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Colonialism, Language, and Religion in Things Fall Apart

Colonialism and imperialism are two sides of the same coin, both are interchangeable concepts. Colonialism is the practice of domination, where one country forces its authority over other territories and its people. Like colonialism, imperialism is a country’s political and economic control over a foreign nation. One of the difficulties in defining colonialism is that it is hard to distinguish it from imperialism, but the underlining goal of both is the domination of a foreign land. History is full of examples of colonizers imposing their religion, economics, and other cultural practices on indigenous peoples. The most impactful form of colonialism has been that of the modern era of European colonialism. This process of European settlement and political control over the rest of the world includes South America, North America, Asia, Australia, and Africa. Colonialism has not only affected the modern world but the world of language as well.

‘Things Fall Apart’ is the first of three novels written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. The novel is a work of historical fiction set in south-eastern Nigeria during the late nineteenth century. The novel is critically acclaimed, and Barack Obama has called it a true classic of world literature.’ The novel gives examples of how language and belief systems affected the communication between European colonialists and the indigenous people of Africa.

The novel follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo warrior of the Umuofia clan. A lower Nigerian clan that is made up of nine villages. The story is split into three parts, and the first part is an introduction to the life of Okonkwo and the customs of the Igbo. The Igbo people have a strong sense of tradition and social coherence, traits that seem to escape Unoka, Okonkwo’s father. Okonkwo is embarrassed by his father’s legacy of cowardice, irresponsibility, and debt. In response, Okonkwo lives his life striving to become a wealthy and fearless warrior, highly respected in the eyes of his fellow clansmen. He worries Nwoye his son will end up a failure like his grandfather and pushes him to act more like a ‘man.’At the funeral of Ogbuefi Ezeudu a highly respected elder of the tribe, Okonkwo and the other clansmen beat drums and fire their guns. Okonkwo’s gun misfires and kills Ogbuefi Ezeudu’s son. Okonkwo and his family are sent into exile for seven years to atone.

The second and third parts introduce the presence of European colonialism by way of Christian missionaries. During the second year of Okonkwo’s exile, his friend Obierika brings bad news. One of the nine villages, the village of Abame, was destroyed by a white man. Soon after, a group of six missionaries visited Mbanta to speak to the villagers. The missionaries’ leader’s name is Mr. Brown, with him is Mr. Kiaga an Igbo man as his interpreter. Mr. Kiaga tells them that there is only one God and that their Gods are false and that worshipping more than one God is wrong. The villagers begin laughing and making fun of Mr. Kiaga. Mr. Brown is not angered by their laughter and does not allow his followers to antagonize the clan.

Mr. Brown, ‘was very firm in restraining his flock from provoking the wrath of the clan.’He aims is to convert the residents of Umuofia to Christianity, but he wants to keep the peace between the Europeans and the Ibo. He also accepts the converts unconditionally, converts like Nwoye. The missionaries during their first visit to Mbanta sang a song about brothers who lived in darkness and fear. Shortly after, Mr. Kiaga begins telling stories about the son of God Jesu Kristi (Jesus Christ). Okonkwo thought they were mad, but Nwoye was moved by their stories and songs. For years Nwoye had felt lost living with his father’s abusive behavior and the clan’s traditions. Sick of both his father and the clan Nwoye and other outcasts begin converting to Christianity.

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Mr. Brown frequently visited the village of Umuofia and had long conversations with Akunna a village elder. Akunna acted as the liaison between the missionaries and the Umuofians. Mr. Brown spent hours in Akunna Obi talking about religion. The conversation with Akunna on one of Mr. Brown’s visits is a major breaking point in the novel. It is the moment when Mr. Brown begins to break down the language barrier by spending time with the people of Umuofia, listening to their stories, opinions, and questions.’You say that there is one supreme god,’ said Akunna on this visit. Akunna tells Mr. Brown that the Igbo also believed in him. They call him Chukwu, according to Akunna Chukwu made the world and the other gods. Mr. Brown tells him Chukwu is the only God and all others are false. Mr. Brown continues to disagree with Akunna on this matter but is respectful of Akunna’s beliefs. And, by doing so Mr. Brown earns the respect of Akunna and other members of the Umuofia clan.

