From Fiction to Field Notes: Observing Ibo Culture in Things Fall Apart

Joan Brodsky Schur

Great literature has the power to dispel myths about another culture by providing the reader with an insider's perspective. This is the case with Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, first published in 1959.1 While teachers rely on textbooks for factual information, they usually divide a culture into discrete topics. Literature, on the other hand, provides a holistic view of how the material possessions, customary activities, and beliefs of people within a culture are interrelated and inseparable from one another.
My goal as the teacher of a seventh grade anthropology course is to help my students feel as if they are experiencing another culture in the manner of an anthropologist, as both observer and participant. A culminating activity in my course is to have students read Things Fall Apart and keep a journal of field notes as they go. I have found no other activity that approaches the excitement, terror, and challenge of this approach to "doing field work."

Achebe's novel has become a classic, having now sold over eight million copies in fifty languages worldwide. One critic acclaimed it as "remarkably true to the historical record...the most illuminating and permanent monument we have to the modern African experience as seen from within."2 As they read the novel, my students are asked to imagine themselves living among the Ibo people in Umuofia (a part of modern Nigeria) in the last decades of the 19th century. As participant-observers, their job is to keep a journal of field notes consisting of both personal reactions and analytical observations. The concepts we have studied now become useful tools to apply "in the field," while the characters in the book become their informants.

Things Fall Apart tells its story in simple but powerful language. It is easily accessible to my students, who are very able seventh graders from a variety of backgrounds. Some of its description of Ibo life might not seem interesting, however, were students not engaged, imaginatively and intellectually, in the writing of field notes. My students come to feel that they actually "know" the book's characters on a personal level, and that they too have lived in Umuofia. As one student said, "Doing something [taking the field notes] helped you understand the book." Students also share different perspectives on the book, which may depend on their own personal histories. A girl from Trinidad and a boy whose mother is Tunisian brought to our discussions their feelings about European colonization in other parts of the world.

The study of culture is the first of the ten themes recommended by the NCSS Standards. It is expected that students in the middle grades should be able to "explain and give examples of how language, literature, the arts, architecture, other artifacts, traditions, beliefs, values and behaviors contribute to the development and transmission of culture." By high school, the goal is for students to view culture as an integrated whole through which a group member interprets his or her world.3 We are all insiders of our own cultures. Using literature can help students gain meaningful insights and overcome stereotypes as they enter a culture beyond their own.

Behaving Like an Anthropologist
Role-playing an anthropologist while reading a novel strengthens many learning skills important to the social studies. Students must read for factual information as well as to make inferences. Raising questions about the factual validity of the information presented, or about the author's viewpoint, can lead students into valuable research activities.4
In class discussions, students must be able to back up their interpretations of Ibo culture with specific observations based on the book. Their writing skills become sharper as they make daily entries in their field note journals. Through reading the novel, they develop a broad picture of the natural and social settings in which its events occur.

The main goal, however, is to enhance their appreciation of the concept of culture and its interrelated components.

Students need to have a thorough understanding of these concepts before they begin. Therefore, I assign the activity only after we have studied key concepts in the context of other cultures (for example, the Inuit, the San, and the Maori) as well as in the context of American culture (including some sub-cultures).

Students may want to focus on a specific topic within a culture, such as religion or kinship; or the teacher may want students to interpret all aspects of Ibo culture as they read. For each concept, I suggest a series of guiding questions that (a) apply to cultures in general and (b) help students relate these concepts to their own lives. The following concepts and guiding questions are especially pertinent to Achebe's book.

1. Status
a.Which statuses are ascribed (inherited) and which are achieved (earned) in the culture? How many statuses can an individual occupy at once? How stratified is the culture and why? How is status reflected in clothing, etiquette, and terms of address?
b.What do students consider to be "status symbols" in our culture? Why do status symbols in different cultures vary?

2. Kinship
a.What relationships are determined by birth and marriage? Is the culture a patriarchy or matriarchy? Where do newly-married couples reside? Is the culture neolocal, matrilocal or patrilocal? How are names, titles, and positions inherited? Whom can one marry? Can a man have many wives (polygyny), or wives many husbands (polyandry), or is the system monogamous?
b.Using these concepts, ask students to describe their own families, beginning with the origins of their names.

