The Kola Nut in Things Fall Apart

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  • 0:04 Rituals of Respect
  • 0:54 First Encounter
  • 2:23 Broken Respect
  • 3:31 Broader Importance
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Myers

Kimberly has taught college writing and rhetoric and has a master's degree in Comparative Literature.

This lesson is an analysis of the ceremonial and symbolic significance of the kola nut in Chinua Achebe's ''Things Fall Apart.'' In Igbo culture, the kola nut is a symbolic sign of respect, and it is offered by hosts to make guests feel welcome.

Rituals of Respect

Have you ever had a guest come over to your house? In American culture, we have lots of little customary rituals that symbolize hospitality and make our guest feel welcome and respected. If you don't know your guest well, you might shake their hand and officially invite them in. You could take their coat for them and offer them something to eat or drink. If you know them a bit better, you might give them a hug to express friendship.

Likewise, the kola nut and the accompanying ritual that goes along with it symbolizes the customs and signs of respect between the leaders of the Igbo tribe in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. A ritual is a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a certain order. In Igbo culture, the kola nut is a crucial part of many ceremonies and gatherings, but it appears in the novel primarily as a way of welcoming visitors to one's home.

First Encounter

The ritual of offering and breaking a kola nut appears in the very first chapter of the novel. Unoka plays host to his guest Okoye and brings a kola nut for him to break. Unoka ''passed the disc over to his guest. 'Thank you. He who brings kola brings life. But I think you ought to break it,' replied Okoye, passing back the disc.

'No, it is for you, I think,' and they argued like this for a few moments before Unoka accepted the honour of breaking the kola.'' Unoka breaks the kola, and then they ''prayed to their ancestors for life and health, and for protection against their enemies.''

As you can see, there is an entire system of etiquette and routine that goes along with the breaking and eating of a kola nut. The privilege of breaking it is a great honor and sign of respect. The whole thing is a sacred communion that happens before matters of business can be broached. This respect for the custom translates into respect for one another. The response ''he who brings kola brings life'' can be interpreted as the kola fulfillment of the kola ritual sustaining the Igbo way of life.

Okonkwo, the novel's main character, also clearly respects the symbolism of the kola nut. He offers the kola nut and palm wine as proper, traditional gifts of respect. He says, ''I have brought you this little kola. As our people say, a man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness.'' Above all, Okonkwo wants to be seen as a man who is a model of devotion to the ways of the tribe. However, we soon see that Okonkwo is not a perfect example.

Broken Respect

During the sacred Week of Peace, Okonkwo beats his third wife. ''In his anger he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm pleading with him that it was the sacred week. Okonkwo's neighbors heard his wife crying and sent their voices over the compound walls to ask what was the matter. Some of them came over to see for themselves. It was unheard of to beat somebody during the sacred week.''

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