It goes without saying that most people grow up immersed in a culture and worldview of which they never give even a second thought. This is true no matter the location. What often makes a person cognizant of their own worldview is the conflict that happens when another worldview competes for attention.
Having spent the bulk of the past two decades in Africa, I must admit that even though there are many things in Africa to which I have grown accustomed there yet remains a deeper worldview that remains elusive to me and prods me to learn more and understand more fully. One of the ways to probe the depths of another culture is to read its literature. The African Writer Series is an excellent tool at our disposal to understand better the heart and mind of modern Africa. The recent lockdowns and stay-at-home orders has given me the time to read and reflect on what some of these authors are saying.
The first book in the African Writers Series is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. First published in 1958, Things Fall Apart exemplifies the spirit of the series. Chinua Achebe grew up in Nigeria while it was under British administration. The story recounts the early days of British rule when traditional Igbo beliefs were confronted by those of the British and of Christian missionaries. The main character, Okonkwo, remains staunchly committed to his traditional beliefs and values. Yet, contrary to his expectations, his devotion to Igbo traditions does not bring him respect and honor from his fellow tribesman but quite the opposite as he becomes an outcast from his people. Rather than being honored, Okonkwo became cursed. To make things even worse, the missionaries began to arrive and muddled the local traditions even more. Okonkwo’s own son joined the missionaries as a convert in spite of the beatings that he received from his father. Then, as the group of converts grew, more time-honored traditions began to fall away. In Okonkwo’s eyes, all this upheaval was caused by the white-man and Okonkwo resolved to set things straight: he killed one of the government messengers to show that his people would never submit to the white government nor a new religion. The story ends when, rather than submitting to a court summons for murder, Okonkwo hangs himself in the forest.
Achebe’s novel illustrates the many paradoxes of African life: black and white; ancient and modern; honored and cursed; spiritual and worldly; pagan and Christian. The title reminds the reader that nothing can stay the same. As much as Okonkwo cherished the values and traditions of his ancestors, change was inevitable. Okonkwo’s desire to return to the days when things were simpler and everyone understood and followed the rules is not unique. There is still that pining for a simpler time, yet change is coming and has come. While in the first half of the 20th century change was driven by colonial policies and the authority of the white man, post-colonial Africa is in the hands of Africans and the challenge now is to reckon with a future that accepts change, knowing that returning to the past is not acceptable or possible. The reality in Africa is that the societal changes which have occurred in the past 100 or so years have devastated the psyche of Africa and, still, time does not stop. Even as African society grapples with new problems and new norms, the soul of Africa is still mourning the death of the old ways. This is the story of Okonkwo.
As an evangelical Christian reading the story, I must admit there is a certain darkness to the plot line. Very early in the novel, Okonkwo is told that his adopted son must be sacrificed as decreed by the village oracle—Okonkwo slays the boy himself. The darkness of the novel breeds a sort of hopelessness for the main character. It makes me wonder if there isn’t likewise a sort of hopelessness in the very real psyche of some Africans today who struggle with life just as Okonkwo did. The fact is that things do fall apart. It often seems like life is spinning out of control. We can feel hopeless to do anything to stop it. But I am reminded that as Christians, we are never without hope (cf. 1 Cor 13:13). As much as Chinua Achebe painted missionaries as part of the problem in his story, we profess that it is Christ who is the solution. Like Okonkwo, we are all children of wrath, bound to tradition and bound in sin. But Christ is the one who makes us alive and sets us free. New life in Christ is hope and it is freedom. This is the difference that Christ makes and it is the message that we ought to be proclaiming, no matter the location. Jeremiah 29:11 declares, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” As complicated as life in Africa (or wherever else) might be, there is peace and comfort when we submit to Christ. Let us never make light of nor forget the torment that rages in the souls of those who do not know Him, but let us be the ones to bring hope and healing wherever we might go in Jesus name. Things may fall apart, but God is the one who brings healing.