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Aug 08
jeffkang's picture

African Resistance to and Co-optation by European Colonial Powers

Things Fall Apart and God’s Bits of Wood are two similar fictional stories based on colonial powers. The two books are written in different periods of time, but characters from both books are conflicted with internal choices within their community. Upon imperialism, the local tribe members in each book were faced with two choices: adhere to the customs of their colonizers or rebel. However, the colonizers attempt to weaken the worker's resolve by creating internal conflicts among the strikers to leave them with only one reasonable choice: obliging by the rules set by the colonizers.   Characters from both novels must choose to support the strike or oblige with unfair terms given by European colonialism. For example, in God’s Bits of Wood, while workers are pressured to support the strike within their community, they are also expected to endure unfair working conditions obliging by the French government. Therefore, colonization and cultural expectations prohibited oppressed people from using their voices. 

Characters in God’s Bits of Wood grapple to find their voices under an unjust system of the French colonizers. The strikers are unaware whether the unjust system is intended to incite tension between the strikers. The discrimination among the strikers is shown through working people with different ethnic groups, genders, and social classes. Specifically, discrimination is implemented by colonizers against the working class by offering different wages to two different ethnic groups. By creating different wages for the workers, they succeeded in creating tension between the white and black workers. “We’re the ones who do the work, he roared, the same work the white men do. Why then should they be paid more? Because they are white?.... In what way is a white worker better than a black worker? They tell us we have the same rights, but it is a lie.” (Sembène pg. 8) The colonizers do this to destroy solid cooptation from the working classes, as this could threaten their power. Therefore, by inciting the working people, the colonizers could hold power easier without much participation in the strike. 

Not only did they use different ethnic groups to provoke struggles amongst the working class, but they also created a division between men and women to hold colonial power. In God's Bits of Wood, both colonized men and women are discriminated against. Both genders are denied to have fundamental rights and are exploited during their labor. While men are denied creating a union force to fight against unfair treatment, women are not allowed to join the strike. By dividing the role between men and women, they cannot work together. French colonialism did this well by destroying the solidarity between men and women. However, the discrimination ultimately sparks both genders to achieve true equality, finally beating French colonialism in the end. Before the success of the strike, the march led by the union was composed of only men. However, as the strike continued, women started taking an important role and later succeeded in winning concessions from French colonialism. When the men and women come together and are no longer divided by the influences of colonial powers, they are able to overcome the French colonizers and finally have their demands met. “The women got a big welcome when they came back, of course, but now the men are having all sorts of trouble with them. At first, they even pounced on me like tigresses - they wanted to start running everything!” (Sembène pg. 228)

Unlike God’s Bits of Wood, colonizers in Things Fall Apart use religion as a key factor to divide the clan's people.  In Things Fall Apart, the author illustrates how the colonizers divide the clans of Umuofia by exploiting their traditions to use them to their own advantage. The missionaries are able to cause a rift in Umuofia, a village with a long-lasting tradition, by introducing a new religion Christianity. The clan members were divided into two groups: those who remained loyal to their tradition and those who embraced new forms of religion. Those that accepted the new form of religion were often punished by their family who remained loyal such as Okonkwo. Nwoye, a son of Okonkwo who had an internal conflict with his father and the tradition of Umuofia, abandons the traditional religion. However, when Okonkwo hears that his son has converted to Christianity, he reacts with violence, further pushing his son to convert. "Where have you been? he stammered. Nwoye struggled to free himself from the choking grip. Answer me, roared Okonkwo before I kill you! He seized a heavy stick that lay on the dwarf wall and hit him with two or three savage blows.”(Achebe pg. 151-152) 

The clan of Umuofia initially reacts against the colonizers without using violence, similar to the reaction against the colonizers in God's Bits of Wood. This can be seen when Umofia holds a meeting to discuss plans to resist the new religion of white people. However, Umofia’s downfall is led by the violence from Okonkwo and his stubborn nature to accept new changes. Many people feared Okwonkwo’s violent nature, leading some of the members to take sides with the white men to protect themselves from old traditions. The colonizers, in order to take advantage of this claim that their religion is better than the traditional religion while condemning those who stay loyal that they are “Evil men who in their blindness bowed to wood and stone were thrown into a fire that burned like palm-oil.” (Achebe pg.145) However, the colonizers describe the converters as “good men who worshiped the true God and lived forever in his happy kingdom.”  (Achebe pg.145)

In Things Fall Apart and God's Bits of Wood, the resistance takes different approaches to confront the colonizers. While the clan's people in Things Fall Apart initially take a passive resistance to the colonizers, the strikers in God's Bits of Wood take a more active approach to fight against the colonizers by rallying, gathering, and holding marches. Despite the strikers in God's Bits of Wood taking a more active approach, they never resort to violence. However, when the main character resorts to violence in Things Fall Apart, it ultimately leads to his clan's demise. These two books demonstrate how different approaches to resistance movements can determine the success or failure of colonial powers. 

While the native people from both books take different approaches to confront the colonizers, the colonizers also use different approaches to weaken their power. However, colonizers from both books initially used nonviolent methods to convert the resistance members. In Things Fall Apart, the colonizers use religion to create uncertainty amongst the clans. Whereas in God’s Bits of Wood, the colonizers use wages and economic tactics to manipulate the strikers into submission. Both groups of colonizers attempt to weaken the collective power to make the colonizers hold the ultimate authority. Due to the different methods resistance members took to confront the colonizers, the colonizers reacted differently at the end of both novels. When Okonkwo resorts to violence in Things Fall Apart, the colonizers follow suit and terrorize the clan members. When the strikers in God’s Bits of Wood take a democratic stand and march in unity, the French colonizers respond democratically.     

In Things Fall Apart and God's Bits of Wood, both groups of colonizers attempt to divide the resistance's power. Colonizers and resistance members in both books take drastically different approaches to colonization. By comparing these books, it is apparent that resorting to violence ultimately increases cooptation. In contrast, resisting through peaceful means despite hardship decreases the chance of cooptation by continuing to be viewed as a non-hostile group.  The two books also demonstrate the difference unification can make when resisting a colonial power showing the importance of collectivization among the resistance members. The main characters in both books decide to rebel instead of sticking to the customs of the colonizers despite the negative consequences, highlighting the spirit of African resistance. 

Citations:

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York, New York, Penguin Books, 2017.

Ousmane, Sembene. God's Bits of Wood. Johannesburg, South Africa, Heinemann Publishers. African Writers Series.

 
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