In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo has agreed to oversee the killing of a boy, “a lad of fifteen,” who has been as close to him as his son, Nwoye, as the price for the killing of a “daughter of Umuofia.” The killing of the girl, alluded to throughout Achebe’s novel, has caused dissension between tribes, and the only way to avert a war is to sacrifice the male thought responsible for the girl’s death. At the center of Things Fall Apart is Okonkwo, a wrestler respected for his bravery and physical toughness. Deep down, however, he is very human, and it is that humanity at his core that drives much of Achebe’s narrative. Early in the novel, Achebe notes regarding his main character and the travails to come:
“Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings. Okonkwo had clearly washed his hands and so he ate with kings and elders. And that was how he came to look after the doomed lad who was sacrificed to the village of Umofia by their neighbors to avoid war and bloodshed. The ill-fated lad was called Ikemefuna.”
Okonkwo cannot eat for two days after the killing of Ikemefuna. As noted, the boy had become an integral part of his family, a brother to his natural son, Nwoye. He loves the boy, and Ikemefuna loves him like a father. Okonkwo, then, is haunted by his role in Ikemefuna’s death. After a tribesman has launched the first machete blow against Ikemefuna, the boy cries out, “My father, they have killed me.” Okonkwo, obsessed with his image, with the façade of courage he has cultivated, finished off this boy rather than appear weak, striking Ikemefuna dead with a machete of his own. Okonkwo cannot eat because he is ashamed and saddened. His taste for food has declined with the growth of his guilt and remorse.