With focus on Abame, Abam, Ogidi, Umuofia clans
By Abali O. Abali
Chinua Achebe presents Abam as an alternate and a variety of the Igbo Customs and worldview he depicts in Umuofia, the primary setting of his first novel, Things Fall Apart. While Umuofia represents Chinua Achebe’s native clan of Ogidi and its environs and is supposedly the ideal Igbo pre-colonial society, Abam is shown as a derogation of this ideal.
Thus, we hear Okonkwo’s great friend Obierika, declare that all Abam(e) “customs are upside-down,” just because men of title are allowed “to climb palm trees and pound foo-foo for their wives” and a man’s children belong to his wife and her family and not to their father (Chapter 8, p. 58).
Chinua Achebe was careful to fictionalize his native Ogidi and its environ as Umuofia but he did not observe the same care in the case of Abam or indeed, all the other Igbo clans whose customs detract from his ideal Umuofia.
Thus, to make Abam a fiction, he merely added the suffix “e” to get Abame. This appears deliberate and an attempt to leave no one in doubt as to the people he is talking about.
This essay may not have been necessary but for Achebe’s unilateral imposition of his Ogidi-turned Umuofia customs as the ideal Igbo customs and the Abam’s, and indeed all other customs which depart from that ideal, as an aberration and even inferior.
Here, an attempt will be made to give a deeper insight into the customs of Abam in real life by contrasting these customs with those of Umuofia as presented in Things Fall Apart.
It is for the reader to decide from the presentation in this essay if Abam customs should in any way be considered inferior to Umuofia customs. For the purpose of the essay, the real name of the clan “Abam” will be used instead of Chinua Achebe’s poor attempt to create a fictious “Abame”.
Abam, like Chinua Achebe’s Ogidi, was part of the then Eastern Region of Nigeria. When the military rulers created states in Nigeria in 1968, Abam and Ogidi became part of the then East-Central State of Nigeria.
However, when the military rulers again created states in 1976, Ogidi became part of Anambra State while Abam fell under Imo State. The military rulers created more states in 1991 and Abam came under the present Abia State whose capital is Umuahia while Ogidi remained in Anambra State.
Interestingly, Chinua Achebe attended Government College (formerly Fisher Higher School) Umuahia. In the days of Chinua Achebe at Government College, Umuahia, there were popular myths about Abam people as human head hunters, warriors, barbarians and backward people.
It was from these myths that Chinua Achebe formed his impression of Abam and that impression never left him while writing his novels. It is not a surprise that Abam(e) people are the ones who killed the white man who lost his way and conveniently hung his “iron horse” (bicycle) on their sacred tree for the colonial officers to come and see (Chapter 15, p. 110).
It is also not a surprise that in Chinua Achebe’s novel, “Arrow of God”, the District Commissioner, Mr. Winterbottom, describes Abam(e) as “a pretty wild set anyhow,” who “murdered Macdonald” (Chapter 10, p. 108).
Again, it is no surprise that Abam(e) people are the ones who beat up a politician who came to their place for a pre-election campaign and confiscated the head-ties of all his women supporters in Chinua Achebe’s other novel, “No Longer At Ease” (Chapter 18, p. 148).
As stated earlier, the customs of Umuofia, Chinua Achebe’s Igbo ideal, and those of Abam, will be compared and contrasted in this essay using Chinua Achebe’s own parameters, including the setting of the novel and its major themes such as divorce and remarriage, patriarchy, gender roles for priests, breaking of kolanuts/libation, new yam festival, wrestling, acquisition of titles and social discrimination.
The major setting of “Things Fall Apart” is Umuofia but there are also minor settings such as Mbanta and of course, Abam(e) where stories and events happening there are constantly being told or reported in Umuofia. Chinua Achebe describes Umuofia as a clan of nine villages.
Although, he does not name all the nine villages, he at least mentions some of them to include Iguedo (Okonkwo’s village), Ire, Umuachi, Imo, Ulli and Umueni. Each of the nine villages represents one of the nine sons of the same parents. “Each village has its own ilo or playground which is as old as the village itself and where all the great ceremonies and dances take place (Chapter 5, p. 34).
