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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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What does the priestess of Agbala incident reveal about the culture in Things Fall Apart?

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Chielo, a village woman, is also the priestess of Agbala and the Oracle of the Hills and Caves. During the times when she is seized by the spirit of Agbala, she becomes very powerful. The other villagers are expected to comply with her requests or demands.

Ezinma, the young daughter of Okonkwo and Ekwefi, has been ill and may be near death. One night, Agbala, through Chielo, wants to take Ezinma to the edge of town, to Agbala’s sacred cave. She does so despite the mother’s objections. She carries the child all around the villages before they reach the caves. Chielo blesses the girl and converses with her god in the caves.

All the while, Ekwefi has been worried and has followed them. When they disappear through a small opening into the cave, she stays outside, alert for her daughter’s cry. If she hears it, “she would rush to defend her against all the gods in the world. She would die with her.”

The incident remains unresolved, as Okonkwo comes to relieve Ekwefi on her watch.

This story conveys the importance of religion in the village’s culture as well as the importance of women. In a male-dominated society, it is significant that the god has a female priestess. She wields considerable power—but not as Chielo herself, only as the god’s representative. The power of traditional culture through religion, in a society where some people are converting to Christianity, represents the resilience of their culture. At the same time, because the priestess’s word should be followed, religion represents the powerlessness of individual people.

Ekwefi’s statement shows that her most important identity, in her eyes, is that of a mother. If she believed her child was being harmed, then she would ignore the will of the gods, even if it meant that both she and the child died. Even though women in the culture do not have much power, Ekwefi shows that through motherhood, women can gain the power to resist tradition.

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This situation illuminates the value the Ibo culture places on spirituality.  They do not question the Gods, they comply with their requests and build their lives and beliefs around these dieties.  The fact that Ekwefi stays so far behind Chielo and her daughter shows us that she acknowledges the importance of obeying the Oracle; however, her love and need to protect her daughter are so strong that she is willing to stretch the rules a bit in order to protect her.  This scene also illustrates the value that the Ibo culture places on family.  Even Okonkwo becomes worried about his wife and daughter and eventually follows them to the caves to make sure they are safe.  We see the dynamics between the Gods and the Ibo people in this scene and how they affect the lifestyle of this culture.

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This incident reveals that this Nigerian culture places great value on their gods and religion, but a greater value on their families.  When the priestess comes to take Ezinma, both Okonkwo and Ekwefi try to stop her by reasoning with her, but the priestess threatens them with actions from Agbala, the god, so they let her take Ezinma.  Ekwefi can't stand to see her daughter go, however, and she follows the priestess for a long distance in secret.  When the priestess arrives at the shrine, Ekwefi waits outside but swears to herself that she will go in to rescue Ezinma if she hears her cry.  This scene reveals the power of a mother's love.  The reader sees a new side of Okonkwo also, however, when he shows up at the shrine also.  Later we discover that he made four trips to the shrine before he finds the mother waiting there, and the novel says that by that time he had become worried.  Both Okonkwo and Ekwefi allow the priestess to take their daughter, showing they will submit to the god's wishes, but they are not trusting enough to completely let go of her, displaying that strength of family ties crosses cultural boundaries.

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