- Background of the study
The purpose of this study is to examine the response of African Novelists to the social instability which necessarily came in the wake of colonialism. I have selected Things Fall Apart and Omenuko, by Chinua Achebe and Pita Nwana respectively because both novels are in one way or the other concerned with societies in transition.
Transition is used in the context of this essay to define the historical period and phenomenon of a society in an ambivalent conflict between two radically different cultures. For the society depicted in Achebe’s novel, transition involves a change from independence within a traditional, self regulating order to subordination to an imperial Britain. Historically, this phenomenon occurred in the first two decades in the nineteenth century. For Nwana’s society, transition involves a change from the Igbo political system to the complete control of Igboland by the British colonial administration. This change also comes in the first decade of the nineteenth century.
- Significance of the study
The reason why I selected Things Fall Apart and Omenuko is that a comparative study will help me to evaluate the two novels in order to establish their respective literary merits. Secondly, it will enable me to highlight the similarities and differences between these two works, although the authors share a common colonial experience. I will be able to demonstrate the contributions – national and individual – made by each author to the central tradition of the novel.
My method will be essentially analogical. This means the investigation of similar settings, themes, character and characterization between the two works under study.
1.3 Background of the Authors
Things Fall Apart and Omenuko are separated only by space, not by age. In a way, they belong to the same generation following the similarities of their cultural background and the periods of their stories.
Achebe hails from Ogidi in Anambra State of Nigeria. He had his secondary school education at the Government College, Umuahia, and later went to the University Collge, Ibadan, where he intended to read Medicine, but became attracted to literature. His literary studies included the major classical and modern authors and essayists. Distorted presentation of Africa by some writers like Joseph Conrad, Graham Green and Joyce Carry generated in him the desire to “set the records straight” and to paint an African portrait of Mister Johnson:
I know around ‘51’, ‘52’, I was quite certain that
I was going to try my hand at writing, and one of
the things that set me thinking was Joyce Carry’s
novels set in Nigeria, Mr. Johnson, which was
praised so much, and it was clear to me that it was
a most superficial picture of not only of the
country – but even of the Nigerian character, and
so I thought, if this was famous, then perhaps
someone ought to try and look at things from the
Achebe worked with the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, where he came in contact with the whitemen whose patronizing attitude he depicted in some of his novels.
Taken together, Achebe’s five novels encompass the entire socio-historical experience of Nigeria from pre-colonial times to the present. His first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), deals with the impact of tribal life by the Western ethos. The novel is set partly in the pre-colonial days and partly at the moment of contact of Igbo culture with Western culture. Achebe recreates and interprets for his people their past before the coming of the British. His second novel, No Longer At Ease, (1960), is set partly in Lagos and partly in the village of Umuofia. The novel is about the temptations that confront a young Nigerian with a Western education, when he is given responsibility in his own country. Its drama is the oppressive demands made on the individual in a transitional society, or settling society in which old values are crumbling under the pressures of new ones. In his third novel, Arrow of God (1964), Achebe returns to the theme of the conflicts of western and Igbo traditional world views. A Man of the people, (1966), the author’s fourth novel, is set in the city and deals with politics. The abuses that the novel describes show the problems of imposing an alien socio-political system on collection of different ethnic groups each of which has its own peculiar socio-political culture. Anthills of The Savannah (1988) his fifth novel, is where the issue that exercises thought is the exercise of power.
Apart from novels, Achebe has written short stories: the Sacrificial Egg and other Stories, (1962); Girls At War, (1972). His children’s stories include, Chike and the River, (1966), How the Leopard Got His Claws, (1972). There are, in addition, collections of poems and essays: Beware Soul Brother and other Poems, (1971). Morning Yet on Creation Day, (1975), is a collection of his essays, on a variety of subjects: literature, literary criticism, language, war, personal travels and Igbo cosmology.
On a very wide contrast, not much is known about the author of Omenuko. Like Chinua Achebe, Pita Nwana was not an Igbo scholar. In the 33rd Inaugural Lecture of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Professor Inno Uzoma Nwadike states thus:
He was a foreman at the Uzuakoli Institute. He
only attained Sunday School education at the
CMS on the Niger at Onitsha. Mr. Pita Nwana
trained as a carpenter.