Chinua Achebe does not say the average distance between one village and another but the nine villages are located so close to each other that Chielo the priestess of Agbala, can walk round the entire clan in one single night (Chapter 11, p. 84).
The entire nine villages have a single common market place where people from all the villages can gather at the summon or request of village criers (Chapter 2, p. 8). Chinua Achebe does not however, indicate where the market place is located among the nine villages.
This seems deliberate because it gives him the flexibility to interpret both the clan and the village as one and the same setting. Just take a look; “Large crowds began to gather on the village Ilo as soon as the edge worn of the sun heat and it was no longer painful on the body” (Chapter 10, p.70).
This is supposed to be the gathering of the entire clan on the day the nine egwugwu masquerades representing the nine villages met to judge cases brought before them by disputants.
This raises serious questions; which “Village Ilo” was that gathering? Was that village Ilo the same as the market place where the clan met on the day that a daughter of Umuofia was killed by the people of Mbaino? Or was that village Ilo that of any particular village (e.g Iguedo) among the nine villages? Yet we hear the leading egwugwu (Evil Forest) greet the gathering; “Umuofia Kwenu!” Chapter 10, p.71) which is a clear indication that it is the gathering of the clan and not that of a particular village.
Chinua Achebe returns to the “market place” during the gathering of the clan to discuss the way forward following the return of the six elders of Umuofia from prison remand.
“The market-place began to fill as soon as the sun rose…. When Okonkwo and Obierika got to the meeting place, there were already so many people that if one threw up a grain of sand, it would not find its way to the earth again.
And many more people were coming from every quarter of the nine villages.” Thus, the clan can meet both at the village Ilo and the market place, meaning that the village and the clan can be used interchangeably in the novel.
This is even clearer in the case of Mbanta where Okonkwo spent his seven years compulsory exile. Chinua Achebe describes Mbanta as “a little village, just beyond the borders of Mbaino” (Chapter 13, p. 99).
Just when the reader begins to think of Mbanta as a specific village or setting, Chinua Achebe begins to describe Mbanta as a clan (Chapter 17, p. 119); Chapter 18, p. 124). If Mbanta is a clan, then it must have other villages that make up the clan and the specific village Okonkwo spent his exile is not mentioned. Here again, the village is equated with the clan as meaning one and the same thing. This is strange.
The clan system among the Ibos does not lend itself to such ambiguous interpretation. In real life Abam clan, for instance, there are more than twenty villages. The shortest distance between one village and another is about two kilometers while the longest distance is about fourteen kilometers.
The average distance among the villages is therefore, about 6.7 kilometers. There is no such thing as a common market place or village Ilo that village criers can summon everyone to gather. In case of any clan meeting, the particular village square or market place must be specified by the village criers eg. Amaeke Abam village square, Idima Abam village square, Ndi Oji Abam village square, Ozu Abam village square and so on. Then the meeting will take place in the village square specified by the village crier.
At such clan gathering, the greeting will be “Abam kwenu!” But if it is one village holding a meeting at its village square or market place, the greeting becomes particularized or specific, “Idima kwenu!” “Ozu kwenu!” or Amaeke kwenu!”
Divorce and remarriage feature prominently among the themes of the novel. Divorce takes place when the bride price of a married woman is returned to her husband if the woman decides to discontinue with the marriage voluntarily.
She becomes free to remarry once her bride price is paid back to her former husband. “The law of Umuofia is that if a woman runs away from her husband, her bride price is returned” (Chapter 10, p. 73). This law does not apply to the case of Okonkwo’s marriage to his second wife Ekwefi who runs away from her former husband Anene to live with Okonkwo.
“She had married Anene because Okonkwo was too poor then to marry. Two years after her marriage to Anene, she could bear it no longer and she ran away to Okonkwo. It had been early in the morning. The moon was shining. She was going to the stream to fetch water. Okonkwo’s house was on the way to the stream. She went in and knocked at his door and he came out…. He just carried her into his bed and in the darkness began to feel around her waist for the loose end of her cloth.” (Chapter 11, p. 87).
This is adultery and the cohabitation between Okonkwo and Kwefi is contrary to the custom of the clan. There is nothing in the novel to show that Okonkwo ever refunded the bride-price paid on Ekwefi to her former husband Anene.
