Abstract This paper examines how socio-economic contexts shape local meanings of infertility, how the prevalence of infertility affects these meanings, and how the above affect community responses, life experiences and infertility treatment-seeking behaviors in two African communities. The paper is based on interdisciplinary research conducted among the Ijo and the Yakurr people of southern Nigeria that included a survey of approximately 100 infertile women and a matching sample of 100 fertile women, as well as in-depth ethnographic interviews with infertile and fertile women in two communities: Amakiri in Delta State and Lopon in Cross River State. In-depth interview results show that female infertility is more problematic among the Ijo in Amakiri, where kinship is patrilineal (traced through the father's side), than among the Yakurr in Lopon, where kinship is double unilineal (traced through both parents). Childless women in Ijo society are not only disadvantaged economically but are prevented from attaining full adult womanhood. They therefore leave the community more often than other members. In Lopon there is also a strong preoccupation with fertility as a central fact of life, but infertile women receive support from maternal kin as well as voluntary associations serving as support groups. Our survey data confirm that there are significant differences between the life experiences of infertile and fertile women and between the infertile women of the two communities. The overall findings indicate that while there are variations in the extent to which infertility is considered problematic, the necessity for a woman to have a child remains basic in this region. Motherhood continues to define an individual woman's treatment in the community, her self-respect and her understanding of womanhood.