The Umuofians will eventually come to regret letting their guard down around Mr. Brown. In chapter 21, Mr. Brown has learned a great deal about the people of Umuofia and comes to the conclusion that a frontal attack will not work. At this moment we are reminded that Mr. Brown’s mission to convert the Umuofians to Christianity has not changed. He goes from family to family slowly earning the respect and trust of many in Umuofia. Eventually, Mr. Brown brings up the topic of education, saying that knowing English is an essential and highly respected skill. Mr. Brown convinces the Umuofians to send their children to the school he has built.

By using a colonial education system that valued English over the Igbos’ mother tongue. He created a way to convert more Igbos well also destroying the language barrier. Mr. Brown may be a man of God, but his approach to converting the residents of Umuofia to Christianity is militaristic. He said that a frontal attack on it would not succeed’ Frontal attack is a term used by a commander or general. Thus, following that mindset, he planned a sneak attack, the erasure of the Igbo mother tongue. The erasure of indigenous languages upon a colonial population is an almost inevitable part of colonialism. And, the establishment of a dominant language is used as a tool to keep conquered people subjected to their rulers. This can persist even after the end of direct colonial control. The missionaries are no longer directly causing the process of language erasure; Igbos are openly embracing English instead of their home language.

In the end, Mr. Brown is unable to complete his mission. He grows ill and is soon replaced by Reverend James Smith. Reverend Smith is a stereotypical European colonialist and ‘sees things as black and white.’Unlike Smith, Mr. Brown was more lenient with the convert’s continued respect for their old beliefs. Smith, however, demanded that converts completely reject their old religious beliefs. Smith’s actions ignite a fire in many of the young converts. Mr. Brown, ‘preached against such excess of zeal,’ but Smith doesn’t encourage the convert Enoch to act. Enoch, the son of the snake priest, converted after committing a crime in Umuofia. He commits another crime against Umuofia, unmasking an egwugwu during an annual ceremony. Smith ignores the words of his interpreter and refuses to start negotiations with the egwugwu. In retaliation, the egwugwu burned down both Enoch’s compound and Reverend Smith’s church. Smith considers this a show of disrespect towards the church and contacts the District Commissioner.

The Commissioner is outraged and requests that the leaders of Umuofia meet with him. Okonkwo and the leaders arrive at the meeting and almost immediately are handcuffed. They are thrown into jail, where they suffer both physical and mental abuse, but the Commissioner called it ‘justice.’After they’re released, the clansmen hold a meeting, but the meeting is interrupted by Five court messengers. Okonkwo kills the leader expecting his fellow clansmen to join him. Instead, the crowd allows the other messengers to escape. Okonkwo realizes that his clan is not willing to go to war and walks away. The next day the Commissioner arrives at Okonkwo’s compound to arrest him but instead finds Obierika and his friends. They lead the commissioner to a tree where Okonkwo had hanged himself.

The domination of a foreign land is the goal of all colonialists and the Christian missionary’s mission to bring Christianity to indigenous peoples is no different. The novel teaches the importance of how language and religion affect communication. The language barrier causes a great deal of conflict between the missionaries and the villagers. Such as The church being burned down, the clan’s leader’s imprisonment, and Okonkwo’s suicide. Mr. Brown wanted to bridge the language gap between the two sides. Well, Smith simply believed his side was right and the Umuofians wrong. If Smith had continued Mr. Brown’s work, things wouldn’t have taken a turn for the worse and Okonkwo may have lived.

Works Cited

  1. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Penguin Books, 1994.
  2. Kohn, Margaret, and Kavita Reddy. “Colonialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 29 Aug. 2017,
  3. Semali, Ladislaus M. “Chapter Five: The Case of Repressed Native or Indigenous Languages.” Counterpoints, vol. 134, 2002, pp. 53–66. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Mar. 2020.

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