By Emeka Chiakwelu
Chinua Achebe was a revolutionary genius with a descriptive warrior pen. He was ebulliently meticulous; a man of great wisdom and humility, with a rancor-free personality. But his literary approach and expression spearheaded by his novel Things Fall Apart was anything but radical and
revolutionary. It was an indeed a velvet revolutionary book. With the novel Achebe lunched the restoration of the African dignity, a clarion
call for Africa to define herself, tell her story and salvage her lost dignity.
To call Things Fall Apart a novel may not do justice to this significant book, it is beyond a story book. It is cultural-historical psychology;
anthropological and analogical book that captured Africa at its best; invariably establishing the clash and conflict of civilizations between
Africa and Europe.
With Things Fall Apart, Great Achebe took Africa and the rest of the world where they have never been before. With his understanding and imbibing of Igbo’s sense and sensibility, cosmology, ethos and political economy; he created the protagonist, heroic and tragic Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart with a socio-political realism that became a vehicle to tell the story of African people with a boldness, courageousness and clarity never seen before in the annals of African literary chronicle.
Although during his lifetime he did hesitate in accepting the proclamation – “The father of modern African literature”. Maybe out of humility he
never wants to convey to his contemporaries that he was better. Or being in the vanguard of African literature may not be necessarily the case from his perspective because Achebe lives by this dictum – “Where something stands, there also something else will stand.” So, he may also believe
that the field of African literature was so diverse for anybody to claim to be the leader or the inventor.
Before Chinua Achebe‘s Things Fall Apart, Africa has been defined by Western writers as a place without history and civilization: an abyss, a
dungeon roaming with heathen and primitive natives with disorganized political and economic structures. To put it succinctly, Africa according
to naysayers was a destination of nothing: A nothingness without story, history and intelligent organic structure.
With such a negative perception and pronouncement the challenge was on Africa to tell his own story, if the prevailing paradigm and prototype
advanced by the West was incorrect. On this unpleasant and distorted image of Africa, Chinua Achebe took the bold move and replied the world with Things Fall Apart. Therefore it is logical to call Achebe the Father of modern African literature. Before Achebe came to the scene there was
nothing to work with, he invented the afro-writing methodology rooted on Igbo structures of storytelling and used it to set the standard in Things
While many of Achebe’s contemporaries in Africa were becoming philosophical and ”accommodative” of colonialism, even mimicking the western
structures of writing, Achebe judiciously and categorically rejected colonialism in all its forms. Achebe stick out his neck and went after the
source of many African problems which is chiefly colonialism. He gave the world, Things Fall Apart and later put up a constructive and most
intelligent criticism on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
The justification for colonialism have already been rooted strongly in the minds of Africans and Europeans alike which was primarily according to the colonialists was to unbound chains of primitivism and backwardness holding Africans with light of western civilization.
After Second War II, many Africans political leaders including Nnamdi Azikiwe, kwame Nkrumah, Jomo kenyatta, Nelson Mandela and others have
begun to agitate on colonialism but the intellectualism and psychological resistances have not been fully embellished in the anti-colonial struggle.
The intellectual usefulness of Things Fall Apart when it was published in 1958 cannot be overemphasized. Achebe’s golden novel proved to the whole world that Africa was not happy with colonialism and that African culture has been dealt a big blow by colonialism.
Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” was quintessential for its negation of Africans but the salient point here was lack of any criticism from
western intellectuals until Chinua Achebe point out the lingering racism in “Heart of Darkness.”
Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” description of Black people was not palatable, the caricature of Africa and Africans were obvious: Take a look
at the below passages.
“In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the
forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the
incomprehensible, which is detestable. And it has a fascination, too, which goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know.
Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.
The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than
ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water,
there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little
white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.
When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages—hate them to the death.” (Conrad’s Heart of Darkness)
In preceding passage Conrad wrote: “Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don’t you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back — a help — an instrument. It was a kind of partnership. He steered for me — I had to look after him, I worried about his deficiencies, and thus a subtle bond had been created, of which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken. And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory — like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.
