This is a short novel set in eastern Nigeria in the late 19th century. The protagonist, Okonkwo, is a man of renown in his village, first as a wrestler, and then as a self-made man who has worked hard to attain a position of respect in the community. But he is also hot tempered and something of a domestic tyrant over his family. He despises weakness in others, and in himself.
The traditional way of life of the village is disturbed by the coming of white men — missionaries, traders and colonial rulers. Okonkwo does not like the social changes they bring to the village, and urges others to resist them, but this resistance, and the manner of it, bring about his downfall.
The first half of the story is fairly static. It describes the village and its social life, the seasons of planting and harvesting, in a manner reminiscent of George Eliot. It enables the reader to experience something of the atmosphere of rural life. To readers from elsewhere, the description makes the unfamiliar become familiar. The main crops may be unknown in other places, but we are told enough about the farming methods to become familiar with the rhythms of rainy seasons and dry seasons, seed-time and harvest, and thus to appreciate something of the shock of social change when it comes.
As a missiologist and church historian I found the social change wrought by the missionaries particularly interesting. There are two missionaries in the story, Mr Brown and Mr Smith, The names are generic, deliberately so, I think. They represent two types of missionaries, and two different approaches to Christian mission in the 19th century.
The first, Mr Brown, represents the missionaries who preceded the New Imperialism of the 1870s and later. He is interested in the culture of the local people, and has religious discussions with them. I think this part is worth quoting in full, as it has much to say about Christian mission in general, and is thus of interest to missiologists:
(Mr Brown) made friends with some of the great men of the clan and on his frequent visits to the neighbouring villages he had been presented with a carved elephant tusk, which was a sign of dignity and rank. One of the great men in that village was called Akunna and he had given one of his sons to be taught the white man’s knowledge in Mr Brown’s school.
Whenever Mr Brown went to that village he spent long hours with Akunna in his obi talking through an interpreter about religion. Neither of them succeeded in converting the other, but they learnt more about their different beliefs.
‘You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,’ said Akunna on one of Mr Brown’s visits. ‘We also believe in him and call him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.’
‘There are no other gods,’ said Mr Brown. ‘Chukwu is the only God and all the others are false. You carve a piece of wood — like that one’ (he pointed at the rafters from which Akunna’s carved Ikenga hung), ‘and you call it a god, but it is still a piece of wood.’
‘Yes,’ said Akunna, ‘It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church.’
‘No,’ protested Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church is God himself.’
‘I know,’ said Akunna, ‘but there must be a head in this world among men. Somebody like yourself must be the head here.’
‘No,’ said Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church in that sense is in England.’
‘That is exactly what I am saying. The head of your church is in your country, He has sent you here as his messenger. And you have also appointed your own messengers and servants. Or let me take another example, the District Commissioner. He is sent by your king.’
‘They have a Queen,’ said the interpreter on his own account.
‘Your queen sends her messenger, the District Commissioner. He finds that he cannot do the work alone and so he appoints kotma to help him. It is the same with God, or Chukwu. He appoints the smaller gods to help him because the work is too great for one person.’
‘You should not think of his as a person,’ said Mr Brown. ‘It is because you do so that you imagine that he must need helpers. And the worst thing about it is that you give all the worship to the false gods you have created.’
‘That is not so. We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu. It is right to do so. We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them because we are afraid to worry their master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka — “Chukwu is Supreme.’
‘You said one interesting thing,’ said Mr Brown. ‘You are afraid of Chukwu. In my religion Chukwu is a loving Father and need not be feared by those who do his will.’
‘But we must fear him when we are not doing his will,’ said Akunna. ‘And who is to tell his will? It is too great to be known.’
In Achebe’s report of these discussions, which is probably a condensed report of thousands of such conversations, it strikes me that Mr Brown’s interlocutor, Akunna, had a better grasp of Christian theology than Mr Brown himself had.
Last week I heard someone speaking about Christianity in relation to Graeco-Roman and ancient Egyptian paganism, and some of the issues that arose from that seem remarkably similar. Mr Brown and Akunna represent two different approaches, and in Things fall apart the first approach, that the gods of the pagans are human inventions, is presented as Christian, and the second, that there is a great God, the Creator, who made the little gods, is presented as pagan. That was also the approach of the speaker I heard on Friday. But if we read the Christian holy scriptures, we can find both approaches.
