Womanhood in Igbo cosmology: Intersections in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
Chinyere G. Okafor
Chinyere G. Okafor
This is an essay on womanhood in Igbo cosmology as it connects with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.1 Focus is on the idea of the female-person2 in the spiritual and material life of the Igbo as well as in the novel. Achebe has been accused of minimizing the place of women in his novel through an androcentric portrayal of marriage as enslavement of women and exploitation of their labor. Mezu sees the world of the novel as one “where the man is everything and the woman nothing” because they are considered as part of the man’s property along with barns and social titles (Mezu 1995: 21), and Strong-Leek perceives it as one where women have no sanctuary either in their homes or in their husbands’ arms (Strong-Leek 2001). Indeed the wives of the central character, Okonkwo, are abused, beaten and intimidated by their husband, who derides women as weak. Achebe’s main fictional premise is based on this patriarchal man whose female hatred bothers on psychosis developed from his childhood hatred for his father who was regarded as agbala, a woman, in the sense of not meeting the masculine expectation of being a provider. Our discussion of cosmology in this essay will reveal that the fictional portrayal of women in the novel is just what it is: fiction, because it is reflected reality and not reality. We shall see that in actuality, Igbo womanhood is a complex category that derives a lot of its significance from the spiritual and physical dimension of the cosmos, and that the androcentric depiction of womanhood in the novel is largely influenced by the exaggerated masculinity of the hero that ultimately is faulted by the novelist for his overt and self-destructive machismo. His whole life is “dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness” that lies “deep within his soul” (13) and motivates his overt show of male bravado. This kind of bravado in African men has been linked to fear of female control (Awason 2005), and a front for masking anxiety about the real self. Real self has both male and female principles but part of the motivation for male bravado aims at hiding the female one and putting on the guise of masculinity.
A discussion of womanhood necessarily touches on manhood because they operate like complementary, opposing, equal and unequal pairs in cosmological thinking of the people. Moreover the discussion of womanhood in Things is mediated by two important male pressures. One is the use of a patriarchal man as the hero, Okonkwo. The other is the male lens of the omniscient narrator. The use of a male person as the central character facilitates the presentation of the fictional world through male lens. The hero, Okonkwo, is represented as a household head, achiever, and a lord with an enviable position, but the author is also able to illustrate the downside of the hero’s character through his disdain for the female principle. The contempt for women constitutes a flaw that pilots the hero to a devastating tragedy where he not only dies ignobly but is refused the wholesome embrace of the earth goddess regarded as the prime female principle in the tradition. This is a rejection that no woman in the novel encounters and which puts Okonkwo at the bottom level where it would be insulting to compare his end with that of the lowliest woman or man in the patriarchal world of the novel.
Despite the charge of the narrator’s androcentric view of the fictional Umuofia, it is important to point out that the narrator does not project it as the only kind of community because of the references to contrary examples as in the case of Aninta where titled men do domestic chores (73) and other communities where women own the children. This is a realistic portrayal of Igboland or Africa that is not one community with one system or social organization. There are groups with matriarchal inclinations such the matrilineal Afikpo-Igbo and Ohafia-Igbo. Such communities and ethnic groups are also found in the Niger-Benue and Niger-Delta regions of Nigeria as well as countries like Ghana, Ivory Coast, Congo, South Africa, and many other parts of the African continent. It is not surprising that different areas of pre-colonial and postcolonial Igboland had and have structures of female assertiveness (Sofola 1998, Davis 1986: 242), complementality with men (Nnaemeka 2003), rights that surpass those of Western women (Leith-Ross 1939: 230-233) as well as areas of female subjugation (Okeke 2006: 26, Achufusi 1994: 173). Igbo women were kings and warriors (Achebe 2005, Okonjo 1976), titled “Lords” and power brokers (Chuku 2005, Jeffreys 1951), but often misrepresented in reports that are tainted by preconceived views of women’s powerlessness. Adimora-Ezeigbo (1990) discusses the case of Basden whose long sojourn in Igboland did not erase his preconceived notions of female inferiority fortified by his association with Igbo male authority. However, a consideration of aspects of Igbo cosmology especially its connection with gender across communities will clarify the place of women in Igbo thinking and also inform Achebe’s portrayal of womanhood in Things as we discuss the gender of God, female gods and priests, the earth goddess and nurturing, omumu theory of begetting, and woman as daughter and mother.
The gender of God
We shall begin this section by using the name of the author of Things Fall Apart as a springboard for delving into the concept of Chi and Chukwu. Chinua in Chinua-Achebe is a short form of Chinualumogu (Chi, fight for me). Like many Igbo theophoric personal names such as Chukwudi (God exists), Chukwuma (God knows), AmaraChi (God's Grace), Ogechukwu (God’s time) and many others, Chinualumogu is a short prayer that is based on belief in God and the superiority of the spiritual force. God is denoted by the Igbo word “Chukwu” that translates as Big/Great Spirit and regarded as the creator of all, hence the synonym, “Chineke,” which means “the Spirit that creates.” Chukwu was not originally gendered in Igbo language but the imposition of Christian categorization of God as male as well as the rendering of a non-gendered category in the gendered English language might have influenced the interpretation of Chukwu as male. The privileging of male power in the Victorian culture of British Colonial rulers in Nigeria as well as the elevated status of maleness in Christian religion might have influenced the translation of Igbo religious culture and concepts. Similar trends have been cited by Okonjo (1976), and Sofola (1998) in their discussion of the marginalization and erasure of the Omu, seat of female simultaneous rulership with a male Obi, in western Igbo areas and the strengthening of male privileging by colonial powers that favored Victorian patriarchy.
