Meanwhile Obinze, who is stuck in traffic in Lagos, Nigeria, receives Ifemelu’s email and reads it. In it she congratulates him on his child and says that she is moving back to Nigeria. She calls him “Ceiling,” her old nickname for him. Obinze remembers her other emails: especially one that had mentioned Blaine, the black American she was dating. Obinze had then jealously researched Blaine, who was a lecturer at Yale and seemed overly pretentious to Obinze. Obinze had responded to that email somewhat sarcastically, and then later asked about keeping in touch, but Ifemelu had never written back.
We now meet the other central protagonist, Obinze. Like Ifemelu, he has constructed a successful life for himself entirely separate from her, but he still feels incomplete and is deeply affected whenever Ifemelu contacts him. After years of silence the two have been tentatively reconnecting through a few scattered emails. Most of the scenes set in Nigeria take place in the city of Lagos.
Obinze’s driver, Gabriel, complains about the beggars in the street, but Obinze is suddenly in a good mood because of Ifemelu’s email. He remembers the first time they touched each other sexually, and how afterwards she said her eyes were open but she couldn’t see the ceiling. After that they used “ceiling” as a euphemism, and later (in university, when they actually started having sex) Ifemelu started calling Obinze Ceiling. Their friends would ask why, but she would always give a joking answer. Obinze wonders if she “saw the ceiling” with Blaine.
The fact that Ifemelu is calling Obinze “Ceiling” even after years of separation shows how close their emotional connection really is—they can immediately pick up a kind of easy intimacy. Obinze is married, but still clearly jealous of anyone Ifemelu is dating. His romantic feelings for her are still very strong.
Obinze’s wife Kosi calls him, reminding him that they have a party that night with a man named Chief. Obinze arrives home to his huge house and thinks about his daughter Buchi and all his new possessions, and the flat comfort of his current life. Kosi greets him, and he thinks of how very beautiful she is. People always compliment her beauty, asking if she is half-white, and Obinze is uncomfortable with how much Kosi enjoys these racial compliments.
Obinze remembers his old life, and now compares it to his current one. He has built up an identity for himself as a rich Nigerian businessman with a beautiful wife and child, but he is still unsatisfied. We will see that race isn’t really an issue in Nigeria, except for this aesthetic idea that lighter skin is more beautiful than darker skin.
Buchi, who is a toddler, runs up to greet Obinze. Kosi asks him about work—he rents and sells property—and Obinze lies vaguely, and is then disappointed when Kosi doesn’t question further. She is only concerned with his work as far as it maintains the comfortable conditions of their life. Obinze isn’t looking forward to Chief’s party, but he must go because Chief is the one who first brought Obinze his success.
Obinze and Kosi don’t seem to share a very intimate connection, as she is uninterested in his work and he mostly admires her beauty rather than her personality. Adichie now begins to explain how Obinze has reached his current level of wealth and success.
Obinze remembers when he first came back from England years earlier, depressed about what had happened to him there. He had stayed with his cousin Nneoma, but soon she got impatient with him and made him apply for jobs. Obinze had no luck, and then Nneoma decided to introduce him to “Chief,” a very rich man whom Nneoma had rejected romantically, but who still liked her and sometimes did her favors.
Ifemelu managed to find success as an immigrant in America, but here Adichie alludes to the fact that Obinze did not have nearly as good an experience in England. With the character of Chief, Adichie starts to explain and criticize the culture of the rich in Lagos.
Nneoma took Obinze to Chief’s extravagant home. Chief flirted with Nneoma, who introduced him to Obinze. For the rest of the evening Chief held court, talking at length about whatever he liked, while his guests agreed with him and laughed at his jokes. Obinze would later learn that almost all Nigerian “Big Men” and “Big Women” acted like this. Obinze was almost amused at how transparent the flattery of Chief was, but Chief seemed to like it. He invited Obinze to come see him again in a week.
The culture Adichie criticizes here is one of casual corruption and inequality, where the rich are extremely rich and expected to flaunt their wealth. Adichie particularly critiques how many Nigerian men feel entitled to “hold court” and talk over others, especially women.
Obinze kept going back for several weeks, and Nneoma told him to just keep hanging around Chief until something good happened for him. Obinze was fascinated by how unsubtle the hierarchy was with Chief and his guests—anyone with money was supposed to be flattered, and anyone with less money was always supposed to flatter—“to have money, it seemed, was to be consumed by money.” Obinze pitied them, but also wanted to be one of them.
When a man becomes rich in Lagos, he basically achieves immunity, and is allowed to act however he pleases. Years of corrupt governments have led to this system, where it is relatively easy to get rich through fraud or bribery, and almost impossible to succeed through hard work or innovation.
One day Obinze spoke up and offered his services to help Chief. Chief sized Obinze up and then gave a speech about how he was friends with all the Nigerian leaders—Babangida, Abacha, and now President Obasanjo, and so he has insider information about everything. Chief told Obinze that he was going to buy seven properties that were listed as being worth one million each, but he knew that they were really worth fifty million, and he will resell them as such. He said that Obinze should front this deal, and Obinze accepted the offer.
The “Big Men” are expected to dispense favors to whomever grovels before them most appealingly, but luckily Chief decides to help Obinze even without flattery. Obinze’s quick road to wealth basically just involves being invited into this exclusive club of Big Men—being given the insider knowledge to make huge amounts of money through little merit of his own.
Nneoma was excited about this, and told Obinze how it would work out: he would soon start his own company buying properties and reselling them. Once he gets successful, she said, he must find one of his white friends from England and make him his “General Manager,” just for show, because then even more “doors will open” for him. Nneoma declares that this “is how Nigeria works.”
