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Of Interpreters, Schools and Courts: an Analysis of the Postcolonial Themes of Language, Education, and Power in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

In: English and Literature

Submitted By Cliff
Words 3273
Pages 14
James Clifford T. Santos
Dr. Jocelyn Martin
LIT 127.2 (Postcolonial Literature II)
Ateneo De Manila University
10 February 2014 Of Interpreters, Schools, and Courts: An Analysis of the Postcolonial Themes of Language, Education, and Power in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
Through his awareness of the European literary tradition of negatively stereotyping the African natives as uncivilized peoples and putting the West in the pedestal in terms of cultural superiority and advancement (Guthrie 51-52), it can be asserted that the renowned African novelist and intellectual Chinua Achebe may had realized, at one point in his life, that in order to have a more realistic portrayal of the dynamics of Western and non-Western contact, there is a need to break such convention which undeniably favours the West. Perhaps, this is the reason why Achebe had written Things Fall Apart in such a way that it provides readers the African point of view of culture, identity and colonization thereby eradicating the dominant and unwarranted perception that the peoples of Africa are mere savages that have no customs, beliefs and traditions. Indeed, by providing a somewhat balanced approach in portraying the dynamic societal changes experienced by the Ibo people due to the conflict between their traditional culture and the foreign culture brought by their English colonizers primarily through religious and educational instruction, Things Fall Apart indubitably qualifies as a relevant and interesting novel that can be analysed through the lens of postcolonial discourse.
Since the novel provides a fictional glimpse of the changes that occurred in the Nigerian tribal societies when the English had come and settled in Nigeria, it inherently touches on issues that are intricately related to colonization such as religious indoctrination and government establishment, both in which language and education are critical factors. Mindful of such reality, this paper seeks to provide, as much as possible, a comprehensive exploration of the novel’s postcolonial themes of Language, Education, and Power (to some extent) under the guidance of the ideas of influential authors and intellectuals such as Macaulay, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Constantino and Spivak. Towards its ending, the paper shall explain how the Ibo have become subalterns in the novel, with special regard to the dynamic changes that the native Nigerian societies presumably have experienced in the novel due to the English colonizers’ assertion and imposition of their religion and government. The paper shall end by presenting a brief synthesis of the prominence of the themes of language, education, and power in postcolonial discourse.
In the novel, there is no doubt that the English colonizers have not only brought their religion in Umuofia and the other native African villages or towns, but also their system of education. Missionaries such as Mr. Kiaga and Mr. Brown are revealed to have established and managed schools whose primary orientation is to teach the Christian converts, particularly the young ones, Western knowledge and how to read and write using the English language (Achebe 152; 179). It is understandable for the novel to portray such because it has been proven throughout history that in any place where a “system of religious communication” exists, a systematic “common instruction” of the local populace, particularly the youth, is required in order to promote the understanding of the religious creed and speech among the new converts (Schleiermacher 204). In fact, Christendom is noted for its strategy of transmitting religious ideas through parochial schools and other educational institutions (Yinger 65). Building from the aforementioned ideas, it is possible to assert that colonial educational systems, during the period of their growth, had been supported and fuelled primarily by the quest of the colonizers to spread their religion and indoctrinate the colonized. Nonetheless, it is very important to consider in this context that aside from its manifest effects of inculcating the faith to the natives, education has also latent effects on the overall thinking and attitudes of the colonized. In the novel for instance, it is revealed that because of their new religious instruction, the Ibo converts have become less hostile towards the osu or the outcasts and that some of them had grown antipathetic towards their traditional religious beliefs and customs such as respecting the egwugwu and not harming animals (i.e. sacred python) which are emanations of Igbo gods (Achebe 155; 178; 157). It is also shown in the text how the educated Ibo natives have deviated from the traditional occupation that they are expected to perform under their culture as many of them are said to have become court messengers, court clerks and teachers (Achebe 181-182). Furthermore, the novel also implies that the people have become fascinated towards the new government and the “trading stores” over time (Achebe 182-183). Clearly, the aforementioned examples demonstrate the capacity of education to truly mould the minds of people and act as a weapon of social control that colonizers can utilize for their convenience. By showing the capacity of education (motivated by religious instruction) to mould the minds of the native Nigerians and make them accept the English system of government and support the perpetuation of such without the need for the British to use military force, the novel indubitably echoes Constantino’s claim that education functions as a “weapon in wars of colonial conquest” (40). Indeed, it can be seen here that just like Constantino, Achebe recognizes the truth behind the idea that the best method to conquer a people and assimilate their mentalities to the colonial government is to mould their minds through education.
