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Updated: Dec 8, 2020


The Sacrificial Egg by Chinua Achebe. It was written in English and published in the collection of Girls at war and other stories (1972). An earlier version of “the sacrificial egg” published in The Atlantic in 1959.This story illustrates the life of the African natives and the arising conflict between two cultures. This story revolves around Julius’ conversation with Ma about the small pox quarantine, his mad flight from the night-masks and his loss of Ma and Janet. Achebe presents it as a fractured flashback. All action takes place in the past, which Julius reflects in the present.


Author’s upbringing was a hybrid of both cultures, so is his writing. To fully understand his work, readers need to know- or able to look up- some Igbo language and cultural references.

The native words, like the native traditions that survived colonialism, are the ones that make a difference’

For example, the narrator says the market, which is “still called Nkwo,” had “long spilled over into Eke, Oye, and Afo with the coming civilization”. Readers may mistakenly think these are the names of individual markets and that the Nkwo one is so big that vendors have spread into others as well. But that’s not the case. In Igbo culture, Nkwo, Eke, Oye, and Afo are the four days of the week. Additionally there are seven weeks in a month and 13 months in a year. Therefore, what Achebe saying is that the market attracts so much business that it need to be open every day of the week instead of just one. To him and other Nigerians, it is normal, and the Gregorian, seven-days per week calendar is the anomaly. Thus the British and their concept of time are “other”, and the Igbo concept is the norm.

Achebe also uses Igbo terms to describe the deities that influence village life. “Smallpox” doesn’t convey the inherent evil the villagers associate with Kitikpa, and there is no English word that accurately describes mammy-wota. By using the Igbo words for them, Achebe not only establishes them as Igbo concepts but also assign them menacing personas. Their presence is just as real as that of Julius, Ma, and Janet- and much more deadly.

‘They, along with the unseen British colonizers, are the villains of their story”


The Sacrificial Egg takes place in Umuru, a village in the Southeastern Anambra state of Nigeria in mid 1900s.


JULIUS OBI – The protagonist who is engaged with Janet.

MA – The mother of Janet who is a devout Christian.

JANET – Julius Obi’s lady love.


The story starts with the description of Julius Obi’s office which is situated beside the famous Umuru market. Julius obi, the protagonist of the story was not a native of Umuru. He has come from some bush village island like countless others. Having passed his standard six in a mission school, he had come to Umuru to work as a clerk in the offices of the powerful European trading company. The fat chief clerk of the office is snoring at his table and gatekeeper is sleeping at his post. It’s been a week no customer had passed. The typewriter and the weighing machine are the odd objects for the African natives left empty and dust. Julius Obi looks out over the vast open-air market. Once, the great market on the bank of the Niger held on one of the four days of the week, but after colonization it had become a daily market. Igbo generally have four market days, namely: Eke, Oye, Afo and Nkwo. Even after all changes “it was still the busiest on its original Nkwo day” because they believe that goddess in old women appearance stands in the middle of the market and waves her fan in all four direction to grab people from the forest, river, the Igbo and Olu respectively. These men bring the produce of their lands and return with many-colored cloth, smoked fish, etc… others from river brings yams and fishes in big canoe (a small, light, narrow boat pointed at both ends and moved using a paddle) with dozen people in it. After their business of buying and selling got over, they paddled away in the water shimmering in the sunset.

As an educated person Julius always came out with some questions about superstitious beliefs. As Janet’s mother said “that not everyone who came to the great market was a real person” and some pretty women squeezing in the crowds are water spirits from the rivers. He again came out with questions like “How does one know them?” but he is careful not to sound unbelieving and to argue with Ma. Julius is thinking about all those things by looking down at the empty market about the past like how Umuru had been clean and healthy before it had grown into a busy market. Now it is besieged by Kitikpa (smallpox), which feared people and stops them to connect with other people just like quarantine time.

Julius was not happy with all these happenings because it was almost a week since he had seen Janet. Ma is a devout Christian but still believes in spirits like mammy-wota accepted Julius only because he sang in the church choir. Ma asked him not to meet them until the epidemic is over because we are not aware of family who got it. So Julius went away before Janet shook hands for parting that made him feel odd. With that odd feeling he refused to go straight to the home. He went to the bank of river and just walked up and down to it. He walks for a long time, even after the Ekwe (musical instrument) of the night spirit sounded. After hearing the sound, he immediately sets out for home, half walking and half running. As Julius hurried home he stepped on something that broke with a slight liquid explosion. He stopped and peeped down at the footpath. The moon was not yet up, but there was some faint light where he saw that he had stepped on a sacrificial egg. There were young palm fronds around it. Someone oppressed by misfortune had brought the offering to the crossroad in the dusk. And he had stepped on it and taken the sufferer’s ill luck to himself. He hurried away to home but it was too late; the night spirits was already aboard. It was a long way away, but Julius knew that distance did not apply to these beings. So he made straight to the cocoyam farm beside the road and laid himself on his belly. The sounds came bearing down on him and then he could hear the footsteps. It was as if twenty men were running together. In no time at all the sounds had passed and disappeared in the distance on the other side of the road.

As Julius stood at the window looking out on the empty market he lived through the night again. It was only a week ago, but already it seems to be separated from the present by a vast emptiness. This emptiness deepened with the passage of time. On this side stood Julius and the other Ma and Janet, who were passed away by the smallpox.

“No one knows when the last good bye is.”



The Atlantic Article

British council. org

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