The Definition of Motherhood
In several societies across the globe, the importance of motherhood cannot simply be stressed enough. Many culture and societies view motherhood as a sacrosanct event that it is celebrated with such aplomb. These societies inculcate into the young girls’ minds that their primary purpose in life is to conceive and to be good mothers to their children. They are raised with this mindset, and the patriarchy only further reinforces this idea. They grow up believing that motherhood is a rite of passage that will ultimately define what their purpose in life is. In Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, the definition of motherhood is explored through the story of a young Nigerian woman.
For young Igbo woman Nnu Ego, motherhood is something she believe she was destined for, a destiny she was groomed for even under the supervision of her father. Her story commenced when her father, Nwokocha Agbadi, a proud and affluent local chief first encountered Ona, the daughter of another local chief. On an elephant hunting escapade, the chief found himself badly wounded. For days, he was unconscious and when he woke up, he found Ona looking after him. Despite Nwokocha Agbadi’s numerous wives, it was Ona who stole his heart. During the time he was convalescing, the chief and Ona made love. When the chief’s senior wife Agunwa fell very ill, it was believed to have been caused by her being a witness to her husband making love to Ona.
Agbadi and Ona’s affair resulted into the birth of a daughter they named Nnu Ego. Her birth, however, was preceded by an unfortunate event that haunted her at a young age. When Abunwa was buried, everything she will need in afterlife was placed behind her coffin. Her young slave, however, refused to be buried along her mistress. It was customary that a good slave will accompany her mistress, even in the afterlife. She was forcefully shoved into the grave but she begged for her life. However, Abunwa’s oldest son gives her a sharp blow with the head of the cutlass. A final blow delivered by a relative silenced the protesting young slave, and, hence, completing the burial ceremony of her mistress.
“How can a woman hate a husband chosen for her by her people? You are to give her children and food, she is to cook and bear their children and look after you and them. So what is there to hate? A woman may be ugly and grow old, but a man is never ugly and never old. He matures with age and is dignified.”~ Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood
Even from birth, it was apparent who Nnu Ego’s chi, or patron goddess, is going to be. The mark on her head is reminiscent of the mark made by the cutlass on Abanwu’s young slave. Her chi would play a crucial roles in Nnu Ego’s first marriage to her first love, Amatokwu. Nnu Ego later on learned from a “medicine man” that her chi is withholding her from having a child. This resulted into Amatokwu taking on another wife who conceived a child immediately. An act of violence ended with Nnu Ego returning to her father’s home. Without her consent, she found herself on a boat towards Lagos where her new husband is waiting for arrival.
It was the years before the start of the Second World War but Lagos was already a melting pot of various cultures and with streets frenzied with activities. It was an unfamiliar scene to Nnu Ego who spent most of her young life in the countryside. She was a fish out of water in her new environment, and in her new husband, Nnaife’s company. She was a reluctant entrant to a world that was beyond her imagination. Nevertheless, she buckled up for the ride, taking comfort on the fact that her father’s fighting spirit was bestowed upon her, the favored daughter.
A healthy portion of the narrative dealt with how Nnu Ego coped with her circumstances. Anyone would have folded in the circumstances that Nnu Ego found herself in. However, she is no ordinary woman. Being outside the comfort of her family’s stronghold, she was forced to grow and mature. Despite the bleakness of her future, she remained grounded. She was locked up in a loveless marriage, to a man she barely find attractive. Nevertheless, she used her new situation as a springboard to fulfill one of her lifelong dream, that of being a good mother and housemaker. The seeds long planted by her family has started to grow and swell in her. What her chi prevented from happening the first time was finally fulfilled the second time of asking.
Motherhood, the main driving force of the novel, transformed Nnu Ego. Her dislike for her husband was softened by the birth of their children. Over the course of their marriage, she birthed nine children, with her first and last children not managing to survive the first few months of their birth. Through Nnu Ego’s story, Emecheta also underscored one prevailing reality in Nigeria: the importance of birthing a son. It was reinforced all throughout and was also a lens upon which Nnu Ego saw her importance, to both her family and the society in general. It was not surprising that the sons had more characters than the daughters who were barely mentioned in the narrative. “I know what you mean. Girls are love babies. But, you see, only now with this son am I going to start loving this man. He has made me into a real woman – all I want to be, a woman and a mother. So why should I hate him now?”
