Aunty Ifeoma arrives the next day. She is as tall as Papa is, and walks and speaks quickly and with purpose. She hugs Kambili and teases her, but Kambili only knows to be polite and quiet. Ifeoma says that her children are visiting Papa-Nnukwu and listening to his stories. Mama comes in and brings Ifeoma some food and drinks. Ifeoma calls Mama nwunye m, which means “my wife,” to show that she accepts her as the wife of the family—but it is part of an “ungodly tradition” according to Papa.
Aunty Ifeoma now appears in the flesh, and she is just as powerful a force as Papa is. She will ultimately come to disrupt Kambili’s ordered but frightened life, showing her a new kind of freedom and interpersonal connection. For now, however, Ifeoma’s fearlessness is uncomfortable and scary to Kambili, as it implies that Papa is only mortal, not some infallible perfect man.
Aunty Ifeoma and Mama talk, and Ifeoma suggests that they go to the traditional Aro festival the next day. Mama says that Papa would never let the children go to a “heathen festival.” Ifeoma suggests just telling him that they’re going for a drive. Ifeoma is outspoken and confident, and she disparages the people of her late husband’s home umunna. Mama in turn expresses her gratitude that Papa did not do as his umunna suggested and take a new wife. Mama says that then she would be a woman without a husband, which is worthless. Ifeoma counters that “sometimes life begins when marriage ends,” and Mama smiles in response to Ifeoma’s “university talk.”
Ifeoma is a liberal, well-educated woman who is just as intelligent and forceful as Papa is, but has chosen a completely different direction for her life. She first disrupts the order of Papa’s family simply by implying that Papa might be wrong or imperfect, and suggesting that Mama, Jaja, and Kambili should disobey or deceive him. Ifeoma is Catholic, but still in touch with and respectful of her father’s traditions, and she feels no qualms about taking her children to non-Christian festivals.
Aunty Ifeoma goes on to criticize the “military tyrant” ruling the country now. She says that they have not had fuel for months in Nsukka, where she lives. Ifeoma is a professor at the university there, and she says that many of her colleagues have been leaving to go to America, as the professors aren’t being paid. Ifeoma says she is cooking with a kerosene stove now, as there is no gas. Mama offers to give her gas cylinders from Papa’s factory, but Ifeoma declines. Kambili watches Aunty Ifeoma, mesmerized by the “fearlessness” of her speech and movements.
Though Papa also opposes the Head of State, he never talks about politics with his family. Aunty Ifeoma is outspoken in public and in private, and encourages others to speak their minds as well. Kambili, who often fears to speak at all, finds Ifeoma’s confidence totally foreign but also admirable. Ifeoma clearly lives a very different life from her brother, and does not share in his wealth.
Papa comes in and Aunty Ifeoma tells him that Jaja and Kambili should spend time with her tomorrow. Kambili feels a strange fear when Ifeoma speaks to Papa—she is flippant about it, and doesn’t seem to realize that Papa is “different, special.” In the conversation Aunty Ifeoma speaks in Igbo, while Papa speaks in English. Ifeoma says that the cousins need to spend time together. Finally Papa agrees, as long as they stay away from anything “ungodly.”
When Papa and Ifeoma interact, Papa suddenly seems like a mere human, which is terrifying to Kambili. We see how different the two siblings view the world, despite their similar upbringing and education: Papa chooses English and strict Catholicism, while Ifeoma chooses Igbo and a flexible Christianity that allows for non-Western traditions.
Ifeoma’s children arrive at the house. The oldest is fifteen-year-old Amaka, then her fourteen-year-old brother Obiora, and then seven-year-old Chima. Papa greets them and gives them all money. Amaka immediately starts questioning Kambili about the expensive satellite TV, asking if they can watch CNN. Kambili nervously coughs an answer, thinking that Amaka seems much older than she is.
The cousins hardly know each other at all, and the differences between them are immediately obvious. Amaka is Kambili’s age, but clearly outspoken, confident, and culturally conscious. Faced with someone expressing herself, Kambili finds herself again unable to speak properly.
Kambili finally says that they don’t watch TV, and Amaka is shocked. She thinks that it’s because Kambili and Jaja are bored by it, and sarcastically says that wishes she had that problem. Kambili doesn’t say that there is no TV time on their schedules, even though they have a satellite dish on both houses. Ifeoma’s family then leaves to see Papa-Nnukwu again and then go to Ukpo, where Ifeoma’s late husband was from. Kambili watches them talking and laughing as they walk out.
