This is the story of Okonkwo, a member of the Ibo people in the lower Niger delta in pre-colonial Nigeria. He is the head of his family which consists of three wives and numerous children, a highly respected leader and warrior in his village, and a staunch supporter of the old ways and traditions. When Christian missionaries arrive, everything he knows and understands is threatened.
To have the impact of European colonialism described from the perspective of the people being colonised is incredibly powerful and also depressing because there was really nothing they could have done to arm themselves against the tactics employed by the aggressors. Religion is used as a spearhead to divide the people by using their rigid traditions and superstitions against them; for example, people that were outcast for various reasons or did not thrive in the old societal restrictions were eagerly offered a home and a better life in the new belief. Churches were built first, then the government came, and by the time the schools were established, there was no way back anymore. No wars had to be fought for this victory and Achebe’s description of this process is haunting in its inevitableness. The impact is even greater because the first half of the book is devoted to explaining the traditional way of life, the rituals and beliefs of the Ibo people, but without glorifying or romanticising them; he is very much concerned with showing them for what they were.
What I did not like as much was the character of Okonkwo who is mostly insufferable. He beats his wives and children, vainly worries about his social standing all the time, and is otherwise occupied by making sure everything he does is sufficiently manly, and by calling everything that he perceives as gentle or soft womanly, and every man that displays these qualities a woman. It is adequately explained why he became this way and the mysogynistic attitude is of course rooted in the culture, but still, the longer I had to endure this kind of thinking the more it grated on me because the sexism displayed by Okonkwo seemed so excessive and was just constantly present. It does not help that the book focuses on him very narrowly, which means that no other characters, especially female ones like his wives for instance, are well enough developed.
These traits are all unfavourable qualities to have for a main protagonist that a reader should probably sympathise with at least a little, and maybe due to this, the ending did not quite pack as much of a punch as it should have. On the other hand, the intention of the author was obviously not to make his protagonist all that likable, but rather realistic in showing a man that time has passed by and that cannot adapt to new realities. He also makes no excuses for him, when he, for instance, shows how detrimental Okonkwo’s rigid stance is when he alienates his eldest son, or when he makes it clear that his exaggerated focus on manliness is part of his downfall.
Overall, I liked it a lot because it showed an important part of history from a different perspective and is very educational on many levels, but the relentless sexism, although realistic, lessened the enjoyment of at least this female reader. In short, highly recommended but with a little caveat.
CBR11 Bingo: Far and Away