The missionaries request a piece of land on which to build a church. The village leaders and elders offer them a plot in the Evil Forest, believing that the missionaries will not accept it. To the elders’ amazement, the missionaries rejoice in the offer. But the elders are certain that the forest’s sinister spirits and forces will kill the missionaries within days. To their surprise, however, nothing happens, and the church soon wins its first three converts. The villagers point out that sometimes their ancestral spirits will allow an offending man a grace period of twenty-eight days before they punish his sins, but they are completely astounded when nothing happens after twenty-eight days. The church thus wins more converts, including a pregnant woman, Nneka. Her four previous pregnancies produced twins, and her husband and his family are not sorry to see her go.
One of Okonkwo’s cousins notices Nwoye among the Christians and informs Okonkwo. When Nwoye returns, Okonkwo chokes him by the neck, demanding to know where he has been. Uchendu orders him to let go of the boy. Nwoye leaves his father’s compound and travels to a school in Umuofia to learn reading and writing. Okonkwo wonders how he could ever have fathered such an effeminate, weak son.
The church wins many converts from the
To the clan’s disbelief, one boasts that he killed the sacred royal python. Okonkwo urges Mbanta to drive the Christians out with violence, but the rulers and elders decide to ostracize them instead. Okonkwo bitterly remarks that this is a “womanly” clan. After announcing the new policy of ostracism, the elders learn that the man who boasted of killing the snake has died of an illness. The villagers’ trust in their gods is thereby reaffirmed, and they cease to ostracize the converts.
Okonkwo’s seven years of exile in Mbanta are drawing to an end. Before he returns to Umuofia, he provides a large feast for his mother’s kinsmen. He is grateful to them but secretly regrets the missed opportunity to have further increased his status and influence among his own clan. He also regrets having spent time with such un-masculine people. At the feast, one man expresses surprise that Okonkwo has been so generous with his food and another praises Okonkwo’s devotion to the kinship bond. He also expresses concern for the younger generation, as Christianity is winning people away from their families and traditions.
Nwoye is drawn to Christianity because it seems to answer his long-held doubts about his native religion, specifically the abandonment of twin newborns and Ikemefuna’s death. Furthermore, Nwoye feels himself exiled from his society because of his disbelief in its laws, and the church offers refuge to those whom society has cast out. The church’s value system will allow twins to live, for example, which offers comfort to the pregnant woman who has had to endure the casting away to die of her four sets of newborn twins. Similarly, men without titles turn to Christianity to find affirmation of their individual worth. The
Okonkwo, on the other hand, has good reason to reject Christianity. Should Mbanta not drive the missionaries away, his killing of Ikemefuna would lose part of its religious justification. The damage to his relationship with Nwoye also seems more pointless than before. Both matters become his mistake rather than the result of divine will. Moreover, men of high status like Okonkwo view the church as a threat because it undermines the cultural value of their accomplishments. Their titles and their positions as religious authorities and clan leaders lose force and prestige if men of lower status are not there—the great cannot be measured against the worthless if the worthless have disappeared.
Nwoye’s conversion devastates Okonkwo. Although he has always been harsh with his son, Okonkwo still believes in Nwoye’s potential to become a great clansman. Nwoye’s rejection of Igbo values, however, strikes a dire blow to Okonkwo’s hopes for him. Additionally, Nwoye’s actions undermine Okonkwo’s own status and prestige. It is, as Okonkwo thinks at the end of Chapter 17, as though all of Okonkwo’s hard work to distance himself from the legacy of his father has been destroyed. He sighs and thinks to himself: “Living fire begets cold impotent ash.”
Despite the challenges that the church represents, Mbanta is committed to peace and remains tolerant of the church’s presence. Even with the converts’ blatant disrespect of Umuofia’s customs—rumor has it that a convert has killed a royal python—the clan leaders vote for a peaceful solution, deciding to ostracize rather than attack the Christians. Okonkwo is not happy with their decision and advocates a violent reaction. His mentality is somewhat ironic: he believes that the village should act against its cultural values in order to preserve them.
The arrival of the white colonists and their religion weakens the kinship bonds so central to Igbo culture. Ancestral worship plays an important role in Igbo religion, and conversion to Christianity involves a partial rejection of the Igbo structure of kinship. The Christians tell the Igbo that they are all brothers and sons of God, replacing the literal ties of kinship with a metaphorical kinship structure through God. The overjoyed response of a missionary to Nwoye’s interest in attending school in another village—“Blessed is he who forsakes his father and his mother for my sake”—illustrates that the Christian church clearly recognizes Igbo kinship bonds as the central obstacle to the success of its missionaries.
Achebe does not present a clear-cut dichotomy of the white religion as evil and the Igbo religion as good. All along, the descriptions of many of the village’s ceremonies and rituals have been tongue-in-cheek. But the Christian missionaries increasingly win converts simply by pointing out the fallacy of Igbo beliefs—for example, those about the outcasts. When the outcasts cut their hair with no negative consequence, many villagers come to believe that the Christian god is more powerful than their own. Achebe himself is the son of Nigerian Christians, and it is hard not to think of his situation, in Chapter 17, when the narrator points out Okonkwo’s worry: “Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye’s steps and abandon their ancestors?”