Religion and belief are central to the novel, particularly in the contrasts between Papa, Papa-Nnukwu, and Aunty Ifeoma/Father Amadi. The plot begins with descriptions of Papa’s religious belief, which were molded by Catholic missionaries and are incredibly strict. He prefers that Igbo not be spoken (or sung) in church, and believes that priests should be very traditional. He befriends and admires the white, conservative Father Benedict. Papa imposes his strict rules on his family, and when they commit what he perceives as a sin, he punishes them with violence, as he himself was as a boy and which he sees as being for their own benefit. Kambili and Mama aren’t allowed to wear pants, prayers over meals are long-winded and formal, and non-Christians aren’t even allowed onto Papa’s land. These beliefs have led to a deep rift between Papa and his father, Papa-Nnukwu, who still follows traditional Igbo rituals. Papa-Nnukwu attends the festival of mmuo (spirits), offers food to the gods, and performs a morning declaration of innocence. This makes him a “Godless heathen” in Papa’s eyes, yet Adichie portrays his rituals as equally valid to Catholic ones. Aunty Ifeoma practices a sort of blend between the two extremes, as she is a Catholic who includes Igbo songs in her prayers and doesn’t judge her father for his traditional beliefs. Ifeoma’s priest is the open-minded, lighthearted Nigerian Father Amadi.
Adichie ultimately presents Ifeoma’s and Papa-Nnukwu’s religion in a much kinder light than Papa’s, as Adichie too rejects Western domination over Nigerian culture, and the suppression of joy and acceptance that comes with too strict a dogma. We see this stance through the character of Father Amadi—a young Nigerian priest embracing both the old ways and the new—and also in the positive changes to Jaja and Kambili as they are exposed to beliefs other than Papa’s. Jaja and Kambili have grown up seeing their father as a godlike figure, awe-inspiring but also terrifying, and changing their strict Catholic faith also means struggling with losing their faith in Papa. But once they are both freed of this blind belief (Jaja more so than Kambili), they have the freedom to choose their own faith. Kambili finds herself reaffirming her Catholicism with her visions of the Virgin Mary, while Jaja loses his faith altogether. Though they choose different paths, the important thing is that with Aunty Ifeoma and Father Amadi they find a place of religious acceptance, and so have the freedom to choose without risking punishment.
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Papa changed his accent when he spoke, sounding British, just as he did when he spoke to Father Benedict. He was gracious, in the eager-to-please way that he always assumed with the religious, especially with the white religious.
“Ifeoma could not afford it.” Papa-Nnukwu shook his head. “Since the father of her children died, she has seen hard times. But she will bring them this year. You will see them. It is not right that you don’t know them well, your cousins. It is not right.”
Jaja and I said nothing. We did not know Aunty Ifeoma or her children very well because she and Papa had quarreled about Papa-Nnukwu. Mama told us. Aunty Ifeoma stopped speaking to Papa after he barred Papa-Nnukwu from coming to his house, and a few years passed before they finally started speaking to each other.
“…But you know Eugene quarrels with the truths that he does not like. Our father is dying, do you hear me? Dying. He is an old man, how much longer does he have, gbo? Yet Eugene will not let him into this house, will not even greet him… Eugene has to stop doing God’s job. God is big enough to do his own job. If God will judge our father for choosing to follow the way of our ancestors, then let God do the judging, not Eugene.”
Papa wanted Father Benedict to hear our confession. We had not gone in Abba because Papa did not like to make his confession in Igbo, and besides, Papa said that the parish priest in Abba was not spiritual enough. That was the problem with our people, Papa told us, our priorities were wrong; we cared too much about huge church buildings and mighty statues. You would never see white people doing that.
Father Amadi led the first decade, and at the end, he started an Igbo praise song. While they sang, I opened my eyes and stared at the wall… I pressed my lips together, biting my lower lip, so my mouth would not join in the singing on its own, so my mouth would not betray me.
