The novel is set in Nigeria, one of the largest and most populated countries on the African continent. The time-frame for the novel is, however, not modern and the events depicted are fictional (though based on actual incidents and events). The time frame is the 1890's after the colonists had arrived and were in the process of converting people through the use of missionaries. The missionaries were intent on converting the inhabitants to Christianity for they believed that they were heathen, uncivilised and savage.
Foreign governments (such as the English) believed that it was their duty to rescue the inhabitants from an uncivilised existence and educate them. The real purpose, however, was to oppress them and to exploit the country's natural resources.
Most of the action occurs in Okonkwo's village, Umuofia, it being the main village of a group of nine. Okonkwo was also banished to his mother's village, Mbaino, for seven years after having accidentally killed the son of a villager during his father's funeral, so some of the events in Okonkwo's tragic life are also played out there.
The villages and their names depicted in the story are fictional although the traditions, culture and descriptions of the villages are based on the factual information. The author, Chinua Achebe, is Nigerian and his father was one of the first in his village who converted to Christianity. Achebe's novel depicts the destructive and divisive nature of the colonists' and missionaries' influence in his country.