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The Mission Of Missionaries In Things Fall Apart English Literature Essay

2947 words (12 pages) Essay in English Literature

5/12/16 English Literature Reference this

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To understand the implementation and effects of the coloniser’s religion on traditional African villages, it is essential that we begin by investigating how Things Fall Apart is structured. As a whole, we can see how the novel portrays graphically how colonized subjects perceived the arrival of the colonizing European. By asserting this theme, it is appropriate that Achebe incorporates a tripartite structure. Part One is by far the longest, being two thirds of the novel consisting of thirteen chapters. It succeeds in depicting Umuofia as a vibrant and sophisticated society, with its own complex culture and along with elaborate moral, ethical and religious codes. Yet, Achebe never submits to a desire to portray it as an idyllic pre-colonial utopia. As we approach the last third of the novel, Achebe recalls an era when a traditional African community is irreversibly transformed by the arrival of a ‘new God’ [108]. This structure successfully enables the reader to look back at this well organised and structured pre-colonial religious society; and to contrast it to the epochal changes inflicted by the colonialists who had ‘brought a lunatic religion’ [130] which is elaborated in the latter parts of the novel. Achebe’s emphasis on providing background cultural information controls two thirds of the narrative of the novel. Yet, the ‘white man and his religion are dominant in about one third of the novel . . . through most of the novel Okonkwo is passive or subordinate, though he is the link that holds it all together’ [3] . Okonkwo clearly stands for the beliefs and traditions of his culture, and implacably against the encroaching influence of the colonial religious ‘gang’, and until they were ‘chased out of the village with whips there would be no peace’ [117]. Okonkwo’s suicide, therefore, becomes a symbol for the death of African religion and culture that has been disregarded by the white colonialists. Consequently, Christian disregard for the customs and religion of the tribe creates an atmosphere of lawlessness and dislocation within the village.

Furthermore, one of the ways in which the white man’s religion was implemented was through the native’s themselves; ‘the white man began to speak to them. He spoke through an interpreter who was an Ibo man . . . the white man was also their brother because they were all sons of God’ [106]. By implementing a strategy of using the native as a means of communicating back to the native is a convincing practice that promotes this foreign religion. As a result, they contribute in strengthening the colonizer’s ideologies and values, as ‘they have joined his religion and they help to uphold his government’ [128]. Thus the narrator argues that those who have ‘deserted us and joined a stranger to soil their fatherland’ [148] are directly responsible in upholding Igbo’s sense of displacement as well as contributing to the loss of ancestral memory. To fully understand the extent of those ‘brothers’ who have deserted their religion and culture, we must focus on how the Western framework of the novel enables Achebe to voice his own views on religion. Mikhail Bakhtin argues that ‘everywhere there is one face – the linguistic face of the author, answering for every word as if it were his own’ [4] . It is interesting to see how Bakhtin identifies the direct narrative of the author, rather than simply looking at the dialogue among characters, as the most primary location of this conflict. This source of conflict is one of the central themes of the text and is also obvious in Achebe’s own life. Hence Bakhtin states that a ‘writer makes use of words that are already populated with social intentions of others and compels them to serve his own new intentions, to serve a second master’ [5] . This can also be understood as being associated to the colonisers who parade their religion through the native. As a result, it is imperative that we take the novel out of context in order to fully understand how the institute of the colonialist religion affects not only Igbo society, but the author’s own life and how this conflict is still apparent today.

A sense of dislocation is apparent in Achebe’s childhood whereby he grew up in a community in which many people still lived a traditional way of life. On the other hand Achebe’s father, Isaiah Achebe, had converted to Christianity as a young man and had become a teacher for the Church Missionary Society. Achebe was to have a ‘strict upbringing, but he also grew up surrounded by neighbours and an extended family who continued to practice the Igbo traditional religion’ [6] . This split identity and concern for the future generations of Africans, is also expressed by Okonkwo who ‘saw himself and his father crowding round their ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding . . . his children . . .praying to the white man’s god’ [112]. In his autobiographical essay, Achebe relates some of his earliest memories growing up in his African village, Ogidi, in the 1930s:

We lived at crossroads of cultures. We still do today; but when I was a boy one could see and sense the peculiar quality and atmosphere of it more clearly . . . On one arm of the cross we sang hymns and read the Bible night and day. On the other my father’s brother and his family, blinded by heathenism, offered food to idols . . . What I do remember is a fascination for the ritual and the life on the other arm of the crossroads. [7] 