It is difficult to justify why Chinua Achebe refers to Ekwefi as Okonkwo’s wife. Okonkwo is known in the novel as a stickler to the customs of the clan. When he broke the week of peace, he paid all the fines imposed on him by the priest of Ani (Ezeani). He went to exile when he committed manslaughter and remained there for seven years.
He even died for the clan in his lonely fight against foreigners who came to desecrate its customs. It is therefore, not in his character to live with a woman without paying her bride-price. In Abam, Ekwefi will never be called Okonkwo’s wife.
Infact, any child she bears for Okonkwo will still be counted as the child of her former husband, Anene, until Okonkwo pays her pride-price. This was the custom in most Ibo clans until the coming of colonialism and the received English laws in Nigeria.
Patriarchy is a strong feature of Umuofia. Here, except for such vocation as priesthood, women are to be seen and not to be heard. Decisions affecting the lives of every member of the clan are made by men to the exclusion of women. Children belong to their father and his kinsmen (Umunna) exclusively. Okonkwo’s maternal uncle, Uchendu, describes the foundation of this patriarchy thus;
“We all know that a man is the head of the family and his wives do his bidding. A child belongs to its father and his family and not to its mother and her family. A man belongs to his fatherland and not to his motherland.” (Chapter 14, p. 106).
From this foundation flows all forms of subjugation of women in the clan. They are not even considered indigenes of Umuofia. They are only there to give birth to children for their husbands and when they die, their bodies are returned to wherever they were married from for burial. Okonkwo’s mother’s body was returned to her family at Mbanta for burial when she died (Chapter 10, p. 107).
Abam provides a contrast to the crude patriarchy of Umuofia. In Abam, children belong to their mother and her family and not to their father and his family. Although children are bonafide indigenes of their fatherland and inherit their father’s legacies or estate yet their kindred is that of their mother.
The closest and real relations of an Abam man, are those of his mother and never those of his father. A married woman in Abam is a bonafide member and indigene of the clan irrespective of whichever village or clan from which her husband married her. When she dies, she is buried in her husband’s house. There is really no such concept as the “Umunna” in Abam custom rather there is “Nde Nnegi” (a man’s maternal kindred) where every man belongs.
There seems to be gender blindness in Umuofia when it comes to the priesthood. A male god can have a female priest while a female god may have a male priest. Thus, Agbala – the oracle of the Hills and the Caves is a male god but has female priestess namely; Chika (at the time of Unoka) and later Chielo (at the time of Okonkwo) respectively. On the other hand, Ani – the earth’s goddess is a female god but has Ezeani, a male priest (Chapter 3, p. 13; Chapter 11, p. 80; Chapter 4, p. 24). An Abam man will find Umuofia very fascinating in the aspect of priesthood.
This is because in Abam, there is gender role differentiation in priesthood. A male god is served by a male priest while a female god is accordingly served by a female priest. For instance, the god of yams, Ifijioku, is a male god. It is served by a male priest. In Idima Abam in particular, the visible symbol of Ifijioku is the shrine that stands at the entrance of each compound known as Nkuma Ihu Ezi (The raised stones in front of the compound).
Before the celebration of the new yam festival, the eldest man in each compound offers sacrifices to Ifijioku at the altar of its shrine in front of the compound. This is known as aja ji (yam sacrifice). Yam is the king of crops. On the other hand, Melon (Elile) is the queen of crops in Idima Abam and its planting is preceded by the aja elile (melon sacrifice) to the earth goddess. The sacrifice is usually led by the leader of women (Ezenwanyi) in the community who doubles as the priestess to the earth’s goddess.
The breaking of kolanuts/libation is another theme in the novel where the customs of Umuofia depart from the customs of Abam. In Umuofia, the eldest person breaks the kolanut and offer prayers to the ancestors. This is followed by drinking of palm wine.
No prayers are offered before the palm wine is drank (Chapter 3, p. 15). The approach is different in Abam. Here, it is the youngest person who breaks the kolanut. He does so without prayers. The prayers are reserved for the palm wine. Before the palm wine is drunk, the first cup goes to the eldest man who then offers prayers to the ancestors, dropping a bit of the drink on the floor at each prayer point until the cup is empty. After the prayers, the cup is refilled for the elder who offered the prayer to drink.
