Ikemefuna’s Storytelling and Power

Apparent from the very first page, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a novel which finds its unique voice by interweaving influences of Western literature and the vibrancy found in traditional African oral folktales.  Scattered throughout the First Part of the novel’s chapters, we come across various vignettes relaying past stories about the characters we encounter, in attempts for Achebe to guide the reader into constructing fully formed humans out of a people who have almost never been afforded dimension and humanity within the “colonial canon” (XVII) as Irele describes it.  While afforded with this dimension, the character of Ikemefuna finds his humanity contested by his circumstances. Taken from his family and village in an act of retribution for the killing of a woman from Okonkwo’s village, Ikemefuna’s displacement is the result of an event that is removed from his control. He enters Okonkwo’s life as a consequence of Okonkwo’s responsibility and the mistakes of his own father, and while this situation leaves him at a great disadvantage against the world, the conclusion of Chapter 5 sees how Ikemefuna uses the act of telling folktales to reestablish his sense of significance and identity amongst Okonkwo’s family.

As he discusses the intricacies of the planting and harvest seasons and how Umuofian society functions in the brief respite in between, Achebe touches on how “children sat around their mother’s cooking fire telling stories” (22).  This imagery is framed by the greater presence of heavy rainfall and thunder, but transitions to the abrupt image of Okonkwo’s family, and Ikemefuna’s own perception of his role in it, “Ikemefuna had begun to feel like a member of Okonkwo’s family,” Achebe narrates.  While technically a forced inhabitant of Okonkwo’s home, Ikemefuna slowly adjusts himself to his new reality through his attachment to Nwoye, Okonkwo’s eldest son. This attachment appears to be primarily achieved through Ikemefuna’s storytelling ability,

“[he] had an endless stock of folk tales. Even those which Nwoye knew already were told with a new freshness and the local flavour of a different clan. Nwoye remembered this period very vividly till the end of his life. He even remembered how he had laughed when Ikemefuna told him that the proper name for a corn cob with only a few scattered grains was eze-agadi-nwayi, or the teeth of an old woman. Nwoye’s mind had gone immediately to Nwayieke, who lived near the udala tree.” (22)

An Udala Tree

Like the memory of the old woman living near the udala tree that finds itself so vividly brought to the front of Nwoye’s consciousness through Ikemefuna’s stories, the memory of Ikemefuna is preserved though the stories he told and the humanity he injected into their telling.  While Ikemefuna can be read as a character used simply as a narrative tool to emphasize Okonkwo’s most destructive qualities, I argue that Achebe assigned Ikemefuna the role of a storyteller to highlight his individuality and purpose outside of Okonkwo’s story, while serving as a layered metaphor for the significance of Achebe’s own storytelling.  Confined by the influence and force of those who uprooted him from his culture and family, Ikemefuna forges strength through the ability to tell stories using a voice and perspective that recalls his origins. And like Ikemefuna’s telling of folktales that are retold in his ‘local flavour’, Achebe accomplishes a similar feat of using storytelling to signal multi-dimensional humanity and identity despite a contrasting narrative imposed on him by his oppressors.

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Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts, and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W Norton & Company, 2009, p. 22

Irele, Francis A. “Introduction” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts, and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W Norton & Company, 2009, p. XVII