We read novels to escape from reality and with African literature we are carried to new places in unfamiliar periods of time to meet the kind of people we may have never come across. Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart whisked me away to precolonial Igboland and somewhere along the line I began to crave the roast yam with palm oil and the mountains of fufu accompanied with steaming bowls of soup he wrote about. I too wanted to feel the earth under my legs as I sat cross legged in a village square under the full moon and chanted “story story” with the other children. I too wanted to see the weddings he described; the never ending kegs of palm wine, the beautiful brides and the rounds and rounds of dancing.
I learnt a lot from Achebe’s words. The first time I read Things fall apart, it was junior secondary school and back then words on paper were just that. However, after rereading more times than I can admit and reflecting on the words and the chapters they made up I have come to realise that Achebe was not writing simply to entertain story-hungry eyes. Things fall apart is a reminder of our ability to build societies that are built for the people in them. It is a reminder of the sense of community that is at the core of who we are as Africans. Weddings and other such celebrations were not the affair of just the families involved, they were for the entire community. Women would come together and cook in preparation, the young men would slaughter all that needed to be slaughtered and the children as the official errand goers would be sent to do the countless little tasks. The point is not that we should round up all off our neighbors and propose communal meals on a regular basis; being a community is more than that. It means an understanding that we all do better when we do not completely isolate ourselves behind high walls and heavy gates.
Things fall apart is a reminder of the beauty of our traditions. There are parts that are ugly and those are the parts that we do away with while holding on to the good parts. Our various countries have more ethnic groups than can be counted on one hand and when you are from a country like Nigeria, you are unaware of more ethnic groups than you are aware of. It is important that we appreciate the things that distinguish us in a world that is beginning to expect uniformity of us; whether brightly colored attires, entertaining masquerade dances or mouthwatering traditional meals.
Kobina Sekyi’s novel, The Blinkards, is a satire that portrays the well to do class of Ghanaians living in colonial Ghana as they strive to be more British than the British. The character of Mrs. Borofosem is a living, breathing example of a problem still faced today. She wears winter appropriate clothing under the hot African sun, refuses to eat African meals and insists her husband pours cigarette ash on the carpets because she thinks it is a “British thing”. She is just one person in a collection of characters who try to transform themselves into white men in black skins. Sekyi’s The Blinkards was a continuation of the lessons Things fall apart was teaching. The lesson that a people’s way of life is conditioned by a need to adapt to the environment in which they find themselves and therefore not every foreign culture is suitable for adoption. Even as the world becomes a global village, we must learn to reject that which is wrong and unsuitable to us as we embrace other cultures. We must also learn to turn the searchlight on our own traditions and let go of that which is wrong, refusing to continue simply because “it is custom”. The ‘it is custom” defense should have lost its value a long time ago as those three words allow a lot of wrongs that should not even exist today.
It is okay to embrace new ways of doing things and it is okay to let go of practices that harm our progress as a people. However we should not be comfortable with the possibility that we will lose ourselves completely while trying to become something else.