The unnamed Cell One narrator says that a neighbor robbed her family home the first time; the second time, it was her brother Nnamabia who broke in and stole their mother's jewelry. Their parents were out of town, and Nnamabia drove their mother's car, a Peugeot 504. The narrator and Nnamabia sat in church together for ten minutes before Nnamabia left. He returned right as the service ended and when the two arrived back at the house, Nnamabia exclaimed in English that they'd been robbed.
Because the narrator is unnamed, it suggests that the story isn't about her at all; it's much more about Nnamabia. This begins to develop the idea that men are seen as more important and generally have more power than women. With Nnamabia's theft, he's attempting to grab even more power by stealing valuable jewelry.
The Cell One narrator tells the reader that the mess in the house seemed staged—the windows had obviously been opened from the inside, and the thief had known exactly where the jewelry was. She knew that Nnamabia had done it, and their father knew it too. When their father confronted Nnamabia, he acted dramatically wounded about the accusation and left for two weeks. When he returned, he cried and apologized for pawning his mother's jewelry.
Nnamabia's lie is an attempt to make it seem as though their family is perfect, fully functional, and has a healthy family dynamic (though we'll soon get confirmation that none of this is remotely true). However, Nnamabia’s family still provides some degree of support or safety since Nnamabia returns to them and apologizes.
Mother cried when Nnamabia said that he hadn't gotten a good price for the jewelry, making the Cell One narrator angry. Father asked Nnamabia to write a report about what he'd done, since Nnamabia was 17 and too old to be “caned” (beaten).
The narrator is angry here because Mother crying about the sale price of her jewelry shows that on some level, the family places more value on physical valuables than on trust within the family unit.
The Cell One narrator explains that the jewelry was the only thing of value in her family's home, and the other sons of professors were doing the exact same thing at the time. Theft was rampant on the Nsukka university campus, but the professors whose children were stealing complained about the "riffraff" stealing their possessions. The thieves were popular and drove their parents' cars. The narrator mentions the neighbor who stole from them, a handsome boy that the narrator wished would notice her. The narrator's parents never questioned the boy’s parents about the theft, even though they knew who'd stolen from them.
The façade of perfection isn't unique to the narrator's family; it extends to many of the families who live on Nsukka campus. This indicates that the people who live there are extremely concerned with creating the image of the campus as an idyllic place and ignoring the fact that they're all living a lie. Notice that the narrator never suggests a reason for the widespread thefts. This suggests that the thefts themselves are largely senseless.
The Cell One narrator says that Nnamabia is beautiful with light skin. People in the market would call out to Mother and ask why she gave all the beauty to "the boy" and left the narrator dark. The narrator explains that Mother would just chuckle, as she took responsibility for Nnamabia's looks as well as his misdeeds. The narrator lists several of Nnamabia's infractions, all of which Mother either covered up or attributed to youthful experimentation.
Here, the reader begins to really develop the sense that Nnamabia is valued more than his sister because he's male. The narrator doesn't make any of this description about herself, showing again that she's seen as a purely auxiliary character to her brother. She functions only as a comparison or a counterpoint rather than a living, breathing part of the family.
The Cell One narrator says that three years later, it was the "season of cults" on the Nsukka campus. The cults began as fraternities, but the influence of American rap videos had made the cults deadly. Members consistently stabbed or shot members of other cults, and the violence soon became normal. The police tried to help, but their cars were rickety and their guns were rusty, and Nnamabia said that the cult boys had modern guns. Mother, Father, and the narrator all wonder if Nnamabia is in a cult, but he denies it.
It's inarguable that one of America's most prolific exports is its culture—the effects on the Nigerian fraternities here is proof of that. The fact that American culture turns the cults deadly, however, suggests early on in the collection that America and the American dream are not necessarily wholly positive. The willfully ignorant parents of the Nsukka campus also must now face the truth that their children are involved in this violence.
One Monday, four cult boys steal a professor's car and shoot three other cult boys outside a lecture hall. Nnamabia doesn't come home that night, and in the morning, a security man tells Mother and Father that Nnamabia has been arrested. They drive to the police station in town, where an officer tells them that Nnamabia and the other cult boys have been taken to Enugu. The Cell One narrator says that Enugu is the state capital, and the police at the prison there can kill people to produce the results they need.
The very theatrical and public nature of the cult violence recalls the narrator's note that the cults were inspired by rap music videos in the first place—they were inspired by performance. The transfer to the prison at Enugu, however, shows how seriously law enforcement is taking the cult situation, and suggests that law enforcement means to put a stop to the violence. This becomes darkly ironic, then, as the police show that they themselves are quite violent.
The Cell One narrator describes the Enugu police station. Mother bribes the officers with food and money, and they allow Nnamabia to sit outside with his family. Nnamabia looks like an entertainer as he eats and describes the sense of order in his cell. He says that he slipped money into his anus so he could buy the cell chief's favor. Mother looks worried. In the car on the way home, Father says that Nnamabia is shaken, though the narrator can't see it.
In this situation, food acts as currency. While everyone seems thrilled to be able to buy the favor of the guards, this also shows the widespread corruption of the Nigerian government, which will be a recurring source of conflict throughout the stories. For Nnamabia, his time in jail seems to be all a part of a fun story—continuing the idea of the cults as being based largely in the performance of violence and crime.
Several days later, Nnamabia is shocked to see a gang member crying. A few days after that, Nnamabia is shaken again when he watches two policemen carry a corpse out of Cell One. The Cell One narrator explains that even Nnamabia's cell chief seems afraid of Cell One. Nnamabia has nightmares about it.