Like Kambili’s classmates, Amaka takes Kambili’s silence and reserve for privilege and snobbishness. We now see that Papa has purchased all the technology and luxuries expected of a rich Western man—but he never allows his family to actually use or enjoy them.
The next morning Aunty Ifeoma drives in to pick up Jaja and Kambili. She suggests that Kambili wear trousers, and Kambili doesn’t admit that she doesn’t own any because they are “sinful” for women. They get into Ifeoma’s rusty, rattling car and set off. Ifeoma says they are picking up Papa-Nnukwu on the way, and Kambili and Jaja feel a surge of fear and guilt.
Ifeoma thinks nothing of women wearing pants or of picking up her father on the way—something that is still confusing for Kambili, who holds Papa’s rules to be infallible. Kambili’s worries that Papa will find out that she and Jaja even saw Papa-Nnukwu again highlights just how rigid Papa’s rules are.
They stop at Papa-Nnukwu’s house and Ifeoma’s children get out. Jaja and Kambili stay in the car. Ifeoma asks them why they won’t go in, and Kambili says that it’s because Papa-Nnukwu is a pagan. She thinks that Papa would be proud of her for saying that. Ifeoma says that Papa-Nnukwu is not a pagan, but a traditionalist. Kambili only knows that neither of those things means Catholic, so he is destined for hell either way.
Papa sees things only in black and white, as either sinful or not, while Ifeoma has a more flexible worldview, one that focuses on interpersonal relations more than strict rules. Papa has trained his children to dehumanize anyone who is not Catholic.
Papa-Nnukwu gets in the car and jokes with Aunty Ifeoma and her children. They all laugh except for Jaja and Kambili. Kambili tries to smile, but stops when they drive past the gates of Papa’s house. Papa-Nnukwu complains that the missionaries turned his son against him, but Ifeoma points out that she went to the missionary school too.
One of the most noticeable differences between the two families is simply the level of noise. Jaja and Kambili live in a frightened or respectful silence, while Ifeoma’s children are always laughing and saying whatever comes into their heads.
After a long pause Papa-Nnukwu repeats his claim that the missionaries misled his son, but then he turns the story of the first missionary in Abba into a joke. They arrive at Ezi Icheke, where the festival is taking place. It is very crowded, and people dressed as mmuo, or spirits, parade past while hawkers sell food and drinks. Kambili nervously thinks that it all seems like what Papa would call “devilish folklore.”
While Papa sees Papa-Nnukwu as having chosen hell by refusing to convert, Papa-Nnukwu sees Papa as having been brainwashed by the British missionaries. Jaja and Kambili are finally introduced to some traditional Igbo culture, something Papa has always tried to keep from them.
Papa-Nnukwu explains the mmuo as they walk past, and he tells the women to look away as a particularly powerful one passes, wearing a skull, grass, and dead animals. Kambili looks away as told, but feels guilty about “deferring to a heathen masquerade.” Jaja asks Papa-Nnukwu about the people inside the mmuo costumes, but Ifeoma tells him that everyone is supposed to pretend that they’re really spirits. Ifeoma then realizes that Jaja didn’t do the ima mmuo, a ceremony of entering manhood. Obiora, who is younger, has done it. Jaja looks ashamed.
Papa-Nnukwu doesn’t actually believe that the costumed people are spirits, but he follows the traditions of the festival because it is part of his family and culture—as Ifeoma says, he is a traditionalist, not a pagan. Obiora is two years younger than Jaja, but there will soon be many instances where Obiora seems to be the older one, as he has embraced his independence, while Jaja still submits to Papa.
They leave and drop off Papa-Nnukwu. When Aunty Ifeoma drops off Jaja and Kambili, Amaka loudly says she doesn’t want to go inside. That night Kambili dreams of herself laughing. She doesn’t know what her own laughter sounds like, so in her dream it sounds like Aunty Ifeoma’s laughter.
Amaka is clearly bitter about her cousins’ wealth and perceived snobbishness, and she doesn’t want to make friends with Kambili. Kambili’s silence is so tragically pervasive that she can’t even imagine the sound of her own laughter.