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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe
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What are the complex traditions of the Igbo clans?

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From our point of view, many of the traditions of the Igbo clans are complex, but it is only because they fall outside the accepted norms of traditional Western culture. In the same way, the missionaries in the story who encounter many of the traditions described are horrified or confused by what goes on in the Igbo society. A few of the traditions that can be considered the most complex deal with death and the concept of guilt.

One of the most seemingly tragic parts of the Igbo culture is related to the idea of sacrificial revenge or blood debt. The tribe that Okonkwo belongs to is given a young boy, Ikemefuna, as a sacrifice to make up for the murder of one of their own women by someone in Ikemefuna’s tribe. The main reason this part of the story adds to Okonkwo’s tragedy is two-fold: first, the practice is meant to keep the peace, but it requires an entirely innocent sacrifice to make up for the blood price of the murder. Ikemefuna is a young boy who has done nothing wrong, but he is chosen and given to Okonkwo’s tribe to be killed. Second, Okonkwo is continuously concerned about appearing weak like his father, so he takes part in the killing of Ikemefuna despite growing to like the boy as a surrogate son,

As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his machete, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, “My father, they have killed me!” as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak. (chapter 7)

The murder of Ikemefuna is one of the acts that weighs on Okonkwo for the rest of the story, adding to his tragedy.

The cultural practice of blood debt is complex. It seems strange to an outside perspective to kill an innocent person rather than punish the one responsible for a crime; however, within the context of their society, it makes sense as a way to keep the peace. Ikemefuna’s sacrifice means that there will not be retaliation or war over the murder, and it means that the two tribes can have peace in the future.

The complexity of how the Igbo deal with crime and death can make it seem contradictory. Okonkwo’s killing of Ikemefuna is acceptable, despite raising him like a son for three years, but the accidental murder of Ezeude’s son is unacceptable, and Okonkwo is banished for seven years. The concept of guilt is what makes the traditions complex, but their complexity doesn’t mean they are illogical. The death of Ikemefuna is allowed because his death will bring peace between tribes even though he has done nothing to deserve it. The death of Ezeude’s son doesn’t serve any purpose, and thus it is not allowed. The innocence of the person being killed plays some part in whether or not they can be killed, but the purpose of their death is also important to the Igbo tradition.

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In Things Fall Apart, there are many complex traditions in the Igbo clans. Some traditions are hard to understand. One tradition involves the murdering of innocent twins at birth. The birth of twins is considered an evil omen so the twins are placed in earthen pots and left to die in the evil forest. This is a complex tradition that Okonkwo's son Nwoye has trouble understanding.

Another tradition that is complex is the involvement of the Oracles or the Earth Goddess in the affairs of the tribal clans. The earth is worshipped and the Earth Goddess Ani has the authority to banish Okonkwo when his gun accidentally explodes and kills the son of an elder during that elder's funeral. Okonkwo is exiled for seven years. 

Other complex traditions are founded in the power of the priestess and medicine man. Okonkwo follows a traditional ceremony to assure his daughter will survive in spite of her destiny to die and be repeatedly reborn.

He loves his daughter Ezinma, who is an ogbanje, or a changeling child who seems to die continually only to return to her mother’s womb to be reborn and die again. In an attempt to break the power of the ogbanje, Okonkwo follows his wife Ekwefi, the priestess Chielo, and his daughter Ezinma on a journey to the oracle Agbala. Okonkwo also assists a medicine man locate and destroy his daughter’s iyi uwa, or the sacred stone that links the child with the spirit world.  

When a daughter of Umuofia is murdered by a neighboring tribe, Ikemefuna is sacrificed for the crime. Ultimately, Okonkwo participates in the killing of Ikemefuna even though it is a sin to kill a kinsman. Ikemefuna has become his adopted son and calls Okonkwo father. The Mbaino tribe had given the young boy to Umuofia to keep the Umuofia clan from declaring war on the tribe of Mbaino. Ikemefuna is sacrificed and killed after living with Okonkwo for three years. This is another complex custom to understand.  


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