Akunna’s remarks seem to echo Psalm 94/95:3 — For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods; or, in the Septuagint, ὅτι θεὸς μέγας κύριος καὶ βασιλεὺς μέγας ἐπὶ πάντας τοὺς θεούς·.
This is seen even more clearly in Psalm 81/82, which is sung with great jubilation in Orthodox Churches on Holy Saturday, and perhaps indicates the line that Mr Brown should have taken with Akunna — that the little gods have messed up. They have ruled the nations unjustly, and the Psalmist prays “Arise, O God, judge the earth, for to Thee belong all nations.”
And just before his death Jesus announces that he has come in answer to that very prayer: Now is the hour of judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out, and I when I am lifted up, shall draw all men to myself” (John 12:31-32)
That’s not what Akunna said, but it’s not what Mr Brown said either. Mr Brown missed the point.
This can be seen more clearly in Deuteronomy 32, where both approaches can be seen. In verses:8-9:
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God, for the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.
That implies that while all the nations had their own national spirits (Akunna’s “little gods”), Israel alone could by-pass the middle man, and approach the Almighty directly. The “to Thee belong all nations” cry in Psalm 81/82 is a plea that this will come to an end, and when Jesus says he will draw “all men” to himself, he is saying that the time has come. That is why mission organisations in the Orthodox Church use the slogan “panta ta ethne” — “all nations”.
Also interesting is that Akunna speaks of the little gods as “messengers” of the great King above all gods, and the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 reads:
ὅτε διεμέριζεν ὁ ὕψιστος ἔθνη, ὡς διέσπειρεν υἱοὺς Αδαμ, ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ, καὶ ἐγενήθη μερὶς κυρίου λαὸς αὐτοῦ Ιακωβ, σχοίνισμα κληρονομίας αὐτ
When the Most High divided the nations, he divided them according to the number of the angels (ie messengers) of God. In other words, the little gods are angels, or messengers of God, which Mr Brown failed to recognise, though Akunna knew it.
And back in the second century St Justin Martyr explained that the pagan gods of ancient Greece and Rome were angels, albeit fallen ones, as the Psalmist laments in Psalm 81/82. But I’ve written more about that here.
Though Mr Brown had his shortcomings, however, he also had his good points. It was missionaries of Mr Brown’s type who, earlier in the century, had consecrated Samuel Adjai Crowther, a freed Yoruba slave, as a bishop in western Nigeria.
Mt Smith, who followed Mr Brown, represents the new-style missionaries who came after the New Imperialism. They were more confident in themselves, more convinced of their own superiority, and less willing to learn anything from the local people. They were generally racist, and denounced their predecessors who had consecrated a native bishop in the person of Samuel Adjai Crowther, saying that it was premature, and the natives “weren’t ready for it”. For the Mr Smiths it would take centuries if not millennia of white tutelage before Africans were ready for a black bishop.
The Mr Smith-type of missionary was dominant until 1914, when the First World War shook European complacency and the tide of the New Imperialism began to recede. Achebe doesn’t take us that far, however. He just shows us the effect that it has on Okonkwo.
Achebe also shows how colonialism introduced or exacerbated corruption in African society, and how Christian mission became entangled with colonialism. If these things were unique to one small part of eastern Nigeria, it would perhaps make the novel less interesting, but in its very particularity, the story is universal. The society may change, its economy may change, but rural societies have often undergone such changes. The detailed descriptions at the beginning enable the reader from a different culture to feel at home in the society, to feel that it is not so strange. I’ve never seen or tasted a yam, but in reading the book I become aware that yams in that society play the same role as mealies in southern Africa, or wheat in England, or oats in Scotland. Achebe does that particularly well.
I find it interesting that one can learn quite a lot of missiology from works of fiction like this book. There are others that come to mind as well. The Poisonwood Bile by Barbara Kingsolver tells of an American missionary in what is now the Democratic Republic of congo, who is a Mr Smith-type missionary, and fails to come to terms with the local culture, and all the members of his family make their own different adaptations. Another that deals with modern mission, this time in South America, is At play in the fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiesen. In all these instances the missionaries have been immersed in modern culture, and come unstuck when they encounter premodern culture.
For a novel that deals with premodern missionaries and premodern people, an interesting one is Credo by Melvin Bragg.