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Ikenga Shrines and Iron Horses

A Reader's Guide to Chinua Achebe's THINGS FALL APART

Cathy Kroll, Author

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Igbo Civilization Before European Contact

Most Western histories of the region we now call Nigeria begin from the point of contact with European explorers, missionaries and colonial administrators. However, the symbolism of such an historiography hearkens back to a nineteenth-century assumption about Africans as being "the people with no history," a view promulgated by many Europeans invested in a master narrative about the human race in which they considered their own cultures a beacon of "light" for the "dark continent." Figures such as the philosopher Hegel (1770-1831), King Leopold II of Belgium (1835-1909), and on to explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) all shared the belief that African peoples had yet to emerge from "childhood." Even in our contemporary times, a patronizing stance toward Africans has persisted, as we can see from former French president Nicolas Sarkozy's speech to a university audience in Dakar, Senegal in 2007.

In point of fact, West African civilizations were quite well developed, with, for example, Yoruba city-states dotting the Atlantic coastline in the period 1100 - 1700. (Yorubaland formerly encompassed parts of Nigeria, as well as neighboring Benin, and Togo.) Igbo towns such as Onitsha were well established. West Africans typically lived in independent segmentary societies that were ruled by a king, but that spread power throughout the group, as healers, diviners and other religious leaders held high status.

Resistance: Once European explorers, missionaries, entrepreneurs, and colonial administrators began journeying to the West African coast, they were met with a variety of responses, ranging from hospitality to outright resistance. In this zone of contact, Africans raided caravans and cut down telegraph wires, repurposing the metal for jewelry and other uses (Oliver, Cambridge History of Africa, vol. 6, 7). At the other side of the continent, in Ethiopia, Menelik II defeated the Italians seeking control of his territory in 1896 and effectively kept them at bay until 1935 (ibid., 3).
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parallels to current politics?

What would Achebe think about current topics in world politics, such as the United States in Iraq and Russia in Ukraine?

Posted on 28 May 2015, 5:47 pm by Anna  |  Permalink

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