Morals vs. Customs of UmuofiaAs poet, novelist, and painter, Hermann Hesse, once said, “Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and cruelties; it accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap” (Goodreads 1). When one reads this they can understand the importance of tradition, and how tradition changes and grows which can ultimately help with the understanding of the connection between colonialism and traditional beliefs.
Colonialism is the act of another country taking over a usually less powerful country to secure its resources and gain more power, which often consists of the colonizing countries culture forced on the original settlers. Things Fall Apart is set in the 1890s and portrays the clash between Nigeria’s white colonial government and the traditional culture of the indigenous Igbo people. Okonkwo is doomed to lose the traditions he cherishes as his society slowly falls apart. In Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, the white man’s new information about their religion to the people of Umuofia, and Okonkwo’s personal conflict between his own mentality and the Igbo culture, which consequently leads to the tribe’s transfer of religions, reveals the deterioration of the cultural identity through a separation of traditional beliefs, then leading to the colonization of Umuofia.There is a struggle between family, culture, and religion of the Igbo people which is all brought on by a difference in personal beliefs and customs. Igbo religion exerts a great deal of influence on the moral and political lives and activities of practitioners. One conflict that is easily seen to be morally wrong is that no one dared to question the decree of the gods as pronounced by the high priests, even if this mean an order to throw away one’s twin babies.
Twins “were an offence on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender” (Achebe 125) To a modern day person of America this custom would seem harsh and cruel, and the people of Umuofia would probably agree, but their obedience to their gods were to be stronger than what they believed was thought to be wrong and right. With such confusion of whether to follow the custom or not, whether to be what one may think is good or obey the gods and commit an act that is considered bad, it pushed the deterioration of the Igbo culture. They knew that although this action may have been legally correct, it was morally wrong. “When Nwoye learns that Ikemefuna is dead, something changes within him. He recalls the feeling that he experienced one day when he heard a baby crying in the forest – a tragic reminder to him of the custom of leaving twins in the forest to die” (Pavlos 7) This shows how the tradition of labeling twins a curse isn’t dealt with nicely throughout the tribe. And although the Igbo tribe follow this custom, it displays the distress that they receive from it. Some members of the tribe decide to go along with the customs of their culture with little to no thought or concern about it, while others, like Okonkwo, have created conflicts between their own morals and their culture’s traditions.
There is a personal conflict between Umuofia’s overall culture and Okonkwo’s mindset. Ikemefuna’s death shows how Okonkwo adheres so strictly to the rules that his example points out to others the flaws in the system. Although it is tradition to follow the system of listening to the gods and whatever they may have challenged one to, if the system is complete, then Okonkwo’s stubborn, inflexibility observation of the rules would not have led to his downfall. As Achebe addresses in Things Fall Apart, “Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess” (30) In that scene he is following his own stubborn will, and not tradition.
He kills Ikemefuna not because the system is flawed, but because he does not want to appear weak like his father. This is is an example of Okonkwo’s internal conflict led with his poor mindset, which consequently becomes a whole cultural conflict. Along with Okonkwo’s POOR mindset comes his tragic flaw of using aggression to replace his lack of speech.
In Mister Johnson’s The Experience of Colonial Administrators as Portrayed in Colonial Fiction he states, “This flaw sets him apart from the traditions he embodies; he can participate, but he cannot find the joy of being verbose like his compatriots” (1). Umuofia is a nation that definitely treasures loquacity. In a setting like this, Okonkwo’s stammer is a huge flaw, especially for a well known warrior. His rigidity leads to his participation in the death of Ikemefuna.
This incident is seen by many as a turning point in the novel, the beginning of the end. It ultimately “…initiates a series of catastrophes which end with his death” (Johnson 1) Although the action may have been legally correct, it was morally wrong.
From that point on, all of Okonkwo’s decisions lead to disaster. Despite Okonkwo’s best efforts, he is further separated from his nation until the representation of traditional law had become the outcast of the tribe.We continue to see how things fall apart when these beliefs and customs are confronted by those of the white missionaries. The main reason for the culture clash is the lack of social interaction and understanding between the cultures and as written in the book, the whites attempt to show the people of Umuofia their religion and their traditions, leading to the deterioration of the Igbo culture. The misunderstanding did not end at the end of the novel thought; the colonizers are the ones who recorded the history, so, Achebe claims in his novel Home and Exile, “…until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter” (Achebe 73).
The cultural misunderstanding led to a false history, with characters written from the aspirations and doubts of people whose uniformed accounts are prevalent even today. Umuofian traditions cruelty to minorities further it’s collapse. The people casts aside are the ones who first join the church. The conflicts between the modern and traditional, individual and community are highlighted in Obierika’s conflict of loyalties: personal/tribal, human/religious, particularly when he fathers twins but then has to leave them in the evil forest, comforting Okonkwo then having to destroy his house.
Ernest N. Emeyonu, author of A Classic Study in Colonial Diplomatic Tactlessness states, “From every indication it destroyed total unity among the people and they could no longer fight a common enemy as before” (45). This inner, personal conflict grew into an external, community conflict leading to a deterioration of the cultural identity of the Umuofian people. The white missionaries pushed for a change in religion within the tribe, some abiding to it and others refusing to. But the white missionaries weren’t the only ones to cause such conflict as shown in Emeyonu’s quote. It was not only the new information about the foreign religions that tore the culture’s identity apart, but the internal conflict within the tribe’s peoples and not knowing whether to follow the customs, or act on personal thoughts.
The struggle between culture, religion, and family all led by the difference in personal beliefs and customs which greatly affect Okonkwo, displays the deterioration of the cultural identity through the clash of cultures with lack of understanding between the white missionaries and the Igbo culture, overall leading to the colonization of Umuofia. Unfortunately for the Igbo tribe, they had to suffer the transition of finding where their morals and traditional customs stand by each other, finding a happy medium which wouldn’t have happened without the colonization of Umuofia.