Study Guide

Things Fall Apart Quotes

By Chinua Achebe

  • Fate and Free Will

    Chapter One

    And that was how he came to look after the doomed lad who was sacrificed to the village of Umuofia by their neighbors to avoid war and bloodshed. The ill-fated lad was called Ikemefuna. (1.16)

    From the very beginning, Ikemefuna’s name is associated with doom. This blatant foreshadowing prepares readers for something dreadful to happen to Ikemefuna. It also shows that Ikemefuna isn’t in control of his own destiny.

    Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things. He was still young but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife. To crown it all he had taken two titles and had shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars. And so although Okonkwo was still young, he was already one of the greatest men of his time. Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings. Okonkwo had clearly washed his hands and so he ate with kings and elders. (1.16)

    Because of his own hard work and dedication, Okonkwo’s future looks bright. It seems that he is indeed able to influence his own destiny with his sheer will.

    Chapter Two

    The elders, or ndichie, met to hear a report of Okonkwo’s mission. At the end they decided, as everybody knew they would, that the girl should go to Ogbuefi Udo to replace his murdered wife. As for the boy, he belonged to the clan as a whole, and there was no hurry to decide his fate. (2.11)

    Since “everybody knew” what would happen after the Umuofia woman’s murder, justice seems inevitable – or at least predictable. The fates of the two Mbaino children are decided for them – without their consultation or consent – simply because one of their tribesman committed a crime. The two youths are given no choice in their destinies.

    Chapter Three

    Unoka was an ill-fated man. He had a bad chi or personal god, and evil fortune followed him to the grave, or rather to his death, for he had no grave. He died of the swelling which was an abomination to the earth goddess. When a man was afflicted with swelling in the stomach and the limbs he was not allowed to die in the house. He was carried to the Evil Forest and left there to die. There was the story of a very stubborn man who staggered back to his house and had to be carried again to the forest and tied to a tree. The sickness was an abomination to the earth, and so the victim could not be buried in her bowels. He died and rotted away above the earth, and was not given the first of the second burial. Such was Unoka’s fate. (3.8)

    Unoka seems to be fated for doom. He is lazy, and therefore unsuccessful not because that’s the way he’s chosen to live his life, but because he was born with a bad chi. His life is shameful and his death offers no redemption or even an easy way out. He dies in shame.

    The year that Okonkwo took eight hundred seed-yams from Nwakibie was the worst year in living memory. Nothing happened at its proper time; it was either too early or too late. It seemed as if the world had gone mad. The first rains were late, and, when they came, lasted only a brief moment. The blazing sun returned, more fierce than it had ever been known, and scorched all the green that had appeared with the rains. The earth burned like hot coals and roasted all the yams that had been sown. Like all good farmers, Okonkwo had began to sow with the first rains. He had sown four hundred seeds when the rains dried up and the heat returned. He watched the sky all day for signs of rain clouds and lay awake all night. In the morning he went back to his farm and saw the withering tendrils. He had tried to protect them from the smoldering earth by making rings of thick sisal leaves around them. But by the end of the day the sisal rings were burned dry and gray. He changed them every day, and prayed that the rain might fall in the night. But the drought continued for eight market weeks and the yams were killed…

    Okonkwo planted what was left of his seed-yams when the rains finally returned. He had one consolation. The yams he had sown before the drought were his own, the harvest of the previous. He still had the eight hundred from Nwakibie and the four hundred from his father’s friend. So he would make a fresh start.

    But the year had gone mad. Rain fell as it had never fallen before. For days and nights together it poured down in violent torrents, and washed away the yam heaps. Trees were uprooted and deep gorges appeared everywhere. Then the rain became less violent. But it went from day to day without a pause. The spell of sunshine which always came in the middle of the wet season did not appear. The yams put on luxuriant green leaves, but every farmer knew that without sunshine the tubers would not grow.

    That year the harvest was sad, like a funeral, and many farmers wept as they dug up the miserable and rotting yams. One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself. (3.29-33)

    Fate seems to have disaster in store for the Umuofia people, especially Okonkwo, that year. However, by force of his will, Okonkwo is able to overcome this insanely bad luck and even prosper in the coming years.

    Chapter Nine
    Okonkwo

    Okonkwo returned when he felt the medicine had cooked long enough…

    “Bring me a low stool for Ezinma,” he said, “and a thick mat.”

    He took down the pot from the fire and placed it in front of the stool. He then roused Ezinma and placed her on the stool, astride of the steaming pot. The thick mat was thrown over both. Ezinma struggled to escape from the choking and overpowering steam, but she was held down. She started to cry.

    When the mat was at last removed she was drenched in perspiration. Ekwefi mopped her with a piece of cloth and she lay down on a dry mat and was soon asleep. (9.76-79)

    Okonkwo puts in a supreme effort of skill and will to bring Ezinma, his beloved daughter, back from the edge of death. Though she is an ogbanje child, destined to repeat rapid cycle of death and rebirth, Okonkwo is able to save Ezinma from her illness.

    Chapter Thirteen

    All was silent. In the center of the crowd a boy lay in a pool of blood. It was the dead man’s sixteen-year-old-son, who with his brothers and half-brothers had been dancing the traditional farewell to their father. Okonkwo’s gun had exploded and a piece of iron had pierced the boy’s heart…

    The only course open to Okonkwo was to flee from the clan. It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land. The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female, because it had been inadvertent. He could return to the clan after seven years… (13.16)

    Okonkwo kills a boy by accident. This incident could be read as a whim of fate that has devastating consequences on Okonkwo, even though it was inadvertent. An alternative reading is that the accidental crime is Okonkwo’s payback for his poor choice to kill Ikemefuna.

    Chapter Fourteen

    [Uchendu]: “Is it right that you, Okonkwo, should bring to your mother a heavy face and refuse to be comforted? Be careful or you may displease the dead. Your duty is to comfort your wives and children and take them back to your fatherland after seven years. But if you allow sorrow to weigh you down and kill you, they will all die in exile.” (14.32)

    Uchendu warns Okonkwo of willfully displeasing the dead. As spirits, they seem to have some power to influence fate and could, if insulted, bring about destruction on a wide, generational scale.

    Chapter Sixteen

    He told them that the true God lived on high and that all men when they died went before Him for judgment. Evil men and all the heathen who in their blindness bowed to wood and stone were thrown into a fire that burned like palm-oil. But good men who worshipped the true God lived forever in His happy kingdom. (16.9)

    The missionaries depict salvation as a choice one makes between good and evil. One’s own fate hangs in his own hands.

    Chapter Seventeen

    Why, he cried in his heart, should he, Okonkwo, of all people, be cursed with such a son. He saw clearly in it the finger of his personal god or chi. For how else could he explain his great misfortune and exile and now his despicable son’s behavior? Now that he had time to think of it, his son’s crime stood out in its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination. Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye’s steps and abandon their ancestors? Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation. (17.25)

    In a moment of despair, Okonkwo sees one possible road fate could take him down, despite all his efforts to raise Nwoye correctly. He sees, rather prophetically, the extinction of his entire family line.

    Chapter Eighteen

    “It is not our custom to fight for our gods,” said one of them. “Let us not presume to do so now. If a man kills the sacred python in the secrecy of his hut, the matter lies between him and the god. We did not see it. If we put ourselves between the god and his victim we may receive blows intender for the offender. When a man blasphemes, what do we do? Do we go and stop his mouth? No. We put our fingers into our ears to stop us hearing. That is a wise action.”

    “Let us not reason like cowards,” said Okonkwo. “If a man comes into my hut and defecates on the floor, what do I do? Do I shut my eyes? No! I take a stick and break his head. That is what a man does. These people are daily pouring filth over us, and Okeke says we should pretend not to see.” Okonkwo made a sound full of disgust. This was a womanly clan, he thought. Such a thing could never happen in his fatherland, Umuofia. (18.21-22)

    While one clansman advises passivity, Okonkwo wants to exercise his will and force the Christians out of Umuofia. He has always been a man to act and attempt to change his stars. While other men are content to look away while Fate “defecates on the floor,” Okonkwo would rather “take a stick and break [its] head.”

    Chapter Twenty

    He [Okonkwo] knew that he had lost his place among the nine masked spirits who administered justice in the clan. He had lost the chance to lead his warlike clan against the new religion, which, he was told, had gained ground. He had lost the years in which he might have taken the highest titles in the land. But some of these losses were not irreparable. He was determined that his return should be marked by his people. He would return with a flourish, and regain the seven wasted years. (20.2)

    It seems that fate has decreed that Okonkwo would inadvertently shoot off a gun and accidentally kill someone; it has also decreed that he must spend seven years in exile while his prime years go by, wasted. But Okonkwo is determined to fight fate to the end and win back what was lost.

    Okonkwo

    [Okonkwo to Obierika]: “How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has a put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (20.25)

    Okonkwo suggests that the Umuofia were foolish and blind for letting the white man stay to work tricks. Now, by force of the Christians’ will and lack of their own, the Umuofia have fallen apart from the inside. It’s interesting to consider whether the Umuofia clan might have fallen apart even without the arrival of the Christians.

    Chapter Twenty-Four

    “The white man whose power you know too well has ordered this meeting to stop.”

    In a flash Okonkwo drew his machete. The messenger crouched to avoid the blow. It was useless. Okonkwo’s machete descended twice and the man’s head lay beside his uniformed body.

    The waiting backcloth jumped into tumultuous life and the meeting was stopped. Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: “Why did he do it?” (24.39-41)

    When faced with his hated enemies, Okonkwo makes a split-second decision and exercises his will by killing the insolent messenger. This is fateful because it should urge the Umuofia to attack more strongly than any other gesture could. Yet the Umuofia, whether by will or being restrained by fate, do not go to war. This helps Okonkwo to make his final decision – to commit suicide.

    Okonkwo

    [Okonkwo]: “Afraid? I do not care what he does to you. I despise him and those who listen to him. I shall fight alone if I choose.” (24.18)

    Okonkwo proudly declares his courage to fight whoever he wants, even if he is fighting a losing battle. This harkens back to Okonkwo’s survival through the horrible year of flood and drought early in his life when he made it through only by force of his indomitable will.

  • Respect and Reputation

    Chapter One

    Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. (1.1)

    Okonkwo gains respect for himself and his village by proving his mettle in a physical contest – wrestling.

    Okoye […] was not a failure like Unoka. He had a large barn full of yams and he had three wives. And now he was going to take the Idemili title, the third highest in the land. (1.12)

    One way of gaining others’ respect is through possession of material goods like barns, many yams, and even multiple wives. Gaining a title, a sign of honor from the clan, is one of the highest forms of mutual respect a man can earn.

    […] during this time Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan […]. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. (1.3)

    Okonkwo equates reputation with physical prowess and courage. He is so proud of his own reputation that he cannot stand less successful men. Though he is a highly ranked man in his village, you can’t help but wonder if such an aggressive and prideful man merits the good reputation he has.

    When Unoka died he had taken no title at all and he was heavily in debt. Any wonder then that his son Okonkwo was ashamed of him? Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father. Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things. He was still young but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife. To crown it all he had taken two titles and had shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars. And so although Okonkwo was still young, he was already one of the greatest men of his time. Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. (1.16)

    Reputation in Okonkwo’s clan isn’t inherited. Each man earns his own reputation – good or bad – based on his own behavior and actions. Even though Okonkwo has the ability to earn respect like every other man, he still acts as if he’s somehow tarnished by his relationship with his father. Much of his behavior is motivated by a desire to separate himself from his father’s reputation.

    Chapter Two

    Okonkwo’s prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his wives had her own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi. The barn was built against one end of the red walls, and long stacks of yam stood out prosperously in it. At the opposite end of the compound was a shed for the goats, and each wife built a small attachment to her hut for the hens. Near the barn was a small house, the “medicine house” or shrine where Okonkwo kept the wooden symbols of his personal god and of his ancestral spirits. He worshipped them with sacrifices of kola nut, food and palm-wine, and offered prayers to them on behalf of himself, his three wives and eight children. (2.14)

    It is easy to see why Okonkwo is respected. His hard work has earned material wealth for his family out of nothing. He has a large living compound, several wives, and many children.

    Umuofia was feared by all its neighbors. It was powerful in war and in magic, and its priests and medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country. Its most potent war medicine was as old as the clan itself…

    And so the neighboring clans who naturally knew of these things feared Umuofia, and would not go to war against it without first trying a peaceful settlement. (2.8-9)

    One way a tribe gains respect is to boast powerful magic in the form of a mysterious medicinal figure. This intimidates other tribes from warring with Umuofia and leads them to attempt peace treaties before declaring war. Thus a fearful reputation serves an important purpose for Umuofia.

    Chapter Three

    With a father like Unoka, Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men had. He neither inherited a barn nor a title, nor even a young wife. But in spite of these disadvantages, he had begun even in his father’s lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future. It was slow and painful. But he threw himself into it like one possessed. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death. (3.9)

    Okonkwo has a relentless drive improve his reputation. He’s completely a self-made man.

    [Nwakibie]: “Many young men have come to me to ask for yams but I have refused because I knew they would just dump them in the earth and leave them to be choked by weeds…But I can trust you. I know it as I look at you…I shall give you twice four hundred yams. Go ahead and prepare your farm.” (3.26)

    Nwakibie respects Okonkwo for his dedication to hard work. Okonkwo’s reputation precedes him and wins him Nwakibie’s trust.

    Chapter Four

    But it was really not true that Okonkwo’s palm-kernels had been cracked for him by a benevolent spirit. He had cracked them himself. Anyone who knew his grim struggle against poverty and misfortune could not say he had been lucky….At an early age he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler in all the land. That was not luck. At the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed. (4.3)

    Okonkwo hasn’t really benefited from luck and does not attribute his success to it. He made his own way in the world, guided only by his flaming ambition and indomitable will.

    […] he was struck, as most people were, by Okonkwo’s brusqueness in dealing with less successful men. Only a week ago a man had contradicted him at a kindred meeting which they held to discuss the next ancestral feast. Without looking at the man Okonkwo had said. “This meeting is for men.” The man who had contradicted him had no titles. That was why he had called him a woman. Okonkwo knew how to kill a man’s spirit. (4.1)

    Okonkwo’s strong reputation and respect in the community has made him a bit fatheaded. He has an aura of arrogance and has little pity for those less fortunate or competent than himself.

    Chapter Six

    Okafo was swept off his feet by his supporters and carried home shoulder high. They sang his praise and the young women clapped their hands:

    “Who will wrestle for our village?
    Okafo will wrestle for our village.
    Has he thrown a hundred men?
    He has thrown four hundred men.
    Has he thrown a hundred Cats?
    He has thrown four hundred Cats.
    Then send him word to fight for us.”
    (6.24)

    For winning a difficult and exciting wrestling match, Okafo’s name is immortalized in song. He wins great respect and glory for his accomplishment.

    Within a short time the first two bouts were over. But the third created a big sensation even among the elders who did not usually show their excitement so openly. It was as quick as the other two, perhaps even quicker. But very few people had ever seen that kind of wrestling before. As son as the two boys closed in, one of them did something which no one could describe because it had been as quick as a flash. And the other boy was flat on his back. The crowd roared and clapped and for a while drowned the frenzied drums. Okonkwo sprang to his feet and quickly sat down again. Three young men from the victorious boy’s team ran forward, carried him shoulder high and danced through the cheering crowd. Everybody soon knew who the boy was. His name was Maduka, the son of Obierika. (6.6)

    Wrestling – a show of physical prowess – is one way of gaining a strong reputation in the clan. Even Okonkwo watches the Maduka with admiration.

    Chapter Seven

    Okonkwo sat in his obi crunching happily with Ikemefuna and Nwoye…when Ogbuefi Ezeudu came in. Ezeudu was the oldest man in this quarter of Umuofia. He had been a great and fearless warrior in his time, and was now accorded great respect in all the clan. (7.14)

    For showing matchless courage and prowess on the battlefield, Ezeudu is revered throughout the clan. His reputation garners him great respect.

    Chapter Eight
    Okonkwo

    “I think it is good that our clan holds the ozo title in high esteem,” said Okonkwo. “In those other clans you speak of, ozo is so low that every beggar takes it.” (8.56)

    Okonkwo, because he’s very proud of his strong reputation, is pleased that positions of respect in his community are publicly known and difficult to achieve. This means that his status in the community is an elite and meaningful accomplishment.

    Chapter Sixteen

    None of his converts was a man whose word was heeded in the assembly of the people. None of them was a man of title. They were mostly the kind of people that were called efulefu, worthless, empty men. The imagery of an efulefu in the language of the clan was a man who sold his machete and wore the sheath to battle. Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, called the converts the excrement of the clan, and the new faith was a mad dog that had come to eat it up. (16.1)

    Christianity begins as a worthless, ill-respected religion amongst the Igbo. According to the Igbo, only men who have nothing left in life would ever stoop to so low as to take up the offers of a foreign, effeminate people.

    Chapter Eighteen

    He was a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart – a taboo for ever, and his children after him. He could neither marry nor be married by the free-born. He was in fact an outcast, living in a special area of the village, close to the Great Shrine. Wherever he went he carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste – long, tangled and dirty hair. A razor was taboo to him. An osu could not attend an assembly of the free-born, and they, in turn, could not shelter under his roof. He could not take any of the four titles of the clan, and when he died he was buried by his kind in the Evil Forest. How could such a man be a follower of Christ? (18.12)

    The lowest social class wears a physical symbol of their poor reputation – long, tangled hair – allowing them to be easily identified.

    These outcasts, or osu, seeing that the new religion welcomed twins and such abominations, thought that it was possible that they would also be received. And so one Sunday two of them went into the church. There was an immediate stir; but so great was the work the new religion had done among the converts that they did not immediately leave the church when the outcasts came in. (18.7)

    The outcasts, who have lost all reputation within their clan, see that their only way of redeeming themselves is to join the Christians.

    Chapter Nineteen
    Okonkwo

    Okonkwo called his three wives and told them to get things together for a great feast. “I must thank my mother’s kinsmen before I go,” he said. (19.6)

    Okonkwo shows his respect and gratitude to his mother’s people before going home.

