People with no Toes
In his novel, Things Fall Apart, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe takes us on a journey into the world of the Igbo Tribe of Nigeria (‘Ibo’ in the novel). Published in 1959, it is one of the greatest works of fiction of the era. While many would be tempted to categorise it as ‘colonial’ or ‘postcolonial’ literature, one of the things that set it apart from other such works is that it does not rely on a perspective ‘outside’ that of the tribe in order to make sense of itself. In the introduction, Achebe writes,
“… one of the things that set me thinking was Joyce Cary’s novel set in Nigeria, Mister Johnson, which was praised so much, and it was clear to me that this was the most superficial picture…I thought perhaps someone ought to try and look at this from the inside.”
The result of this intention is a narrative totally unyielding in maintaining its perspective, which means that it presents certain challenges to the modern reader. It offers no apology, for example, for cultural beliefs and practices we would now consider cruel and unjust, such as mutilating and killing children they to be ‘ogbanje’ (evil children).
The narrative also functions to actively distance us from our modern perspective. For example, early in the story, one of tribesmen tells the others that he has heard that white people do not have toes: a perplexing statement until we realise that they have simply never seen shoes before.
Even when the missionaries arrive in the last part of the novel, this narrative distance is maintained, and we experience the meeting of cultures very much from the eyes of the Igbo and not the European.
Achebe’s choice of language for the novel was also, in a strange way, about distancing the Igbo perspective from that of the colonists. Upon being criticised for writing in English, his response was that the ‘Standard Igbo’ written form of the language created by the Anglican missionaries was stilted and lacked life.
We could also interpret his choice of language as an invitation to European readers to engage with it. For the modern western reader, the novel offers an opportunity to look at their own cultural and colonial inheritance from the outside in, to experience it from the perspective of another as something strange and alien. More generally, we could interpret the novel as a reminder of the value of seeing things from the perspective of others, not just so that we can understand them, but so we can understand the way that we appear to them.
We might think that as ‘moderns’ we no longer entertain myths such as those of the colonists. We cringe upon hearing about their mythology of racial superiority, and if we do it might be because we recognise that we are benefactors of an appalling legacy of oppression and violence. We make every attempt to distance ourselves from this violence with our belief in the universal nature of human rights and freedoms. We believe that these new attitudes will bring about a better world. Perhaps they will, but the jury is certainly still out. For example, many colonial and ex-colonial nations continue to have some of the worst living standards in the world. We must make sure that our belief in human rights and the like does not blind us to our complicity in the perpetuation of these circumstances. Without actual change, our beliefs are nothing more than a mantra.
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, Anchor Books, 1994.