The novel’s protagonist. At the beginning of the novel, slim,
long-necked Nnu Ego is known for her youthful beauty and is often compared to
her mother, the high-spirited Ona. Although she has her mother’s strength and
singleness of purpose, she is more polite and compliant and less aggressive and
outspoken than Ona. She leaves her husband after she cannot get pregnant, and
she later attempts suicide when her firstborn is found dead. Eventually, she
settles into a bittersweet life of challenge and sacrifice with Nnaife and her
children in Lagos.
in-depth analysis of Nnu Ego.
Nnu Ego’s first husband. When Amatokwu fails to impregnate Nnu Ego,
he eventually asks her to move to an outer hut to make room for his second wife.
He forces Nnu Ego to work in the fields if she cannot be productive bearing
children. When he discovers Nnu Ego breast feeding his second wife’s son, he
savagely beats her, prompting their eventual divorce. Despite the abuse, Nnu Ego
still holds him up as the standard of Ibo manhood.
Nnu Ego’s second husband. Nnaife is short, with a large paunch, pale
skin, puffy cheeks, and untraditionally long hair. He is both sensitive and
tender with his wife as well as nasty and unsympathetic about the demands made
of her as a woman. After he loses his job washing for the Meers, he becomes an
assistant to a group of Englishmen and is then employed cutting grass for the
railroad, where he is forced to join the army. He is sent to India and Burma to
fight in World War II. Eventually disillusioned with his life and family, he
attempts to murder Kehinde’s Yoruba father-in-law and is sentenced to five years
in prison. When he is released early, he returns to Ibuza a broken
in-depth analysis of Nnaife.
Nnu Ego and Nnaife’s first child. Ngozi dies in infancy, and his
death marks a turning point in the novel, prompting Nnu Ego’s suicide attempt.
He is a source of guilt and regret, a specter that haunts Nnu Ego for
Nnaife’s brother’s wife whom Nnaife inherits when his brother dies.
Young, attractive, peaceful, and self-satisfied, Adaku joins the family in Lagos
and soon starts a thriving and lucrative business selling in the marketplace.
Her wealth and success go unrecognized because she bears no sons, only two
daughters. Tired of her role of inferiority, she moves out of the household and
threatens to become a prostitute. The name Adaku
“daughter of wealth.”
The eldest wife of Nnaife’s older brother. Tough, strong, wiry, and
dependable, Adankwo is in her early forties and a voice of wisdom and reason
among the Ibuza women. She advises Nnu Ego to return home to Lagos in order to
keep an eye on Adaku. When Nnaife impregnates her with her last child, she
refuses to return to Lagos with him and arranges to have Okpo sent
The second living son of Nnu Ego and Nnaife, known as Adim. Observant
and intelligent, Adim grows up in the shadow of his older brother. He quickly
figures out the entitlement due him as a male and realizes the opportunities
denied him as the second oldest. Quick to act, he prevents his father from
murdering the Yoruba butcher. Like Oshia, Adim aspires to better things and
later leaves Nigeria to pursue his education in Canada. His name means “now I am
two” and shows his place in the male hierarchy of the family.
Nnu Ego’s father. Agbadi is a highly respected local chief known for
both his skill at oratory and for his physical prowess. Cold, disrespectful, and
cruel to his wives, he is loving and indulgent to his daughter, whom he treats
as the embodiment of and last link to his beloved mistress, Ona. He is a
constant source of support and a voice of reason in Nnu Ego’s
Ubani’s wife. Cordelia is kindhearted and a good friend to Nnu Ego
when she makes the initially tough transition to life in Lagos. She is also a
source of jealousy and conflict. Nnu Ego resents the easier, more stable life
Cordelia seems to have, an attitude that sparks squabbles and petty
disagreements between the women. Her name reveals the colonial influence on the
A prosperous Ibo woman and confidant of Nnu Ego’s. Mama Abby earns
respectability through the advancement of her son, the
intelligent, upwardly mobile Abby. Her husband was a European who had worked in
the Nigerian colonial service. He eventually returned to Europe, leaving his
family well provided for. She, too, is of a mixed racial background. Slim,
ladylike, and an eventual mother figure to Nnu Ego, Mama Abby is considered
upper class but likes to live modestly with other Ibos. Many of the men view her
as a negative influence and do not want their wives associating with
Nnaife and Ubani’s employer. Dr. Meers is the chief occupant of the
Yaba compound and works at the Forensic Science Laboratory in Taba. The doctor
makes little attempt to hide his racist attitudes concerning his African
employees, overtly calling Nnaife a “baboon.”
Dr. Meers’s wife. Mrs. Meers, the only white female character in the
novel, has gray, sunken eyes, and appears to have been prematurely aged by the
climate and her life in West Africa. She believes she is kind to her African
staff, chiding her husband for his racist remarks, but at the same time she
maintains a haughty and aloof demeanor of social superiority in their
Ona’s father. A great chief and doting father, Obi Umunna is
particularly protective of his daughter’s honor and freedom. He allows her to
have lovers but does not force her to commit to a marriage. He prizes only an
elusive male heir, which his daughter never produces. He is ridiculed for not
finding a suitable match for his daughter and viewed by some as an ineffective
father because of it.
Nnaife’s sixteen-year-old bride. Okpo is sent to Lagos to live with
the family when Adankwo refuses to leave Ibuza. Though she is Nnaife’s wife,
Okpo has childlike qualities herself. She understands her traditional role as a
wife and praises and flatters Nnu Ego for raising such clever and accomplished
Nnu Ego’s mother. Ona is known for her catlike grace and youthful
exuberance as she runs about the village with her breasts exposed. She wears
expensive waist beads and is later held to be conservative, haughty, cold, and
remote when she wins the role of Agbadi’s favorite mistress. She is often
reminded of her place as an Ibuzan women when she openly challenges and taunts
Nnu Ego’s oldest surviving son, known as Oshia. Medicine men predict
Oshiaju will be an intelligent man of infinite resources whose success will
provoke jealousy in others. Tender and firm, Oshia physically resembles his
father. He aggressively pursues higher education, working in a laboratory in
Lagos and eventually winning a scholarship to a university in America. His name
means “the bush has refused this,” referencing his health and the long life
predicted for him.
Taiwo and Kehinde
Nnu Ego and Nnaife’s oldest twin girls. Kehinde is quieter and more
introspective than Taiwo. She radically breaks with tradition by marrying a
Yoruba man. Taiwo is the more fun-loving and adaptable twin. She aspires for a
dependable husband and stable home life, both of which she finds with the clerk
Magnus. He finds his ideal match in an uneducated wife content with the more
traditional role of bearing and raising children.
Friend of the Owulums. At first, Ubani is a cook in the Meers’s
compound. A good provider, he later gets Nnaife a job cutting grass for the
railroad. He is a stable presence in the lives of those around him. He is the
one who calmly informs Nnaife that his son, Ngozi, has died.