Chapter 3 describes incidents from Okonkwo's childhood and young adulthood — incidents that have contributed to Okonkwo's flawed character.
According to the first story from Okonkwo's past, his father, Unoka, consulted the Oracle of the Hills and Caves, asking why he had produced bad harvests each year in spite of his sacrifices and planting procedures. During his story, Chika (the priestess of the Oracle) interrupted him angrily and told him that he hadn't offended the gods, but in his laziness, he took the easy way out by planting on exhausted land. She told him to go home and "work like a man."
Bad fortune followed Unoka, even to his death. He died of swelling in his stomach and limbs — an affliction not acceptable to Ani, the earth goddess. He therefore could not be buried properly, so he was taken to the Evil Forest to rot, making Okonkwo even more ashamed of his father.
In the second story from Okonkwo's past, the young Okonkwo was preparing to plant his first farm in yams — a man's crop — while his mother and sisters grew women's crops — such things as coco-yams and cassava. Because Okonkwo had received nothing from his father, he began his farming through share-cropping. To get help for his planting, he visited Nwakibie, a great man of the village, symbolized by his three barns, nine wives, and thirty children. After the proper greetings and rituals, Okonkwo asked Nwakibie for seed-yams and pledges his hard work in growing and harvesting them. According to the share-cropping contract, Okonkwo would return two-thirds of what he grew to Nwakibie and receive only a third of the total crop for himself, his parents, and his sisters. Nwakibie had already turned down similar requests from other young men. But he acknowledged Okonkwo's earnestness and ambition and gave Okonkwo twice the number of seed-yams he'd hoped for.
The growing season that followed was disastrous for Okonkwo as well as for most other farmers of the village. The land suffered first a great drought and then unending rain and floods — a combination ruinous to the season's harvest. Okonkwo was deeply discouraged, but he knew that he would survive because of his determination to succeed.
Achebe's use of storytelling further illustrates how Okonkwo's resentment of his father grew, as well as how his own determination to succeed was tested — the two sides of his characterization as tragic hero.
The separation between the man's world and the woman's world in Umuofian culture is again emphasized in this chapter — first, in the roles of the women in the ritual wine-drinking and, later, in the classification of crops. Coco-yams, beans, and cassava are considered women's crops; in contrast, the yam is identified as the "king of crops" — a man's crop.
Chapter 3 also illustrates several traditional ideas and truths that shape day-to-day Igbo life. These principles are often expressed through indirect language and symbols in the following proverbs:
- "A toad does not run in the daytime for nothing."
- "The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said that he would praise himself if no one else did."
- "[Because] men have learned to shoot without missing, [Eneke the bird] has learned to fly without perching."
- "You can tell a ripe corn by its look."
These traditional expressions demonstrate the great respect and courtesy that the Igbo people show to one another because the speaker uses veiled language when making comments about himself (Okonkwo in the lizard example, and Nwakibie in the Eneke example); about others (Ogbuefi Idigo talking about Obiako in the toad example); about the person he is addressing (Nwakibie speaking to Okonkwo in the corn example); and about life in general even to oneself (Okonkwo in the old woman example). This symbolic language represents a high level of cultural sensitivity and sophistication.
An especially significant concept introduced in this chapter is the belief in personal chi. At its simplest level, chi parallels the Western concept of soul, although chi is a more complex idea. The Igbo believe that an individual's fate and abilities for the coming life are assigned to the chi, and each individual is given a chi by the Creator (Chukwu) at the moment of conception. Before each reincarnation, the individual bargains for improved circumstances in the next life. The chi thus becomes one's personal god that guides one to fulfill the expected destiny. On the one hand, the individual is ruled by his chi, but on the other hand, only the individual can make the most of the fate planned through the chi.
Notice that Achebe's first name, Chinua, begins with chi. Achebe explained the usage of chi in the following excerpt:
When we talk about chi, we're talking about the individual spirit, and so you find the word in all kinds of combinations. Chinwe, which is my wife's name, means chi owns me; mine is Chinua, which is a shortened form of an expression that means may a chi fight for me. My son is named Chidi, which means chi is there. So it's [in] almost [all my family members' names] in one form or the other. Our youngest girl asked me why she didn't have chi in her name. She thought it was some kind of discrimination, so she took the name Chioma, which means good chi.
Agbala, the Oracle the prophet of the Igbo. Achebe bases the Agbala Oracle (the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves) on the Awka Oracle that was destroyed by the British. Chielo was the priestess who spoke to Unoka on behalf of the god Agbala.
Ani the earth goddess who owns all land.
chi a significant cultural concept and belief meaning one's personal deity; also one's destiny or fate.
Nna-ayi translated as our father; a greeting of respect.
sharecropping working land for a share of the crop, especially as a tenant farmer. Here, Okonkwo works as a sharecropper to obtain seed-yams.
coco-yam the edible, spherical-shaped tuber of the taro plant grown in the tropics and eaten like potatoes or ground into flour, cooked to a paste, or fermented for beer. Here, the round coco-yam (a woman's crop) is a different tuber than the elongated-shaped yam (a man's crop).
cassava any of several plants (genus Manihot and especially M. esculenta) of the spurge family grown in the tropics for their fleshy, edible rootsticks that produce a nutritious starch. Here, the plant also provides valuable leaves for livestock feed as well as tubers, which are prepared like coco-yams.