During Okonkwo’s second year of exile, Obierika comes to visit him, bringing with him two young men carrying sacks of cowries. Okwonko takes him to meet his uncle and while they are talking, Obierika tells them that the clan of Abame has been wiped out. The story follows that a white man had come to their village on a bicycle, or what the villagers call an “iron horse,” and although they had been frightened of him at first, they eventually tied his vehicle to the sacred tree and killed him based on what the Oracle had said about white men who would destroy them. After some months, more white men had come and after seeing the bicycle tied to the tree they left. Months later, when the clan was at the market, white men with guns came and proceeded to shoot all the villagers, except the old and the sick, who had fled. Now the village is deserted.
A discussion occurs between Uchendu and Okonkwo about the foolishness of killing a man who has not said anything or whom they do not know. Although stories have circulated about the white men and their kidnapping of people for slaves, they have never believed them, even though Uchendu says, “There is no story that is not true.” A meal is then set for the guests, and before leaving, Obierika gives Okonkwo the money from his yams that he has sold. He says he will continue to do this until Okonkwo returns to the village or something drastic occurs.
This chapter reveals the importance that white people will play in the lives of the people of Africa. Until now, there have been several references but nothing as tangible as the story in this chapter that shows a conflict between the native peoples and the white men. Both Okonkwo and Uchendu think it was foolish that they killed this man without knowing his story. This shows the respect these men have for human life as well as their insistence on having a reason for killing someone. Even though they based their decision on what their Oracle had predicted, the men do not see this as good enough reason to kill someone.
The reprisal of the white men is quite extreme. That they wiped out a whole village due to the death of one man shows an irrational and unreasoned thinking especially compared to the way murder is handled among the Igbo. This extreme use of violence reveals the white men as having an agenda that is sweeping in its scope. They are not in Africa to cohabitate in peace with the local people, instead they want to instill fear in the native peoples and provoke violent confrontations. Achebe represents the white men in his novel as stereotypical colonists who have no sensitivity to local customs or respect for other cultures. Through this incident, Achebe demonstrates that subsequent conflicts between the white men and the Africans is inevitable.
By the time Obierika pays his next visit two years later, the missionaries have already invaded Umuofia, built their church and begun their task of converting the people to their religion. He also tells Okonkwo that he has seen Nwoye among these people, but Okonkwo refuses to discuss his son’s whereabouts. After talking with Nwoye’s mother, Obierika learns of how the missionaries have converted many people in Mbanta also. One day six men arrived in Mbanta, one of them white. The white man used an interpreter to preach to them about everyone being brothers and sons of God and that they should worship the true god, not the false gods of wood and stone. He also spoke about Jesu Kristi, the Son of God. The people of Mbanta were annoyed by this and began to move away, but when the missionaries burst into song, they once more became interested. Okonkwo had left the scene in disgust, but Nwoye had been struck by these talks and started mingling with them.
The presence of the missionaries in Mbanta signals the widespread efforts of the “civilizing mission” deployed in Africa in the 19th century. The appearance of the white man should concern the Mbanta because of what happened at Abame, but they tend to accept him without any animosity and are curious as to what he has to say. The villagers are quite satisfied with their religion and they do not have the desire to change their religion yet the man’s words reach Nwoye as well as others who do not fit in to the rigid roles society imposes on them. To Okonkwo, Nwoye’s interest appears treacherous, but Nwoye, who is a sensitive young man, sees this new religion as being more compassionate. The question in his mind, regarding the twins crying in the bush and Ikemefuna being killed, has never been answered. They had just been submerged in his conscience, and this new religion that seems remote from such harsh concepts seems to provide an answer to these questions. “The words of the Hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth”.
The missionaries use many persuasive strategies to attract converts. One is the promise of many “iron horses” and the other is the use of rhythmic singing and clapping to draw attention to their message. The differences between these two groups is brought out with humor in the misunderstanding of dialects between the interpreter and the people of Umuofia. Much laughter occurs from the translator’s dialect which is misinterpreted such as the word “myself” for “my buttocks.”
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