Study Guide

Things Fall Apart Traditions and Customs Quotes

By Chinua Achebe

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.

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