An interesting character who is important to discuss in any postcolonial analysis of the text is Mr. Kiaga who can be regarded as the only character that represents the two different worlds of the African natives and the English colonizers. As can be seen in the novel, though Mr. Kiaga is African in blood and colour, he nevertheless is very much Christian and English in his intellect and morals. He can be seen as a Christian who has an unshakeable and very strong faith in Jesus Christ, a missionary whose zeal, conviction and passion for his ministry have attracted substantial number of Ibo followers, and a teacher of the language of the colonizer. Further, he is presented in the novel as an influential “bridge” between the English colonizers and the natives by virtue of his occupation as an interpreter of both the English and the Ibo languages. Indeed, there is no doubt that Mr. Kiaga can be regarded as the best representative of what Thomas Macaulay, a British politician and colonialist, regards as a class of persons who could act as “interpreters” between the British and their colonized peoples, and who are native in blood and colour but “English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (428). Regarding this “class” of natives that suit Macaulay’s description, it is notable that the novel contains hints that suggest the existence and the expansion of such class. In parts two and three for instance, there are multiple chapters which somewhat show the existence of a pool of interpreters and messengers that work side by side with the Englishmen such as Mr. Brown and Reverend Smith. In fact, in chapter twenty-two, the readers will be acquainted with Reverend Smith’s wise interpreter named Okeke who can be seen as respectful and diplomatic towards the “spirits and leaders” of Umuofia, but is at the same time, keen on championing the interest and welfare of his foreign superior (Achebe 190-191). Going further, the twenty-first chapter of the novel meanwhile provides clues that point to the possible expansion of the “class” of interpreters that suit Macaulay’s depiction. It can be seen in the aforementioned chapter that the great and respected Akunna, because of Mr. Brown and his skilled interpreter’s perseverance to befriend him and gain his trust and respect, decides to “give” one of his sons to the English for educational instruction (Achebe 179). Though the novel is silent as to what happened to the child under the care of Mr. Brown, it nonetheless can be expected that due to the education that the son is yet to receive, he will most likely become an English or Western- minded African who can function as a mediator between the colonizers and his fellow natives and eventually participate in the perpetuation of the colonial government and education system. Indeed, Akunna’s gesture to “give” his son to Mr. Brown for educational instruction can not only be regarded as a symbol of the Umuofians’ growing approval of the systems imposed upon them by the Englishmen, but also as a symbol of the Ibo people’s unconscious participation to support the expansion of the “class of interpreters” who are African in blood and colour but Western in their value-systems and intellect.