Igbo and African religions were disregarded by colonial authority and great effort was made to destroy them, on the pretext of any misconduct by a priest or priests, rather than attempt at correction or punishment. The wanton destruction of shrines and traditional museums notoriously called Igbu mmuo or “killing of the spirits” (Amankulor and Okafor 1988) was common in the early colonial period in Igboland. Archival records indicate letters concerning the proposed destruction of the shrines, the quality of ritual objects, and their value for British museums.3 All these were part of the effort to destroy African culture and impose the culture of the conquerors; a tendency that was enforced through British education. What Robin Horton regards as the “devout approach” (2008: 169), whereby researchers who are influenced by the Christian education and religion bring such influence into their study of African religion, dominates current research on African spirituality. Seeking commonalities with the British was a way that the colonized used to show their equality and reestablish their damaged dignity, but this has had its toll on the Anglicization of aspects of African culture. Agbasiere refers to this tendency in her critique of equating the Igbo Chi to Christian guardian angel and even though she does not totally dismiss the comparison, she insists that it derives “from Judaeo-Christian or Graeco-Roman categories of supernatural beings” that is not based on the study of Igbo context (Agbasiere 2000: 54).
During my field work in Arochukwu in 1983, my questions about the gender of God were overlooked or politely ignored by informants but my field-representative, John Aghabanti, later explained that it was not very respectful to think of God in human terms. The use of the Igbo gender neutral pronoun “o” made it easy for him to talk about God without implying any gender. In 1991, during my field work in Izzi, I tried to use indirection to get at the people’s notion of the gender of God. I began with questions about the gender of the mask-spirit that was enacted by the women and was bluntly told by the woman impersonator that “It is not a woman or a man;” but a spirit. The Chi concept would have assumed masculinity if not that it was initially equated to the Christian guardian angel that is open to all genders. In spite of this, scholars have tended to evoke masculinity in their explanation of the idea in English by using masculine nouns and pronouns that may arguably represent the generic man, but their use can nonetheless be misleading for non-insiders of the culture. Such references to Chi as the “divine particle in man by which he shares in the Supreme Being” (Ilogu 1974: 45) and "inner man” (Idowu 1976:87) tend to connote maleness even if it is not the intention of the writers who are constrained by lack of gender neutral pronouns in the English language. The Igbo believe that every individual has the chi essence that connects with the Ultimate Spirit. Chi, therefore, includes all in a common spiritual field and also equalizes through a common linkage to the Ultimate Spiritual Essence. The word chi denotes the guiding essence, spirit, energy; and vector of providence. According to Ikenga-Metuh,
Every event in man’s life, whether it be success or failure, is “Onatara chi” – destiny imprinted on his palm. Chi whether it be personal god, or personal destiny, finally derives from Chukwu – God … Chi could in fact be said to be the Igbo expression of God’s providential care for each individual person. Chi is God’s own representative in man … However, man can pray to his chi at any time to give him only good fortunes, or to withhold misfortune (Ikenga-Metuh 1982: 18).
The above delineation of Chi shows that the writer used “man” in generic terms to denote the Igbo word mmadu (person) and might not necessarily have intended to exclude women through the use. It is, therefore, important to clarify the presence of the Chi essence in every human being regardless of gender, class and other dichotomies because it is the divine quintessence from God’s essence as Chi-ukwu (Big/Great God). The godly essence is invested on humans at creation and performs functions that are comparable though not analogous to the Christian guardian angel. Cardinal Arinze describes it as the spiritual-double of divine essence that God invests on every sentient being (Arinze 1970). It is the most powerful personal concept and driving force with achievement, guardian, and guiding principles. Malevolent spirits can weave misfortune so an individual constantly works with Chi to ensure success. The idea permeates the practices, roles, behavior and all aspects of Igbo system. It is expected to keep an individual on the right path where s/he reveres not just the Ultimate Spirit but human and other living things created by God.
There is constant communion with Chi through very short prayers that sometimes occur several times a day. There is also elaborate veneration at the shrine of Chi usually marked by the oha tree, whose leaves constitute the main substance of a special soup. In some areas such as among the Aro,4 the shrine of Chi is marked by the ogirinsi tree whose leaves have special medicinal qualities and are used for ritual purposes. There are communal ceremonies and festivals that focus on Chi. Called Ime-Chi during the Ikeji festival of the Aro, Ogugo Chi in the Ezeagu clan in the northern Igbo, and Ilo Chi in Awka‑Etiti and parts of Anambra, veneration of Chi is central in Igbo worship system, because it is the individual’s immediate link to God.
Women take the veneration of Chi to heart because of gender subordination particularly when separated from their natal families and ancestral worship. The patri-local arrangement of many Igbo communities requires women to leave their natal homes at marriage to live in their husband’s houses or family’s households where they have little or no connection with the husband’s family’s ancestral spirits that are called upon in family prayers. In Things, Okonkwo officiates at the family shrine where he keeps “the wooden symbols of his personal god and of his ancestral spirits” and offers prayers to them “on behalf of himself, his three wives and eight children” (14). In situations as reflected in the novel, the women have spiritual recourse through their Chi even though they may partake of the family prayers. Women’s personal sprits facilitate their engagement of daily problems. It is common to hear women refer to Chineke-umunwanyi (God of women, God who created women or God who is special to women) in discussing their luck or misfortune. Prayer to the godly essence is important in feelings of subordination because of God’s compassion and inclusiveness of all in the godly fold. This is an equalizing and empowering concept that cancels class, gender and other barriers created by society. It enables a poor person or a woman to look at the rich man, challenge him and affirm “Ibughi Chi m” (You are not my God), which implies that both have equal claim to God and that the agency of Chi can avert any impending misfortune concocted by the powerful and can also reverse earthly fortunes. Chi is the basis of Igbo confidence and drive. This is reflected in Things through the affirmation of the boy from very poor background who “said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed” (27), and helped him to surpass his poor class situation. When the powerful Okonkwo shot at his wife, Ekwefi, her survival was attributed to the vigilance of her Chi as the priestess said: “Your chi is very much awake …” (48).
Female gods and priests
There are Nigerian and African nations and communities with female Supreme Spirits. Awomekaso is the national goddess of Kalabari people (Nigeria) that helped the principality of Elem Kalabari to extend its suzerainty over about twenty three neighboring towns. The influence of the goddess facilitated the peaceful expansion of Kalabari through cultural and religious affiliations rather than warfare (Gabriel 1999: 35), which was the main path of the male gods of war. In the Delta region (Nigeria), the Supreme Deity and creator of Ogoni people is Waa Bari that is regarded as female. Her role and position stems from traditional thinking about creativity and motherhood. According to Paul Bedey,
… the Ogoni people have the implicit belief that this female creator resides in the earth and that man and all animals and plants are created out of the earth. All libations and incarnation to Waa Bari are poured on the earth and it is believed she receives it as the wine or water sinks down into the earth. The dead are buried in the earth to return to Waa Bari Ogoni from where they come. It is clear in the traditional belief of the people that Waa Bari Ogoni is omnipotent and omniscient (84).
Unlike the Ogoni, many Igbo sub-groups did not gender God. The non-gendered nature of God, however, does not exclude the institution of patriarchal gender power in Igbo societies, but it explains the empowerment of women in spiritual practices; a situation that has been noted in other African societies (Kilson 1976). In Igboland, women and men function as priests, mediums, oracles and other agents of the supernatural. They therefore have authority in spiritual matters and this is linked to their non-gendered spiritual endowment from God unlike many other world religions where priesthood is strictly reserved for men. Spiritual signs from possession, prediction, reincarnation, dreams, and fortune-telling usually indicate the one chosen for sacred orders. That person then goes into training to learn the character of the divinity, its relation and particular servitude to God, as well as the laws, taboos, dances, and songs that go with performance of functions that include offering of prayers and sacrifices. Allied to the profession of priesthood is that of divination and mediumship where women excel in varied functions as revealers, fortune-tellers, and counselors. Compared to some other religions, women are not marginalized in traditional African religions and professions. Anti sums this up when he says that:
The Jews had a rigid masculine concept of God who was the 'God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob', but not the God of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachael … In Islam, women could only lead prayers for a congregation of women. And in the mosque women are not to stand in the same row with the men but separately behind the rows of men. The situation is, however, not the same in Africa (Anti 2009).
From elevated positions in traditional religions, women encountered a dilemma in Islamic and Christian religions that were introduced to African societies, because they lost their preeminence as priests of the gods in religions that reserve priesthood for men only. Diop (1989) maintains that the Islamic incursion into Africa initiated cultural changes that were exacerbated by European colonialism and imperialism. The elevated position of African women through traditional religion is depicted in Things through the engagement of two priestesses of the Oracle. Our first glimpse of a priestess in the novel was at the visit of Okonkwo’s father to the oracle, Agbala, for consultation about his unending poverty. The priestess, Chika, admonished him with great authority as she delivered the verdict, “You have offended neither the gods nor your fathers … go home and work like a man!” (17-18). The next priestess we encounter is Chielo of Okonkwo’s generation. The author describes her as an ordinary person; a widow with two children and a woman that shares a market shed with Ekwefi. In the world of the novel particularly from the perspective of the central character, Okonkwo, Chielo’s female gender would have made her inferior to him. However, based on the principle of God’s connection to all irrespective of human dichotomies like gender, Chielo is the one chosen as the voice of the oracle; an elevated spiritual position.
The oracle of the hills and caves is delineated as male, but the human power that drives it and proclaims its wishes is female. Chielo’s spiritual power makes her superior to Okonkwo in her role as the priestess who deciphers and enforces the will of the unseen divine essence of the hills and caves. This is illustrated when she comes to Okonkwo’s house to take away his favorite daughter, Ezinma. Okonkwo does not react in his usual overbearing manner towards women. He pleads with her, but she responds with godly authority as she evokes her power as the servant of the god and cows him to silence: “Does a man speak when a god speaks? Beware!” (101). Her treatment of Okonkwo is harsh and echoes Okonkwo’s rough treatment of women. One can read her disdain for Okonkwo who in the past has shown disrespect for the earth goddess through his rash actions such as shooting at his wife and violence during the peace week (30). Her treatment of Ekwefi, Okonkwo’s wife and Ezinma’s mother, is different. She has a brief dialogue with Ekwefi, understands her anxiety as a mother and tries to assuage her fears by addressing Ezinma as her own daughter: “Come, my daughter … I shall carry you on my back. A baby on its mother’s back does not know that the way is long” (101).