3. Gender Roles
a.What are the culturally-generated behaviors and expectations for men and women?
b.How do students feel that gender expectations have, or have not, shaped their own lives? Do students think that gender roles in our society have changed or should change?

4. Enculturation
a.What are the processes through which the young are taught? Which are formal and which informal in nature? Discuss the ways that games and folk tales serve enculturation functions.
b.Have students bring in a board game that was important to them when they were young. Ask them to analyze and describe for the class what values or principles they feel the game taught them. Compare these to forms of play in the culture under study.

5. Rites of Passage
a.What ceremonies mark an individual's transition from one position or status to the next in the culture? What ceremonies or celebrations are associated with birth, initiation, marriage, and death?
b.Ask students to write a description of a ceremony they have attended that was a rite of passage in their home culture.

6. Values
a.What strongly held beliefs in the culture underlie what is considered to be right and wrong, desirable or forbidden? These are often implicit in how people behave.
b.Ask students to make a list of American values to which other cultures do not, in their opinion, necessarily subscribe. Have students develop a list of what they consider to be universal values found in all cultures.

7. Social Control
a.What methods of informal and formal social control exist to encourage people to adhere to the values of the culture, or to punish them when they do not?
b.Have students discuss the social control mechanisms that affect them, such as peer group influence, school rules, and laws directed at teenage behavior.

8. Religion
a.What understanding of the supernatural helps people to cope with adversity and the unknown, and gives meaning to human existence in the culture?
b.Have students reflect on how they cope with life's hardships, and on the role of formal religion in their lives, if any.
This list works very well for a cultural analysis of the Ibo society described in Things Fall Apart. Teachers could vary the concepts emphasized when using other classic African literature such as Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood (1979) and The Bride Price (1976), depicting Ibo culture from a woman's viewpoint; Laye's classic autobiography, The Dark Child (1954), about coming of age among the Malinke of French Guinea; and Paton's novel about South African apartheid, Cry the Beloved Country (1948). For a useful bibliography of African literature for the classroom, see "African Literature: An Overview" by A. N. Serafin.5

Things Fall Apart: A Synopsis
Things Fall Apart is set in nineteenth century West Africa, in what was to become modern day Nigeria. Its main character is Okonkwo, a great warrior of the Ibo people, who is haunted by memories of his father. This improvident man died in debt without having earned any titles, and was buried shamefully in the "Evil Forest." "Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father" (p. 8). Okonkwo sets out to achieve great status for himself as a warrior, husband of three wives, and man of many titles. His fierce drive to acquire status in a highly status-driven culture is the source of both his greatness and his downfall.
When the first Christian missionaries arrive in Umuofia, they skillfully exploit the Ibos' love of status, winning as their first converts those who have little or none. Among the early converts also is Nwoye, first-born son of Okonkwo and his first wife, a gentle youth who is troubled by some of the Ibo traditions. He is a disappointment to his warrior-father, whom he comes to hate.

It soon becomes apparent that the missionaries are really the advance guard for European imperialists who follow in their wake. When a missionary is killed in the nearby Ibo village of Abame, the Europeans and their followers destroy it. By the time that many Ibo realize they must join forces to fight the Europeans, it is too late. To drive out the white man they would have to kill some of their own kinsmen who, like Nwoye, have eschewed Ibo values. As Okonkwo's great friend Obierika explains, "How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? ... Now he [the white man] has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart" (p. 176).

One reason that role-playing an anthropologist while reading Things Fall Apart works so well is that the novel is not only about the tragic death of one man, Okonkwo, but also about the demise of his culture. To ensure that we comprehend the dimensions of this tragedy, Achebe describes the Ibo way of life with its many interwoven facets-from the daily tasks of individuals to the annual festivals and religious beliefs that give meaning to existence. By pretending to actually take part in Ibo life, students become interested in even the minutest details, enabling them to gain a deeper appreciation of what "culture" itself means.

