Nupe. Maiden Spirit Mask (Agbogho Mmuo), 19th century. Wood, cloth, fiber, 16 1/2 x 7 1/4 x 11 in. (41.9 x 18.4 x 27.9 cm).
I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.—China Achebe
Things Fall Apart, the first novel of Chinua Achebe, deals with the clash of cultures and the violent transitions in life and values brought about by British colonialism in Nigeria at the end of the 19th century. Published in 1958, just before Nigerian independence, the novel recounts the life of the village hero Okonkwo and describes the arrival of white missionaries in Nigeria during the late 1800s and their impact on traditional Igbo society.
Writing in English, the language of the imperialist conquerors of Nigeria, Achebe’s stated goal was to create a “new” and more African English. He integrated Igbo words and phrases, proverbs, folktales, and other elements of communal storytelling into the narrative in order to record and preserve African oral traditions and to subvert the colonialist language and culture.
The purpose of this lesson is to help students discover and evaluate this “new English” that has made Achebe “the father of African literature” and has placed Things Fall Apart on high school reading lists worldwide. This close reading exposes students to a unique point of view and foreign cultural experience and serves to expand their base of world literature. Students identify the linguistic and literary techniques Achebe uses to convey a sense of Igbo culture. They analyze the impact of the traditional oral elements to unlock the meanings and messages of the novel.
With his childhood in the Igbo town of Ogidi and his education in English at the University of Ibadan, Achebe was conversant with both Igbo and English language and culture. In a famous essay called “The African Writer and the English Language,” Achebe pointed out the difference between national language and ethnic language. This difference arises from the artificial drawing of African national boundaries by the colonizing powers, without regard to ethnic fault lines. Thus, the people of Nigeria speak numerous languages—Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, and Fulani, and 500 additional languages. Achebe says that if he was to write for the people of Nigeria, he had to write in the one language they all understood, English.
In Things Fall Apart, the first method Achebe used to create “a new English” is the introduction of Igbo words and phrases directly into the text without translation. The meaning of each can be readily grasped from context, but Achebe also included a glossary of Igbo words at the end of the novel. The use of Igbo reminds the reader that certain concepts are unique to this culture and are not fully translatable. Achebe also used similes drawn from the daily life of the Igbo, each helping the reader to experience the particular time and place of the novel.
The inclusion of proverbs in this novel was another means of cultural preservation for Achebe. Igbo conversation is studded with these nuggets of wisdom. In this text, proverbs serve to ease difficult conversations as “the palm oil with which words are eaten.” They preserve the wisdom of elder generations succinctly and help the reader understand the moods and attitudes of the novel’s characters.
Thirdly, Achebe used folktales to reinforce the more conventional elements of the novel and emphasize the values of the Igbo culture. Five different folk tales appear at various points in the story: Vulture and the Sky; Mosquito and Ear; Leaves and the Snake-lizard; How Tortoise Got His Bumpy Shell, and Mother Kite and Daughter Kite. Achebe’s placement of each folk tale in the text is intentional containing symbolic implications for the narrative. The Igbo traditionally tell folktales only at night, after the day’s work is done and preferably in the dry season. A session of storytelling may begin with proverbs and incorporate songs. For more detail on the nature of storytelling among the Igbo, see “The Igbo Folktale: Performance Conditions and Internal Characteristics” by J. O. J Nwachukwu-Agbada.
A particularly useful reading for the teacher before beginning this lesson is “The Form and Function of the Folk Tradition in Achebe's Novels” by Charles E. Nnolim. In it, Nnolim provides a full definition of folklore, discusses individual proverbs and folktales employed by Achebe, and demonstrates how Achebe “subtly and cunningly works them into his narrative.”
Achebe’s children’s book entitled How the Leopard Got His Claws (1972) could be especially useful before beginning the third activity. Students would also benefit from background reading on Nigeria and seeing photographs of Nigeria’s people and geographical locations to orient them to this culture.
Have students interpret Igbo words and phrases that Achebe includes in Things Fall Apart.
Tell students that the poet John Ciardi used to emphasize not “What does the poem mean?” but “How does the poem mean?” (Teachers should have read the novel with students and discussed plot, characters, and other traditional elements of a narrative—what the novel means.)
Clarify that in this lesson students will focus on the how—the overall objective is to uncover how Achebe used the English language to tell an African story.
Write the word foo-foo on the board and ask if anyone remembers its meaning in the novel. (This staple food of the village is made from boiled and pounded yam or cassava.)
Write a list of the following Igbo words on the board: agbala, chi, egwugwu, ilo, ogbanje, obi, ogene, osu, efulefu. Ask if students can define any of these words from the novel. Then point out the Glossary at the end of the novel and ask students to locate the definitions.
