When Ifemelu is a teenager, Obinze comes to her school from Nsukka. He lives with his mother, who was a professor at the university at Nsukka. The rumor is she was forced to leave after physically fighting with a male professor. Obinze quickly becomes one of the “Big Guys,” the cool group at school. The leader of this group is Kayode, who decides to set Obinze up with Ginika, Ifemelu’s best friend and the second most popular girl in school. Obinze and Ginika seem destined to be together, based on the hierarchy of popularity at the school.
Obinze is new at Ifemelu’s secondary school. His mother is immediately presented as a strong, independent woman, which lays the foundation for Obinze being drawn to another outspoken woman in Ifemelu. Ifemelu and Obinze’s romance begins with typical teenage politics and drama.
At a party at Kayode’s huge mansion, Kayode introduces Obinze to Ginika, who is there with Ifemelu. Kayode makes small talk, expecting Obinze to start talking to Ginika, but Obinze seems more interested in Ifemelu. Ifemelu has a sudden realization that “she wanted to breathe the same air as Obinze.” They keep talking and Obinze invites her to dance. Ifemelu goes with him, suddenly understanding all the romantic clichés she had assumed were false in books.
Adichie portrays Ifemelu and Obinze’s initial teenage romance in an idealized, nostalgic light, but it does indeed seem to be love at first sight, and it lasts for years. “Breathing the same air” is a romantic illustration of their instant connection.
Ifemelu and Obinze dance and then go outside to talk. Obinze tells her about his childhood, and what happened with his mother at the university. She publicly accused another professor of misusing university funds, and he slapped her. She wrote articles about this and got many students involved, and now she is on a “sabbatical.” Ifemelu says Obinze will be in trouble with his friends, as he is supposed to be chasing Ginika. Obinze replies with “I’m chasing you.” Ifemelu will always remember that moment.
“I’m chasing you” comes to represent their first attraction and love, and it will return on the novel’s last page to show how that love endures. Obinze’s mother is clearly very strong and outspoken, but the university couldn’t handle her activism, showing the sexism apparent even in the highest levels of academia.
Obinze and Ifemelu discuss books. Obinze loves American literature and the classics, while Ifemelu only likes crime novels and thrillers. Ifemelu asks him what Kayode had said about her. Obinze says he heard that Ifemelu was “too much trouble,” and he should go for a “sweet girl” like Ginika instead. Obinze wanted someone independent, so he liked hearing that about Ifemelu. He puts his arm around Ifemelu and she feels suddenly comfortable with herself. It seems totally natural for them to be together, even though they hardly know each other.
Adichie portrays most Nigerian men as preferring “sweet” pliable women, so Obinze stands apart in finding Ifemelu’s outspokenness attractive. They are both independent already, but find a pure connection with each other even on this first night. One important part of this romance is that it isn’t co-dependent—Ifemelu feels more secure in her own identity when Obinze is around.
Ifemelu and Obinze keep talking and flirting, and Ifemelu is surprised to hear that Obinze knows so many Igbo proverbs, as most boys try to only speak English so as to be impressive. They kiss. Later Obinze would say that it was “love at first sight,” and Ifemelu would try to deny it but couldn’t. After this party the two become inseparable. Obinze joins in Ifemelu’s extracurricular activities while Ifemelu joins Obinze’s. Ifemelu feels so close to Obinze that sometimes she worries she is “too happy,” and her joy will fly away one day.
Ifemelu’s fear of her happiness flying away shows the restlessness inherent in her personality, even when she is happy and satisfied. Obinze also differs from most other Nigerian boys by not being ashamed to speak Igbo, or trying to impress by only speaking English. Their initial romance seems perfect, but outside circumstances have yet to affect their future.