More than sixty years after its publication, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart continues to resonate around the world as several themes in the seminal work define different aspects of contemporary sociocultural and political lives of people of all backgrounds.
Speaking at a forum in Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the book’s publication, former President of South Africa, Kgalema Motlante described the book as epic and captures the present day realities of Africa and her culture.
“The best way to understand Things Fall Apart is to view it in motion in the sense that Chinua Achebe’s world which shaped him as well as the tradition of African communities at the time have lessons that are still relevant today”, former president Motlante told his audience in Brooklyn, New York.
Emphasizing what seems to be Achebe’s prescience, Motlante spoke of the author’s story-telling prowess and insisted some of the themes in the book were timeless. Specifically, he addressed the transition and transmission of culture, masculinity in African tradition as depicted in the actions of the central character in the book – Okonkwo who defied his community’s week of peace and shot his wife.
Okonkwo’s action is likely to be misinterpreted as his culture’s acceptance of violence against women. Chinua Achebe’s daughter, Dr. Chinelo Achebe-Ejueyitchie, who teaches Africa literature was quick to provide a clarification. Chinelo, who shared the stage with President Motlante and Dr. R. A. Ptahsen-Shabaz described Okonkwo’s behavior as not being representative of Igbo culture. She reminded the audience of students, faculty, diplomats, and elected officials that in the novel, her father described how some of Okonkwo’s friends counseled him against shooting his wife. Okonkwo’s violence towards his wife was therefore an aberration or outlier in the village of Umuofia – the imaginary village in the novel.
The moderator of the session, Dr. Shabaz, Associate Professor of English Literature, introduced a political component to the conversation when he quoted from Things Fall Apart and wondered why Africa and indeed the black race seem not to have changed from Achebe’s concerns more than half a century ago.
Dr. Shabaz outlined several issues focusing on good governance and integration of the African continent, saying to the chuckle of the audience that things continue to fall apart in reference to the book title Things Fall Apart.
In the book, Okonkwo told his friend Obierika: “How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? 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 a put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
Both President Motlante and Achebe’s daughter, Chinelo took turns to address the clash of civilizations and damage done to Africa by colonialism with festering racism in Europe and America.
Motlante became philosophical and provided some anecdotes and summed by saying that colonialism is part of African history. “We inherit the past and but we can create the future”, the former South African leader maintained. To view it differently, he warned, would amount to becoming “prisoners of the past.”
In echoing similar sentiment, Chinelo Achebe advised African people to accept the inevitability of change or kill yourself as the main character in the book – Okonkwo killed himself because of his intense resistance to change brought about by the invasion of white colonialists who came with religion and then acquired political power.
During the question and answer session, the session delved into political commentaries bordering on Africa’s political and economic identities, providing an opportunity for the politician in the room, President Motlante, to lecture participants on measures to achieve economic and political integration.
In a question, an alumnus of Medgar Evers College, Ms. Aisha, who’s originally from the West African country of Sierra Leone wanted to know about the prospect of young Diaspora African entrepreneurs who are interested in contributing to African’s growth and challenged by gender bias in the continent.
President Motlante explored different policies pursued by the Africa Union in relation to gender parity and economic development and advised the young lady that Africa has too many openings for anyone to participate in development. What it takes, he said, was for the individual to identify an area of interest and pursue it with determination.
One part of Chinua Achebe’s life that discussants and participants did not explore was Achebe’s exploits into politics. He vied for political office in his country – Nigeria in the 1980’s but was unsuccessful. Around the same time, he wrote another influential book -The Trouble with Nigeria – that doesn’t receive as much international attention as his other books. Published in 1983 after the demise of the civilian government, the book x-rayed Nigeria’s myriad political and economic challenges that still hound the most populated country in Africa.
The one-hour event put together by the Center for Black Literature (CBL) featured speeches by the College Provost, Dr. Augustine Okereke and Director of CBL, Dr. Brenda Greene.
In welcoming the former South African leader, Dr. Okereke drew a parallel between the struggle towards social inclusion in South Africa and Brooklyn – the location of a college committed to diversity and meeting the educational and social needs of mostly minority students.
Dr. Greene, on her part, reiterated the focus of Center for Black Literature – to broaden and enrich public’s knowledge and appreciation of black literature. Perhaps, a discussion of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart at an international city like New York is the best forum to acknowledge the depth and beauty of African literature.