The important question of Achebe’s relationship with traditional Igbo culture and the influence of his Christian upbringing foreshadow the cultural and religious clash that will take place in Nwoye’s life. The question of Achebe’s personal subjectivity becomes a crucial feature for an understanding of his narratological perspective in Things Fall Apart. The narrator states; ‘to abandon the gods of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination’ [112]. It is for this reason as to why ‘the sons and daughters of the Igbo Christians who had renounced African traditions would become writers and nationalists bent on recovering and re-valorising the traditions their fathers had denounced and desecrated’ [8] . Therefore, Things Fall Apart is an atonement of Achebe’s past that emphasises the effects of when a new religion coincides with a traditional religion that has been practiced for hundreds of years. Achebe was evidently also aware that his Euro-Christian upbringing and sensibility had created a displacement with the history of his own Igbo culture. The produce of the colonizer’s religion in Things Fall Apart became the work of a ‘prodigal son’ [9] , one who sought to recover and explore this denigrated history and culture in his fiction. The sense in which Achebe exhibits his double cultural awareness is a crucial element to the way the novel develops it’s realist style, whilst presenting Okonkwo’s [and Achebe’s] personal grief; ‘He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women’ [133].

A further aspect we must consider is the way in which the ‘white men’ brought religion as well as trade, that helps promote a new source of profit to the villagers. They had built ‘a trading store and for the first time palm-oil and kernel became things of great price, and much money flowed into Umuofia’ [130]. Inevitably, with this opportunity (coinciding with the white man’s emphasis on their religion as being ‘peaceful’ and ‘civilised’) the villagers become reluctant to sacrifice the new trading community to fight for their independence. It is this idea of peace through religion which is the beginning stages of colonization. If the colonizers change the fundamental beliefs of the villages, they are able to control the natives more easily. As a result, the introduction of a foreign religion begins to destroy and fragment the structural foundation of the Igbo society. It has torn apart Okonkwo and his young converted son in a society that is based on the strength of the family unit. By infiltrating and targeting younger generations and those who are marginalized in the village, the colonisers are securing the prosperity of the Empire in the future of these villages. When the missionaries first appear in Mbanta they are confined to the Evil Forest, a space that is considered to be ‘alive with sinister forces and powers of darkness . . . and evil diseases’ [109] and a place that ‘was a fit home for such undesirable people’ [114]. One of the elders believed that the missionaries will certainly come about their deaths in a few days. When the missionaries failed to succumb to the ‘sinister forces’ of the Evil Forest –

Everyone was puzzled. And then it became known that the white man’s fetish had unbelievable power. It was said that he wore glasses on his eyes so that he could see and talk to evil spirits. Not long after, he won his first three converts [110]

It is highly significant that the first converts to the new Christian religion are predominantly from among subaltern groups. The efulefu – who are the ‘worthless’ men; the agbala – women and untitled men; the osu – a taboo caste who have been dedicated to deities; and the women who have had their twins cast into the Evil Forest. As the missionaries and colonial administration begin to establish themselves in the village, it is from the ranks of these despised and marginalized groups within Igbo society that the new church and government functionaries and pupil-teachers are drawn. Critics outline that under colonial rule, this reversal of the established hierarchies in pre-colonial Umuofian society ‘draws upon an eminently Christian trope, encapsulated in the biblical sayings about the last coming to be first and the meek inheriting the earth’ [10] . In Things Fall Apart ‘all the first converts to the new religion, the first minor functionaries of the colonial administration, the first teacher-pupils of the new school, are drawn from this subaltern group. For this group, things certainly did not fall apart’ [11] . It is in Achebe’s belief that he is ‘acutely alert to the potentially ironic significations present in any situation’ [12] , and therefore it comes to no surprise that he portrays the colonial encounter as both a site of oppression and one of liberation for different type of groups within Umuofian society. Although the colonial religion liberates certain groups, the overall effect of encouraging this civilised and prosperous religion is devastating upon the traditional followers – both the majority and those marginalized. Once again those who are marginalized in the traditional Igbo religion and have joined the missionaries are once again dislocated and alienated within their own community.

