The narrator, Professor James Nwoye, says that today he saw Ikenna Okoro, who was rumored to be dead. He says he maybe should've thrown sand at Ikenna to make sure he wasn’t a ghost, but as a Western-educated retired mathematics professor, he's supposed to be able to laugh at such practices. He met Ikenna at the university, where he was visiting the bursary to ask about his pension.
In the story’s setup, James introduces the idea that there's supposed to be a huge difference between traditional practices and the habits of those who are Western-educated. He suggests, though, that he doesn't see the traditional practices as silly; rather, they're just not for him.
The clerk explains to James that the money hasn't come in. James tells the reader that this is standard. Men outside talk about the education minister or the vice chancellor stealing pension money. When James approaches the men, he chats with a man who used to be his driver when he was faculty dean in the 1980s. The man asks after James' daughter and speaks at length about the youth not paying him for work.
This story takes place on the Nsukka campus, where "Cell One" took place. We see that the police corruption of "Cell One" isn't the only kind of corruption that plagues the campus. The government isn't properly paying its employees, and this has been going on for a long time. The troubles of the Nsukka campus also feature in some of Adichie’s other works.
At another man's prodding, James buys some fruit and nuts from the men. He thinks they all need moisturizer, and thinks about his late wife, Ebere, teasing him about moisturizing properly. James stands and listens to the men talk about their troubles. As he leaves the men to return to his car, Ikenna Okoro calls out to James.
Even if he doesn't think traditional practices are silly per se, James appears to have internalized some of the superiority that he's implied comes from his Western education.
James and Ikenna shake hands and hug tentatively. James explains to the reader that he and Ikenna hadn't been close friends; rather, everyone at the university knew Ikenna because he consistently fought for a number of progressive issues.
James describes Ikenna as a prominent voice against widespread corruption, and also presumably for Biafran independence.
James asks Ikenna if he's alive. He tells the reader that he saw Ikenna on the day Ikenna “died” in 1967. Everyone was evacuating the Nsukka campus to escape the approaching federal soldiers. James' family was in their Impala and they saw Ikenna's car heading back towards campus. James waved at Ikenna to stop, but Ikenna said he had to get something from campus. James tells the reader that he didn't think much of it, since he figured their Biafran side would emerge victorious, but when they heard later that Nsukka had fallen and two lecturers had been killed, he knew that one of them was Ikenna.
James is describing the Nigerian invasion of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war. In James' mind, the war should've been an easy victory for his side. These flashbacks suggest that James lives with the memories of the war as though the war itself is a ghost that visits him. When taken with the ghost-like return of Ikenna, the story becomes a study of how people in the present deal with the ghosts of their pasts to inform both the present and the future.
Ikenna confirms that he's alive and explains that he left Biafra the month after the evacuation. James feels disgust for the "sabos" (saboteurs) who betrayed the Biafran cause for the opportunity to escape to Nigeria. Ikenna explains that he actually left on a Red Cross plane to Sweden. He continues, saying that his family died when Orlu was bombed, so there was no reason to return and he's been in Sweden since.
Notice that James' first reaction is to think that Ikenna betrayed the cause. This suggests that Ikenna was possibly a flighty person when James knew him in the '60s and '70s. James also still carries some anger towards the sabos, indicating that he still feels the horrors and betrayals of the war.
James explains to the reader that he and Ebere had briefly returned to Nsukka in 1970, but left quickly for America and spent six years there. James also tells this to Ikenna. Ikenna asks about James' daughter, but James explains that she died in the war. James explains that he and Ebere had another daughter after the war.
Whatever his feelings about Ikenna, James also left Nigeria in the aftermath of the war rather than stay and join the restoration effort. Though it seems like it was a healing experience for James and his family, it also makes James's feelings about Ikenna's time in Sweden more complicated.
Ikenna quickly explains that he remained politically active in support of Biafra in Europe and organized a number of rallies. James thinks that this speech sounds like one Ikenna has given to many people.
Ikenna is certainly aware that having left during the middle of the civil war makes him seem like a coward to many of those who stayed. He seems guilty for having done so.
Ikenna asks about a poet and professor who died in the war. James confirms that he died, but says that he was brave enough to fight. James hopes he hasn't offended Ikenna by saying this. He begins to recount what happened on the day he and Ebere returned to Nsukka. Soldiers shoved a wounded soldier into their car and the blood ran into the ripped upholstery. James says the blood reminded him of Ikenna, which is a lie.
