Nnu Ego gets married to a man she loves, but she fails to conceive. She feels like a failed woman and returns home to her father's compound, where he arranges for a second marriage to a man in Lagos. Nnu Ego goes to Lagos, eager to begin a new life that hopefully will include children. Her first child dies suddenly two months after being born. Frustrated, Nnu Ego almost commits suicide, but she's talked out of it at the last minute.
Nnu Ego has a dream, in which her chi (personal god) offers her a dirty, chubby baby. She tells Nnu Ego that she can have as many of those dirty, chubby babies as she likes. Soon, Nnu Ego starts having children, but her life is a constant struggle and her family often lives on the brink of starvation. Her husband, Nnaife, doesn't provide adequately. Nnaife spends most of his salary on alcohol, and later takes a job at sea.
When Nnaife comes back from his job on a ship, he is greeted with the news that his elder brother has died and that he has inherited the brother's wives and children. One of the wives, Adaku, moves in with the family, into the tiny room they all share. Nnu Ego suffers from jealousy, but the two women conspire together to try to get Nnaife to use less of his monthly salary on drinking and more on the family's needs. Their strike backfires when Oshia rips the money they do have into shreds, thinking that he can make more money by ripping it up into more pieces. Nnaife is conscripted into the military and is gone for four years. During that time, Nnu Ego tries to provide for her family through her trading activities. Life is a constant struggle and her children are malnourished. After Nnu Ego is rude to one of Adaku's wealthy relatives, Adaku decides to move out and become a prostitute. Adaku isn't angry with Nnu Ego, but she realizes that her position as junior wife means she will never have the power or independence she desires.
When he returns from the war, Nnaife is wounded by Adaku's decision to become a prostitute. He returns to Ibuza, where he fathers a child with his brother's eldest wife and pays the bride price for yet another wife, Okpo. Nnaife brings Okpo back to the already crowded house in Lagos. Nnu Ego continues to have more children, and they continue to struggle just to feed and clothe the family. Nnaife does provide Oshia's school fees with his severance pay from the military, but Nnu Ego continues to be responsible for the rest of the family responsibilities, with only a little input from Nnaife.
Oshia does well in school and earns a scholarship to a university in America. His parents and younger brother Adim are deeply disappointed, because they've been counting on Oshia to help them with the younger children's school fees. Nnaife is more disappointed because he's been counting on living a life of indolence and ease once Oshia has a job.
Nnaife's disappointment is compounded when he tries to arrange a marriage for Kehinde, and she tells him that she's marrying the son of the local Yoruba butcher. Nnaife is so mad when Kehinde runs away that he takes a cutlass and attacks the Yoruba family, wounding one of the young men. Nnaife is arrested and found guilty in court. He blames Nnu Ego for everything and his hatred and anger are so intense that Nnu Ego realizes that they will never be reconciled. She returns to Ibuza to live out the remainder of her days. None of Nnu Ego's children help her in her old age. She dies alone, without anyone by her side. After she dies, her children throw her an expensive funeral, and everybody talks about how fulfilled she must have been as a mother. But we know better. Her children have built a shrine for her, so that people can pray for children. It is said, however, that but Nnu Ego's spirit never answers their prayers for children.