Chinua Achebe wrote a novel in 1958 to tell the world a story about the continent of Africa and specifically, his nation Nigeria. Achebe's narration about the struggle of a certain African tribe begins in a village called Umuofia. Then it eases its focus on the protagonist Okonkwo the village hero and his turbulent relationship with his Dad, Unoka.
The readers were told on why the young man Okonkwo was considered a heroic figure by the villagers. And when Achebe began to narrate the events prior to the receiving of such status, the author also simultaneously painted a picture about the tribe and its social, political and economic structures. The author began to bare for all to see the heart and soul of the tribe: its culture. The spirit of the community is found in their own unique beliefs about life, earth and the gods that dwell therein.
Going back, the author narrated the wrestling match that catapulted Okonkwo to tribal cult-like status. This introductory part is so important because Okonkwo's triumph over his nemesis Amaline the Cat will lead him to paths of greatness and destruction. Arguably, things began to fall apart from this point of victory and therefore nobody in the village was able to anticipate Okonkwo's downfall.
Still in the introduction part of the novel, the readers were given a hint that the other guiding force that compels Okonkwo to behave in a certain way was his father. Okonkwo despises him and is ashame to be associated with him.
The young man despises his father because Unoka is not rich and famous. Comparing him with the other great men of the Igbo people, Unoka, according to Okonkwo is worth very little. The other thing that drives Okonkwo crazy is the apparent laziness of his father and his inability to pay his debts because of a perpetual state of bankruptcy which has given Okonkwo endless shame.
So when he won the wrestling match and the adoration of the people, Okonkwo decided to change his destiny. If not for his victory then Okonkwo may never have seethed with rage upon looking at his father's dismal achievements. He vowed never to be like his Dad and from that day forward he would do everything he could to succeed.
Again the reader's were given another idea with regards to the cultural and social make-up of the tribe when Okonkwo began to become an expert in planting yams. Yams for this people is so important, a staple food that requires an intricate system of farming methods or else famine and failure would ensue.
At the onset he had some rough start. Yet gradually he was able to achieve modest success. He was able to grow a substantial amount of crops and also able to store surplus. To an Igbo tribesman, Okonkwo had finally arrived as one of the respectable men in the commune.
His confidence was boosted when the tribes men gave him the honor of caring for a child from a rival tribe in order to secure peace between the two groups. The boy named Ikemefuna was filled with bewilderment, for one moment he was living a happy and contented life with his parents and then the next moment he is leaving all the he love so dearly in order to honor an ancient method of brokering peace between two warring tribes. Ikemefuna was not at all very happy with his present situation but he has to obey the laws of the land.
Unexpectedly, Okonkwo grew fond of the boy and the feeling was mutual. The child began to consider him as father. And then tragedy struck. Once, again the Ibo people will display their utter powerlessness against superstition. Due to a certain tribal taboo, a religious prohibition the boy has to be destroyed.
Things are about to fall apart in the life of Okonkwo. With much dread and self-doubt he reluctantly joined a band of men who will be responsible for killing the young boy's life. But when one of the tribesman tried to kill the boy with his blade the child survived long enough to ask the help of his adopted father Okonkwo. In one of the major twist of the story, Okonkwo raised his weapon and struck the boy dead.
He was shaken to the core after the incident and he was never the same. Yet he tried to force himself to believe that what he did was right. But he will be forever haunted by the incident and by his deeds.
Shortly afterwards there was a gathering for the funeral of a highly esteemed old man from the village. In a turn for the worse, Okonkwo's gun accidentally fired a shot killing a person in attendance.
Again, the Ibo people showed how much they are bound to superstition by forcing Okonkwo their protector to leave their village. Okonkwo was banished to a place called Mbanta and he stayed their for seven years.
In the middle part of the book, another story suddenly develops. The lord of the jungles since time immemorial were the African people. But that notion is being challenged by the first wave of missionaries. The Ibo people were not the first one to receive missionaries but their time has come for a more serious missionary wave and the “white men” are making much progress.