Even if he didn't mean it, James' language confirms that he privately thinks less of Ikenna for leaving. James uses this true story with a lie thrown in to bolster his relationship with Ikenna and make up for admitting his unsavory private thought. The detail that James uses in the story shows again that the memories are visceral and have remained with him.
James asks how life is in Sweden, and Ikenna answers that he retired the year before and has returned to Nsukka "to see." Ikenna says he never remarried and asks James about Ebere. James explains that she's been gone three years, but that she "visits." Ikenna looks as though James is mad. James tells the reader that he would've thought the same until Ebere visited the first time. James was in bed and heard the door open and close and footsteps on the stairs. He then felt Ebere massage lotion into his skin.
Saying that Ebere "visits" puts James's opening line in a different light, as it makes it obvious that James doesn't just tolerate the traditional practices—he actively believes in unexplainable things like ghosts. Ikenna, however, shows the result of his own Western education when he treats James like a madman. With Ebere's visits, James gets to maintain a sense of family and community that it seems like he's otherwise lost.
James wishes he could tell his daughter that Ebere visits, but thinks that if he does, she'll make him move to America. He wonders what would've happened if they'd won the war in 1967. He wonders if their victory would make it so he wouldn't have to worry that his grandson doesn't speak Igbo. Ikenna asks again about James' daughter, and James shares that she's a doctor in Connecticut.
Again it’s suggested that James lives with the weight of the civil war and what might have happened. He sees that the war robbed him of the opportunity to truly pass on his culture to his American grandson, and also of a closer relationship with his daughter (if only in a physical sense).
Ikenna says that the university’s Staff Club is like an empty shell of what it once was, and James says that none of the professors are teaching and that the university has turned into a purely political place where students can buy grades. He asks Ikenna if he remembers Josephat Udeana. Ikenna remembers him as a dancer, but James says that Josephat stole money and ran the school like a dictatorship. Ikenna asks why nobody's doing anything about the corruption. James shrugs and says corruption like this exists throughout the country.
James returns to the idea of widespread corruption, which understandably offends Ikenna (who presumably stood against such things as a lecturer at Nsukka). Ikenna lives with his memories like James does, though Ikenna's memories aren't tainted by the uncomfortable truths of the present. Notice that James doesn't seem to think that there's anything he can do about the corruption; he's just resigned to living with it.
Ikenna adds that he was just reading about "fake drugs," which James explains to the reader is the practice of selling expired medicine. James is suspicious of this segue, as Ebere died as a result of fake drugs. Ikenna doesn't push the issue and asks James what he does now that he's retired.
The fake drugs are another facet of the widespread corruption. It seems that Ikenna actually knows about Ebere’s death, and is trying to bring it up, but James resists talking about it.
James tells Ikenna that he's resting, and he tells the reader about the friends he visits and his housekeeper's exceptional soup. He speaks to his daughter several times every week and doesn't go to church on Sundays now that Ebere visits. James tells the reader that his daughter regularly asks him if it's a good life, and he replies that it's his.
In actuality, James is connected to his community and his family, both dead and alive. However, remember that he doesn't mention Ebere's visits to his daughter. He has to lie by omission in order to balance these connections in this life.
James asks Ikenna to come back to his house. Ikenna vaguely agrees, but James knows he won't see Ikenna again. James goes home and carefully parks his Mercedes in the garage. He observes his yard on his way in and turns on the TV inside. He says that he saw an interview with a man who imports fake drugs, but wasn't extremely offended by the man—because Ebere visits.
The story suggests that James would be struggling to cope with his ghostly memories if Ebere didn't “visit.” Maintaining that familial connection to his wife is obviously vitally important to James's health and wellbeing. In this case, the lies he tells seem to have a net positive effect.
James wonders why he never heard that Ikenna didn't die. He says that nobody ever talks about the war and its horrors. If they do, it's in vague terms. James sits at his desk and wonders if his daughter will call. If she doesn't, he'll go to bed and wait for Ebere to come.
Though nobody talks about the war, James suggests that everyone who experienced it lives with the memories of it just like he does. People ignore or sidestep the truth around other living people, but the war lingers like a ghost.