In Chapter 10 we learn about the legal system of the tribe in Things Fall Apart. How does this legal system compare with the American legal system?

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When seeking to understand in what ways, if any, the legal system that Chinua Achebe depicts in his epic work Things Fall Apart compares with the American legal system, it is best that we examine the system of judgment and punishment that governs the people of Umuofia.

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When seeking to understand in what ways, if any, the legal system that Chinua Achebe depicts in his epic work Things Fall Apart compares with the American legal system, it is best that we examine the system of judgment and punishment that governs the people of Umuofia.

There are several distinct features found in Umuofia’s legal system that most Americans would protest. Within Umuofia, an extremely patriarchal society, women are not allowed to participate in legal proceedings. They are only allowed to watch the process, which includes an accuser issuing a complaint against an accused person, who is allowed to mount a defense against the charges. The above proceedings occur in front of nine masked figures, the egwugwu, who served as judges. As with all other things in Umuofia before European colonization, the legal system rests solely on tradition. Hence, it is understandable that a masked egwugwu represents each of the nine villages. After the presentation of the cases, the nine spirits, led by the Evil Forest spirit, retreat from public view to deliberate. The egwugwu announces the verdict in public.

There are obvious similarities between the legal systems of Umuofia and the United States of America, such as the presence of a plaintiff, defendant, and judge. The similarities extend into the classification of crimes as being either one that is intentionally perpetrated (what in Umuofia is called a masculine crime) or one that is accidental or non-malicious (what in Umuofia is called a feminine crime):

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.

If pressed to cite a significant difference between the two legal systems, it would be the manner in which US courts solicit the participation of random citizens as jurors. The people of Umuofia shun such a practice, as they consider their proceedings to be so important that only their ancestral spirits are capable of handling such matters.

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Chapter 10 gives us a real insight into the tribe and in particular their way of settling disputes. We are told that trials happen in the centre of the village. Only men are allowed to participate and women are only allowed to observe. The "judges" take the form of egwugwu, who are the nine masked spirits of the clan, each of whom represent one of the villages in Umuofia. The leader is called Evil Forest, and he has a terrifying appearance. Having heard all the evidence, the egwugwu confer together in a hut before Evil Forest pronounces the verdict of the egwugwu.

Clearly there are some similarities between the American legal system and this legal system, but also some blatant differences. The egwugwu are held as spiritual forces and fear is a part of their identity:

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 gingers. On his head were two powerful horns.

The way that fear and superstition are built in to the Ibo legal system is one obvious difference, as is the exclusion of women. However, the fact that the egwugwu are selected, one from each village, and that they confer before pronouncing a judgement, gives this legal system a representative nature, that is similar. Likewise the members of the tribe are able to call on the egwugwu to pronounce judgement if they want to, and of course in America we can take something to the courts if we feel strongly enough about it.

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