One of the most renowned novels by Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood (1979) is set during the first half of the twentieth century in Nigeria and tells the life story of Nnu Ego.
The novel’s incipit throws us into a desperate situation: in Lagos, a woman (Nnu Ego) tries to take her own life after the loss of her new-born baby, only to be saved by a fellow villager. Emecheta proceeds then to introduce the character of Nnu Ego through a temporal dislocation that brings us back to the circumstances of her birth. The daughter of a wealthy local chief, Nnu Ego grows up in Ibuza where she honours her father and her mother’s memory, her greatest wish in life being that of becoming a mother. Through pages rich with descriptive passages, Emecheta narrates the entire life of Nnu Ego: her two marriages, the loss of her first son, the spectre of infertility and its consequence within a traditional family society like the one Nnu Ego belongs to, but also the relocation from her village to the city of Lagos and, literally, the joys of motherhood — living through the hopes and tribulations of the many children she will have.
And yet, The Joys of Motherhood is so much more than the compelling life story of Nnu Ego. Throughout the novel, Emecheta uses the relations between the characters to represent a Nigerian society that is quickly changing under the socio-cultural repercussions of British colonialism. In particular, Emecheta firmly accuses colonial rule of having stripped Nigerians of agency and values. At the same time, she also offers a clear critique of a patriarchal society that imposes motherhood as the only way to achieve self-realisation for females; a society within which to have a son means to acquire prestige among family members and friends, while a daughter is always considered more of a burden than a blessing. A society within which a woman cannot be anything else other than a mother and a wife.
The title, then, almost carries a mocking undertone: what can become of a woman that has only her children as a consolation against life’s ordeals? How can a woman be her own person after having spent her whole life taking care of others? These questions hold an even more powerful meaning based on the final part of the novel. In the traditional family society Nnu Ego belongs to, one of the children’s duties is to take care of their own parents when they reach old age. However, none of Nnu Ego’s children will be able to provide for her, instead choosing to leave their family behind: the eldest moves to the United States to build his own career, another son goes to Canada, while the youngest daughters soon marry into other families. What is left, then, of a woman when her children leave her?
The implications of The Joys of Motherhood cover many topics of current interest, from the long lasting consequences of colonial rule on Nigeria and its people, to the role of women within a patriarchal society, confirming the ongoing newness of Buchi Emecheta’s novel and assuring it a well-deserved place among the classics of African literature and, dare I say, world literature as well.
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