“Maybe you are right again, my senior. Yet the more I think about it the more I realise that we women set impossible standards for ourselves. That we make intolerable for one another. I cannot level up to your standards, senior wife. So I have to set my own.”~ Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood
Just like most African women, Nnu Ego was left no recourse but to accept her fate. She strived hard to fulfill the what has been inculcated into her from a young age, that to be a complete woman, she must conceive children, most preferably sons. Young women were, after all, raised to be good wives and excellent housemakers. In her new circumstances, she tried to find the silver linings. There was very little joy derived in a life that is dependent on the conception of children. She also had to share the marital bed with her husband’s other wives. It was this bearing that made Nigerian women susceptible to abuse and violence by their husband. In stark dichotomy to how young women were raised, young men were grew up believing their authorities in the household is absolute. Their wives were expected to adhere to their husbands and any form of insolence calls for disciplinary actions.
She also had to contend with the prevalence of poverty and hunger, realities that most of Africa still grapple with in the contemporary. Many a times, Nnu Ego had to scramble to earn money and buy food for her children. In one powerful scene, her neighbor gave them food because she realized that what Oshia, Nnu Ego’s oldest surviving son, was suffering from was not caused by evil spirits but rather by an empty stomach. The neighbor had to offer food subtly so as not to offend Nnu Ego’s pride. Oshia was also embarrassed that he had to wear shabby clothes to school. It was no surprise that when Oshia was old enough, he opted to flee from his parent’s claustrophobic stranglehold.
What made the novel a compelling read were the intersections Nnu Ego constantly found herself in. It was in this intersections that had to ruminate and reevaluate her value as a woman. Her struggles are projections of the struggles mothers and women in general had to contend with, from the loss of a child, domestic abuse, and childrearing. She also had to bear the brunt of her husband. Gender roles were emphasized all throughout. Nnaife disowned their children when they end up disappointing him, blaming his wife with her inability to be a “good mother”. Accolades, on the other hand, are credited to him. At one point, Nnu Ego concluded that “she was a prisoner, imprisoned by her love for her children, imprisoned by her role as the senior wife.” No line, however, echoed with stronger sentiments than:
“Never, not even in death. I am a prisoner of my own flesh and blood. Is it such an enviable position? The man make it look as if we must aspire for children or die. That’s why when I lost my first son I wanted to die, because I failed to live up to the standard expected of me by the males in my life, my father, my husband – and now I have to include my sons. But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change all this, t is still a man’s world, which women will always help to build.”~ Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood
The novel also had elaborate sociological details. Lagos was turned by Emecheta into a microcosm of a complex society, a melting pot of various and complex cultures. As people pour in from various parts of the country, traditional tribal values and customs soon start to lose influence with the increasing colonial presence. Nnu Ego had to adapt to these changes. Many a times, she would contrast life in her native Ibuza and her new life in Lagos. She undermined her husband’s vocation even though Nnaife took pride in his “white man” job. Nnu Ego constantly had to grapple with the rapid changes taking place lest she lose her sanity. There was always a dilemma in accepting new ideas over what traditions have taught. Whilst tradition melds into the background of Lagos, Emecheta accented the story with the contrasts in the various cultures of Nigeria, such as how Igbos were perceived by the Yorubas, or how variosu tribesmen choose to communicate with men not from their tribe.
Nnu Ego loomed large in the narrative. She was an impressionable and complex character that propelled and the narrative. She possessed the gentleness of a mother and the strength of a woman. Her growth all throughout the novel was admirable. Her life was far from rosy but she learned to be satisfied with what she have rather than grieve what she don’t have. The male characters, on the other hand, were less than stellar. The lack of complexity in the male characters gave the story a rather monochromatic tone. The children, especially the daughters, were barely heard of, except for the occasional complaints on the direness of their circumstances.
