Analogous to many other countries in Africa during the nineteenth century, Nigeria was subjected to the harsh realities of colonialism. European colonization in Africa has had both advantageous and disadvantageous results, as it has destroyed and tarnished the cultures of countless people, as well as brought modernization to the continent. Buchi Emecheta, a female African novelist, is one of the first to confront the exploitation of women and express their yearning for freedom and liberation. In her novel, The joys of Motherhood, she analyzes the favourable and unfavourable repercussions of modernization on women in conjunction with their difficulty to discard tradition and accept change. Utilizing the story of the protagonist Nnu Ego, she also displays how these rigid traditions serve only to identify women as second class citizens, the property of men, and the bearers of children. Prior to colonization, women in Africa possessed some power and shared equal work with the opposite gender.
There was a balance in societal roles, and women were allowed to take part in some of the work that was often viewed as masculine – for example they were allowed to do agricultural work. Moreover, women were respected as no lesser than equals to men, and some were even worshipped. The majority of men held the same views as Agbadi – the father of Nnu Ego and an esteemed chief – and favoured a woman who “was troublesome and impetuous, who had the audacity to fight with her man before letting him have her” (p.21). Nnu Ego’s mother Ona was an embodiment of this idea, as she was a strong willed and stubborn character.
She served as motivation for the women in the village, because she displayed that women are not obligated to be subservient to men. With the arrival of colonialism, traditional roles and conventions were solidified, thus decreasing the status of female value, and forcing them to ultimately submit to men. It is undeniable that the implementation of capitalism and Christianity indirectly affected the roles and distinction between the two genders in Nigeria. As a result, money became a symbol of one’s rank and status, and women were slowly but surely cut off from this stream of merit. This led to the elevation of the status of men and the deterioration of the status of women, who were now expected to do no more than have children and take care of their home. Consequently as shown in the novel, this alternated the way men viewed women because “in Agbadi’s young days, a woman who gave in to a man without first fighting for her honor was never respected.
To regard a woman who is quiet and timid as desirable was something that came after his time, with Christianity and other changes” (p.10). After these changes in Nigerian society, women were forced to change their behaviour in order to secure a husband, as men began to covet women who “who could claim to be helpless without them” (p.
36). Woman of Ona’s nature steadily disappeared from society and women who expected equal treatment were deemed undesirable. By introducing Ona’s life at the beginning of the novel, Emecheta successfully portrays that the submission of women was a result of a shift in beliefs that eventually rooted itself deep in Igbo tradition. It also gives the reader insight into the character Nnu Ego by allowing them to understand the differences between herself and her mother Ona.In the novel, there are two factors that Emecheta utilizes to represent hardships that interfere with Nnu Ego’s liberation: her relationship with men and her relationship with children. In her male dominated society, women could only gain respect by proving that they are good daughters and wives. For example, when her first marriage failed, Nnu Ego’s father arranged for her to marry another man.
She immediately did not approve of him, because his appearance was drastically different what she was used to in Ibuza and found attractive. Despite this, she forced herself to stay with him because she wanted to prove that she wasn’t a barren woman. “She would have rather died in this town called Lagos than go back home and say ‘Father, I just do not like the man you have chosen for me'” (p.44).
She eventually learned to put up with his appearance and respect him because he granted her wish of having children. However, with her accumulating pregnancies, the respect she gradually gained for him began to dwindle. How could she respect a man who wasted all of his money on alcohol, when he was aware his children were starving? It was then that she realized: “she was a prisoner, imprisoned by her love for her children, imprisoned in her role as the senior wife. She was not even expected to demand more money for her family; that was considered below the standard expected of a woman in her position.
It was not fair, she felt the way men cleverly used a woman’s sense of responsibility to actually enslave her” (p.137).Through this excerpt it is shown that in a relationship, a woman was expected to accept her husband’s choices without complaints, regardless of their validity – and whether or not the wellbeing of her children depended on it. If she does not submit to these rules, she is a disrespectful failed woman and will extend her own shame onto her family. As Nnu Ego exclaimed above, she is now imprisoned by societal conventions that support female submission. Because of this, men are in control of all the power, and in the protagonist’s case, her selfish husband Nnaife dominates her home, even though he wastes all of his money and doesn’t ever think about the future of his family. She remained helpless and when Nnaife came back from the war with a large sum of money, he gained the respect and fear of his wife.
“He could even afford to beat her up if she went beyond the limits he could stand” (p117). This could represent how men depend on money and violence to control women. However, this could also represent a direct threat to Nnu Ego’s liberation; the obedient image she must comply with. These conventions that bind women were also responsible for the unimportance of women in decision making. For example, while Nnaife was at war, Nnu Ego gave birth to a child and did not name them before her husband returned. She was afraid that she would be “regarded as an over civilised woman who chose the names her children by herself, just because her husband was fighting in the war”(p.155). These are the kinds of thoughts that nourished male interests and abandoned that of females.
