In-depth study of treatment of traditional and institutions in African Internationalism

The canonization of modern literary works, including essays and other written pieces, has given the scholarly discussions' debates about certain topics more weight. Numerous books and essays have made it possible to categorize them according to the work's subject, plot, and setting. The context of the theme of African internationalism has been the subject of an ongoing debate among authors, with special emphasis being placed on the part played by the late Chinua Achebe, a renowned author who wrote works such as Things Fall Apart and the essay An Image of Africa. This paper will give a detailed study of the treatment of the traditions and institutions in Things Fall Apart, Nervous Conditions and So Long a letter. The study will also discuss any possible similarities or differences in the themes of traditions and institutions in the three sets of literary work.


In the African internationalism context, most of literary works has been employed to highlight or bring to the fore the perceived misgivings in the African society and possible consequences and effects on the tradition and cultural settings. For instance, the literary work done by the respected African author, the late Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart and An Image of Africa are the type of African literary works depicting a community that is at crossroads and exposed to a completely new cultural dispensation at the expense of their own entrenched practices. The two sets of work were done after colonialism and depicted the many struggles and perceived ills of colonialism and the eventual erosion of the African cultural tendencies. The author received acclamations and was referred to as the “father of modern African literature” by CNN, Guardian of London and the Daily Independent of UK in 2013 on his death.

Another set of literary work in consideration of the modern African literature is the text Nervous Conditions”. The setting, plot and theme of the work is analysed and compared to the setting, plot and the themes of the other literary work such as the Things Fall Apart, Image of Africa and So Long a Letter. The possible similarities and differences in the setting, plot and theme is discussed as they are all designed to highlight the struggles that colonialism and African context is concerned. In the book Nervous Conditions, a story is built around a young girl struggling with life in the postcolonial era to make both ends meet. The author uses the characterization of the young girl to symbolize the human race left exposed to the imported cultural practices where some of them came in the form of religious missionaries.

As indicated in the above text, the other literary work under this study is the one referred to as So Long a Letter. The work was written with the sole intention of reaching the masses of the African settings around the world to compare the emergence of a new westernised cultural practice with the erosion and decline of the African decade old practices. This is when in the in So Long a Letter, it is written as a chronology of events that took place after the death of the husband, who according to the religious traditions is supposed to be isolated, tend to all mourners among others. As stated in the thesis statement, the aim of this paper is to carry out an in-depth study and analysis of the three sets of literary work by considering their plots, settings and or themes in bid to establish, if any, there are either similarities or differences and their subsequent effect on the African literature as a whole. This will be done by analysing and discussing the individual literary works by the respective authors in relation to the three aforementioned sets of works. (Achebe, 2016)

Things Fall Apart

The author of the book Things Fall Apart, Achebe decided to use his literary works to pass across messages and challenge literally, the society that was at crossroads in the awakening of the colonial rule. In the book, the plot setting of the literary work is based on the Ibo tribe in the village of Umuofia. The village of Ibo is used to symbolize the setting of the plot. It represents the society and its people who have a preferred way of traditional practices before the coming of the colonialists. In the study of the treatment of the theme traditions and the institutions, there are other aspects that are brought to the fore; struggle against the imported or foreign cultural aspects at the same time marvelling in the benefits from the same cultural erosion and assuming the new or imported ones. Mr. Okonkwo as one of the main characters in the plot sees himself as a self-made hero who attained greatness through his determination and from the abhorred memories of his late father, whom he referred to as lazy and coward. The community of the Ibo tribe in the Umuofia village viewed Okonkwo as a warrior and natural leader, clansman. He practised polygamous and had his son, who was as lazy as his grandfather in the eyes of Okonkwo.


The Ibo tribe of Umuofia village is depicted as people with deep entrenchments in the unnecessary traditional tendencies in the book. For instance, the adopted son by Okonkwo, Ikemefuna, turned out more productive than his own son but the traditions could not allow him to continue living with Okonkwo and had to be killed according to Obierika. Okonkwo, in his own wisdom and desire to protect his legacy, knows too well that Ikemefuna will be killed but not to witness, lures Ikemefuna that he was to go back to his mother. While Obierika had cautioned Okonkwo against participating in the killing of Ikemefuna, he eventually did when the boy ran to Okonkwo when attacked with machetes in the hope of being saved, but he is the one to kill the son, as the boy had called him before against the traditional practices. The theme of traditional and cultural beliefs and practices is evidenced when Okonkwo, the clansman of the Ibo people of the Umuofia village, forced to move away from the village with his family for the purposes of cleansing the community and lives in exile in his maternal land. In the theme of the traditions in the setting, one aspect comes out as of Okonkwo, the tragic hero in the plot.

