“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” Ernest Hemingway
Widely read in schools in Africa and beyond, over twenty million copies have been sold. Achebe’s book is touted as one of the great books in the English language. This short novel is a powerful depiction of the colonialisation of Nigeria. Telling the story of Okonkwo, it packs the storytelling of a biographical saga into just 200 pages, rapidly transporting you to village life on the banks of the Niger River in the 19th century. *Beware of some spoilers*
Okonkwo is a feared warrior and leader of his village. A self-made man who stepped out of the shadow of his father, a man more inclined to music and poetry than to working the land to provide for his family and who died indebted to many of his friends and family. Okonkwo is shamed by his father’s character and turns away from any works hard to be a success for his mother and siblings before becoming a fearsome wrestler and warrior in his clan. To Okonkwo, any showing of love, emotion or affection is a sign of weakness and his three wives and children live in fear of his fists.
Although warned by a village elder not to have a hand in the killing of Ikemefuna, a boy sacrificed to the village to atone for killing a woman of the village, Okonkwo’s fixation with appearing strong leads to a series of events resulting in a fall from grace, and he is cast out from his clan for several years.
When he returns, missionaries have come to the village to convert the people from their own tribal beliefs to that of Christianity and English colonists are spreading the rule of their laws across the region. Having lost a son to the church, Okonkwo, tries to foment a resistance from his clansmen but their fight has already left them. Fighting the battle alone, is too great a burden for Okonkwo and he takes his own life rather than suffer the indignity of apparent justice to be meted out by the white man’s courts.
In the first part of the book, you see and understand why Okonkwo has become the man that he is, determined to rise above the reputation of his father. But in doing so you see that he has lost part of his humanity and, in spite of his riches, is the poorer for it. This is contrasts with his good friend Obierika, who is equally successful but shows compassion and understanding, even when he sees his friend cast out from the clan. You wish for Okonkwo that he can open his eyes and stop making the same mistakes through his stubbornness and pride.
When the missionaries and colonists arrive, seemingly spreading the true word of their god and their superior civilisation, Achebe also shows how the compassionate approach of Mr Brown in attempting to live peacefully alongside the clan is so readily undermined when the firebrand preacher arrives along with the high-handed district commissioner. The power that they wield, enforced through tyranny, quickly overthrows the clan’s traditional leaders. As the district commissioner vainly contemplates a book he might write about civilising these people, things fall apart for the clan. Okonkwo the warrior will become an insignificant anecdote in the history that the white man writes.