This is also shown through the two polygamous marriages Nnu Ego was affiliated with. In the first marriage, she was unable to bear a child, and was discarded from her position as the senior wife. Yet, the primary responsibility of a woman is to produce children.
Similarly to men, women equate their self-worth to their ability to have children. This is ultimately due to the fact that it is the only way for them to gain an respect in their community. The marriage is only considered authentic when a child is born, particularly a boy who will carry down his father’s name and care for his parents when he is grown up.
The average Igbo woman is in turn exposed to a large deal of pressure during the first few years of her marriage because her reputation can easily be destroyed if she is unable to conceive. If a child is not born, the marriage is rarely recognized because ”when a woman is virtuous, it is easy for her to conceive ” (p.31). Nnu Ego is a sensitive woman, and the consequences of her bareness caused her to fall into depression and cry endless “tears of frustration and hopelessness” (p.32).
The realization of her bareness caused her husband to rely on polygamy, and this only further deepened her depression. “Few had noticed that it was bad for her morale to hear her husband give pleasure to another woman in the same courtyard where she slept” (p. 21). Later, the reality of her childlessness caused her marriage to fall apart.
In her second marriage, she managed to have 8 children but it did not deter her husband from seeking a second wife. Nnu Ego instantly had a feeling of distaste towards Nnaife’s second wife, as she was her polar opposite and “she hated this type of woman, who would flatter a man, depend on him, need him” (p.118). Nnu Ego was likened to a “jealous cat” because she could not accept the fact that Nnaife had taken on a second wife when his first wife and his children were living in such horrendous conditions.
They could hardly get by on their own, she couldn’t understand how they were supposed to care for more people. She attempted to behave herself, and control her feelings, but she simply could not tolerate the unfairness of the whole situation. She was eventually forced to act acceptably because she “had to be careful if she did not want her sons’ future wives to say ‘but your mother was always jealous whenever her husband brought a young wife'” (p.185).
Polygamy can be viewed in several ways, but it cannot be denied that it has indeed been used to control women. At certain times Nnu Ego felt that as the senior wife, she held power, but in actuality she was imprisoned by this duty and she was prohibited from acting discourteously because of the love she had for her children. Additionally, she was forced to abide by some rules of conduct, and could not express herself freely. When Nnaife was forced to join the army and fight with the English during the Second World War, both Nnu Ego and her co-wife Adaku were frightened.
Yet: “her culture did not permit her to give in to her fears. She was supposed to be strong, being the senior wife, to behave more like a man than a woman. As men were not permitted open grief, she had to learn to hide hers as well. She heard Adaku crying, and she envied her freedom” (p.140).The significance of this quote was to show that a traditional woman like Nnu Ego must accept societal conventions and ideal in order to consider herself a woman. If she refuses, she is risking being abandoned by her husband, and jeopardizing the future and prestige of her children.
Children are a very critical factor in a woman’s success and represent another aspect that legitimizes Nnu Ego. Her sole goal throughout the novel is to have children and give them a proper upbringing since “she had been brought up to believe that children made a woman.” (p.219). A child represents a woman’s worth, her identity, and her liberation. The image of fertility and motherhood entrenched in Nnu Ego’s society are what led her to attempt suicide.
After the death of her first child, she was depressed and unsatisfied with her life. Everyone around her “agreed that a woman without a child for her husband was a failed woman” (p.62). She was essentially forced to view herself as a failure when even her closest friends ( who should be offering her endless support) decided to comfort her husband instead of her. When Nnaife began to express some guilt, he was told “you are to give her children and food, she is to cook and bear the children and look them. A woman may be ugly and grow old, but a man is never ugly and never old. He matures with age and is dignified” (p.71).
This unflatteringly discriminant statement perfectly represents Igbo society. No matter what the circumstances are, a woman is always to blame and this negatively affects the emotionally unstable character Nnu Ego. She eventually gave birth to many children, and this is when her views underwent a shift. The severity of the financial predicament didn’t allow her to feed her children properly, and her affinity to motherhood changed. She now envied her colleagues who had few children and were able to provide or all of them.
She regretted having so many children, even though she had wanted many children the past. Her children were malnourished, “yet all because she was the mother of three sons, she was supposed to be happy in her poverty, in her cramped room” (p.167). She began to realize that being a mother wasn’t just about the quantity of children you had, but the quality of the upbringing you bestowed upon them. She wasn’t able to care for all eight of them properly, so she put all of her faith into her eldest son. “All will be well when Oshia returns from college”(p.
