Summary: Chapter 3

Chapter 3 begins a flashback to Ifemelu’s childhood. Ifemelu’s mother starts attending Guiding Assembly, a Christian church that preaches prosperity as its major doctrine, and passes the collection plate around three times per service. Her mother prays constantly for the safety of The General, an important statesman who has taken Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju as a mistress. Ifemelu’s mother calls him Aunty Uju’s mentor, pointedly ignoring the sexual aspect of their relationship.

Meanwhile, Ifemelu’s father loses his job. He tries to find a new job, but eventually gives up and mopes at home, forgetting even to shower at times. Ifemelu’s mother blames this change in fortune on the devil. Ifemelu’s father speaks with a British accent and uses large words as if to make up for never being able to get the kind of education he always longed for. As Ifemelu’s father remains unemployed, eventually the family falls behind in their rent.

On the day Ifemelu is to go to see Aunty Uju’s new estate gifted to her by The General, she gets in trouble with a powerful woman at church because she refuses to help make paper garlands for Chief Omenka, calling him a thief. The church woman accuses Ifemelu of being unwilling to do God’s work. Ifemelu believes that both this woman and her mother use religion as a way of not seeing things as they really are.

After Ifemelu’s father reminds Ifemelu that her tendency to go against authority has sullied her school record, Ifemelu’s mother demands that Aunty Uju tell Ifemelu to behave. Aunty Uju has long acted as a big sister in Ifemelu’s life, giving her sensible advice as she navigated puberty. After the incident at church, Aunty Uju again offers Ifemelu sisterly advice, reminding her that she does not always have to say her every thought.

Summary: Chapter 4

When Obinze joins Ifemelu’s secondary school, rumors abound that he moved there because his mother fought with another professor at the University in Nsukka. This makes him instantly popular. Everyone expects him to go out with Ifemelu’s friend, Ginika. Ginika is sweet and always gets voted the prettiest girl in their class, but she claims it is only because she is half-caste and has a white mother. Kayode, the coolest boy in school, promises to introduce Obinze to Ginika at his upcoming party.

At the party, Obinze has a difficult time speaking to Ginika. Ifemelu blurts out a rude question about him wearing a jacket in the heat, which amuses him. Obinze and Ifemelu end up dancing and talking the whole night. Obinze tells her that he’s admired her from afar because he saw her carrying a novel. He also liked that she had a reputation for being argumentative. Ifemelu points out that he’s supposed to be after Ginika, and he replies, “I’m chasing you.” Ifemelu appreciates his honesty, and the way he makes her feel like herself. They kiss. From that moment on, they are an inseparable couple.

Summary: Chapter 5

Ginika’s family immigrates to America, which goes smoothly because Ginika already has an American passport. The other students think having an American passport is cool. Ifemelu feels out of place because her poorer family doesn’t have access to these foreign dreams. She worries that one day Obinze will tire of her bluntness and realize that a girl like Ginika, with access to America, is better suited to him.

Obinze’s mother invites Ifemelu to lunch at their home. Obinze’s mother looks like the Nigerian singer Onyenka Onwenu, and attempts to figure out the best English translation of Ifemelu’s Igbo name. She teases Obinze for only liking American novels. Obinze insists that America is the future.

Later, after Obinze’s mother nearly catches the couple in a compromising position, she pulls Ifemelu aside. She recommends that Ifemelu and Obinze wait until university when Ifemelu has more ownership of herself before having sex. She insists that Ifemelu tell her when they start having sex so she can make sure they practice safe sex. Ifemelu feels awkward but unashamed.

Analysis: Chapters 3-5

Ifemelu distrusts her mother’s church because it consistently keeps her mother from actively working to improve their lives. The idea that being prosperous makes one closer to God, juxtaposed with the constant passing around of the collection plate, encourages the churchgoers to give more to the church in order to demonstrate that they are prosperous, and therefore godly enough to do so. Instead of providing comfort and guidance to Ifemelu’s mother through their difficult financial straits, this church encourages her to ignore financial realities in order to maintain the appearance of piety. Furthermore, dismissing Ifemelu’s father’s difficulties as demonic keeps them from discussing their needs more honestly, and perhaps from helping him to rally from his malaise. The church’s advice that money is a sign of God’s favor further encourages Ifemelu’s mother to ignore any objections she might have to Aunty Uju’s relationship with The General. These falsehoods temporarily comfort Ifemelu’s mother, but they allow her to avoid working to alleviate potential damage to her family.

Obinze’s delight in Ifemelu’s blunt, even rude honesty contrasts with what the adults in her life want her to be, emphasizing the undercurrent of honesty in Obinze and Ifemelu’s relationship. Ifemelu’s father ties Ifemelu’s backtalk at church to the insubordination that mars her school record, hinting that her outspoken nature will threaten her future. Aunty Uju often gives Ifemelu practical coming of age advice, so when she advises Ifemelu to stop speaking her mind, the implication is that growing up means suppressing one’s true feelings. But Ifemelu’s reputation for being difficult and argumentative makes her attractive to Obinze, even when compared with a girl like Ginika, whom the popular kids believe to be beautiful and desirable. Furthermore, Ifemelu admires Obinze for telling her exactly how he feels. Their attraction to each other’s honesty despite the disapproval of those around them marks their relationship as special.

Chapter 5 continues the association of wealth and success with foreignness. The wealthy kids at school all have international visas, or, in the case of Ginika, are biracial. This ties money and prestige with the ability to leave Nigeria. Also significant is Obinze’s insistence that America is the future. This statement implicitly leaves Nigeria in the past, incapable of providing opportunities. To Obinze, America is synonymous with new possibilities, an association furthered by his love of American novels. Obinze is first attracted to Ifemelu when he sees her carrying a book, and his focus on books and reading throughout Americanah suggests that he views what people read as both a sign of depth and a reflection of their true character. In light of this attitude, his reading of American novels means that he believes they will make him a better person in some way, either by the ideas within them or by his association with them.

Obinze’s mother behaves very differently from the other Nigerian adults, representing a different vision of Nigerian adulthood that looks more like the honesty of Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship. Ifemelu compares her appearance to a famous Nigerian singer, admiring her as beautiful for looking Nigerian instead of looking partially foreign. Obinze’s mother also shows an interest in Igbo, delighting in translating it as a hobby, which shows she values their heritage. Perhaps most important is her frank and unashamed willingness to discuss sex. In contrast to Ifemelu’s mother, who cannot admit that her adult sister-in-law is having an affair, Obinze’s mother brazenly acknowledges the truth that Ifemelu and Obinze are likely to have sex, and offers practical advice and guidance for protection. Furthermore, she specifically encourages Ifemelu to take ownership of herself instead of allowing Obinze to dictate what their relationship means and the pace it takes. She encourages both Obinze and Ifemelu toward honesty in how they live and conduct themselves, as well as a lack of shame in their Nigerianness and their natural attraction.