    Okonkwo never did things by halves. When his wife Ekwefi protested that two goats were sufficient for the feast he told her that it was not her affair.

    “I am calling a feast because I have the wherewithal. I cannot live on the bank of a river and wash my hands with spittle. My mother’s people have been good to me and I must show my gratitude.”

    And so three goats were slaughtered and a number of fowls. It was like a wedding feast. There was foo-foo and yam pottage, egusi soup and bitter-leaf soup and pots and pots of palm-wine. (19.16-18)

    Okonkwo wants to gain the respect of all the Mbanta people and is too proud to offer a lowly feast. So he goes a bit overboard in order to gain a reputation as a generous and wealthy man.

    Chapter Twenty

    He [Okonkwo] knew that he had lost his place among the nine masked spirits who administered justice in the clan. He had lost the chance to lead his warlike clan against the new religion, which, he was told, had gained ground. He had lost the years in which he might have taken the highest titles in the land. But some of these losses were not irreparable. He was determined that his return should be marked by his people. He would return with a flourish, and regain the seven wasted years. (20.2)

    Okonkwo has not yet lost his ambitious spirit. Though he has suffered a great setback by living in exile for seven years, he vows to remedy his reputation upon his return to Umuofia.

    Even in his first year in exile he had begun to plan for his return. The first thing he would do would be to rebuild his compound on a more magnificent scale. He would build a bigger barn than he had had before and he would build huts for two new wives. Then he would show his wealth by initiating his sons into the ozo society. Only the really great men in the clan were able to do this. Okonkwo saw clearly the high esteem in which he would be held, and he saw himself taking the highest title in the land. (20.3)

    Okonkwo is so ambitious that starts planning his return to Umuofia years before he’s allowed to come back to his fatherland. He has high hopes of surrounding his name with even greater glory than he has already won. Okonkwo can increase his reputation in his home community through his family – marrying off his beautiful daughters, initiating his sons into the elite ozo society, and marrying more wives.

    Chapter Twenty-Three

    The six men ate nothing throughout that day and the next. They were not even given any water to drink, and they could not go out to urinate or go into the bush when they were pressed. At night the messengers came in to taunt them and to knock their shaven heads together. (23.16)

    The guards make a point of showing the leaders of Umuofia that their strong reputations mean nothing to white men.

    Chapter Twenty-Five
    Obierika

    Obierika, who had been gazing steadily at his friend’s dangling body, turned suddenly to the District Commissioner and said ferociously: “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog…” (25.18)

    Obierika speaks out in defense of his good friend Okonkwo and espousing his honor and greatness. He feels indignant that the white invaders drove such a great man to destroy his reputation by committing the crime of suicide.

  • Language and Communication

    Chapter One

    He [Unoka] was very good on his flute, and his happiest moments were the two or three moons after the harvest when the village musicians brought down their instruments, hung about the fireplace. Unoka would play with them, his face beaming with blessedness and peace. Sometimes another village would ask Unoka’s band and their dancing egwugwu to come and stay with them and teach them their tunes. They would go to such hosts for as long as three or four markets, making music and feasting. Unoka loved the good fare and the good fellowship…(1.5)

    Unoka finds himself more able to express his happiness in music than words. Music, to him, is far more expressive and fun than speaking or trying to justify his life with words. Music is his way of creating “good fellowship” with others when he otherwise might be laughed off.

    As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings. Okonkwo had clearly washed his hands and so he ate with kings and elders. (1.16)

    This stylized proverb illustrates one of the Igbo’s highest values – personal responsibility. If a man “washes his hands” or pays off all his debts and is able to stand on his own, he may mingle with the most respected elders.

    Having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs. Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten. Okoye was a great talker and he spoke for a long time, skirting round the subject and then hitting it finally. (1.14)

    Language is a very important part of Igbo culture and is highly stylized. Instead of just saying, “Unoka, give me my damn money back,” Okoye must steep his message in fanciful and well-known proverbs, only slowly getting to his point. Correct speech is a symbol of respectability among these people. Unoka reveals his lack of respectability by later responding by laughing and with the terse, straightforward information that Okoye won’t be getting his money back any time soon.

    He [Okonkwo] had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. (1.3)

    Okonkwo has no talent with words; in fact, they are something of a handicap to him. He stammers when he speaks, compromising his ability to express himself well in language, and loses his capacity to talk completely when angered. Fighting, to him, is a good substitute for words.

    He [Unoka] always said that whenever he saw a dead man’s mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one’s lifetime. (1.4)

    This proverb is a formal spoken account of a moral put into words: eat the food available to you and you won’t starve.

    Chapter Two

    Umuofia kwenu,” he bellowed a fifth time, and the crowd yelled in answer. And then suddenly like one possessed he shot out his left hand a pointed in the direction of Mbaino, and said through gleaming white teeth firmly clenched: “Those sons of wild animals have dared to murder a daughter of Umuofia.” He threw his head down and gnashed his teeth, and allowed a murmur of suppressed anger to sweep the crowd. When he began again, the anger on his face was gone and in its place a sort of smile governed, more terrible and more sinister than the anger. And in a clear unemotional voice he told Umuofia how their daughter had gone to market at Mbaino and had been killed. (2.6)

    Announcements are made with much ado and ceremony in Umuofia. Public speaking requires a repeated summoning of the tribe through the mouthpiece of a trained orator. The call-and-response nature of announcements ensures that all of the community is involved and is paying attention. And the message is conveyed with a very specific rhythm.

    Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string. (2.2)

    Words, especially names, hold a special power in Igbo belief. Evil spirits or animals are never referred to by name for fear of summoning them and bringing disaster upon the clan. A “string” here is a euphemism for the evil word “snake.”

    Okonkwo had just blown out the palm-oil lamp and stretched himself on his bamboo bed when he heard the ogene of the town crier piercing the still night air. Gome, gome, gome, gome, boomed the hollow metal. Then the crier gave his message, and at the end of it beat his instrument again. And this was the message. Every man of Umuofia was asked to gather at the market place tomorrow morning. (2.1)

    Achebe describes musical instruments as not only having voices, but actually speaking. Here, the drums have the capacity to deliver specific messages to the entire community in one fell swoop.

    Chapter Three
    Unoka

    His father, Unoka, who was then an ailing man, had said to him during that terrible harvest month: “Do not despair. I know you will not despair. You have a manly and a proud heart. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and bitter when a man fails alone.”

    Unoka was like that in his last days. His love of talk had grown with age and sickness. It tried Okonkwo’s patience beyond words. (3.36-37)

    Even though Unoka’s words are given with a generous spirit, Okonkwo does not appreciate them. Indeed, Okonkwo doesn’t value words – he prefers action over speech. However, this renders him unable to appreciate the sincerity of others’ words and keeps him from expressing himself in a way that most people understand: through language.

    Okonkwo

    [Okonkwo]: “I have cleared a farm but have no yams to sow. I know what it is to ask a man to trust another with his yams, especially these days when young men are afraid of hard work. I am not afraid of work. The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did. I began to fend for myself at an age when most people still suck at their mothers’ breasts. If you give me some yam seeds I shall not fail you.” (3.25)

    Here, Okonkwo uses language in a binding way, by making a promise. By putting his intention into words, he makes them true on some level and thus binds himself to Nwakibie’s service.

    He [Okonkwo] took a pot of palm-wine and a cock to Nwakibie…He presented a kola nut and an alligator pepper, which were passed round for all to see and then returned to him. He broke the nut saying: “We shall all live. We pray for life, children, a good harvest and happiness. You will have what is good for you and I will have what is good for me. Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too. If one says no to the other, let his wing break.”

    After the kola nut had been eaten Okonkwo brought his palm-wine from the corner of the hut where it had been placed and stood it in the center of the group. He addressed Nwakibie, calling him “Our father.”

    Nna ayi,” he said. “I have brought you this little kola. As our people say, a man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness. I have come to pay you my respects and also to ask a favor. But let us drink the wine first.” (3.11-13)

    The language of presenting gifts and asking favors of someone is very formal and stylized. It includes the show of much respect by wishing luck and happiness on one’s host and linguistically making him part of one’s family.

    Chapter Four

    Okonkwo did as the priest said. He also took with him a pot of palm-wine. Inwardly, he was repentant. But he was not the man to go about telling his neighbors that he was in error. And so people said he had no respect for the gods of the clan. His enemies said his good fortune had gone to his head. They called him the little bird nza who so far forgot himself after a heavy meal that he challenged his chi. (4.23)

    Okonkwo is a man of actions, not words. But his neighbors aren’t mind readers and mostly understand emotions only when people verbally convey them. As a result of his tight-lipped nature, Okonkwo’s neighbors easily misread his character and his reputation harmed.

    Chapter Five

    The drums were still beating, persistent and unchanging. Their sound was no longer a separate thing from the living village. It was like the pulsation of its heart. It throbbed in the air, in the sunshine, and even in the trees, and filled the village with excitement. (5.53)

    Like some mysterious but primal language, the drums are able to move people to excitement without words but only with a persistent beat, almost like a heartbeat.

    Chapter Seven
    Ikemefuna

    Then quite suddenly a thought came upon him. His mother might be dead. He tried in vain to force the thought out of his mind. Then he tried to settle the matter the way he used to settle such matters when he was a little boy. He still remembered the song:

    Eze elina, elina!
    Sala
    Eze ilikwa ya
    Ikwaba akwa oligholi
    Ebe Danda bechi eze
    Ebe Uzuzu nete egwu
    Sala


    He sang it in his mind, and walked to its beat. If the song ended on his right foot, his mother was alive. If it ended on his left, she was dead. No, not dead, but ill. (7.26)

    By leaving the song untranslated, Achebe emphasizes the importance it has for Ikemefuna beyond words. Perhaps it was sung to him as a young child before he could understand the words and he associated it with his mother long before he could comprehend its meaning.

    Chapter Eight
    Okonkwo

    “The Earth cannot punish me for obeying her messenger,” Okonkwo said. “A child’s fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palm.” (8.27)

    Okonkwo uses a proverb to illustrate his point. He hopes he will not be scalded by the “hot yam” of killing Ikemefuna. But in a deeper sense he says the words with the hope that they might come true, because internally Okonkwo feels deeply guilty about killing his adopted son.

    As the men drank, they talked about everything except the thing for which they had gathered. It was only after the pot had been emptied that the suitor’s father cleared his voice and announced the object of their visit. (8.75)

    To show politeness, the visitors discuss everything but their intended topic. It would be considered rude in Igbo society to cut straight to the chase when there is still food and drink to be enjoyed.

    Chapter Ten

    “Uzowulu’s body, I salute you,” he said. Spirits always addressed humans as “bodies.” Uzowulu bent down and touched the earth with his right hand as a sign of submission. (10.17)

    To emphasize their superiority and true spirituality, the egwugwu address humans with the inferior term “bodies,” implying that their spirits are not really strong, perhaps because they are trapped inside mortal vessels.

    Umuofia kwenu!” shouted the leading egwugwu, pushing the air with his raffia arms. The elders of the clan replied, “Yaa!

    Umuofia kwenu!

    Yaa!

    Umuofia kwenu!

    Yaa!” (10.9-13)

    The egwugwu use the same phrases and call-and-response format as orators getting the attention of a large crowd. This might mean that the egwugwu are stooping to human language so that their subjects can understand them. Or, from a more skeptical viewpoint, this could be proof that the egwugwu are simply masked men – not gods – because they use the same language as men.

    The egwugwu house was now a pandemonium of quavering voices: Aru oyim de de de dei! Filled the air as the spirits of the ancestors, just emerged from the earth, greeted themselves in their esoteric language. (10.4)

    The egwugwu spirits have their own unintelligible language that sets them apart from the inferior mortal counterparts.

    Chapter Eleven

    [Tortoise in Ekwefi’s story]: “’There is one important thing which we must not forget,’ he said as they flew on their way. ‘When people are invited to a great feast like this, they take new names for the occasion. Our hosts in the sky will expect us to honor this age-old custom.’

    ‘None of the birds had heard of this custom but they knew that Tortoise…was a widely-traveled man who knew the customs of different peoples. And so they each took a new name. When they had all taken, Tortoise also took one. He was to be called All of you.’” (11.13-14)

    The act of changing one’s name is essentially changing one’s identity. In this case, the act of renaming changes Tortoise and the birds into new beings, ridding themselves of old sins, and making them worthy to sit among the heavenly people of the sky. This is the argument Tortoise uses to convince the birds to take new names, but in reality, he is using language for a much more devious purpose.

    The priestess screamed. “Beware, Okonkwo!” she warned. Beware of exchanging words with Agbala. Does a man speak when a god speaks? Beware!” (11.32)

    Speaking here is equated with having authority; thus it is considered disrespectful and insolent for a lowly man to speak when a god speaks.

    Chapter Twelve
    Obierika

    [Obierika]: “We are giving you our daughter today. She will be a good wife to you. She will bear you nine sons like the mother of our town.”

    [The crowd]: “Ee-e-e!

    The oldest man in the camp of the visitors replied: “It will be good for you and it will be good for us.”

    Ee-e-e!

    This is not the first time my people have come to marry your daughter. My mother was one of you.”

    Ee-e-e!

    “Prosperous men and great warriors.” He looked in the direction of Okonkwo. “Your daughter will bear us sons like you.”

    Ee-e-e!” (12.41-52)

    This exchange of words before at a wedding seems to have ritual significance. The words Obierika says have the weight of promises which, by vocalizing them, he hopes to make come true. The “Ee-e-e!” response of the crowd seems to be some sort of collective affirmation or approval of the ceremony that lends credence to Obierika’s words.

    Chapter Thirteen
    Obierika

    [Obierika on Okonkwo’s exile]: Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. (13.16)

    The fact that the Earth can issue a “decree” shows that the Umuofia consider the land a living being. The words of the Earth, on which the Umuofia depend, cannot be ignored for fear of devastating consequences.

    Chapter Fifteen

    “What did the white man say before they killed him?” asked Uchendu.

    “He said nothing,” answered one of Obierika’s companions.

    “He said something, only they did not understand him,” said Obierika. “He seemed to speak through his nose.” (15.20-22)

    The Umuofia speak a different language than the white men and neither side really tries to understand the other. Not understanding is akin to saying “nothing,” as Obierika’s friend points out. Obierika is more compassionate towards the foreigner. He realizes that he said something but the white man could not understand it.

    [Uchendu about the men of Abame who killed the silent white men and then were wiped out other white men]: “Never kill a man who says nothing. Those men of Abame were fools. What did they know about the man?” He ground his teeth again and told a story to illustrate his point. ‘Mother Kite once sent her daughter to bring food. She went, and brought back a duckling. ‘You have done very well,’ said Mother Kite to her daughter, ‘but tell me, what did the mother of this duckling say when you swooped and carried its child away?’ ‘It said nothing,’ replied the young kite. ‘It just walked away.’ ‘You must return the duckling,’ said Mother Kite. ‘There is something ominous behind the silence.’ And so Daughter Kite returned the duckling and took a chick instead. ‘What did the mother of this chick do?’ asked the old kite. ‘It cried and raved and cursed me,’ said the young kite. ‘Then we can eat the chick,’ said her mother. ‘There is nothing to fear from someone who shouts.’ Those men of Abame were fools.” (15.27)

    There is something ominous about a man who is silent. Uchendu associates danger and even death with a silent man. Silence, especially in the face of death, indicates something fundamentally wrong with the individual’s humanity.

    “There is no story that is not true,” said Uchendu. (15.30)

    Uchendu recognizes that all stories – however fantastic – have some grounding in real-life events or truth.

    Chapter Sixteen

    He [the white man] spoke through an interpreter who was an Ibo man, though his dialect was different and harsh to the ears of Mbanta. Many people laughed at his dialect and the way he used words strangely. Instead of saying “myself” he always said “my buttocks.” (16.9)

    Achebe remarks on how the different dialect of an interpreter can alter the speaker’s meaning or completely change the tone of a message. A humorous word substitution here means the people of Mbanta don’t take the white man seriously – at least not at first.

    But there was a young lad who had been captivated. His name was Nwoye, Okonkwo’s first son. It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul – the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth. (16.24)

    It is not the logic of the words that touch Ikemefuna, but his own personal story that he associates with the poetic sounds of the words the missionaries are speaking. The song brings back to him the tragedy of Ikemefuna’s needless death.

    Chapter Seventeen
    Okonkwo

    [Okonkwo to Nwoye after he converts to Christianity]: “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 two or three savage blows.

    “Answer me!” he roared again. Nwoye stood looking at him and did not say a word. The women were screaming outside, afraid to go in. (17.16-19)

    Though Okonkwo asks his son a question, he doesn’t want to hear the answer. He prevents his son from confirming his terrible fears by choking him such that the young man can’t speak.

    Chapter Eighteen

    Perhaps it never did happen. That was the way the clan at first looked at it. No one had actually seen the man do it. The story had a risen among the Christians themselves. (18.18)

    The Umuofia doubt the truth of a story, a rumor. They do not believe the truth of something told by the Christians.

    Chapter Twenty
    Obierika

    [Obierika]: “In the end Oduche died and Aneto was taken to Umuru and hanged. The other people were released, but even now they have not found the mouth with which to tell of their suffering.”

    The two men sat in silence for a long time afterwards. (20.28-29)

    Words are inadequate to express the full intensity of the people’s suffering in Obierika’s story. Okonkwo and Obierika, too, are stunned and saddened beyond words.

    These court messengers were greatly hated in Umuofia because they were foreigners and also arrogant and high-handed. They were called kotma, and because of their as-colored shorts they earned the additional name of Ashy-Buttocks. (20.16)

    Here we see a linguistic phenomenon that occurs when two languages collide. The Igbo people who are unfamiliar with English find it difficult to say “court messenger” so they shorten it to make it easier and to fit their own lexicon. However, the word kotma doesn’t convey their intense hatred, so they choose a particularly unique and shameful trait of the kotma – their khaki shorts – and build a mocking nickname.