Tragic Hero

In literary terms, the tragic hero is said to be from either a dignified descendant or a self-made hero. In the plot setting, Okonkwo, who is the hero to many in the Umuofia village, epitomised everything that any traditional person could aspire to lead. His life turns tragic when he commits suicide while in exile in his mothers’ land, a scenario that was unimaginable to the people of the Umuofia village (Achebe, 2016)


In the setting, some of the institutions are such as marriage and families. The family is the fabric of any society and was thus revered in the traditional settings. The marriages at the time was a polygamous one where men could have as many wives as he chooses whereas women were reduced to house chores, tilling of the land, and above all procreation. The family, whose setting was not limited to a single but rather an extended one and comprised of people in the community, was central in the forming of the institutions, which were the means of achieving greatness in the area. The traditional understanding of the family was that it meant the continuity of the lineage and was thus protected at all costs.

The author has used the book to highlight the existed conflicting approaches by the host communities in attempts by the colonial powers to attain the attention and interests of the host communities thus influencing a societal change and a paradigm shift to a more balanced and respectable life for all in the society without bias or discrimination.

Nervous Conditions

The book, set in Rhodesia, depicts the struggles that were brought to the core by the existed traditional practices that were discriminatory but observed and respected diligently by the people of the communities before the coming of the colonial power or rule. The plot is about the girl child in the name of Tambo, a second born and a sister to Nhamo, the traditionally preferred successor to the clan and family inheritance and leadership due to his gender. He is thus accorded with all material and moral support to influence his upbringing as a future leader and family leader, for instance, he is preferred to pursue education at the expense of his sister, Tambo. She is denied the chance to study due to her gender and rather allowed to till the land. In her determination to pursue education, an aspect that highlights the conflict in the struggle to change and adopt to the new moral and cultural setting, she tills the farmland and decides to sell the produce to raise the required amount to pay for the educational needs.


The traditions experienced in the book as depicted in the conflicts to change by the communities at the time was evidenced when the community gave more preference to the boy child than the girl child did. In the eyes of the community, it was the responsibility of the boy or the male to gain the maximum benefits from the society as the ultimate and eventual leader and warrior of the community. The author uses the characterization in the plot to raise pertinent issues relating to the conflicting emotions and feelings that the Africans underwent in the wake of colonialism. The author has also attempted to show how the Africans viewed the concept of abandoning their tried, tested and accustomed to traditions such as polygamous life, and get along with the new, imported cultural practices brought about by the white people, the colonialists. For instance, when Babamukuru returns from England with his two children and Maiguru, they are representing a completely different cultural setting. This is seen when in the text, the author talks about Tambo’s aunt and uncle living together, and worse enough, the fact that the aunt was pregnant of Tambo’s uncle. The author ses the work to reach out to the audience on the clash of ideas on the role of modernity and the practice of traditional cultural beliefs in the society.


The discussion on the issue of the institutions in the text can be identified when the mission schools are appealing to the people with the hope of emancipation-an opportunity for one to escape from the fold and practices of slavery and colonialism. For instance, with the sudden death of Nhamo, the opportunity presented itself, as she had no other male sibling to take up the opportunity and pursue education in the mission school. This was compounded by the fact that her uncle, Babamukuru, left for UK with her to pursue education in the company of her cousin Nyasha. The cultural setting in the mission was in conflict to what Tambo had grown accustomed to back in Rhodesia. While living with her extended family in the UK, she also witnessed what would have been termed as an abomination-Nyasha confronting her father.

The family as a sacred institution in the text is set out in two different locations and cultural traditions. The first one is where the Africans, Tambo’s family back in Africa struggled to come to terms with the new cultural practices while in the UK, the family of Babamukuru and Maiguru shows the different approach and portrayal of equality despite the gender differences. In the African setting, the woman was owned and had limited to contribute in the society but in the UK, the woman was able to stake her claim to the dynamics of the society irrespective of gender parity. This has been carefully used by the author in bringing out the perceived conflicts that arose from the struggles in the emancipation era within the African settings.

So Long a Letter

As the title of the text suggests, it was in the form of a letter of reply to an old friend and schoolmate, though leaned and exposed, both living a different life in cultural settings. The author depicts the scenario where Ramatoulaye is bereaved by the sudden death of the estranged husband- Modou in an Islamic religious setting. The bereaved has a co-wife who used to be a girlfriend to their daughter, Daba. The setting is thus placed in the two areas one in the contemporary traditional setting where the learned and working woman, represented by Ramatoulaye in the African and religious settings with a similarly learned and working married woman living in the different cultural setting of the western world in the US (Medina, 2016).


