“Things Fall Apart”, by Chinua Achebe, was on the syllabus for my daughters’ (yes, plural) world literature class. As I like to do sometimes, I read it with them. First published in 1958, it tells the story Okonkwo, a respected warrior, and his village in Nigeria as they both struggle to adapt to colonization. I’m not going to review it because I feel silly reviewing classics. I’ll just say I’m glad I read it and I encourage you to read it, too. It’s a short book and written in simple, but meaningful, language. It doesn’t require a big time investment and you’re likely to learn some interesting things.
Here are some of my interesting takeaways:
Cowries as Currency – A lot of cowries are exchanged. Bags of them. They are used to buy crops, pay for dowries and bail people out of jail. I thought they couldn’t possibly be talking about seashells. But, yes, cowry shells were used as currency. After doing a little research, I found out that not only were cowry shells used as currency in parts of Africa, but they were also accepted, to some extent, in China and India.
Can I Get You a Kola Nut – Whenever a man visited someone, the host would offer him a kola nut. This tradition figured prominently in the book. Many, many kola nuts were served. So many that it piqued my curiosity. What is so special about kola nuts that a host would honor his guest by offering him one? Here’s what I found out. Kola nuts come from evergreen kola trees, which are native to tropical rainforests in Africa. They contain caffeine. Yes, they were in the original formula for Coca-Cola (but not anymore). They Kola nuts are used in various traditional ceremonies in parts of Africa. They are chewed as a means to restore vitality (caffeine, anyone?).
Palm Wine is a Thing – Palm wine was often featured in celebrations and special occasions. I like my wine, so this caught my eye and led me to do some research. Turns out that palm wine is the fermented sap of… palm trees. People tap the tree, drain the sap, and it naturally and quickly ferments into a sweet drink that’s about 4% alcohol. Palm wine is also drunk in places like India, Indonesia, and South America, providing an example of something that unites mankind across the globe – the never-ending quest to find new mind-altering stuff to smoke, drink or otherwise ingest.
Yams; Not Your Grandma’s Sweet Potatoes – The hero of the novel, Okonkwo, was respected as a great warrior and wrestler, but he made a living as a yam farmer. He paid many cowries to buy his first round of seeds and then his farm thrived due to his hard work. These are not the orange things also known as sweet potatoes, although, like sweet potatoes, they are tubers. The yams Okonkwo grew were probably white or yellow and they made him a relatively wealthy man. Fun fact: Nigeria produces 66% of the world’s yams.
The Book that Almost Wasn’t – Chinua Achebe was an interesting guy. He was raised as a Christian but still respected the Igbo traditions, topics that are front and center in “Things Fall Apart.” “Things Fall Apart” was his first novel and almost met with a disastrous fate. Before he sent it off to publishers he wanted to get it typed, so he sent his only (handwritten) copy to a typing service in England. Months went by and he hadn’t heard anything from the service. Luckily, a friend was traveling to England, visited the typing service and rattled their cage. The rest, of course, is history. Over 20 million copies of “Things Fall Apart” have been sold and it’s been translated 57 languages. That’s a lot of cowries!
Now, you might be thinking, “Really? THIS is what she learned from Things Fall Apart?” I kept the list light. I don’t have anything to add to the body of analysis that already exists about this novel. My point is that it’s fun to read a book and learn facts about somewhat random things, like kola nuts.
Have you read “Things Fall Apart?” What were your interesting takeaways?