In Chapter 4 we learn about Idemili, the personal deity of Ummuneora and Ezidemili, and his priest, as well as learning about the time that Nwaka of Ummuneora, friend of Ezidemili, challenged Ulu during a ceremonial performance.
Ezeulu is interrupted in his compound by his wives and children shouting. They are screaming at a small wooden box belonging to Oduche that has begun to move on its own, and wonder what dark Christian magic is making the box shake. Finally, Ezeulu takes a spear and pries open the lock to discover a royal python—the sacred animal of Idemili—trapped inside. Everyone gathered is shocked by this sacrilege, and news of it spreads throughout the villages and to Ezidemili himself.
Providing us with the backstory that led up to the event, the narrator recalls when Ezeulu selected Oduche to attend the missionary school after promising the British he would send one of his sons to the church. Upon doing so he explains to his son that, while he doesn’t like the idea, he feels his spirit telling him “that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow.”
Oduche excels and is deeply impressed by the white man’s knowledge. He wins the favoritism of John Goodcountry by supporting him in an argument he has with Moses Unachukwu over whether or not sacred Igbo animals such as the python and the iguana should be killed. In the course of the argument, Unachukwu taunts Oduche, saying he wouldn’t dare kill a python, which leads the young man to resolve to do just that. Upon capturing the snake, however, Oduche becomes afraid, and settles for leaving it locked in the box.
Edogo, who is carving a new mask for the upcoming Festival of the Pumpkin Leaves in the spirit-house in the Nkwo market place, overhears what happened at his compound and rushes home to confront his father. Ezeulu chides him for not defending the family against the slanderous news, and Edogo responds by blaming Ezeulu for sending Oduche to worship the white man’s god. The next day, Ezeulu is visited by a messenger of Ezidemili who asks what the Chief Priest plans on doing to redress the abomination that transpired in his home. Ezeulu sends him away curtly.
Winterbottom receives a reprimand from the Lieutenant-Governor for not furthering indirect rule by appointing Africans to the role of Paramount Chief. He recalls a warrant chief he selected who became corrupt and power-drunk and extorted from his own people, concluding that there is a unique cruelty “which Africa alone produced.” He decides that, rather than some “mission-educated smart alec,” he will appoint as warrant officer that “impressive-looking fetish priest who alone of all the witnesses who came before him in the Okperi versus Umuaro land case spoke the truth.”
Oduche returns to the compound in Chapter 6 and Ezeulu considers that the crime isn’t so grave, since his son only entrapped the snake without killing it. His daughter Akueke’s husband and his relatives come to ask if they can take her back to their home after. Ezeulu is secretly happy to be relieved of the extra burden of caring for his daughter, who left her new home after her husband beat her. He concedes after Ibe, the husband, promises not to hurt her again.
Ezeulu tells his messengers to announce that the Festival of Pumpkin Leaves, during which the Chief absolves the sins of the six villages before the planting of the crops, will take place the following Nkwo (one of the four Igbo weekdays). The “GOME GOME GOME” of the crier’s ogene rings throughout Umuaro. Ugoye’s family hears it in their hut, where the children tell stories and quarrel while their mother cooks.
There is a cynical logic behind Ezeulu’s decision to send Oduche to the church that betrays a dark resignation and sense of gloom. While he was reluctant, his decision stemmed from pragmatic logic premised on the assumption that the white man’s power would continue to grow, and by extension that his own society and way of life would decline.
Ezeulu understands the fractiousness within Umuaro, epitomized by his feud with Nwaka, as both an engine and a symptom of this decline. Colonialism here may be the source of destructive change, but Achebe shows how its effects are more devastating within an already factitious society.
Oduche is caught between two worlds—the traditional world of his father’s compound and Igbo religion, and the new God, morals, and codes of the church with its impressive leaders. Unlike Edogo and Obika, who clash with their father and question his authority, Oduche is obedient and respectful. Yet he quietly devotes himself to his Christian education.
The python episode demonstrates the ways that softer instruments of colonial power such as religion can work their way destructively through the fabric of native society. Yet we also see how conversion is often not total, but creates syncretic practices and beliefs. For instance, Unachukwu is a Christian, yet he still believes in the sanctity of Igbo divinities. Oduche himself refrains from killing the snake for fear of the god it represents.
Though it is rivaled by the bells of the new church, the ogene still functions as a device whose sonic reach unites the six villages. As the six town criers announce the upcoming Festival of Pumpkin Leaves at the end of Chapter 6, the sound transitions the narrative from Ezeulu’s consciousness to Ugoye’s hut, where we glimpse the women’s sphere of domestic duties and childrearing. Despite the growing colonial presence and the ominous signs of decline, life goes on as usual. Yet Obiageli’s song is dark and ominous, foreshadowing the calamitous events at the end of the book: And who will punish this water for me, Earth will dry up this water for me, Who will punish this Earth for me?