Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old Igbo boy from the bush village of Opi, comes to the university town of Nsukka to work as a houseboy. His Aunty got him this job with Odenigbo, who she calls “Master,” and she leads him through the town. Odenigbo is a professor at the university. Ugwu enters Nsukka and marvels at the buildings, as he has only seen mud huts and dirt roads before. Aunty warns him to always say “yes sah!” to his Master.
The book starts out at as almost a social comedy, with a clash between the worlds of Ugwu and Odenigbo. Ugwu’s bush village is extremely poor, and Nsukka seems a place of impossible riches for him – but it is only a short drive away. Odenigbo works at the University of Nigeria, which Adichie briefly attended.
Ugwu and his Aunty come to Odenigbo’s house, which is large and filled with books. Odenigbo is young, hairy, wears glasses, and looks like a wrestler. Aunty leaves and Ugwu stands there nervously. He has never seen so much furniture. Odenigbo sends Ugwu to the kitchen to find something to eat. He calls Ugwu “my good man” in English. Ugwu has never seen a refrigerator before, and he is awed to see a whole chicken inside. He eats some and then puts some meat in his pockets to bring as a gift when he returns to his village.
We will see that Odenigbo is a pseudo-revolutionary, always railing against colonial oppression, but he still calls Ugwu “my good man” like an English gentleman. It will be hundreds of pages before the tragedy begins, and for now Adichie creates this world of optimism and even comedy, with Ugwu naively saving chicken in his pockets. There is a tragic note to this too, though, as it shows how rare meat is in Ugwu’s village.
Odenigbo goes out and Ugwu explores the house, marveling at everything. He imagines what would be happening at his village, and thinks of his mother and his sister Anulika. Ugwu pockets some more meat and hopes that it will impress Nnesinachi, a village girl he likes but who has never noticed him. He thinks about Nnesinachi’s breasts and hopes that she won’t move up North before he sees her again and has a chance to touch her breasts. Ugwu falls asleep in a real bed instead of on his usual raffia mat.
Ugwu’s adolescent longings make up much of his inner life at first – he is young but is already beginning to experience sexual lust and a fascination with girls. Much of the personal side of the novel is devoted to love, and in her characters’ romantic love Adichie never shies away from sexuality. Nnesinachi will be a kind of unreachable ideal for Ugwu.
Odenigbo wakes Ugwu up and says that the room smells like chicken. Ugwu sheepishly takes the meat out of his pockets. Odenigbo lists the cleaning chores that have to be done, and then he starts to talk aloud about international politics. He shows Ugwu a map of the world and is appalled at how uneducated Ugwu is. Odenigbo says “Education is a priority” for resisting “exploitation.” He promises to enroll Ugwu in the staff primary school.
Part of the Nigerian politics and culture that are explored through the book is the incredible diversity within the country itself – it contains over 300 different ethnic groups, and even within these (Ugwu and Odenigbo are both Igbo) there are still huge cultural disparities, like between the poor, illiterate Ugwu and the modern, wealthy Odenigbo.
Odenigbo says that Ugwu will be the oldest in his class, so he will have to prove himself the best. He then says that Ugwu will learn two kinds of knowledge in school – British-approved knowledge and real knowledge. As an example, he says that they will teach Ugwu that a white man “discovered” the River Niger, when in actuality people had been fishing there for generations. But Ugwu must copy down the white answer for his exam.
Odenigbo is a professor of mathematics, but it seems that his great passion is for politics. He introduces the looming shadow of colonialism to the book – the British rule of Nigeria that lasted until 1960 – which still affects everything, even the seemingly apolitical knowledge taught in schools.
Ugwu says that he can cook, and so Odenigbo has him write down ingredients he needs. He says his gardener Jomo will show him the way to the market. Odenigbo tells Ugwu to call him by his name instead of calling him “sah,” but Ugwu can’t break the habit. Weeks pass and Ugwu learns Odenigbo’s routine – he plays tennis and has visitors every day, and they listen to the radiogram in the living room. One day Ugwu tries to iron Odenigbo’s socks, but he ends up melting them. Odenigbo calls him a “stupid ignoramus” and then rushes off to work.
There are more comedic moments as Ugwu adjusts to Odenigbo’s lifestyle and culture. Ugwu is wide-eyed and naïve now, but soon he will become a connoisseur of cooking and luxury. Odenigbo adopts many English customs, like playing tennis, and he uses the word “ignoramus” over and over just like “my good man.”
Ugwu is horrified, and convinced that “evil spirits” made him iron the socks. He worries that Odenigbo will send him home, so he searches for a special herb called arigbe that is supposed to “soften a man’s heart.” He finds some arigbe and makes a special stew, and when Odenigbo comes home he serves it to him. Odenigbo likes the stew, and after he goes to bed Ugwu realizes that his Master had forgotten all about the burned sock.
We also see a disparity in the superstitious and religious beliefs of Ugwu and Odenigbo. They are both Igbo, living only a few miles apart, but Ugwu still lives in the world of evil spirits and witchcraft, while Odenigbo is an atheist and reads European philosophers. And yet Ugwu’s “medicine” does work.
Ugwu starts to realize that he has a much better situation with Odenigbo than most houseboys do – other houseboys in Nsukka sleep on the floor and don’t get to read their masters’ books. Ugwu listens to Odenigbo’s conversations with his friends about international politics. Odenigbo has more visitors on weekends, and Ugwu serves them drinks. The visitors include the fastidious Professor Ezeka, the poet Okeoma, whom Odenigbo calls “the voice of our generation,” and Miss Adebayo, a Yoruba woman from the university who argues with Odenigbo.
Ugwu basically becomes a member of Odenigbo’s family, and almost a project for Odenigbo. Odenigbo has already stated his beliefs about the necessity of education and escaping from colonial exploitation, so he intends to make Ugwu into an educated, independent member of Nigerian society. Odenigbo’s assortment of friends will keep coming back in different situations.
Ugwu eavesdrops on them arguing one night as they discuss pan-Africanism and tribalism, and the fact that Nigeria is a creation of the white man, while Igbo is a self-made identity. Miss Adebayo argues flirtatiously with Odenigbo, and Ugwu worries that he will marry her. Ugwu wants everything to stay as it is, and he comes to admire and love Odenigbo even more.
After four months Odenigbo says that a “special woman” is coming to visit from London, so Ugwu should clean the house. Ugwu is apprehensive about a new woman, but when she arrives he is awestruck by the melodious English of her voice. When he finally looks at her, Ugwu marvels at her beauty, and feels that she should be “in a glass case” for her beauty to be “preserved untainted.” Her name is Olanna, but Odenigbo calls her nkem, or “my own.”
Speaking English is still Ugwu’s measure of people, and he immediately respects Olanna (as opposed to Miss Adebayo) because of her melodious English. Olanna is one of the main protagonists, but she first appears here as a sexual object in Ugwu’s eyes, something to be put under glass and admired.
Ugwu learns that Olanna will be moving to Nsukka to live with Odenigbo soon. He is worried about this life change, but he is also excited to have Olanna around. He finds everything she does and says to be intriguing, and at night he listens to her moaning in Odenigbo’s bedroom.
Ugwu’s adolescent sexuality reaches an uncomfortable peak, and he sees nothing wrong with listening at the door while Odenigbo and Olanna have sex. He keeps his strong loyalty to Odenigbo but also begins to admire and long for Olanna.