At first the Ibo people did not really feel threaten by the presence of the foreigners and their new foreign god but then they realized that this missionaries are not just content to share a new form of worship or simply to share a more powerful deity, these “white men” are also exporting their culture.
The very superstitious and traditionalist men of the tribe will not take these sudden developments sitting down they have to make a move.
Enter Okonkwo, he finally returned after a very long period of exile. And just like his tribal brothers he was much dismayed with the recent developments. His son is now a member of this new religion and for that he blamed himself for producing a weakling of a son, just like his father Unoka. Okonkwo will do everything in his power to stop the spread of this new religion.
It is now becoming clear that the main motive of Okonkwo to stop the Christians is not only due to his respect for traditions. He is also fighting his own demons so to speak; for Okonkwo believed that he has offended his god, his “Chi” the personal deity of each individual Ibo tribesman.
The others on the other hand were against the religion because the missionaries had introduced a way of life that is not acceptable with this people. An example of this is the establishment of a court of law that prosecutes lawlessness according to the Western mindset. One can only imagine the conflict it will bring when thinking about the Ibo people murdering a young boy for the sake of their gods.
The Igbo people made the conclusion that the missonaries tricked them into believing that they come in peace but in truth is there to disrupt the old order of things. Not many were convinced that the “white men” are harbingers of evil, for these people Christianity brought prosperity into their villages.
This can only be understood in the context of an extremely difficult life in the jungles and mountains of Africa. As narrated by Achabe, planting yams is not an easy thing to do. Even if one works hard, there is no assurance of prosperity, the gods are too fickle it seems for natural conditions are not always present to have a great harvest.
Thus, the trading post that Christians had established provided additional and alternative sources of income for the nearby villages. That is just a boon for many a great blessing.
Okonkwo on the other hand was blinded by rage – his son did not respect him as authority – and also shame because he was not altogether able to reach a particularly high status in the community in spite of his hardships, not to mention his active role in protecting their community.
Okonkwo blamed the Christians for all this misfortune. So he pushed and pleaded for war against the colonizers. Yet the people are not united. Many lost faith in the traditions of their forefathers and many were convinced that Christianity is the answer to many of their problems.
When messengers from the local governing body came to put stop to an uprising, Okonkwo went into a murderous rage and chopped off the head of one of them. But the rest was able to escpae.
Fear came into the hearts of the Ibo people. Surely those who escape will report all the things that they say and the white men will come back to take revenge. There is an unspoken conviction that Okonkwo is the one to blame for all this mess.
The great Okonkwo could not bear it anymore. He was disgraced beyond redemption. He also lost heart when he realized that his people will never unite to overthrow their oppressors. So he went home and hanged himself. To the bitter end, Okonkwo hanging on a tree was still being mocked by his people for no one would cut him down and blamed him for setting a curse on the land. They will not lift a finger to remove the rope from his neck, they just left him to hang.
The one who gave him respect and brought him down for a proper burial are the same enemies he sworn to kill. What anirony of ironies.
To an outsider, specially to those who are not living in Africa a different message can be gleaned from the work of Achebe. To a non-African, the author intended message of the evils of colonialism and their religion may not be too easy to accept. There can even be a confusion as what was really the intention of Achebe and the main idea that he wants to get across the world.
This point will be explained by the following reasons. In the earlier part of the novel, Achebe narrated the deadly superstition that plagued the people. It is this unhealthy belief over ancient rules and lore that led the protagonist Okonkwo to hate his father, made him want to kill his wife, and forced his hand to murder an adopted son whom he had grown to love. Finally these same rules banished him into exile and made him a foreigner in another land.
After showing the flaws in the religion of the Ibo people the author then pointed out the positive aspects of Christianity. But he also showed the flaws of the new religion particularly its need to export Western ways of life.
So the readers are now faced with a conflict, Ibo's religion is doing more harm than good but Christianity is tearing them apart. What must be done? The conflict was not resolved because the leader who was supposed to lead the way, killed himself .
He gave up. And it seems the same way with the author, he gives up also leaving the readers with no sense of satisfaction. There was no conflict-resolution that occur and just like Okonkwo the readers were left hanging.