At this point, it becomes evident that the novel, particularly in its second and third parts, subtly portrays the success of the Englishmen in establishing the foundations for inculcating the English language to the native cultures of the Ibo and their neighbour tribes. Again, the novel shows that throughout time, the missionaries have been able to establish schools which intend to teach their language to the converts. The text likewise shows that they have been able to eventually persuade families to send their children to the schools, hence, implying a thriving educational system. If a reader of Things Fall Apart were to consider the writings of Ngugi wa Thiong’o on “The Language of African Literature,” s/he would be disturbed by such scenario that is depicted by the novel. The existence of missionary-run schools in Umuofia and its neighbouring towns, and the unconscious participation of the natives to perpetuate the educational system can be regarded as both undesirable in light of the ideas of Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The Kenyan writer asserts that language, by being the carrier of culture, affects the “entire body of values” by which people come to recognize themselves and their “place in the world” (Wa Thiong’o 441). Reverting to the case of Umuofia and its neighbouring villages in the novel, it can be thus said that by having an imposed colonial education system that intends to teach the language of the foreign colonizers, the future of the traditional and indigenous culture in these towns and villages is threatened. It is very possible that in the future, once the foreign system of education becomes fully developed, the citizens of Umuofia and their neighbours would have, by that time, embodied the English value system and culture, and developed further indifference towards their native beliefs, customs and traditions. This problem of cultural indifference resulting from a colonial educational system that mandates the use of foreign language becomes even more pressing and serious if one will also take into account the existence of the earlier-discussed class of natives who are African in blood and colour but Western in intellect and morals. Indubitably, such class will complement and at the same time, promote and perpetuate the colonial educational system itself thereby further intensifying and legitimizing the gratuitously biased attitude towards the foreign language. Such is a scenario that is feared and despised by Ngugi wa Thiong’o for he is convinced that such bias (towards the colonial language) that is made possible by the colonial educational system, which he also greatly despise, will only cement the foreign language as the “official vehicle and magic formula to colonial elitedom” and eventually alienate the natives from their respective cultures and identities (438-439). Indeed, the novel provides manifestations of this idea. In the second to the last chapter of the novel, a period in which the colonial educational system may presumably have already grown further, it can be seen that only a small portion of the Umuofian population have remained steadfast and faithful to the clan tradition for it is revealed through Okonkwo’s speech during their clan’s great gathering that a lot of the Ibo tribe members have already joined the side of the Englishmen (Achebe 203-204).
It is interesting to note that Things Fall Apart humanely depicts the African natives as civilized subjects who have their own complex culture and unique identity. Unlike the conventional Western novels and writings which viciously portray the Africans as savages and mere slaves of Europeans, the novel somehow gives justice to the natives of Africa by instilling a more truthful image of their civilization, culture and identity. Indeed, it cannot be denied that the African natives are portrayed in a somewhat benevolent manner in the novel. Nonetheless, this does not mean that they are depicted as persons who are completely immune from being effectively turned into subalterns by the foreign colonizers. Even though Achebe succinctly projects the subjectivity (opinions, desires, feelings and perceptions among others) of the African characters throughout the entirety of the novel, he nevertheless conveys to his reader that the establishment of the colonial government by the English colonizers has drastically modified the power structure and cultural dynamics in Umuofia and its neighbouring lands thereby causing the displacement of some of the natives outside the hegemonic umbrella. This is best manifested in the twentieth chapter of the novel. In the said chapter, it is revealed that the British had already established a government in Nigeria and that the District Commissioner for Umuofia had built a court in which he can judge “cases in ignorance” (Achebe 174). The chapter also reveals how the British had already started to enforce their law and punish the natives who have violated such (Achebe 174). Obviously, by forcefully establishing a government and enforcing their own laws which the natives have no idea or knowledge about, the British have effectively established a hegemonic environment which prevents the natives from acquiring legitimate civil recognition as well as access to power unless they acquire the knowledge and even the rationality of the colonizers by becoming educated in the colonial education system (Campbell). In this set-up, it is obvious that unless the natives study in the schools established by the colonizers, they will continue to remain ignorant of the law and therefore become more susceptible to the oppression and abuse of the foreigners. Indeed, it can be seen here that political hegemony is intricately connected to cultural hegemony. The former forces the subjugated people to subject themselves to the colonial educational system and this therefore promotes the domination of the beliefs, perceptions, values, opinions, and mores of the foreign ruling class, hence leading to the existence of the latter (Bullok and Trombley 387-388). Perhaps, this echoes Spivak’s concept of an “epistemic violence” which is manifested when an imperialist creates structures of knowledge which destroy non-Western ways of viewing the world thereby resulting to the dominance of Western rationality in viewing and dealing with the world (Spivak 24-25).
