The Fear of Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe

I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for the first time in 2008. As a child, I had watched the movie on Nigerian Television and experienced nightmares for months afterwards; the screams of Ikemefuna as he was being sacrificed stayed with me for years. For subsequent re-runs of the movie, I would flee the sitting room at exactly 8:28 p.m., two minutes before the melancholic opening dirge could massage the image to reality in my young mind. As I write, I can still see that haunting picture clearly, of Okonkwo unsheathing his machete as Ikemefuna ran to him for protection calling him “Nna anyi”.   I would grow up to search out and read most of Pa Achebe’s work, but not Things Fall Apart. I felt that I could not emotionally handle the book.

When in 2008 I got information that Professor Achebe was coming to the Library of Congress (my backyard, then) on occasion of the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart, I knew I had stepped beyond the borders of reason in evading the book. I decided that I would rather check myself into psychiatry than enter that meeting armed with only the nightmarish clip of a movie etched in my subconscious.

Things Fall ApartSo I read Thing Fall Apart. In the place of my childhood nightmares, Things Fall Apart the book left me with wounds. Each sentence I read tore at my soul like a barbed wire on the feet of a trespasser. I felt as if I was trespassing an era that forbade my kind; an era I could not account for; an era that should belong to my history and narrative, but for which I was declared an illegal occupier owing to my ignorance. Questions festered like wounds deep within my soul. I asked myself what, as a human being, I was doing to myself, for myself, to Africa and for Africa.  I became afraid of myself and for myself. Fear clutched my soul for the many whose immediate post-natal reality brought to them the realization of their Africanness. I tossed and turned in my bed as I searched my soul for a glimpse of a reality that existed in Things Fall Apart, but which was alien to my existence. “You are living a false life. You are trying to be something you are not. You have been trying to be that for a very long time. Until you change, unless you change, except you change, you will keep striving fruitlessly to be, to belong, to become, until exhausted you fall by the wayside.”  That was the only reality my soul could offer in return.

It dawned on me at a deeper lever, that we as a people, as Africans, have been striving so hard to do things we have been told to do by others. We have been begging, apologizing, and regretting our authenticity for so many years. But Things Fall Apart brought us face to face with our own story for the first time ever in the history of modern writing. It barely scratched the surface, but it opened the doors in the hearts of many other African writers to start telling their stories. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Ayi Kwei Armah, and others.However, it must be noted that these “newly discovered” writers wrote and were published widely, mostly because the western world, intrigued by Things Fall Apart wanted to read more stories from the “Dark Continent”. When the west lost interest sometime in the 80s and 90s, several African writers concurrently lost interest in writing authentic African stories.

Instead of authentic African thoughts and expressions, African writers would place besides their writing pads, writing manuals from English teachers who, with invisible canes, bulala or koboko, purged them of their rich African proverbs, syntax, expressions and mannerisms. Writing, among Africans, became a show of shame, a humiliating race for who can write better English than the English. It ceased, for the most part, to be about who best can capture the realities of Africans as close as possible to the way it is. African writers began to light the midnight candle of western expositions in their desperation to get published.  And yet publishers snubbed and rejected them in thousands. It must be in the name, some writers thought. So Chinedu Udemueze became Chris  Dealy, Akinfolu Adefarasin became Archer Dickson, Kwame Atularke became Cane Tulane. But still, the publishers would not be deceived, they would rather publish one of their kind.

Chika Ezeanya and Professor Chinua Achebe
Chika Ezeanya and Professor Chinua Achebe

Unfortunately, much of those who were published in the 60s and 70s were lured to the west to teach in universities.  There, they were provided with the comforts of life in order to teach Americans and Europeans how to glean the African’s soul and society and write on his behalf. As a result, a huge mentorship gap befell those young Africans back home whose chests were heavy with untold stories.But there is good news. Although that mentorship gap has not yet been closed, something else is happening to young African writers of this digital age. There is a new song rising out of the continent of Africa. The song is fading-in. It is not loud in the public hearing yet – it need not be. The song is loud and echoing in the hearts and minds of several Africans who have felt insulted enough for being themselves. Its octane rises above the taunts of prim and proper English syntax and the American way of doing things. From the streets, young women and men are placing fingers on the keyboard to express themselves and to publish their thoughts, sans the judgments of sometimes ill-informed and often ignorant foreigners.

In African writing , writers – those who know – are no longer impressed by big, big grammar and superimposed, “modern” realities. There is a growing renaissance of authentic African expressions in the literary and other creative sectors. In music, for instance, African voices are being heard. In film production, more and more Africans will rather go for their own production than that of foreigners. African young women and men are increasingly taking pride in their home-inspired fashion, using African fabrics and styles to create world class ensemble. In short, the modern is being redefined as simply a change in the direction of progress, which  is based on locally sourced and easily available materials. In a short while, our academic institutions will catch the fire, the curricula will be overhauled to reflect our reality and to herald spontaneity of thought and speech, the harbinger of creativity and innovation.

Professor Achebe has made a graceful exit. He must have rejoiced to have seen the internet blossom. For it pained him – he said as much in interviews – that not enough authentic stories are coming out of Africa.  But the internet as a medium has finally detached the muzzle previously placed upon the mouth of Africans who have something concrete and worthwhile to say. It is a thing of joy that Professor Achebe lived to see the liberalization  of communication, the emergence of a platform that is wide open for anyone who wishes to utilize it to project his or her deepest convictions and progressive thoughts about the continent .  We thank Professor Achebe for instilling the fear of things falling apart within us and around us. We are now being led to make valid and authentic choices for our progress regardless of so-called “global structures”. We have begun the journey and we shall complete it.  Ka chi foo, Nna anyi ukwu. Jee ofuma.

Chika Ezeanya is the author of Penguin Publishers Award for African Writing Shortlisted Before We Set Sail

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