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The novel begins with the trial of Obi Okonkwo, who we find within this first chapter is accused of having taken a bribe. The courtroom is full and the case seems to be a very popular one—everyone in Lagos, Nigeria, has been talking about it and is going to witness it in court on his/her day off. Obi seems to be indifferent most of the time until tears come to his face when his "education" and his "promise" are mentioned.
The novel then jumps to a scene between Mr. Green, Obi's boss (who is also a crown witness in the case) and a member of the British Council, who are playing tennis and having drinks. It is mentioned that it is strange for Mr. Green to be playing tennis because he is always working; however, this day was different because he was playing with a friend from the council. Mr. Green, an Englishman in Nigeria, claims that he is not surprised at Obi's behavior because, according to him, "Africans are corrupt through and through."
The story jumps again to a meeting of the Umuofia Progressive Union. Achebe explains that Obi was from a town called Umuofia in Eastern Nigeria. It is also explained that for those who leave the village (which many inhabitants call a town) in order to work elsewhere in Nigeria, there is always a local branch of the Umuofia Progressive Union. The Union is meeting to discuss the case of Obi Okonkwo, which, it becomes clear, is a "lost case." By way of back flashes, we become aware that the Union had been paying for Obi's legal services even if it was against the will of many of its members. The Union and Obi were not on good terms, but it was the duty of the Union to assist its "brother."
Furthermore, we see that the Union had raised money for a scholarship years ago for its brightest young man to go and study in England. Obi had won the scholarship and was asked to study law. The scholarship was more a loan than a grant, because it had to be repaid upon the student's return to Nigeria. Also, Obi had, against the will of the Union and to its anger, changed his studies from law to English.
The narrative then goes further back to when it was time for Obi to go to England to study. It was a huge occasion in the town for one of its young men to go and study in England and, therefore, his father, Isaac Okonkwo, made a big feast for his son's farewell. Isaac Okonkwo, the reader is informed, is a Christian, a catechist, in fact. He only has one wife and named his son Obiajulu, which meant "the mind at last is at rest." The reason for this name is that Isaac was happy to have had a boy after so many girls.
The feast was Christian in tone, blessings were handed out, and Christian prayers said. Songs were sung to Obi, and kola nuts were offered.
This beginning chapter sets up the problems of the entire novel with great efficiency. It tells us what is going on at present with Obi's trial and backtracks to the past in order to reveal what kind of man Obi is: an educated man, a young man who is Nigerian but who has studied in England. Most significantly, this first chapter juxtaposes the two extreme cultures that are at work in the novel as a result of colonialism. The scene between Mr. Green and the British Councilman, and the scene among the Umuofia Progressive Union are juxtaposed against each other to illustrate their differences and their paradoxical similarities. This is done in order to show us the space in which Obi is caught, between the British (his education) and the Umuofians (his home).
The scene with Mr. Green, Obi's boss, is illustrative of the white, English presence in Nigeria in the late 1950s (when the novel is taking place). Mr. Green as an archetypal colonial mindset—the mindset of empire. He claims that it was the British that brought "education" to the Africans, not that, according to him, it does "them" any good because they are "corrupt through and through." Aside from Mr. Green's vocal impressions about Africans, there is also the fact that there are many other Europeans at this bar where Mr. Green is. Furthermore, when another acquaintance arrives to join Mr. Green and the British Councilman, he orders a Heineken, further pointing to the presence of Western Europe in Nigeria. Moreover, there is also an evident choice of language in this section on Achebe's part, which points directly to this archetypal figure of the colonial world. When ordering their beers, one of the men says: "One beer for this master." This is the language of the colonizer, the language of power and superiority.
This scene with Mr. Green is posed against that of the Umuofian Progressive Union. This section is filled with proverbs and colloquialisms. It illustrates the desire for another kind of hold on Obi. The English try to control him as do the Union. The Union believes in education, and they want him to study law so that he may help them with their land cases. The irony is that he "learned" nothing about the law (studied English instead) and ends up in court. This is a perfect metaphor for the novel: the idea that he left what the Umuofians wanted him to study (which was law) in order to pursue the language and literature of the "colonizer," which did not help his as much as bring him hardship.
Obi is caught between the two extremes of culture, somewhere in the in between, where territory is being forged and where others will follow in the post- colonial world. Obi's father (a convert to Christianity at a time when such a thing was unheard of) can be seen as a kind of step to where Obi is, and generations of change can be witnessed through the generations of the novel.