Nnamabia's rosy view of prison is beginning to disintegrate as he is faced with harsh reality. The sense of order he previously praised also seems warped or absent here, as even the cell chief fears Cell One.
The Cell One narrator describes the tiny bugs that bite the inmates. She says that Nnamabia's face is covered in infected bumps. Nnamabia tells the narrator, Mother, and Father that earlier in the day, he had to defecate in a plastic bag because the toilet was too full. The narrator is annoyed; she thinks that Nnamabia enjoys this role of "sufferer of indignities" and doesn't understand how lucky he is.
The narrator obviously cares for Nnamabia, even if she finds him naïve and his attitude insufferable. She hasn't forgotten that the police could easily kill him without consequences, while her parents appear to be ignoring that fact in order to preserve the façade of Nnamabia's innocence.
For Nnamabia's first week in prison, Mother, Father, and the Cell One narrator visit daily in Father's Volvo. The narrator notices that her parents begin to behave differently—they don't criticize the brutal police practices like they used to. The second week, the narrator tells her parents that they're not going to visit Nnamabia. Mother and Father look scandalized. The narrator throws a rock at the Volvo's windshield and runs upstairs. Mother and Father stay home that day.
Finally, Mother and Father seem to truly understand (or accept) the gravity of Nnamabia's imprisonment. The brutal police practices are no longer abstract concepts; they watch these brutal practices daily when they visit prison. The lies they've told themselves about the way their government functions are beginning to dissolve and prove ineffective, while the truth takes on more weight.
The Cell One narrator, Mother, and Father visit the next day. Nnamabia looks sober and explains that an old man had joined his cell the day before. The man's son was wanted, but when the police couldn't find the son, they locked up the old man instead. Nnamabia says that the man did nothing wrong. Mother says that Nnamabia also did nothing wrong, but Nnamabia acts as though Mother doesn't understand. Over the next few days, Nnamabia speaks less and less, and only about the old man when he does speak.
Again, the characters' reactions to the old man's unjust imprisonment suggests that this practice is widespread. However, since the old man is in no way related to Nnamabia, Mother and Father are able to gloss over the injustice of the man's situation and focus only on what they want to believe about their own son.
Nnamabia says he wants to give the old man food, but he can't take food back into his cell. Father goes to a prison guard and asks if they'd let the old man out so they can offer him some rice, but the guard laughs and yells at him. The following day, Nnamabia cries as he tells about the indignities the guards put the old man through. The Cell One narrator feels sad for her brother.
For all his posturing, Nnamabia does show that he has a heart and cares for other people. Though his initial imprisonment didn't seem to change his attitude, seeing the guards abuse an innocent old man encourages Nnamabia to see the prison system for the corrupt system that it is, and to look beyond the story or “performance” aspect of his imprisonment.
Two days later, a cult boy attacks another boy with an axe on campus. Mother and Father spend the day at the school superintendent's office, and at the end of the day, the superintendent issues a release order for Nnamabia. The next day, Mother, Father, and the Cell One narrator leave for Enugu. Mother is especially jumpy. When they arrive at the prison, the narrator tries to ignore the policemen beating a boy she knows.
The narrator isn't exempt from telling herself stories to make life livable—she has to ignore the boy she knows in order to make it through the visit to the prison. Mother's jumpiness in particular creates tension and the sense that Nnamabia's release won't work out as simply as the narrator's family seems to hope.
Mother and Father give the policeman on duty the release note. The policeman says that there are complications. Mother grabs the policeman's shirt and asks where her son is. The policeman calls his superior to explain: Nnamabia had misbehaved yesterday and was moved to Cell One, and all of the inmates in Cell One had been transferred to another prison.
Mother's reaction here shows that even if she was previously acting as though everything was fine, she hasn't truly forgotten that Nnamabia is in an extremely dangerous situation. It's unclear whether Nnamabia is even still alive, given what the narrator has said about the brutality of the guards and police.
The Cell One narrator sits in the backseat of the car with the policeman. When they arrive at the prison compound, it looks neglected. The officer goes inside and returns minutes later with Nnamabia. When Mother hugs him, he flinches; his body is bruised and bloody. The policeman tells Mother that she can't raise her children to not expect consequences, and that she's lucky that Nnamabia is being released at all. Father speeds all the way home and doesn't stop at any of the police checkpoints.
The policeman says what the narrator has been thinking the entire time but couldn't say because she's female. Despite the lesson here, that there are indeed consequences for one's actions, Father immediately flouts all the rules by not stopping at the checkpoints—he behaves as though he's exempt from these rules, indicating that he still believes corruption can't truly touch his family.
When Mother, Father, the Cell One narrator, and Nnamabia arrive home, Nnamabia explains what happened. He says the guards had tried to torment the old man but Nnamabia had shouted at the officers that the old man was sick and innocent. The officers threatened to take him to Cell One if he didn't stop. Nnamabia didn't stop. The guards beat him and put him in Cell One, and what happened after that Nnamabia doesn’t say. The narrator imagines how the rest of Nnamabia's transfer happened. She thinks that it would've been easy for Nnamabia to turn what happened into a "sleek drama," but he didn't.
The narrator takes pride in her brother's refusal to dramatize his transfer. Nnamabia finally stood up for what was right, which meant that he had to accept the corruption and injustice of the Nigerian prison system as fact, and, on a deeper level, see the people around him and their experiences as truly real, and not just parts of his own dramatic “story.” Essentially, through his time in jail, Nnamabia learned the lessons that his parents seem unwilling to accept, and he's emerged a better and more fully rounded person for it.