Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Things Fall Apart

Join me if you will for a short series - variations on a theme: Things Fall Apart.

It's about a state of mind and a culture. So far there have been musings on literature, from Chinua Achebe's novel to Joseph Conrad, Yeats, Evelyn Waugh and others. There's been music, poetry, history, coups, affairs, politics, strange bedfellows, technology, identity theft, terrorism, nostalgia, hard-boiled noir, lighthearted farce and boycotts. Looking ahead perhaps we'll deal with food, movies, cartoons, photography or more sedate topics. The starting place, as ever, is Africa, yet I find myself somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, writing a cultural history of our times. I hope some of it might be up your alley. In any case welcome. (see series index)

1. School of Hard Knocks

It was June, we were at the History department at Berkeley. The Girlfriend was filling out paperwork in anticipation of the next year's Great Move West and pondering the academic life teaching history (Africa! Science!). Tabitha was filling us in on the department, campus life, class sizes and how the program was structured. Truth be told there was a lot of trepidation and the small talk wasn't coming easily. Then I looked around seeking comfort from the surrounding books and, my goodness, noticed the magazines. I was so excited to find myself in an office that had a copy of Africa Report magazine from 1966. It was the issue written after the coup that overthrew Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, something I had been searching for for the last 6 years. Duly effusive after my find, I really started to chat her up; Africa was on my mind and the questions poured forth. We warmed to each other in short order.

berkeley gates

Eventually I asked about the background of the students who come to study African history at the university.

What has changed, she said, is that these days the average student would have read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe whereas previously it would have been Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (or say Joyce Cary's Mr Johnson if they had a British background).

It seemed to me that a little milestone had been reached with her anecdotal testimony of Achebe winning out over Conrad in the memorability sweepstakes. Our man Achebe must surely be smiling at the response to his first novel written almost 50 years ago. Indeed it is apt that sub-Saharan Africa is also verging on 50 years of a post-colonial experience (in my native Ghana, preparations are underway for next year's 50th independence day celebrations).

The school of hard knocks that was Africa's colonial experience, and indeed the image of Africa itself, is now being perceived through the words of an African. The headline leaped out to me:
Things Fall Apart Beats Heart of Darkness
This is bittersweet news and progress of a sort. Beyond the purely literary however, the question remains:
Should Africans be content with Things Fall Apart? And if so, is the message of Brand Africa simply a celebration of the hard knock life?
As a participant in the ongoing narrative, I almost never pause to ponder the storyline. When I do manage to reflect on it, I get little comfort from the muddled headlines. Heads down and at a remove, I seek instead a sense of normalcy and to contribute to the occasional bite-sized triumph. After all, who knows which of the current grand plots will be tomorrow's conventional wisdom? Finally also, I wonder who is writing today's script and where they stand on the matter. I hope my exploration will provide one perspective.


The sign reads "Sweet! From Candy to Condos". The old candy factory in East Cambridge is being "repurposed" into luxury condominiums.

The Things Fall Apart Series

Cultural observations and social interplay

Things Fall Apart

  • School of Hard Knocks
    Reading a new headline for Africa.
  • Identity Theft
    "Wake up one day / They say you're a bomber"
    The perils of a fragile center.
  • Africa, 1966
    Looking back at a pivotal year in African history in order to look forward.
  • Voices Inside (Things Fall Apart)
    Changing the perspective. An appreciation of Chinua Achebe's take on Things Fall Apart, with a Donny Hathaway connection thrown in for good measure.
  • Heart of Darkness
    "This Congo is a region of the mind."
    Burnt-out cases journey down the river: Joseph Conrad's tale and its influence on the literature and iconography of Africa - from Graham Greene to Evelyn Waugh, through Abdulrazak Gurnah, Francis Ford Coppola and more.
  • Frisson de Folksonomie
    "I have a crush. There, I finally said it. I feel better already... I can no longer stand this conflicted life..."
    "Affairs" in social bookmarking, literature and music.
  • Angola
    "When two elephants fight it is the grass that suffers" — Angolan proverb.
    A dossier, or rather a B-movie, featuring Jonas Savimbi, Ronald Reagan and other special guests.
  • Huhudious (or Silly Season)
    Illustrating The B-movie Theory
  • Ode to Betty Brown
    Yes, that was Betty Brown, self-effacing even in her obituary.
  • Structural Adjustments
    The trade deficit of unanswered questions
  • June 4th
    The Coup Drill. Stand up and be counted.
  • Herd Immunity
    The phantom thread of greed lies at the heart of the matter
  • Open House
    A full frontal stare
  • The Bad Seed
    Suborn was his favorite verb
  • Internal Exile
    They made the best of things

Social Living

Social Living is the best

The Comfort Suite

I need relief

The Rough Beast

Who is writing the script?

Fallen Angels

Doctor Simbo

Soul Insurance

  1. Ananse and the Chief's Scribe
  2. Enter the Claims Adjuster
  3. An Audience with the Linguist
  4. Pity the Mink
  5. Short Sale
  6. Excessive Liabilities
  7. Premiums Due
  8. Soul Insurance, a playlist
  9. Indemnity Provisions
  10. Full Circle
  11. Enforcement Actions
  12. The Die is Cast

South Africa, 1994

The Boycott Day Trinity

And the Lord said unto them: Boycott!

Things Fall Apart - the photo essay

Things Fall Apart - The Playlists

tag cloud: Things Fall Apart

Koranteng globe portrait

Things Fall Apart collage

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