As soon as the day broke, a large crowd of men from Ezeudu’s quarter stormed Okonkwo’s compound, dressed in garbs of war. They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn. . . . They had no hatred in their hearts against Okonkwo. . . . They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a clansman.
Okonkwo accidentally kills Ogbuefi Ezeudu’s son when his gun goes off during Ogbuefi Ezeudu’s funeral. Since killing a clansman is a serious crime, even when an accident, Okonkwo is forced into exile for seven years. The clansmen burn Okonkwo’s belongings to purge the land of his sin. Although destructive in nature, fire functions as a cleansing and purifying element in the Igbo culture.
Okonkwo was popularly called the “Roaring Flame.” As he looked into the log fire he recalled the name. He was a flaming fire. How then could he have begotten a son like Nwoye, degenerate and effeminate?
Okonkwo has just learned that Nwoye has been spending time with the white missionaries, and he feels extremely angry upon hearing such news. Okonkwo wonders how he could have raised such a foolish, weak son since he himself is so powerful and is even known by others as the “Roaring Flame.” In the Igbo culture, fire symbolizes strength and masculinity. As these are qualities Okonkwo exudes, he is associated with fire throughout the novel.
He sighed heavily, and as if in sympathy the smoldering log also sighed. And immediately Okonkwo’s eyes were opened and he saw the whole matter clearly. Living fire begets cold, impotent ash. He sighed again, deeply.
Okonkwo is angry with Nwoye for betraying him by associating with the white missionaries. As Okonkwo stares at a log disintegrating in a fire, he has a flash of insight: His powerful masculinity, a trait that earned him the nickname “Roaring Flame,” has caused Nwoye’s weakness, as “living fire begets cold, impotent ash.” However, Okonkwo’s burning anger ultimately destroys his life. Just as fire consumes all it touches, Okonkwo’s rage leads to his demise.
These court messengers were greatly hated in Umuofia because they were foreigners and also arrogant and high-handed. They were called kotma, and because of their ash-colored shorts they earned the additional name of Ashy-Buttocks.
Okonkwo has just returned to Umuofia after seven years in exile to find that Umuofia has greatly changed. There are dozens of missionaries now living there, men who have even begun asserting their judicial and government rules on the villagers. The court messengers appointed to put offenders in jail have earned the name “Ashy-Buttocks” for the ashen-colored shorts they wear. Just as fire is associated with masculinity and strength in Igbo culture, ash is associated with effeminacy and weakness. As such, the Ashy-Buttocks are despised and looked down upon by the Igbo.
“The greatest obstacle in Umuofia,” Okonkwo thought bitterly, “is that coward, Egonwanne. His sweet tongue can change fire into cold ash. When he speaks he moves our men to impotence.[”]
Okonkwo realizes that his tribe has been nearly conquered by the white settlers and there is little hope left. He blames his fellow clansmen for maintaining a stance of compromise, which has allowed the settlers to gain power over the tribe little by little. Okonkwo compares one such clansman, Egonwanne, to a wet cloth, dampening spirits and turning “fire into cold ash” with his words. While fire symbolizes the masculine impulse to fight and protect one’s land, ash symbolizes effeminacy, compromise, and, ultimately, the worthless remains of something that has been destroyed.