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.
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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 man.
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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 years.
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 means “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 instead.
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 life.
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 region.
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 her.
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 presence.
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 children.
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 her lover.
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.
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.