The Earth goddess and omumu
Another important aspect of Igbo cosmology that connotes womanhood is Ani, the earth goddess. This is expressed in male personal names such as Nwale (child of the land), Ani-kwere (the land agrees) and Aniamalu (the land knows) as well as female names like Ana-ezi (bare earth) and Animma (beautiful earth). These names allude to the omnipresence, omniscience, strength and beauty of Ani. The use of Ani in both male and female names indicates some kind of neutrality, yet many communities conceive of Ani as a female spirit because of its nurturing aspects that coincide with traditional ideas of female fecundity, birthing, and creativity. From the physical earth, Ani is conceived of as the mother of human beings, food crops, trees, hills, caves, rivers and other things that stand on it. She is higher than other spirits such as the hills and streams because she is the mother of all. The mothering quality of Ani is used to build a huge ideology of reverence that permeates the conduct of the society. Like a mother, she is the nurturer, the regulator of codes of conduct of her children, and the enforcer of the laws though sanctions. Ilogu itemizes over twenty prohibitions or nso-ala in the moral and social codes of Ani (Ilogu 1974:38). The belief that nobody can hide an offence because of the omnipresence of the earth controls social behavior. The influence of Ani permeates the world of Things where she is portrayed as the goddess that is responsible for public morality, homicide, kidnapping, violence and many other crimes and offences. Iwe argues that any serious research on the foundations and principles of Igbo ethics must be based on the Igbo philosophy and theology of the earth goddess (Iwe 1988). He anchors his argument on the centrality of the goddess in the regulation of conduct and her superiority to other deities:
"One divinity, however, was beyond the capriciousness of Igbo men: that divinity is neither Igwe, nor even Chukwu, but Ala, the goddess of the earth. She was the one deity which no man or woman and no community could afford to offend, much less discard. If ever there was a supreme god among the Igbo it was Ala. A crisis in our institutions has obscured this fact “ (Iwe 1988).
Achebe’s portrayal of Okonkwo’s encounter with the earth goddess principle seems to concur with Iwe’s idea above. We may applaud Okonkwo’s rejection of weakness but his equation of that quality with women is unreasonable when he has strong wives that are largely responsible for his wealth and the running of his household. His fixation on exaggerated masculinity to the extent of showing disdain for womanhood is ill-conceived and even naïve for a lord of Umuofia who should understand the principle of omumu and reverence for the goddess as his contemporaries Ogbuefi Ezeudu and Obierika do. Conflict is unavoidable in human affairs, so the Igbo has a sacred week dedicated to Ani when altercation is not tolerated just as the Christians have a holy week before Easter replete with reconciliation and spiritual upliftment. Growing up, every child knows the severity of telling lies and can always ascertain his or her innocence by touching the earth and swearing by her. Okonkwo grew up in an Igbo community, albeit fictional, and should know the laws of Ani as well as the repercussions for contravening the moral codes of the sacred week. For him to show anger and go to the extent of beating someone is an offence against the earth goddess and more so when that person is a woman and mother that fully signifies omumu, in addition to being his wife.
Omumu is the principle of fecundity, begetting, and creativity. It is a life-giving essence that is also associated with the earth goddess concept. The ideology derives from gynecology and connects with diverse ideas evoked by the presence, being, sexuality, performance and function of a female-person and motherbeig. It permeates social psychology and inspires human action. It is the most important principle because of its function in continuity, nurturing, birth and death rites as well as connection with the supreme mother, earth. The ideology influences Chiweizu’s idea of the womb as the seat of female power used to control men’s access to food, sex, and continuity (Chiweizu 1990: 171). Chiweizu does not articulate the enabling stance of the motherbeing that indulges the childbeing, so his thesis appears to nullify the feminist agenda as articulated by Ozumba (Ozumba 2005). Ironically, Chiweizu’s notion unintentionally calls attention to the predicament of women, which Okonjo and Amadiume have tried to engage in their work on colonial and postcolonial transformations (Amadiume 2000, Okonjo 1976). Women are subordinated in contemporary Igbo and Nigeria affairs, and Nigeria continues to decline in world affairs for varied complex reasons, but the abuse of omumu through exaggerated negative masculinity and its negative effect on development is an issue that has not been addressed, but which is reflected in Things though Okonkwo’s tragedy.
