FAO Quotables

"But being right, even morally right, isn't everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It's important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It's important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist."
-Anne Applebaum

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Grad School Discussion Notes and Summary: Achebe's Things Fall Apart

BONUS LINK:  My entire (so far) grad school notes collection can be found here. 
All Things Achebe--The Complete Notes Collection
DISCLAIMER:  These are my notes that I created from reading the novel and from classroom discussion.  Generally speaking, the chapter by chapter summaries are my own, however, the other parts of the posts are what I hope are an amelioration of the classroom discussion. 


For my Africa History course we are reading a series of novels by Achebe in conjunction with Iliffe's Africans: The History of a Continent.  Thus often our discussion and treatment of Achebe's novels is affected by this.  Iliffe tells the history of the continent primarily as a tale of population (stagnation, decline, rise etc) and of suffering.  He is only sometimes successful; his work needs about 20-30 more pages in charts/maps.  As a new student of African history, I found myself mired in a quagmire of unfamiliar regions, tribes, and languages; a few well-placed charts and maps could have alleviated this.


NOTE TO SELF FOR FUTURE REVIEW:
When I read a book on Africa I ask myself the timeless question: so what?  Every review must answer that question and must answer that question in the context of the role of  a foreign area officer/international relations professional/curious academic/diplomat.



Umuofia-  the village where the story takes place
Mbanta- the village of Okonkwo’s mother
Okonkwo- Central character—the aspiring Big Man
Unoka-  Okonkwo’s lazy father
Ikemefuna- given to Okonkwo to look after
Agbala-  Oracle
Chielo (Ezeani)-  Pristess of the oracle
Ezinma- favorite daughter of Okonkwo
Ekwefi-  1 of 3 of Okonkwo’s wives
Obierika- ozo, voice of reason/questioning, father of Akueke
Uchendu- Okonkwo’s uncle (mother’s side)
Nwoye- Okonkwo’s failure of an eldest son

