The relationship between Ekwefi and Ezinma is not a typical parent-child relationship; it is more like one between equals. Ekwefi receives a great deal of comfort and companionship from her daughter and, because she has lost so many children, she loves and respects her daughter all the more. Although motherhood is regarded as the crowning achievement of a woman’s life, Ekwefi prizes Ezinma so highly, not for the status motherhood brings her but, rather, for the love and companionship that she offers.
Mutually supportive interaction between women receives increasing focus as the novel progresses. For example, Okonkwo’s wives frequently try to protect one another from his anger. Before Ezinma’s birth, Ekwefi was not jealous of Okonkwo’s first wife; she only expressed bitterness at her own misfortune. While Okonkwo gathers medicine for the fever, his other wives try to calm Ekwefi’s fear. Ekwefi’s friendship with Chielo, too, is an example of female bonding.
The incident with Chielo creates a real dilemma for Ekwefi, whose fear of the possible repercussions of disobeying her shows that Chielo’s role as a priestess is taken seriously—it is not just ceremonial. But Ekwefi and Okonkwo’s love for their child is strong enough that they are willing to defy religious authority. Although she has lost nine children, Ekwefi has been made strong by suffering, and when she follows Chielo, she chooses her daughter over the gods. In doing so, Ekwefi contradicts Okonkwo’s ideas of femininity and demonstrates that strength and bravery are not only masculine attributes. Okonkwo also disobeys Chielo and follows her to the caves. But he, too, is careful to show respect to Chielo. She is a woman, but, as a priestess, she can order and chastise him openly. Her authority is not to be taken lightly.
Unlike the narration of Chielo’s kidnapping of Ezinma, the narration of the egwugwu ceremony is rather ironic. The narrator makes several comments to reveal to us that the villagers know that the egwugwu are not real. For example, the narrator tells us: “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 have noticed that Okonkwo was not among the titled men and elders who sat . . . But if they thought these things they kept them within themselves.” The narration of the incident of the medicine man and the iyi-uwa seems likewise to contain a trace of irony. After discussing the iyi-uwa and egwugwu in a tone that approaches mockery on a few occasions, the narrator, remarkably, says nothing that seems to undermine the villagers’ perception of the strength of Chielo’s divine power.
The story that Ekwefi tells Ezinma about Tortoise and the birds is one of the many instances in which we are exposed to Igbo folklore. The tale also seems to prepare us, like the symbolic locusts that arrive in Chapter 7, for the colonialism that will soon descend upon Umuofia. Tortoise convinces the birds to allow him to come with them, even though he does not belong. He then appropriates all of their food. The tale presents two different ways of defeating Tortoise: first, the birds strip Tortoise of the feathers that they had lent him. This strategy involves cooperation and unity among the birds. When they refuse to concede to Tortoise’s desires, Tortoise becomes unable to overpower them. Parrot’s trick suggests a second course of action: by taking advantage of the position as translator, Parrot outwits Tortoise.