    Chapter Twenty-One

    He [Mr. Brown] had just send Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, who was now called Isaac, to the new training college for teachers in Umuru. (21.22)

    To signal his break from his old heathen ways (and probably his father), Nwoye changes his name to Isaac in an attempt to change his identity and Christianize himself.

    Chapter Twenty-Two

    “One thing is clear,” said Mr. Smith. “We cannot offer physical resistance to them. Our strength lies in the Lord.” They knelt down together and prayed to God for delivery.

    “O Lord, save Thy people,” cried Mr. Smith. (22.15-16)

    The Christians know that their strength, unlike the Umuofia, is not in warfare. They put their trust in language and its ability to touch their god and move Him to protect them. Their prayer is a plea for divine assistance.

    “The body of the white man, I salute you,” he said, using the language in which immortals spoke to men.

    “The body of the white man, do you know me?” he asked.

    Mr. Smith looked at his interpreter, but Okeke, who was a native of distant Umuru, was also at a loss.

    Ajofia laughed in his guttural voice. It was like the laugh of rusty metal. “They are strangers,” he said, “and they are ignorant.” (22.24-27)

    Ajofia, one of the egwugwu, uses the language typically used by gods to greet mortals. He calls Mr. Smith and his translator “bodies” but neither man understands Ajofia’s words or their significance. The two groups’ inability to comprehend each other is the root of their problems and it foreshadows greater misunderstandings.

    Mr. Smith said to his interpreter: “Tell them to go away from here. This is the house of God and I will not live to see it desecrated.”

    Okeke interpreted wisely to the spirits and leaders of Umuofia: “The white man says he is happy you have come to him with your grievances, like friends. He will be happy if you leave the matter in his hands.” (22.29-30)

    Okeke changes not only the content of Mr. Smith’s message, but his tone as well. Notice that Achebe uses the words “interpreted wisely,” not “lied.” This implies that Achebe knows there is always some degree of meaning or truth lost when translating from one language to another.

    Chapter Twenty-Three
    Okonkwo

    [Okonkwo]: “An Umuofia man does not refuse a call,” he said. “He may refuse to do what he is asked; he does not refuse to be asked.” (23.6)

    Okonkwo’s maxim illustrates one of the qualities an Umuofia man prides himself on – generosity and willingness to listen. An Umuofia man honors a summoner and hears his words respectfully.

    Chapter Twenty-Four

    Okudo sang a war song in a way that no other man could. He was not a fighter, but his voice turned every man into a lion. (24.7)

    Okonkwo admires the power of language and song to breathe courage into men and steel them for war.

    Chapter Twenty-Five
    Obierika

    Obierika, who had been gazing steadily at his friend’s dangling body, turned suddenly to the District Commissioner and said ferociously: “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog…” He could not say any more. His voice trembled and choked his words. (25.18)

    Obierika is so overcome by the unfairness and tragedy of Okonkwo’s death that he cannot express it in words. Like Okonkwo when he was worked up, Obierika “choke[s] on his words.”

    The Commissioner did not understand what Obierika meant when he said “Perhaps your men will help us.” One of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words, he thought. (25.8)

    The Commissioner, like Okonkwo, doesn’t put much stock in words. Instead, he finds them rather annoying. Because he does not understand Obierika’s meaning, he immediately dismisses the man’s words as “superfluous” and “infuriating” – when they’re actually pretty straightforward from Obierika’s standpoint.

    The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. (25.22)

    The Commissioner reduces Okonkwo’s life, about which Achebe’s whole book has been written, to a paragraph. By recording what little he knows about Okonkwo as a man, he is essentially freezing Okonkwo in a limited and woefully misunderstood way. It is these words, not Okonkwo’s honor, that will be passed on to posterity. Because the Commissioner is determined to “cut out details”, Okonkwo will be remembered only as a savage.

    He [the Commissioner] had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. (25.22)

    The Commissioner reduces much of the story told by Achebe to a cold and biased imperialist report. Because we have followed Okonkwo’s story and seen society through his understanding eyes, we see the Igbo people more sympathetically than the power-mongering Commissioner.

  • Traditions and Customs

    Chapter One

    Having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs. Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten. Okoye was a great talker and he spoke for a long time, skirting round the subject and then hitting it finally. (1.14)

    One custom used to show politeness and sophistication is to talk learnedly in pithy proverbs and to approach one’s intended topic only slowly and discreetly.

    One day a neighbor called Okoye came in to see him...He immediately rose and shook hands with Okoye, who then unrolled the goatskin which he carried under his arm, and sat down. Unoka went into an inner room and soon returned with a small wooden disc containing a kola nut, some alligator pepper and a lump of white chalk.

    “I have kola,” he announced when he sat down, and passed the disc over to his guest.

    “Thank you. He who brings kola brings life. But I think you ought to break it,” replied Okoye, passing back the disc.

    “No, it is for you, I think,” and they argued like this for a few moments before Unoka accepted the honor of breaking the kola. Okoye, meanwhile, took the lump of chalk, drew some lines on the floor, and then painted his big toe.

    As he broke the kola, Unoka prayed to their ancestors for life and health, and for protection against their enemies. When they had eaten they talked about many things: about the heavy rains which were drowning the yams, about the next ancestral feast and about the impending war with the village of Mbaino. (1.7-10)

    There is a great deal of tradition surrounding the kola nut. It seems to be a key aspect of being a welcoming host. The kola nut tradition is yet another way of communicating respect.

    Chapter Two

    Okonkwo had just blown out the palm-oil lamp and stretched himself on his bamboo bed when he heard the ogene of the town crier piercing the still night air. Gome, gome gome, gome, boomed the hollow metal. Then the crier gave his message, and at the end of it beat his instrument again. (2.1)

    From Okonkwo’s unalarmed reaction, we can assume that the ogene drum is used regularly to convey messages from distant villages. This tradition gives the messages a sort of exotic and mysterious quality, as well as simultaneously letting the whole village know that there is news.

    Chapter Three
    Unoka

    “Every year,” he [Unoka] said sadly, “before I put any crop in the earth, I sacrifice a cock to Ani, the owner of all land. It is the law of our fathers. I also kill a cock at the shrine of Ifejioku, the god of yams. I clear the bush and set fire to it when it is dry. I sow the yams when the first rain has fallen, and stake them when the young tendrils appear…” (3.6)

    It is customary to make animal sacrifices to the earth goddess when planting crops. Yet again, ritual is used to communicate respect, in this case to the earth goddess who has control over the success of the yams.

    Okonkwo

    He [Okonkwo] took a pot of palm-wine and a cock to Nwakibie…He presented a kola nut and an alligator pepper, which were passed round for all to see and then returned to him. He broke the nut saying: “We shall all live. We pray for life, children, a good harvest and happiness. You will have what is good for you and I will have what is good for me. Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too. If one says no to the other, let his wing break.”

    After the kola nut had been eaten Okonkwo brought his palm-wine from the corner of the hut where it had been placed and stood it in the center of the group. He addressed Nwakibie, calling him “Our father.”

    Nna ayi,” he said. “I have brought you this little kola. As our people say, a man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness. I have come to pay you my respects and also to ask a favor. But let us drink the wine first.” (3.11-13)

    As a guest, Okonkwo owes traditional gifts and respectful sayings to his host. He goes through all the proper motions to make himself a respectable guest – offering the kola nut, praying for the health of the host’s family, calling him “our father,” and declining to talk business until everyone has eaten their fill.

    Chapter Four

    And so nature was not interfered with in the middle of the rainy season. Sometimes it poured down in such thick sheets of water that earth and sky seemed merged in one gray wetness…At such times, in each of the countless thatched huts of Umuofia, children sat around their mother’s cooking fire telling stories, or with their father in his obi warming themselves from a log fire, roasting and eating maize. It was a brief resting period between the exacting and arduous planting season and the equally exacting but light-hearted month of harvests. (4.37)

    During the rainy season, it is customary for children to sit inside the huts with their parents and tell stories or eat snacks. This lovely tradition gives them time to rest and recover after the grueling planting season.

    [Ogbuefi Ezeudu]: “They have that custom in Obodoani. If a man dies at this time he is not buried but cast into the Evil Forest...They throw away large numbers of men and women without burial. (4.28)

    The Obodoani have a tradition that if a man dies during the Week of Peace, he cannot be buried, but only cast unceremoniously into the woods. It is as if death is a form of violence rather than a natural part of life.

    Chapter Five

    The Feast of the New Yam was approaching and Umuofia was in a festival mood. It was an occasion for giving thanks to Ani, the earth goddess and the source of all fertility. Ani played a greater part in the life of the people than any other deity. She was the ultimate judge of morality and conduct. And what was more, she was in close communion with the departed father of the clan whose bodies had been committed to the earth.

    The Feast of the New Yam was held every year before the harvest began, to honor the earth goddess and the ancestral spirits of the clan. New yams could not be eaten until some had first been offered to these powers. Men and women, young and old, looked forward to the New Yam Festival because it began the season of plenty – the new year. On the last night before the festival, yams of the old year were all disposed of by those who still had them. The new year must begin with tasty, fresh yams and not the shriveled and fibrous crop of the previous year. All cooking pots, calabashes and wooden bowls were thoroughly washed, especially the wooden mortar in which yam was pounded. Yam foo-foo and vegetable soup was the chief food in the celebration. So much was cooked that, no matter how heavily the family ate or how many friends and relatives they invited from neighboring villages, there was always a large quantity of food left over at the end of the day. (5.1-2)

    It makes sense that the festival of the new year is named after the life-giving crop that sustains the clan: the yam. The Igbo show the symbolic rebirth of the year by throwing out old food, washing everything so they may be clean and pure for the coming year, and celebrating with fresh new yams. They join together with their families and community to celebrate the coming of another year that they will share.

    Chapter Eight
    Obierika

    “It was only this morning,” said Obierika, “that Okonkwo and I were talking about Abame and Aninta, where titled men climb trees and pound foo-foo for their wives.”

    “All their customs are upside-down. They do not decide bride-price as we do, with sticks. They haggle and bargain as if they were buying a goat or a cow in the market.”

    “That is very bad,” said Obierika’s eldest brother. “But what is good in one place is bad in another place. In Umunso they do not bargain at all, not even with broomsticks. The suitor just goes on bringing bags of cowries until his in-laws tell him to stop. It is a bad custom because it always lead to a quarrel.”

    “The world is large,” said Okonkwo. “I have even heard that in some tribes a man’s children belong to his wife and her family.”

    “That cannot be,” said Machi. “You might as well say that the woman lies on top of the man when they are making the children.” (8.84-88)

    The Umuofia men criticize other tribes’ customs as unsophisticated or “upside-down.” Like many people, the Umuofia think their ways are the best and others are ignorant.

    Obierika then presented to him a small bundle of short broomsticks. Ukegbu counted them.

    “They are thirty?” he asked.

    Obierika nodded in agreement.

    “We are at last getting somewhere,” Ukegbu said, and then turning to his brother and his song he said: ‘Let us go out and whisper together.’ The three rose and went outside. When they returned Ukegbu handed the bundle of sticks back to Obierika. He counted them; instead of thirty there were only fifteen. He passed them over to his eldest brother, Machi, who also counted them and said:

    “We had not thought to go below thirty. But as the dog said, ‘If I fall down for you and you fall down for me, it is play’. Marriage should be a play and not a fight; so we are falling down again.” He then added ten sticks to the fifteen and gave the bundle to Ukegbu.

    In this way Akueke’s bride-price was finally settled at twenty bags of cowries. (8.76-81)

    The Umuofia follow a traditional ritual to determine a bride-price; the bride’s family presents the groom’s family with a sum (represented by broomsticks) and the other party adds or subtracts sticks as they see fit. They exchange the bundle of broomsticks several times, until the two groups finally agree. That final number of broomsticks corresponds to the number of bags of cowries paid by the groom’s family for the bride’s hand in marriage. After Akueke’s bride-price is settled on some of the men discuss how the Umuofia way of coming to a bride price is really quite civilized. Overall, this silent form of back-and-forth to reach an agreement is more respectful of women than just verbal haggling, which is how men agree on prices for livestock. Thus, the custom of settling a bride-price is intended to be respectful.

    Chapter Ten

    It is customary to understand the phrase “after the midday meal” as really “in the evening, when the sun’s heat has softened.” Only a member of the Igbo would understand this discrepancy between word and meaning.

    “Uzowulu’s body, I salute you,” he said. Spirits always addressed humans as “bodies.” (10.17)

    Because it is customary to believe the egwugwu are godly – more spiritual and less fleshly than men – it makes sense for the egwugwu to address humans as “bodies,” mere vessels for the all-important spirit.

    Chapter Thirteen

    Ezeudu was a great man, and so all the clan was at his funeral. The ancient drums of death beat, guns and cannon were fired, and the men dashed about in frenzy, cutting down every tree or animal they saw, jumping over walls and dancing on the roof. It was a warrior’s funeral, and from morning till night warriors came and went in their age groups. They all wore smoked raffia skirts and their bodies were painted with chalk and charcoal. Now and again an ancestral spirit or egwugwu appeared from the underworld, speaking in a tremulous, unearthly voice and completely covered in raffia. (13.3)

    Funerals for celebrated men of title include elaborate, formalized ceremony – the saluting fire of guns and cannons, militaristic drums, and frenzied mourning – as a show of respect for the deceased. Even the godly egwugwu pay a visit to honor the man.

    Chapter Fourteen

    They sat in a big circle on the ground and the bride sat in the center with a hen in her right hand. Uchendu sat by her, holding the ancestral staff of the family. All the other men stood outside the circle, watching. Their wives watched also. It was evening and the sun was setting.

    Uchendu’s eldest daughter, Njide, asked the questions.

    “Remember that if you do not answer truthfully you will suffer or even die at childbirth, she began. How many men have lain with you since my brother first expressed the desire to marry you?”

    “None,” she answered simply.

    “Answer truthfully,” urged the other women.

    “None?” asked Njide.

    “None,” she answered.

    “Swear on this staff of my fathers,” said Uchendu.

    “I swear,” said the bride.

    Uchendu took the hen from her, slit its throat with a sharp knife and allowed some of the blood to fall on his ancestral staff.

    From that day Anikwu took the young bride to his hut and she became his wife. The daughters of the family did not return to their homes immediately but spent two or three days with their kinsmen. (14.12-22)

    The public confession ceremony for the bride shows how deeply the Umuofia value truth and purity in its women. The implication here is that Anikwu would not value his wife as much had she not been virgin upon their marriage. The sacrifice of a hen somehow seems to seal the bride’s words as a vow and consecrate the marriage.

    Chapter Eighteen

    He [an osu] was a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart – a taboo forever, and his children after him. He could neither marry nor be married by the free-born. He was in fact an outcast, living in a special area of the village, close to the Great Shrine. Wherever he went he carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste – long, tangled and dirty hair. A razor was taboo to him. An osu could not attend an assembly of the free-born, and they, in turn, could not shelter under his roof. He could not take any of the four titles of the clan, and when he died he was buried by his kind in the Evil Forest. How could such a man be a follower of Christ? (18.12)

    Here, we get a traditional description of an osu – an outcast whose very existence offends the villagers. The osu by custom must wear a mark of their lowly status – long, tangled hair – in order to distinguish them from the community at large. This one marker is all that really sets them apart. The arrival of the Christians, however, throws the social order out of whack by insisting that the osu can free themselves from being outcasts by joining the new religion and shaving their hair.

    Chapter Nineteen

    “But I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you; I fear for you the clan.” (19.24)

    One of the deepest values of the Umuofia is family and unity within the community. Recently, the younger generation has ignored or depreciated those bonds of kinship. The older generation blames the loss of traditional values for the takeover of the missionaries. They see salvation only in reverting back to the old ways.

    Chapter Twenty
    Obierika

    [Obierika]: “Does the white man understand our custom about land?”

    [Okonkwo]: “How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs bad.” (20.25-26)

    The people who convert to Christianity suddenly have a change of heart on all the customs that they have grown up following. Everything related to the old ways of the Umuofia suddenly seem “bad” to them.

    Chapter Twenty-Three

    It was the time of the full moon. But that night the voice of children was not heard. The village ilo where they always gathered for a moon-play was empty. The women of Iguedo did not meet in their secret enclosure to learn a new dance to be displayed later to the village. Young men who were always abroad in the moonlight kept their huts that night. Their manly voices were not heard on the village paths as they went to visit their friends and lovers. Umuofia was like a startled animal with ears erect, sniffing the silent, ominous air and not knowing which way to run. (23.25)

    The capture and ransom of Umuofia’s leaders disrupts the fabric of life so much that the villagers do not continue their customary nightly activities. They stay in their huts, immobilized by fear and confusion. Such an offense has never been committed against their leaders and the villagers don’t know how to react.

    Chapter Twenty-Four

    Umuofia kwenu!” he bellowed, raising his left arm and pushing the air with his open hand.

    Yaa!” roared Umuofia.

    Umuofia kwenu!” he bellowed again, and again and again, facing a new direction each time. And the crowd answer, “Yaa!”

    There was immediate silence as though cold water had been poured on a roaring flame.

    Okika sprang to his feet and also saluted his clansmen four times. Then he began to speak:

    “You all know why we are here, when we ought to be building our barns or mending our huts, when we should be putting our compounds in order. My father used to say to me: ‘Whenever you see a toad jumping in broad daylight, then know that something is after its life.’ When I saw you all pouring into this meeting from all the quarters of our clan so early in the morning, I knew that something was after our life.

    All our gods are weeping. Idemili is weeping. Ogwugwu is weeping, Agbala is weeping, and all the others. Our dead fathers are weeping because of the shameful sacrilege they are suffering and the abomination we have all seen with our eyes.”

    This is a great gathering. No clan can boast of greater numbers of greater valor. But are we all here? I ask you: Are all the sons of Umuofia with us here?” A deep murmur swept through the crowd.

