This is a novel set in Lagos, Nigeria among a polygamous peoples and follows the formative years of protagonist Ibo Aku-nna as she experiences the death of her father, the horror of starting menstruation, and falling in love with her teacher, Chike, of whom the elders in her family do not approve because he comes from a family that was previously enslaved.
Throughout the novel, the reader is introduced to several traditions, which speak to how women are valued less than men in this setting. For instance, when Aku-nna’s father dies, her mother must go through a special procedure for mourning, described here:
“Ma Blackie was to remain alone in the special hut; not until the months of mourning were over could she visit people in their homes. She must never have a bath. No pair of scissors nor comb must touch her hair. She must wear continually the same old smoked rags” (p. 71).
Another tradition is the concept of the bride price, which is the sum of money paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family in exchange for her hand in marriage. The more valuable a daughter is (whether in appearance or family status), the higher the bride price. Further, if a girl’s bride price is not paid, it was the belief that the bride would die during childbirth.
When Aku-nna is sixteen, she finishes her schooling and learns that she has passed an examination that qualifies her to be a schoolteacher. At the same time, a youth with a limp in her village, named Okoboshi, sets his sights on her to become his wife. His family then kidnaps Aku-nna. When a bride is kidnapped, her bride price does not apply, and it does not have to be paid. Also, if a man cuts away a lock from a girl's hair, she becomes his wife and he, again, is not responsible for paying the bride price:
“Some youth who had no money to pay for a bride might sneak out of the bush to cut a curl from a girl’s head so that she would belong to him for life and never been able to return to her parents: because he had given her the everlasting haircut, he would be able to treat her as he liked, and no other man would ever touch her. It was to safeguard themselves against this that many girls cropped their hair very close; those who wanted long hair wore a headscarf most of the time” (p. 103).
When Okoboshi tries to have sex with Aku-nna, she refuses and says that it is because she has already lost her virginity to Chike, even though she really had not. In disgust, Okoboshi stops trying to have sex with Aku-nna and beats her savagely, vowing to keep her as his wife in name only but then marry other women, whom Aku-nna would have to serve. Through initiative and luck, Aku-nna escapes from Okoboshi’s house and elopes with Chike. Despite how much money Chike’s family tries to pay Aku-nna’s family as her bride price, they will not accept it.
Meanwhile, Aku-nna finds work as a school teacher and Chike is also successful at his work. They are very happy together for a time, and Aku-nna becomes pregnant. She struggles very much with her pregnancy and becomes quite weak as a result. One night, Aku-nna becomes sick and is admitted to the hospital, where the doctor informs her and Chike that she must undergo a Cesarean section and have her baby prematurely. A baby girl is born healthy, but Aku-nna perishes due to extreme anemia, according to her doctor. Thus, the novel ends in confirmation of the superstition that if a girl’s bride price is not paid, she will die in childbirth.
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