Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The African Model

Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored," typing faster than ever before driving across the county to a day of teachers' meetings! Fly, fingers, fly!

This summer I have read two novels by African writers: The River Between, by Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Both were written in the middle of the twentieth century. Both novels concern the first interaction between the authors' people and white men. Inevitably, the vanguard of this interaction is Christian missionaries.

The moment of cultural breakdown in both stories occurs when some members of the African tribes in question embrace Christianity and begin to be led into white-sponsored activities such as reading and writing and learning English (in both cases it's English). Both authors show how this encroachment, although sometimes very subtle at first, tears apart their traditional communities, involving as it does an assault on their deities and rituals.

The River Between must be read with big, broad, flexible outlook in full battle mode. The tradition under assault in that story is female circumcision. The first plot point concerns a 14-year-old girl who willingly defies her Christian father to undergo the rite, because she wants to belong to her people. She sickens and dies. In the wake of this death, another young tribe member -- the novel's hero -- tries to reconcile white and native ways, encouraging his people to keep their rituals but to embrace the white man's learning, so as to be able to negotiate with the intruders.

In Things Fall Apart, the central character will have nothing to do with the white devils. He's a prosperous, arrogant man who has fought his way to the top of his society. I won't spoil the plot, but it does not stretch the big, broad, flexible outlook nearly so taut as The River Between.

Things Fall Apart goes into great detail about the deities and rituals of the pre-colonial Nigerians. Gods and Goddesses and priestesses and even holy snakes are in their final glory before the massive layoffs in the name of God the Father. For this reason, Things Fall Apart, and The River Between, pertain highly to the mission of this blog.

We have no detailed narratives of individual reactions to the ancient arrival of Christian missionaries in Europe and the British Isles. But I think Things Fall Apart and The River Between can give us wonderful models of what that invasion meant to small communities, to people of different ages and social standing, to the cohesion of village networks within a larger web of related regional units.

No happy endings here, folks. Although in some parts of Africa people are retaining and regaining their deities, in many other places those deities have been under serious siege for decades. In short, many African Gods and Goddesses have been, or are about to be, bored.

What happens to people when their deities are literally unmasked? Have you ever wondered how your ancestors felt when this happened? Get a glimpse. Read Things Fall Apart or The River Between. Pretty, perfect cultures with wonderful religions, these two communities? Heck no. But did white missionaries have the right to challenge these communities in the name of God? You be the judge. You know how we at "The Gods Are Bored" feel about these things. But we don't speak for you.


Yvonne Rathbone said...

I've often looked around at what is happening to Native Americans and thought, this is what my gods went through a thousand years ago.

Fight it! I want to tell them. Don't let it happen to you too!!

But if it does, the gods will still be there. The rites will change, but you will find them waiting for you.

THE Michael said...

I wish I had the guts to dress up like an alien invader, walk into a Catholic church in the middle of mass, and announce to the congregation that their God is about to be replaced by a new one...........can you imagine the freak out that will occur?


you should read uhuru by robert ruark..
there is an old african expression...

'first we had the land and they had the bible, now we have the bible and they have the land.'

Æthelbera said...

No matter how tough the encroachment, the gods and the pagan ways do not die unless the apathetic let them die. I was just reading an essay about the parthenon temple controversy with christians trying to deny their iconoclasm as they are wont to do and this post reminded me that though it happened in greece a thousand years ago, it's still actively happening to Africa, and in Russia and in Greece.

kazari said...

For another African perspective, try Chris Abani. His novel, Song for Night, is about child soldiers and the war around them.
But it's not as depressing as that sounds. And the book borrows from the spiritual traditions of all the players.