Although the roles of Okonkwo’s wives in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart appear very different from women today, much of that is actually superficial. Certainly women in Igbo society were expected to cook, clean, and raise the family. They were also expected to help with the crops as needed. This is honestly not so different from early to mid-1900’s in the United States, and even in many farming and ranching families in our local community today. Women’s “values” were also significantly marginalized. In fact, men who were perceived as failures in the Igbo culture were referred to as agbala, which was that culture’s term for woman. The biggest difference between Ibo society and our culture, however, is that violence from husbands to their wives is not acceptable. Overall, despite being devalued, women of the Igbo culture and those of today’s world hold things together through the work they do, their own inner strength and the values they instill in their children.
Women in Umuofia were generally thought of as an indicator of a man’s wealth. For a man to have more wives, he had to have the means to have acquired, and later, to support them. Okonkwo had three wives, as allowed by the Umuofian culture. They were Nwoye’s mother, Ekwefi and Ojiugo. Additionally, for a man to rule over a women showed strength and power. Because of this, Okonkwo was happy when he would hear his son, Nwoye complaining about women.
“That showed that in time he would be able to control his women-folk. No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man” (53).
In Igbo society, according to Chinua Achebe, women had a few specialized jobs that they should do. These included cooking meals, raising the children, and cleaning the household. As a wife, the women were required to cook meals for the family. If a wife could not cook she should ask someone else to prepare the meal. In chapter four, Ojiugo, one of Okonkwo’s wives, goes to plait a friend’s hair and returned home too late to cook the afternoon meal. She neglected to ask either Nwoye’s mother or Ekwefi to cook, so when Okonkwo asked if “She ask you to feed them [the children] before she went?” Nwoye’s mother lied to him, trying to lessen Ojiugo’s punishment. Despite Nwoye’s mother’s attempt to help, when Ojiugo arrived home, she was met by Okonkwo where he then “beat her heavily.” While that would not be acceptable today, it was completely expected in their culture, and not unheard of in other cultures of the time period.
In spite of the culture’s expectations, Nwoye’s mother, Okonkwo’s oldest wife, Ekwefi and Ojiugo, all showed signs of inner strength and were sometimes outspoken and even defiant. For example, when Okonkwo accused his second wife, Ekwefi, of hilling a banana tree, she stood up to him denying his accusation. As a result, and something Ekwefi surely knew would happen, Okonkwo beat her and then threatened to kill her. Ekwefi is strong, however, having survived the deaths of nine children before having their daughter, Ezinma. So despite expectations for her to be submissive, Ekwefi internally knew her own strength and power. Ekwefi was true to herself and shared that understanding with her daughter, Ezinma, who grew up to be confident and unwilling to be completely submissive.
Although women were not allowed to hold any type of recognized governing or leadership power within the immediate Igbo culture, their value was recognized elsewhere. When Okonkwo was exiled to his motherland for seven years as the result of his actions, he was told by the Mbanta tribesmen that “the mother is supreme” (134). It was explained that children look to their mothers for comfort, hence the mother represents protection. This is its own form of strength.
Igbo women held an important place in their culture. Although women could not rule, they did lead through their actions and the behaviors they taught their children. Chinua Achebe best described how Okonkwo’s wives and the women of the Igbo society led through example with the statement “When mother-cow is chewing grass it’s young ones watch its mouth” (?). It would be easy to see the women of Umuofia as victims of their time and culture. This is not completely accurate, however, as it is important to note that the gender roles of Umuofia and of Western Cultures of the same time period were not dramatically different, with the exception of lawfully acceptable spousal beatings. Women of both cultures did lead their people and their advancements through their nurturing spirits, their unwavering fortitude and their sharing of ideas with their offspring.