Though Okonkwo is a respected leader in the Umuofia tribe of the Igbo people, he lives in fear of becoming his father – a man known for his laziness and cowardice. Throughout his life, Okonkwo attempts to be his father’s polar opposite. From an early age, he builds his home and reputation as a precocious wrestler and hard-working farmer. Okonkwo’s efforts pay off big time and he becomes wealthy through his crops and scores three wives.
Okonkwo’s life is shaken up a when an accidental murder takes place and Okonkwo ends up adopting a boy from another village. The boy is named Ikemefuna and Okonkwo comes to love him like a son. In fact, he loves him more than his natural son, Nwoye. After three years, though, the tribe decides that Ikemefuna must die. When the men of Umuofia take Ikemefuna into the forest to slaughter him, Okonkwo actually participates in the murder. Although he’s just killed his adoptive son, Okonkwo shows no emotion because he wants to be seen as Mr. Macho and not be weak like his own father was. Inside, though, Okonkwo feels painful guilt and regret. But since Okonkwo was so wrapped up in being tough and emotionless, he alienates himself from Nwoye, who was like a brother to Ikemefuna.
Later on, during a funeral, Okonkwo accidentally shoots and kills a boy. For his crime, the town exiles him for seven years to his mother’s homeland, Mbanta. There, he learns about the coming of the white missionaries whose arrival signals the beginning of the end for the Igbo people. They bring Christianity and win over Igbo outcasts as their first converts. As the Christian religion gains legitimacy, more and more Igbo people are converted. Just when Okonkwo has finished his seven-year sentence and is allowed to return home, his son Nwoye converts to Christianity. Okonkwo is so bent out of shape that he disowns his son.
Eventually, the Igbo attempt to talk to the missionaries, but the Christians capture the Igbo leaders and jail them for several days until the villagers cough up some ransom money. Contemplating revenge, the Igbo people hold a war council and Okonkwo is one of the biggest advocates for aggressive action. However, during the council, a court messenger from the missionaries arrives and tells the men to stop the meeting. Enraged, Okonkwo kills him. Realizing that his clan will not go to war against the white men, the proud, devastated Okonkwo hangs himself.
After a release of the men, the clan calls a meeting to decide whether they will fight or try to live peacefully with the whites. Okonkwo wants war. During the meeting, court messengers come to order the men to break up their gathering. The clan meetings are the heart of Umuofia's government; all decisions are reached democratically, and an interference with this institution means the end of the last vestiges of Umuofia's independence. Enraged, Okonkwo kills the court messenger. The other court messengers escape, and because the other people of his clan did not seize them, Okonkwo knows that his people will not choose war. His act of resistance will not be followed by others. Embittered and grieving for the destruction of his people's independence, and fearing the humiliation of dying under white law, Okonkwo returns home and hangs himself.