June 21, 2024
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The Economy of Umuofia, as told by Chinua Achebe (1930–2013)

Chinua Achebe has always been my favourite novelist. The house of my childhood was littered with his works. They adorned the bookshelves, sometimes softened and worn with age and moisture.

I read “Things Fall Apart” when I was less than 10 years — I know because we moved out that house when I was 11, and I was in Primary 4 or 5 by then. It wasn’t the recommended literary work for our educational syllabus at that time. If it was, I perhaps wouldn’t have consumed it as voraciously as I did.

I still remember clearly how I first read “Things Fall Apart.” I’d borrowed the novel from the girl that lived in the flat below ours in the storey building we lived in. She doubled as my closest female friend and childhood sweetheart — the one I imagined I’d get married to when I grew older. She shared my love for literature and introduced me to African Writers’ Series, and other publications that shaped and coloured most of my childhood.

Since that first day when I read “Things Fall Apart”, never stopping to shut the book until I finished at 1 o’clock in the morning, I’ve read the book at least 6 times. And each time I read it, a new world of understanding is opened up to me. Reading reviews and commentaries of the work provided context to his work and enabled me to better understand Achebe, his times, and his work.

I had yet another opportunity to read “Things Fall Apart” yesterday when I was bored. The incidences of Coronavirus cases on the rise having necessitated a partial or total lockdown in most countries, including Nigeria where I reside. It was this boredom that led me to pick up my tattered copy of Things Fall Apart to read again.

Every time I read this book, I discover something new about the man, his time and his style of expressing himself. During this read what struck me was his seamless description of the economy of Umuofia, and perhaps this realization was important at this time, considering the current quake of fear concerning the global economy due to the impact of COVID-19.

We must remember that Things Fall Apart was written in response to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” that portrayed Africans as savages, without a culture, government, organizational system, or even a language — those grunts and unintelligible chants don’t count as a language, by the way.

Every time I read this book, I have been amazed at how Achebe’s brilliant portrayal of Africa, through the lenses of Okonkwo and his fellow Igbo tribesmen and women. How he showed the richness of the culture, the systems of government and social organization, the traditions, beliefs and religion of the time in which the novel was set (the 1890s). However, it was my most recent read that demonstrated to me that “Africans were not savages when the Europeans met and ‘saved’ them. They had a system of trade and exchange. They had an economy!” When I was in secondary school, I remember my literature teacher saying that before Things Fall Apart was written, if a European saw an African, he was likely going to be watching his behind for the appearance of a tail. Monkeys with tails do not have functional economies.

Beyond Unoka’s debts and his failure to settle them, we get introduced to the meritocratic and capitalistic Igbo society as we watch Okonkwo struggle to become successful inspite of his father’s poverty. Unoka, Okonkwo’s father was “lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow” and as we watch Okonkwo fight to be a different man, we feel the tension that marked his development from childhood to young adulthood and then adulthood, marked as it were with anger and fear.

He did achieve success for himself. “Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things. He was still young but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams…” Nothing however portrayed the economy of Umuofia in the 1890s more lucidly than Achebe’s description of how Okonkwo achieved all of these. In this description, we see striking parallels with today’s economy.

Starting out as a “broke” and struggling young man that could inherit nothing from his father, Okonkwo apprenticed himself to a wealthy farmer called Nwakibie. He had three huge barns, nine wives and thirty children. “It was for this man that Okonkwo worked to earn his first yam seeds”. (Pg 14)

When Okonkwo had to leave to start his own farm, today’s equivalent of being an entrepreneur and starting a business, Okonkwo went back to his mentor to ask for a loan. “I have come to you for help…I have cleared a land but have no yams to sow…” (Pg 15) Nwakibie accessed Okonkwo the same way any investor on a Shark Tank TV show would do an upcoming entrepreneur. “It pleases me to see a young man like you these days when our youths have gone so soft. Many young men have come to me to ask for yams but I have refused because I knew they would just dump them in the earth and leave them to be choked by weeds. When I say no to them, they think I am hardhearted…I have learnt to be stingy with my yams. But I can trust you…I shall give you twice four hundred yams. Go ahead and prepare your farm.” (Pg 16)

Apart from the loan, Okonkwo had “equity investors” in his “business”. He got another four hundred yam seeds from one of his father’s friends at Isiuzo. This was used in sharecropping. According to the book, “sharecropping was a very slow way of building up a barn of one’s own. After all the toil, one only got a third of the harvest. But for a young man who’s father had no yams, there was no other way.” (Pg 16)

That year, the same year Okonkwo took loans and raised capital from investors by selling some of his shares, there was a recession. Nothing happened at the right time. The rains were late and when they came, lasted for only a brief moment. The blazing sun returned, more fierce than it had ever been known, and scorched all the greens that appeared with the rains. The earth burned like hot coals and roasted all the yams that had been sown. The drought continued for eight market week and the yams were killed.

