Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, was a gentle and idle man who was fond of playing music. A foil to Okonkwo, Unoka was not a successful or respected man. He played music well and was able to weave and tell creative folktales. This is in direct contrast to Okonkwo’s rejection of music and insistence on only telling cold and gory war stories. Unoka’s draw to music and storytelling highlight his sensitive and creative nature that Okonkwo so despises.
The beginning of Things Fall Apart shows Unoka interacting with a debtor, who refuses to break a kola nut with him. The refusal to break the kola nut means that the debtor has no respect for Unoka despite his old age, which generally garners respect in Igbo society. Furthermore, Unoka’s tendency to beg for money from the people of the village demonstrates his lack of riches. The clan respects wealth, but as Unoka has none and is in debt, the clan disrespects him. Unoka was never very good at keeping a farm or caring for his children and wives, either; Okonkwo ends up doing this work for him from a young age, which only increases Okonkwo’s resentment toward his careless father.
Although Unoka lacks the respect of his clan, his nature shows that he is happier than Okonkwo, who is dogged by a fear of never being good enough. Unoka shows no fear or worry and lives gently and kindly. If it were not for Unoka’s complete lack of “manliness” within the story, Okonkwo would not be as driven to differentiate himself from his father, who was often called agbala (meaning “woman”) by the clansmen.
Unoka, unlike Okonkwo, had little control over his chi, or his personal god. Because he was unable to shape or control his chi, Unoka was viewed as an “ill-fated man.” Unoka was affected by ill fate not only with his land but also in his death. Unoka died of “the swelling,” which is considered an abomination to the “goddess of the earth.” Due to this, Unoka was taken to the Evil Forest to die alone and without a burial, a shameful death in the village of Umuofia. Additionally, Unoka dies before paying off his debt, another mark of shame.
Although Unoka is only briefly present in Things Fall Apart, his careless and lazy nature affects and drives Okonkwo to act aggressively and to never accept failure. The relationship between Unoka and Okonkwo represents a clash between father, son, and cultural expectations. Unoka does not live up to expectations and brings his family shame even in death. Furthermore, it is Unoka’s miscommunication and negligence that pushes Okonkwo away from him.