In the text, in as much as there are scenes of traditional practices, the text majorly highlights the view of the middle class and the learned lot in the society with the emphasis on the role and effect of the religious and cultural settings on the girl child. For instance, on the death of Ramatoulaye’s estranged husband, Modou, Ramatoulaye still accepts to perform the religious rituals as expected of her as the widow. She accepts the mourners into her residence and their gifts, mostly in monetary measures a departure from the traditional setting where the gifts were in kind form. The traditions are also explained when after the forty days of mourning referred to as mirasse, the widow received marriage proposals from men, a tradition that she flatly turned down and instead opted to raise her children as a single mother. This was a total departure from the societal and religious expectations of inheriting the widow. In a different cultural setting, the friend in the US, Aissatou, has divorced her husband and decided to live independently as opposed to the established traditions. This is a total departure from the past practices where emphasis was placed on the family and marriage as sacred institutions where divorce was not to be contemplated.


In the text, the author has used the two marital cases to showcase the effects of adopting and embracing the new way of life in the society and doing away with the traditions that discriminated and denied the progression of individuals in the society. The institution of marriage is used to advance the idea of a girl child coming of age and being able to make decisions on her behalf without having to worry about the perceived or expected ramifications on her persona. As is the case in the text, the two sets of women are able to lead an independent life that pleases them but not be bound by some religious or cultural beliefs that limited them in achieving their full potential in life and leading a satisfying life. It is thus telling the audience that the institutions are supposed to be mediums of enhancing an individual’s net worth and being as compared to the past traditional practices.

Similarities in the texts

The similarity in the three texts is the depiction and views of the traditions in the progression of the people or the society especially the girl child. In the Things Fall Apart, the author discusses what is perceived as the achievements and recognized in the eyes of the community. He has also discussed what is perceived as the right place of the womenfolk in the African traditional settings. It is a similar perception in the other two texts, So Long a Letter and Nervous Conditions. Thus, it is a similarity in the texts by the different authors to use their literary work in highlighting and discussing the potential societal threats and shortcomings based on outdated practices to limit the personal or individual progression (Achebe, 2016)


The literary works by the three authors were done to educate the society on the practices that were undermining the realisation of the full potential of the people in the African context. Some of the traditions were purely established out of non-existent fear and selfish motives. For instance, in the work Nervous Conditions, the society was in denial and selfish by not empowering the womenfolk in their societies. This was designed to enable the reign of the men and cement their place in the society as the true and trusted leaders based on some ill advised and misplace opinion such as gender. In the texts, the authors seemed to encourage the embracing of modern cultural practices, as it was the only means of alleviating the society from poor living conditions. It also acted as a warning to those people who were up against the emancipation, that the decision against was ill intended and would lead in the negative and regrettable repercussions such as the tragic ending of the respected Ibo warrior and clansman, Okonkwo (Median, 2014)

In the two texts, the message is clear to the audience on the expectations of the society on how to respond to an idea of which time has come. In the person of Tambo, her determination to outfox the old adage of the girl child enabled her to achieve more than she had bargained for- a chance to enrol in the mission schools overseas and witness the other civilized and enhanced cultural practices. In Ramatoulaye and Aissatou, the audience is made to understand the merits of having to make independent and personal informed decisions on how best to navigate the murky waters, despite the many challenges along the path and achieve the set out agenda or objective. It is with such educational literature that the authors have used to inspire and evoke determinations across the African people to realize their full potential in life. The different approaches applied in the literary work has been able to give rise to new ones with the sole intention of creating and impacting positively on the very needs of the people in the society to achieve their desires in life.


Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." The Massachusetts Review 57.1 (2016): 14-27.

Medina, Jennifer. "Warning: The literary canon could make students squirm." The New York Times 17 (2014).

Nyanhongo, Mazvita Mollin. Gender oppression and possibilities of empowerment: Images of women in African literature with specific reference to Mariama Bâ’s So long a letter, Buchi Emecheta’s The joys of motherhood and Tsitsi Dangremgba’s Nervous conditions. Diss. MA dissertation, University of Fort Hare.[Online]. Available: http://ufh. netd. ac. za/bitstream/10353/522/1/Nyanhongothesis. pdf Accessed 12 December, 2017.

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