In my quest to learn more about Africa until I get the opportunity to go there, my roommate suggested I read the internationally best-selling book Things Fall Apart. I figured it not only would be a quick read, but one of those books that one “should” read, as so many others in this world already have.
Initially, I enjoyed this book for the insight it provided into African culture. Achebe presents a tribal clan revolving around the main character Okonowe. Throughout the story, Achebe shows the nature of the tribe: multiple wives with many children, a belief in multiple gods intertwined with nature, as well as a wealth of traditions and customs that permeated the clan for centuries. Most importantly, Achebe painted a culture that had developed a self-sustaining balance and harmony where all members shared a collective understanding and agreement upon their beliefs and traditions.
As I continued reading, I was confused as to where the story was going. There seemingly was no great climax, and I could not even determine if there were any true tensions that would ultimately lead to one. Although I enjoyed the scenery and small conflicts presented in the story, I became distracted by not knowing when and if there would be a climax and resolution to the tale.
Suddenly, over 75% into the story, Achebe introduces an entirely new character: the white man. The tribe initially does not have any contentions with the new group, as they seem to be friendly and warm. But, within a short amount of time Achebe presents the subtle tensions underlying the two groups as the white men attempt to convert the clansmen.
Finally, Achebe shows how the conversion of some of the clansman and the continual presence of the white men became an insurmountable burden for the rest of the clan and Okonowe to bear. Refusing to convert, many clansmen were thrown into prison, and eventually Okonowe hangs himself from a tree to escape the degradation of his world as he knows it. The last line in the book shows the white man’s perspective, in which he clearly thinks of the African clansman as barbaric and savage.
I found this book to be simple, pleasant, and worth reading. I can understand why this book has been translated in so many languages and read by so many- the theme is very simple to understand and yet complex enough to lead you to reflect after you keep reading.
I understood the theme in a two-fold manner: first, that it is dangerous and common for people to be ethnocentric-seeing things only from their perspective; and secondly that missionary exploits by Christians can destroy communities as a result of their ethnocentrism. After completing this book, I found myself reflecting back on my positions on both of these issues.
First of all, I think many of the issues and contentions in the world are deeply rooted in ethnocentrism, with Americans likely being the worst. I am definitely a product of my environment, developed from both my family and society’s influences. My views on religion, marriage, education, what to eat, how to dress, how to live, etc. are a product of some exposure I have had since I was born. Because I was raised in my particular environment, I have been led to believe that the way I do things is “right”, while the way people in other countries do things are “wrong”. I believe it is this viewpoint that leads to wars and tragedies all over the world- the idea that you are more “right” than someone else and therefore deserve more luxuries and liberties as a result.
Since coming to this realization that I was ethnocentric, I have attempted over the last few years to closely re-examine my beliefs using critical thought and reason, attempting to determine whether or not I still agreed with those beliefs. Mostly, I have tried to recondition my brain into understanding that my set of beliefs and lifestyle is conducive for me, but this does not mean that I am “right” or “wrong” than anyone else.
Which leads to my problem with the issue of organized religion and attempts at conversion. Raised in Christian home, I have had much exposure to that organized religion. Before I say anything else, I would like to emphasize that I have a deep respect for many religious people. I certainly have my own set of beliefs and faith and spirituality, and I have met many great people who have a center in their own religious beliefs.
However, I have a lot of contentions with those who adamantly believe that their beliefs are right, everyone else is wrong, and therefore it should be the goal to convert as many people as possible before they are condemned to hell. This is a belief that so far I can only find in Western traditions, mainly Christianity and Islam. This is also a belief that has led to millions and millions of deaths. The Indian people were nearly fully eradicated for this reason, I think the Iraq War is rooted in this reason, and also the reason why many people hate organized religions is for this reason.
If anything, I believe in conversion by action. If you have religious beliefs that you think are “right”, it would make sense that your actions and lifestyle should be enough to want to convert someone to your religion. Instead, it seems as though many missionaries make it a goal to convince someone (or force them) to agree with their set of beliefs, which still seems to go against the religion anyway. I have read the entire New Testament and not once did I find an example of Jesus trying to convince someone to believe in him, rather it was his actions and lifestyle that drew people in.
So why write about this in an article? Because I believe that there would be a lot more peace if people tried to speak more through actions than through their words, as well as if they recognized that their set of beliefs can be largely attributed to the society they grew up in. I am positive that had I been born halfway across the world, my lifestyle and religious beliefs would be entirely different, and as a result I have accepted that I cannot be right just based on where I was born. However, I also accept that my conclusions on the matter are conclusions that work for me, and are not necessarily better than others. The point of this article is not to have my readers agree with what I am saying, but rather reflect on these issues and reexamine their beliefs to see what conclusions they draw.