    “They are not,” he said. “They have broken the clan and gone their several ways. We who are here this morning have remained true to our fathers, but our brothers have deserted us and joined a stranger to soil their fatherland. If we fight the stranger we shall hit our brothers and perhaps shed the blood of a clansman. But we must do it. Our fathers never dreamed of such a thing, they never killed their brothers. But a white man never came to them. So we must do what our fathers would never have done.” (24.25-33)

    This scene combines traditional Umuofia ceremony with a totally original resolution. The speaker welcomes his fellow villagers with the traditional Umuofia greeting and praising of Umuofia’s valor. However, the purpose of the gathering is revolutionary – to declare war on their brothers. This type of behavior is unprecedented in Igbo history because villages have always been united. Such a dramatic break from tradition reveals how deeply the presence of the missionaries has affected the local culture.

    Okonkwo

    “I hope our in-laws will bring many pots of wine. Although they come from a village that is known for being closefisted, they ought to know that Akueke is the bride for a king.”

    “They dare not bring fewer than thirty pots,” said Okonkwo. ‘I shall tell them my mind of they do.”…

    Very soon after, the in-laws began to arrive. Young men and boys in single file, each carrying a pot of wine, came first .Obierika’s relatives counted the pots as they came. Twenty, twenty-five. There was a long break, and the hosts looked at each other as if to say, “I told you.” Then more pots came. Thirty, thirty-five, forty, forty-five. The hosts nodded in approval and seemed to say, “Now they are behaving like men.”

    This marriage ritual shows that it is customary for the bride-price to be paid in pots of palm-wine. Providing many pots of wine is a show of respect, and the greater the number of pots, the more highly the groom’s family values the bride.

  • Fear

    Chapter Two

    Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external, but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken to title. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness. (2.12)

    Despite all of Okonkwo’s showy manliness, he is ruled by fear – a profound fear of being deemed weak and feminine, like his father. Essentially, Okonkwo fears nothing but himself.

    […] he [Okonkwo] was not afraid of war. He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of blood. In Umuofia’s latest war he was the first to bring home a human head. (2.4)

    Okonkwo, unlike his father, has no fear of violence, but actually revels in it. Fearlessness in war is a highly respected quality in Umuofia.

    As for the boy himself, he was terribly afraid. He could not understand what was happening to him or what he had done. How could he know that his father had taken a hand in killing a daughter of Umuofia? All he knew was that a few men had arrived at their house, conversing with his father in low tones, and at the end he had been taken out and handed over to a stranger. His mother had wept bitterly, but he had been too surprised to weep. (2.20)

    Ikemefuna’s fear stems from deep disorientation, unfamiliarity, and uncertainty about what the future will hold. With a child’s limited understanding of the social world around him, he cannot begin to comprehend the series of events that led to his sudden and painful separation from his family. All he knows is that he wants to go home.

    Chapter Four

    When Okonkwo heard that he [Ikemefuna] would not eat any food he came into the hut with a big stick in his hand and stood over him while he swallowed his yams, trembling. A few moments later he went behind the hut and began to vomit painfully. (4.5)

    Okonkwo rules his household based on fear. Not only does he scare Ikemefuna into eating, but his wives have to tip-toe around him for fear of a beating.

    Chapter Five

    Okonkwo was specially fond of Ezinma. She looked very much like her mother, who was once the village beauty. But his fondness only showed on very rare occasions. (5.60)

    Okonkwo is afraid of showing his emotions too openly, unless they are feelings of anger or aggression. Because he fears being effeminate and losing community respect, he shies away from showing even his favorite child affection.

    Chapter Seven
    Ikemefuna

    One of the men behind him cleared his throat. Ikemefuna looked back, and the man growled at him to go on and not stand looking back. The way he said it sent cold fear down Ikemefuna’s back. His hands trembled vaguely on the black pot he carried. Why had Okonkwo withdrawn to the rear? Ikemefuna felt his legs melting under him. And he was afraid to look back.

    As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his machete, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, “My father, they have killed me!” as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak. (7.27-28)

    It is not only Ikemefuna who feels fear when hearing the man so mysteriously clear his throat; Okonkwo, too, we know, fears what is about to come. Every nerve in Okonkwo tells him this is wrong, but when the moment comes, he kills his adopted son. Ikemefuna and Okonkwo’s fears are contrasted here. Ikemefuna fears the men with machetes and death, both of which he has no control over. Okonkwo, on the other hand, fears losing his sense of masculinity – an internal fear which he could control, but instead gives into.

    Chapter Eleven

    She had prayed for the moon to rise. But now she found the half-light of the incipient moon more terrifying than darkness. The world was now peopled with vague, fantastic figures that dissolved under her steady gaze and then formed again in new shapes. At one stage Ekwefi was so afraid that she nearly called out Chielo for companionship and human sympathy. What she had seen was the shape of a man climbing a palm tree, his head pointing to the earth and his legs skywards. But at that very moment Chielo’s voice rose again in her possessed chanting, and Ekwefi recoiled, because there was no humanity there. It was not the same Chielo who sat with her in the market and sometimes bought beancakes for Ezinma, whom she called her daughter. It was a different woman – the priestess of Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and Caves. Ekwefi trudged along between two fears. (11.62)

    The unfamiliar and unseen environment intensifies and exaggerates Ekwefi’s imagination and her fear. So Ekwefi is trapped between two fears – one of the unknown darkness around her and the other of the possessed Chielo abducting her daughter.

    And then the priestess screamed. “Somebody is walking behind me!” she said. “Whether you are spirit or man, may Agbala shave your head with a blunt razor! May he twist your neck until you see your heels!”

    Ekwefi stood rooted to the spot. One mind said to her: “Woman, go home before Agbala does you harm.” But she could not. (11.56-57)

    Chielo’s threats of horrible physical injury at the god’s hostile hands understandably mortify Ekwefi. However, her love for Ezinma gives her courage to conquer her fear of the gods.

    Ekwefi

    But Ekwefi did not hear these consolations. She stood for a while, and then, all of a sudden, made up her mind. She hurried through Okonkwo’s hut and went outside. “Where are you going?” he asked.

    “I am following Chielo,” she replied and disappeared in the darkness. (11.50-51)

    Out of Ekwefi’s intense fear that her only daughter will be hurt, Ekwefi finds the desperate courage to follow Chielo and risk the gods’ disapproval.

    Chapter Nineteen

    “But I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you; I fear for you the clan.” (19.24)

    The elders fear, rightly, that the younger men have forgotten their bonds of kinship and that has led to their downfall. Because the younger generation hasn’t held the clan together, their future is unknown, which is terrifying.

    Chapter Twenty-Two

    The leaders of the Christians had met together at Mr. Smith’s parsonage on the previous night. As they deliberated they could hear the Mother of Spirits wailing for her son. The chilling sound affected Mr. Smith, and for the first time he seemed to be afraid. (22.13)

    Mr. Smith naturally fears something with which he is unfamiliar – the mourning and raging cry of a foreign god. This is also the first time that he has not been in complete control of the situation in Umuofia.

  • Gender

    Chapter Two

    Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper […] (2.12)

    In the Igbo world, men are the dominant sex and they “rule” over their families, including their wives. Women are relegated to a more or less servile position, often living in fear of their husbands. Though Okonkwo’s quick temper with his family is never portrayed as admirable, he unquestionably has the right to be aggressive at home.

    The elders, or ndichie, met to hear a report of Okonkwo’s mission. At the end they decided, as everybody knew they would, that the girl should go to Ogbuefi Udo to replace his murdered wife. As for the boy, he belonged to the clan as a whole, and there was no hurry to decide his fate. (2.11)

    While the young boy’s fate remains undecided, the virgin girl’s fate is quickly sealed. For someone else’s crime, she must give up the life she has known, her maidenhood, and her hand in marriage to a complete stranger. This new girl seems to be considered a complete replacement for Ogbuefi Udo’s former wife, implying that women are essentially all the same and therefore interchangeable. Basically, women are passed around like un-unique objects in the Igbo world.

    Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken to title. (2.12)

    In Igbo culture, women are considered weaker than the men and thus it’s an insult to men to be called an agbala. Okonkwo is acutely aware of what it means to be a man in the Igbo tribe and is ashamed that someone might call him or his male relations agbala.

    Okonkwo

    “He belongs to the clan,” he told her [Okonkwo’s eldest wife]. “So look after him.”

    “Is he staying long with us?” she asked.

    “Do what you are told, woman,” Okonkwo thundered, and stammered. “When did you become one of the ndichie of Umuofia?”

    And so Nwoye’s mother took Ikemefuna to her hut and asked no more questions. (2.16-19)

    Okonkwo treats his wife like a servant, demanding that she does whatever he commands her with no questions asked. Women, as demonstrated by Okonkwo’s eldest wife here, are taught to be silent and obedient. In fact, women count for so little in Igbo society that they are often not even addressed by their given names, but referred to by their relationship with men. Throughout the entire novel, the narrator rarely calls Okonkwo’s first wife by her name, she is almost always identified in relation to her husband or son, Nwoye.

    Chapter Three

    His mother and sisters worked hard enough, but they grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans and cassava. Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop. (3.28)

    Nearly every aspect of Igbo society is gendered, even crops. Yam, because it is the staple of the Igbo diet, is considered a man’s crop. This allows men to maintain the position as the primary providers for their families, and the respect which that role confers.

    Chapter Four

    Inwardly Okonkwo knew that the boys were still too young to understand fully the difficult art of preparing seed-yams. But he thought that one could not begin too early. Yam stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one gravest to another was a very great man indeed. Okonkwo wanted his son to be a great farmer and a great man. He would stamp out the disquieting signs of laziness which he thought he already saw in him. (4.32)

    Okonkwo associates yams with manliness. The more yams a man is able to grow, the more respected he is in his community. This shows that men are judged in part by their ability to provide for their families. Since yams are a hard crop to grow, being a good provider is directly tied to being a hard worker. Okonkwo, having suffered embarrassment and poverty from his rather effeminate father (by his standards), will stop at nothing to keep his sons from the same fate – even if it means breaking their hearts as little boys.

    Okonkwo

    Only a week ago a man had contradicted him at a kindred meeting which they held to discuss the next ancestral feast. Without looking at the man Okonkwo had said. “This meeting is for men.” The man who had contradicted him had no titles. That was why he had called him a woman. Okonkwo knew how to kill a man’s spirit. (4.1)

    Being called a woman is clearly a nasty insult as it has the ability to “kill a man’s spirit.” Obviously, women aren’t highly valued in Umuofia.

    [Okonkwo]: “I will not have a son who cannot hold up his head in the gathering of the clan. I would sooner strangle him with my own hands.” (4.33)

    Okonkwo would rather kill his son than live with an effeminate one. Basically, Okonkwo is thinking of his own reputation as a man, which he doesn’t want tarnished by a soft son.

    Chapter Five

    Okonkwo cleared his throat and moved his feet to the beat of the drums. It filled him with fire as it had always done from his youth. He trembled with the desire to conquer and subdue. It was like the desire for woman. (5.38)

    Okonkwo characterizes his desire to wrestle as a desire for sex. This passage also gives us a very clear insight into how he views women: as objects to “conquer” and “subdue.” Clearly, Okonkwo doesn’t see women as his equals.

    As a matter of fact the tree was very much alive. Okonkwo’s second wife had merely cut a few leaves off it to wrap some food, and she said so. Without further argument, Okonkwo gave her a sound beating and left her and her only daughter weeping. Neither of the other wives dared to interfere beyond an occasional and tentative, “It is enough, Okonkwo,” pleaded from a reasonable distance. (5.10)

    Okonkwo is plain old irrationally angry and takes it out on his wife, beating her even though he isn’t truly angry about the banana tree. Part of what enrages Okonkwo is that his second wife, Ekwefi, stands up to him and tells him that she didn’t kill the darn banana tree. Okonkwo can’t handle a woman contradicting him. Okonkwo doesn’t even respect Ekwefi enough to engage in a debate with her -- he just smacks her “without further argument.”

    There was no festival in all the seasons of the year which gave her [Ekwefi] as much pleasure as the wrestling match. Many years ago when she was the village beauty Okonkwo had won her heart by throwing the Cat in the greatest contest in living memory. She did not marry him then because he was too poor to pay her bride-price. But a few years later she ran away from her husband and came to live with Okonkwo. (5.14)

    Ekwefi is attracted to strong, capable men. Okonkwo’s victory against the unbeaten Cat made him something of a celebrity in her eyes and she acted on her wishes, running away from her husband to come and live with Okonkwo. Interestingly, although Okonkwo’s wrestling skill is attractive and gains him status, it doesn’t mean he’ll be a good husband. Can you imagine running away to elope with a man only to find out that he’s easily enraged and has no qualms about beating his wives?

    Ezinma

    And after a pause she said: “Can I bring your chair for you?”

    “No, that is a boy’s job.” Okonkwo was specially fond of Ezinma. (5.59-60)

    Although Ezinma is probably Okonkwo’s favorite child, he adheres very strictly to the norms of male and female action ascribed by Igbo culture. He does not allow Ezinma to do something as simple as carrying a chair to the festival for him because he considers it a boy’s task. Sadly, Okonkwo’s strict following of gender roles prevents him from showing his affection for his daughter.

    Okonkwo

    “Sit like a woman!” Okonkwo shouted at her. Ezinma brought her two legs together and stretched them in front of her. (5.56)

    Gender is so coded into every aspect of Igbo society that Okonkwo loses his patience with Ezinma when she fails to sit like a woman. This is also a sign that Ezinma sometimes trespasses into the realm of men with her unfeminine actions.

    Chapter Six

    The woman with whom she talked was called Chielo. She was the priestess of Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. In ordinary life, Chielo was a widow with two children. She was very friendly with Ekwefi and they shared a common shed in the market. She was particularly fond of Ekwefi’s only daughter, Ezinma, whom she called “my daughter.” Quite often she bought beancakes and gave Ekwefi some to take home to Ezinma. Anyone seeing Chielo in ordinary life would hardly believe she was the same person who prophesied when the spirit of Agbala was upon her. (6.17)

    Chielo is an example of a powerful woman – the lone priestess of major god – who leads a dual life. In the market, she is an ordinary woman and a good friend, but when the god takes possession of her, she changes drastically and becomes a figure to be reckoned with. It is only when a woman has supernatural power behind her that she is respected by men.

    Chapter Seven

    That was the kind of story that Nwoye loved. But he now knew that they were for foolish women and children, and he knew that his father wanted him to be a man. And so he feigned that he no longer cared for women’s stories. And when he did this he saw that his father was pleased, and no longer rebuked him or beat him. So Nwoye and Ikemefuna would listen to Okonkwo’s stories about tribal wars, or how, years ago, he had stalked his victim, overpowered him and obtained his first human head. (7.4)

    Prescribed gender roles force Nwoye to hide his true self from his father. By forcing his son to act like “man’s man,” Okonkwo isn’t teaching Nwoye to be a hard worker or a valuable community member or a good husband, he only teaches his son to use trickery to avoid a beating.

    He [Ikemefuna] was like an elder brother to Nwoye, and from the very first seemed to have kindled a new fire in the younger boy. He made him feel grown-up; and they no longer spent the evenings in mother’s hut while she cooked, but now say with Okonkwo in his obi, or watched him as he tapped his palm tree for the evening wine. Nothing pleased Nwoye now more than to be sent for by his mother or another of his father’s wives to do one of those difficult and masculine tasks in the home, like splitting wood, or pounding food. On receiving such a message through a younger brother or sister, Nwoye would feign annoyance and grumble aloud about women and their troubles.

    Okonkwo was inwardly pleased at his son’s development, and he knew it was due to Ikemefuna. He wanted Nwoye to grow into a tough young man capable of ruling his father’s household when he was dead and gone to join the ancestors. He wanted him to be a prosperous man, having enough in his barn to feed the ancestors with regular sacrifices. And so he was always happy when he heard him grumbling about women. That showed that in time he would be able to control his women-folk. No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man. He was like the man in the song who had ten and one wives and not enough soup for his foo-foo. (7.1-2)

    Ikemefuna’s presence makes Nwoye more willing to take on masculine tasks, however pretentiously. Okonkwo takes his son’s changing behavior as a sign of budding authoritative masculinity. Interestingly, Okonkwo defines men partially by their behavior towards women – males aren’t real men unless they can force women to do their bidding. Thus men can have free will, but women must be controlled and ruled over.

    Chapter Eight
    Okonkwo

    “He [Maduka] will do great things,” Okonkwo said. “If I had a son like him I should be happy. I am worried about Nwoye. A bowl of pounded yams can throw him in a wrestling match. His two younger brothers are more promising. But I can tell you, Obierika, that my children do not resemble me […] If Ezinma had been a boy I would have been happier. She has the right spirit.” (8.17)

    Okonkwo is disappointed in his sons – especially Nwoye. The reason Okonkwo specifically cites is that his son is a poor wrestler and isn’t at all like Okonkwo. Ironically, he wishes his daughter were a son because her “spirit” is “right” for a man.

    “When did you become a shivering old woman,” Okonkwo asked himself, “you, who are known in all the nine villages for your valor in war? How can a man who has killed five men in battle fall to pieces because he has added a boy to their number? Okonkwo, you have become a woman indeed.” (8.9)

    Okonkwo’s guilt over killing his adopted son haunts him. Okonkwo, who shuns all emotion, thinks that feeling compassion and guilt for the boy is a sign of weakness and femininity – two characteristics that are despicable to him. Clearly, Okonkwo sees valor and compassion as incompatible.

    Whenever the thought of his father’s weakness and failure troubled him he expelled it by thinking about his own strength and success. And so he did now. His mind went to his latest show of manliness.

    “I cannot understand why you refused to come with us to kill that boy,” he asked Obierika. (8.20-21)

    When fearful of being like his father, Okonkwo has to reassure himself strongly of his own masculinity. Strangely, Okonkwo considers joining in the murder of Ikemefuna as being a “show of masculinity.” Considering that one traditional aspect of masculinity is being the protector of one’s family, killing Ikemefuna might just be cruel and gruesome, rather than masculine.

