What happens when cultures are lost?

Reading Things Fall Apart, my most potent emotional experiences came when it reminded me of something from Roots.

Maybe this says more about how much I loved Roots than how much I was underwhelmed by Things Fall Apart.

But I was still underwhelmed. The majority of the story is a description of the tribal customs of the Ibo people of Umuofia (based on Achebe’s own Igbo heritage), as seen through the eyes of Okonkwo, a prominent clan member, and his family.

In some other reviews, people say that the differences in culture dampened their emotional connection to the story. I’m positive that’s not the case for me; the first 200-some pages of Roots pursues exactly the same strategy, and I was emotional as hell about that.

I think the big problem I had is that Okonkwo is a huge ass. We’re told that his father was weak, and a leech; he couldn’t support himself, so he was always in debt and died a pauper. Okonkwo’s life is thus a refutation of his father’s weakness: he becomes a wrestler and strongman (and a prosperous businessman) who beats his wives and children and wants to solve every argument by killing the other person.

The idea seems to be that Okonkwo represents the traditional character of his tribe, so his downfall (sorry; I won’t tell you how it happens) represents the downfall of his tribe as the white missionaries and overseers move in and “civilize” the natives.

OK, sure, I get that and it works well. But I just didn’t feel like Okonkwo was a great vehicle for the allegory. And seriously, Roots does it all so much better.

There is another theme which gets more play here than in Roots (are you sick of hearing about this yet?) is the moral question of whether the tribal culture that the white people fucked up (pagan, communal, brutal) is “better” or “worse” than the new culture that the white people introduced (Christian, capitalist, etc.).

It’s a fascinating question. The Ibo people do things like leaving all sets of twins in the forest to die (because they’re evil spirits), subjugating and dominating women, and exacting justice from other clans in the form of human children and then enslaving them, marrying them off (in girls’ cases), or even killing them.

This is all stuff that we, reading today, unquestionably call immoral. But did these people have a right to their own culture? Did white people have a right to come in and impose their own? Just because Europeans saw their practice as immoral, does that mean they were more “moral” than they were? Are they better arbiters of what is right?

All difficult questions, and the thing is, I’m not sure Things Fall Apart really addresses them as well as other works. It’s likely that some of the subtlety is lost on me. And Achebe leaves a lot for the reader to think about and answer for herself, which I do think is good. But I can’t escape feeling like it could have done more for me.

I’m not saying don’t read this; do, if you’re interested in African culture pre-white-people (which you really should be). But I guess read Roots first.

Photo Credit: Jos van Wunnik via Compfight cc