Thirteen-year-old Aku-nna and her brother, Nna-nndo, two years younger, arrive home from school to find Aku-nna’s father, Ezekiel Odia, unexpectedly standing in the middle of the family’s one-room apartment. Obviously ill at ease, he tells his children that he is going to the hospital to have his foot examined. He had earlier injured his foot during service in World War II. He says that he will be back for the evening meal, adding that Aku-nna and Nna-nndo should remember always that they are his children.
Despite a patriarchal social structure in which daughters are devalued, Aku-nna feels a special bond with her father and knows that he, in turn, loves her. Her name means “father’s wealth,” and Aku-nna has resolved to make a good marriage so that her bride price—the money paid to the family of the bride by that of the groom—will please him.
It is now evening, and Ezekiel has not returned from the hospital. More than three weeks later, the children realize that their father had died in the hospital. His funeral is a mixture of African and European traditions. Brother and sister are now in a serious plight: A family without a father is deemed one without a head or shelter, a family that does not exist. Aku-nna hears an aunt say that she will be married quickly so that her bride price may pay for her brother’s schooling.
Before Ezekiel’s death, Ma Blackie, his wife, had returned to her home town of Ibuza in the hope that indigenous practices could help restore her fertility and enable her to give him another son. Alarmed by rumors of her husband’s ill health, she now decides to return to Lagos, where she learns of his death. Some weeks later, she, Aku-nna, and Nna-nndo take the only course of action open to them: They return to the mother’s home town, the lack of a breadwinner making life in expensive Lagos impossible. The three arrive in Ibuza and happen to meet two young men on bicycles, one of whom is Chike, the handsome young headmaster of the local school. The ambition of Aku-nna—delicate, sensitive, and intelligent—is now to acquire enough education to become a teacher herself and thus help her mother. Chike, however, is not allowed to associate with the daughters of good families, so Aku-nna hopes Chike will at least be able to help her get the necessary certificate.
During the journey from Lagos to Ibuza, Aku-nna had noticed how the modern city had gradually given way to a more simple rural life. She comes to learn that Ibuza, in midwestern Nigeria, is much more traditional than Lagos. Okonkwo, Ezekiel’s brother, marries Ma Blackie as his fourth wife, according to custom. She soon becomes pregnant and, therefore, happy. Okonkwo wishes to take the higher title of Eze, which will require an expensive sacrifice to the gods, and thinks that Aku-nna’s bride price will help him attain this social ambition. Okonkwo is prepared to accept his stepdaughter’s education for some time, as educated girls command a higher bride price, and he is determined that the money will come to him. Meanwhile, Ngbeke, his senior wife, jealously suggests to her sons that Ma Blackie will insist on keeping at least some of the money. She also suggests that Aku-nna, fourteen years old, physically undeveloped, and not yet menstruating, is an ogbanje, a living-dead person who is bound to die young, perhaps at the birth of her first child. To Ngbeke’s sons’ indignation, their mother also claims there is a special closeness between Aku-nna and Chike, who is not merely a foreigner to Ibuza but also the descendant of slaves.
Aku-nna and Chike are indeed falling in love. When Aku-nna is unable to concentrate in class due to her sense of isolation and consequent depression, Chike, disturbed by a growing attraction, loses his temper with her. He permits the weeping girl to leave the classroom and later follows her to a secluded part of the school grounds. He attempts to find out what is troubling her. Suddenly, Chike sees that she...
(The entire section is 1,776 words.)