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.
“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.
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]: “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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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!”
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.
[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.
[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.”
This is not the first time my people have come to marry your daughter. My mother was one of you.”
“Prosperous men and great warriors.” He looked in the direction of Okonkwo. “Your daughter will bear us sons like you.”
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.
[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.
“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.
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.
[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.
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.
[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.
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.
“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.
[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.
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.
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.