30 pages 1 hour read

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Cell One

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 2007

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Summary: “Cell One”

“Cell One” (2007) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a short story that addresses issues of police corruption and class politics in Adichie’s home country of Nigeria. Utilizing themes of The Dangers of the Bandwagon Effect, The Harms of Privilege-Fueled Apathy, and The Normalization of Violence Under Oppressive Systems, Adichie paints a portrait of these societal issues through the lens of one erudite family’s crisis when their son is arrested and imprisoned. This social critique is in-keeping with Adichie’s body of work, which focuses largely on confronting oppressive power structures enforced in Nigerian and American societies, such as sexism and racism.

This guide refers to the freely available version of the text originally published in The New Yorker in 2007. “Cell One” was later published as the first story in Adichie’s 2009 collection, The Thing Around Your Neck.

Content Warning: “Cell One” contains instances of police violence, gang violence, sexual assault, and colorism.

“Cell One” is told from the perspective of the family’s unnamed youngest daughter, who watches the other members of her family with some degree of cynicism. In the opening episode of the story, the narrator recalls that her family home was robbed twice during her teenage years, first by a boy from her neighborhood and the second time by her own brother, Nnamabia. Nnamabia carries out the robbery while their parents are away from home, stealing their mother’s gold jewelry and staging the home to mimic a break-in. When it becomes clear that Nnamabia is guilty, their parents do very little to punish him, despite their mother’s deep distress over the loss of her gold; she attempts to rebuild her gold collection by buying from another woman and paying in installments. The narrator views this theft as a precursor to Nnamabia’s arrest and imprisonment two years later.

During his second year at university, Nnamabia becomes involved with the increasingly prolific gang (or “cult”) culture that has spread across his campus. Cult members, most of whom come from affluent, well-educated families, attack and murder each other over interpersonal disputes. Often this violence takes place in university spaces, and an atmosphere of terror quickly envelopes the school. After an incident during which cult members shoot three men outside a lecture hall, the police arrest Nnamabia for his supposed participation, though the issue of his guilt is left ambiguous throughout the story.

Convinced of their son’s innocence, the narrator’s parents embark on a campaign to free Nnamabia from jail. Every day, the family drives south to Enugu (a city in Nigeria) to visit him and bring him some food. The rest of the story occurs during these visits, and the story gradually reveals corruption of the Nigerian police system. The family must bribe the prison guards every day in order to visit with Nnamabia, and the prisoners themselves bribe the guards to stay out of harm’s way. At first, Nnamabia seems content with the conditions in the prison, but as time goes on and sinister events begin to occur, his attitude toward the prison system quickly sours.

Nnamabia notices that some of the toughest cult members are beginning to break down in the face of prison brutality. Even more disturbingly, the police kill prisoners from the infamous “cell one” every day and drag their bodies through the prison as a warning to those who have survived. Finally, a turning point in Nnamabia’s outlook occurs when an elderly man arrives at the prison. Nnamabia reveals to his family that the old man is guilty of no crime and has been arrested by the police as a stand-in for his wanted son, whom the police have been unable to locate and arrest. Watching an innocent old man suffer in the brutal conditions of the prison visibly disturbs Nnamabia. He asks that his family share some of the food that they brought with the old man, but the guard on duty rejects the family’s attempts to feed the elderly prisoner.

Soon after, the narrator’s parents are notified that another violent attack has occurred on campus and that the police will be forced to reassess whether they have actually arrested all the cult members. This gives her mother hope, since she is still convinced of Nnamabia’s innocence. Subsequently, the parents arrange for a meeting with the police superintendent, who informs them that Nnamabia’s release is imminent. The family gleefully drives back to the prison in Enugu to pick him up.

However, as soon as they arrive, the narrator notices that the guards are behaving oddly and suspects that something is not right. A high-ranking policeman brusquely informs the family that Nnamabia had been taken to cell one the night prior for acting out of turn and that they are unable to release him because he has already been transferred to another prison. In a panic, the family demands that they be escorted to Nnamabia’s new location, which they soon discover to be an unmarked police compound in a remote area.

Nnamabia is released from the new prison covered in welts and dried blood. He reveals that he was thrown into cell one because he confronted the police for abusing and humiliating the old man yet again. The narrator notes that Nnamabia no longer operates with the performative swagger that defined him prior to being imprisoned.