Okonkwo describes the missionaries as ‘a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens’ [112]. In this schema of the colonial encounter, Umuofia is initially symbolised as masculine and dominant. On the other hand the white missionaries are defined as feminine and subordinate, which results in the missionaries being viewed as unthreatening to the patriarchal hegemony and, therefore, tolerable: ‘They asked for a piece of land to build their church . . . [the peers] offered them as much of the Evil Forest as they cared to take. And to their greatest amazement the missionaries thanked them and burst into song’ [109]. This ‘effeminacy’ soon became highly contradictory as the economic changes brought about by the new colonial administration began to impinge on the Umuofians high regard for wealth: ‘The white man had indeed brought a lunatic religion, but he had also built a trading store . . . and much money flowed into Umuofia’ [130]. When the ‘feminine’ Mr Brown is replaced by Reverend James Smith as head of the church, the narrative begins to embody a more masculine framework: ‘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’ [135]. We can see how Reverend Smith voices one of the recurrent discourses of colonialism. Frantz Fanon focuses on the idea that ‘The colonial world is a Manichaean world’ [13] . Religious domination and economic exploitation created by the arrival of missionaries projected a set of antithetical values and attributes from the ‘civilizing’ Europeans onto the marginalized colonies. In this Manichaean world the native is viewed by the missionaries whom are ‘wicked’, and who ‘kill your fellows and destroy children’ and worship ‘false gods’ and are irrational and depraved. On the other hand, the Europeans are rational, virtuous and ‘good men who worshipped the true God lived for ever in His happy kingdom’ [106].

As a result, one of the central ideological justifications of the British colonial enterprise was the replacement of the presumed anarchic ‘savagery’ of African societies with a form of ‘civilization’. British colonialists emphasises that this civilization can only be achieved through a ‘true God’ [105]. However, what the colonial missionaries failed to understand was that Igbo society already had a highly evolved system of agriculture, trade, religion and individual and collective democracy. It was ‘our own brothers who have taken up his religion [who] also say that our customs are bad’ [129]. Hence, through the structural framework of the novel, Achebe succeeds on depicting Umuofia as an ordered and sophisticated society that has a complex juridical system and a highly developed religious-belief system with elaborate moral and ethical codes. This structure of the Igbo way of life is destabilized by the arrival of missionaries who presented their religion and culture as more civilised and profitable than the Umuofians. The novel investigates the deeper social factors that the mission introduced into Igbo culture, and the way these interacted with customary practices of commerce, social relations and education. Obierika, outlines that religion is a subtle ideological method of invasion that enables the white man to establish his hegemony in Mbanta:

‘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’ [129]

The reverberation of the title indicates the instrumental role that the missionaries played in the desecration of his culture. He criticises the displacement of his society that inevitably followed, seeing it as introducing separation that destabilized the structure of the clan. But it is the imperial operations of the colonial administration that began to infringe immediately after the arrival of the missionaries that particularly distresses him. However, Achebe expresses the mutual engagement that marks this process: the decision of the Igbo people themselves to participate in white systems of education as well as commerce contribute to the destabilising of traditional structures. We can see how:

‘Mr Brown begged and argued and prophesised. He said that the leaders of the land in the future would be men and women who had learnt to read and write . . . New churches were established in the surrounding villages and a few schools with them. From the very beginning religion and education went hand in hand’ [132]

Consequently, the missionaries were the pioneers in formal education in Umuofia, hence the building of schools is another strategy in colonizing the Other. It has been argued that the establishment of schools in Africa during the colonial era was another technique in converting the ‘savage’ and reinstating western ideals. Indeed, as a Roman Catholic Missionary in Nigeria once said: ‘Those who hold the schools hold the country, hold its religion, hold its future’ [14] . Furthermore, ‘formal education became the bait with which the young generation in Africa was enticed to Christianity’ [15] . The missionaries target and ‘educate’ those young and marginalized in Umuofian society, like Nwoye ‘who is now called Isaac . . . (who Mr Brown sent) to the new training college for teachers in Umuru’ [133]. As a result, missionary schools reiterate western religious values and it is also a method that lulls the native in a sense of ‘belonging’. It is for this reason as to why the missionaries ‘information shaped the Westerners’ perception (and that of many Africans) of Africa and its peoples’ [16] . Therefore, the institution of education is another colonial strategy in dominating and dislocating a traditional way of life.

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