This, however, was Okonkwo’s first foray that year. He had used his own seeds; his harvest from the previous year. He still had the eight hundred from Nwakibie and the four hundred from his father’s friend. He would make a fresh start.

His second foray was much more unfortunate that his first. “But the year had gone mad. Rain fell as it had never fallen before. For days and nights together, it poured down in heavy torrents and washed away the yam heaps. Trees were uprooted and deep gorges appeared everywhere. Then the rains became less violent. But it went on from day to day without a pause. The spell of sunshine which always came in the middle of the wet season did not appear…That year was sad, like a funeral, and many farmers wept as they dug up the miserable and rotting yams. One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself.” (Pg 17)

Okonkwo remembered that tragic year with a cold shiver throughout the rest of his life, about the same way the older generations were impacted by the Great Depression that lasted from August 1929 to March 1933. The book went on to add, “It always surprised him when he thought about it later, that he did not sink under the load of despair. He knew he was a fierce fighter, but that year had been enough to break the heart of a lion.” (Pg 18)

Achebe, a master of the sublime finish, rounded up the chapter with Unoka’s statement to Okonkwo about the recession. “Do not despair. I know you will not despair. You have a manly and a proud heart. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.” (Pg 18) Even the book presented this last “alone” in italics as if to remind us that the person speaking was a colossal failure personally, and hence a sad and bitter soul. Perhaps nothing else presented a more lucid parallel to what can be seen in today’s economy as a recession. Recessions characterize themselves with comparisons across industries and the whole economy to determine whether the failure is a “general failure” or if the business has “failed alone”.

Having this understanding with my most recent read, it surprises me that my previous studies of this book never produced this level of insight into the economy of Umuofia as it did yesterday. It also opens my eyes wider to what I know to be the genius of Chinua. A good literature book can take more than a decade to fully understand, and even then, you never understand it all. As you read more and explore further, it reaches into the deepest recesses of your personality and changes you. It does this by raising questions, rather than answering them, thereby challenging you to seek for answers which can only truly be yours.

The genius of Chinua shows us clearly in these pages — without boring descriptions — that Africa indeed had an economy that paralleled with the Western economy. The sheer beauty of it was that he did that, without mentioning the conventional economic terms like loans, equity, purchase, recession, and so forth.

And the more you look into it, the more beautiful it becomes, or doesn’t it?

Just to add :

Chinua Achebe is one of the guys that inspires me ( I even have a painting of him on my wall). His writing disposition comes from an ideology of “I am not writing for you. I write for me, if you happen to read it, that’s fine. If you like it or not, I care less”. One of Achebe’s favorite quotes is, *if you don’t like my story, write your own*”. What this does is that it takes away the pressure of trends, it puts you in the position to do authentic arts, from stories, to characters and general dispositions that is unapologetic. The closest person to that attitude is Chimamanda Adichie, they both write quite arrogantly without the reader in mind😂

I feel this artistic ideology is something enterprenuers should have. They shouldn’t be at the mercy of the market. They shouldn’t try to create products for their market, they should create market for their product. From older historical figures like Plato, Socrates, Caesar, Jesus, and co, to newer disruptors, the likes of Fela Kuti, to Steve Jobs to even Elon Musk ( guys who created their own lane, stimulated fresh types of style and demand away from the norm), you see that that’s how to be ahead of your time.. Try to write a story, the type you like to read, even if it’s for only you. And watch others join in. Positive or negative, the world respects and gives way for authenticity..#HexavianTips

Written by Amarachi Obiego and Eizu.

Eizu is the MD of Hexavia while Amarachi describes himself as “Just a man who enjoys being Nigerian and writing about it”. What’s so strange about that?

Picture below is a photo at one of the HexavianBloodGroup hangout with Amarachi at the 2nd right.

Amarachi is one of the “elders” of the HexavianBlood Group, a closed knit circle of former interns at Hexavia!

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