“How can Our Lady intercede on behalf of a heathen, Aunty?”
Aunty Ifeoma was silent as she ladled the thick cocoyam paste into the soup pot; then she looked up and said Papa-Nnukwu was not a heathen but a traditionalist, that sometimes what was different was just as good as what was familiar, that when Papa-Nnukwu did his itu-nzu, his declaration of innocence, in the morning, it was the same as our saying the rosary.
I laughed. It sounded strange, as if I were listening to the recorded laughter of a stranger being played back. I was not sure I had ever heard myself laugh.
“Why did you become a priest?” I blurted out, then wished I had not asked, that the bubbles in my throat had not let that through. Of course he had gotten the call, the same call that all the Reverend Sisters in school talked about when they asked us to always listen for the call when we prayed. Sometimes I imagined God calling me, his rumbling voice British-accented. He would not say my name right; like Father Benedict, he would place the emphasis on the second syllable rather than the first.
“Ifeoma, did you call a priest?” Papa asked.
“Is that all you can say, eh, Eugene? Have you nothing else to say, gbo? Our father has died! Has your head turned upside down? Will you not help me to bury our father?”
“I cannot participate in a pagan funeral, but we can discuss with the parish priest and arrange a Catholic funeral.”
Aunty Ifeoma got up and started to shout. Her voice was unsteady. “I will put my dead husband’s grave up for sale, Eugene, before I give our father a Catholic funeral. Do you hear me? I said I will sell Ifediora’s grave first! Was our father a Catholic? I ask you, Eugene, was he a Catholic? Uchu gba gi!” Aunty Ifeoma snapped her fingers at Papa; she was throwing a curse at him. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Kambili, you are precious.” His voice quavered now, like someone speaking at a funeral, choked with emotion. “You should strive for perfection. You should not see sin and walk right into it.” He lowered the kettle into the tub, tilted it toward my feet. He poured the hot water on my feet, slowly, as if he were conducting an experiment and wanted to see what would happen. He was crying now, tears streaming down his face… I watched the water leave the kettle, flowing almost in slow motion in an arc to my feet. The pain of contact was so pure, so scalding, I felt nothing for a second. And then I screamed.
“That is what you do to yourself when you walk into sin. You burn your feet,” he said.
“When the missionaries first came, they didn’t think Igbo names were good enough. They insisted that people take English names to be baptized. Shouldn’t we be moving ahead?”
“It’s different now, Amaka, don’t make this what it’s not,” Father Amadi said calmly…
“But what’s the point, then?” Amaka said… “What the church is saying is that only an English name will make your confirmation valid. ‘Chiamaka’ says God is beautiful. ‘Chima’ says God knows best, ‘Chiebuka’ says God is the greatest. Don’t they all glorify God as much as ‘Paul’ and ‘Peter’ and ‘Simon’?”
The sun turned white, the color and shape of the host. And then I saw her, the Blessed Virgin: an image in the pale sun, a red glow on the back of my hand, a smile on the face of the rosary-bedecked man whose arm rubbed against mine. She was everywhere.
“It’s your father. They called me from the factory, they found him lying dead on his desk.” Mama sounded like a recording…
Jaja grabbed the phone. Aunty Ifeoma led me to the bed. I sat down and stared at the bag of rice that leaned against the bedroom wall… I had never considered the possibility that Papa would die, that Papa could die. He was different from Ade Coker, from all the other people they had killed. He had seemed immortal.
“I should have taken care of Mama. Look how Obiora balances Aunty Ifeoma’s family on his head, and I am older that he is. I should have taken care of Mama.”
“God knows best,” I said. “God works in mysterious ways.” And I thought how Papa would be proud that I had said that, how he would approve of my saying that.
Jaja laughed. It sounded like a series of snorts strung together. “Of course God does. Look what He did to his faithful servant Job, even to His own son. But have you ever wondered why? Why did He have to murder his own son so we would be saved? Why didn’t He just go ahead and save us?”