190). She thought that the rewards of her motherhood would be her attaining social prestige, and having someone to feed and take care of her when she no longer could. Besides struggling for liberation, Nnu Ego also found difficulty in retaining her traditional values while being subjected to a new colonial lifestyle, as she moves from her rural Ibuza to the far away modernized city of Lagos. This is another one of the confits the protagonist faces, as she clings to her traditions in a world that s quickly evolving. For example, in the novel Emecheta gives readers an insight into the rigid gender division in igbo society. The father teaches his son about how to protect women and manage their home, and shows him the importance of traditional meetings.
On the other hand, the daughter is taught about householding, and the importance of marriage. She is then informed of the value of children, and how to cook for her husband. Because of this strained education, boys begin to view themselves as higher and far more essential than girls, and girls are taught to see themselves as nothing more than a counterpart to men.
They are also raised to see a man’s words as absolute, and be submissive to him regardless of his ideas. Because of this, men and women are set in their roles and accept them as fact. However, with the modernization of Lagos the gender roles that were once set in stone began to weaken. Nnu Ego’s daughter, Kehinde doesn’t quite comprehend why her brothers get to study while her and her sisters have to work.
“But you are girls! They are boys. You have to sell to put them in a good position in life, so that they will be able to look after the family. When you husbands are nasty to you, they will defend you” (p.
176) is the response Nnu Ego gives her daughter. It is evident that Nnu Ego is still shackled to her traditions, while Kehinde’s thoughts represent modernization. Kehinde’s refusal to stay prisoner to her mother’s traditions foreshadow a conflict that she will ultimately face with her parents. Eventually, Nnu Ego also breaks free of these chains, because she does not want her children to suffer any longer. In the novel, there is an old Igbo saying that basically chastises the relationship between women and money, because if “you spent all your time making money and getting rich, the gods wouldn’t give you any children ; if you wanted children, you had to forget about money, and be content to be poor.” (p.80).
During her second pregnancy, Nnu Ego decided to put a stop to her petty trading because she assumes that it’s the reason she lost her first child. However, later on the family was very poor because Nnaife’s job wasn’t enough to support them. Nnu Ego plunged into despair because she desperately wanted to provide for her two children, but was afraid of losing the child she was carrying. She finally decides to resume her trading, and benefits from the control she receives when dominating the use of her money.
Emecheta utilizes this moment to financial freedom is essential in the liberation of women. Discordant to the women in Ibuza, Nnu Ego no longer completely depended on her husband. On one hand, it portrayed the first materialization of revolt, and dissociation with tradition. On the other hand it helped actualize her liberation, and realize her strength not only as a mother, but as a woman and a worker. Though Nnu Ego does gain some independence, it is all useless in helping her achieve he goal. Regardless of whether she poured all of her time, energy, and money into her children’s education, “her love and duty for her children were like her chain of slavery” (p.186). The use of the comparison to a “slave” helps to show the actuality of this situation.
The only way for her to be accomplished now is through the accomplishments of her children. She struggled throughout the entire story to send her sons to school, so one day they would be able to be a part of the Nigerian elite. She also tried her best to raise her daughters as traditionally as possible in Lagos. Just the sheer dedication she showed to her children should have set her up to be rewarded graciously, but that was not the case.
By the time her children are grown, their ideals differ from that of their traditional mother. Nnu Ego was adamant on not letting go of her traditions, and this resulted in great disappointments. When her eldest son Oshia wins a scholarship to America, Nnaife gravely disapproved.
In Igbo culture, when the father of a household reaches a certain age, he hands over all of his duties to his eldest son, who must comply. But, Oshia desired to go onto a higher level of education, and much to his Nnaife’s dismay, refused to take over his father’s duties. This resulted in a massive fight between father and son, and Nnaife ended up disowning Oshia. Nnu Ego was immediately blamed for Osha’s behaviour, and Nnaife began to refer to their children and Nnu Ego’s children. She “was becoming fed up of this two-way standard. When the children were good, the belonged to the father; when they were bad, they belonged to the mother” (p.206).
The same result is achieved when Kehinde married a man from another tribe. Nnaife considers this the worst display of betrayal yet, and Nnu Ego can only fall deeper into depression. She is unable to understand where she failed, and Emecheta uses her character as an example to portray the repercussions of denying change.
The protagonist was so focused on keeping her tradition that she let the whole world change around her, and tried to fight it all on her own. She ended up falling and this personified itself in her children. This explains how the title of the book is true but also ironic. It’s true that her story wasn’t all tragic, she still took part in some of the joys of motherhood. She was happy to have successfully raised eight children, and proud of their accomplishments. She was also rewarded because the children she raised “might rub shoulders one day with the great men of Nigeria” (p.
202). On the contrary, she died a lonely death with a husband who refused her, and “no child to hold her hand and no friend to talk to her”(p.224). Throughout the novel, she realized that if women succumb to men they will never gain any power, and that the reason she failed was because she held on so tightly to her traditions.