Preparing to Take Field Notes
Because this project will be new to students, plan to spend several classes setting it up and explaining your expectations. Nightly homework for my seventh graders consists of reading one or two chapters and commenting on them in their field note journals. The next day in class we discuss our entries and compare observations. The project takes about three weeks but might go faster in a high school class. Some suggestions follow.

Use Bound Notebooks
This activity works best when students are given notebooks in which to keep their field notes. I find small, inexpensive hardcover composition books useful for taking "into the field." By keeping their work in a bound book, students generate a product, and feel a greater sense of accomplishment by the end. Notebooks can also be used for making maps, charts and sketches. An anthropologist might "map" the village, sketch a picture of a dwelling, or draw a kinship chart. As part of this project, we visited the Museum for African Art in New York City, where students made drawings that later became the covers of their journals.

Talk About the Demands of Field Work
How do anthropologists react as they leave their own culture behind for a year or more? How does it feel to be stripped of those things that have given life meaning in your culture? What is "culture shock?" Ask students to read descriptions written by anthropologists, such as Napoleon A. Chagnon's account of his experiences among the Yanomamo of the South American rainforest, which is both frightening and funny.6

As part of their preparation for going into the field, you can also ask students to research the area they will be visiting. What are the temperature and climate like? What geographical features determine the climate? What kinds of landscape exist here? What clothing, Western or indigenous, would be suitable in this environment? What food sources exist? Would students like to eat the indigenous food, and if not, how could they furnish themselves over a years' time with food they would prefer to eat? How will they travel to Umuofia? How do they plan to learn the language, and what does it sound like? What animals are in the region? What benefits do they provide and what dangers do they pose? What other tribes are in the region and how might they interact with the Ibo? These and other possible questions can spur further research related to the third NCSS Standards Theme: 2 People, Places, and Environments.

Some of these questions may be hard to answer accurately. Even with access to a university library, I have had difficulty defining the geographical boundaries in which the Ibo lived a century ago. Students will probably have to research the area under the topic "Nigeria," but it is important for them to understand that while the Ibo (or Igbo) now live in Nigeria, that country did not exist before the British formed the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914-that it is an entity created by Europeans after the events described in Things Fall Apart. Nigeria became an independent nation in 1960, and today encompasses 250 different ethnic groups, the three largest of which are the Hausa, Yoruba and Ibo.7 Here is an opportunity for students to consider the historical perspectives recommended in several of the NCSS standards.

Create a System for Field Note Entries
If possible, try to show students facsimiles of actual field notes. Several different examples appear in Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology by R. Sanjek.8

I obtained selections from the field notes by Eickelman upon which she based her book on Omani women.9 We adopted Eickelman's system of short entries, each dated and classified under a topic, such as "childbearing" or "visiting after marriage." For example, if on November 21, 1979, she made several observations on different topics, they were listed separately as 11-21-79-01 sex division, 11-21-79-02 sleeping patterns, and so on. As Eickelman explained:

The coding at the beginning of each paragraph is to make indexing easier later on. That means you are already sorting out your material from Day 1. It is always best to write fieldnotes (sic) everyday because many of the little details slip from your mind later on. I used to write many of my fieldnotes when my daughter took a nap right after lunch. Even if you don't write down everything, fieldnotes make you remember events for a long time.10
Encourage students to write short but pithy observations, rather than lengthy descriptions, to help avoid the tendency merely to re-describe what they have read. Explain that each field note should represent an insight. It can focus on a concept, posit a hypothesis, pose a question about something not yet understood, or focus on an issue or event.

Assign Informants
I encourage my students, as anthropologists "living" in Umuofia, to observe and comment on anything they experience as they read. I also assign each student his or her own "informant," a person with whom an anthropologist establishes a special sense of trust and from whom they can learn more about the culture. For Things Fall Apart, I choose four informants: (1) Nwoye, Okonkwo's Christianized son; (2) Ekwefi, his second and best-loved wife; (3) Ezinma, the daughter of Okonkwo and Ekwefi, of whom Okonkwo says "I wish she were a boy (p. 173); and (4) Obierika, a man of many titles and Okonkwo's good friend. All four characters are Ibo and members of Okonkwo's clan, yet each relates to Ibo culture from an individual perspective, either male or female.

For most nightly homework assignments, students are instructed to take general field notes on anything they observed in the chapters assigned for reading. But at various times, students are asked to create interviews with their informants. We discuss the importance of asking open-ended questions in language that is not ethnocentric or value-laden. Students are also encouraged to capture the Ibo love of story and parable in their informant's words. The following are excerpts from a student's interview of Ekwefi:

Today I am interviewing Ekwefi, Okonkwo's second wife. I gained her trust by bringing her firewood and cocoa-yam seeds in her obi. Since then we have spent many days speaking in the market at her shed which she shares with Chielo, the priestess of Agbala. I have arranged to interview her at her obi [living quarters] while she prepares dinner for Okonkwo...
Student-Anthropologist: Do you feel that Okonkwo cares for any of his children differently because of who their mother is? For example, do you think that Obiageli is favored over Ezinma because Obiageli is the daughter of his first wife?
Ekwefi: It is hard to say because if he shows affection towards any of them it is a sign of weakness. But no, he cares for Ezinma very much, it is obvious, although she is the daughter of his second wife. ...If anything happens to Ezinma I might as well die, because a woman who does not bear children is like a skinny goat, worthless and unwanted...There is more pressure on Nwoye than on the other sons, though, because he is the heir to his father because he is the oldest son of his first wife.
Student-Anthropologist: Do you feel that there is male domination among your people?
Ekwefi: Domination? What is domination?....
Several things impressed me about this student's "interview." She won favor with Ekwefi by "bringing gifts," showing an excellent understanding of Ibo etiquette rules. Ekwefi's word choices mirror those used by characters in the book. For example, the student has Ekwefi respond to one question using a simile (the skinny goat). Finally, the student poses an ethnocentric question about male domination quite on purpose. When Ekwefi answers, "What is domination?" the student is trying to show that a concept in our culture may not exist in another. The interview demonstrates appreciation of the way "culture" shapes everything from our daily routines to our world view.

Students' Field Notes About Status
Status plays an important part in Ibo life.11 It thus becomes an especially fruitful topic when reading Things Fall Apart, as a colleague at my school pointed out. I emphasize status as a key concept, directing students to make a special note in their journals any time Achebe describes behavior or uses language that they believe reflects its importance.
Below are some excerpts from student journals on this topic. The words are the students' own, while passages from the text appear in quotations. Page numbers follow for easy referencing.

Status inferred from proverbs:

The elders say that "The sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them." This shows that a high status is very much valued among the Ibo. (p. 7)

Okonkwo has three wives, two barns full of yams, and two titles from an inter-tribal war, which has brought him very high status. (p. 8)

Status inferred from seating arrangements:

I attended a type of ceremony today from which I gathered a new understanding of the Ibo. The way the seating arrangements were placed, it was clear that this ceremony was for men. There were a considerable number of females, yet they stood on the outskirts of the circles, looking particularly unimportant. The elders and titled men, reflecting their status, were sitting on stools in the ilo [village green]. (ch. 10)

Status inferred from language:

There is a word for a man who has taken no title, showing a title's importance. The word is "agbala" and it also means "woman." (p. 13)

Status inferred from clothing and etiquette rules:
"Nwakibie's wives entered after he did, showing that males have higher status. The first wife drank first. She wears on her ankle an anklet showing her husband's titles. The other wives drank in order, the first wife, second wife, third wife, and so on." (ch. 3)

Status symbol:

A carved elephant tusk is a status symbol. One was given to Mr. Brown, the white missionary. This shows the increase of power the missionaries are gaining. (p. 179)
Changing statuses:

Because of their obvious low status in the Ibo culture, the osu (outcasts) were the first to convert to Christianity, since they would now supposedly be equals with other men... At first it was only those with low status who converted, because they would gain something, while having nothing to lose. (ch. 18)

Follow-up Activities
These are crucial for reinforcement and transfer of the learning experiences gained from the activities performed while reading the novel.

