Open Dialogues, Open Minds

Many people want to stand up for their beliefs and values.  Along the way, they might hurt others who do not agree with them.  But there are better ways that people can listen to others’ stories.  On Wednesday, April 12, UMPI celebrated its annual University Day with the theme “Meet in the Middle.”  Students Lassana and Lossene Dorleh and Brynn Staples gave a presentation called “Lost in Translation.”  They used African literature and music to show how everyone can “meet in the middle.”

    The Dorlehs and Staples are students in Dr. Lea Allen’s Contemporary World Literature class.  One novel that they have read is Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.”  The novel takes place in the Ibo village of Umuofia in Nigeria, Africa.  In Part 2 of Achebe’s novel, European Christian missionaries come to Umuofia.  They build churches and convert many Ibo people to their faith.  Okonkwo, a main character, clings to his Ibo way of life while his son, Nwoye, becomes a Christian.

    Staples discussed the novel’s themes and characters.  The Ibo people and missionaries try to explain their religions and cultures to one another. Unfortunately language barriers stop both groups from fully understanding the other.  In one scene, the white missionaries do not realize that the Ibo language does not have words to explain the Holy Trinity.  They come to believe that the Ibo people are stupid and less than them.  

    As the novel progresses, Okonkwo refuses to convert to Christianity.  His friend, Obierika, is the only main character who reaches a compromise.  He does not want to be a Christian.  But he respects the missionaries’ right to their religion.

    “The Ibo see the church as a direct threat to their society,” Staples said.  “The man himself isn’t threatening.  They welcome him, but many don’t want to convert and lose their way of life.”

    “Things Fall Apart” was published in 1959,  but Lassana and Lossene Dorleh said that the novel’s themes still relate to 2017.  Many people in power such as politicians have become known for not communicating well with one another.  One group has their own beliefs.  The other group holds opposite opinions.  Often both groups do not want to compromise.

    The Dorlehs used poetry and music to prove their point.  They read a section of dialogue from “Things Fall Apart” while traditional Nigerian music played.  Two characters argue about Ibo morals and tradition.  The Dorlehs then played music from WizKid, a modern Nigerian artist.  WizKid has many African musical influences.  He admires 1960s Afrobeat artist Fela Kuti.    

    “Every generation has its own revolutionary artist, but that music is always rooted in the past,” Lossene Dorleh said.  “You need to look to the future to embrace the past.”

    Lassana and Lossene Dorleh also performed a slam poetry monologue.  The poem asked: “What does it mean to be a man?”  The brothers explained that their father is a traditional African man.  He believes that men have power over their wives,  his culture tells him to act tough and masculine.  But his sons call themselves “liberal.”  They believe that women and men are equal.  They do not think that a man has to use his fist to be a “real man.”  

    Both brothers have decided to merge aspects of African and American cultures.  They admire how their father, like the fictional Okonkwo, sticks to his beliefs no matter what.  In their own lives, they have embraced African music, clothing and other cultural aspects.  But they have also realized that they don’t have to give up their more modern beliefs to respect their father’s viewpoints.  The themes of “Things Fall Apart” speak to them as readers.

    “He was one of the first people to open discourse about a subject like this,” Lassana Dorleh said, about Achebe.  “No matter how we look at Okonkwo, we can give him some respect for sticking to what he believes in no matter what.  He knows himself 100 percent.”

    Staples pointed out that many people, African or not, can relate to the novel.  Some might feel torn between sticking up for their values and respecting others.  But Staples thinks that meeting in the middle is possible.

    “You don’t have to abandon your own principles to realize that two sides exist,” Staples said.

    The students’ presentation left audience members with much to think about.  Elizabeth Butterfield, an UMPI business administration major, thinks that “Things Fall Apart” has many lessons for people today.

    “I think our leaders need to look at this book and think about how they can be more open-minded,” Butterfield said.

    Everyone has their own beliefs and values.  Listening to a different opinion can be the hardest thing to do.  In “Things Fall Apart,” few characters recognized both sides.  Today, many people still let their differences divide them.  Achebe’s novel might be fictional,  but the story shows that civil discourse can move past time and setting and become what we can all strive for.