Nigerian Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) was a giant among African novelists. Winner of the 2007 Man Booker International Prize – just one of many literary awards he received – Achebe is best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), which as of 2008 had been translated into fifty languages.
As an American missionary who has lived for nearly 2 decades in four sub-Saharan African nations, I was anxious to see how Things Fall Apart would portray the interaction between his main character, Okonkwo (a rising leader among the Ibo of eastern Nigeria) and Western missionaries. It is here that Achebe succeeds by developing the contrast between Mr Brown, a gentle, listening missionary, and Mr Smith, a strident character who has no time to discover the religious worldview of the locals.
The strength of the book, however, is not in the final 1/3 but in the first 2/3. The reader is drawn into Okonkwo’s world with all its joys and messiness. The husband of three wives, he rules over his family with firm patriarchy, overachieving in-part because his own late father had been a good-for-nothing. Yet his world where eveyone has a role to fill and does so is spoiled when Okonkwo must acquiesce to a dark deed against his adopted son, Ikemufuna, accelerating his estrangement from his biological son, Nwoye, who later joins the Christians.
Things Fall Apart – though a novel – provides a fascinating study of the role of ancestors in the daily life of the people. Many Americans (with the possible exception of Mormons) can only trace their family tree back 2 or 3 generations. Our eyes are constantly on the future, the latest cell phone app or product innovation. Some wear the label “progressive” as a badge of honor. Yet Okonkwo symbolizes a conservative way of life, the communal backward glance over the shoulder, where existence is meaningful because one is part of an ongoing story that stretches back centuries. (The closest we’ve come as Westerners to appreciating this sub-Saharan African worldview is the 1970s TV miniseries, Roots).
Achebe catches the little details of life. It may be the portion of kola nut that a host lets fall to the ground, an offering to the ancestors who must eat before one’s guests do. Or it may be the egwugwu , the nine masked village men who represent the spirits of the ancestors and render judgment in disputes. In these ways and more, the ancestors are still part of the present life of the community. They are not dead and gone; rather, they are the living dead.
I experienced this outlook one day in a small village in southeastern Benin. We had purchased a small plot of land to build a church and it was time to sit with the owner and seal the deal. Not wanting to buy alcohol for the occasion (our church is teetotalling), they graciously accepted softdrinks instead. As we sat around the circle, the owner opened his softdrink with his teeth, then poured out a small amount on the ground, an apparent libation to his ancestors.
The challenge for Christians is how to bring together two worldviews without compromising the integrity of Christian orthodoxy. Where does one draw the line? Can we legitimately honor the example of ancestors without veering into the dubious territory of imploring their favor? Hebrews 11 is one example of how this might be done, paying respect to them for how they remained faithful to God. At the same time, one cannot maintain a shrine to them or “personal gods”- as Achebe’s Okonkwo does – for surely this is to divinize the ancestors, a directly violation of Exodus 20:30:
“You must have no other gods before (besides) me” (CEB).
It’s easy from a distance to be critical of ancestor worship, forgetting that sometimes we Western followers of Christ have been guilty of treading close to this line. Larnelle Harris sings these words in his song, “Friends in High Places“:
v. 1 – I’ve got hope when things look bad
And I can smile when I should be sad
I’ve got friends who lift me up when I’m feeling low
And they watch over me wherever I may go
I’ve got friends in high places
So high but not so far away
I’ve got friends in high places
And I’m gonna be with them someday
How is the theology of these lyrics much different than Nigerians or Zambians invoking ancestors to protect and bless a family? Larnelle Harris’ song seems to be a misapplication of Hebrews 12:1 and the “cloud of witnesses” theology.
But back to Africa. Achebe’s novel was written in 1958, set in rural Nigeria. I wonder if the ancestral worldview is as dominant in urban Africa in 2017 where the Westernizing influences of social media are shaping new generations? Cultures change, and Africa is hardly immune.
Whether you’ve been to Africa or live elsewhere in the world, Achebe will help you move beyond the stereotypes of Africa that (unfortunately) are still all too common. For curing misconceptions, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a potent antidote and a reminder that all cultures have both merits and blindspots.
Stuart C. Shapiro [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons