Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. (1.1)
Okonkwo gains respect for himself and his village by proving his mettle in a physical contest – wrestling.
Okoye […] was not a failure like Unoka. He had a large barn full of yams and he had three wives. And now he was going to take the Idemili title, the third highest in the land. (1.12)
One way of gaining others’ respect is through possession of material goods like barns, many yams, and even multiple wives. Gaining a title, a sign of honor from the clan, is one of the highest forms of mutual respect a man can earn.
[…] during this time Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan […]. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. (1.3)
Okonkwo equates reputation with physical prowess and courage. He is so proud of his own reputation that he cannot stand less successful men. Though he is a highly ranked man in his village, you can’t help but wonder if such an aggressive and prideful man merits the good reputation he has.
When Unoka died he had taken no title at all and he was heavily in debt. Any wonder then that his son Okonkwo was ashamed of him? Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father. Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things. He was still young but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife. To crown it all he had taken two titles and had shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars. And so although Okonkwo was still young, he was already one of the greatest men of his time. Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. (1.16)
Reputation in Okonkwo’s clan isn’t inherited. Each man earns his own reputation – good or bad – based on his own behavior and actions. Even though Okonkwo has the ability to earn respect like every other man, he still acts as if he’s somehow tarnished by his relationship with his father. Much of his behavior is motivated by a desire to separate himself from his father’s reputation.
Okonkwo’s prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his wives had her own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi. The barn was built against one end of the red walls, and long stacks of yam stood out prosperously in it. At the opposite end of the compound was a shed for the goats, and each wife built a small attachment to her hut for the hens. Near the barn was a small house, the “medicine house” or shrine where Okonkwo kept the wooden symbols of his personal god and of his ancestral spirits. He worshipped them with sacrifices of kola nut, food and palm-wine, and offered prayers to them on behalf of himself, his three wives and eight children. (2.14)
It is easy to see why Okonkwo is respected. His hard work has earned material wealth for his family out of nothing. He has a large living compound, several wives, and many children.
Umuofia was feared by all its neighbors. It was powerful in war and in magic, and its priests and medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country. Its most potent war medicine was as old as the clan itself…
And so the neighboring clans who naturally knew of these things feared Umuofia, and would not go to war against it without first trying a peaceful settlement. (2.8-9)
One way a tribe gains respect is to boast powerful magic in the form of a mysterious medicinal figure. This intimidates other tribes from warring with Umuofia and leads them to attempt peace treaties before declaring war. Thus a fearful reputation serves an important purpose for Umuofia.
With a father like Unoka, Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men had. He neither inherited a barn nor a title, nor even a young wife. But in spite of these disadvantages, he had begun even in his father’s lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future. It was slow and painful. But he threw himself into it like one possessed. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death. (3.9)
Okonkwo has a relentless drive improve his reputation. He’s completely a self-made man.
[Nwakibie]: “Many young men have come to me to ask for yams but I have refused because I knew they would just dump them in the earth and leave them to be choked by weeds…But I can trust you. I know it as I look at you…I shall give you twice four hundred yams. Go ahead and prepare your farm.” (3.26)
Nwakibie respects Okonkwo for his dedication to hard work. Okonkwo’s reputation precedes him and wins him Nwakibie’s trust.
But it was really not true that Okonkwo’s palm-kernels had been cracked for him by a benevolent spirit. He had cracked them himself. Anyone who knew his grim struggle against poverty and misfortune could not say he had been lucky….At an early age he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler in all the land. That was not luck. At the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed. (4.3)
Okonkwo hasn’t really benefited from luck and does not attribute his success to it. He made his own way in the world, guided only by his flaming ambition and indomitable will.
[…] he was struck, as most people were, by Okonkwo’s brusqueness in dealing with less successful men. Only a week ago a man had contradicted him at a kindred meeting which they held to discuss the next ancestral feast. Without looking at the man Okonkwo had said. “This meeting is for men.” The man who had contradicted him had no titles. That was why he had called him a woman. Okonkwo knew how to kill a man’s spirit. (4.1)
Okonkwo’s strong reputation and respect in the community has made him a bit fatheaded. He has an aura of arrogance and has little pity for those less fortunate or competent than himself.
Okafo was swept off his feet by his supporters and carried home shoulder high. They sang his praise and the young women clapped their hands:
“Who will wrestle for our village? Okafo will wrestle for our village. Has he thrown a hundred men? He has thrown four hundred men. Has he thrown a hundred Cats? He has thrown four hundred Cats. Then send him word to fight for us.” (6.24)
For winning a difficult and exciting wrestling match, Okafo’s name is immortalized in song. He wins great respect and glory for his accomplishment.
Within a short time the first two bouts were over. But the third created a big sensation even among the elders who did not usually show their excitement so openly. It was as quick as the other two, perhaps even quicker. But very few people had ever seen that kind of wrestling before. As son as the two boys closed in, one of them did something which no one could describe because it had been as quick as a flash. And the other boy was flat on his back. The crowd roared and clapped and for a while drowned the frenzied drums. Okonkwo sprang to his feet and quickly sat down again. Three young men from the victorious boy’s team ran forward, carried him shoulder high and danced through the cheering crowd. Everybody soon knew who the boy was. His name was Maduka, the son of Obierika. (6.6)
Wrestling – a show of physical prowess – is one way of gaining a strong reputation in the clan. Even Okonkwo watches the Maduka with admiration.