    “It was only this morning,” said Obierika “that Okonkwo and I were talking about Abame and Aninta, where titled men climb trees and pound foo-foo for their wives.”

    “All their customs are upside-down. They do not decide bride-price as we do, with sticks. They haggle and bargain as if they were buying a goat or a cow in the market.”

    “That is very bad,” said Obierika’s eldest brother. “But what is good in one place is bad in another place. In Umunso they do not bargain at all, not even with broomsticks. The suitor just goes on bringing bags of cowries until his in-laws tell him to stop. It is a bad custom because it always leads to a quarrel.”

    “The world is large,” said Okonkwo. “I have even heard that in some tribes a man’s children belong to his wife and her family.”

    “That cannot be,” said Machi. “You might as well say that the woman lies on top of the man when they are making the children.” (8.84-88)

    The Umuofia are dead set in their definitions of what is masculine and what is feminine. Machi can’t even abide by the idea that in some cultures, women own their children. He compares that aberration of appropriate social structure to the impossibility of women being on top during sex – which you only have to check out Cosmopolitan once to know that isn’t really an impossibility. Anyway, the men seem to feel that their own masculinity is threatened by other tribes flouting different customs. Okonkwo and many of the other Umuofia men, then seem to derive their feelings of masculine self-worth from outside sources – like cultural practices – rather than from an internal feeling of positive self-image.

    Obierika

    “It was always said that Ndulue and Ozoemena had one mind,” said Obierika. “I remember when I was a young boy there was a song about them. He could not do anything without telling her.”

    “I did not know that,” said Okonkwo. “I thought he was a strong man in his youth.”

    “He was indeed,” said Ofoedu.

    Okonkwo shook his head doubtfully. (8.43-46)

    Okonkwo considers any sign of affection and dependence between husband and wife as a reflection of the husband’s weakness and womanliness. It seems like Okonkwo isn’t in for a good future – or happy marriages – if he thinks that strong loving relationships must be avoided to reach his ultimate goal of complete manliness.

    As he was speaking the boy returned, followed by Akueke, his half-sister, carrying a wooden dish with three kola nuts and alligator pepper. She gave the dish to her father’s eldest brother and then shook hands, very shyly, with her suitor and his relatives. She was about sixteen and just ripe for marriage. Her suitor and his relatives surveyed her young body with expert eyes as if to assure themselves that she was beautiful and ripe.

    She wore a coiffure which was done up into a crest in the middle of the head. Cam wood was rubbed lightly into her skin, and all over her body were black patterns drawn with uli. She wore a black necklace which hung down in three coils just above her full, succulent breasts. On her arms were red and yellow bangles, and on her waist four or five rows of jigida, or waist beads. (8.65-66)

    Akueke is the perfect example of an ideal Igbo girl. She is shy and voluptuous and wears her clothes, hair, and accessories in the style of a fashionable young woman. When deciding if they want her to marry into their family, the suitor and his relatives “survey” her, so they just look at her. We might recommend that they try an extensive interview, but they seem to be satisfied that she’ll be a good wife based on her shy behavior, “succulent breasts,” and her dress.

    Chapter Ten

    [Odukwe]: “The law of Umuofia is that if a woman runs away from her husband her bride-price is returned.” (10.32)

    Women are treated like pieces of property, worth a set sum of money, which can be exchanged from man to man.

    It was clear from the way the crowd stood or sat that the ceremony was for men. There were many women, but they looked on from the fringe like outsiders. He titled men and elders sat on their stools waiting for the trials to begin. (10.2)

    Women are largely excluded from participating in the traditional “judicial” hearings, as can be seen by their position in the audience – on the outskirts. Only men may speak and judge at these trials, even when a woman is the one with a complaint to pose.

    Chapter Thirteen

    The only course open to Okonkwo was to flee from the clan. It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land. The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female, because it had been inadvertent. He could return to the clan after seven years. (13.13)

    Even crimes are gendered in Igbo society, with male crimes considered more severe and pre-meditated than female ones. Thus, the punishment for female crimes is less severe than for male ones. It says something about Igbo values for women that a person’s punishment is to be exiled to his motherland.

    Chapter Fourteen

    [Uchendu]: “Can you tell me, Okonkwo, why it is that one of the commonest names we give our children is Nneka, or ‘Mother is Supreme?’ We all know that a man is the head of the family and his wives do his bidding. A child belongs to its father and his family and not to its mother and her family. A man belongs to his fatherland and not to his motherland. And yet we say Nneka – ‘Mother is Supreme.’ Why is that?”

    “I do not know the answer,” Okonkwo replied […].

    “Then listen to me […]. It’s true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme.” (14.25-32)

    The mother figure offers her child something the father never could – unconditional compassion. Uchendu presents fathers as a kind of fair-weather friend. This explains why a man is exiled to his motherland when he has committed a crime; he can expect to find sympathy and forgiveness there. And this is why “Mother is Supreme.” Finally, something nice about women!

    Chapter Seventeen

    Okonkwo was popularly called the ‘Roaring Flame.’ As he looked into the log fire he recalled the name. He was a flaming fire. How then could he have begotten a son like Nwoye, degenerate and effeminate? Perhaps he was not his son. No! he could not be. His wife had played him false. He would teach her! But Nwoye resembled his grandfather, Unoka, who was Okonkwo’s father. He pushed the thought out of his mind. He, Okonkwo, was called a flaming fire. How could he have begotten a woman for a son? (17.26)

    Okonkwo compares himself to a flame – a symbol of masculinity for its incessant movement, its virile heat, its flaming temper, and its destructiveness. He also equates cold dead ash with femininity. Okonkwo is extremely disappointed in Nwoye because he isn’t fire-like – essentially, Okonkwo wants sons that are just like him. He’s so disappointed in Nwoye that he goes so far as to think that maybe his wife slept with another man. It hurts Okonkwo’s own sense of masculinity to see that his own progeny is not fire-like.

    Now that he had time to think of it, his son’s crime stood out in its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination. Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye’s steps and abandon their ancestors. Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation. (17.25)

    Okonkwo considers the Christians effeminate because they preach and sing more than they take action. However, he sees how successful the missionaries’ recruitment has been and he fears annihilation of his bloodline. But to Okonkwo, he sees annihilation as the loss of all of his male offspring; his daughters carrying his blood isn’t enough for him.

    Nneka had had four previous pregnancies and childbirths. But each time she had borne twins, and they had been immediately thrown away. Her husband and his family were already becoming highly critical of such a woman and were not unduly perturbed when they found she had fled to join the Christians. It was a good riddance. (17.13)

    If a woman can’t successfully bear children, she’s not really worth much. Nneka’s husband and his family don’t even really care that Nneka has run off with the Christians, it saves them the trouble of supporting a woman who can’t pull her own weight by providing children.

    Chapter Eighteen
    Okonkwo

    “Let us not reason like cowards,” said Okonkwo. “If a man comes into my hut and defecates on the floor, what do I do? Do I shut my eyes? No! I take a stick and break his head. That is what a man does. These people are daily pouring filth over us, and Okeke says we should pretend not to see.” Okonkwo made a sound full of disgust. This was a womanly clan, he thought. Such a thing could never happen in his fatherland, Umuofia. (18.22)

    Okonkwo associates cowardice with femininity and thus calls the Mbanta tribe womanly for their refusal to violently resist the Christians. He equates action and violence with masculinity and his warlike Umuofia clan.

    Chapter Twenty

    Ezinma grew up in her father’s exile and became one of the most beautiful girls in Mbanta. She was called Crystal of Beauty, as her mother had been called in her youth. The young ailing girl who had caused her mother so much heartache had been transformed, almost overnight, into a healthy, buoyant maiden. She had, it was true, her moment of depression when she would snap at everybody like an angry dog. These moods descended on her suddenly and for no apparent reason. But they were very rare and short-lived. As long as they lasted, she could bear no other person but her father. (20.9)

    Ezinma is becoming more and more stereotypically feminine. Her extraordinary beauty makes her much desired by men, but she still retains trans-gender traits like her somewhat fiery temper and her concord with her hyper-masculine father.

    With two beautiful grown-up daughters his return to Umuofia would attract considerable attention. His future sons-in-law would be men of authority in the clan. The poor and unknown would not dare come forth. (20.14)

    Okonkwo in part values his daughters because they are beautiful and can therefore attract the most respected men, which will in turn bring Okonkwo more honor and status in the community. Though we know Okonkwo cares about Ezinma, he does still objectify all his daughters, seeing them as vehicles to further his reputation.

    Okonkwo was very lucky in his daughter. He never stopped regretting that Ezinma was a girl. Of all his children she alone understood his every mood. A bond of sympathy had grown between them as the years had passed. (20.8)

    Again, Okonkwo regrets that Ezinma has been born a girl since he believes she has the right spirit for a man. Furthermore, she understands him, a bond which he would greatly prefer to share with another man instead of a lowly woman.

    Okonkwo

    “You have all seen the great abomination of your brother. Now he is no longer my son or your brother. I will only have a son who is a man, who will hold his head up among my people. If any one of you prefers to be a woman, let him follow Nwoye now while I am alive so that I can curse him.” (20.7)

    Okonkwo considers Nwoye’s defection to the Christian side a sign of lost masculinity and also unworthiness to be considered part of Okonkwo’s family. So adamant is he that his children follow the stereotypical traditions of what is masculine and what is feminine that he disowns Nwoye for his crime, and will do the same to any of his other children that follow in Nwoye’s footsteps.

    Chapter Twenty-One

    Okonkwo was deeply grieved […]. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women. (21.25)

    The breaking apart of the Umuofia people is a signal to Okonkwo of their developing weakness and femininity. He greatly valued his people because they epitomized masculinity, and thus he mourns his clan and considers it of less value by seeing his clan as feminine.

    Chapter Twenty-Four
    Okonkwo

    “Worthy men are no more,” Okonkwo sighed as he remembered those days. “Isike will never forget how we slaughtered them in that war. We killed twelve of their men and they killed only two of ours. Before the end of the fourth market week they were suing for peace. Those were days when men were men.” (24.8)

    Because his Umuofia people will not fight a holy war against the Christians, Okonkwo considers them weakened to the point of womanliness. His vision of masculinity seems to have no place for anything but rash and aggressive action. Only in the old glory days when the Umuofia fearlessly fought wars and killed other tribes were they really men.

    “The greatest obstacle in Umuofia,” Okonkwo thought bitterly, “is that coward, Egonwanne. His sweet tongue can change fire into cold ash. When he speaks he moves our men to impotence. If they had ignored his womanish wisdom five days ago, we would not have come to this.” (24.10)

    Okonkwo considers Egonwanne womanly because his words stop men from acting, renders them impotent. Egonwanne is a retarding force on the masculine Umuofia. Okonkwo’s point is driven further by invoking the fire/ash rhetoric, with fire being masculine and ash being impotent and emasculated.

  • Religion

    Chapter Two

    Umuofia was feared by all its neighbors. It was powerful in war and in magic, and its priests and medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country. Its most potent war medicine was as old as the clan itself. Nobody knew how old. But on one point there was general agreement – the active principle in that medicine had been an old woman with one leg. In fact, the medicine itself was called agadi-nwayi, or old woman. It had its shrine in the centre of Umuofia, in a clearing spot. And if anybody was so foolhardy as to pass by the shrine after dusk he was sure to see the old woman hopping about.

    And so the neighboring clans who naturally knew of these things feared Umuofia, and would not go to war against it without first trying a peaceful settlement. (2.8-9)

    The Igbo people fear what they do not understand – like medicine. They attribute magical properties to it, sometimes even spirits or gods, and fear offending it. Thus, this fear of the supernatural keeps the Umuofia from getting into too many wars.

    And in fairness to Umuofia it should be recorded that it never went to war unless its case was clear and just and was accepted as such by its Oracle – the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. And there were indeed occasions when the Oracle had forbidden Umuofia to wage a war. If the clan had disobeyed the Oracle they would surely have been beaten, because their dreaded agadi-nwayi would never fight what the Ibo call a fight of blame. (2.9)

    The Umuofia are so superstitious that they will not make any big political moves without first consulting the gods via the Oracle. The implication is that only the gods can judge whether war is appropriate and justified.

    Near the barn was a small house, the “medicine house” or shrine where Okonkwo kept the wooden symbols of his personal god and of his ancestral spirits. He worshipped them with sacrifices of kola nut, food and palm-wine, and offered prayers to them on behalf of himself, his three wives and eight children. (2.14)

    The Igbo people pray to their gods through wooden idols of them. It’s important to note that the shrine is devoted both to a god, but also the spirits of Okonkwo’s ancestors. Family life is so important in Umuofia that ancestors take on a somewhat divine nature; they must be remembered and honored or the ancestors will bring bad fortune.

    Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. (2.12)

    Okonkwo’s fear of becoming his father overrides everything else – even fear of the gods. Does this mean that he doesn’t respect the gods? Should he be more god-fearing?

    Chapter Three

    The story was told in Umuofia, of how his father, Unoka, had gone to consult the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves to find out way he always had a miserable harvest.

    The Oracle was called Agbala, and people came from far and near to consult it. They came when misfortune dogged their steps or when they had a dispute with their neighbors. They came to discover what the future held for them or to consult the spirits of their departed fathers. (3.2-3)

    The Oracle is widely believed to have foresight – being able to tell men about their destinies. Not only do the Igbo believe in oracles but ghosts of their “departed fathers” – who are thought to have tremendous wisdom to impart on the living.

    Chapter Four

    [Ezeani]: “You know as well as I do that our forefathers ordained that before we plant any crops in the earth we should observe a week in which a man does not say a harsh word to his neighbor. We live in peace with our fellows to honor our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops would not grow. You have committed a great evil….Your wife was at fault, but even if you came into your obi and found her lover on top of her, you would still have committed a great evil to beat her…The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish…You will bring to the shrine of Ani tomorrow one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries.” (4.22)

    The idea of personal crimes angering the earth goddess such that she doesn’t bless the Umuofia land and crops is useful; in a small community, it is a way of showing that one individual’s behavior can have strong ramifications on the entire community.

    And now the rains had really come, so heavy and persistent that even the village rain-maker no longer claimed to be able to intervene. He could not stop the rain now, just as he would not attempt to start it in the heart of the dry season, without serious danger to his own health. The personal dynamism required to counter the forces of these extremes of weather would be far too great for the human frame. (4.36)

    The Igbo people believe that their rain-makers can actually take on god-like powers and affect the weather. Though mortals do have some ability to influence the divine, ultimately, humans risk death if they don’t respect that their power is far inferior to that of the gods.

    At the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed. (4.3)

    The gods, especially one’s personal god (or chi), are not beyond the realm of human influence. One’s personal god can be affected by one’s willpower, as demonstrated in Okonkwo’s case. This means that a person doesn’t live a life completely dictated by fate or the chi they were born with.

    Chapter Five

    The Feast of the New Yam was approaching and Umuofia was in a festival mood. It was an occasion for giving thanks to Ani, the earth goddess and the source of all fertility. Ani played a greater part in the life of the people than any other deity. She was the ultimate judge of morality and conduct. And what was more, she was in close communion with the departed father of the clan whose bodies had been committed to the earth. (5.1)

    Here we discover the name of the all-important earth goddess for the first time and see that she not only represents a gentle, nurturing, feminine mother but also a stern judge of morality. Though she is responsible for fertility and thus new life, she also provides a connecting link between the living and the dead, making her an important mediator between generations.

    Chapter Seven

    [Ezeudu]: “Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him [Ikemefuna]. The Oracle of the Hills and the Caves has pronounced it.” (7.16)

    The gods’ wills can be harsh and often baffling to mortals. Here, we also see how different the priestess Chielo – whom we learned earlier was the Oracle of the Hills and Caves – can be from her alter ego, the friendly and compassionate laywoman we met in the market. As an oracle possessed by a god, Chielo is stern and merciless.

    Chapter Ten

    And then the egwugwu appeared. The women and children sent up a great shout and took to their heels. It was instinctive. A woman fled as soon as an egwugwu came in sight. And when, as on that day, nine of the greatest masked spirits in the clan came out together it was a terrifying spectacle…

    Each of the nine egwugwu represented a village of the clan. Their leader was called Evil Forest. Smoke poured out of his head.

    The nine villages of Umuofia had grown out of the nine sons of the first father of the clan. Evil Forest represented the village of Umueru, or the children of Eru, who was the eldest of the nine sons. (10.6-8)

    Fear plays a big part in the religion of the Umuofia. Unlike missionaries’ god who they describe in terms of a caring shepherd, the gods of the Umuofia demand respect because they are terrifying, not because they are loving.

    Okonkwo’s wives, and perhaps other women as well, might have noticed that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo. And they might also have noticed that Okonkwo was not among the titled men and elders who sat behind the row of egwugwu. But if they thought these things they kept them within themselves. The egwugwu with the springy walk was one of the dead fathers of the clan. He looked terrible with the smoked raffia body, a huge wooden face painted white except for the round hollow eyes and the charred teeth that were as big as a man’s fingers. On his head were two powerful horns. (10.15)

    It is implied that some people, perhaps Okonkwo’s wives, have guessed the true identity of the man behind the egwugwu mask. Okonkwo’s springy walk gives him away. Why don’t those who realize that the egwugwu are dressed up humans say anything? Does Okonkwo believe in the gods less than other villagers because he obviously knows that the egwugwu are not actual spirits?

    “Don’t you know what kind of man Uzowulu is? He will not listen to any other decision,” replied the other. (10.52)

    The egwugwu trials, by virtue of their divine sanction, have more authority than any judgment that men might make on each other. Divine judgment is the only way to settle disputes involving stubborn heads like Uzowulu.

    Chapter Eleven

    From then on, Chielo never ceased in her chanting. She greeted her god in a multitude of names – the owner of the future, the messenger of earth, the god who cut a man down when his life was sweetest to him. (11.63)

    Through her epithets, Chielo names multiple powers that the Igbo people believe Agbala has – foresight, power over the earth, the ability to kill. All of these are qualities which the agricultural Umuofia people would respect, deeply desire, and even potentially fear.

