Things Fall Apart of Chinua Achebe was published in 1958. Photo: Centre for memories

By Chuma Nwokolo

It is 65 years since Things Fall Apart was published. It was Chinua Achebe’s first book and was to become his most famous, most translated, and most analysed book. Its position in the canon remains unassailed.

Things Fall Apart is not just a tale of the fictional Umuofia village, it is also a memorial of a way of life that was heading for the history books.

This is the sense in which I also prize the book: as history. The fiction relates a way of life that rings true for readers from a variety of ethnic nations. Things Fall Apart, with a submarine language, remains inspirational for writers and thinkers today.

Our common human ancestry means that every history of a people will contain ‘DNA’ from the stories of other peoples.

Recently, I journeyed between Liberia and Sierra Leone. On the Liberian side of the border is Bo Waterside, but cross the mighty Mano River and you will find yourself in Jendema.

It is a Sunday and the market has barely the essentials for a pot of soup. This village has something of the trailer-junction about it: as through everyone here has come recently for the opportunities presented by the motor park, the border-crossing, and the traffic of travellers.

Liberia and Sierra Leone share border. Photo: Reuters

There are hundreds of villages like Jendema across Africa, border villages that have sprouted to service the needs of the border crossing.

Bouncing football

I take a bike a few miles deeper into Sierra Leone, to the village of Gohn, which is anchored by schools on both side of the Highway. In one of them, children are massing for a football match.

I make my way into the village. The houses are mostly adobe. This is an organic village, with buildings looking like they sprouted from the Earth herself, and if you narrowed your eyes, you might just see Okonkwo striding angrily across the path to have a stiff word with Nwoye.

Lunch is cooking on both sides of the path. Three young boys bounce a football as they wend their way past me. Are you going to play in the school ground? I ask. They reply in the affirmative, and I promise to come to watch them.

People watch me as I go. This may be a public road, but it is not exactly the highway to Liberia. Nobody walks this road without having business in this sister village of Umuofia.

Curious traveller

Eventually, someone plucks up the courage to ask me what I want. Your history, I tell him. I am talking to a young man in his thirties, an indigene of the village visiting from a town nearby.

We exchange names and shake hands, but he confesses that he knows nothing of the history, and neither do any of the younger people with whom he is sitting and drinking. So, he takes me to their chief.

The chief of Gohn is elderly but mentally and physically strong and he is swinging in a hammock strung in poles in the forecourt of his house. He lies with all the panache of an Obierika entertaining his clansmen.

Around him are an assortment of courtiers. He speaks neither English nor Krio and the man who brought me doubles as an interpreter, explaining that I am a professor of a distant university who has come to research the history and culture of the Gohn people.

I do not understand the language, but the tell-tale English words stand out like pellets in the smooth fufu of my interpreter’s Mende, and I correct his generous assumptions with the more modest truth: I am a traveller from Asaba, passing his village, loving it, and curious about its history.

Colonial influence?

Chief is friendly enough, but the suspicion of curious passers-by runs deep in this Mende Village. His son wants to see some identification and the gathered courtiers have a UN debate as to the dangers of talking history with gray-haired strangers.

General view of landscape in eastern Sierra Leone. Photo: Reuters

Perhaps this is a reaction to the colonial ropes and chains they got in exchange for the welcoming mat Africa rolled out to Europeans centuries ago, ropes with which Okonkwo eventually hanged himself. Or perhaps it is the more recent NGO phenomenon of serial researching with dubious benefits to the beneficiaries – or victims – of the research.

Whatever it is, the headman continues to swing in his hammock, he agrees that nobody knows the history of his village like him. Nobody. But he will not share it.

This is the tragedy that Things Fall Apart alleviates in its pages: elderly libraries who are too protective of their stories and histories go with them to their ancestors. As I take my leave, I encourage my young interpreter to importune his chief for his stories about Gohn sooner than later.

Good neighbourliness

For, even the parlous Things we still have are still Falling Apart.

I make my way out of Gohn, loving how bamboo benches furnish the paths between the houses.

This speaks to architectural designing for great neighbourliness: how does one keep malice with neighbours with whom you are forced to share visitors, and meals, and gossip, and life?

At the highway, the boys’ match is in progress. The tempo heats up at my approach: perhaps I am an undercover spy from the Premiership?

Their heated commentaries in Mende washes over me like music. It is interesting how we do not need to understand music, to dance it.

I watch awhile, but the weight of failing history is heavy upon me today. I return to my bed for the night in Jendema, wondering if a distant generation of Mende will one day have to strain their history from the pages of Things Fall Apart.

The author, Chuma Nwokolo, is a Nigerian lawyer and writer based in the city of Asaba.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT Afrika.

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