Okonkwo sat in his obi crunching happily with Ikemefuna and Nwoye…when Ogbuefi Ezeudu came in. Ezeudu was the oldest man in this quarter of Umuofia. He had been a great and fearless warrior in his time, and was now accorded great respect in all the clan. (7.14)
For showing matchless courage and prowess on the battlefield, Ezeudu is revered throughout the clan. His reputation garners him great respect.
“I think it is good that our clan holds the ozo title in high esteem,” said Okonkwo. “In those other clans you speak of, ozo is so low that every beggar takes it.” (8.56)
Okonkwo, because he’s very proud of his strong reputation, is pleased that positions of respect in his community are publicly known and difficult to achieve. This means that his status in the community is an elite and meaningful accomplishment.
None of his converts was a man whose word was heeded in the assembly of the people. None of them was a man of title. They were mostly the kind of people that were called efulefu, worthless, empty men. The imagery of an efulefu in the language of the clan was a man who sold his machete and wore the sheath to battle. Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, called the converts the excrement of the clan, and the new faith was a mad dog that had come to eat it up. (16.1)
Christianity begins as a worthless, ill-respected religion amongst the Igbo. According to the Igbo, only men who have nothing left in life would ever stoop to so low as to take up the offers of a foreign, effeminate people.
He was a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart – a taboo for ever, and his children after him. He could neither marry nor be married by the free-born. He was in fact an outcast, living in a special area of the village, close to the Great Shrine. Wherever he went he carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste – long, tangled and dirty hair. A razor was taboo to him. An osu could not attend an assembly of the free-born, and they, in turn, could not shelter under his roof. He could not take any of the four titles of the clan, and when he died he was buried by his kind in the Evil Forest. How could such a man be a follower of Christ? (18.12)
The lowest social class wears a physical symbol of their poor reputation – long, tangled hair – allowing them to be easily identified.
These outcasts, or osu, seeing that the new religion welcomed twins and such abominations, thought that it was possible that they would also be received. And so one Sunday two of them went into the church. There was an immediate stir; but so great was the work the new religion had done among the converts that they did not immediately leave the church when the outcasts came in. (18.7)
The outcasts, who have lost all reputation within their clan, see that their only way of redeeming themselves is to join the Christians.
Okonkwo called his three wives and told them to get things together for a great feast. “I must thank my mother’s kinsmen before I go,” he said. (19.6)
Okonkwo shows his respect and gratitude to his mother’s people before going home.
Okonkwo never did things by halves. When his wife Ekwefi protested that two goats were sufficient for the feast he told her that it was not her affair.
“I am calling a feast because I have the wherewithal. I cannot live on the bank of a river and wash my hands with spittle. My mother’s people have been good to me and I must show my gratitude.”
And so three goats were slaughtered and a number of fowls. It was like a wedding feast. There was foo-foo and yam pottage, egusi soup and bitter-leaf soup and pots and pots of palm-wine. (19.16-18)
Okonkwo wants to gain the respect of all the Mbanta people and is too proud to offer a lowly feast. So he goes a bit overboard in order to gain a reputation as a generous and wealthy man.
He [Okonkwo] knew that he had lost his place among the nine masked spirits who administered justice in the clan. He had lost the chance to lead his warlike clan against the new religion, which, he was told, had gained ground. He had lost the years in which he might have taken the highest titles in the land. But some of these losses were not irreparable. He was determined that his return should be marked by his people. He would return with a flourish, and regain the seven wasted years. (20.2)
Okonkwo has not yet lost his ambitious spirit. Though he has suffered a great setback by living in exile for seven years, he vows to remedy his reputation upon his return to Umuofia.
Even in his first year in exile he had begun to plan for his return. The first thing he would do would be to rebuild his compound on a more magnificent scale. He would build a bigger barn than he had had before and he would build huts for two new wives. Then he would show his wealth by initiating his sons into the ozo society. Only the really great men in the clan were able to do this. Okonkwo saw clearly the high esteem in which he would be held, and he saw himself taking the highest title in the land. (20.3)
Okonkwo is so ambitious that starts planning his return to Umuofia years before he’s allowed to come back to his fatherland. He has high hopes of surrounding his name with even greater glory than he has already won. Okonkwo can increase his reputation in his home community through his family – marrying off his beautiful daughters, initiating his sons into the elite ozo society, and marrying more wives.
The six men ate nothing throughout that day and the next. They were not even given any water to drink, and they could not go out to urinate or go into the bush when they were pressed. At night the messengers came in to taunt them and to knock their shaven heads together. (23.16)
The guards make a point of showing the leaders of Umuofia that their strong reputations mean nothing to white men.
Obierika, who had been gazing steadily at his friend’s dangling body, turned suddenly to the District Commissioner and said ferociously: “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog…” (25.18)
Obierika speaks out in defense of his good friend Okonkwo and espousing his honor and greatness. He feels indignant that the white invaders drove such a great man to destroy his reputation by committing the crime of suicide.