Chinua Achebe remains one of the greatest writers the continent of Africa has ever produced. Reading his works has taught me useful lessons about the history of my people, how they came into contact with Europe and the indelible marks left behind as a result of that interaction.
So why this? You may ask.
Here is the answer. Literature mirrors life so there is so much to learn from literature about human nature. From Literature, we get to understand the culture and behaviour of others to enable us to interact with them from an informed position. The extent to which we will develop as individuals or societies depends, to some extent, on where we stand on issues such as tolerance, pragmatism, adaptation, reform, flexibility and appreciation of the differences in personality types.
These issues and more are at play in this extract from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – one of my favourite novels.
You will enjoy reading this short but interesting extract if you’re a lover of Literature.
Here it comes. Enjoy yourself.
Mr Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith, and he was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness. He spoke in his sermons about sheep and goats and about wheat and tares. He believed in slaying the prophets of Ball.
Mr Smith was greatly distressed by the ignorance which many of his flock showed even in such things as the Trinity and the Sacraments. It only showed that they were seeds sown on a rocky soil. Mr Brown had thought of nothing but numbers. He should have known that the kingdom of God did not depend on large crowds. Our Lord Himself stressed the importance of fewness. Narrow is the way and few the number. To fill the Lord’s holy temple with an idolatrous crowd clamouring for signs was a folly of everlasting consequence. Our Lord used the whip only once in His life – to drive the crowd away from His church.
Within a few weeks of his arrival in Umuofia, Mr. Smith suspended a young woman from the church for pouring new wine into old bottles. This woman had allowed her heathen husband to mutilate her dead child. This child had been declared an ogbanje, plaguing its mother by dying and entering her womb to be born again. Four times this child had run its evil round. And so it was mutilated to discourage it from returning.
Mr Smith was filled with wrath when he heard of this. He disbelieved the story which even some of the most faithful confirmed, the story of really evil children who were not deterred by mutilation, but came back with all the scars. He replied that such stories were spread in the world by the Devil to lead men astray. Those who believed such stories were unworthy of the Lord’s Table.
There was a saying in Umuofia that as a man danced so the drums were beaten for him. Mr Smith danced a furious step and so the drums went mad. The over-zealous converts who had smarted under Mr Brown’s restraining hand now flourished in full fervour. One of them was Enoch, the son of snake-priest who was believed to have killed and eaten the sacred python. Enoch’s devotion to the new faith had seemed so much greater than Mr Brown’s that the villagers called him The Outsider who wept louder than the bereaved. Enoch was short and slight of build and always seemed in great haste. His feet were short and broad, and when he stood or walked his heels came together and his feet opened outwards as if they had quarreled and meant to go in different directions. Such was the excessive energy bottled up in Enoch’s small body that it was always erupting in quarrels and fights. On Sundays, he always imagined that the sermon was preached for the benefit of his enemies. And if he happened to sit near one of them he would occasionally turn to give him a meaningful look, as if to say, ‘I told you so.’ Umuofia which had been gathering since Mr Brown left.
It happened during the annual ceremony which was held in honour of the earth deity. At such times the ancestors of the clan who had been committed to Mother Earth at their death emerged again as egwugwu through tiny ant-holes.
One of the greatest crimes a man could commit was to unmask an egwugwu in public or to say or do anything which might reduce its immortal prestige in the eyes of the uninitiated. And this was what Enoch did.
The annual worship of the earth goddess fell on a Sunday, and the masked spirits were abroad. The Christian women who had been to church could not, therefore, go home. Some of their men had gone out to beg the egwugwu to retire for a short while for the women to pass. They agreed and were already retiring when Enoch boasted aloud that they would not dare to touch a Christian. Whereupon they all came back and one of them gave Enoch a good stroke of the cane, which was always carried. Enoch fell on him and tore off his mask. The other egwugwu immediately surrounded their desecrated companion, to shield him from the profane gaze of women and children, and led him away. Enoch had killed an ancestral spirit, and Umuofia was thrown into confusion.
That night the Mother of the Spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her murdered son. It was a terrible night. Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such a strange and fearful sound and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming – its own death.
On the next day, all the masked egwugwu of Umuofia assembled in the market-place. They came from all the quarters of the clan and even from the neighbouring villages. The dreaded Otakagu came from Imo, and Ekwensu, dangling a white cock, arrived from Uli. It was a terrible gathering. The eerie voices of countless spirits, the bells that clattered behind some of them, and the clash of machetes as they ran forwards and backwards and saluted one another, sent tremors of fear into every heart. For the first time in living memory, the sacred bull-roarer was heard in broad day light.
From the marketplace, the furious band made for Enoch’s compound. Some of the elders of the clan went with them, wearing heavy protections of charms and amulets. These were men whose arms were string in ogwu or medicine. As for the ordinary men and women, they listened from the safety of their huts.
The leaders of the Christians had met together at Mr Smith’s parsonage on the previous night. As they deliberated they could hear the Mother of Spirits wailing for her son. The chilling sound affected Mr Smith, and for the first time, he seemed to be afraid.
‘What are they planning to do?’ he asked. No one knew because such a thing had never happened before. Mr Smith would have sent for the District Commissioner and his court messengers, but they had gone on tour on the previous day.
‘One thing is clear,’ said Mr Smith. ‘We cannot offer physical resistance to them. Our strength lies in the Lord.’ They knelt down together and prayed to God for delivery.
‘O Lord save Thy people,’ cried Mr Smith.
‘And bless Thine inheritance,’ replied the men.
They decided that Enoch should be hidden in the parsonage for a day or two. Enoch himself was greatly disappointed when he heard this, for he had hoped that a holy war was imminent; and there were a few other Christians who thought like him. But wisdom prevailed in the camp of the faithful and many lives were thus saved.
The band of egwugwu moved like a furious whirlwind to Enoch’s compound and with machetes and fire reduced it to a desolate heap. And from there they made for the church, intoxicated with destruction.
Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart