At just eighteen, Okonkwo wins fame as the strongest wrestler in nine villages and beyond, throwing Amalinze the Cat, who for seven years had been unbeaten. Okonkwo's fame continues to grow over the next decades as he takes several wives and has children, but he lacks patience and is easily provoked into aggression, using his fists when he can't get his words out quickly enough. He also quickly grows impatient with unsuccessful men like his father.
Okonkwo's strength, aggressiveness, and strong will help him find success as a young man. Yet the flipside of that strength are more negative traits such as impatience and hotheadedness, suggesting that strength might not be as universally positive as Okonkwo seems to believe.
Okonkwo's father, Unoka, died ten years earlier. He was known for being lazy and irresponsible, owing all his neighbors money. Unoka loved music, playing the flute with the village musicians after harvest. He lived a carefree life as a young man, visiting different markets to play music and feast. However, as a grown man, Unoka was considered a failure, and his wife and children had barely enough to eat. Even though people laughed at him and swore never to lend him more money, Unoka always succeeded in borrowing more and piling up his debts.
Okonkwo is explicitly contrasted to his father, suggesting that Okonkwo's strength is an effort to redeem himself from his father's legacy. Unoka lacked a strong will and neglected his masculine responsibilities, such as taking care of family or trying to amass power or respect. Instead, Unoka loved music, which Okonkwo probably considers a more feminine pursuit.
The narrator tells us of a day when Unoka's neighbor Okoye comes to visit, bringing his goatskin to sit on, and Unoka takes out a kola nut for his guest. Unoka and Okoye argue about who should break the kola nut, and then speak for some time about health, harvest, and war. The last subject makes Unoka uncomfortable because he dislikes war, and so he changes the subject to music. Finally, Okoye comes to the point of his visit—he wants to collect Unoka's debt of 200 cowries. Okoye approaches the subject in lengthy proverbs, which the narrator describes as “the palm-oil with which words are eaten,” and when Unoka finally understands what Okoye wants, he bursts out laughing. Unoka points to chalk lines on his wall that represent his debts and settles the matter by saying that he will pay his big debts first. Okoye rolls up his goatskin and leaves.
Unoka and Okoye's meeting demonstrates several traditions of Umuofia society here. They both remain polite by arguing that the other should break the kola nut. Once the nut is broken, they speak at length instead of getting to the point of the visit, using proverbs instead of talking bluntly. Unoka also demonstrates again how he disdains masculine topics like war in favor of more feminine subjects like music. Unoka also shows how he evades paying back his debts and even succeeds in borrowing more by saying that he will pay back larger debts first.
When Unoka died, he had no titles and was still heavily in debt. Okonkwo is very ashamed of his father, but wins fame for himself as the greatest wrestler in nine villages and as a wealthy farmer with three wives, two barns full of yams, and two titles. Although still young, Okonkwo is already one of the greatest men of his time. As a result, he comes to look after Ikemefuna, the doomed boy who is later sacrificed to the village of Umuofia by their neighbors in order to avoid war.
Okonkwo's strength and determination stem from the shame he feels towards his father—giving that strength a hint of brittleness, which we see when Okonkwo fails to protect Ikemefuna from his doom just as Unoka failed to protect Okonkwo as a boy. The narration also takes on a cyclical structure that recalls the oral traditions of the Igbo language, repeating the facts of Unoka's death and Ikemefuna's arrival.