By Obi. O. Akwani MGV Editor
Okonkwo: A Life of Fear; A Life of Bravery
This summer (August 2005) I picked up Things Fall Apart, that famous novel by Chinua Achebe — first published 47 years ago in 1958 — and read it again, perhaps for the twentieth or perhaps hundredth time. I do not remember the last time, before now, when I read that book, but it had to have been at least twenty years ago. In any case, Things Fall Apart had been a standard text for our high school English literature class and that is more than 29 years ago. I believe it is still the standard text for some schools in Africa.
I was not surprised that Achebe’s novel still retained its power for me. I read it this time with the mature critical eye of another craftsman. I re-read the short, deceptively simple yet complete and descriptive sentences and was once again captivated by the beauty of this novelist’s craft. Achebe’s economy of words and ability to convey complete ideas and create whole mind-pictures in the reader make up part of his genius as a novelist. The whole tale of Okonkwo is told in a dense 148 pages of concise sentences that hold-in the gravity of a myriad of subject matter.
With just eleven words in the opening sentence of Things Fall Apart — “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond” — Achebe had me hooked, imagining the nature of his protagonist. By the end of the third paragraph, I had formed a complete picture of Okonkwo the man — physically, a “tall and huge” fellow of a severe aspect on account of “bushy eyebrows and wide nose.” He is also a man of immense agility who walked as on springs with his heels hardly touching the ground. Achebe describes him as a man of quick temper who “had no patience with unsuccessful men.” His own father, Unoka, deceased for about ten years by the time we meet Okonkwo, is one such unsuccessful men. We shall return to Okonkwo’s father later.
We meet Okonkwo at about the age of 38 at the height of his fame. The foundation of this fame — his wrestling feats — are at least twenty years behind him and he had added to them by showing “incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars.”
By the time he was 28 years old, Okonkwo was already a rich man — “a wealthy farmer” with “two barns full of yams” and three wives and had taken two titles.
Now nearing 40 Okonkwo was “one of the greatest men of his time.” Though he was still young, he had earned the right to associate with the elders. “Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings. Okonkwo had clearly washed his hands and so he ate with kings and elders.” (p. 6)
As the novel quickly unfolds we slowly come to learn more about the flaws and vulnerabilities of Okonkwo. The failings of this powerful protagonist are wrapped firmly around the substance of his power, contemporary fame and successes.
A Life Dominated by Fear:
Okonkwo’s life was dominated by fear. This fear of being considered weak or a failure propelled his drive for success. It was a deep-seated fear of being like his father.
Achebe leads the reader to the understanding of how, due to this fear, Okonkwo had become a man of fiery temper, impatient with less successful men and unable to tolerate what he saw as weakness in others. Some of the consequences of Okonkwo’s temper are revealed beginning in the second chapter. His family lived in perpetual fear of his temper. In the fourth chapter it is related how he brusquely cut down an untitled man who interrupted him during a clan meeting, telling the man, “This meeting is for men.” It was okonkwo’s temper that caused him to transgress the “Week of Peace” by beating up his youngest wife, Ojiugo when she spent too long doing her hair and missed setting out dinner for her husband and kids. For that transgression Ezeani, priest of the earth goddess, fined him “one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries”. During preparations for the New Yam festival, a restless Okonkwo had found an outlet for his restlessness by beating up his second wife, Ekwefi. And when she made a snide comment about his marksmanship following that beating, he had, in a rage, turned his gun on her and fired. Ekwefi had escaped by scampering over a half wall before Okonkwo’s gun discharged.
The Ikemefuna Episode:
One major subject matter in Things Fall Apart revolves around the episode of Ikemefuna, the ill-fated lad entrusted to Okonkwo’s care by the Umuofia council of elders. Ikemefuna was one of two young people from neighbouring Mbaino, handed over by his people in compensation for the death of “a daughter of Umuofia.” This daughter of Umuofia, the wife of one Ogbuefi Udo an elder, was killed while at a market in Mbaino. Achebe doesn’t say how she was killed, whether accidentally or in a deliberate homicide, but the reaction of the Umuofia people is made clear. They would make war – a war of revenge – on Mbaino unless the later paid compensation in the form of two of their own. Mbaino handed over the fifteen year-old Ikemefuna and another teenager, a virgin girl, to Umuofia to avert attack by the latter, reputed to be the more powerful community.
