should be killed, I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it.”(Achebe 2008, 53).
And when Achebe had a similar issue what did he do? Professor Eldred Durosimi Jones plays Obierika to headstrong Achebe: ‘’What I find curious is that Achebe did not acknowledge the source which he obviously studied and whose use does him no injury.’’ Quoting [Professor] Eldred Durosimi Jones. Founding editor of African Literature Today. (Charles Nnolim, “A Source for Arrow of God,” University of Port Harcourt. Okike, No 52, 01 November 2014. https://www.unn.edu.ng/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Charles-E.-Nnolim-%e2%80%98A-Source-for-Arrow-of-God%e2%80%99-Matters-Ari1.pdf)

Thus, just like Okonkwo, the rationalization by Achebe of a self-evident even if ‘’harmless failure’’ of his, is superfluous. It would have served him and the rest of us best if he admitted to being forgetful or in plain error. But like Okonkwo, Achebe hinged his personal choices on higher powers. For Okonkwo, it was the Earth goddess: for Achebe it was the white critic he called on his fellow Igbo to queue behind.

In characterizing the ‘’doubleness’’ of Achebe and Okonkwo, we may not yet be done. Achebe again writes: “And when she returned, he beat her very heavily. In his anger, he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm pleading with him that it was the sacred week. But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way, not even for fear of a goddess. (Achebe 2008, 23)

Was Achebe not such as one? Would Achebe ever have changed his mind even in the face of contradictory evidence? Our records show Okonkwo-like tendency of the great man. For instance, Achebe was into a political alliance with Alhaji Aminu Kano, a prominent Northern Nigeria politician. It is not impossible Achebe did not in the morning of his political romance with the said Aminu Kano, know that Aminu Kano was a ‘’notorious’’ – even if then closeted – genocidaire. But when the fact of it was in the open (Iloegbunam 1999), Achebe neither retracted nor spoke on the fact of his friend, a genocidaire, against his own people.

The point is that Achebe as the successful Okonkwo took himself as beyond good and evil, as the new measure of all things. That is, for Achebe as for Okonkwo, there was to be no community Week of Peace or rites, or even truths that their personal whims could not override. The matter is so much that Achebe in pursuit of personal sentiments above community good, dedicated his famous The Trouble with Nigeria to Aminu Kano, a notorious genocidaire – we repeat. And worse, he had the temerity to later write: “… there were a few upright political figures like Mallam Aminu Kano….”(Achebe 2012)

Get the drift? A genocidaire as an upright political figure? Only in Achebe/Okonkwo-style delusion!

Achebe writes: “In a flash, Okonkwo drew his matchet. The messenger crouched to avoid the blow. It was useless. Okonkwo’s matchet descended twice and the man’s head lay beside his uniformed body… Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: ‘’Why did he do it?’’ He wiped his matchet on the sand and went away. And next it was reported of Okonkwo: It is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offense against the Earth…. Okonkwo had committed suicide. (Achebe 2008, 163)

Our conjecture is this. If Achebe had recorded Okonkwo’s last soliloquy, it would have been recorded Okonkwo said something like: “There was a people, oh alas, there was a brave Umuofia-Country” And that was likely to be Okonkwo’s last rite before he took to the gallows.

For Okonkwo, it all came to a bad bend. It was so bitter that he committed suicide. Achebe did not exactly do so. But it is clear from his ‘’last testament and confessions,’’ There was a Country, that Achebe felt Okonkwo-like embitterment by events as they turned out, just as Okonkwo did. Truthfully, Achebe as a single being has done so much that few if any African or other persons can rank with him, but society is team-play not a solo run. This is one thing Okonkwo understood and Achebe too, even if they both did too late in their days. It was the failure of their teammates, as it were, that pushed them beyond the pale, beyond consolation and each to a bitter self-bemoaned death.

While Okonkwo dashed for the gallows, embittered and feeling betrayed, There was a Country, may be seen as a stylish repetition of the same act; or its memorial as a swan song or perhaps as a stylized suicide. But please, let no ‘’judicial references’’ be made of this, ala, the 1979 transition elections judgment: ‘’Chief Justice Atanda Fatai Williams’ Supreme Court, legitimized President Shehu Shagari’s election… [but] ruled that the majority judgment should not be cited as a precedent in future cases!’’ https://thenationonlineng.net/justice-path-not-taken/

Finally, Achebe writes beguilingly of Okonkwo: “Looking at a kings’ mouth, said an old man, one would think he never sucked at his mother’s breast. He was talking about Okonkwo, who had risen so suddenly from great poverty and misfortune to be one of the lords of the clan. (Achebe 2008, 21)

Continuing, Achebe writes: “The old man bore no ill-will towards Okonkwo. But he was struck, as most people were, by Okonkwo’s brusqueness in dealing with less successful men. (Achebe 2008, 21)

The point remains that the Achebes [plural] were like the Okonkwos. The Achebes, even more than the Okonkwos, arose most suddenly from great material poverty to be lords of the new and emergent dawn, post-colonialism and all. Many would roll their eyes on this. But first let us remind ourselves of the following: “They [post-colonial administrators and heirs like Achebe] take over the colonial state in an unaltered from. They even take great care not to alter anything, because such a state offers fantastic privileges, which its new administrators [the Achebes] naturally do not wish to renounce. The colonial origins of the African state – a state wherein the civil servant received remuneration beyond all measure and reason…. All at once, in the blink of an eye, a new ruling class arises – a bureaucratic bourgeoisie that creates nothing, produces nothing, but merely governs society and reaps the benefits. (Kapuscinski 2002).”


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