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.