cultivating & crashing

an organic collection of notes, observations, and thoughts

Tag: postcolonial

Things Fall Apart

I just finished reading Things Fall Apart. It tells the story of an Igbo clan in what’s to become southern Nigeria as the first white man arrives, bringing the dissolution of their integrity as a people. Achebe’s anger against the white church and government is palpable, but he writes in English, himself having been educated in colonial British system, a son of converts. How did he feel about his parents’ conversion? About his own success afforded by his use of English?

Earlier today I tried to talk to my mom about the book because I think it would be interesting for her to read something from the other perspective of the spread of religion. But the book would only reinforce Africans’ primitive barbarity to anyone who is not already open-minded about cultures that don’t resemble one’s own: wicked children that die young are mutilated to discourage them from coming back into their mothers’ wombs again only to die again; a child singled out by the Oracle’s prophesy must be slaughtered without hesitation or deliberation; Okonkwo, the protagonist, wins high prestige in his clan due to the number of men he killed in a fight with another village, as well as his dragging home one of the heads for all to see. Okonwko’s son, Nwoye, chooses Christianity over his own traditions, thinking of the twin babies that were left in the bush to die and the fierce masculinity that was expected of him. He leaves to study in the colonial school. Who does Achebe identify more with?

On a personal note, it is easy for me to accept that some people perform practices that I would not be able to stomach or ever agree to for myself or my family, at least in theory. After some years studying anthropology, reading of the violence of the Igbo considered necessary came as no surprise, and it was not difficult for me to sympathize with their need to protect their customs. I even grimaced when the converts were forced to accept the dreaded outcasts of their society as equal children of the white God,  though doing so violated their traditions. But that same feeling turned against me when I considered how the outcasts themselves must have felt in finding a paradigm that would subvert the one that had deemed them eternally sullied and taboo. In Things Fall Apart, converts to the white system were voluntary, so what they provided was actually meeting a need that was felt by enough members that Umofia were rent apart.

Achebe is subtly expressing delicate and nuanced feelings towards British colonization. Things were falling apart, but in the book it’s admitted that white medicine works much faster than the Igbo kind.

The fact that Achebe chose to live in the United States and write in English is telling, but what it tells is not obvious, either. I believe he’s navigated a very complex and difficult identity as successful subaltern in the world, a success that is the product of the clash of his traditional way of life and colonialism. Colonialism may not have been right, but it did not come without its silver linings.


From A Grain of Wheat

I finished it last night. I really like the parallel between the two men’s loves for Mumbi and their relationship with white, colonial power. Ngũgĩ is able to communicate his own complex judgement on the issue through Mumbi’s actions at the end.

I also like the nuance Ngũgĩ introduces into the text: the characters are labelled by each other as traitors and freedom fighters, but Ngũgĩ shows us this distinction is never hard and fast.

He had gone to see Kihika hang from a tree. He had searched his heart for one has pity or sorrow for a lost friend. Instead, he found only disgust; the body was hideous; the dry lips over which a few flies played, were ugly. What is freedom? Karanja had asked himself. Was death like that freedom? Was going to detention freedom?  Was any separation from Mumbi freedom? Soon after this, he confessed the oath and joined the homeguards to save his own life. (230)

The ambiguity and anti-climactic nature of the end is powerful, because it’s more truthful. When the Wars of Independence were finally won from Spain in Latin America, initially almost nothing changed for most people. It would have been insulting to declare otherwise in either of these cases. A Grain of Wheat makes it easy to understand why decades later, countries that have won their glorious independence can still be deeply broken. A system built on gashes and wounds takes a lot of time and transformation before it can grow strong.

Surrender before Uhuru

I’m reading A Grain of Wheat, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It which recounts the moments before Kenya’s Uhuru, independence, where the battle had been lost and the white man was packing his bags, leaving a wounded people and ravaged land in their own hardened hands.

The incident of Dr. Lynd’s dog nearly attacking the group of Africans by the research centre. Karanja has betrayed the fighters with whom he swore to struggle for a free, black Kenya to win favour in the colonial system.

They changed to the dog incident. They became angry. They sympathized with Karanja. Man! Thompson saved you. But he won’t punish her. Karanja found the smell of the boiling glue, the men’s talk and laughter, did not soothe his restless nerves. He went out and walked between the Soil Physics Laboratory and the main administrative block, affecting business-purposefulness, but really hoping to catch sight of John Thompson in the office through the window. Had the man gone, Karanja wondered? He should have asked him yesterday. Yesterday after the dog incident. Karanja recalled his terror as the dog approached him. He shuddered. Thompson had saved him from shame. Thompson. And he was going. He strolled back to his room, heavy with a sense of imminent betrayal. (158)

Thompson, a white bureaucrat, is somewhat sympathetic towards the Africans, and intervenes when Karanja is blamed for almost being attacked by a white woman’s dog. The dog is known to be dangerous and hurt workers before, and yet Thompson does not sanction Dr. Lynd, but listens to her complaints of the Africans. Karanja, who betrayed his friends and the fight for black sovereignty, is now about to be abandoned by his white oppressors. The exploitation and the futility of his seeking reward with the whites is glaring: “Thompson saved you. But he won’t punish her.” No matter what he does or whom he informs against, he is African, and they are Europeans. He will never earn equality or even acceptance from his white superiors, who will never penalize a fellow white for a wrong committed against a black. And when white reign is finally overturned, Karanja has dug his own grave, left to the justice that will be meted out by those he turned against. Ngũgĩ depicts the dynamic in which submission was the only option available to blacks, their collaboration never freeing them, but further entrenching them in servitude.