Once Obinze enters the inner circle, the system is all set up to work for him. We see more hints of racial issues in Nigeria here, as people get more respect if they have a white “General Manager,” even if it’s only a sham position.
It did indeed turn out the way Nneoma described, and Obinze was amazed by how easy it suddenly was to make huge amounts of money. Years earlier he had been refused an American visa, but now that he was rich he got one easily. Obinze always wondered why Chief decided to help him instead of the many other visitors always asking him for favors.
We will later see all the struggles Obinze went through when he was young, making it painfully ironic that all doors are open to him now because of his money. He knows that he didn’t get rich through any special merit of his own—it was just Chief’s whim.
Back in the present, Kosi leads Obinze through the guests at Chief’s party. She is very socially adept and always agreeable. Obinze sometimes finds her constant agreeableness and modesty to be almost immodest, as “it announced itself.” They start talking to a group of people who are discussing sending their children to French and British schools. Obinze mentions that they all grew up with the “Nigerian curriculum,” and everyone looks politely confused. Obinze used to always admire people with rich families and foreign accents, but he no longer does.
Part of the worldview of the rich is elevating Western culture over Nigerian culture. Wealthy parents are supposed to scorn Nigerian schools and instead send their children to British, French, or American schools. Just as light skin is still valued over dark skin in Nigeria, so does this mindset show the lingering effects of colonialism. Obinze used to idolize the West like this, but he has clearly grown disillusioned by his own experiences.
A party guest declares that it would be a “disadvantage” to send a child to an inferior Nigerian school instead of a British, French, or American one. Kosi defuses any argument by agreeing with them and Obinze at the same time. Obinze notes that “she always chose peace over truth, was always eager to conform.” Obinze squeezes her hand in apology, knowing that he should have kept his mouth shut and let the conversation continue smoothly.
Obinze gets along well with Kosi and is still attracted to her, but there is no deep connection between them. The thoughtful, intellectually curious Obinze cannot truly relate to the very conservative and domestic Kosi, even though their marriage is otherwise a happy one.
They reach Chief, who greets them expansively. Obinze wonders if Chief has ever propositioned Kosi, as he does so many women. A group of men clusters around Chief, trying to be the first to compliment him and laugh at his jokes. Obinze drifts away from Kosi and talks to a young journalist named Yemis. Obinze tries to discuss books with him, but discovers that the college-educated Yemis only likes books with big words in them. Obinze considers other careers he could have had, like a teacher.
Another thing Adichie criticizes about the “Big Men” of Lagos as that they feel entitled to any woman who catches their eye. On the other side, we will see that many women consequently view men as sources of wealth and material things. Obinze is dissatisfied with his life, and considers his potential to have pursued something less lucrative but more fulfilling.
Obinze returns to Kosi. He wants to go home and write an email back to Ifemelu. He wonders if Blaine is coming with her to Nigeria. Obinze remembers how he and Ifemelu used to hold hands. He remembers when he most recently ran into Ifemelu’s friend Ranyinudo at the mall. Ranyinudo had called him “the Zed,” his old nickname, and gushed about his new success and how humble he was. Obinze is considered humble just because he isn’t ostentatious with his wealth. He doesn’t like this attitude, however, as it seems to normalize the rudeness of the rich. He and Kosi leave the party.
We meet Ifemelu during a time of her dissatisfaction with Blaine and her successful American life, and likewise we meet Obinze when he is feeling disconnected from Kosi and his successful Nigerian life. Ifemelu and Obinze then reach out for each other and start to tear down the many layers of separation between them. Big Men are supposed to be rude and arrogant, so Obinze is considered virtuous just for being polite.
Obinze and Kosi return home, where their house girl Maria has cooked a meal. Obinze remembers the girl who preceded Maria. As soon as she arrived, Kosi went through her bag, and was horrified to find condoms inside. The girl had quietly said that in her last job, her employer’s husband would force himself on her. Kosi immediately sent her away angrily. Obinze felt sorry for the girl, and wondered how Kosi couldn’t.
Kosi gets angry at the house girl because she is supposed to: one doesn’t admit that a rich man might be a rapist, so a house girl must take the blame for any indiscretion of his. Obinze is detached from this narrow worldview, however, and sees things with more empathy.
Obinze had then realized that Kosi felt insecure about the house girl. Kosi was worried whenever Obinze associated with a single woman, as the culture of materialistic, seductive women in Lagos had made her constantly afraid that Obinze would cheat on her. Obinze had reassured her, but since their marriage Kosi had grown to dislike all single women, and had also grown more religious. Obinze once found out that Kosi had been to a prayer service for “Keeping Your Husband.”
As the counterpart to the lustful, entitled rich men of Lagos, many women also see men merely as sources of material support and comfort. These relationships have little romance and are mostly transactional—lust for wealth. Kosi assumes that Obinze will act like a traditional Big Man and feel no qualms about cheating, so she works to prevent that.
Obinze goes into his study and listens to Fela, a famous Nigerian musician. He remembers listening to Fela with Ifemelu. Obinze carefully composes an email to Ifemelu. He doesn’t mention Kosi, even though he knows Ifemelu knows about her. Obinze sends the email and immediately feels both nervous and weary. He looks out the window and imagines himself floating away.
Adichie closes this first section with another tentative attempt at connection between Ifemelu and Obinze. Both of them are dissatisfied with their current lives, even though they have built complete identities apart from each other. Their pure romantic connection has lasted even through years of silence.