Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a transgenerational masterpiece for more than one reason. Some of the obvious reasons are: it’s sold between 15 and 20 million copies, and it’s been translated into over 60 global languages. If these stats are true, then you can trust that so many people all over the world are in love with that book. For foreigners, it would be its masterful exposé of Africa (Igbo); for those of us it projected, the Igbos, Okonkwo’s kith and kin, it fuels our ego to know that the rest of the world are in love with our ways as projected by our very own son.
But Things Fall Apart is a great piece for more than the preceding reasons. It is particularly great for the many lessons and nuggets of wisdom it embodies. The proverbs, for instance. In line with the Igbo-way, Achebe liberally sprinkles the pages his opus magnum with lots and lots of them, and goes on to call them by their traditional proper name: the oil with which words are eaten. Again, Things Fall Apart typifies what a great piece of literature should look like: simple and beautiful. Achebe says big things in sophisticatedly simple ways, and gives them all the coloration with the various and varied literary devices they need to stand out as chic. For instance, Achebe makes allusion to “those days when men were men.” And when he would describe the wrestling contest between Okonkwo and Amalinze the Cat, one would already begin to feel like watching it real-life. “The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath. Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end Okonkwo threw the Cat.” Can you feel those lines? Even the cat metaphor used for Amalinze is something!
The part of Things Fall Apart that particularly concerns this particular blog post is a peculiar lesson Achebe leaves us all, those of us that play mentorship. To qualify them as words of wisdom, Achebe puts them in the mouth of the oldest man in Okonkwo’s quarter of Umuofia, Ogbuefi Ezeudu. Needless to say that age is wisdom for the African, especially the Igbo. And so, these immortal words fell from the golden mouth of Ogbuefi Ezeudu to the deaf ears of Okonkwo: “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death.” It’s going to be a very long story putting those words in context for those who haven’t read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Pardon me that I won’t retell the story; Achebe already did. Read Things Fall Apart for yourself. However, the long and short of it is that “the ransom Ikemefuna” had grown up to know and call Okonkwo father, and the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves had just decreed that he be killed. Since Okonkwo was one of the elders that will execute that decree, Ogbuefi Ezeudu advises him to, while being present at the event, refrain from bearing a hand in the very act of killing Ikemefuna – because he calls him FATHER.
But Okonkwo wouldn’t listen. And like Brutus of the Shakespearean Julius Caesar, it was him who struck the blow that saw Ikemefuna dead. This was exactly what happened: “He [Okonkwo] heard Ikemefuna cry, “My father, they have killed me!” as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.” Commentators have it that Okonkwo’s defiance to those prophetic words of Ogbuefi Ezeudu was the very foundation for his own ‘things fall apart’; everything dramatically turned against him, and he even ended up in the worst of ways – suicide.
In essence, and my point is: To play father figure to anyone is no mean business; it is big business. When the Catholic Church chose that word for their pastors, they knew the deal they were cutting, and woe betide those “Fathers” that are oblivious of this deal their forebears cut on their behalf. Just for the reason of being called “Father,” the wise Ezeudu knew that Okonkwo was disqualified from bearing a hand in Ikemefuna’s death – inasmuch as he couldn’t stop it. Even the Greatest Man that ever lived – Jesus Christ – had something to say to this effect: “He deserves to have a millstone tied around his neck and then thrown into the sea.” What a fate!
The variant of “Father” most of us can identify with is “Mentor.” They mean the same thing. Someone walks up to you and requests that you guide them through one, more or all aspects of life. Mentorship is the word. I like to announce to you that you’ve just got some responsibility laid on your shoulders and there is no need popping champagne about it. This responsibility leans against the backdrop that the words of George Orwell through his Animal Farm’s Boxer character would always dominate the heart and mind of the mentee: “If Comrade Napoleon says it is, it must be right.” What if the mentor was wrong after all, and had deliberately chosen to mislead the mentee to his/her own advantage? You see why a millstone should be tied to their neck…
In the name of mentorship a lot have gone wrong. And your guess is as good as mine. This must not apply to us. In essence, whoever dares to call us father should be given life not death; should be guided aright not taken advantage of. This is extremely important, for it can turn our fate around – for good or bad.