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“Things Fall Apart” and Judging Another Culture

I felt a great tension when reading Things Fall Apart. On the one hand, I felt sympathy for the close-knit communities and culture that began to “fall apart” when the British came. I admired their community—for example, the great gathering for the engagement ceremony, with the women cooking yams and casava and vegetable soup, “a great anthilll activity.” An anthill is a beautiful metaphor for their unity and collective work. On the other hand, I thought some Igbo practices were wrong. I thought it was wrong that they killed the boy Ikemefuna because his father, a man in a neighboring tribe, had killed a woman. I thought it was wrong that the son paid the sins of his father.

Achebe emphasizes this tension throughout the text, especially in the Obierika’s musings at the end of Part One:

Obierika was a man who thought about things. When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend’s calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. As the elders said, if one finger brought oil it soiled the others.

How can this tension be resolved?

Some colonizers thought they were “bringing civilization” to different parts of Africa, and “civilizing” is not so different to changing cultural practices one thinks are wrong. Colonization was mostly motivated by injustice and executed cruelty, for resources and power, but at the root of this tension is the just motive of the colonizers. Writing that phrase makes me uncomfortable, for the same reason it makes me uncomfortable to judge the Igbo practices. Yet I reject, moral relativism, our mainstream escape from this tension, and so I must face it.

My belief in the injustice of punishing a son for the sins of their father is rooted in individualism, an individualism that is opposed to the collective unity and beauty of a tribe, to a people united by traditions, festivals, drums, and a great orator and “ten thousand men answering” in unison.

My belief in the injustice of the Igbo’s treatment of women is also rooted in individualism and a feeling that we should all be treated equally as individuals, not as non-equals in a collective unity.