Olanna remembers Odenigbo returning after midnight, covered in mud, on the day he tried to bury his mother. Since that day he has started going to the bar and drinking every day. He no longer talks optimistically about Biafra, but instead laments all the papers and work he left behind in Nsukka. Olanna tries to figure out how he is processing his grief for his mother, but she feels like an outsider.
Odenigbo’s spirit seems broken by his mother’s death, and he becomes a changed man. This slow slip into depression, detachment, and alcoholism threatens Olanna’s love even more than Odenigbo’s betrayal did.
Okeoma arrives to pay condolences to Odenigbo, and Odenigbo is more open with him than he has been with Olanna. Okeoma and Odenigbo drink whiskey, and Okeoma complains about his commander, a white mercenary who rapes women and is always demanding more money. They eat lunch and Olanna asks Okeoma if he has been writing. Okeoma shakes his head, and says he is a soldier now.
It seems small compared to the many horrific deaths, but another tragedy is that Okeoma stops writing and becomes another faceless, condemned soldier. Apparently most of the white mercenaries are not as sympathetic as Count von Rosen, and they use their skill in combat to oppress even the people employing them.
Olanna asks for a poem, but Okeoma wants to talk about the war instead. After lunch he drinks until he passes out. When he wakes up he relents and recites a poem about “The mermaid / Who will never be mine.” Olanna realizes the poem is about her, and she sits with Okeoma until he falls asleep again.
Okeoma’s poem is a wistful reminder of the past, and the days when Odenigbo would tease Olanna that his guests (including Okeoma) were in love with her. Okeoma too has turned to alcohol to drive away depression or PTSD.
That evening Professor Achara arrives and says that Odenigbo and Olanna must leave in two weeks, as their landlord has found someone who will pay double or triple the rent. Achara apologizes and promises to help them find a new place.
Achara was the friend who first found Odenigbo and Olanna their place in Umuahia. Every aspect of life starts to crumble under the weight of war and starvation.
Odenigbo, Olanna, Ugwu, and Baby move into a single room, which is still lucky considering the refugee-filled town. Olanna remembers pitying her family in Kano for all living in one room, and she starts to cry. One of her new neighbors, Mama Oji, says she heard that Odenigbo is a doctor and asks him to help her asthmatic child, and Olanna has to clarify that he is a “doctor of books.” Mama Oji warns Olanna that everyone in the building is willing to steal. There is no electricity in the building.
Olanna has truly lost all her privileges now, and both her and Odenigbo’s masters’ degrees are useless when survival is the primary concern. Long ago Olanna had thought that her family in Kano (Ifeka, Mbaezi, and Arize) were sincere and loving but poor, and she had pitied them for all living in one room, but she is now in the same situation.
Baby makes a new friend named Adanna. Olanna is glad that she is adjusting to all the moving, but she worries that Baby will pick up Adanna’s “bush Umuahia accent or some disease.” Every evening Mama Oji yells at her husband for deserting the army and pretending to be wounded in battle.
Olanna still hasn’t let go of her futile over-protectiveness of Baby, and her concern about Baby’s accent is ridiculous considering the situation, though it shows the tenacity of prejudice and social status.
Olanna is surprised to hear someone playing piano one day, and Mama Oji says that it is Alice, who never leaves her room or talks to anyone. Most of the people are suspicious of her and think she is a saboteur. After the song is over Alice comes out and Olanna introduces herself. Alice is small and childlike, and she avoids making conversation with Olanna as she heads to the bathroom.
The paranoia about saboteurs is running so deep that anyone acting out of the ordinary immediately comes under suspicion. The sections with Alice remain mysterious, and her piano playing in the midst of starvation is almost surreal.
Olanna grows interested in Alice and tries to befriend her, but Alice rarely leaves her room and doesn’t answer when Olanna knocks. One day Olanna sees her at the market. Alice complains that there is no salt, and Olanna is surprised, as this has been the case for a long time since the war.
Alice must have some secret source of food, as she hasn’t been out to notice the shortages in the market lately.
On her way home Olanna sees a boy being conscripted by soldiers, and then she gets angry at Ugwu for being outside. Olanna goes to their room and finds Odenigbo crying about his mother. Olanna holds him, and he says he has been considering joining the army. Olanna says that he might as well commit suicide. Odenigbo decides to work on building a bunker instead.
Everyone’s spirits start to wear down under the hardships of the war. The danger of forced conscription is now constant for Ugwu, and is a bad sign for the Biafran cause. Odenigbo has a similar crisis regarding his own usefulness that Olanna and Richard had.
Odenigbo gets some other men to help him dig. The other men joke and talk, but Odenigbo stays silent. Olanna hopes that his weeping session will loosen some of the “knots” within him, but he is distant that night. The next day there is good news of a Biafran victory in Abagana, and Odenigbo only says “Excellent” while all the neighbors dance and sing. Alice also stays inside, and Mama Oji says Alice thinks she is better than everyone else.
The change of Odenigbo’s personality (and of his relationship with Olanna) is another one of the unforeseen tragedies of the war. The “Abagana Ambush” was one of Biafra’s greatest military victories, where they used the ogbunigwe mines to destroy many Nigerian armored cars and halt their advance.
