Chinua Achebe’s magnum opus Things Fall Apart is perhaps one of the most seminal texts in the genre of Postcolonial literature. Achebe has been applauded by his readers and critics for his literary genius while dealing with the subject of colonisation in Africa. One of the most important techniques of Achebe that lends itself to the magnificence of his book is his characterisation. While the book primarily deals with its protagonist Okonkwo, other characters also play very important role in Achebe’s literary endeavour. One such character is that of Obierika. This short note would attempt to critically elucidate upon the character of Obierika in Things Fall Apart.
The name Obierika itself has an important meaning. Obie means heart, soul or mind while Rika means great, spacious or wholesome. The meaning of Obierika’s name is essential to his character because he does live up to it. His character symbolises a balance that is very important to the narrative of the book which deals with Okonkwo, a character who symbolises extremism. Obierika is Okonkwo best friend in the book. While Okonkwo is very rigid in his attitude and tends to look at the immediate situation thus reacting in a very unthoughtful and naive manner, Obierika is very open minded and thoughtful and analyses the situation and recognises the bigger picture before reacting to it. This is exemplified in a discussion between Okonkwo and Obierika in chapter 15 on the annihilation of the Abame clan by the White man.
Okonkwo insists on the traditional method of retaliating against the White man through war but Obierika comments on the physical incapacity of his clan with their matches and arrows as compared to the guns of the White man. There is a direct contrast in the characterisation of Okonkwo and Obierika that helps the reader in delving into the complexity of the psyche of the African people as they faced colonialism, a complexity that is rendered invisible by the colonial discourse on Africa. While critics suggest that both Obierika and Okonkwo are like each other’s alter egos, Obierika continually proves to be a great friend to Okonkwo. In the same chapter, Obierika tells Okonkwo that he had sold his yams after his exile and gives him the money for the same.
At the end of chapter 15 Obierika jokes about Okonkwo killing himself. The comment is made with the intent of establishing that such a thing was an impossibility but the fact that Okonkwo does end up killing himself signifies the affect of colonisation on the African population and how it tuner everything upside down for the community. Okonkwo’s death is met with two responses, that of Obierika’s and that of the White man in the last chapter of the book. While Obierika grieves his friend’s death by saying “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog…”(TFA, p.197). The White man symbolised by The District Commissioner responds to Okonkwo’s death by thinking that:
The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. (TFA, p.197)
The two responses signify the difference in the representation of colonial African history by that of Imperialistic rhetoric and postcolonial discourse. While the White man completely objectifies the African individual and flattens his complexity and erases his humanity through a factual account, Postcolonial literature retaliates against this history from above since Achebe’s book comprises of 25 chapters on the life of Okonkwo, the man who is allotted only a paragraph in the District Commissioner’s book The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
Furthermore, Obierika’s voice is consistently important in the narrative of the book since it deals with both an analysis of the White man’s colonial enterprise and his own Ibo culture. As mentioned earlier, Obierika is very insightful in his analysis of a given situation. As he looks at the colonial enterprise in hindsight and comments upon the White man’s advent in Africa, he demystifies it as he says:
Its already too late…If we should try to drive out the white men in Umuofia we should find it easy. There are only two of them. But what of our own people who are following their way and have been given power? (TFA, p.165)
Obierika recognises that White man’s advent in Africa has been ideological with the introduction of Christianity in the African community by the missionaries through his retrospective understanding of the Colonial mechanisms of oppression and repression. At the same time, Obierika also recognises the cracks in his own community, a major part of which has already been ideologically manipulated by the White Man.
There are many instances in the book wherein Obierika comments upon the traditions of the Ibo culture as well and tries to question them. The incident of Ikemefuna’s killing and Okonkwo’s exile leads him to thinking about the beliefs and traditions of his clan:
Obierika was a man who though about things…and mourned his friend’s calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offence he had committed inadvertently?…he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offence on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offence against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. As the elders said, if one finger brought oil it soiled the others.(TFA,p. 117-118)
Obierika’s line of thought regarding the problems with his clan’s traditions and the colonial enterprise poses an important question that is perhaps at the heart of Achebe’s text: whether things fell apart after the advent of colonialism or were things were already falling apart colonisation hastened the process. Obierika often assumes a position that is removed from the codes of the clan and questions them. His position is very in between, there are traces of skepticism and sometimes a deep connection with his culture. Perhaps Obierika exemplifies Achebe’s own position regarding his culture and understanding of the colonial enterprise. In a interview with Biodun Jeyifo in 1988, Achebe responds positively when asked if there was something of Achebe in Obierika. Achebe said that “Obierika is more subtle and more in tune with the danger, the impending betrayal by the culture and is not likely to be crushed because he holds something in reserve.”(p.12-13) Achebe often himself assumed an in between position with regards to commenting on the African culture in the book. Also, Achebe’s intent of writing this book was to understand where things went wrong as Africa got colonised retrospectively which is also seen in Obierika’s voice as well.
Thus Obierika’s character is of utmost import to the brilliance of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Obierika recognises the might of the White man and the inevitability of colonialism. His voice becomes important for recognising the tragedy of colonialism and its affect on the social fabric of Africa.