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His father, Unoka, who was then an ailing man, had said to him during that terrible harvest month: “Do not despair. I know you will not despair. You have a manly and a proud heart. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and bitter when a man fails alone.”
Unoka was like that in his last days. His love of talk had grown with age and sickness. It tried Okonkwo’s patience beyond words. (3.36-37)
Even though Unoka’s words are given with a generous spirit, Okonkwo does not appreciate them. Indeed, Okonkwo doesn’t value words – he prefers action over speech. However, this renders him unable to appreciate the sincerity of others’ words and keeps him from expressing himself in a way that most people understand: through language.
[Okonkwo]: “I have cleared a farm but have no yams to sow. I know what it is to ask a man to trust another with his yams, especially these days when young men are afraid of hard work. I am not afraid of work. The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did. I began to fend for myself at an age when most people still suck at their mothers’ breasts. If you give me some yam seeds I shall not fail you.” (3.25)
Here, Okonkwo uses language in a binding way, by making a promise. By putting his intention into words, he makes them true on some level and thus binds himself to Nwakibie’s service.
He [Okonkwo] took a pot of palm-wine and a cock to Nwakibie…He presented a kola nut and an alligator pepper, which were passed round for all to see and then returned to him. He broke the nut saying: “We shall all live. We pray for life, children, a good harvest and happiness. You will have what is good for you and I will have what is good for me. Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too. If one says no to the other, let his wing break.”
After the kola nut had been eaten Okonkwo brought his palm-wine from the corner of the hut where it had been placed and stood it in the center of the group. He addressed Nwakibie, calling him “Our father.”
“Nna ayi,” he said. “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. I have come to pay you my respects and also to ask a favor. But let us drink the wine first.” (3.11-13)
The language of presenting gifts and asking favors of someone is very formal and stylized. It includes the show of much respect by wishing luck and happiness on one’s host and linguistically making him part of one’s family.