Seeing Africa Through African Eyes

Lake Chad in Nigeria from space, NASA

Destination: Nigeria

Book: Things Fall Apart (1959) by Chinua Achebe

You won’t learn here about today’s Africa, racked by wars in some parts and thriving on tourism in others.  This is the Africa of the Africans, when outsiders were just beginning to encroach. Missionaries showed up (a white man–not an albino, someone says–riding an iron horse), some slave traders, the British government claimed power, while villagers who had once been sure of the truth faced new paradigms that puzzled and upset them.

Ibo Statue from Nigeria
Ibo Statue from Nigeria

The iron horse tied to a tree stayed put, but soon even the natives were riding the iron horse called a bicycle and clustering around stores where they could trade and buy rather than subsist on the yams they grew.  It is an upsetting time, and in Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe tells it the way an old Ibo villager in Nigeria would tell it to a youngster.  We learn the family connections and rank of the characters. We learn about what they did from dawn to dark, and how they gained status within their community.  We learn about their many gods, and how puzzled they are when their powerful gods seem to allow these white men to come and set up a church to worship the white man’s God. Above all we can see the humanity of these “primitive” people and the value of their lives.

The title derives from the poem by William Butler Yeats, and the book closely parallels the poem.

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The book is one of the first books written by an African, from the African point of view instead of accepting the judgement of Europeans. The characters are clearly drawn, the dialogue replicates the rhythms and idiom of tribal speech.  The book is written in simple language, and in my public library is filed in the young adult section, but that strikes me as wrong. Just as Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea might be accessible to young adults because of the surface simplicity, there is a whole universe of meaning in this book.

You can find a lot of study guides and analyses of Things Fall Apart by googling Achebe’s name.

“Chinua Achebe is an African great and perfect introduction to African writers. Things Fall Apart is a must-read classic,” says Gayle Pescud, a fellow Lonely Planet Blog Sherpa blogger, who lives in and writes about Ghana. Gayle introduced us to a book about Kenya, Unbowed in a guest post last September.

I know too little about Africa. I am going to remedy that by reading and reporting on a series of books (and probably some movies) about Africa in the coming months.  Do you have books to recommend? Now if you have nine minutes–here’s the author himself.

The incredible photo at the top that looks like an abstract painting tells another story about Nigeria. Click on the photo for information on Nigeria’s Lake Chad. Thanks to the photographers whose photos I use here–all form Flickr and Creative Commons. And the video is from You Tube, where you can find more videos of Chinua Achebe.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

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