The first cup never goes back to the person who brings the palm wine to drink first before others join him. If the person that brings the palm wine is also the youngest then he must wait until all his elders have drunk a cup before he gets a cup. This is because everything is shared in order of seniority – kola nut, palm wine, meat, fish, or even food.
The Osu system in Umuofia is worthy of mention. It represents an extreme form of social discrimination that can easily bungle the mind of any Abam man. Chinua Achebe describes the Osu as follows;
“He was a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart – a taboo forever, and his children after him. He could neither marry nor be married by the free-born. He was in fact an outcast, living in a special area of the village, close to the Great Shrine. Wherever he went he carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste – long tangled and dirty hair.
A razor was taboo to him. An Osu could not attend an assembly of the free-born, and they in turn could not shelter under his roof. He could not take any of the four titles of the clan, and when he died he was buried by his kind in the Evil Forest.”
In effect, the Osu is a community within a community. They live in a separate section with the free-borns in the same geographical community, yet the social distance between them and the free-borns is unbridgeable. There are no such extreme or severe forms of social discrimination in Abam.
The Osu system is unknown in Abam. But this is not to say that some form of social discrimination does not exist at all. In Idima Abam for instance, there are a number of compounds where the mothers of twins are not allowed to enter. If a woman who lives in such compounds gives birth to twins, she is naturally expected to relocate to another compound where mothers of twins are allowed. But no one forces the mother of twins to relocate or prevents her from entering such compounds. She does so voluntarily having been made to understand that such compounds prohibit mothers of twins.
Wrestling is another major theme of Things Fall Apart. It is celebrated during the New Yam Festival. It is infact the climax of the New Yam Festival. The wrestling takes the following form;
“The drummers took up their sticks again and the air shivered and grew tense like a tightened bow. The two teams were ranged facing each other across the clear space. A young man from one team danced across the centre to the other side and pointed at whomever he wanted to fight.
They danced back to the centre together and then closed in. There were twelve men on each side and the challenge went from one side to the other. Two judges walked around the wrestlers and when they thought they were equally matched, stopped them. Five matches ended in this way. But the really exciting moments were where a man was thrown” (Chapter 6, p. 39).
Wrestling also takes place in Abam. But unlike Umuofia, the wrestling festival in Abam is not part of the New Yam Festival. It actually takes place after the planting season. By modern-day calendar, the wrestling festival falls into the month of June usually towards the end of that month while the New Yam Festival falls into the month of September.
Again unlike Umuofia, the wrestling contest is not a clan-wide contest rather each village holds its own wrestling festival. No teams are involved unlike in Umuofia. Rather, any courageous man can walk into the centre and stand, waiting for any of his age mates to challenge him. Any of his age mates who is confident and courageous can walk into the arena to wrestle with him. Moreover, there is female wrestling in Abam unlike in Umuofia.
Female wrestling takes place about three days before the male wrestling. Young maidens especially contest with one another according to their ages. The rules in female wrestling are slightly different from those of male wrestling. In female wrestling, it is enough if one of the contestants lands on her knees or buttocks for her to be adjudged thrown and her opponent declared the winner. In male wrestling, however, a contestant must land flat on his back for him to be adjudged thrown and his opponent declared the winner. The difference in rules does not make female wrestling less exciting.
One major interpretation Chinua Achebe gives of the setting of Things Fall Apart is that they are no kings. The elders of Mbanta replied to the Christian Missionaries who asked to see their king that they had no king.
As Chinua Achebe put it; “They asked who the king of the village was but the villagers told them that there was no king. We have men of high title and the chief priests and the elders” (Chapter 17, p. 119). Here again one finds Chinua Achebe equating the village with the clan or using village and clan interchangeably.
While it is true that they are no kings or overall heads of Ibo clan generally, yet each village within a clan usually has a village head. In Abam for instance, each of the villages that make up the clan have a village head known as Eze-ogo, in addition to the men of high title, chief priests, and the elders. But there is no overall head or king of the entire Abam clan.
Lastly, one other area the Abam customs are considered anti-theatrical to those of Umuofia is on the status of title-holders. Chinua Achebe does not state or mention the names or ranks of the four titles a man can aspire to achieve in Umuofia. All that the reader is told is that Okonkwo achieved two out of the four.