Okonkwo is a performer of masculinity who suppresses the female principle. His neurotic need to demonstrate continually his narrow conception of masculinity is not shared by other male characters such as Obierika and Ezeudu that criticize him for his lack of respect for the principle of omumu. He goes against the advice of the great lord of the land, Ogbuefi Ezeudu, by killing his foster son, Ikemefuna, in order to prove his bravery since he is “afraid of being thought weak” (61). He thereby commits a crime for which “the earth goddess wipes out whole families” (67). Okonkwo and his first wife have fostered Ikemefuna and Okonkwo loves him and takes him along to communal meetings “like a son, carrying his stool and his goat-skin bag” (28). This loving relationship is nurtured and cemented in the usokwu5 of Okonkwo’s wife. Regarded as the surrounding of the heath, usokwu is the site of his primary bonding with other children while eating, joking, playing, and enjoying mother’s stories. Usokwu bonding is the most reliable kin connection and it is based on the mothering culture. It is so important that it is simulated where physical women are absent as in men’s masking cults where omumu is represented through a physical or abstract connection of the female essence such as ascribing the origin of the mask cult to a mother, invoking the mother essence in its inauguration, and incarnating a mother figure in mask-form (Okafor 1992). In Things, the omumu essence is reflected through oral saga that attributes the birth of the mask-spirits of ancestors to the earth goddess (88). At the funeral rites of passage ushering to earth the same Ezeudu who advised Okonkwo not to have a hand in killing Ikemefuna because “He calls you his father” (57), while the earth sends out ancestral spirits (represented in the mask-figures) to welcome him back to her bosom, Okonkwo is rejected by the earth. He inadvertently kills the dead man’s son thereby committing a female ochu or manslaughter regarded as a serious offence against the earth goddess for which he is banished for seven years in accordance with the laws of the goddess.
Woman as daughter and mother
The gender hierarchy implied in the Western construction of woman (Eve) from man (Adam) is semantically encoded in the word “woman” comprising of “wo,” which has no identity without the base “man” that has an independent identity. On the contrary, the Igbo terms for woman (nwanyi) and man (nwoke) have a common base, nwa, (child). The suffixes anyi and oke denote their biological differentiation while the base denotes commonality and equality just as the spiritual concept of chi does. In addition to this equality, the concept of omumu and its connection with the goddess principle give preeminence to the female in the tradition, but this superiority is mediated by patriarchal construction of the female as something that should be controlled. The basis of this thinking lies in the mystery of woman denoted in the term anyi. Anyi connotes nwa-nyiri-anyi, which refers to a child that is impossible or unworkable. It implies a problem that should be solved and the process of solution has given rise to varied arrangements that support female valuation and devaluation. This is similar to the Mandinka (Gambia and Senegal) belief that women are born with “immense creativity and energy” and are “unpredictable and mystically very hot, while men were stable and cool” (Weil 1998: 2). They therefore think that it is important to socialize women to become gentle like men. The Yoruba of Nigeria also believe in women’s magical power that Gelede maskers try to appease and celebrate (Abiodun 1976:1‑2). According to Gelede elders, “Women posses the secret of life itself, the knowledge and special power to bring human beings into the world and remove them” (Drewal and Drewal 1983: 8); this is their reason for trying to appease and negotiate female power through the mask ritual.
The Igbo woman has freedom and power that is her right from her Chi and enjoyed in her natal home, but a lot of this power is mediated during her relocation to a marital abode where she is faced with problems of adaptation and submission to new ways of her marital family. This is a situation that her husband does not face because he already understands his family’s ways that he was nurtured in. In the novel, Achebe depicts womanhood that is enjoyable especially in the early years when a daughter is in her parental home without the constraints and demands of married life as seen from the relative independence of Ezinma and Obiageli; a freedom that is not allowed the boy, Nwoye, who is constrained by demands of becoming masculine. His humane, gentle and compassionate nature is ridiculed by his father who genders him to become masculine and this puts so much pressure on the boy that he eventually runs to the Christian mission. Unlike the son, Ezinma’s feminine and masculine principles are encouraged to develop. She has some of her father’s temperament but hers shows up in rare moments when she snaps at everyone “like an angry dog” (173). Okonkwo continually wishes that “she were a boy” (173), because of her intelligence, perception, and quickness that he regards as masculine traits. In spite of their father’s domineering stance, the girls have liberties with him; they can correct, console, and admonish him in ways that most people cannot. Ezinma can command him to “finish” his food and Obiageli can tell him not to speak when he is eating but his son does not show such liberties. Ezinma grows up to be very beautiful and called “Crystal of Beauty as her mother had been called in her youth” (172). We are not shown her life as a married woman but the experiences of the wives depicted in the novel indicate that wifehood can be a joyful phase of a woman’s life that goes with expectations and responsibilities, but also a challenging situation with levels of intimidation and subordination.
The first daughter in an Igbo family is usually designated as ada, but in usage, the term extends to all daughters or girls and women. The collective of daughters of a family or lineage is referred to as umu-ada. The group wields tremendous powers through its social and political roles at weddings, burials, family disputes and other occasions. Umu-ada is a positive association with authority and responsibilities that elicit reverence. However, the group sometimes abuses its power such as when it oppresses wives of the families. Marginalized from the center of power in their marital families, these women fare better in their natal families where some of them control their brothers and their wives. In Things, the daughters of Uchendu’s family return from their marital homes to celebrate their brother’s marriage ceremony. They also try to enforce the expectation of womanhood through a ceremony of virtue during which they try to browbeat the new bride with questions about her virginity and faithfulness. People usually try not to get involved in the affairs of or incur the anger of the tough group. This is why the men and the wives of Uchendu’s extended family watch from a distance (132).
