Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease reveals its ending at the beginning: Obi Okonkwo is on trial for accepting a bribe. The trial is the talk of Lagos and the courtroom is crowded. Obi has maintained a demeanor of indifference throughout, but at the judge’s summation tears come to Obi’s eyes. The scene shifts to a British club, where Obi’s boss, Mr. Green, cites the case as proof of his conviction that ‘‘the African is corrupt through and through.’’ The Umuofia Progressive Union, an association of Ibo from Obi’s home village, meets to discuss Obi’s case. This group has raised funds to send select young men from Umuofia to study in England. Obi Okonkwo, a brilliant student, won the first scholarship, but disappointed his sponsors by studying English instead of law. The flash-forward ends, and the narrative backtracks to reveal how Obi’s disgrace came about, beginning with a prayer meeting and feast held at the Okonkwo family home before Obi’s departure for England. The guests sing, pray, and make speeches. The Reverend Samuel Ikedi thanks Obi’s father, Isaac Okonkwo, and urges Obi to take his studies seriously, deferring the pleasures of the flesh.
Obi gets his first brief view of the Nigerian capital of Lagos before flying to England. He stays with his childhood friend Joseph Okeke, but must walk around the neighborhood when Joseph brings a woman back to his apartment. The story then flashes forward several years, as Obi drives through the Lagos slums with his girlfriend, Clara, recalling his first impressions of the city. The couple’s mild quarrel reveals that their relationship is well established. Earlier that day, the pair had gone to lunch with Obi’s friend Christopher. The two men, who enjoy debating each other, engage in argument about bribery in the civil service. Obi espouses the view that bribery is routine to the older generation, but younger officials can afford to remain virtuous.
Obi and Clara’s relationship begins when they meet at a dance in London. Obi admires Clara’s beauty but is at a loss for words and steps on her toes on the dance floor. Eighteen months later, they happen to be returning to Nigeria on the same boat. Obi is invigorated by the sea in the morning and sits down to breakfast with the other passengers, avoiding Clara’s eyes. Later in the day the sea becomes choppy and Obi declines to eat his dinner. Clara, a nurse, comes to Obi’s cabin door with medicine for seasickness. Obi befriends a young Englishman, John Macmillan. In the evening, the boat anchors in the Madeiras and Obi disembarks with Macmillan and Clara. The three of them drink wine and return to the ship holding hands. When Macmillan goes to his cabin, Obi kisses Clara passionately and declares his love for her. Clara says she will hate herself in the morning, but returns his kiss.
On Obi’s arrival in Lagos, a young customs officer offers to reduce his duty payment in exchange for a bribe. Obi dismisses him coldly. The Umuofia Progressive Union (U.P.U.) holds a reception for Obi. The guest of honor shows up in his shirtsleeves, displeasing his hosts who expected him to dress formally. The union secretary introduces him with a rather pretentious address; Obi’s plainspoken speech fails to impress the crowd. Afterward, Obi and Joseph dine at the Palm Grove. The U.P.U. has paid for Obi to stay at a hotel, but Obi insists on staying at Joseph’s flat. A handsome young politician, Hon. Sam Okoli, enters the hotel lounge, and Obi spies Clara waiting outside in Okoli’s car.
At his job interview, Obi impresses the chairman of the Public Service Commission by discussing modern literature. When another man asks him directly whether his interest in the civil service relates to taking bribes, Obi’s response is heated. Obi sets out aboard one of the ubiquitous mammy-wagons—rickety pick-up trucks fitted out with brightly painted wooden roofs and benches that were West Africa’s principle means of public transportation—for the long journey to Umuofia. Police stop the wagon. One officer is about to take a bribe from the driver’s mate (someone who travels with the driver of a truck and helps them load and unload goods) when he sees Obi and stops. The other officer finds fault with the driver’s papers and ends up accepting an even larger bribe. The driver blames Obi for intervening and the other passengers mock the ‘‘too know’’ young man. After riding through the night, Obi stops at the market in Onitsha before a car takes him to Umuofia. The entire village has turned out to welcome him home. During the reception at the family compound, Isaac Okonkwo states that since his is a Christian house, no customary ceremony must be made over a kola nut. A quarrel ensues until an elder, Ogbuefi Odogwu, resolves matters by blessing the kola nut ‘‘in the name of Jesu Kristi.’’