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Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart presents such a strong depiction of manliness that his depiction of femininity largely goes unnoticed. Femininity is central to any culture, especially to the agrarian Ibo culture. But, the ways in which the 20th century Westerner defines femininity is very different than the 19th century pre-colonial, tribal African. As such, typical feminine traits such as empathy, compassion, and sensitivity are not fully developed in the novel. Rather, the Ibo women are prized for their fertility, communal domestic roles, and spiritual guidance.
In the agrian Ibo culture, survial is key to life and agriculture. Women must be able to bear and feed many children. Infertility and infant mortality are common. Just as the yam is a tender and fickle crop to grow, so too is a child in tribal Africa. A famine, at any moment, could destory a tribe. Women also had to work within a family unit, serving the husband and the other wives in rank order. Preparation for guests, festivals, and feasts beckons the Ibo woman to play her support role in the communal culture.
The Ibo clan had segregated gender roles, which is to say that the men do manly work (farm yams, govern, fight) and the women do womenly work (raise the children, farm smaller crops, trade). This is not to say that women are not central to the culture; but, they do take on more domestic roles (stay within the obi more).
Okonkwo's family has three wives and eight children, with each wife living in a separate Obi with her children. The first wife, unnamed, was, when first married, the "vegetative goddess" (the most beautiful and fertile woman of the tribe) who was won by the "vegetative god" (Okonkwo) after his epic wrestling match.
The goal of Okonkwo's first wife is to bear the future clan leader. Ironically, the first wife bears a son (Nwoye) who is like Okonkwo's father (Unoka), who is called "agbala" (womanly and weak). It is Okonkwo's second wife Ekwefi who bears a worthy clan leader in Enzinma. However, because this is a patriarchal society, Enzinma must take on a support role.
The female who weilds the most power in the Ibo clan is Chielo, priestess to the Oracle of the goddess Agbala. In fact, she takes Enzinma on her back in order to purify the sickly child and appease the gods. Really, though, she is likely grooming her to be the next priestess. Only the priestess can "veto" the male tribal leaders. It is her spiritual powers which set her apart from the rest of the domesticated women in the tribe.
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