“Ona” is as Much a Love Story as it is a Tale of Ritualized Beliefs and Cultural Behavior Patterns Often stories in a particular culture take into account, and capitalize on symbols of that particular culture for thematic effectiveness. Many indigenous stories thus contain generalized patterns of beliefs that serve as the backdrop which enables readers to relate to the stories and the content thereof. Buchi Emecheta’s “Ona” is a powerful love story that centers around ritualized beliefs and cultural behavior patterns of one African tribe.
The story is legendary in nature, alluding to its cultural import. It is about Abagdi, a very wealthy local chief, who is love with Ona, one of his mistresses. Agbadi is head over heals for Ona despite the fact that he has many wives. Agbadi is particularly crazy about Ona because, unlike the other women, she is not submissive as she was the daughter chief Obi Umunna. The cultural theme in the story is that man enjoys hunting, taming and conquering even in matters of love; Agbadi finds a special thrill in trying to win the unconquerable love of Ona.
Ona is a woman ahead of her time, unwilling to be controlled, even by the strong and powerful Agbadi, not only because of her individual desires, but because of her respect for the cultural norms of her society. From the onset of the story we learn that Agbadi proposes marriage to Ona. Since Ona’s father, Chief Obi Umunna, had no sons, he raised Ona to be very assertive and assume what is considered boylike traits. Thus, like a man, her father raised her never “to stoop to any man” (629). Does this mean that women and men are not considered equals in this society?
Evidently, it seems the only reason Ona was thought not to stoop to any man was because she was raised essentially to behave like a man. Men and women are therefore not considered as equals in this culture. Nevertheless, Chief Umunna maintains that Ona “was free to have men, however, and if she bore a son, he would take her father’s name thereby rectifying the omission that nature had made” (629). Two important deductions can be made here: first that men are free to be promiscuous (she is free to have men) and that having a boy child asserts a man’s manhood.
This is why it may be said that Ona was essentially a surrogate boy for the time being until she has a son. Evidently Chief Umunna feels a great sense of deficiency having been unable to produce a boy. This goes to show that manhood in this society is of the uttermost importance. Part of the reason why Agbadi must conquer and control Ona is that doing so will assert his manhood according to his societal constraints. We are told that Agbadi becomes angry “when he remembered how many times this young woman had teased and demeaned him sexually. He felt like jumping on her, clawing at her, hurting her” (635).
This shows that the society supports the idea that man ought not to be conquered by their female counterpart, especially in matters of love. It is no wonder why Agbadi “worked on her, breaking down all her resistance. . . he wanted her completely humiliated in her burning desire. And Ona knew. So she tried to counteract her feelings in the only way she guessed would not give her away” (636). Ona was thus a mountain to climb, a lion to be tamed, and Agbadi feels his very manhood is threatened because Ona has the upper hand in the relationship.
Agbadi has no interest in pursuing his other mistresses, because he has already gain their allegiance and thus prove his manhood. From this deduction, it also becomes evident that marriage in this society is the social institution that binds a woman to a man through ultimate obedience. This is why Agbadi feels it is so important to get Ona’s hand in marriage, and the reason why, in accordance with her father’s wishes, Ona plans never to get married. Marriage thus represents women’s submissiveness in this society, and men’s power and dominance over women.
Thus, in one sense “Ona” is a love story because Agbadi and Ona actually have true feelings for each other. However, given the reality that in this society women who marry become mere symbols of their husband’s manness, and given the fact that Ona understands this and was taught as a woman to reject this notion, it creates a great conflict in preventing their love from maturing into marriage. As discussed marriage in this society belittles women and glorifies men.
Ona having taught to think and act as a man is not willing to be conquered (so to speak) by the powerful Agbadi through marriage. This is therefore a very interesting love story with no easy answer for the lovers who are merely the products of the ritualized beliefs and cultural behavior patterns of this society. We see these conflicts bubbling to the surface in Agbadi, who says to Ona, “you are in the first weeks of motherhood, and all you can do is think like a man, rasing male issues for your father” (640).
Agbadi here is acting like the typical man in his community which is to dictate how a woman should behave in the relationship. He feels that it is improper for a woman to be assertive or raise what he calls “male issues. ” However, Agbadi is motivated not so much by his inborn character, but because of the cultural forces. Ona is not only pulled and pushed by her boyish lessons, but by the cultural force which stipulates that in order for a man to truly assert his manhood, he must bear a son. Ona is supposed to fulfil this promise for her father.
From a cultural perspective, if Ona has a boy and she were to become married, she could no longer name the child after her father-this is cultural custom or law. This is therefore another powerful factor in her decision not to get married to Agbadi. What does this say about the value of love and the significance of cultural tenets in this society? Clearly, love is secondary to cultural norms and customs. Ona confirms that it would not be proper for her to marry Agbadi even though her father forbids it: I made a promise to Agbadi, yes; but, dear Agbadi, I am still my father’s daughter.
Since he had not taken a bride price from you, do you think it would be right for me to stay with your permanently? You know our custom does not permit it. I am still my father’s daughter. (641) Ona is therefore willing to sacrifice her devotion to Agbadi through marriage than to go against the cultural norms of her society. To conclude, Buchi Emecheta’s “Ona” is a powerful love story that eloquently portrays the ritualized beliefs and cultural behavior patterns of one African tribe. Agbadi is a wealthy young man who has many mistresses, but is unable to conquer one-Ona.
Ona is raised to behave like a boy and thus refuses to be conquered through marriage by any man. Yet her decision not to marry Agbadi, with whom she is much in love, is a result of cultural forces and her allegiance to those forces. If she marries, her father will lose his chance of asserting his manhood as Ona will be unable to name her son after the father. Love evidently does not conquer cultural norms and customs as they prevail in the romance between Agbadi and Ona who are mere products of their culture.