Last Updated on February 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1235
Kambili is the novel’s narrator. She is a quiet, shy, obedient fifteen-year-old who lives in constant fear of her father’s wrath. She has no hobbies, no friends other than Jaja, and no goals other than to keep her father happy and maintain peace at home.
Kambili struggles with speech, often stuttering or mumbling when others speak to her. Often, she says nothing at all to other characters, only revealing to readers what she wishes she had said. As the novel progresses, Kambili’s experiences in Nsukka introduce her to new concepts of family and love. As she opens herself up to these new types of relationships, she also learns to speak more comfortably.
Chukwuka Achike (Jaja)
Jaja, Kambili’s brother, is seventeen when the novel begins. Like Kambili, he is studious and meticulous, and he lives in fear of any deviation from perfection. He is deeply protective of his mother and sister, often taking the blame for them when Papa gets angry.
As he spends time in Nsukka around his aunt and cousins, Jaja begins to feel more at ease. He is especially comfortable in Aunty Ifeoma’s garden, where he develops an affinity to the experimental purple hibiscuses she is growing. When Papa demands that Kambili and Jaja come home in a rush, Ifeoma gives Jaja some purple hibiscuses to plant in Enugu.
When the authorities realize that Papa has been poisoned, Jaja tells them that he is responsible, which allows him to protect Mama. He is arrested, and he serves several years in jail before Kambili and Mama are able to orchestrate his release through bribery.
Eugene Achike (Papa)
Papa is Kambili and Jaja’s father. He is a deeply devout Catholic and requires rigid adherence to church doctrine from his wife and children at all times. In the community, he is viewed as a pillar of industry, a leader in the church, a generous philanthropist, and an advocate for human rights. However, at home, he expects perfection and silence from his children and physically and emotionally abuses them regularly to force compliance and obedience.
Papa’s obsession with Catholicism precludes him from maintaining a relationship with anyone or anything outside the church; he refuses to speak Igbo in public and is completely estranged from his father, Papa-Nnukwu, because his father still worships traditional idols. Papa is eventually killed when Mama poisons his tea.
Beatrice Achike (Mama)
Mama, the mother of Kambili and Jaja, is kind and caring but also incredibly stoic and obedient to Papa. Prior to the events in the novel, she suffered multiple miscarriages, and she continues to struggle with her fertility as the family’s story unfolds.
Throughout the narrative, there are small instances that suggest Mama is passively averse to her husband’s behavior. When Kambili is sick with cramps during a religious fast, she secretly encourages her to eat something to help absorb her pain medication. This foreshadows Mama’s actions at the end of the story, when she kills Papa by gradually poisoning him.
When the timeline shifts forward at the end of the novel, Mama’s mental state has deteriorated considerably.
Aunty Ifeoma is Papa’s sister and Papa-Nnukwu’s daughter. A widower, she is raising her three children alone. She and Papa are polar opposites: while he is strict and traditional, she is outspoken and full of life and warmth. She is a university lecturer, and she encourages her children to be critical, ask questions, and challenge themselves. As Kambili and Jaja spend time in her home and watch her interact with her own family, they begin to see what familial love can look like.
As she becomes familiar with Kambili and Jaja, Ifeoma begins to better understand her brother’s tyranny and becomes protective of his children. When she leaves Nigeria to teach in the United States, she maintains regular correspondence with both of them.
Father Amadi is a friend of Aunty Ifeoma who also lives in Nsukka. He is kind, thoughtful, friendly, and engaged with the members of the family. Kambili is instantly attracted to him, and he takes an interest in her as well. They spend a great deal of time together when she visits Nsukka, and they grow very close. Eventually, she comes to realize that her feelings toward him are romantic love—an entirely new experience for her.
Around the time Ifeoma gets her visa, Father Amadi is sent on a mission to Germany. Kambili is devastated to lose him, and they promise to write to each other. After the time shift at the end of the novel, they are still regularly corresponding.
Papa-Nnukwu is Papa’s father and Kambili and Jaja’s grandfather. Because Papa eschews all “heathens” and Papa-Nnukwu worships traditional idols, Kambili and Jaja are not allowed to have a relationship with him.
When Papa-Nnukwu informs his community that he would like to have a relationship with his grandchildren, Papa concedes in order to keep up appearances. Kambili and Jaja are allowed to see him for fifteen minutes every Christmas, but only under the close watch of the family’s driver, Kevin. Papa-Nnukwu is incredibly warm and welcoming to them, and he regrets that they don’t know each other better.
Papa-Nnukwu falls ill while Kambili and Jaja are visiting Nsukka, and they finally get to know him better during his last days. He tells stories and makes jokes, and Kambili envies the closeness of his existing relationship with her cousins.
Amaka is Ifeoma’s teenage daughter and the polar opposite of Kambili. She wears her hair short and her clothes tight, and she often wears bright lipstick. She is an artist and a fan of traditional music and revolutionary politics. When she first meets Kambili and Jaja, she is critical of their privileged lifestyle and doesn’t understand their lack of communication.
Eventually, Kambili and Amaka warm up to each other. Kambili finds herself opening up around her cousin and able to converse more freely than she ever has before. When, at Ifeoma’s prompting, she disagrees openly with Amaka, their connection is solidified, and the two begin to develop a close friendship.
Obiora is Ifeoma’s teenage son and an autodidact who is constantly asking philosophical questions. As they’re first getting to know each other, Kambili observes that he seems much older than Jaja, even though they’re the same age.
Because Ifeoma is widowed, Obiora considers himself the man of the house and takes a protective role toward his mother and siblings.
Chima is Ifeoma’s youngest child, a bright and inquisitive seven-year-old. He notices that one of Jaja’s fingers is disfigured, and he asks what happened. Aunty Ifeoma deflects his question quickly, which is how Kambili discovers that Jaja told her about their father.
Ade Coker is Papa’s editor for his newspaper, The Standard. He’s affable and warm, and he seems surprised by how quiet Papa’s children are. Over the course of the story, he is arrested several times, and he receives constant threats for publishing materials that go against the government. Like Papa, he refuses to concede his journalistic freedom, continuing to publish critical journal articles during the political turmoil. He is eventually killed in his home by an exploding package sent from the head of state, and Papa sets up a trust for his wife and children.