In evocative passages and images, The Joys of Motherhood managed to underscore the impact of patriarchy on women. Indeed, there are still joys derived from the fulfillment of lifelong dreams, from motherhood, and from camaraderie from fellow women. However, these is no perfect portrait as these joys also come in with its equivalent anxiety, frustrations, and pains. Published in 1979, Emecheta vividly depicted the pressures and strains women experience as they strive to meet society’s definition of perfection while also underlining seminal universal concerns that are still prevalent in today’s society. Years after its publication, The Joys of Motherhood remains a seminal read as the patriarchy is still prominent in many a culture.
Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 21%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%
Over the past year, I have spent a healthy amount of time immersing in the works of Nigerian writers who gave me deeper insight into their country, its diverse people, its colorful culture, and tumultuous history. Some of these books, such as Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s Stay With Me, Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, and Abi Daré’s The Girl With the Louding Voice made it to my all-time favorite reads. Nigerian writers have, without a doubt, gained a fan in me. Through scavenging online booksellers, I have come across yet another Nigerian writer who I’ve never encountered before. Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood immediately piqued my curiosity despite my lack of recognition. The book didn’t have to wait that long before I opened it for I made it part of my March 2021 African Literature Month. Like my previous encounters with Nigerian works, vivid elements of Nigerian society and culture permeated all throughout the story. It further reinforced many points I have noted in my previous readings. Nnu Ego, although not always likeable, was a memorable character and her plight will make many a reader gravitate towards her. However, I found the writing a little underwhelming. It was clinical but it watered down the potential of Nnu Ego’s story.
Author: Buchi Emecheta
Publisher: Heinemann Educational Publishers
Publishing Date: 1994
Number of Pages: 224
Genre: African Literature, Domestic Fiction, Bildungsroman
First published in 1979, The Joys of Motherhood is the story of Nnu Ego, a Nigerian woman struggling in a patriarchal society. Unable to conceive in her first marriage, Nnu is banished to Lagos where she succeeds in becoming a mother. Then, against the backdrop of World War II, Nnu must fiercely protect herself and her children when she is abandoned by her husband and her people. Emecheta “writes with subtlety, power, and abundant compassion” (New York Times). (Source: Goodreads)
About the Author
Florence Onyebuchi “Buchi” Emecheta was born on July 21, 1944 in Lagos, Nigeria. To enter school, Emecheta had to convince her parents about the benefits of her education. She was initially kept from schooling because of the prevailing gender bias. She spent her early childhood at an all-girl’s missionary school. A year after her father’s death, Emecheta received a full scholarship to Methodist Girls’ School in Yaba where she remained until her marriage in 1960. At the age of 16, she was wedded to Sylvester Onwordi, a schoolboy with whom she was engaged to since she was 11-years old.
In 1962, with two children in tow, Emecheta moved to London to join her husband who was attending university. Locked in an abusive marriage with five children, she wrote in her spare time to keep her sanity. Pregnant with her fifth child at the age of 22, she left her abusive husband. She had to work to support her children alone while also studying up B.Sc (Hons) degree in Sociology from the University of London. She graduated in 1972. She also earned her PhD from the same institution in 1991.
Emecheta’s writing career begun when she share about her experiences of Black British life in a regular column in the New Stateman. Some of these pieces comprised her first published work, In the Ditch (1972). Her second novel, Second-Class Citizen was published in 1974. Her other works include he Bride Price (1976), The Slave Girl (1977), The Joys of Motherhood (1979) and Destination Biafra (1982). She also published children’s book and plays. For her works, she received several literary awards such as the 1978 Jock Campbell Prize for The Slave Girl.
Apart from writing, Emecheta has travelled widely as a visiting professor and lecturer. Among the universities she has visited are Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers University, and the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1986, she became a Fellow at the University of London. She has also worked with several cultural and literary organizations such as Africa Centre, London. To recognize her services to literature, Emecheta was made an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2005.
She passed away on January 25, 2017 in London.
Hello Carl, I love reading your detailed reviews, and I read this one with interest. It’s not only in Nigeria that this thinking prevails – to this day. I had two daughters before my first son was born. My mother-in-law said to my husband – you’re a man now!! I’m still angry about that!
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Thank you. It is just saddening to learn that the role of women are often reduced and that such customs still prevail in many parts of the world. This novel was an insightful read, full of local color but resonated with a universal message.
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