Ask students to explain why Achebe left these words in Igbo when he wrote the novel in English. (The words are a constant reminder of the setting of the novel; they provide “local color”; there may not be an exact equivalent for the concept in English.)
Ask how many students needed to refer to the glossary as they read. What strategies did they use to help define the words if they did not check the glossary? (Achebe provided context for these words so that the reader can guess their meaning.) Point out that this use of Igbo vocabulary is one way that Achebe added an African nuance to his English vocabulary.
Distribute Worksheet 1. The Use of Similes in Things Fall Apart. Divide students into pairs and have them discuss the meaning of each simile to complete the chart. (Worksheet 1.1 contains suggested answers.) Share answers within the whole group.
Ask students: Where do these similes come from? What do they have in common? (They all come from the everyday experiences of the Igbo, including weather, agriculture, hunting, war, and animals with which they are familiar.) Point out that through the use of such similes, Achebe was once again shaping the English of his novel to the African experience.
Have each student compose three sentences, each of which incorporate a simile and use at least one word of Igbo vocabulary.
Have students determine the meaning of Igbo proverbs as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings to analyze the cumulative impact of proverbs on meaning and tone. In this way students identify how Achebe’s language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets tone and conveys mood; how it provides local color to the narrative.
Locate the paragraph in Chapter 1 that begins, “Having spoken plainly so far …” Read aloud the first two sentences.
Have students consider the definition of the word proverb. Discuss the general use of proverbs in everyday life as well as in literature.
Ask students what they think is meant by Achebe’s statement, “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded highly and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” (Palm-oil is a common ingredient in cooking traditional West African food; in fact, the ingredient labeled “vegetable oil” in our own food is often palm-oil. The expression suggests that proverbs can sometimes be easier to say, to understand, or to remember than direct statements, and they are a much-appreciated addition to conversation.)
Encourage students to come up with an equivalent English proverb to this saying such as a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.
Ask them to give some other examples of English proverbs and to explain their meaning.
Ask students to explain why we use such proverbs. (They are a kind of short-hand for complex ideas; since most people know the meanings of common proverbs, proverbs convey ideas quickly and colorfully; they express the values of the society.)
Distribute Worksheet 2. The Palm-Oil of Conversation. Give half the students the assignment to do using Chapter 3; give the other half, Chapter 4. (These are the chapters that are richest in proverbs. If you prefer, you can assign individual proverbs to students; a list appears in the Worksheet 2.1, including proverbs from other chapters.)
When students have completed Worksheet 2, team them up so that each pair has proverbs from both chapters. Give them time to share their proverbs and question each other about their meanings.
Have students respond to the following prompt in their journals:
Choose one of the proverbs from Worksheet 2. Write a paragraph responding to this prompt: Does this proverb have universal meaning, or does it only make a statement about the Igbo society in which it originated?
Have studentsanalyze a unique point of view or cultural experience of the Igbo people reflected in their folktales.
Explain to students that, in addition to using Igbo vocabulary, similes drawn from Igbo daily life, and proverbs, Achebe also used folktales as a way of sharing Igbo culture and illustrating their values. Define folktale.
Ask students for examples of folktales they have heard, read, or studied previously. Reinforce that while many of the stories are used to entertain both children and adults, they can also be used to teach values or explain natural phenomena.
Read aloud the story “Vulture and the Sky” in Chapter 7. Pose the following questions:
Divide students into four groups and assign each group one folktale from the novel: Mosquito and Ear (Chapter 9), Snake-lizard and the Leaves (Chapter 9), How Tortoise Got His Bumpy Shell (Chapter 11) and Mother Kite and Daughter Kite (Chapter 15) Ask each group to study the story and be able to:
Distribute Worksheet 3. Analyzing an African Folktale, in order to help students organize their ideas. Allow each student group time to work and then have each group present to the class as a whole. (Suggested Answers are available on Worksheet 3.1)
Have students work independently to analyze other African folktales that they locate using printed sources or the Internet. Use Worksheet 3 as a graphic organizer for this assessment.
Assign students to write a persuasive essay responding to this prompt:
The Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiongo has argued in Decolonising the Mind that to truly be considered African literature, a book must be written in an indigenous African language, not a European language.
Achebe, on the other hand, said, “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings.”
How successful was Achebe in developing such a new and distinctly African English? Be sure to give evidence from the text to support your analysis.
In preparation for this response, students may find it helpful to look at Chapter 1. from Thiongo’s Decolonising the Mind, "The Language of African Literature."
Worksheet 4 is provided as a rubric to be used as a guide for self-evaluation, peer evaluation, or teacher evaluation of the essay.