Chapter 1: Introduces Okonkwo as an aspiring Big Man, fierce warrior and wrestler who threw the Cat. He values: yams, wives, cowries and physical/outward strength. His father Unoka died a debtor and embarrassment. 
Chapter 2: Terror of darkness.  Decisions made by council—this gives them stability.  Ultimate authority/God is the Oracle of the Hills and Cave.  Ikemefuna given to Okonkwo to settle murder dispute with neighboring village.
Chapter 3: Tale of Okonkwo’s hard work to rise from nothing through share-cropping.  It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.  Instructive that Unoka’s advice turned out to be prophetic since Okonkwo does die alone. 
Chapter 4: Okonkwo breaks the week of peace. 
Chapter 5:  We meet Okonkwo’s wives and his favorite daughter Ezinma.  Ani the earth goddess, is the ultimate judge of morality and conduct and fertility.  New Yam Festival.  Okonkwo beats his second wife and tries to shoot her but misses. 
Chapter 6:  Village wrestling match. 
Chapter 7:  Locust come (white settlers are later compared to locusts).  Okonkwo decides to kill Ikemefuna when the Oracle says he must be killed.  His desire not to appear weak is stronger than the pain of killing a son (like) person. 
Chapter 8:  Okonkwo’s depression.  Obierika fields suitors for Akueke.  She goes for 20 bags of cowries.  First talk of whiteman in joking.  This village isn’t down with the woman on top. 
Chapter 9:  Ezinma falls sick but recovers.   Ekwefi’s tale of 9 dead babies and the village belief that babies can be demons that if not buried correctly can keep coming back to be born. 
Chapter 10:  We meet the Egwugwa.   These are masked men that represent (but more deeply than we understand it) the village ancestral spirits and also mete out justice. 
Chapter 11:  Ezinma is taken by Chielo.  Ekwefi follows at a distance and is later joined by Okonkwo—this is the only tenderness we see in the book.
Chapter 12:  Akueke’s wedding ceremony.  Communal cooperation is required for this society to function as shown in the wedding preparations.  After it, she goes to spend 7 market weeks with the suitor’s family.  
Chapter 13:  Okonkwo is banished for 7 years after accidentally killing a teenager during a funeral celebration.  Living is closely connected to ancestral past.
Part II:
Chapter 14:  Okonkwo learns  mother is supreme as he arrives at her village.  The mother protects you but man belongs to the fatherland.  Uchendu has buried 22 children.
Chapter 15:  Story of whitemen massacring Abame for revenge is heard during a visit by Obierika.  Uchendu comments on the isolation of the clans. 
Chapter 16:  Missionaries comes to Umuofia.  Their converts are the dregs of society.  They first come to Mbanta though and sway the heart of Nwoye.  Poetry of new religion.
Chapter 17:  Nwoye is converted (and eventually converts his mother and siblings)  Okonkwo seethes.  More converts are won. 
Chapter 18:  Conflict with missionaries breaks out.  Converts are beaten and ostracized till python-eater randomly dies. 
Chapter 19:  Okonkwo’s last harvest of his exile.  He has big dreams for his return.  Gives a great toast.   Later is said that young people don’t understand how strong is the bond of kinship.  With new religion—a man can leave his father and brothers.
Part III
Chapter 20:  Okonkwo returns to his village where missionaries have taken over and brought their government and a jail even.  The missionaries destroy the unity of the clan in winning converts.  The kinship is what held their society together—in pushing the success of their religion, the two can’t coexist.  Here you could derive the interesting idea of missionaries as the original COINistas!
Chapter 21:  Mr. Brown wins more converts by combining religion and education.  Okonkwo returns to a village that has no place for him. 
Chapter 22:  Convert Enoch kills an ancestral spirit—Actually he just damasks him but to the people he is dead.    Egwugwu burns down the church.  Rev. Smith has replaced Mr Brown.  Rev. Smith is severe.  Foolishness of mutual ignorance. 
Chapter 23:  Egwugwu leadership is tricked and imprisoned, beaten and fined.  District commissioner comments:  we have brought a peaceful administration to you and your people so that you may be happy.  This highlights the central disconnect between whitemen and villagers. 
Chapter 24:  Villages gather and speak of war.  Okonkwo is choked with hate.  Village is hesitant to act.   Commissioner sends people to break up the gathering and Okonkwo decapitates their leader. 
Chapter 25:  They authority comes for Okonkwo.  Okonkwo has committed suicide.  This act is an abomination against the earth and he can’t be buried by his clansmen.  His body will be buried by a dog—it’s evil. 

DISCUSSION TOPICS/THOUGHTS/OBSERVATIONS:
- Achebe himself was mission educated.


- This novel was originally published in 1958, two years before Nigeria gained their independence.
- The story takes place in the late 1800’s.
- Bride price:  contractual agreement:  “If you’re keeping my wife, you must pay me back my bride price.”  This is said because the women provides labor (and children’s labor). 
- Okonkwo is the biggest proponent of tradition and he breaks the most serious one.  On the flip side, he is also an extreme version of their society.    Their society dies and so must Okonkwo.
- There’s a conflict in this book between “chi” (destiny) and societal laws.
-  The novel is also a statement about the Igbo view of life:  Life is suffering; it’s inherently severe. 
-  Igbo culture is primed to accept practices that promote a decrease in infant mortality.
-  When examining these novels and African history, it’s important to compare cultures of similar time periods (19th century to 19th century).
-  There’s an interesting dichotomy between Europe and Africa with regard to marriage.  In Europe there’s a dowry—in Africa there’s a bride price.  In Africa women produce something of value (through their labor and through labor itself), in Europe they don’t (to the same degree at least).
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- What does this novel show the role of religion to be in their society?
-  They live in a fragile system—what holds this system together in the 1st place?
- What is the role of the individual within the cultural context?  What are the cleavages?
- How is inequality portrayed—how does the system/authority structure work? 
*Arrow of God can be read as an extension of TFA.  This book is about the indirect rule efforts by the British.  


http://fuuo.blogspot.com/2011/01/when-achebe-writes-i-read-so-should-you.html

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