He published no further books. According to Erenest Emenyonu in The Rise of the Igbo Novel (1978), “He seems, therefore, to have been the reporter of the pioneer generation of Igbo literature and not its creative genius”. However, Omenuko is very special in the sense that the author, Mr. Pita Nwana is the first Igbo to write fiction in Igbo. His novel, Omenuko, was published in 1933 after it had won an all-African literary contest in indigenous languages organized by the International Institute of African Languages and Culture. It is a biographical novel based on the actual events in the life of the hero, Igwegbe Odum.
1.4 The Novels and their Backgrounds
Pita Nwana’s Omenuko and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, deal with transitional periods when two different colonial societies are trying to move from a settled way of life to a new unknown one. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes a society’s response to contact with a colonizing cultural force. The traumatic impact of this force on indigenous culture becomes the background against which Achebe exposes the harmful effects of the period on the minds and lives of the indigenes. This is a starting point in the evaluation of the social problems of Things Fall Apart.
In the case of Nwana’s Omenuko, the impact the contact with a colonizing cultural force had on the indigenes was even more devastating. Before the era of the colonial administration, there was a kind of autonomy in Igbo behaviour. Individuals were free to act as they chose to as long as they did not break popular village sanctions or mores. If they did, they were not in danger of the whiteman’s retribution but the judgment of the elders in their local villages. But with the changing times and the point of transition highlighted in the novel, everybody is now accountable to the courts of law and the whiteman.
As mentioned earlier, Achebe and Nwana share a common culture derived from colonial experience – an experience which left an indelible mark on the psyche of the Africans. It involves the imposition of new political, economic and religious cultures on the colonized. More importantly, the imposition of political control also involves conscious or unconscious deviation of the people’s culture and distortion of their past. In Africa, loss of political freedom was attended by loss of cultural confidence. The work of European anthropologists, who placed the African culture at the bottom and the European at the top of cultural evolution, undermined, to a large extent, the Africa’s confidence in himself, making him accept the European-created image of him as primitive.
The colonizers, however, persuaded themselves that they were on a humane and philanthropic mission of civilizing and Christianizing of the ‘primitive’ and ‘benighted’ natives. Colonialism, however, produced a
counter movement or cultural nationalism which functioned to inspire artists. From the 1930s to the 1960s, educated West Africans attempted to revive authentic West African values. Obiechina rightly points out that:
Like similar movements in Latin America,
Ireland and dependent states of nineteenth
century Europe, African cultural nationalism
took the form of the rehabilitation of the old
cultural tradition and its values, including a
re-awakening of interest in the folklore, arts,
music and cultural habits of the local people
which most distinguished them from the
The African learned to take pride in his values which he had but almost lost due to colonial denigration. The myth of the African inferiority was gradually eroding. Obiechina’s comments are particularly relevant to Achebe, in whose novels one notes a sustained attempt to express and affirm his people’s past.
1.5 Scheme of Organization
For easier analysis, this essay is divided into five chapters. While the first chapter introduces the work, the second chapter reviews the existing literatures. The third chapter illustrates the relationship between literary vehicles in Things Fall Apart and Omenuko in the areas of setting, theme, character and characterization. The fourth chapter deals with the social problems highlighted in the two novels under study. These factors are essentially destabilizing agents which make the period a transitional one, and hence their relevance to the theme of this essay.
In this study, data were obtained through two major sources namely, primary and secondary sources.
(a) Primary sources
(1) The novels under study: Things Fall Apart and Omenuko.
(2) Visits were made to the National Archives where relevant
materials were obtained and utilized.
- Oral interviews were held with knowledgeable artists in the
area of literature. Literary critics and comparatists were also consulted.
- Through personal observations: The researcher equipped herself
with first-hand knowledge of certain aspects of the study. Being a scholar of oral and written literature, a teacher of Igbo Literature and a literary critic, she is so to say, an insider.
- Secondary Sources:
An extensive review of existing literature was made. These include books, dissertations, theses, journals, seminar papers and newspaper articles.
1.7 Analysis of Data
Data collected from the variety of sources were subjected to a very careful scrutiny and all possible bias and subjective judgments were neglected.