Just as in Umuofia, there are four titles a man can aspire to achieve in his life-time in Abam apart from initiation into many of the secret societies in the clan. These titles are Ike-ji (owning your first barn of yams).
It is the lowest title; Ike-Nnu (owning your first Four Hundred tubers of yam in your barn); Ike-Ovu-Oba (owning your first Eight Thousand tubers of yam which is equivalent to Twenty barns of Four Hundred tubers each) and Nnu-giri-Nnu (owning your First Eighty Thousand tubers of yam which is equivalent to Two Hundred barns of yams of Four Hundred tubers each) respectively. These titles may appear easy to achieve in the modern-day because of mechanical and large-scale farming. But in those days when farming was characterized by small landholding and use of primitive implements such as hoes and machetes, it was no mean fit to achieve or acquire these titles. Like in Umuofia, a man’s title reverts back to the community upon his death. There are not inherited by his children. His children are expected to acquire their own titles by the same process of hard work as their father.
However, unlike Umuofia, no custom prevents a title-holder in Abam, no matter how high his title, from climbing palm trees to tap his wine or to assist his wives in such manly work as breaking firewood or pounding foo-foo.
Perhaps, this is why Obierika, Okonkwo’s great friend describes the customs of Abam as standing “upside down” (Chapter 8, p. 58). But this is sheer arrogance on the part of Chinua Achebe. I say this because Chinua Achebe admitted in an interview that he is represented in the novel by Obierika (see Introduction to AWS Classic edition of Things Fall Apart, p. i). The reader should judge if there is anything in the customs of Umuofia vis-à-vis those of Abam as sketched above to justify such arrogant comment by Obierika.
In spite of the above differences, Umuofia shares several customs in common with Abam. Evil Forests exist in Abam just as in Umuofia. People who died bloated or swollen are not buried at home but in the evil forest. Dead people whose ghosts are believed to be haunting or tormenting the living have their bodies or whatever remains of their bodies exhumed and reburied at the evil forest. The evil forest in Idima is known as Ohuasara.
Utensils and other household belongings of people buried there liter the whole place. In Umuofia, women are the artistes who decorate and draw patterns on the outer walls of the egwugwu house without ever seeing what is inside. They also decorate and draw patterns on their huts and those of their husbands during festive periods. It is the same in Abam.
In Idima Abam in particular, women are the decorators of the two giant pyramids of red earth known as Mkpu. It is said that these pyramids open in the middle, of their own accord during sacrifice which precedes the Igba Ekpe or traditional retirement festival for an age grade which is done every ten years. The sacrifice is an exclusive affair of men led by the Eze ogo (village head) and the male elders of the village. It is only when the men are through with the sacrifice that women are allowed to go and decorate the pyramids. The women draw all manner of patterns that satisfy their imagination – butterflies, birds, tigers, human beings, wrappers, trees, boxes, moon, stars, sun, hunters, huts, reptiles, and so on. They make the giant pyramids which are about twenty feet high, look very attractive but they never see what is really inside the pyramids. Polygamy is also common in Abam as in Umuofia.
The Abam dialet is also rich in proverbs. However, unlike in Umuofia, folktales are told to children by both their fathers and their mothers. It is not told by women alone. A snake is called a string at night so that it does not run before it is killed. People do not answer calls directly at night for fear that it might be an evil spirit that is calling them.
Women who are desirous of the fruits of the womb may sit under the udara (apple) trees but not under a silk cotton tree as in Umuofia. Witchcraft and magic also feature in Abam as in Umuofia. Shifting cultivation and sharecropping are also practiced in Abam just as it is done in Umuofia. There is also ancestral worship through the pouring of libation. Men of title sit on animal skins just as in Umuofia. When a child sneezes an elder around says, “life to you,” just as in Umuofia. Delicacies of Umuofia such as pounded yam, egusi soup, vegetable soup, plantain and oil bean salad, cocoyam, cassava foo-foo, bitter leaf soup, and yam pottage are also savoured in Abam.
In all, Umuofia and Abam have a lot in common but there is nothing in the customs of Chinua Achebe’s Ogidi and its environs as fictionalized in Umuofia that can reasonably justify his comment that Abam customs are “upside-down” or standing on their heads.