The culture of the Umuofia society before the colonial
infiltration, may be hard to understand but we are forced by
Achebe to realize it has traditions and customs that make it
work. Although, looking at it from our Judaeo-Christian point of
view we may be appalled by some of their practices. We also have
to realize that they have strengths.
Things Fall apart is the idea of balance and
interdependence, earth and sky, individual and community, man and
woman or different perspectives on the same situation. The
central image of this balance is contained in the Ibo concept of
"chi," which occurs throughout the novel. A persons "chi" is
their destiny, his inner self, "you wouldn't challenge your "chi"
to a wrestling match," as did Okonkwo when he assisted in the
killing of Ikemefuna, whom he loved and who called him father.
Okonkwo sins not only against the earth goddess, protector of
family relations, but also against his inner most feelings or his
"chi." Any bad luck that occurs, people of this culture would
say that you have a bad "chi."
Okonkwo's destiny is marked by bad luck, one reason may be
that he is so driven by the fear of resembling his father that he
struggles to repress part of his personality with predictably
This was a society where a man was judged by his own
achievement and not that of his fathers. Yams were the primary
crop of Umuofia. A sign of manliness was if you could farm yams
to feed your family. Okonkwo is respected because of his hard
The complex patterns of Umuofia's economic and social
customs materialize throughout this novel as we see Okonkwo
compelled to rid himself of any similarities that his father had.
Unoka had no titles, was lazy and when he died was greatly in
Some may wonder how a society like the Ibo's functioned, how
they enforce its laws with no kings, no organized police force,
and no standing army. Indeed this is something our "modern"
culture could study. These things were accomplished through the
functions of the masked spirits.
The Egwugwu, represents the village's highest spiritual and
judicial authority. The masked spirits are believed to represent
their ancestors. This supports the myth "The land of the living
was not far removed from the domain of the ancestors." There was
a coming and going between them, especially at festivals and also
when an old man died because an old man was very close to the
ancestors, as we saw when Ezeudu died. "A man's life from birth
to death was a series of transitional rites which brought him
nearer and nearer to his ancestors."
The Egwugwu is made up of the "titled" men of the village,
they have legal, moral and religious authority. They have a
working system of peace and order. this is demonstrated by the
trial of Uzowulu for beating his wife.
They had a sense of community, the week of peace came at
the end of the carefree season and before the harvest and
planting season. During the week of peace "Okonkwo broke the
peace and was punished, as was the custom, by Ezeani, the priest
of the earth goddess." He told Okonkwo, even though his wife was
at may have been at fault, he committed a great evil. During the
Week of Peace you are to live in complete peace no matter what
the circumstances, "the evil he did could ruin the whole clan."
The feast of the New Yam is similar to our Thanksgiving, it
was held every year before the harvest began, to honor the earth
goddess and the ancestral spirits of the clan. The second day
of the new year was the day of the great wrestling match between
Okonkwo's village and their neighbors. Okonkwo's second wife
Ekwefi, loved this festival. Many years ago when she was the
village beauty, Okonkwo had won her heart by throwing the Cat in
the greatest contest. She did not marry him then because he
could not afford he bride price. In this culture they bargained
over a bride price in Ekwefi's case it had been a cow, being a
symbol of wealth which he repaid to her first husband after she
ran away to be with Okonkwo.
Through the marriage of Obierka's daughter we see traditions
of their weddings. The wedding was really a woman's ceromony,
the central figures, just as in our culture were the bride and
her mother. The celebration of Uri, which is the day preceding
the wedding, everyone is invited. On this day the brides suitor
brings palm-wine, not only for the bride's parents and immediate
relatives but also for the wide group of kinsmen.
The bride and her mother go around in a circle shaking hands
with all the guests. The brides father then presents Kola-nuts
to his in-laws, (Kola-nuts signifies hospitality) he tells them
he is giving them his daughter and that she will be a good wife.
They eat and drink all day, it was a great celebration and
at night they all danced.
Myths represent a persons' perception of the deepest truth
about nature. Myths and legends had a two-fold purpose to
provide and explain history and beliefs of the Ibo people, while
at the same time to show the rise and fall of Okonkwo and his
culture. They did this through stories such as The Birds and the
Tortoise. The Tortoise is the story of the sudden rise and fall
of Tortoise, just as Things Fall Apart is the story of the rise
and fall of Okonkwo and his clan. The story says that the birds
lent the tortoise their feathers so he could accompany them to
the sky. Okonkwo was treated with great honor and respect,
just as the birds took the tortoise "as the king of the birds."
After Okonkwo was evelated to the membership of the greatest
decision making body in the land, he is exiled to Mbanta,
abandoned even by his closest friends who took a part in
destroying his home. After the Tortoise is brought to the
highest place in the sky, there he is abandoned by all the
birds, his former friends. The Tortoise sends words to his wife
to arrange for his survival. This is the same for Okonkwo's
flight to his maternal land and he turns to his family for
survival. The tale tells us that the Tortoise's wife was
misinstructed and "he fell and his shell broke into pieces."
This reflects Okonkwo's return from exile only to find Umuofia
"breaking up and falling apart." The tale says that a great
medicine man gathered all the bits of shell and stuck them
together to give the tortoise his tough skin. After Okonkwo's
suicide, the tribe, though broken, was held together and stuck
together. The Tortoise survives, a patchwork of himself, just as
Ibo clanship survives. The simple tale of the birds and the
tortoise is the outline of the whole novel. These stories are
told as entertainment, however they pass along belief about
There are many weaknesses in this society as in all
societies the superstitions, on dark nights the children were
warned not even to whistle for fear of evel spirits were near. A
snake was called a string because they feared that it could
The week of peace has no rational connection with the
success of crops.
The cruelty of the killing of newborn twins, they are left
in the wilderness to die. The murder of Ikemefuna had no
This society has no tolerance for people who are different,
or don't conform such as Nwoye, Okonkwo's son, he doesn't fit in
and therefore is rejected turning only to Christianity.
Achebe wrote this novel after reading Joyce Cary's Mister
Johnson, he was outraged by the way Africans were perceived, he
wrote this novel from "the inside." He wanted to communicate to
the world that African societies were not mindless or barbaric,
and that the colonial infiltration disturbed the unity and the
balance of what was once a very dignified society and he did.
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