    Tufia-a!” the priestess cursed, her voice cracking like the angry bark of thunder in the dry season. How dare you, woman, to go before the mighty Agbala of your own accord? Beware, woman, lest he strike you in his anger. Bring me my daughter.” (11.39)

    The priestess uses godly language to subdue Ekwefi; first she yells a curse and secondly she invokes the name of the god Agbala. With divine power and entities behind her, the priestess convinces Ekwefi to back off.

    Chapter Thirteen

    As soon as the day broke, a large crowd of men from Ezedu’s quarter stormed Okonkwo’s compound, dressed in garbs of war. They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn. It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely her messengers. They had no hatred in their hearts against Okonkwo. His greatest friend, Obierika, was among them. They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a clansman. (13.15)

    The gods are beings to be feared, respected, and appeased. Pleasing the gods is far more important than anything, even friendships.

    But the most dreaded of all was yet to come. He was always alone and was shaped like a coffin. A sickly odor hung in the air wherever he went, and flies went with him. Even the greatest medicine men took shelter when he was near. Many years ago another egwugwu had dared to stand his ground before him and had been transfixed to the spot for two days. This one had only one hand and it carried a basket full of water. (13.4)

    This most dreadful egwugwu seems to have something of a deathly aspect to him – appearing as a coffin, having a sickly decaying odor, and accompanied by flies which are harbingers of death. Apparently, he is one of the most powerful as well, having the power to strike fear into the hearts of fellow egwugwu.

    It was then that the one-handed spirit came, carrying a basket full of water. People made way for him on all sides and the noise subsided. Even the smell of gunpowder was swallowed in the sickly smell that now filled the air. He danced a few steps to the funeral drums and then went to see the corpse.

    “Ezeudu!” he called in his guttural voice. “If you had been poor in your last life I would have asked you to be rich when you come again. But you were rich. If you had been a coward, I would have asked you to bring courage. But you were a fearless warrior. If you had died young, I would have asked you to get life. But you lived long. So I shall ask you to come again the way you came before. If your death was the death of nature, go in peace. But if a man caused it, do not allow him a moment’s rest.” He danced a few more steps and went away. (13.10-11)

    From this scene, we learn that the deathly egwugwu usually comes to with wisdom and helps to improve a dead person’s life in his next reincarnation. Death, with the help of the divine, can be a new beginning and the opportunity for an improved life.

    Chapter Fifteen

    “He [the white man] was not an albino. He was quite different…And he was riding an iron horse. The first people who saw him ran away, but he stood beckoning to them. In the end the fearless ones went near and even touched him. The elders consulted their Oracle and it told them that the strange man would break their clan and spread destruction among them.” Obierika again drank a little of his wine. “And so they killed the white man and tied his iron horse to their sacred tree because it looked as if it would run away to call the man’s friends.” (15.19)

    The Igbo people rely on their oracles to advise them on what to do when faced with new, strange situations. As the Oracle has access to divine information, he offers correct but cryptic information about the threat the white man represents. Though always right, divine knowledge cannot always be correctly interpreted by humans.

    Chapter Sixteen

    At this point an old man said he had a question. “Which is this god of yours,” he asked, “the goddess of the earth, the god of the sky, Amadiora or the thunderbolt, or what?”

    The interpreter spoke to the white man and he immediately gave his answer. “All the gods you have named are not gods at all. They are gods of deceit who tell you to kill your fellows and destroy innocent children. There is only one true God and He has the earth, the sky, you and me and all of us.” (16.13-14)

    The missionaries present the idea of a single god, and one who is not immediately relevant to their lives as agriculturalists. The gods of the Igbo represent important aspects of their lives such as the earth in which they grow their food, and the sky which is the source of sun and water needed for their crops.

    Chapter Seventeen

    It was well known among the people of Mbanta that their gods and ancestors were sometimes long-suffering and would deliberately allow a man to go on defying them. But even in such cases they set their limit at seven market weeks or twenty-eight days. Beyond that limit no man was suffered to go. And so excitement mounted in the village as the seventh week approached since the impudent missionaries built their church in the Evil Forest. The villagers were so certain about the doom that awaited these men that one or two converts thought it wise to suspend their allegiance to the new faith.

    At last the day came by which all the missionaries should have died. But they were still alive, building a new red-earth and thatch house for their teacher, Mr. Kiaga. That week they won a handful more converts. And for the first time they had a woman. Her name was Nneka, the wife of Amadi, who was a prosperous farmer. She was very heavy with child. (17.11-12)

    The Igbo people’s superstition that no man may trespass upon the gods after twenty-eight days backfires. Nothing happens to the missionaries living in the Evil Forest, so instead of questioning the veracity of their own faith, they chalk it up to the unprecedented power of the missionaries’ Christianity. Consequently, the Christians win more converts.

    Chapter Eighteen

    “It is not our custom to fight for our gods,” said one of them. “Let us not presume to do so now. If a man kills the sacred python in the secrecy of his hut, the matter lies between him and the god. We did not see it. If we put ourselves between the god and his victim we may receive blows intender for the offender. When a man blasphemes, what do we do? Do we go and stop his mouth? No. We put our fingers into our ears to stop us hearing. That is a wise action.” (18.21)

    The Igbo believe that their gods are perfectly capable and vengeful gods. Because they also cannot understand the divine completely, they stay out of the way of the gods, for fear of making a mistake. Essentially the villagers do not assume that they know the will of the gods.

    “They say that Okoli killed the sacred python,” said one man.

    “It is false,” said another. “Okoli told me himself that it was false.”

    Okoli was not there to answer. He had fallen ill on the previous night. Before the day was over he was dead. His death showed that the gods were still able to fight their own battles. The clan saw no reason then for molesting the Christians. (18.35-37)

    The Igbo people take Okoli’s sudden death to be the vengeful workings of an offended god. To them, Okoli’s death is a sign that their gods can still act. Are the villagers justified in thinking Okoli’s death is a divine sign, or are they just looking for an excuse not to engage in battle against the missionaries?

    Chapter Twenty-One

    Whenever Mr. Brown went to that village he spent long hours with Akunna in his obi talking through an interpreter about religion. Either of them succeeded in converting the other but they learned more about their different beliefs.

    “You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,” said Akunna on one of Mr. Brown’s visits. “We also believe in Him and call Him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.”

    “There are no other gods,” said Mr. Brown. “Chukwu is the only God and all the others are false. You carve a piece of wood – like that one” (he pointed at the rafters from which Akunna’s carved Ikenga hung) “and you call it a god. But it is still a piece of wood.”

    “Yes,” said Akunna. “It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach Him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church.”

    “No,” protested Mr. Brown. “The head of my church is God Himself.”

    “I know,” said Akunna, “but there must be a head in this world among men. Somebody like yourself must be the head here.”

    “The head of my church in that sense is in England.”

    “That is exactly what I am saying. The head of your country is in your country. He has sent you here as his messenger. And you have also appointed your own messengers and servants. Or let me take another example, the District Commissioner. He is sent by your king.”

    “They have a queen,” said the interpreter on his own account.

    “Your queen sends her messenger, the District Commissioner. He finds that he cannot do the work alone and so he appoints kotma to help him. It is the same with God, or Chukwu. He appoints the smaller gods to help Him because His work is too great for one person.”

    “You should not think of Him as a person,” said Mr. Brown. “It is because you do so that you imagine He must need helps. And the worst thing about it is that you give all the worship to the false gods you have created.”

    “That is not so. We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu. It is right to do so. We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them more because we are afraid to worry their Master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka – ‘Chukwu is Supreme.’”

    “You said one interesting thing,” said Mr. Brown. “You are afraid of Chukwu. In my religion Chukwu is a loving Father and need not be feared by those who do His will.”

    “But we must fear Him when we are not doing His will,” said Akunna. “And who is to tell His will? It is too great to be known.” (21.5-18)

    This dialogue between spokesmen of two different belief systems proves very telling. We find that the Igbo hierarchy of gods is not so different from the ecclesiastical system of Christianity. Both belief systems have a supreme god to whom all prayers ultimately go.

    Chapter Twenty-Two

    [After the unmasking of the egwugwu]: That night the Mother of the Spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her murdered son. It was a terrible night. Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such a strange and fearful sound, and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming – its own death. (22.10)

    To mourn the death of her son, the Mother of the Spirits laments loudly and strikes fear into the hearts of the Umuofia. The ancestral spirits are closely tied to humans and the land they live on. Thus, it seems the murder of one ancestral spirit portends the coming death of his people and the desecration of his land.

    One of the greatest crimes a man could commit was to unmask an egwugwu in public, or to say or do anything which might reduce its immortal prestige in the eyes of the uninitiated. And this was what Enoch did.

    The annual worship of the earth goddess fell on a Sunday, and the masked spirits were abroad. The Christian women who had been to church could not therefore go home. Some of their men had gone out to beg the egwugwu to retire for a short while for the women to pass. They agreed and were already retiring, when Enoch boasted aloud that they would not dare to touch a Christian. Whereupon they all came back and one of them gave Enoch a good stroke of the cane, which was always carried. Enoch fell on him and tore off his mask. The other egwugwu immediately surrounded their desecrated companion, to shield him from the profane gaze of women and children, and led them away. Enoch had killed an ancestral spirit, and Umuofia was thrown into confusion. (22.9-10)

    Unmasking an egwugwu spirit in public is akin to murder because it reduces the god to mortality.

  • Family

    Chapter Two

    “These sons of wild animals have dared to murder a daughter of Umuofia.”…And in a clear unemotional voice he told Umuofia how their daughter had gone to market at Mbaino and had been killed. (2.6)

    The speaker refers to the Umuofia clan as one big family. Thus, the murder of the girl is considered a blow to the family, and therefore a personal offense to everyone in Umuofia. Notice the speaker uses “their daughter” to describe the victim and thus riles up the crowd against the Mbaino.

    [Okonkwo] was a very strong man and rarely felt fatigue. But his wives and children were not as strong, and so they suffered. But they dared not complain openly. Okonkwo’s first son, Nwoye, was then twelve years old but was already causing his father great anxiety for his incipient laziness. At any rate, that was how it looked to his father, and he sought to correct him by constant nagging and beating. And so Nwoye was developing into a sad-faced youth. (2.13)

    As the head of his household, Okonkwo is free to be a tyrant and drive his wives and children to work too hard. Okonkwo’s loathing for laziness (carried over from his hatred of his father) causes him to lash out on anyone who seems the slightest bit idle, including his own son. By abusing his young son, it seems that Okonkwo is turning father-hating into a new trend in his family. Okonkwo hated his own father, and though he is trying to do right by his own son, he’s in fact only pushing the boy away.

    Chapter Three

    […] what made it worse in Okonkwo’s case was that he had to support his mother and two sisters from his meager harvest. And supporting his mother also meant supporting his father. She could not be expected cook and eat while her husband starved. And so at a very early age when he was striving desperately to build a barn through share-cropping Okonkwo was also fending for his father’s house. It was like pouring grains of corn into a bag full of holes. His mother and sisters worked hard enough, but they grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans and cassava. (3.28)

    Okonkwo, unlike his father, feels an obligation to provide for his family, even his lazy and ungrateful father. Since Okonkwo’s father does not work to be a good provider for his family, he is failure as a husband and father based on traditional Umuofia values. Because his father didn’t live up to his role as provider, Okonkwo had to break the usual family model and become the head of the household, providing for his mother and sisters.

    Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men usually had. He did not inherit a barn from his father. There was no barn to inherit. (3.1)

    Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, proves deficient in providing for his family. Based on the family roles valued in Igbo culture, one could argue that Unoka is a bad father.

    Anasi was the first wife and the others could not drink before her, and so they stood waiting.

    Anasi was a middle-aged woman, tall and strongly built. There was authority in her bearing and she looked every inch the ruler of the womenfolk in a large and prosperous family. She wore the anklet of her husband’s titles, which the first wife alone could wear.

    She walked up to her husband and accepted the horn from him. She then went down on one knee, drank a little and handed back the horn. She rose, called him by his name and went back to her hut. The other wives drank in the same way, in their proper order, and went away. (3.15-17)

    Families have very specific structures – multiple wives for a single man and a hierarchy of women within the household, all of whom are subservient to their husband.

    Chapter Four

    “Where are her [Ojiugo’s] children? Did she take them?” he asked with unusual coolness and restraint.

    “They are here,” answered his first wife, Nwoye’s mother. Okonkwo bent down and looked into her hut. Ojiugo’s children were eating with the children of his first wife. (4.13-14)

    Wives often look out for each other, banding together against their husband to minimize their suffering. Here, Nwoye’s mother takes care of Ojiugo’s children for her while she is out and even lies to Okonkwo to prevent too severe a punishment.

    Even Okonkwo himself became very fond of the boy – inwardly of course…there was no doubt that he liked the boy. Sometimes when he went to big village meetings or communal ancestral feasts he allowed Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son, carrying his stool and his goatskin bag. And, indeed, Ikemefuna called him father. (4.7)

    After a while, Okonkwo becomes so fond of Ikemefuna that he comes to think of him as a son. Ikemefuna reciprocates the feeling, adoring Okonkwo enough that he calls him his father. Out of affection, Okonkwo extends his notion of family to include Ikemefuna even though the boy isn’t related to him by blood or even clan membership.

    Ikemefuna had begun to feel like a member of Okonkwo’s family. He still thought about his mother and his three-year-old sister, and he had moments of sadness and depression. But he and Nwoye had become so deeply attached to each other that such moments became less frequent and less poignant. (4.38)

    Ikemefuna has lived long enough with Okonkwo’s family to start feeling like a part of it, especially since he has developed such a close relationship with Nwoye. To Ikemefuna, mutual affection is the basis of a family, not shared blood.

    Chapter Five

    Ekwefi ladled her husband’s share of the pottage into a bowl and covered it. Ezinma took it to him in his obi.

    Okonkwo was sitting on a goatskin already eating his first wife’s meal. Obiageli, who had brought it from her mother’s hut, sat on the floor waiting for him to finish…

    He uncovered his second wife’s dish and began to eat from it. Obiageli took the first dish and returned to her mother’s hut. And then Nkechi came in, bringing the third dish. Nkechi was the daughter of Okonkwo’s third wife. (5.54-65)

    In this family ritual, the husband eats one dish from each of his wives, in the order that he married them. The daughters of each wife bring in the dish to their father in the correct order. Domestic life is very organized in Igbo society.

    The three women talked excitedly about the relations who had been invited, and the children reveled in the thought of being spoiled by these visitors from the motherland. (5.5)

    The reunion of family members is an exciting prospect for the women, many of whom moved to a new village when they got married. They cannot wait to see their own blood relations.

    The Feast of the New Yam was approaching and Umuofia was in a festival mood. It was an occasion for giving thanks to Ani, the earth goddess and the source of all fertility. Ani played a greater part in the life of the people than any other deity. She was the ultimate judge of morality and conduct. And what was more, she was in close communion with the departed father of the clan whose bodies had been committed to the earth.

    The Feast of the New Yam was held every year before the harvest began, to honor the earth goddess and the ancestral spirits of the clan…So much was cooked that, no matter how heavily the family ate or how many friends and relatives they invited from neighboring villages, there was always a large quantity of food left over at the end of the day. (5.1-2)

    This feast is designed to celebrate the family. Ancestors are honored in the name of Ani, the earth goddess, who keeps their bodies in her hold. People also honor their current family by inviting all their relations to splurge at their feast.

    “Will you give Ezinma some fire to bring to me?” Her [Nwoye’s mother’s] own children and Ikemefuna had gone to the stream.

    Ekwefi put a few live coals into a piece of broken pot and Ezinma carried it across the clean swept compound to Nwoye’s mother.

    “Thank you, Nma,” she said. She was peeling new yams, and in a basket beside her were green vegetables and beans.

    “Let me make the fire for you,” Ezinma offered.

    “Thank you, Ezigbo,” she said. She often called her Ezigbo, which means “the good one.” (5.30-34)

    Women within the same family maintain a solidarity in which they help each other, putting aside personal jealousies, to keep the family running.

    Ezinma

    “Ekwefi,” she said, “is it true that when people are grown up, fire does not burn them?” Ezinma, unlike most children, called her mother by her name. (5.16)

    Ezinma is an anomaly in the Igbo family unit because she does not address her mother with a term of respect – like mother – but by her given name, as if they are equals.

    Chapter Six

    [Chielo]: “And how is my daughter, Ezinma?” (6.11)

    Chielo is so fond of Ezinma that she calls her “my daughter” even though she has no blood relation to her. Calling Ezinma by a name denoting a family relationship is a way of showing deep affection and love.

    Chapter Seven

    [Ezedu]: “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death.” (7.15)

    It is considered a crime to kill a member of your own family. Even though Okonkwo isn’t Ikemefuna’s father by blood, the boy thinks of Okonkwo as his father, so it might as well be the case as far as Ezedu is concerned.

    He could hardly imagine that Okonkwo was not his real father. He had never been fond of his real father, and at the end of three years he had become very distant indeed. (7.26)

    Because he considers Okonkwo his real father, Ikemefuna does not feel fear as he is led into the woods to be slaughtered. The boy considers himself Okonkwo’s true son because of the bond of affection they share – something which Ikemefuna lacked with his biological father.

    Chapter Eight
    Okonkwo

    Okonkwo did not taste any food for two days after the death of Ikemefuna. He drank palm-wine from morning till night, and his eyes were red and fierce like the eyes of a rat when it was caught by the tail and dashed against the floor. He called his son, Nwoye, to sit with him in his obi. But the boy was afraid of him and slipped out of the hut as soon as he noticed him dozing. (8.1)

    Even though social structure dictates that Okonkwo had the right to kill Ikemefuna since the boy was neither a blood relation or a clan member, Okonkwo feels horribly guilty. Okonkwo’s lack of appetite for two days gives away his guilty conscience. Even though the feeling was not backed up by clan laws, Okonkwo’s entire household considered Ikemefuna a member of the family because of their affection for him. Nwoye, for his part, now fears his father – if Okonkwo could murder his son Ikemefuna who he loved, what will prevent him from doing the same to the less favored son, Nwoye? When viewing Ikemefuna as a member of Okonkwo’s family, Okonkwo has failed as a father because he didn’t protect his son. At this point, Okonkwo’s family begins falling apart for lack of trust.

