Transformers: The People We Find When Things Fall Apart

This piece was written by spechaar contributor, Udo Elleh. The text is a version of a speech he delivered in early 2023 at a competition in which he ranked 2nd.


It’s become a buzzword as every day we hear calls for transformation all across society. We are told we need to differ from the status quo on every level – that we need to TRANSFORM. Even this very topic shows us how deeply that word has ingrained itself in everything we do.

Now, it is obvious we need change. There are so many problems we need to address, but in our rush to transform the world, however, we forget to take a step back and reflect.

One of the most insightful moments in my life is when I read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It was recommended to me by my father one day, as he expressed how it is one of his favorite books as it is both historical yet so beautifully tells the story of just one man.

As I read the story of Okonkwo and his struggle to find a place in a changing society, it completely changed how I thought about transformation. The story of Okonkwo taught me a crucial lesson: 

While we have always thought about transformation as a grand societal action – something that happens on a larger scale. What we fail to acknowledge, however, is how it affects the individual.

Chinua Achebe does this beautifully, as we bear witness to Okonkwo, a man rooted in the ways of his elders, and his journey to come to terms with a colonised Nigeria. We don’t see the statistics or the figures, but rather the story of one man as the world around him is transformed.

Reading this, I found it applied even more to me than I had anticipated. Being half Nigerian but raised in America, I have always been disconnected from my culture. When I went to read Things Fall Apart I expected to find some part of myself in this Nigerian literature.

I did learn about the importance of conversation in Ibo culture. I learned about the symbolic breaking of the Kola fruit, and how the giver of the fruit demonstrates respect in doing so. Beyond this, however, I found something that was worth so much more to me. I discovered a new understanding of my father.

My father had moved from Nigeria to America all alone, not unlike Eddie Murphy’s grand journey in Coming to America. The world around him transformed, and likewise, so did he. On the surface, this seems like an obvious conclusion to reach. Of course, someone would change as they assimilate into another country.

The thing is, I never considered how deep these changes could be. I understood that he had to adapt, but I never saw how everything such as the formality in the way he speaks, the way he shows absolutely everyone the utmost respect – he’s the only person I’ve heard call a baby “sir”, and how his smallest, most unique mannerisms could all be found in both his character, and also the way his character was changed through the world around him transforming.

I now understand how the art of conversation translated itself into his formality. I now understand how the respect he shows everyone is like the giving of the Kola fruit, and I see how all his unique mannerisms come from his migration from Africa to the West, and how in doing so the world transformed around him.

Finding this understanding of my dad in a man such as Okonkwo has always been baffling to me. Okonkwo and my father are very different figures and yet, on some level, it makes sense to me. Their worlds both transformed as the west surrounded their lives, and this experience was one that had a massive change on both of their lives.
And so, Chinua Achebe, in 1958, transformed not only the world with the release of Thing Fall Apart, but also the lives of a man who read it after he left his homeland, and a boy who read it on a whim after his father’s recommendation.