Back at the hair salon, Mariama leaves to pick up Chinese food for everyone. Ifemelu says she doesn’t want anything, as she has a granola bar to eat, and the other women are surprised and dismissive of this, until they learn that Ifemelu has been in America for fifteen years. As soon as Mariama leaves, Aisha takes out her cell phone and makes a call. She says that one of her boyfriends can come and talk to Ifemelu about marrying Aisha. Aisha asks if Ifemelu can speak Igbo, and Ifemelu defensively says yes.
With her granola bar Ifemelu is living up to one of her fears of having become too “Americanized.” For these other women, however, that is a compliment, as they are still struggling to become Americanized at all. But for Ifemelu, who is concerned with her identity as a Nigerian, Aisha questioning her Igbo is troubling.
Ifemelu slips into a memory about her mother’s hair when she was growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. It was long, thick, and beautiful, and people always complimented it. One day when Ifemelu was ten, her mother comes home and cuts off all of her hair. She puts it in a bag along with all the Catholic objects in their house, and then burns it. She comes back inside and tells Ifemelu that she has been saved, and is going to a new church.
Hair is Adichie’s symbol of oppression and independence in America, but it is also just a major motif in the novel, as here it leads Ifemelu into the first of her flashbacks. The symbolism carries over as well—cutting off her hair represents Ifemelu’s mother giving up her independence for the sake of religion.
After that day Ifemelu’s mother becomes super-religious, and often starves herself as part of her prayers. Ifemelu’s father remains “an agnostic respecter of religion,” but he humors his wife’s seeming madness, even one Easter when she declares that she sees an angel and runs out of the apartment. She comes back in and says that the angel told her to go to a different church.
Ifemelu’s mother will not play a major role in most of the novel, but we do see how her religious mania shaped Ifemelu while growing up—Ifemelu became more skeptical and independent in opposition to her mother.
Ifemelu’s mother starts going to a different church, and later sees another angel and switches churches again. At her new church the rules are more relaxed, and though she remains enthusiastically religious, she is less obsessed with what is sinful. Ifemelu’s father makes Ifemelu wake up early to pray with them, as it makes her mother happy. At the new church Ifemelu is already suspicious that God is not the reason for the Pastor’s big house and many cars, but she is pleased that her mother is eating again.
Even at a young age, Ifemelu already has the kind of critical eye to see through the hypocrisy and materialism of her mother’s new church. The idea of separation or disconnection is introduced in Ifemelu’s childhood through her mother, who becomes increasingly detached from reality (and Ifemelu herself) as she grows more religiously obsessive.
As all this is going on, Ifemelu’s father’s sister, Aunty Uju, becomes the mistress of “The General,” a powerful military man who buys her a car and creates a new job for her at the hospital. Ifemelu’s mother sees all this through the lens of her faith, however, and calls The General Aunty Uju’s “mentor,” insisting that all her new financial success is a “miracle.” Aunty Uju has a medical degree, and only weeks earlier she had been unemployed, until she went to a friend’s wedding and met The General. He told her “I like you. I want to take care of you.”
Ifemelu’s mother’s separation from the corrupt reality of life is most apparent regarding The General. Aunty Uju falls in love with The General, but she also understands the transactional part of their relationship—he finds her attractive, so he buys her things—while Ifemelu’s mother insists on a chaste explanation for The General’s patronage.
Ifemelu’s father is fired from his job at the federal agency for refusing to call his new boss “Mummy.” He searches for work for a long time but is unsuccessful. When his wife disparages him for losing his job in the first place, he takes her words to heart. Ifemelu feels sorry for him—he has always longed to get graduate degrees, but has been forced to work his whole life to support his siblings instead. He uses big words in English, which impress many people, but Ifemelu comes to learn that this is a “costume,” a way of pretending to be what he is not. He grows more and more depressed, and Ifemelu knows that he regrets not calling his boss “Mummy.”
Ifemelu’s father’s boss is a “Big Woman,” who, like the Nigerian Big Men, expects personal flattery and her every whim catered to. We see more evidence of Western culture being seen as superior, as Ifemelu’s father’s verbose English is a kind of costume for him to seem better educated and more impressive to others.
One Sunday morning the landlord comes by, angry that Ifemelu’s father hasn’t paid the rent. Ifemelu’s mother then comes home from church, wearing makeup that is “one shade too light.” She takes Ifemelu to church to do “Sunday Work”—making fundraising materials or decorating for a holiday. This work is run by Sister Ibinabo, a powerful woman in the church whom everyone respects and fears.
Like many of the Nigerians Adichie portrays, Ifemelu’s mother tries to make herself lighter-skinned when she wants to seem more beautiful or formal, as in dressing up for church.
Sister Ibinabo orders Ifemelu to join a group making garlands for a rich man named Chief Omenka. Ifemelu declares that she won’t decorate for a thief, as Chief Omenka and many of the church’s wealthy members and donors are “419 men,” or people who have gotten rich through fraud and scamming. Sister Ibinabo says that this work is still “God’s work,” and she orders Ifemelu to leave.
Ifemelu first shows her propensity for speaking her mind even when it might be rude or inappropriate—and also her keen sense of what is unjust or unfair. Sister Ibinabo, like Ifemelu’s mother, cloaks the corrupt nature of the church’s money under a disguise of religiosity.
Ifemelu goes outside and waits for her mother to pick her up, knowing she will be in trouble. Like everyone else, Ifemelu usually says nothing about the “dirty money” that runs the church, but today she was feeling especially repulsed by Sister Ibinabo’s religiosity as a cover for materialism and pettiness. Ifemelu sees the same thing in her own mother—cloaking worldly desires in religion to make them seem more acceptable.
Adichie’s main criticism of the society in Lagos is the widespread corruption inherent in the system. Over years of colonialism and corrupt governments, people are now expected to take and receive bribes, to make money through fraud and have it legitimized by religion, or to trade sex for wealth or favors.
Ifemelu’s mother is angry, and takes her home. Aunty Uju comes to visit, and Ifemelu’s mother tells her to give Ifemelu a talking-to. Aunty Uju and Ifemelu have always been very close, as Uju seems to understand Ifemelu better than her own mother. Uju is Ifemelu’s father’s sister, whom he helped leave their home village and come to Lagos with him. Eventually she went on to university.
Ifemelu feels more connected to Aunty Uju than to her own mother, and Uju will play a much larger role in the novel. Ifemelu’s mother disapproves of Ifemelu’s outspokenness, as she has to keep up the smokescreen of religion covering the corruption.
Aunty Uju sits with Ifemelu and reminds her that she can’t always speak her mind. Ifemelu asks why her mother can’t accept that Aunty Uju’s gifts are from The General, and must insist they are from God. Uju says that they still might be from God. Ifemelu remembers stories about her own childhood, how only Aunty Uju could calm her down when she was having a tantrum. Uju helped her all her life, including when she met Obinze, “the love of her life.”
Ifemelu can’t relate to her mother’s need to legitimize less-than-pure affairs through her lens of religious faith. Aunty Uju is intelligent and outspoken like Ifemelu, and so is able to give her more relatable advice. Obinze now enters Ifemelu’s memories as the overarching plot of their romance begins.