Reverting to the case of the Ibo people, since they are clearly not included in the hegemonic structure that is established by the British colonizers in the middle part of the novel, they can thus be viewed as subalterns in the second-half of Achebe’s work. Indeed, though not explicitly stated, it is arguable that the second and third parts of the novel portray the natives as subjects who have to embody the Western ways of knowing, perceiving, reasoning and language in order to attain social mobility, political security and recognition from the newly-established colonial government. For instance, it can be witnessed in the twenty-third chapter how the conservative leaders of the natives are disrespected and brutalized by the District Commissioner who promises to listen to their grievances but ends up turning them into prisoners instead (Achebe 194-195). It is also important to reiterate at this point that those who had went to the missionary-run schools had been able to acquire reputable government occupations and understanding of the Western mind set which presumably had enabled them to comprehend the British laws and thus avoid their exposure to the oppressive punishments of the English colonizers. Further, the fact that only a few natives have remained steadfast to the traditional culture and mind set, in order to presumably accommodate the Western beliefs and knowledge, is also a possible evidence for such claim. Finally, it is important to examine under this discussion of subalternity and epistemic violence, the death of Okonkwo who is noted for his loyalty to tradition and for his conservatism. It can be said that of all the characters in the novel, he is the one who has suffered the most from the epistemic violence created by the British and from becoming a subaltern for he ended up committing suicide out of his failure to voice his feelings, longings and desires to the hegemonic structure. Indeed, it is possible to say that his failure to be heard in the hegemonic environment is a product of the demotion of his native knowledge into a “subjugated knowledge” by the imperialist power which view naïve knowledge as located at the bottom level of the hierarchy of “scientificity” (Spivak 25). Finally, it can also be asserted that his strong, hard and aggressive personality had not been able to withstand the reality of him having to compromise his beliefs and principles just for him to be able to pursue his ideal life in the Ibo society whose dynamics have been drastically altered by the epistemic violence caused by the British colonizers.
From the ideas that have been presented in this essay, it can be rationally asserted that language, education, and power are elements that are intricately connected with each other, particularly on issues within the realm of colonial or postcolonial discourse. Language and education, aside from reinforcing each other within the realm of the colonial system, also jointly influence the power play between the colonized and the colonizer. Power meanwhile can also dictate how language and education are to be introduced and perpetuated in a colonized society. Indeed, there is so much that can be said about the postcolonial themes of language, education, and power and any literary work that would therefore embody elements that convey such themes would incite discussion and creative discourses. Such is probably one of the reasons why Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, in its creative embodiment of the themes of language, education and power plays, is deemed by literary academes as an important text in postcolonial studies.

Works Cited
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. 3-209. Print.
Bullock, Alan and Stephen Trombley. The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 1999. 387-388. Print.
Campbell, Jason. “28. Theories Lecture: Understanding Gayatri Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’” YouTube. Youtube, 11 Apr. 2011. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.
Constantino, Renato. “The Miseducation of the Filipino.” The Filipinos in the Philippines and Other Essays. Philippines: Malaya Books, 1966. 39-65. Print.
Guthrie, Abigail. “Language and Identity in Postcolonial African Literature: A Case Study of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” Diss. Liberty University, 2011. Print.
Macaulay, Thomas. “Minute on Indian Education.” The Postcolonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths & Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995. 428-430. Print.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Trans. John Oman. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1958. 204-205. Print.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” The Postcolonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths & Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995. 24-28. Print.
Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. “The Language of African Literature.” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Ed. Patrick Williams & Laura Chrisman. Hertfordshire: Simon & Schuster International Group, 1993. 435-453. Print.
Yinger, Milton. The Scientific Study of Religion. New York: Macmillan Publishing Corporation Inc., 1970. 65-69. Print.

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