The virgin became a replacement for the dead wife of Ogbuefi Udo, while Ikemefuna came to live as a member of Okonkwo’s household. Ikemefuna’s stay in Okonkwo’s home was supposed to be a temporary arrangement — until the clan decided what was to be done with him — but he ended up living as a member of the family for three years. He became “wholly absorbed into his new family.” In that time he became a mentor and “was like an elder brother to Nwoye,” Okonkwo’s first son who, in his father’s disappointed view, was taking on traits of his indolent grandfather. Under Ikemefuna’s influence, however, Nwoye blossomed. Ikemefuna made Nwoye “feel grown-up” to his father’s secret pleasure. “Okonkwo was inwardly pleased at his son’s development, and he knew it was due to Ikemefuna.”
After three years, Ikemefuna had begun to call Okonkwo ‘father’ but the day came when the oracle pronounced on the boy’s fate. Ikemefuna was to be sacrificed to Agbala. On the appointed day, some men of Umuofia including Okonkwo took the boy into the forest on a pretext of taking him home to his people. Someone else inflicted the first blow, but when the boy cried and ran to his ‘father’, Okonkwo inflicted the fatal cut with his machete. Okonkwo was afraid to be thought weak by his fellows if he showed compassion to the boy who knew him as a father and so he killed the boy.
Okonkwo suffered for the act, but only barely. He did not eat for two days after the death of Ikemefuna. He stayed drunk and could not sleep at night. On the third day he forced himself to get over it and went to attend the bride-price ceremony of a friend’s daughter. There they bantered and gossiped about current events.
Okonkwo in Exile:
When Okonkwo’s gun accidentally explodes during the burial ceremony of Ogbuefi Ezeudu and a piece of shrapnel lodges in one of the mourning sons of the dead Ezeudu killing him, justice in this case, was exile for Okonkwo and his family and the razing of their home in Umuofia by members of the Ezeudu clan, “dressed in garbs of war.” Okonkwo’s seven-year exile is spent with his maternal relatives in Mbanta.
Okonkwo, in exile, is a depressed man. Even though he lacks nothing materially — he has a home, farmland and ample seedlings, which he has planted, courtesy of his uncle and cousins — he still laments his loss of place in Umuofia. “It was like beginning life anew without the vigour and enthusiasm of youth…”
Tales of the White Man:
Two years into exile, Okonkwo is visited by Obierika, who brings news of the arrival of white men and their destruction of a place called Abame. The Abame people had killed the first white man who arrived there on a bicycle (iron horse) after their oracle tells them that “the stranger would break their clan and spread destruction among them.” Some months later, three other white men came with a troop of soldiers and wiped out the Abame people. Both Okonkwo and his uncle, Uchendu think the Abame people were fools not to have taken precautions concerning the white man. Uchendu called them fools for killing the first white man that came into their midst. They should have tried to find out more about him before deciding what to do. Okonkwo calls them fools for not preparing for war, even after being warned that the presence of the white man portended danger.
Another two years go bye. Obierika arrives for a second visit with the exile. The presence of the white men had reached into Mbanta and Umuofia. Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, had joined the white men. Nwoye was a young man very much in the sensitive mould of his grandfather. Nwoye has been sighted in Umuofia where the whites have built churches and established missions from where to spread their gospel.
The End of Exile and Return to Umuofia:
The end of Okonkwo’s seven years of exile draws near. The white men and their Christian foothold have grown stronger. The Mbanta community adjusts to the new situation. Okonkwo is contemptuous of his mother’s people’s accommodating response to the ever-growing strength of the new Christian community. Eagerly he makes preparation for his return to his fatherland. He throws a feast during which one of the elders in attendance makes a speech commenting on the changes taking place in their midst due to the arrival of the white men and the Christians.
“I fear for the younger generation… because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice… An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse the gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you; I fear for the clan.” (p. 118)
Before he returns to Umuofia, Okonkwo disowns his first son Nwoye and enjoins the remaining five to stay faithful. In Umuofia he discovers everything changed. Many men of title had converted and joined the Christians. The White men had not only sought converts and built churches, they also had set up a government and a court system. It was a system that did not respect their traditions or social order. Now the white men’s prison in Umuofia held many titled men and put them to menial labour, a condition that was clearly beneath them. When an Umuofia man killed another in a land dispute, the white men’s government, with information supplied by their Christian converts, supplanted traditional authority and hung the killer.
Okonkwo is sad and perplexed by these changes. He does not understand why his people had lost the power to fight. Obierika tells him that it is too late to fight the way he (Okonkwo) envisioned. Umuofia’s own sons were among the ranks of the strangers who uphold the white men’s government. The white men say Umuofia customs are bad and do not respect them; their Umuofia converts agree and aid their destruction of traditions and customs. Obierika muses:
“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (pp. 124-125)
The Umuofia Okonkwo returned to after exile was greatly changed from the one he knew seven years earlier. Contrary to his expectations the men of Umuofia had not dealt boldly with the white men and their religion. He was in an increasingly small minority with his views. Most of the others did not agree completely with the white men’s ways, but many were willing to compromise. Apart from their government and religion, the white men had also built a trading post in Umuofia. This made it possible for farmers to get good prices for their palm kernels and other goods. With the arrival of a new missionary in charge, Mr. Brown, the church had also learned to be less confrontational, which gained them more attention. The missionaries encouraged people to send their children to school so that it would be their own people, not strangers, who manned the many administrative openings in the white men’s government in Umuofia.
But Okonkwo was not moved by any of their arguments. He drove away Mr. Brown when the later tried to pay him a visit after having sent Okonkwo’s son Nwoye to teacher training school in Umuru to the south.
After Mr. Brown, a Rev. Smith, a man of markedly different disposition, became the missionary in charge, and compromise and conciliation gave way to confrontation. Things come to a head when an ancestral spirit is ‘killed’ when Enoch, a convert, unmasks an Egwugwu. This has never happened before. All the Egwugwus gather and, in retaliation, Enoch’s house is burnt down, the church is also burnt down.
These acts of revenge were the sort of acts Okonkwo understood. For the first time since his return, Okonkwo feels something close to happiness. He and the other men of Umuofia do not want to be caught unprepared like the people of Abame. They go about armed. The district commissioner summons Umuofia leaders. They go. Okonkwo is among them. It is a ruse. The men are surrounded, captured handcuffed and jailed. They suffer humiliation. Their heads are shaven and they are beaten. They will not be released until 250 bags of cowries are paid for the burnt church and house. The money is paid. They are let go.
A Final Act of Defiance and Despair
Later when Umuofia is at a meeting the DC’s messengers arrive to order the meeting dispersed. The angry Okonkwo confronts them, draws his sword and beheads their leader. The rest run away. Umuofia does not attempt to stop them. The meeting is disrupted. Okonkwo realises that Umuofia will not fight. He cleans his bloody sword in the sand and silently goes away. He is not seen alive again.
In a final act of despair, Okonkwo commits suicide by hanging himself from a tree behind his house. Even in death, he was still rejecting what his father, Unoka, stood for. Many years before, when he was still a young and up-and-coming farmer Okonkwo had suffered his first economic disaster in a general bad harvest. Most farmers despaired in that disaster. One farmer in particular hung himself after his livelihood was wiped out in the bad harvest. Then the aging and ailing Unoka had comforted and counselled his son: “Do not despair. I know you will not despair. You have a manly and proud heart. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.” (p. 18)
It was as if Unoka anticipated his son’s destiny and sought to avert it. Even though what confronted Okonkwo at last was a general failure, it was a general failure that pricked his proud heart. He had taken everything about the clan in a personal way and had acted accordingly. It is certain that if Unoka’s words came to him moments or even hours before he raised his sword against the DC’s messenger, Okonkwo did not consider it. He had clung to a tiny desperate hope that the clan shall redeem itself by following his example to act like brave warriors. But that small hope was disappointed. In the end he lost all faith in the world around him and did not care to live in it any more. He took the general failure of the clan personally and, like a martyr, chose to die alone.
His friend, Obierika, gave his final epitaph: “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia…” Obierika told the district commissioner who had come with a posse of men to arrest Okonkwo.