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Marginal Men in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and the Recent Realities of our Time
Marginal Men in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and the Recent Realities of our Time

By - Isaac Joseph

Posted - 09-07-2019

Until the coming of the Westerners, Africans have their own socio-political structures which have been in existence right from time immemorial. The influx of the Westerners into Africa led to a radical departure of the existing norms that has guided the political, social and of course, religious institutions of her societies. While this is not an outcry or lamentation on the aftermath of the situations that erupted as a result of this ‘imposed’ change, it is an exposure to the realities that dawned on us as a result of our embrace of foreign influences. Who do we blame?

Chinua Achebe, an influential African writer engages our minds as he exposes us to the entry of foreign influences in Africa using the Igbo land (a tribe in Nigeria) as a case study. Achebe rightly stated that “one of his purposes of writing the book ‘Things Fall Apart’ was to present a complex, dynamic society to a Western audience who perceived African society as primitive, simple, and backward.” Our own stories have to be re-told to negate the single story of ‘primitiveness’ that the outside world has about all of Africa. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was one of the answers to the unending questions of Africans having their own history or not.

READ ALSO: Ngugi Wa Thiong’o – An Educator in African Consciousness, Living Proof of the Nobel Awards Bias

In the literary journey to the exposure of traditional institutions that were in Igbo land during the pre-colonial era, Achebe carefully introduced us to the positives and negatives of the Igbo culture. While it is correct to say that the Igbos have a unique culture of theirs during the pre-colonial era, it would be harsh to assert that the western world were all out to destroy the non-western world, which is the argument of most critics against the colonialists. But it would be ridiculous to say that we have not benefited from the coming of the Westerners. While there are positives, there are also negatives.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and the Marginal Men

Robert Ezra Park sees “the marginal man as one whom fate has condemned to live in two societies and in two, not merely different but antagonistic culture. His mind is the crucible in which two different and refractory cultures may be said to melt and, either wholly or in part, fuse.”  This was the case of the African men in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. There was culture shock as the villagers were exposed to a new culture that was enforced on them by Reverend James Smith (a character in the book), who uses violence to convert the people to Christianity. The people were now exposed to two different cultures that they must adhere to, fully or in part.

Later on, there were frictions in the village just as Achebe skillfully highlighted in the book, ‘Things Fall Apart’: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” This was how the marginal men were raised. Initial shared beliefs, customs and traditions among the people were now debated and it became difficult to find a common ground on trivial issues that were almost seen as norms before the coming of the Westerners.

A marginal man is suspended between two cultures and finds it difficult to establish an identity of his own. There is a double consciousness on the path of a marginal man who would do everything to merge both cultures, ultimately making him live a life of no identity. Do we then then assert that Africans are all marginal men? While some may say yes or no; others might be indifferent but what is bothersome is the realities that have informed our choices as Africans. These choices ‘might’ not readily be made by us but we have grown to know the enormity of the choices made on our behalf. But ironically, we cannot hide from the choices made for or by us.

While we cannot erase our pasts, we can actually do something about our present. We are all marginal men as we have all embraced, whether in fully or in part, the western culture. Being a marginal man is not just the problem but defining our own identity as African remains a perennial issue. Can we actually have an identity of ours in this fast, rapid changing world? Or do we advocate for a balanced propagation of our own culture just as we do for the western world? Chinua Achebe sums it all when he said: “nobody can teach me who I am. You can describe parts of me, but who I am – and what I need – is something I have to find out myself.” While the journey to self-discovery for Africans is non-negotiable, it is rather ironical to see Africans reluctant in taking this journey. We have become so entrenched in the western culture that we can boldly boast that it forms a major core in our socialization. Painfully, this is true! But something must be done. Our stories must be heard!

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and the Journey Ahead

The center cannot hold because things have fallen apart! As much as we would love to have an identity of ours as Africans, it would be mere fantasy to envisage a bonding of the things that have fallen apart. Should we then give up? Certainly NOT! A lot has happened over the years that it has become difficult to retrace our steps. However, we can find a new path and tell our own stories. Raising this new consciousness starts from the mind. There has to be a deconstruction of our thinking mindset in our approach to issues. The world is dynamic and we have to keep with the pace but definitely not at the risk of our cultures. Our cultures could be embellished but not to be out rightly discarded. We are fast losing touch with realities. And our cultures have been painted as demonic, savagery and inhumane. It is pertinent to realize that no culture is perfect on its own. Cultures are bound to have their own positives and negatives. While we could work on the negatives, the positives are to be duly propagated.

Achebe believed that if you don’t like someone’s story, you have to write yours. Writing our own stories about Africa is something that has to be done from own personal spaces. We should use all platforms available to tell the true beautiful stories about Africa. Identifying with our different cultures would be a right step in the right direction. However, this has to be consciously done. We have to come together as Africans void of forms of hatred and promote our unique cultures. In the book, Things Fall Apart, Achebe pointed out that: “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground, it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” Raising awareness about Africa and all of her cultures takes a collaborative effort. Being intentional about this journey to self-discovery is core. The journey might look rough and unattainable but we can make a statement from every corners of the world.

READ ALSO: Wole Soyinka – Africa’s Literary Giant

We have come to a crossroad and we must make a choice. It’s either we allow others write our stories or we write them ourselves. Lingering over the choice to make is no option as we must choose the obvious long-forgotten road – the road to freedom. But in our quest for freedom, we must remain resilient and open to new ideas.


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