Marriage is an expectation in Igboland and the full grown daughter in her prime is the pride of her family because of the promise of omumu. Omumu brings honor that is realized through the agency of the physical woman. This helps us to appreciate why Okonkwo persuades his daughters not to marry in exile so that he will benefit from the honor that their marriage will bring. The greatest expectation is that of motherhood that brings the new generation and ensures continuity. Motherhood is usually attained through wifehood, but there are communities where motherhood can be attained without wifehood in special circumstances such as where a woman refuses to marry, does not get her desired spouse, or becomes the husband of another woman for reasons of continuity. In traditional societies, there are rituals associated with the process of enabling a woman to transcend gender and marry a woman (Amadiume 1997:163). This situation widens the roles and expectation of the woman-husband, who takes on the responsibilities of a son that retains the family’s name and ensures continuity. It also guarantees the maintenance of family property, old people, and family traditions. This practice is found in other patrilineal African societies such as among the Kikuyu of Kenya (Ngaruiya 2005), Fon of Benin and Lovedu of Southern Africa (Greene 1998). The arrangement centers the woman as the household head and promotes matriarchal control but it is based on patrilineal concerns for the continuation of the family through a male hair that the woman’s wife is expected to produce. Thus, women’s subordination is not eliminated but assumes another patriarchal guise. It is driven by patriarchy as the woman-husband dictates the sexual partner of the wife and owns the children of the wife. The female husband is also the senior mother of the children born by her wife thereby expressing omumu nurturance through her wife’s children even when she also realizes the same through her own biological children.
In modern African societies, many women do operate like men by taking on masculine responsibilities even though they have not gone through any ritual of incorporation to manhood and do not need to, because many (not all) barriers are officially lifted even though gender constraints still operate through patriarchal customs and practices. They do not necessarily marry wives, but can expand their social, political, and economic positions to become great mothers in their natal households and communities. Modern exigencies necessitate this unprecedented expansion of women’s roles and expectations outside wifehood. Abstract, biological and sociological mothering gives daughters tremendous power as they express the care-giving quality of omumu. Omumu power derives from mother’s blood and/or the socializing influence of the nurturer. It is a huge concept in Igbo psychology because of its function as the cohesive glue that binds siblings and families. According to Nzegwu:
Every usokwu is a nodal point of power that derives not from the spiritual ofo (authority) of a mother’s husband but from her own natal family. It is the center of child socialization activities … Mother’s blood provides the cohesive glue that binds siblings, which men’s blood oaths attempt to mimic … The basis of a mother’s power is her provision of the critical organ that housed all children during their most vulnerable state of life (Nzegwu 2005).
We contend that it is not just the provision of the critical organ but the belief in that organ as well as actions that are perceived to be based on that organ that binds. Igbo people recognize biology but emphasize caring for a child like nwa omuru na afo (a child of her womb), which underlines nurturing and socialization. Similarly, they recognize the sociological father of a child when the biological is not the mother’s husband and the official provider. Thus, even though the reproductive principle in omumu finds its bearing from the bio-logic of nne or mother, it is not limited to it. Mother-being is conceptualized in terms of function-performance as well as spiritual and creative terms or what Opara and Eboh regard as the “palpable panegyrics of creative mothering” (2005). They argue that biological mothering is similar to creative mothering which is artistic mothering and that both are women’s vehicles for transcendence and freedom. This partly explains why creative groups such as dance ensembles and mask cults frequently require mother figures that provide the binding principle of identity and oneness. Whether creative, biological or function-performing, the physical woman or daughter is implicated in the philosophy of omumu.
Our discussion of womanhood in Things has intersected with the hero’s characterization in order to create more understanding of womanhood by engaging his naive view of womanhood that contributed to his predicament in the novel. In Umuofia community where the spiritual and biological principle of omumu is elevated and revered in spite of the patriarchal organization of the community, Okonkwo appears immature because of his actions that show disregard for omumu. He has a fixation on narrow masculinity and this often drives him to negativity. He looks down on women, is scornful of humane qualities in his son, beats his wife, kills his foster son, kills hid friend’s son, kills himself, and incurs the wrath of the goddess. His masculinity is a guise to hide his fear of being perceived as a weak person, but he is weak. He puts on a guise of arrogance to hide his weakness and exhibits bravado and intimidation of those he perceives as weak or under his authority. This is in utter disregard of the spiritual principle of the land and this drives his tragedy. The author seems to send a warning to those who lack understanding of Igbo womanhood and the centrality of omumu, and therefore tend to deride the female essence in ways that connote self derision. It is self delusion for anyone to deride omumu because everyone springs from and benefits from omumu largesse. Okonkwo’s denial and suppression of whatever he considers female be it a human trait, a physical woman or a man with feminine qualities signify his inability to accept the totality of his selfhood that sprung from a woman’s omumu and embodies female principles.
Igbo womanhood manifests in various ways, but we have concentrated on the salient commonalities that connect with the omumu principle of fecundity, begetting, and creativity. As a principle evoked by gynecological presence and expectation, omumu bestows power on women. As daughter, wife, and mother, women are revered because of that principle that extends to the goddess but patriarchal social organization tends to constrain this power while matriarchal organization tends to facilitate it. Both of these organizations are reflected in Things even though the patriarchal is the focus of the novel. Another important concept that factors in womanhood is the Chi principle that equalizes all irrespective of hierarchies created by human beings. It is a principle that helps individuals to transcend boundaries as the hero of the novel does in transcending his poor class background and as the widow, Chielo, does in transcending gender barrier to have spiritual authority that makes her superior to the indomitable man of the novel.
