The meeting at the beginning of the novel is to settle the critical matter of an Umuofian woman’s death in a market in neighbouring Mbaino. It is critical because the life of an Umuofian is highly valued, and any Umuofian life taken is a great offense and a grave threat...
The meeting at the beginning of the novel is to settle the critical matter of an Umuofian woman’s death in a market in neighbouring Mbaino. It is critical because the life of an Umuofian is highly valued, and any Umuofian life taken is a great offense and a grave threat to the whole clan. In fact, the meeting is attended by 10,000 Umuofian men from all its nine villages.
While the death of a clan member would invariably incite immense emotional responses and threaten the security, pride, and stature of the clan, Umuofia is not rushing to retaliate with violence. Indeed, any war declared on Mbaino would be within reason, for as it is written,
The war that now threatened was a just war. Even the enemy clan knew that.
Moreover, Umuofia is “powerful in war” and “feared by all its neighbours.” Nothing seems to stand in the way of Umuofia going to war. It has just cause and formidable means. However, the clan chooses to meet in a ceremonial consultation to decide on what is to be done. There is great stirring of emotion still, with the crowd at one instant shouting, “with anger and thirst for blood.” But, by and large, the proceedings are measured and orderly.
Here, Achebe takes the opportunity to demonstrate that, far from being the barbaric tribes seen through the blinkered eyes of the Western colonialists of the time, African native communities had protocols—a “normal course of action”—that could be recognized as cultured and civilized. Diplomacy is preferred to violent confrontation. It is a civilized political process.
In addition, the colorful details in Achebe’s description of the meeting speak of a rich and proud tradition.
At last Ogbuefi Ezeugo stood up in the midst of them and bellowed four times, "Umuofia kwenu," and on each occasion he faced a different direction and seemed to push the air with a clenched fist. And ten thousand men answered "Yaa!" each time. Then there was perfect silence.
There is pomp and ceremony, and despite the great number of men, there is order. Language, too, plays a highly significant role, as it does in any civilized society. It is hinted that there is an appreciation of the power and beauty of speech-making that has existed as a long and revered tradition. The powerful orator Ogbuefi Ezeugo cuts a dignified and authoritative figure that compels attention and draws respect from the audience, as “perfect silence” falls on them.
Achebe also takes the opportunity to paint the spiritual background of the clan, making use of the topic of discussion, which is war, or the possibility of it.
It was powerful in war and in magic, and its priests and medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country. Its most potent war-medicine was as old as the clan itself. Nobody knew how old. But on one point there was general agreement—the active principle in that medicine had been an old woman with one leg. In fact, the medicine itself was called agadi-nwayi, or old woman.
Although the terms “magic” and “medicine men” are used, associated more with “primitive” tribes than modern civilized practices, they subtly suggest an ironic criticism of Western religious arrogance. After all, in medieval times, did not the immensely rich and powerful Catholic Church sanction, indeed even initiate, several “holy wars” in the Holy Land that often became gruesome and arguably unholy in their conduct? And here an “inferior” African religion has at its center a figure of vulnerability and feebleness—“an old woman with one leg.” And it is this religious principle that often prevents violent campaigns. Umuofia “never went to war unless its case was clear and just and was accepted as such by its Oracle.”
So, this big meeting at the beginning of the novel has a practical reason for being called – to decide how to respond to a death. It suggests the existence of a civilized political structure and depicts a richly cultured tradition. However, in addition to this ostensible plot purpose, this part of the novel is effectively used by the writer to portray the non-barbaric nature of African native life. Together with many other such discoveries by the reader in the first part of the novel, it would serve as a potent example in a critical comparison between African native and European colonialist attitudes and values.