    Chapter Nine

    At last Ezinma was born, and although ailing she seemed determined to live. At first Ekwefi accepted her, as she had accepted others – with listless resignation. But when she lived on to her fourth, fifth and sixth years, love returned once more to her mother, and, with love, anxiety. She determined to nurse her child to health, and she put all her being into it. She was rewarded by occasional spells of health during which Ezinma bubbled with energy like fresh palm-wine. At such times she seemed beyond danger. But all of a sudden she would go down again…Ekwefi believed deep inside her that Ezinma had come to stay. She believed because it was that faith alone that gave her own life any kind of meaning. (9.25)

    Ekwefi’s sole reason for being is to nurture her daughter back to health. After so many disappointments, she pours all the frustrated love she’s held back into Ezinma. It could be said that she keeps Ezinma alive in those first fragile years by sheer force of will and love.

    Chapter Ten

    [Uzowulu]: “That woman standing there is my wife, Mgbafo. I married her with my money and my yams. I do not owe my in-laws anything. I owe them no yams. I owe them no coco-yams. One morning three of them came to my house, beat me up and took my wife and children away. This happened in the rainy season. I have waited in vain for my wife to return. At last I went to my in-laws and said to them, ‘You have taken back your sister. I did not send her away. You yourselves took her. The law of the clan is that you should return her bride-price.’ But my wife’s brothers said they had nothing to tell me. So I have brought the matter to the fathers of the clan. My case is finished. I salute you.” (10.24)

    Uzowulu’s case concerns the rights he has to his family by Igbo law. He wants either his wife back or the money he paid for her.

    Chapter Twelve

    On the following morning the entire neighborhood wore a festive air because Okonkwo’s friend, Obierika, was celebrating his daughter’s uri. It was the day on which her suitor (having already paid the greater part of her bride-price) would bring palm-wine not only to her parents and immediate relatives but to the wide and extensive group of kinsmen called umanna. Everybody had been invited – men, women and children. But it was really a woman’s ceremony and the central figures were the bride and her mother. (12.1)

    During a daughter’s uri, women are finally acknowledged as important parts of the family and given free rein to plan the festival and feast.

    Chapter Thirteen
    Obierika

    He [Obierika] remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. (13.16)

    Obierika regrets disposing of his twins just because the law decreed it so. But he understands that if a crime against the goddess goes unpunished, her wrath will fall not only upon the offender, but also upon his whole family and extended family – even the clan itself.

    Chapter Fourteen

    “Is it right that you, Okonkwo, should bring to your mother a heavy face and refuse to be comforted? Be careful or you may displease the dead. Your duty is to comfort your wives and children and take them back to your fatherland after seven years. But if you allow sorrow to weigh you down and kill you, they will all die in exile.” (14.32)

    Uchendu implies that Okonkwo has a duty to honor his mother by refusing to give way to despair. As the head of his household, he also has the responsibility of setting a positive example for his wives and children. If he does not do so, that is a crime. When crimes are committed, they always impact the entire family. Just as Okonkwo’s family must share in his exile, they may also fall to death if Okonkwo sins against his mother by despairing in his motherland.

    Okonkwo was well received by his mother’s kinsmen in Mbanta. The old man who received him was his mother’s younger brother, who was now the eldest surviving member of that family. His name was Uchendu, and it was he who had received Okonkwo’s mother twenty and ten years before when she had been brought home from Umuofia to be buried with her people. Okonkwo was only a boy then and Uchendu still remembered him crying the traditional farewell: “Mother, mother, mother is going.” (14.1)

    Though Uchendu has only seen Okonkwo once, he welcomes Okonkwo because he is family, no matter what kind of crime Okonkwo committed.

    Chapter Fifteen

    [Uchendu]: “I knew your father, Iweka. He was a great man. He had many friends here and came to see them quite often. Those were good days when a man had friends in distant clans. Your generation does not know that. You stay at home, afraid of your next-door neighbor. Even a man’s motherland is a strange to him nowadays.” (15.7)

    Uchendu criticizes the younger generation for falling out of touch with their relations in distant villages. The implication is that younger men have become so self-centered that they do not have time to think about and honor their extended family, especially if they live far away.

    Chapter Sixteen
    Nwoye

    “What are you doing here?” Obierika had asked when after many difficulties the missionaries had allowed him to speak to the boy.

    “I am one of them,” replied Nwoye.

    “How is your father?” Obierika asked, not knowing what else to say.

    “I don’t know. He is not my father,” said Nwoye, unhappily.

    And so Obierika went to Mbanta to see his friend. And he found that Okonkwo did not wish to speak about Nwoye. (16.3-6)

    Both parties – father and son – have expressed a wish to isolate themselves from each other and cut off all contact or means of association. Each is ashamed to be connected to the other now, Nwoye because he has never forgiven his father for killing Ikemefuna and Okonkwo, because of Nwoye’s new religion. Despite their shared blood, there is no affection or respect in their relationships, and thus they no longer consider each other to be family.

    “You told us with your own mouth that there was only one god. Now you talk about his son. He must have a wife, then.” The crowd agreed.

    “I did not say He had a wife,” said the interpreter, somewhat lamely.

    “Your buttocks said he had a son,” said the joker. So he must have a wife and all of them must have buttocks.” (16.20-22)

    The Igbo people understandably conclude that the missionaries must be mad to claim that a son of god has no mother. It goes against the very fabric of their society to make such a claim and breaks down the hierarchy of the family. They do not understand the concept of the immaculate conception or the Trinity.

    When they had all gathered, the white man began to speak…He spoke through an interpreter who was an Ibo man…He said he was one of them, as they could see from his color and his language. The other four black men were also their brothers, although one of them did not speak Ibo. The white man was also their brother because they were all sons of God. And he told them about this new God, the Creator of all the world and all the men and women. (16.9)

    The interpreter for the missionaries claims kinship with the Umuofia due to his skin color and language. However, he is mistaken in his claim of familiarity because his dialect is different enough to draw ridicule. Thus, his claims that the white man is also their brother because some arbitrary god said so is met with skepticism and downright scorn in the clan. Though the people of Umuofia do extend their understanding of family to their whole clan, kinship never expands to encompass other clans, and certainly not white men.

    Chapter Seventeen

    Mr. Kiaga’s joy was very great. “Blessed is he who forsakes his father and his mother for my sake,” he intoned. “Those that hear my words are my father and my mother.”

    Nwoye did not fully understand. But he was happy to leave his father. He would return later to his mother and his brothers and sisters and convert them to the new faith. (17.23-24)

    Christianity has concepts contradictory to Nwoye’s young mind. It asks followers to forsake their families to show loyalty to God. Yet at the same time, the religion reaffirms the sanctity of family in its very language, calling one’s peers brothers and sisters. While he’s happy to use his new religion as a justification for cutting ties with his father, Nwoye still loves his mother and sisters, and hopes eventually to bring them into his new family of Christian converts.

    Nneka had had four previous pregnancies and childbirths. But each time she had borne twins, and they had been immediately thrown away. Her husband and his family were already becoming highly critical of such a woman and were not unduly perturbed when they found she had fled to join the Christians. It was a good riddance. (17.13)

    In her crucial role as part of the family – the mother of her husband’s children – Nneka has failed and thus is deemed worthless to the family. Yet, it is this very worthlessness and forlornness that wins her a new family among the Christians.

    Chapter Eighteen

    [Mr. Kiaga]: “We are all children of God and we must receive these our brothers.” (18.8)

    Christianity encourages its followers to expand their notion of family to God as the father of all humans. Thus, Mr. Kiaga insists that all humans are his brothers and sisters and therefore he cannot refuse anyone – even the social outcasts – admission to his church.

    Chapter Nineteen

    [Uchendu]: “We are better than animals because we have kinsmen. An animal rubs its itching flank against a tree, a man asks his kinsman to scratch him.” (19.9)

    Uchendu celebrates family much as the Christians celebrate brotherhood, by claiming that everyone in the family must help one another. He considers the support a family gives one another the defining characteristic of humanity. Without family or respect for your family, you might as well be an animal.

    “It is good in these days when the younger generation consider themselves wiser than their sires to see a man doing things in the grand, old way. A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” (19.24)

    A family feast is not thrown to meet a family’s physical need for sustenance; it is a loftier event than that. A feast is a celebration of the family’s kinship.

    “But I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you; I fear for you the clan.” (19.24)

    This elder laments that the family of the clan has fallen apart and turned upon each other. He believes that Christianity is bad because it has motivated the break of up individual families and the solidarity of the clan. The clan is no longer “one voice” that speaks or one united body that acts for the good of all.

    Chapter Twenty
    Obierika

    [Obierika]: “How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has a put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (20.26)

    Okonkwo’s family, the tribe, has fallen apart because it has crumbled from within. The family of tribal brothers has turned against one another and can no longer act as a group. Now, opposing the missionaries means opposing the tribal brothers as well.

    Chapter Twenty-Two

    [After the unmasking of an egwugwu]: That night the Mother of the Spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her murdered son. It was a terrible night. Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such a strange and fearful sound, and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming – its own death. (22.10)

    The Umuofia consider the egwugwu part of their family – the spirits of their great ancestors. When an egwugwu is murdered by being unmasked, the crime can be considered an extreme case of patricide – the murder of one of the great fathers of the land.

    Chapter Twenty-Four

    “This is a great gathering. No clan can boast of greater numbers of greater valor. But are we all here? I ask you: Are all the sons of Umuofia with us here?” A deep murmur swept through the crowd.

    “They are not,” he said. “They have broken the clan and gone their several ways. We who are here this morning have remained true to our fathers, but our brothers have deserted us and joined a stranger to soil their fatherland. If we fight the stranger we shall hit our brothers and perhaps shed the blood of a clansman. But we must do it. Our fathers never dreamed of such a thing, they never killed their brothers. But a white man never came to them. So we must do what our fathers would never have done.” (24.32-33)

    An elder claims that the broken family of Umuofia is the single most important reason that they should go to war, even if it means harming their own brothers who have defected to join the missionaries. It shows how far the Umuofia have fallen that they see the necessity to commit the ultimate crime – brothers must kill their own brothers in order to save the clan/family as a whole.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Chapter Two

    During the planting season Okonkwo worked daily on his farms from cock-crow until the chickens went to roost. (2.13)

    Okonkwo’s hard labor out in the fields suggests the Umuofia survive by agriculture. They depend on the generosity of the earth for their survival.

    Chapter Three

    The year that Okonkwo took eight hundred seed-yams from Nwakibie was the worst year in living memory. Nothing happened at its proper time; it was either too early or too late. It seemed as if the world had gone mad. The first rains were late, and, when they came, lasted only a brief moment. The blazing sun returned, more fierce than it had ever been known, and scorched all the green that had appeared with the rains. The earth burned like hot coals and roasted all the yams that had been sown. Like all good farmers, Okonkwo had began to sow with the first rains. He had sown four hundred seeds when the rains dried up and the heat returned. He watched the sky all day for signs of rain clouds and lay awake all night. In the morning he went back to his farm and saw the withering tendrils. He had tried to protect them from the smoldering earth by making rings of thick sisal leaves around them. But by the end of the day the sisal rings were burned dry and gray. He changed them every day, and prayed that the rain might fall in the night. But the drought continued for eight market weeks and the yams were killed…

    Okonkwo planted what was left of his seed-yams when the rains finally returned. He had one consolation. The yams he had sown before the drought were his own, the harvest of the previous. He still had the eight hundred from Nwakibie and the four hundred from his father’s friend. So he would make a fresh start.

    But the year had gone mad. Rain fell as it had never fallen before. For days and nights together it poured down in violent torrents, and washed away the yam heaps. Trees were uprooted and deep gorges appeared everywhere. Then the rain became less violent. But it went from day to day without a pause. The spell of sunshine which always came in the middle of the wet season did not appear. The yams put on luxuriant green leaves, but every farmer knew that without sunshine the tubers would not grow.

    That year the harvest was sad, like a funeral, and many farmers wept as they dug up the miserable and rotting yams. One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself. (3.29-33)

    Okonkwo’s destiny, and indeed the future of the people of Umuofia, is decided by the vicissitudes of nature. Their crops depend on the rain and sun for survival. The fact that drought, and then flooding, kills the yam crop means a year of going hungry and maybe starvation.

    Chapter Four

    Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, who was two years younger, because quite inseparable from him [Ikemefuna] because he seemed to know everything. He could fashion out flutes from bamboo stems and even from the elephant grass. He knew the names of all the birds and could set clever traps for the little bush rodents. And he knew which tress made the strongest bows. (4.6)

    Ikemefuna is familiar with all the blessings of the earth, knowledgeable about how to make delightful crafts from all sorts of raw foliage and also how to find food in the wild. By tying Ikemefuna to the earth, Achebe clearly depicts Okonkwo’s murder of Ikemefuna as a direct crime against the earth.

    Yam, the king of crops, was a very exacting king. For three or four moons it demanded hard work and constant attention from cock-crow till the chickens went back to roost. The young tendrils were protected from earth-heat with rings of sisal leaves. As the rains became heavier the women planted maize, melons and beans between yam mounds. The yams were then staked, first with little sticks and later with tall and big tree branches. The women weeded the farm three times at definite periods in the life of the yams, neither early not late.

    And now the rains had really come, so heavy and persistent that even the village rain-maker no longer claimed to be able to intervene. He could not stop the rain now, just as he would not attempt to start it in the heart of the dry season, without serious danger to his own health. The personal dynamism required to counter the forces of these extremes of weather would be far too great for the human frame.

    And so nature was not interfered with in the middle of the rainy season. Sometimes it poured down in such thick sheets of water that earth and sky seemed merged in one gray wetness. It was then uncertain whether the low rumbling of Amadiora’s thunder came from above or below. At such times, in each of the countless thatched huts of Umuofia, children sat around their mother’s cooking fire telling stories, or with their father in his obi warming themselves from a log fire, roasting and eating maize. It was a brief resting period between the exacting and arduous planting season and the equally exacting but light-hearted month of harvests. (4.35-37)

    Yams require a good deal of attention to grow successfully. But the planting season is not all hard work and no play; the advent of the rainy season brings lots of eating, storytelling, and enjoyment of family company indoors. Rain is so crucial to their survival that the Umuofia associate it with the godly world.

    Chapter Seven

    “Locusts are descending,” was joyfully chanted everywhere, and men, women and children left their work or their play and ran into the open to see the unfamiliar sight. The locusts had not come for many, many years, and only the old people had seen them before.

    […]

    Everyone was now about, talking excitedly and praying that the locusts should camp in Umuofia for the night. For although locusts had not visited Umuofia for many years, everybody knew by instinct that they were very good to eat. And at last the locusts did descend. They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass; they settled on the roofs and covered the bare ground. Mighty tree branches broke away under them, and the whole country became the brown-earth color of the vast, hungry swarm.

    Many people went out with baskets trying to catch them, but the elders counseled patience till nightfall. And they were right. The locusts settled in the bushes for the night and their wings became wet with dew. Then all Umuofia turned out in spite of the cold harmattan, and everyone filled his bags and pots with locusts. The next morning they were roasted in clay pots and then spread in the sun until they became dry and brittle. And for many days this rare food was eaten with solid palm-oil. (7.10-13)

    The Umuofia capitalize on natural phenomenon, such as this locust plague. They live off what nature provides them with and don’t shun any of the gifts nature offers.

    For three years Ikemefuna lived in Okonkwo’s household and the elders of Umuofia seemed to have forgotten about him. He grew rapidly like a yam tendril in the rainy season, and was full of the sap of life. (7.1)

    Because he is so closely tied to the earth, Ikemefuna’s growth and development are described in terms of youth present in the natural world – yam tendrils and sap.

    The footway had now become a narrow line in the heart of the forest. The short trees and sparse undergrowth which surrounded the men’s village began to give way to giant trees and climbers which perhaps had stood from the beginning of things, untouched by the ax and the bush-fire. The sun breaking through their leaves and branches threw a pattern of light and shade on the sandy footway. (7.23)

    Achebe describes the forest in these terms to highlight the difference between the civilized world of the village and the wilderness of untamed nature. It also sets an ominous mood that foreshadows Ikemefuna’s death. The description of the “giant trees” as fossils of the “beginning of things” refers to the primeval nature of the wilderness which has changed only minimally over time and has barely registered the coming of man.

    Nwoye knew that it was right to be masculine and to be violent, but somehow he still preferred the stories that his mother used to tell, and which she no doubt still told to her younger children – stories of the tortoise and his wily ways, and of the bird eneke-nti-oba who challenged the whole world to a wrestling contest and was finally thrown by the cat. He remembered the story she often told of the quarrel between Earth and Sky long ago, and how Sky withheld rain for seven years, until crops withered and the dead could not be buried because the hoes broke on the stony Earth. At last Vulture was sent to plead with Sky, and to soften his heart with a song of the suffering of the sons of men. Whenever Nwoye’s mother sang this song he felt carried away to the distant scene in the sky where Vulture, Earth’s emissary, sang for mercy. At last Sky was moved to pity, and he gave to Vulture rain wrapped in leaves of coco-yam. But as he flew home his long talon pierced the leaves and the rain fell as it had never fallen before. And so heavily did it rain on Vulture that he did not return to deliver his message but flew to a distant land, from where he had espied a fire. And when he got there he found it was a man making a sacrifice. He warmed himself in the fire and ate the entrails. (7.3)

    Nwoye is inexplicably drawn to stories that anthropomorphize nature and its creatures. The implication here seems to be that children – being innocent and pure in their youth – are naturally drawn to mother earth in all its wonder, even when it is only in words. There is something fantastic about imagining the natural elements and animals with human personas, it seems to draw connections between man and the natural world. These stories, to Nwoye, are more fascinating than the completely human-centered stories of violence and bloodshed.

