The night was very quiet. It was always quiet except on moonlight nights. Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string...
On a moonlight night it would be different. The happy voices of children playing in open fields would then be heard. And perhaps those not so young would be playing in pairs in less open places, and old men and women would remember their youth. As the Igbo say, "When the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk."
In this passage from early in the novel, the narrator contrasts the “vague terror” of dark nights and the carefree happiness of moonlit nights for the people of Umuofia. On dark nights, the villagers fear both evil spirits and dangerous animals like snakes, which the villagers believe embody spirits. On moonlit nights, the villagers feel so safe from spirits and animals that children play out in the open and adults “play” in private. As in other scenes throughout the novel, the villagers understand their natural surroundings through a supernatural framework that is central to their culture but difficult for outsiders to understand.
Umuofia was feared by all its neighbors. It was powerful in war and in magic, and its priests and medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country. Its most potent war-medicine was as old as the clan itself. Nobody knew how old. But on one point there was general agreement—the active principle in that medicine had been an old woman with one leg. In fact, the medicine itself was called agadi-nwayi, or old woman. It had its shrine in the centre of Umuofia, in a cleared spot. And if anybody was so foolhardy as to pass by the shrine after dusk he was sure to see the old woman hopping about.
And so the neighboring clans who naturally knew of these things feared Umuofia, and would not go to war against it without first trying a peaceful settlement.
In this passage, we learn that Umuofia’s powerful reputation among the nine villages derives not from its fierce warriors like Okonkwo, but from its magical “war-medicine.” Umuofia’s priests, its medicine men, and its famous shrine in the center of the village inspire fear and respect in the other clans. While Okonkwo takes pride in his masculinity and brute strength, Umuofia’s military strength ironically emanates from the spirit of a one-legged old woman.
Okonkwo's prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his three wives had her own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi. The barn was built against one end of the red walls, and long stacks of yam stood out prosperously in it. At the opposite end of the compound was a shed for the goats, and each wife built a small attachment to her hut for the hens. Near the barn was a small house, the "medicine house" or shrine where Okonkwo kept the wooden symbols of his personal god and of his ancestral spirits. He worshipped them with sacrifices of kola nut, food and palm-wine, and offered prayers to them on behalf of himself, his three wives and eight children.
Okonkwo’s compound in Umuofia represents both the prosperity that he has achieved through hard work as well as the social hierarchy of Umuofia. As the man of the household, everything revolves around Okonkwo. He lives in his own hut at the front of the compound; his three wives and children have separate huts, where they sleep and prepare Okonkwo’s meals much like servants. Okonkwo even has his own personal “medicine house” where he alone worships his personal gods on behalf of the whole family.
As the men ate and drank palm-wine they talked about the customs of their neighbors.
‘It was only this morning,’ said Obierika, ‘that Okonkwo and I were talking about Abame and Aninta, where titled men climb trees and pound foo-foo for their wives.’
‘All their customs are upside-down. They do not decide bride-price as we do, with sticks. They haggle and bargain as if they were buying a goat or cow in the market.’
‘That is very bad,’ said Obierika’s eldest brother. ‘But what is good in one place is bad in another place. In Umunso they do not bargain at all, not even with broomsticks. The suitor just goes on bringing bags of cowries until his in-laws tell him to stop. It is a bad custom because it always leads to a quarrel.’
‘The world is large,’ said Okonkwo. ‘I have even heard that in some tribes a man’s children belong to his wife and her family,’
‘That cannot be,’ said Machi. ‘You might as well say that the woman lies on top of the man when they are making the children.’
In this passage, after negotiating a bride-price for Obierika’s daughter, the men of Umuofia joke about the “upside-down” customs of their neighboring clans. This episode highlights Igboland’s male-dominated society, where daughters are commodities who are bought and sold as wives. Although Okonkwo and the others appear to acknowledge that other places have different marital customs, the men seem quite convinced that their own customs are superior. Their attitudes toward other customs reveals that they can hardly conceive of a society where men wield less power over women.
It was the time of the full moon. But that night the voice of children was not heard. The village ilo where they always gathered for a moon-play was empty. The women of Iguedo did not meet in their secret enclosure to learn a new dance to be displayed later to the village. Young men who were always abroad in the moonlight kept their huts that night. Their manly voices were not heard on the village paths as they went to visit their friends and lovers. Umuofia was like a startled animal with ears erect, sniffing the silent, ominous air and not knowing which way to run.
This passage, which describes the night that Okonkwo is taken prisoner along with Umuofia’s other leaders, illustrates the stark transformation that the village has undergone since the novel’s opening chapters. Significantly, it is a full moon, which customarily means a carefree night of gathering and socializing without fear of evil spirits. But there are no such signs of life in the village. Instead, the once-vibrant residents of Umuofia now live in fear. Like confused, hunted animals, they sense danger everywhere but do not know how to react.