Unlike Chi that is common to all, the omumu principle is special to women. It is a huge principle that drives the psychology of traditional people and motivates their valuation of women. Omumu concept privileges women, but in practice the advantage is mediated by the same essence of its power. Omumu essence makes possible the devaluation of the human female by patriarchal power because of the inclusive stances of the mother being. The motherbeing has the power to dominate but it rules by benevolence and inclusiveness. It makes possible the sharing of power with childbeings particularly the type that are directly excluded from the ownership of omumu essence, but who nonetheless can exploit its benevolence because of their kin connection. In the end, Igbo womanhood is profound, complex, and the rock of Igbo communities, but it remains a kind of paradox because of omumu nature that has led researchers to conflicting conclusions about women’s power, powerlessness, compliancy, and assertiveness. Igbo womanhood is an enigma because of its basis on this significant Igbo philosophical concept.
1. Referred to as Things and the novel in this essay.
2. “Female-person” is deliberately used to delineate the equality of man and woman in the Igbo language signification.
3.CSE 36/1/11 MINLOC 17/1/18, Enugu, National Archives.
4. Arochukwu is a kingdom in Abia State, Nigeria with satellite towns, villages, and lineages in other States. Citizens of the original and satellite locations are regarded as Aro people.
5. “Around the cooking stove” is comparable to the kitchen table culture of western societies.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
Abiodun, Roland. “The Concept of Women in Traditional Yoruba Religion and Art.” Paper presented at the Conference on Nigerian Women and Development. University of Ibadan, 1976, 26‑30.
Achebe, Nwando. Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900-1960. Portsmouth NH: Greenwood, 2005.
Achufusi, G. I. “Female Individuality and Assertiveness in the Novels of Ifeoma Okoye.” In Feminism in African Literature. Ed. Helen Chukwuma. Enugu, Nigeria: New Generation Ventures, 1994, 159-175.
Adams, Don, and Arlene Goldbard. Creative community: the art of cultural development. New York, NY: Rockefeller Foundation, Creativity & Culture Division, 2001.
Agbasiere, Joseph Theresa. Women in Igbo Life and thought. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000.
Aja, Egbeke. “Changing moral values in Africa: An essay in ethical relativism.” The Journal of Value Inquiry 31.4 (2004): 531-543.
Arinze, Francis A. Sacrifice in Ibo religion. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1970.
Akachi Ezeigbo, Theodora. Traditional Women's Institutions in Igbo Society: Implications for the Igbo Female Writer.” African Languages and Cultures 3.2 (1990):149-165.
Akers, Ronald L. and Gary F. Jensen. Social learning theory and the explanation of crime: a guide for the new century. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2003.
Amadiume, Ifi. Daughter of the Goddess, Daughters of Imperialism. African Women Struggle for Culture, Power and Democracy. New York, NY: Zed Books, 2000.
Amadiume, Ifi Re-inventing Africa: matriarchy, religion, and culture. London: Zed Books, 1997.
Amadiume, Ifi. Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. London, UK: Zed books, 1987.
Amankulor, J. N. and Okafor, Chinyere G. "Continuity and Change in Traditional Nigerian Theatre among the Igbo in the Era of Colonial Politics." Ufahamu 26.3 (1988): 35‑50.
Anti, Kenneth Kojo. “Women In African Traditional Religions.” Paper presented at Eastern Washington University, 2009. http://www.mamiwata.com/women.html
Awason, Susanna. Yene. “Hegemonic Masculinity as a Distorted Development Paradigm for Africa. Codesria Bulletin 3 & 4 (2005).
Chinweizu Anatomy of female power. Lagos, Nigeria: Pero Press, 1990.
Chuku, Gloria. Igbo Women and Economic Transformation in Southeastern Nigeria, 1900-1960. New York, NY: Routledge 2005.
Chukwuma, Helen. “Introduction: The Identity of Self.” In Feminism in African Literature. Ed. Helen Chukwuma. Enugu, Nigeria: New Generation Ventures, 1994. 1-21.
Davies, Carole Boyce. "Motherhood in the Works of Male and Female Igbo Writers: Achebe, Emecheta, Nwapa, and Nzekwu." Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature. Ed: Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1986. 241-56.
Davis, Carol B. “Motherhood in the Works of Male and Female Igbo Writers: Achebe, Emecheta, Nwapa and Nzekwu.” In Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature. Ed. Carol Boyce Davies and Ann Graves. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1986. 242-256.
Diop, Cheikh A. The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: The Domains of Matriarchy and Patriarchy in Classical Antiquity. London: Karnak House, 1989.
Drewal, Henry John and Margaret Drewal. Gelede: Art and Female Power Among the Yoruba. Bloomiongton: Indiana University Press, 1983.
Egbujie, Ihemalol I. The Hermeneutics of the African Traditional Culture. Boston: Omenana Publishers, 1985.
