Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart is perhaps one of the most famous of all African novels and is well known for its display of African culture and heritage as well as the reaction of African culture to colonization. Chinua Achebe wrote this fictional story using the cultural references of his own native Nigerian Igbo heritage to describe the tumultuous period just prior to British colonization.
The novel is centered on the violent protagonist Okonkwo whose life is regionally situated around three principal villages in present day Nigeria. Umuofia is the home place of Okonwo and is described as a village that was “feared by all its neighbors” (Achebe 9). Mbaino is a neighboring village from which the character Ikemefuno comes in order to appease the villagers of Umuofia (Achebe 10). The other geographic location in this novel is Mbanta where Okonkwo is banished for killing a man in the village (Achebe 112). While these may be the few physical geographic locations in the novel, physical geography is not the most important factor in the novel. Rather, this novel is full of the complexities of the Igbo culture and therefore it is necessary to study the cultural geography of this novel.
One of the first cultural aspects that one recognizes in this novel is that the village where Okonkwo lives is an agrarian society where one has to grow food for your family in order to survive. Okonkwo is contrasted with his father very early on in the novel. His father was “lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking of tomorrow” (Achebe 2). Okonkwo was known as a very resourceful man who was very hard working and had a prosperous household and a good harvest of yams. Yams are an important cultural element in this society due to the society’s agrarian nature. Yams are used to symbolize manliness since “they [his mother and sisters] grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans, and cassava. Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop” (Achebe 19). The successful growing of yams is correlated with the manliness of Okonkwo, a characteristic that shows up time and again throughout the novel. Achebe describes how pivotal this crop is to the people of Umuofia:
Yam, the king of crops, was a very exacting king. For three to four moons it demanded hard work and constant attention from cock-crow till the chickens went back to roost. The young tendrils were protected from earth-heat with rings of sisal leaves. As the rains became heavier the women planted maize, melons, and beans between the yam mounds. The yams were then staked, first with little sticks and later with tall and big tree branches. The women weeded the farm three times at definite periods in the life of the yams, neither early or late. (28-29)
Achebe goes into much more detail about the cultural geography of this village. Perforated throughout the novel are many festivals and religious ceremonies and practices. The people live in relation to their livelihood-farming-and therefore their celebrations are animalistic rituals which celebrate a deity involved with their farming practices. They all have various gods they worship and there are several places where such deities are worshipped. In the center of the village there is a cleared spot where a shrine is erected to “agadinwayi” or old woman (Achebe 9). Moreover, the people consult an oracle- the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves which is also known as the Agbala. Each person also has a hut for their gods and personal gods or chi behind their house (Achebe 11). There are many religious festivals named in the novel. There is the Week of Peace which Okonkwo violates at one point. This festival is celebrated by the villagers not working on their farms but simply drinking palm wine and going to visit neighbors (Achebe 26). This festival is important to the community since it marks a restful time just before they go out to cut the brush to make new farms (Achebe 27). There is also the Feat of the New Yam where the people “give thanks to Ani, the earth goddess and the source of all fertility” (Achebe 31). It is held just before harvest and is marked by a ritual whereby yams must be offered to Ani before the people can partake in their harvests (Achebe 31). Up until the end of the book, the people of Umuofia believe in animism and worship deities that have something to do with their livelihood. There is a point though where this changes. Once Okonkwo returns to his village after his time of exile expires, he finds his village is completely different since the white man has come and brought British rule and Christianity to the village. Some of the natives do come to Christ but conflict arouses between Okonkwo and the new converts. Their whole society is disturbed by the influx of missionaries and Okonkwo becomes estranged from his son (Achebe 132). The culture of this village drastically changes after that point.
The culture of the village is also marked by the significance of the family in the village. From looking at this novel, one sees that the family group or clan is made of many members where the husband is the patriarch of the family and he has several wives who bear many children. Each family has their own farm and compound where they live and work. Okonkwo’s family is described in great detail. He is described as being one who “ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children” (Achebe 10). He and his family work very hard from sunup to sundown and each person has their own responsibilities (Achebe 11). He has three wives and eight children and they all live in huts surrounding his (Achebe 11). What is most interesting to note is that in this society, the man does work and he works hard and so do the women but they each have differing roles. As explained before, the men deal with the yams and the women harvest other crops and do other tasks. There is a constant comparison going on in the novel between Okonwo, who is the manliest of men, and lesser men and women. There are several instances in the novel where a distinction is made between women and men where women are always seen as weak. Anyone who is described as being cowardly also has the description of being “womanly” (Achebe 139). Okonkwo laments about one of his daughters, Ezinma, that she wasn’t born a boy since she is like her father and hardworking contrariwise to her brother Nwokye (Achebe 148).
In this novel, place has importance only as a defining structure of one village in respect to another. Their village is seen as one which is better than another but due to their lack of outside influence; their village is the only place they know. It is the place where they were born, where their parents died but there is no semblance of real nationalism in the novel. Achebe describes the village in these comparative terms with other villages: “Umuofia was feared by all its neighbors. It was powerful in war and magic, and its priests and medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country” (9). The idea of “place” is not so important in this novel as is the concept of culture.
While our textbook does not go into great detail about Nigeria and its history or culture, it does make a brief comment on the general cultural diversity and vitality of Western Africa. It states that:
Enormous cultural diversity predated the colonial era in this subregion and continues to be exhibited there…But West Africa’s cultural vitality, historic legacies, populous cities, crowded countrysides, and bustling markets combine to create a regional imprint that is distinct and pervasive. (Blij 221-222)
This does mirror much of the setting and cultural imagery found in this novel but it is not near as specific as the novel is about the culture and people of the region. There is one geographic note that may be important with regard to the setting of the novel. Since this story is written about the Ibo people in Nigeria, the textbook gives us an idea as to which part of Nigeria the novel would have taken place. The textbook uses a map to show where different people groups primarily lived in Nigeria. By looking at the map one sees that the Ibo live in the central region of Nigeria between the Tiv people and the Yoruba people (Blij 223).
In conclusion, this novel is primarily centered on the culture of the Ibo people right at the beginning of British colonization. While the novel doesn’t describe the physical geography of the place or region, it gives a very ornate description of the cultural geography of the Ibos. I do think that Chinua Achebe wrote this story for his people and Westerners to learn the beauty of his culture before it was harmed by British colonization. Therefore I would say its well-known story to some but not all. Since I have read this book in other courses, I have learned to really respect and love this novel and the intricate African culture within it. I would highly recommend it as a literary work of art and even as a book which describes cultural geography but since Achebe doesn’t give many details on physical geography I wouldn’t use it for a resource for physical geography. It would be better for a cultural geography course.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1958. Print.
De Blij, H.J. et al. The World Today: Concepts and Regions in Geography. 4th ed. Wiley. 2009. Print.