Nnu Ego, (pronounced New Ego) the protagonist of the novel is a symbol of all the joys, woes, despair and ultimately disappointments of universal motherhood. Emecheta spares no effort in portraying her as a woman whose sacrificial love and duty towards her seven children see her wallowing in abject poverty, want, misfortune and ridicule from her husband and neighbours. The traditional and cultural expectations that a woman’s ultimate joy and worth are measured by her motherhood places so much pressure on Nnu Ego and when she is spurned and ill-treated in her first marriage to Amatokwu for being barren, her despair is palpable. She is sent from her hometown of Ibuza in the south-eastern part of Nigeria, to Lagos, the capital, to marry her second husband, Nnaife, a rotund wash-man for the white master Dr. Meers and his wife. Her disappointment at the sight of her new husband is almost comical.
“She fought back tears of frustrations. She was used to tall wiry farmers, with rough blackened hands from farming, long, lean legs and very dark skin. This was one was short, the flesh of his upper arm danced as he moved about jubilantly among his friends, and that protruding belly! Why did he not cover it? She despised him on first night……….Another thought run through her mind. Suppose this man-made her pregnant, would that not be an untold joy to her people? O my dead mother, please make this dream come true. then I will respect this man, I will be his faithful wife and put up with his crude ways and ugly appearance..” P 44 -45
To his credit, Nnaife fathers in rapid succession all Nnu Ego’s children thus fulfilling her greatest desire of becoming a mother. Her toils, amid extreme deprivations only serve to highlight her joy in a glorious future that her children, particularly her sons, will make possible.
“Nnu Ego realized that part of the pride of motherhood was to look a little unfashionable and be able to drawl with joy: “I can’t afford another outfit, because I am nursing him, so you see I can’t go anywhere to sell anything.” One usually received the answer, “Never mind, he will grow soon and clothe you and farm for you, so that your old age will be sweet”
Throughout the novel, Buchi Emecheta makes good use of dramatic irony and episodic narrative style, to point out the disappointments of Nnu Ego in every aspect of her sojourns in life. including the betrayal of her children, particularly the sons, in neglecting her in her old age. All her best laid plans come to naught, as the apple of her eye, Oshia and his brother Adim leave for the USA and Canada respectively for further studies and never write or send home the much-needed money to relieve the family of poverty. At the end of the novel, lonely and forsaken, her senses start to give way.
“She became vague, and people pointed out that she had never been strong emotionally. ………After much wanderings one night, Nnu Ego lay down by the road side, thinking she had arrived home. She died quietly there, with no child to hold her hand and no friend to talk to….she had never really made many friends, so busy had she been building up her joys as a mother.” P 253
There was never any thought given to educating her two sets of twin daughters. Daughters were looked at as an investment. Hopefully, they would marry well and bring in a good bride price (which would most likely go towards their brothers’ education). Nnu Ego assumes that her sons will come home to live and will care for her as she ages. Again, ironically, Adaku, Nnaife’s dead brother’s widow, whom he inherits as a wife, makes more money trading. Her lavish lifestyle only serves to highlight Nnu Ego’s poverty. But then even Adaku eventually leaves the marriage with her two daughters after she comes to realise that she is not regarded at all in the scheme of things because she has no sons to be counted among women.
“Everybody accuses me of making good money all the time. What else is there for me to do? I will spend the money I have in giving my girls a good start in life. The shall stop going to them market with me. I shall see that they get enrolled in a good school. I think that will benefit them in the future.” P 189
Seeing the advent and benefits of the girl-child education on the horizon, Adaku is able to make a clean break with tradition, while Nnu Ego still clings to it. She is caught between two often warring worlds; and when resolution comes it is at the expense of her happiness and illusions.
The Joys of Motherhood is also about repressive attitudes of the traditional culture which called for strict regulation of women’s roles as wives in the society. Wives obeyed their husbands in all matters and were and subservient to them. However, this may not be a presumed right that every man holds, especially when the husband is unable to cater adequately for his wife and children as well as additional family members. Thus Nnu Ego is unable to accord Nnaife the full respect he deserves. Her on and off petty trading supplements the meagre income from Nnaife, to make earns meet. Nnu Ego also comes across in the novel as a woman who knows her right in the traditional setting and would not compromise on that.
Set in the colonial era, The Joys of Motherhood is also about influence of colonisation on the people, the new economic order which has made men like Nnaife a ‘woman-made-man‘ laundering the white madam’s clothes (P 48-49); and the gradual disintegration of cultural values. In all this, the family is affected profoundly. The colonial influence challenges and erodes the communal and clan value systems that once defined the African. Again The Joys of Motherhood talks about the effects of the Second World War on a people who did not create the war and did not know why they even had to fight a war they know nothing about. They are at a loss to understand forced conscription into the army and. The economic and social hardships that reared its head during and after the war in Europe is also felt in Nigeria and most significantly in Nnu Ego’s household. She has to scrape to hold the family together in Nnaife’s absence as his meagre allowance of 20 pounds is barely able to sustain them.
The title of the novel itself, The Joys of Motherhood, is ironic, when viewed in the light of the story. But perhaps, Emecheta seems to suggest that Nnu Ego’s joy is in her giving birth to sons, thus clinching her motherhood, respect and place in society. So that in the end, it may not matter at all whether her children take care of her in her old age or not.
I enjoyed this novel so much. Being a mother of sons, I could empathise with Nnu Ego. But perhaps, with the advantage of economic empowerment, advancement and the evolution of culture and tradition, my situation is not dire. Nevertheless, issues relating to motherhood has not changed much in Africa and I dare say elsewhere. It is the prayer of many a mother that their children will grow up and care for them, especially as we in Africa still place some emphasis on the importance of sons, though we know for a fact that daughters might be the ones who do much of the caring.
The Joys of Motherhood is considered a Classic by the African Writers Series Classics, a brand new Heinemann series which offers a selection of the best works of African literature originally published in the African Writersfourth novel from the Nigerian-born writer, Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood is recognised as one of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century in an initiative organised by the Zimbabwe International Book fair. This edition includes an introduction by Dr. Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English at Oxford University.
Credit: Reading Pleasure Blog post