A few hours later Professor Ezeka’s driver arrives with supplies for Olanna and Odenigbo. Ugwu is overjoyed at all the food, but Olanna immediately puts some salt aside for Alice. She gives it to her and Alice thanks her. The next day they are both sitting outside while the neighbor Pastor Ambrose prays loudly. Alice says that God is fighting for the Nigerians, because they are winning, but Olanna sharply declares that God fights for the just side – the Biafrans. Alice says that Ambrose is pretending to be a pastor to avoid being conscripted.
Olanna continues to try and befriend Alice, or at least solve some of the mystery surrounding her. Pastor Ambrose shows how much superstition and false information has grown up around the war. Olanna recognizes all the hardships and corruption in Biafra, but she still loyally clings to the justice of “the cause.”
Alice tells Olanna that she had fallen in love with a married army colonel and followed him for years. She had his baby, but he left her just before the war started. Alice says she admires Olanna for handling so much responsibility so well. Alice says the piano is the only thing she brought from her home in Enugu, as her colonel lover guiltily sent her a van for it. She complains about how bad he was at sex too.
Alice’s mysterious past is finally cleared up a little. It is perhaps her guilty ex-lover who has also been providing her with food. Olanna now feels a bond with Alice, and so sets herself up for a betrayal.
That day Odenigbo comes home with a gun. He looks tired and sad, and rejects Olanna’s suggestion to try and be transferred elsewhere. Olanna is suddenly repulsed by their squalid, depressing room. That night she and Odenigbo sleep with their backs to each other.
Passion and sexuality was one of the constants of Olanna and Odenigbo’s love, and now even that has been taken away by their situation and Odenigbo’s depression.
The next day Pastor Ambrose is praying loudly again, and Mama Oji yells at him to join the army. She says that Baby’s friend Adanna has kwashiorkor, a disease from starvation and malnutrition. Olanna goes to see her and says the child needs milk or crayfish, but her mother (Mama Adanna) has nothing to give her. Olanna secretly gives Mama Adanna some dried milk and sardines from their new supplies.
Kwashiorkor is a kind of malnutrition caused by not getting enough protein. The symptoms usually include a swollen stomach and loss of hair. Now that the starvation in Biafra has gotten even worse, kwashiorkor will become a huge epidemic, especially among children.
Olanna goes to see Professor Ezeka. Mrs. Ezeka greets her joyfully, though they had barely met before, and Olanna notices all the luxuries they have in their house. Mrs. Ezeka offers Olanna cake and alcohol, and Olanna resents her happiness. She asks Professor Ezeka to transfer Odenigbo somewhere else, and Ezeka says he will try.
Olanna has just seen a child starving to death, so the pleasant life the Ezekas lead seems especially unfair. The suffering of Biafrans is mostly caused by foreign antagonists and famine, but corruption within the Biafran government doesn’t help.
Before she leaves, Mrs. Ezeka shows Olanna the bunker they sometimes have to go in, and complains about it. It is sturdy, clean, and furnished. Olanna leaves, and when she returns home Baby is crying because Mama Adanna ate her dog, whom Baby loved.
Adichie juxtaposes these images to show the wealth gap between the average Biafran – who is forced to eat her dog to save her starving daughter – and the well-off government official.
One afternoon Kainene appears. Olanna embraces her uncertainly, feeling self-conscious about her squalid room. The two sisters sit quietly for a while, and then Kainene talks about her job running the refugee camp in Orlu. Kainene asks Olanna about teaching, and about her wedding, which was interrupted by the air raid. Kainene brings her the money from their mother and two dresses she bought for Baby.
The sisters experience a long-awaited reunion as they both approach each other cautiously. The distant Kainene is the one who reaches out. In the face of such horrors as have swept Biafra, sisterly loyalty and love overcomes Kainene’s feelings of betrayal and anger.
Kainene says she should stop calling the child “Baby,” but call her Chiamaka instead, and Olanna laughs with sudden joy. Kainene tells Olanna about Ikejide being beheaded. She invites Olanna to visit her at the refugee camp, and then leaves. Olanna feels “as if she had swallowed a sparkling sliver of light.”
A tragic but powerful part of the sisters’ reunion is the trauma they have both experienced, particularly their encounters with decapitation. Their cautious reunion foreshadows that of Nigeria and Biafra.
A few days later Olanna goes to Orlu, and Harrison greets her. Kainene is there, and she hugs Olanna. Kainene says that Richard left early, probably to avoid seeing Olanna. Kainene asks Olanna if she ever dreams about the child’s head in the calabash, and then she says “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.” Olanna feels a leap of joy at this.
As usual, Kainene makes no grand emotional displays, but she basically says that in the light of what she has seen, Olanna’s sins seem trivial. Everyone is now in constant danger, so the sisters should stand together against the horrors of the world.
Kainene takes Olanna to the refugee camp she runs, and shows her around. Inside the smell is nauseating, but Olanna makes herself go in. Many of the refugee children have swollen bellies, a sign of kwashiorkor. Kainene gives some of them protein tablets, and gives some to Olanna for Baby. Olanna asks how many of the refugees die each day, but Kainene won’t answer. Kainene takes Olanna’s hand as they leave the camp.
Kainene’s refugee camp is even worse than the one in Umuahia, and Adichie now shows the full extent of Biafran suffering. All the political posturing, colonial oppression, and global indifference ultimately leads to starving, dying children. Tragedy continues to bring the sisters together.