    Chapter Eight
    Okonkwo

    The men in the obi had already begun to drink the palm-wine which Akueke’s suitor had brought. It was a very good wine and powerful, for in spite of the palm fruit hung across the mouth of the pot to restrain the lively liquor, white foam rose and spilled over.

    “That wine is the work of a good tapper,” said Okonkwo.

    The young suitor, whose name was Ibe, smiled broadly and said to his father: “Do you heart that?” He then said to the others: “He will never admit that I am a good tapper.”

    “He tapped three of my best palm trees to death,” said his father, Ukebgu. (8.70-73)

    In this scene, the men condemn the killing of trees for wine while simultaneously enjoying that same wine. The earth here acts as both provider and victim of men.

    Chapter Nine
    Okonkwo

    “It is iba,” said Okonkwo as he took his machete and went into the bush to collect the leaves and grasses and barks of tree that went into making the medicine for iba. (9.7)

    The earth provides ways for humans to combat disease. This furthers the idea that sickness is an abomination to the earth.

    Chapter Eleven

    The priestess’ voice was already growing faint in the distance. Ekwefi hurried to the main footpath and turned left in the direction of the voice. Her eyes were useless to her in the darkness. But she picked her way easily on the sandy footpath hedged on either side by branches and damp leaves. She began to run, holding her breasts with her hands to stop them flapping noisily against her body. She hit her left foot against an outcropped root, and terror seized her. It was an ill omen. She ran faster…Although the night was cool, Ekwefi was beginning to feel hot from her running. She continually ran into the luxuriant weeds and creepers that walled in the path. Once she tripped up and fell. (11.52)

    The wilderness seems to be working against Ekwefi, keeping her from reaching her abducted daughter, blinding her to the path, and inspiring fear in her.

    Chapter Thirteen

    As soon as the day broke, a large crowd of men from Ezeudu’s quarter stormed Okonkwo’s compound, dressed in garbs of war. They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn. It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely her messengers. They had no hatred in their hearts again Okonkwo. His greatest friend, Obierika, was among them. They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a clansman. (13.15)

    The Umuofia believe that killing a brother clansman is a sin against the earth – the provider of life, the matchless nurturer of life, and the ultimate mother. The village believes that the earth will turn against them if the sin isn’t atoned for.

    Chapter Fourteen

    At last the rain came. It was sudden tremendous. For two or three moons the sun had been gathering strength till it seemed to breathe a breath of fire on the earth. All the grass had long been scorched brown, and the sands felt like live coals to the feet. Evergreen trees wore a dusty coat of brown. The birds were silenced in the forests, and the world lay panting under the live, vibrating heat. And then came the clap of thunder. It was an angry, metallic and thirsty clap, unlike the deep and liquid rumbling of the rainy season. A mighty wind arose and filled the air with dust. Palm trees swayed as the wind combed their leaves into flying crests like strange and fantastic coiffure.

    When the rain finally came, it was in large, solid drops of frozen water which the people called “the nuts of the water of heaven.” They were hard and painful on the body as they fell, yet young people ran about happily picking up the cold nuts and throwing them into their mouths to melt.

    The earth quickly came to life and the birds in the forest fluttered around and chirped merrily. A vague scent of life and green vegetation was diffused in the air. As the rain began to fall more soberly and in smaller liquid drops, children sought for shelter, and all were happy, refreshed and thankful. (14.4-6)

    The Umuofia people are at the mercy of nature; they depend on the timely arrival of the rains for their crops. Here, the earth is characterized as an entity separate from the sky. The earth, too, depends on the sky’s providence to renew her life every rainy season.

    Chapter Sixteen

    But there was a young lad who had been captivated. His name was Nwoye, Okonkwo’s first son. It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul – the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth. (16.24)

    Nwoye sees the missionaries’ hymn as such a source of relief that he is compared to the thirsty earth drinking in rain. This comparison is especially appropriate since children throughout the novel are particularly affiliated with the earth, while rain (like the hymn) is associated with the heavens (or sky). For Nwoye, Christianity will prove to be his new wellspring, a means of rebirth, just as seasonal rains renew the floral life of the earth.

    Chapter Seventeen

    Every clan and village had its “evil forest.” In it were buried all those who died of the really evil diseases, like leprosy and smallpox. It was also the dumping ground for the potent fetishes of great medicine men when they died. An “evil forest” was, therefore, alive with sinister forces and powers of darkness. It was such a forest that the rulers of Mbanta gave to the missionaries. They did not really want them in the clan, and so they made them that offer which nobody in his right senses would accept. (17.3)

    This “evil forest” represents the unknown (and potentially evil) side of nature – the wilderness, an untamed place often hostile to men.

    Chapter Nineteen

    The last big rains of the year were falling. It was the time for treading red earth with which to build walls. It was not done earlier because the rains were too heavy and would have washed away the heap of trodden earth; and it could not done later because harvesting would soon set in, and after that the dry season. (19.1)

    Nature’s seasons determine the Umuofia calendar. The implied message is that if the Umuofia don’t follow nature’s calendar, the earth can cause damage as easily as it can provide and nurture.

    Ekwefi rose early on the following morning and went to her farm with her daughter, Ezinma, and Ojiugo’s daughter, Obiageli, to harvest cassava tubers. Each of them carried a long cane basket, a machete for cutting down the soft cassava stem, and a little hoe for digging out the tuber. Fortunately, a light rain had fallen during the night and the soil would not be very hard…

    The harvesting was easy, as Ekwefi had said. Ezinma shook every tree violently with a long stick before she bent down to cut the stem and dig out the tuber. Sometimes it was not necessary to dig. They just pulled the stump, and earth rose, roots snapped below, and the tuber was pulled out. (19.8-12)

    It’s appropriate that the women, the human equivalents of the mother earth, reap the riches of the earth for a banquet. The trope of the banquet is not only meal but a celebration of food and family that encapsulates everything the nurturing earth stands for. Here, nature shows compassion towards the women by sprinkling a light rain on the soil to make digging for tubers especially easy.

    Chapter Twenty-Two

    The annual worship of the earth goddess fell on a Sunday, and the masked spirits were abroad. The Christian women who had been to church could not therefore go home. Some of their men had gone out to beg the egwugwu to retire for a short while for the women to pass. They agreed and were already retiring, when Enoch boasted aloud that they would dare to touch a Christian. Whereupon they all came back and one of them gave Enoch a good stroke of the cane, which was always carried. (22.9)

    This scene depicts the worshippers of the earth coming into conflict with the upstart new religion, Christianity.

    Chapter Twenty-Four

    The courthouse, like the church, was built a little way outside the village. The footpath that linked them was a very busy one because it also led to the stream, beyond the court. It was open and sandy. Footpaths were open and sandy in the dry season. But when the rains came the bush grew thick on either side and closed in on the path. It was now dry season. (24.2)

    The Christians place their courthouse and church at a strategic spot, one that reaps benefits from the earth (through the stream) and makes their buildings impossible for the Umuofia to avoid. However, the earth seems set against the Christians, closing off the footpath linking the church to the village during the rainy season.

    Chapter Twenty-Five
    Obierika

    [Obierika on Okonkwo’s corpse]: “It is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offense against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it. That is why we ask your people to bring him down, because you are strangers.” (25.15)

    Suicide is a sin against the earth because people in fact owe their lives to the fertility and life-giving nature of the earth. Killing oneself is akin to thumbing one’s nose at the earth’s generosity.

  • Sin

    Chapter Three

    He [Unoka] died of the swelling which was an abomination to the earth goddess. When a man was afflicted with swelling in the stomach and the limbs he was not allowed to die in the house. He was carried to the Evil Forest and left there to die. There was the story of a very stubborn man who staggered back to his house and had to be carried again to the forest and tied to a tree. The sickness was an abomination to the earth, and so the victim could not be buried in her bowels. He died and rotted away above the earth, and was not given the first of the second burial. Such was Unoka’s fate. (3.8)

    The lazy Unoka dies of some kind of abominable illness. His death seems to be a sort of divine justice, paying him back for sinning against his family by not providing for them.

    Chapter Four

    [Ezeani]: “We live in peace with our fellows to honor our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops would not grow. You have committed a great evil [….] Your wife was at fault, but even if you came into your obi and found her lover on top of her, you would still have committed a great evil to beat her…The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish.” His tone now changed from anger to command. “You will bring to the shrine of Ani tomorrow one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries.” (4.22)

    Ezeani pronounces Okonkwo’s beating of his wife a sin against the goddess and warns that his sin could have drastic consequences, ones that affect the whole clan. He sets Okonkwo’s punishment at an animal sacrifice and payment. The punishment seems strangely small in comparison to the possible consequences of the crime. Overall, it seems that gods require sinners to acknowledge their wrongs.

    [Ezeani]: “Take away your kola nut. I shall not eat in the house of a man who has no respect for our gods and ancestors. (4.20)

    The priest of the earth goddess, Ezeani, doesn’t just condemn Okonkwo because it was uncool of Okonkwo to sin against the earth goddess (by beating his wife during Peace Week). The people of Umuofia believe that when one man commits a sin against the goddess, she will punish the entire village, not just the offender, unless the sin is atoned for. Thus the people of Umuofia live an interdependent lifestyle with each man’s behavior having consequences on the rest of the clan.

    He walked back to his obi to await Ojiugo’s return. And when she returned he beat her very heavily. In his anger he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm pleading with him that it was the sacred week. But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess. (4.17)

    Okonkwo commits a sin against the earth goddess by beating his wife during the Week of Peace. This is an example of a sin that seems pretty arbitrary. We think it’s bad to beat your wife at all, but apparently the earth goddess thinks domestic abuse is OK long as it isn’t during Peace Week. Regardless, what seems worse than inadvertently committing violence during a period of peace is that Okonkwo deliberately continues to sin even when he realizes his transgression. He seems to lack fear and respect for the goddess.

    Chapter Eight
    Obierika

    [Obierika]: “And let me tell you one thing, my friend. If I were you I would have stayed home. What you have done will not please the Earth. It is the kind of action for which the goddess wipes out whole families.” (8.26)

    Killing family members and killing clansmen are both considered sins against the earth goddess. However, Ikemefuna was neither Okonkwo’s son by blood nor was he a member of the Umuofia clan. As a result, the community doesn’t force punishment on Okonkwo. However, Obierika, who tends to be wise, thinks that Ikemefuna was Okonkwo’s son – Okonkwo treated the boy like a son, and Ikemefuna though of Okonkwo as his father. Obierika believes that the earth goddess will agree. Is Okonkwo’s subsequently poor luck all because of he doesn’t atone for the sin of killing Ikemefuna?

    Chapter Nine

    The medicine man then ordered that there should be no mourning for the dead child. He brought out a sharp razor from the goatskin bag slung from his left shoulder and began to mutilate the child. Then he took it away to bury in the Evil Forest, holding it by the ankle and dragging it on the ground behind him. After such treatment it would think twice before coming again, unless it was one of the stubborn ones who returned, carrying the stamp of their mutilation – a missing finger or perhaps a dark line where the medicine man’s razor had cut them. (9.23)

    Unlike in normal circumstances, here it is a sin for a child to be born because that child is a demonic spirit posing as an innocent human baby. Thus, what seems like a sinful ritual – mutilating the corpses of babies – is actually used to prevent further sins in the rebirth of evil.

    Chapter Eleven
    Ezinma

    [In Ekwefi’s story] “The birds gathered round to eat what was left and to peck at the bones he had thrown all about the floor. Some of them were too angry to eat. They chose to fly home on an empty stomach. But before they left each took back the feather he had lent to Tortoise. And there he stood in his hard shell full of food and wine but without any wings to fly home. He asked the birds to take a message for his wife, but they all refused. In the end Parrot, who had felt more angry than the others; suddenly changed his mind and agreed to take the message.

    ‘Tell my wife,’ said Tortoise, ‘to bring out all the soft things in my house and cover and compound with them so that I can jump down from the sky without very great danger.’

    Parrot promised to deliver the message, and then flew away. But when he reached Tortoise’s house he told his wife to bring out all the hard things in the house. And so she brought out her husband’s hoes, machetes, spears, guns and even his cannon. Tortoise looked down from the sky and saw his wife bringing things out, but it was too far to see what they were. When all seemed ready he let himself go. He fell and fell and fell until he began to fear that he would never stop falling. And then like the sound of his cannon he crashed on the compound.”

    “Did he die?” asked Ezinma.

    “No,” replied Ekwefi. “His shell broke into pieces. But there was a great medicine man in the neighborhood. Tortoise’s wife sent for him and he gathered all the bits of shell and stuck them together. That is why Tortoise’s shell is not smooth.” (11.20-24)

    The laws of the earth goddess are illustrated even in folktales. Here, Tortoise has sinned by not allowing his fellow creatures to partake of the food that the earth offered for all her children. As punishment, one of his brothers turns against him and the earth herself breaks his shell.

    Chapter Thirteen

    And then from the center of the delirious fury came a cry of agony and shouts of horror. It was as if a spell had been cast. All was silent. In the center of the crowd a boy lay in a pool of blood. It was the dead man’s sixteen-year-old-son, who with his brothers and half-brothers had been dancing the traditional farewell to their father. Okonkwo’s gun had exploded and a piece of iron had pierced the boy’s heart.

    The confusion that followed was without parallel in the tradition of Umuofia. Violent deaths were frequent, but nothing like this had ever happened.

    The only course open to Okonkwo was to flee from the clan. It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land. The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female, because it had been inadvertent. He could return to the clan after seven years…

    As soon as the day broke, a large crowd of men from Ezedu’s quarter stormed Okonkwo’s compound, dressed in garbs of war. They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn. It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely her messengers. They had no hatred in their hearts against Okonkwo. His greatest friend, Obierika, was among them. They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a clansman. (13.12-15)

    It is a sin against the earth to kill a clansman, a member of one’s extended family. Thus, Okonkwo must atone for his sin, or bring the wrath of the goddess down on the entire clan. The danger is so great to the whole village, and many of the village men band together to join in cleansing the earth and appeasing the goddess.

    Obierika

    [Obierika on Okonkwo’s exile]: Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. (13.16)

    Obierika is torn about the consequences of so-called sins. He wonders why intention is never taken into account. Punishment seems to come whether or not a forbidden act was premeditated. Do you think that Okonkwo should be punished for accidentally killing the boy at the funeral? Is this just karmic payback for sinning by killing Ikemefuna?

    Chapter Fourteen

    [Uchendu]: “A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme. Is it right that you, Okonkwo, should bring to your mother a heavy face and refuse to be comforted? Be careful or you may displease the dead. Your duty is to comfort your wives and children and take them back to your fatherland after seven years. But if you allow sorrow to weigh you down and kill you, they will all die in exile.” (14.32)

    In Okonkwo’s culture, disrespecting your family is a sin. According to Uchendu, Okonkwo is committing a sin by despairing while in exile here in his motherland. Not only is he is dishonoring his mother who raised and nurtured him, but he disrespects his wives and children by not setting a positive example for them in exile. If he doesn’t shape up, he’s not the only one who will suffer the consequences, his family will too. Again we see that sin is a community affair and not just the private business of a single individual.

    Chapter Seventeen

    Now that he had time to think of it, his son’s crime stood out in its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination. Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye’s steps and abandon their ancestors. Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation. (17.25)

    Okonkwo considers his son’s betrayal as evil and a sin. Is Nwoye’s behavior a sin, though, or is it another way that the goddess or karma is punishing Okonkwo for killing Ikemefuna?

    Chapter Eighteen

    It was in fact one of them [a former osu] who in his zeal brought the church into serious conflict with the clan a year later by killing the sacred python, the emanation of the god of water.

    The royal python was the most revered animal in Mbanta and all the surrounding clans. It was addressed as “Our Father,” and was allowed to go wherever it chose, even into people’s beds. It ate rats in the house and sometimes swallowed hens’ eggs. If a clansman killed a royal python accidentally, he made sacrifices of atonement and performed an expensive burial ceremony such as was done for a great man. No punishment was prescribed for a man who killed the python knowingly. Nobody thought that such a thing could ever happen. (18.16-17)

    The killing of the sacred python is obviously a sin since that particular snake is the physical manifestation of a god. However, the very thought of killing it intentionally is so unthinkable that the Mbanta are reluctant to admit it might have happened.

    Chapter Twenty-Two

    One of the greatest crimes a man could commit was to unmask an egwugwu in public, or to say or do anything which might reduce its immortal prestige in the eyes of the uninitiated. And this was what Enoch did.

    The annual worship of the earth goddess fell on a Sunday, and the masked spirits were abroad. The Christian women who had been to church could not therefore go home. Some of their men had gone out to beg the egwugwu to retire for a short while for the women to pass. They agreed and were already retiring, when Enoch boasted aloud that they would not dare to touch a Christian. Whereupon they all came back and one of them gave Enoch a good stroke of the cane, which was always carried. Enoch fell on him and tore off his mask. The other egwugwu immediately surrounded their desecrated companion, to shield him from the profane gaze of women and children, and led them away. Enoch had killed an ancestral spirit, and Umuofia was thrown into confusion. (22.9-10)

    By unmasking the egwugwu, Enoch has committed a sin, especially since he baited the egwugwu into striking him. The action of unmasking is, in effect, killing the spirit because once revealed as a human body, he is made mortal. Many of the sins in Umuofia relate to killing family members. Here, Enoch, in a sense, has killed a family member because the egwugwu are ancestral spirits.

    Chapter Twenty-Five
    Obierika

    [Obierika on Okonkwo’s corpse]: “It is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offense against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it. That is why we ask your people to bring him down, because you are strangers.” (25.15)

    Suicide can be seen as a crime against the earth because the goddess provides people with life, therefore spilling your own blood is disrespecting the gift of life that the earth goddess granted.