Poor fool! If he had only left that shutter alone. He had no restraint, no restraint — just like Kurtz — a tree swayed by the wind. As soon as I had put on a dry pair of slippers, I dragged him out, after first jerking the spear out of his side, which operation I confess I performed with my eyes shut tight. His heels leaped together over the little doorstep; his shoulders were pressed to my breast; I hugged him from behind desperately. Oh! he was heavy, heavy; heavier than any man on earth, I should imagine. Then without more ado I tipped him overboard. The current snatched him as though he had been a wisp of grass, and I saw the body roll over twice before I lost sight of it forever.”
Chinua Achebe did not keep quite when he came in contact to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Instead he took the fight squarely to Joseph Conrad by
challenging the racism in the book. The major issue from those passages by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was in spite of the “beautiful writing” with
regards to attractive prose and grammatical effervesce he was also writing about a people that he chose to downgrade and belittle with his good
This was also Achebe’s assertion on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as he replied those that found it uncomfortable for Achebe to unearth racism in
the work of their beloved Conrad. Achebe was not sentimental but logical in his respond and he said: “ Although he’s writing good sentences, he’s also writing about a people,and their life. And he says about these people that they are rudimentary souls… The Africans are the rudimentaries, and then on top are the good whites. Now I don’t accept that, as a basis for… As a basis for anything,”
In one of his greatest act of dispensation of enlightenment, Great Achebe brought his intellectuality to bear, as he delivered a paper titled – “An
Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.'” Achebe brought down the house of Conrad, as he robust fully and brilliantly castigated
and exposed the racism in “Heart of Darkness”: Below Achebe spoke with fervor and intellectual vim that even summoned the respects of his
opponents in February 1975 at lecture he delivered in University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA: “If there is something in these utterances more than youthful inexperience, more than a lack of factual knowledge, what is it? Quite simply it is the desire — one might indeed say the need — in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.
This need is not new; which should relieve us all of considerable responsibility and perhaps make us even willing to look at this phenomenon
dispassionately. I have neither the wish nor the competence to embark on the exercise with the tools of the social and biological sciences but more
simply in the manner of a novelist responding to one famous book of European fiction: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness , which better than
any other work that I know displays that Western desire and need which I have just referred to. Of course there are whole libraries of books
devoted to the same purpose but most of them are so obvious and so crude that few people worry about them today. Conrad, on the other hand, is
undoubtedly one of the great stylists of modern fiction and a good storyteller into the bargain. His contribution therefore falls
automatically into a different class — permanent literature — read and taught and constantly evaluated by serious academics. Heart of Darkness is
indeed so secure today that a leading Conrad scholar has numbered it “among the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language.” I
will return to this critical opinion in due course because it may seriously modify my earlier suppositions about who may or may not be
guilty in some of the matters I will now raise.
Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s
vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting,
peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the
River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no
old-age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.”
Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. It is not the
differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames too “has been one of the dark places of
the earth.” It conquered its darkness, of course, and is now in daylight and at peace. But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo,
it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the
mindless frenzy of the first beginnings.
These suggestive echoes comprise Conrad’s famed evocation of the African atmosphere in Heart of Darkness . In the final consideration his method
amounts to no more than a steady, ponderous, fake-ritualistic repetition of two antithetical sentences, one about silence and the other about
frenzy. We can inspect samples of this on pages 36 and 37 of the present edition: a) it was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an
inscrutable intention and b) The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. Of course there is a judicious
change of adjective from time to time, so that instead of inscrutable, for example, you might have unspeakable, even plain mysterious, etc., etc.”
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart has done more than enough to enlighten the world about Africa and its civilization. With unbending pen he won the battle that garrison of armed soldiers cannot win. Achebe is truly an African freedom fighter that took African mores and culture to all the
sleepy, quiet, adamant and reluctant parts of the world. Achebe literally works particularly Things Fall Apart is not just only mountainous
intellectual asset to Africa and the world but an enduring testament that human decency triumphs over degradation. Great Achebe may have slept with his fathers but the towering achebeism will be evergreen.
Emeka Chiakwelu is Principal Policy Strategist at Africa Political & Economic Strategic Center (AFRIPOL) .