Chapters 1–4 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1316

Chapter 1

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Ifemelu waits at the train station to go to Trenton because there is no braiding salon in Princeton, New Jersey. She imagines speaking to her fellow passengers and telling them that she writes a blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. A few days ago, she wrote the blog’s final post. 

On the train, Ifemelu ponders the “cement in her soul.” She has a fellowship at Princeton and has lived with her boyfriend, Blaine, for three years, but she is homesick for her native Nigeria, where Obinze, her first love, lives. He is now a husband and father, and Ifemelu has not spoken to him in years. Increasingly, now, she feels layers of discontent piling on her and an awareness that “Nigeria [was] where she was supposed to be,” prompting her plans to return to Lagos. 

In Trenton, Ifemelu takes a taxi to the hair braiding salon, where a woman named Aisha will braid Ifemelu’s hair. The salon’s owner asks Ifemelu if she is from Nigeria; when Ifemelu replies affirmatively, the woman says that she and her sister are from Mali and Aisha is from Senegal. In a moment of “warm knowingness,” the women acknowledge their shared Africanness. 

Aisha and Ifemelu disagree about the color and tightness of Ifemelu’s new braids, and Ifemelu begins thinking about everyone in her life who doesn’t understand why she’s leaving America to return to Nigeria. Aisha asks if Ifemelu is Yoruba, but Ifemelu identifies as Igbo. Aisha confesses that she is in a relationship with two different Igbo men and wants to marry one of them, but “Igbo [only] marry Igbo.” When Aisha asks Ifemelu how long she’s been in America, Ifemelu responds, “Fifteen years,” earning Aisha’s respect. Aisha tells Ifemelu that she needs to speak to Aisha’s boyfriends and tell them that they are allowed to marry women who are not Igbo. Ifemelu imagines that her current predicament would make for a good post on her blog.

Chapter 2

In Nigeria, Obinze, riding in the back of his Range Rover, receives an email from Ifemelu explaining that she is moving back to Nigeria. They have not communicated since Obinze went on his honeymoon; then, they exchanged stiffly formal emails in which Ifemelu addressed him as “Obinze” instead of her pet name for him, “Ceiling,” which she uses in this most recent email. Back in secondary school, when she first let him take off her bra, she told him, “My eyes were open but I did not see the ceiling,” and thus the word now connotes their intimacy. 

When Obinze arrives home to his impressive house, he is greeted by his wife, Kosi, and his daughter, Buchi. Obinze and Kosi will attend a gathering at Chief’s house this evening. Obinze first met Chief when he returned to Lagos after “what had happened to him in England.” Recognizing that Obinze is a “hungry and honest man,” Chief hired Obinze to manage the purchase of several multi-million dollar properties, and Obinze’s career took off with an ease that “had dazed him.” As he was building a life of luxury for himself, Obinze occasionally wondered if Chief would ask him “to organize an assasination.” For now, he feels “a hollow space between himself and the person he was supposed to be” as he regularly engages in multimillion-dollar business deals. 

At the party, the women discuss the best schools for their children to attend, praising the British and French curricula and scorning the Nigerian curriculum. Chief enters the room and the guests cluster around him. Obinze passes the evening by crafting a reply to Ifemelu’s email in his head. He is uncomfortable with how people perceive him now that he has membership “in the wealthy club,” despite the fact that he does not flaunt his wealth. Though Chief’s party bores him, Obinze is happy that Kosi is happy. 

Back at Obinze’s home, the housegirl, Marie, brings Obinze some food as he sits down to reply to Ifemelu’s email. He spends a long time drafting what he wants to say, for “he did not want to alienate her. He wanted to make sure she would reply this time.” He finally sends the email, then goes to stand on the verandah and take in the night. 

Chapter 3

In the hair braiding salon, Aisha is determined that Ifemelu should speak to Aisha’s boyfriends to tell them that “Igbo can marry not Igbo.” When Aisha asks Ifemelu if she can speak Igbo, Ifemelu defensively replies that “of course” she can. 

The narrative shifts to the year Ifemelu is ten years old,when her mother “received Christ” and became a religious fanatic. Ifemelu is uninterested in church, but she prays to keep her mother happy. Each morning, Ifemelu’s mother prays for The General, Aunty Uju’s “mentor,” a man who wanted to be a doctor and now financially supports younger doctors. The General buys Aunty Uju a car, creates a job for her at a military hospital, and buys her a house in Dolphin Estate. In a country “starved of hope,” where many young graduates hope to go to America or England to escape the “parched wasteland of joblessness,” Aunty Uju has found a savior in the man who said to her, “I like you, I want to take care of you.” 

Ifemelu’s father loses his job because he refuses to call his new boss “Mummy” and cannot find other employment, so the family relies on Ifemelu’s mother’s salary as a vice principal. Ifemelu’s father is a man who “longed for more education than he was able to get” and uses his “mannered English” to “shield against [the] insecurity” he feels. He begins praying with his wife. 

One Sunday morning, the landlord arrives demanding the three months of rent he is owed. He leaves without the money. Ifemelu’s mother tells Ifemelu that she must iron her dress before church, because “there is no need to show the world that things are hard for us.” 

At church, Ifemelu refuses to help make garlands to give to a man who donated two new vans to the church, protesting that the man is a “419” (a participant in Nigerian money transfer fraud). She is sent home for not doing God’s work and told to “refrain from [her] natural proclivity towards provocation.” Aunty Uju, who is almost a second mother to Ifemelu, speaks with her about her behavior, telling her that she can’t always say what she’s thinking. 

Chapter 4

Obinze, a new student from Nsukka, begins attending school in Lagos. Obinze’s mother, a professor, had moved from Nsukka to Lagos because she was suspended from her university. 

At a party thrown by a classmate, Ginika and Ifemelu meet Obinze. Though a friend is trying to orchestrate a relationship between Ginika and Obinze, Obinze seems more interested in Ifemelu, and she realizes that “she [wants] to breathe the same air as Obinze.” Obinze invites Ifemelu to dance; afterward, they go outside to talk, “hungry to know each other.” Obinze says he has been attracted to Ifemelu since he first saw her holding a book, and they begin to discuss literature. Obinze characterizes Ifemelu as “the kind of person who will do something because [she wants] to, and not because everyone else is doing it.” 

Ifemelu feels that Obinze makes “her like herself” and confesses to him private things she’s never shared before, such as her doubt in God’s existence. After a few more minutes of banter, Ifemelu asks Obinze if they are going to kiss, and they do. A few weeks later, Obinze says, “It was love at first sight for both of us,” and Ifemelu replies, “I love you.” Their relationship brings her true joy. 

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Chapters 5–11 Summary