Written in the 1950’s in the years immediately preceding Nigeria’s independence, when the British were losing their hold on Africa, Achebe reasserts the position of African identity in his poignant and seminal novel, Things Fall Apart. In context of when Achebe was writing, pervading dehumanising stereotypes of Africans were commonplace (in part, a vestige of Conrad’s, Heart of Darkness) and deeply ingrained. When one reads the book in this light, it becomes clear how Achebe redresses the balance and beautifully rewrites the narrative of his ancestors to offer a truer reflection of reality.
Set in pre slave trade Nigeria, Things Fall Apart chronicles the lives and culture of the south- eastern Igbo tribes. Achebe depicts the Igbos as a self-sufficient, people with their own language, formal social structure, culture and religious belief, who ‘judged a man according to his worth’. In the opening chapters we learn of life in Umofia through Okonkwo, who gives us insight into the customs, ceremonies and the elaborate and intricate ways of life of the villagers. For example, the ‘Feast of the New Yam’ is described as a festival ‘to honour the earth goddess and the ancestral spirits of the clans. He describes the rituals of ‘painting themselves with cam wood and drawing beautiful black patterns on their stomachs’ as they host ‘guests with a mount of foo-foo so high, that those on the other side could not see what was happening on the other’. Through his masterful depictions of the complex social structure and established culture in Umofia, Achebe proudly breathes life into the strong traditions, customs, foods and familial bonds of the Igbo people, warts and all, before the imperialist onslaught began. It offers insight into the often overlooked subcultures of African civilisations that existed long before empire, and continues to inspire the genre. Whether it be through modern POCO writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or the Philly based hip hop group, The Roots, the ripple effect of Things Fall Apart are still felt today and that for me, makes it a must read.