Young schoolteacher Odili narrates this novel about revenge, politics, and corruption in an unnamed African country. Odili lives in the village of Anata. He is unimpressed when his former teacher, Chief Nanga, the current minister of culture, visits Anata on the campaign trail. Odili has reason to believe that Chief Nanga is corrupt, and he objects when the principal asks all the teachers to line up in honor of Chief Nanga's arrival. Despite his misgivings, Odili finds himself charmed by his former teacher, who remembers Odili and recommends him for a civil-service post. Odili confesses that he has recently applied to a post-graduate program in London. It never occurred to him to ask Chief Nanga for help before now, but the minister is more than happy to oblige. He invites Odili to stay with him in the capitol at the end of the school term, two months from then. Odili accepts only to turn around and take an interest in Chief Nanga's girlfriend, Edna, who is engaged to be the chief's second wife.
Odili is himself the son of a second wife. His mother died in childbirth, leaving Odili to be raised by his father's first wife, whom everyone calls Mama. Prior to retirement, Odili's father was a powerful man, a district interpreter who liaised between the white officials and the villagers. Now his father has more wives and children than he can feed on his pension, and Odili is shocked when his father decides to take a fifth wife. Father and son can't see eye to eye. Odili proceeds to the capitol, where Chief Nanga and his first wife greet him warmly. Soon after Odili's arrival, Chief Nanga takes him to see Chief Koko, the minister of overseas training, who can help Odili get into the post-grad program in London. During their visit, Chief Koko exclaims that he has been poisoned, but in reality his chef has merely served him a different brand of coffee—one produced locally. Odili finds this funny, given that the government has been trying to get people to buy local products.
When Odili wakes up the next morning, Chief Nanga has already left for the office. Mrs. Nanga and her children are going to visit her family and will be gone for a couple days. This gives Odili time to arrange a meeting with Elsie, a nurse, whom he met while she was engaged to be married and in nursing school. Their relationship is casual, and he hopes to invite her over to have sex, nothing more. It isn't difficult to arrange. Before meeting with Elsie, Odili attends a party with Chief Nanga's friends Jean and John, an American couple who have been in Africa for a year. Odili and Jean wind up in bed at the end of the night, and she drives him home afterward, acting as a kind of tour guide to the city. Odili and Chief Nanga pick Elsie up from the hospital where she works, expecting her to bring a friend for the minister; but the friend is sick, and Elsie comes alone. Together, the three attend a book exhibition, where it becomes clear that Chief Nanga, the supposed minister of culture, doesn't know the author he is introducing and doesn't actually know anything about culture. Odili is amazed by the ignorance he witnesses. Later that night, he is offended when Chief Nanga, assuming Odili and Elsie aren't that serious, has sex with her in his wife's room. Odili packs his bags, disgusted.
Odili crashes with his friend Max, a successful lawyer. Odili spends the day plotting his revenge. He decides that the best way to humiliate the minister is by seducing Edna, his girlfriend. That evening, Max hosts a gathering of political dissidents who start a new political party: the Common People's Convention. Odili wonders how this can be the common people's party if all the members are upper-class professionals. Odili later returns to the village of Anata, where he is still employed by the local school. When he arrives, he finds the village in an uproar because a shopkeeper, Josiah, stole a blind man's walking...
(The entire section is 1,042 words.)