This is a political and cultural novel, set amongst the villages of the Igbo people in Nigeria in the early twentieth century when colonization by British government officials and Christian missionaries was well underway.
In this novel two cultures confront their differences. Ezeulu the main character is the chief priest of the god Ulu, worshipped by the six villages of Umuaro. The book begins with Ezeulu and Umuaro fighting against a nearby village, Okperi.
The conflict is abruptly resolved when T.K. Winterbottom, the British colonial overseer, intervenes. After the conflict, a Christian missionary, John Goodcountry, arrives in Umuaro. Goodcountry begins to tell the villages tales of Nigerians in the Niger Delta who abandoned (and battled) their traditional “bad customs” in favour of Christianity. Ezeulu is called away from his village by Winterbottom and is invited to become a part of the colonial administration, a policy known as indirect rule. Ezeulu refuses to be a “white man’s chief” and is thrown in prison.
In Umuaro, the people cannot harvest the yams until Ezeulu has called the New Yam Feast to give thanks to Ulu. When Ezeulu returns from prison, he refuses to call the feast despite being implored by other important men in the village to compromise. Ezeulu reasons to the people and to himself that it is not his will but Ulu’s; Ezeulu believes himself to be half spirit and half man.
The yams begin to rot in the field, and a famine ensues for which the village blames Ezeulu. Seeing this as an opportunity, John Goodcountry proposes that the village offer thanks to the Christian God instead so that they may harvest what remains of their crops with “immunity”.
Many of the villagers have already lost their faith in Ezeulu. One of Ezeulu’s sons dies during a traditional ceremony, and the village interprets this as a sign that Ulu has abandoned their priest. Rather than face another famine, the village converts to Christianity.
Achebe portrays the disrupting effect an externally imposed power system (the British) has on an internally imposed power system (African tradition and customs). Conflicts within the Igbo society coupled with repercussions from external invasion result in disaster for the Igbo society which disintegrates from within and reorients itself to Christianity.
This reorientation will lead not only to the assimilation of Western values and beliefs, but also to the eventual loss of the Igbo cultural identity.
“Arrow of God” (1964) by Chinua Achebe refers to Ezeulu’s image of himself as an arrow in the bow of his god.
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