Studying international development, I noticed a general rule of thumb in implementing development projects. This rule is that a volunteer or project should respect the traditions and cultures of local personel and communities. This is so to avoid any insults, obvious or latent, towards a culture. However, this acceptance or tolerance of local traditions can be difficult to adhere to, especially when from the perception of an outsider, these customs can be very destructive with regards to the life of the individual.

There are various examples in the first part of this novel that depict customs, which in my opinion occupy a morally ambiguous space. One can easily see this in the adoption and eventual murder of Ikemefuna, the young man that became apart of Okonwo’s family. Ikemefuna was involved in a cultural and legal deal, where he was brought to the village as repayment for a murder. Initially withdrawn and depressed, Ikemefuna grows into a strong man, who is able to draw the pride of his surrogate father. However, due to the mysticism employed by the communal elders and oracles, an innocent life is snuffed out, much to the sadness of the Okonwo and his family.

Another dubious custom of the village is the skewed gender politics that structures village society and the family unit. The majority of title holding individuals are men. Men also are the sole source of council, as shown by the elders. This system has a tremendous negative impact upon the quality of life of women. Women are traded for bride prices like livestock and are treated as such if their spousal role or services are deemed lacking by their husbands. The main character, Okonwo, is a part of this system, having beaten his second wife for the smallest of mistakes.

The final example of the destructive impact of local traditions can be seen with the final chapter, where Okonwo accidentally kills the son of a dead elder during a funeral service. According to modern practices, such a crime would have been treated through the legal system, but not to the extent to which the village exacts false justice against Okonwo and his family. Rather than receiving a fair trial, Okonwo is forced to leave for 7 years, whilst his friends and neighbors destroy his hard earned property.

I realize that these examples are attributed to the local traditions of this particular Nigerian village. However, from my perspective, many of these local traditions pose a serious threat to the ability of a person to live without fear of sudden death or loss in status. With this in mind, I can see how subsequent white missionaries came to the region with their own rites and perspectives and thus, according to the novel’s summary, began “the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo’s world.” The eventual replacement of these customs for western versions echoes the colonial methods mentioned in Griwold. I am interested in where the Chinua Achebe decides to go with the rest of the novel, as so far, the village of pre-colonial Nigeria is a place where families are pulled apart and individuals suffer. Although these local traditions are exaggerated and outdated for today’s standards, these traditions were the law for generations.


Finally, I’d like to ask, which deserves primacy in society? The individual or the community?



About cregacho07

I am a senior in SIS. I love books and talking about them. I particularly like literature that concerns itself with the developing world I am enrolled in this course to fulfill my Lit minor requirements and to engage the work of prolific Nigerian writers with equally enthused people.

One response »

  1. As an international studies student myself, I’m very familiar with the discourse around not judging or interfering with the local traditions or customs of a culture, and the preference for “working within the system” when it comes to fixing social problems that societies deal with.

    There’s definitely legitimacy in having an open mind about the values and structures of other cultures, but I think there is a fine line between respect and fetishizing traditional ways of life. These same arguments have been used for why we shouldn’t even try to bring advances like modern medicine and technology to remote areas of the developing world, because we will “destroy” the purity of their natural way of life. For me, that kind of thinking is just as frustrating as the colonialists who feel it’s right to completely supplant traditional life with Western structures of governance.

    There’s such a fine line between helping and meddling, and I think Things Fall Apart does a great job addressing the idea that traditional ways of life have a stability to them, but also a warped sense of judgement that sometimes really hurts the people living under them.

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