What looms through Ifemelu and Obinze’s youthful love story is the unwinding of a nation and like when love goes wrong, the breaking up and breaking away of its citizens. Adichie narrates the political breakdown of Nigeria through its consequences in the everyday experiences of her characters. Though it’s not stated forthrightly in the novel, Nigeria is under military rule and the jostle for power and money at the top levels of government is starving and suffocating ordinary citizens. As the adage goes, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
The Flight of the Middle Class
Ginika’s family bails to America. Her father, a professor, saw the signs of a downward spiral in collegiate education in Nigeria when faculty were being forced to spend more time organizing strikes for pay than on teaching and research. Thus began the flight (and rightfully) of the Nigerian middle class.
What’s interesting is how the high school crew takes to the news of Ginika moving to America—all sad to see her go and all wishing that it was their lot as well. America is the dreamland, akin to heaven. They all want to go, even the rich ones with British passports who spend vacations abroad. Apparently, once you’ve been, you’ve touched gold; you’re forever changed, marked by a better difference and you become an Americanah. Your speech is different as are your ways and mannerisms. It must be evident that you have stepped foot in the land of America. Obinze is obsessed with America and the highest compliment he gives Ifemelu is that she looks like a Black American. Are you seeing visions of The Cosby Show and A Different World? I do.
The Forced Exile
Aunty Uju’s escape, as it literally was, to America is not exactly the definition of political exile, just as her love story as the General’s mistress is a ghastly comparison to Ifemelu and Obinze’s. Still, a love story and exile it is. As mistress to a top government official, Aunty Uju’s claim that “she was lucky to be licking the right ass” in Nigeria’s ass licking economy is right on point. An educated woman who willingly signs off to her own objectification is complicated to say the least. She is not the typical gold digging Lagos girl like her friends but seems genuinely good and smart, though thoroughly whipped and satiated by power and money. For some, survival means it’s better to be with the haves than the have-nots no matter the cost. You would think she should have been prepared for the General’s death—1. He was old, 2. He was in the military, 3. Coups were the order of the day and Nigerian politics was like a live video game with players (primarily men) trying to take each other out. The General’s days were numbered from the start. When his death released the others who had also been bound and satiated by his power and money, Aunty Uju had no chance of survival among the fittest. Take the generator and run Uju. And run she does…all the way to America.
The Students Go
By now we can’t imagine what could have broken up Ifemelu and Obinze’s perfect love story; a relationship that even Obinze’s progressive mother approves. The two are wrapped around each other, both deciding to attend the same university, first Ibadan, then Nsukka when Obinze’s mother falls ill. It is a case of where you go, I will go…. At the university, Ifemelu is even more comfortable in her own skin; the wider berth of the student population equalizing the space for everyone. Moreover, the student body is united by common affliction, lack of basic amenities (electricity and water) in student halls and greater still, the constant disruption of their education by faculty strikes. With university funding being squandered by corrupt politicians, education becomes an endangered pursuit in Nigeria. There is fire on the mountain and everyone is looking to escape. Prayer vigils are being held over visa applications to America, to England, to anywhere but remaining in Nigeria. In this climate of exits it was only a matter of time …. Aunty Uju suggested Ifemelu take the SAT and apply to universities in the US. She gets an admission and is lucky to be granted a visa. She and Obinze devise a plan; he will finish in Nigeria and join her for graduate school.
But we know…. America changes our narratives.