Putting it Back Together: Achebe’s Okonkwo and A Lesson for the Digital Generation

Eyes glued to the morning cartoons, I was sprawled out on the living room floor with a bag of half-eaten Doritos in my arms.

“Tochukwu,” my grandmother called exasperatedly, walking into the room. “Didn’t you hear me calling?”

I murmured unintelligibly, hoping to exhaust her and be left alone in the parlour. Shaking her head, my grandmother snatched up the snack bag beside me before heading out of the room.

“Hey,” I protested, licking a cheesy finger clean.

“And turn that TV off please,” she said. “A lazy boy will one day be a lazy man.”


Grumbling, I reluctantly obeyed, heading upstairs to my comfortable bed to resume reading my earmarked copy of “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe for the first time.

Seven years later, I came across the novel again, now a much less daunting volume, and ate up its pages in two days. Of the various aspects for which Achebe’s magnum opus has been widely acclaimed, the role sloth plays in sculpting Achebe’s protagonist is what colored my second reading.

Growing up in the digital generation, I am no stranger to indolence, and would have been quite happy as a child to spend long hours on the computer or television had I been permitted to. To combat these tendencies, my grandmother fed my siblings and I a steady diet of stories composed of both gripping moral fables of the mischievous tortoise and his exploits as well as more biographical accounts of the struggles and triumphs of our ancestors. With electric sections of musical call and response along with a sobering adage or two to conclude each story, my grandmother managed to drum her Igbo values into us, those of honesty, compassion and industry.

In revisiting Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” the warring forces of indolence and industry  captivated me as I tried to understand the quiet fulfillment I felt at Okonkwo’s plow as he prepared the yam fields with the effortless joy of Unoka playing his opi to accompany the rooster’s crow in the early hours of the morning. In these characters, I see the the extremes of both virtue and vice, and the devastation it wrought on its inhabitants.

In “Things Fall Apart,” Okonkwo is shaped by his disgust of sloth, the vice that his own father happily embraced and which brings his family so much shame. Fearful of making his father’s mistakes, Okonkwo works tirelessly in hopes of outrunning his father’s legacy and redeeming his family name. Like Okonkwo, my siblings and I were brought up charged with the duty of tending to the fertile fields of our minds. Unlike Okonkwo, we were taught that poor harvest days would inevitably come and to never lose hope that the next one could be better. In this environment, my siblings and I worked diligently in school to expand our worldview, aiming at a target beyond the sky, in the cultivation of our gifts and the refinement of our talents.

In my recent perusal through Achebe’s work, the author champions this approach. In the novel, it is the asymmetry in the knowledge of the missionaries compared to the natives that subdues Okonkwo and his men, rather than the colonizers’ faith or weaponry (as the Igbos had plenty of guns and gods to match their own). Evident in the efficacy of their “white man’s medicine” and their triumph over the “evil forest,”  this disparity sows the seeds of discord among Okonkwo’s clan, eventually leading to its downfall.

Properly viewed, Okonkwo’s story is a cautionary tale especially relevant to a generation whose digital absorption often treads a line between relaxation and relapse into internet addiction. A flawed man, Okonkwo’s story still has much to offer in both his climb up the social hierarchy and, perhaps more significantly, in his fall from it. In Okonkwo, the reader can observe the awful intergenerational aftermath that unchecked sloth can have even on its most defiant victims.

Like Achebe, my grandmother believed that there was a redemptive power in industry, a virtue she passed on to all her grandchildren. More than an entertaining fairytale, Okonkwo’s story serves as a wakeup call. Even in the chosen name “Okonkwo” (a surname quite common among the Igbos), Achebe displays mastery of his craft. In observing the tragic arc of Okonkwo's life, the reader is called to recant slothfulness and exhibit Okonkwo’s zeal in our own lives, perhaps without the damaging fear that accompanied his own. If not, the tragic fate of Okonkwo may well prove to be our own for succumbing to the snares of idleness.


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