Greene, B. “The institution of woman-marriage in Africa : A cross-cultural analysis.” Ethnology 37.4 (1998): 395-412
Idowu, Bolaji. African Traditional Religion: A Definition.1976.
Idowu, E. B. African Traditional Religion: A Definition. London, S. C. M. Press Limited, 1976.
Ifeka-Moller, Caroline. 1975. "Female Militancy and Colonial Revolt: The Women's War of 1929." In Perceiving Women, ed. Shirley Ardener. New York, NY: John Wiley, 1975. 127- 157.
Ifemesia, Emmanuel I. Prayer in Igbo Traditional Religion: Some Traditional Models (A Case Studey) In Religion and African Culture. Ed. Elochukwu E. Uzoukwu. Enugu: spiritan Publications, 1988.
Ikenga-Metuh, Emefie. “Religious Concepts in West African Cosmogonies: A Problem of Interpretation.” Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 13, Fasc. 1 (1982), pp. 11-24
Ilogu, Edmund. Christianity and Ibo Culture. Brill Archive, 1974. 262 pages. Brill.
Iwe, N. S. S. “Igbo Deities.” Paper presented at the 1988 Ahịajọkụ Lecture (Onugaotu). http://ahiajoku.igbonet.com/1988/
Iwuka, Alosius Emeka. Aspects of Ibo Cosmological Ideas. Lagos, Nigeria: Ambix Publishers, 2002.
Jeffreys, M. J. W. “The winged solar disk or The Itci Facial Scarification Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 21.2 (1951): 93-111.
Kalu, Ogbu U. The Embattled Gods: Christianization of Igboland 1841-1991. Lagos: MINAJ Publishers, 1996.
Kilson, Marion. “Women In African Traditional Religions.” Journal of Religion In Africa 8.2 (1976): 133-143.
Leith-Ross, Sylvia. African Women: A Study of the Ibo in Nigeria. London, UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1939.
Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann, 1969.
Mbiti, John. “the Role of Women In African Traditional Religion.” Cahiers des Religions Africaines 22 (1988), 69-82.
Ngaruiya, Wairimu and William O’Brien, “Revisiting “Woman-Woman Marriage”: Notes on Gikuyu Women.” In African Gender Studies. Ed. Oyeroke Oyewumi. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 145-166.
Nnaemeka, Obi, “Nego-Feminism: Theorizing, Practicing, and Pruning Africa’s Way.” SIGNS v29n2, 2003, 1-29.
Nwapa, Flora. “Women and Creative Writing in Africa.” In Sisterhood: Feminisms and Power from Africa to the Diaspora. Ed. Obi Nnaemeka. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1998. 89-100.
Nzegwu, Nkiru. “The Epistemological Challenge of Motherhood to Patriliny” JENdA: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies, 5 (2004) jendajournal.com (accessed March 20, 2008).
Okafor, Chinyere G. "From the Heart of Masculinity: Ogbodo Uke Women's Masking." Research in African Literatures (The Ohio State University), 25. 4, (1994): 7‑17.
Okafor, Chinyere G. "The Rejected Corner Stone: Women In Igbo Mask Theater." Africana Studies and Research Center Newsletter (Cornell University), 4, 1 (1992B): 19‑23, 27‑31.
Okeke, Phil E. Reconfiguring traditional women’s rights and social status in contemporary Nigeria.” Africa Today, 47.1 (2000): 30-49.
Okonjo, Kamene. "The Dual-Sex Political System in Operation: Igbo Women and Community Politics in Midweatem Nigeria" In Women In Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change. Ed. Hafkin, Nancy and Edna g. Bay. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1976, 45-57.
Omoyajowo, Joseph A. “The Role of Women in African Traditional Religion and Among the Yoruba.”In Olupona, Jacob, Ed. African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society, New Era Books (January 1991) 204 pages
Opara, Chioma and M P. Eboh. “On the African Concept of Transcendence: Conflicting Nature, Nurture and Female Creativity.” Paper presented at the International Society for Universal Dialogue - 6th Congress, Helsinki, Finland, 2005.
Ozumba, Goddy. “Gender-Sensitivity In Igbo Culture: A Philosophical Re-appraisal.” Quodlibet Journal. 7.2 (2005). http://www.Quodlibet.net (assessed March 26, 2008).
Sofola, Z. “Feminism and African Womanhood,” In Sisterhood: Feminisms and Power from Africa to the Diaspora. Nnaemeka, obioma. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. 1998. 51-64.
Steady, Philomina C. “An Investigative Framework for Gender Research in Africa in the New Millennium” In African Gender Studies. Oyewumi, Oyeronke. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 313-332.
Strong-Leek Linda "Reading as a Woman: Chinua Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart' and feminist criticism". African Studies Quarterly 5.2 (2001) [online] URL:http://web.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v5/v5:2a2.htm
Uchem, Rose N. Overcoming Women's Subordination in the Igbo African Culture and in the Catholic Church: Envisioning an Inclusive Theology with Reference to Women Universal-Publishers, 2001
Weil, Peter. “African women’s masking customs documented.” University of Delaware UpDate. 17.35 (1998).
Zahan, D.””Ornament and color in Black Africa.” In Beauty by Design. Ed. M. T. Brincard. Miami, 1984.
title: Womanhood ...
Last update:February 25, 2011
Web page by C. G. Okafor
Chinyere G. Okafor