Nnu Ego is trying to commit suicide.Explanation/Discussion: When the book opens, Nnu Ego is running to a bridge, where she plans to jump into the water and die. We later learn that her first-born child has just died and she sees no reason to leave. She wants to meet her chi, a slave woman, and ask her why she is making Nnu Ego suffer so. (According to Ibo culture, a chi is a personal god that can influence your life positively or negatively.)
The story goes into a flashback, where we learn that Nnu Ego failed to get pregnant in her first marriage. The morning after her first marriage, she has a dream in which her chi (personal god) offers her a baby, but she must cross a stream to get it. As she tries to cross, the waters rise, threatening to drown her, and her chi mocks her. Nine months afterwards, Nnu Ego has her first child, Ngozi. This is the child that died and that sent Nnu Ego looking for a way to commit suicide.
After Ngozi dies and Nnu Ego is talked out of committing suicide, she quickly gets pregnant again. This time, her dream is different. In it, she finds a neglected, dirty baby by the side of the same stream. She picks the baby up, shuddering at how dirty it is, and washes it in the stream. Her chi comes along and tells Nnu Ego that she can have this baby if she wants. In fact, she can have all the dirty babies she wants.
From that day forward, Nnu Ego never has a problem getting pregnant. In fact, she churns out one baby after another, including two sets of twin girls. But her life isn't easy. The joy of having children is overshadowed by the constant need to feed, clothe and educate them. With little to no help from her husband, Nnaife, Nnu Ego must constantly struggle to take care of her many children. In theory, it should be easy, since her income through petty trade could supplement Nnaife's income, providing ample income to cover necessities and education. But Nnaife has a propensity to drink, to father yet more children with junior wives, and to rely on his wives' income to cover his shortfalls. Nnu Ego and Adaku refuse to cook for Nnaife until he gives them the money they need for the family, but Nnaife is heartless.
Nnaife is conscripted into the British military and shipped off to fight in World War II. Nnu Ego goes home to Ibuza for her father's funeral and returns to Lagos months later, only to discover that Adaku has done well for herself. Adaku's business is thriving. Nnu Ego, who must struggle now to begin her business again, and feed her children without any help from Nnaife, is jealous and angry. One day, a relative of Adaku comes by. Nnu Ego is so ashamed of her own worn clothing, and so jealous of the other woman's apparent wealth, that she treats her rudely. Adaku calls in the family elders to judge Nnu Ego's behavior, but to her surprise, the men side with Nnu Ego, the senior wife. Adaku realizes that she will never have status or power of the senior wife, and she decides to leave Nnaife. She will run her trading business, but will also be a prostitute. Nnu Ego is sorry to see her go.Nnaife comes back and helps her even less, Nnu Ego realizes that she is a slave to her children. As much status as they give her, they also make her sacrifice and work so that they suffer less than she does. She can't change Nnaife's behavior because of the many children they have together.
Nnu Ego and Nnaife are both barely hanging on, their hopes all invested in their oldest son, Oshia. They have sacrificed everything to give him a good education, believing that he will get a good job after graduation, and will help educate his younger brothers. But Oshia has other ideas. His education among wealthy students has taught him to be selfish, and he no longer feels that he should support his family. The disappointment leaves Nnaife angry and bitter, and Nnu Ego desperate, unsure how she is going to educate the rest of her children. This is followed by another blow: their daughter, Kehinde, runs away to marry the son of the local butcher, a Yoruba man. Traditionally, no girl from Ibuza marries a Yoruba. In fact, no girl from Ibuza even marries another Ibo from outside Ibuza. But Kehinde has gone and done it. Nnaife is so incensed, he takes his sword and attacks the butcher's family in the middle of the night. He wounds one of the young men in the family and is arrested.
At Nnaife's trial, Nnu Ego tries to explain his anger away by showing that he should have gotten some return from his investment in his children. Unfortunately, Nnu Ego only succeeds in showing the court that Nnaife is a hard drinker who has done little to provide for his children. Nnaife goes to jail but not before making it clear that he hates Nnu Ego. Knowing that her marriage is over, Nnu Ego decides to go home to Ibuza to live out her remaining days.
Nnu Ego dies alone in Ibuza, with none of her children by her side. Despite the fact that she has suffered for her many children throughout her life, no one is there for her in her time of need. After Nnu Ego dies, her children throw her a lavish funeral and build a shrine where descendents can come to pray and ask her to bless them with children. Nnu Ego refuses to answer prayers for children.