Discussion: Students' field note journals should provide the basis for a great deal of sharing, alternating whole group and small group discussions. For example, all students who are given Nwoye as their informant can compare their impressions of him. Or, set up panels in which each student represents a different informant. If students have been assigned a concept such as "kinship" or "status" to observe closely, these could also be the focus of discussion.

Writing: Students could write ethnographic essays on selected topics based on their field notes, either in groups or as individuals. The project provides many opportunities for reflective writing, comparative analysis, and clarification of cultural values.

Research: By the time students finish reading Things Fall Apart, they will want to know more about what happened to the Ibo in the 20th century. Their questions can lead directly into the issues in NCSS Standard Theme 2 Time, Continuity, and Change. Ask students to research some of the following issues: What within Ibo culture made it vulnerable to drastic change? Did the Ibo ever join forces with other African groups to fight the English? What events led to the independence of Nigeria in 1960? In what ways have the Ibo preserved their traditional culture in modern Nigeria?
Questions that deal specifically with the Ibo can be difficult to research, as there is a dearth of easily accessible information, and that which is found may not be suitable for classroom use. However, there are rich opportunities for follow-up research using on-line data sources as a supplement to this text-based experience (see "Resources for Teaching About Sub-Saharan Africa" in this issue of Social Education).

Learning to take field notes is an intensive writing and discussion project. I find that the activity enhances my students' reading, writing, and discussion skills. Their field notes attest to the fact that, while it may be difficult at first, students can learn to use anthropological concepts as analytical tools. More importantly, students gain a deeper, more enduring appreciation of what "culture" means. This is apparent in the palpable sadness students feel as they finish Achebe's novel. Okonkwo is a great man, but not a particularly lovable one. It is not his death they mourn so much as the death of his culture, which they have come to appreciate and value. This emotional attachment would be difficult to elicit based solely on factual information about Ibo life; rather, it is the power of great literature that makes it possible for us to transcend our own social world and to appreciate another.

1 Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Doubleday, 1959, 1994). All page numbers cited refer to the 1994 edition.
2 K. A. Appiah, Foreword to the Everyman Edition of Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), xv.
3 National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994), 33.
4 J. L. Irvin, J. P. Lunstrum, C. Lynch-Brown, and M. F. Shepard, Enhancing Social Studies Through Literacy Strategies, Bulletin 91 (Washington DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1995), 55.
5 A. M. Serafin, "African Literatures: An Overview," English Journal 84, 3 (March 1995).
6 N. A. Chagnon, Yanomamo: The Fierce People (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968).
7 J. F. A. Ajayi, "Nigeria," World Book Encyclopedia. (USA: World Book, Inc., 1989), 326.
8 R. Sanjek, ed., Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).
9 C. Eickelman, Women and Community in Oman (New York: New York University Press, 1984).
10 Personal communication with C. Eickelman (1992).
11 H. Brady and M. Brady, Idea and Action in World Cultures (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1977).

Teaching Resources

Emecheta, B. The Bride Price. New York: George Braziller, 1979.
-------- The Joys of Motherhood. Chicago: Heinemann, 1979.
Lye, C. The Dark Child. New York: Hill and Wang, 1954.
Paton, Alan. Cry the Beloved Country. New York: Macmillan, 1987 (1948).

Anthropological Materials
Smithsonian Institution. A variety of excellent materials is available from the Anthropology Outreach and Public Information Office, NAB 363 MRC 112, Washington, DC 20560. (202-357-1592). Especially useful are the following information packets and bibliographies: "Anthropologists' Fieldwork: Meeting Other Cultures," "Teaching Ethnographic Interviewing," "Growing Up in Non-Western Societies" and "Teacher's Corner: Teaching Anthropology Through Literature."

The author would like to thank Christine Eickelman, Claire Schnell, and students at the Village Community School, especially Briana Rogers and Elizabeth Tannen.

Joan Brodsky Schur teaches anthropology and American history at the Village Community School in New York City. She is co-author with Sari Grossman of In a New Land: An Anthology of Immigrant Literature, published by the National Textbook Company.

Status inferred from possessions: