European Assimilation in Igbo Society
In the 1900s, Europeans reached Africa to spread their culture and religion. Europeans teaching the seemingly primitive people of Africa about religion and civilizations seems like a positive action to do. However, in the novel Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe shows the positive and negative aspects of European assimilation by providing a place for outcasts, but weakening Igbo society.
The European church provided refuge for outcasts and people that questioned Igbo culture. In Igbo culture, a set of twins were generally viewed as a bad omen; women who gave birth to twins were looked down upon for giving birth to these so called abominations. The church shows its acceptance when accepting a women who gave birth to twins multiple times. Her husband’s family disliked her because of this, yet despite the family’s thoughts, the church welcomed her warmly. The church provided comfort and care for the women. The church didn’t just accept women giving birth to twins; they also accepted outcasts:
These outcasts, or osu, seeing that the new religion welcomed twins and such abominations, thought that it was possible that they would be received…
‘Before God’, he (Mr.Kiaga) said, ‘there is no slave or free. We are all children of God and we must receive these our brothers’.
‘You do not understand,’ said one of the converts. ‘What will the heathen say of us when they hear that we receiver osu into our midst? They will laugh’ ’Let them laugh.’ said Mr.Kiaga (155-156)
The church’s ideology of social equality among everyone allows the outcasts into the church. In the church, the outcasts were no longer viewed as worthless as they were in Igbo society, they are now viewed as equal human beings. Some Igbo people agreed with the church beliefs and went on to being part of the new religion. One prominent example is Nwoye, seeing the church’s acceptance and their beliefs, realized that his beliefs are more similar to the church’s than his father’s. Nwoye never believed in being very masculine like his father wanted him to be. He also questioned many traditions of the Igbo people, such as why twins are a bad omen. Nwoye’s contrasting views and constant questioning of traditions made him feel like an outcast in Igbo society. Yet in the Church, he felt more of a connection with their values, making him feel more accepted than in Igbo society.
However, the arrival of Europeans weakened Igbo society by splitting up the clan and creating fear. The European missionaries initially gain interest from a few people, Nwoye was one of them. Okonkwo finds out about this and becomes very angry and beats Nwoye. Nwoye then runs away from home to become a Christian. This shows that the missionaries are breaking apart families, the roots of Igbo society. The Europeans did not only tear apart families, but also destroyed an entire clan. A few farmers of Abame killed a white man. In return, the white men killed most of the Abame clan, greatly reducing their numbers. The news of Europeans killing a large amount of people struck fear in the Igbo people. The fear of Europeans caused the Igbo people to be afraid to fight back against them, making them weak. Through fear, the Europeans gained power used to colonize the Igbo tribe: “The white man whose power you know too well has ordered this meeting to stop” (204). Initially, when the Europeans arrived, the Igbo people viewed them as harmless, they had no fear of them at all. After the Europeans displayed their military might and religious power, the Igbo people soon feared them. The Europeans took advantage of their fear and quickly took the opportunity to start colonizing the Igbo people. Soon, the Europeans established their own government alongside Igbo government.
The European colonization caused Igbo culture and tradition to fade away during their stay in Umuofia. Okonkwo emphasizes the changes of Umuofia after he returns: “The clan had undergone such profound change during his exile that it was barely recognizable. The new religion and government and trading store were very much in the people’s eyes mind” (182). Before, yam farming and earning titles in society was the top priority. The yams were the staple food of the Igbo people, and were used to pay tribute to gods. In addition, yams represented how wealthy a man is. The amount of wealth the man has also correlates to the titles of honor he has claimed. With the introduction of trading, wealth in the form of monetary wealth was introduced, decreasing the value of yams. The Igbo society changed from their traditional agricultural society to a capitalist society. However, not all people appreciated the new changes in society. Later, Okika hosts a town meeting where he proposes that they must break a clan law of not killing their own clansmen in order to save their clan. The clan views the Europeans as such a large threat that they have to turn to breaking their own rules to attempt to stop them. Before the arrival of Europeans, they followed the rules strictly, punishing whoever violates those rules. Yet now they are discussing how they must break rules to save their people. This shows how Europeans are dissolving Igbo values. They never did get around breaking the mentioned rule above, but Okonkwo instead broke another rule. Okonkwo hung himself, taking his own life. In Igbo society, suicide is considered an offense against Earth. The person killing himself, their corpse will become evil. The Europeans’ power and influence was too great for Okonkwo, the greatest man of Umofia. Ultimately causing him to take his own life, disregarding the cultural law about suicide.
The Igbo assimilated to the European culture had both positive and negative effects on the Igbo. The culture and tradition of the Igbo people was forgotten over the course of time. Many people were killed during the process of assimilation. However, the people suffering under the unethical traditions of the Igbo such as men with no titles and twins are no longer suffering thanks to the Europeans. In the end, there was no saying that the arrival of Europeans was a good or bad thing. It all depended on which character they affected and how it impacted their lives.