Things Fall Apart

by: Chinua Achebe

Ethnographic distance

Quotes Ethnographic distance
‘Is that me?’ Ekwefi called back. That was the way people answered calls from outside. They never answered yes for fear it might be an evil spirit calling.

When Okonkwo’s first wife calls out from her hut, Ekwefi answers, “Is that me?” This response will seem odd for non-Igbo readers, and the narrator seems to know it, which explains why the narrator goes on to describe the cultural logic behind Ekwefi’s response. In a world populated by potentially malign spirits, it is best to avoid inadvertently inviting such a spirit into one’s home. According to the narrator, answering “Yes” to a call from outside one’s hut could have very bad consequences indeed.

Behind [the elders] was the big and ancient silk-cotton tree which was sacred. Spirits of good children lived in that tree waiting to be born. On ordinary days young women who desired children came to sit under its shade.

With drums beating, the people of Umuofia turn out in the central village green, or ilo, where the annual wrestling match is about to begin. The narrator describes how the drummers sit in front of the spectators, and how all of them face the elders. The narrator then observes that the sacred silk-cotton tree that stands behind the elders functions as a symbol for fertility, and that women sit in its shade to improve their chances at getting pregnant. This ethnographic observation, though seemingly tangential, represents the meaningfulness of the Igbo cultural world.

Okonkwo’s wives, and perhaps other women as well, might have noticed that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo. And they might also have noticed that Okonkwo was not among the titled men and elders who sat behind the row of egwugwu. But if they thought these things they kept them within themselves.

As the narrator indicates elsewhere in this scene, the egwugwu are ancestral spirits that manifest in the flesh of masqueraders, which means that the individual identities of the masqueraders themselves effectively disappears. In this moment, however, the narrator points out that the Igbo are capable of holding both identities (i.e., spirit, man) in mind at the same time, even if these identities appear contradictory. In addition to being an instance of the narrator’s ethnographic distance, this moment also demonstrates that the Igbo are not “superstitious” in the sense that the Christian missionaries will declare later in the novel.