If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a nation.
– Dr. James Emmanuel Kwegyir-Aggrey (1875-1927)
Since my last book review was on feminism, I thought it prudent to continue with the subject.
The Joys of Motherhood is a compendium of primary care-giving. Drawing from her experiences as a single mother of five, Emecheta sculpts the quintessential West African mother out of the words in this novel.
Set in the early twentieth century, the story revolves around Nnu Ego, a true royal of Ogboli – one of the villages that made up the town of Ibuza. She is the daughter of Nwokocha Agbadi, the wealthy chief of Ogboli and of his untamed mistress Ona, daughter of Obi Umunna, another local chief of Ibuza.
Overjoyed at the sight of his new daughter, Agbadi…
…bent down and peeped at the day-old child wrapped and kept warm by the fireside and remarked: ‘This child is priceless, more than twenty bags of cowries. I think that should really be her name, because she is a beauty and she is mine. Yes, “Nnu Ego”: twenty bags of cowries.’
Nnu Ego was the apple of her parent’s eyes.
About three years after her daughter is born, Ona becomes pregnant again and goes into premature labour. She senses her imminent death as she gives birth and asks Agbadi to give Nnu Ego the same freedom her father Obi Umunna gave her.
‘… see that however much you love our daughter Nnu Ego you allow her to have a life of her own, a husband if she wants one. Allow her to be a woman.’
But Agbadi marries her off to Amatokwu when she is sixteen. The marriage ends, however, after Nnu Ego endures the emotional and psychological trauma of childlessness.
The real drama begins when she travels from Ibuza to Lagos to become the wife of Nnaife, laundryman of the Meers. Nnu Ego learns to adapt to urban life where her husband is a white man’s servant and participates in a strange worship called Christianity. In Ibuza, chores like cleaning a household, washing and cooking are exclusive to women, but this is not so in urban Nigeria. It is the ‘woman-made men’ who do such domestic duties for the white man.
When Nnu Ego confides in Cordelia, wife of Ubani the cook, she laughs at her moanings about Nnaife and says,
‘You want a husband who has time to ask you if you wish to eat rice, or drink corn pap with honey? Forget it. Men here are too busy being white men’s servants to be men. We women mind the home. Not our husbands. Their manhood has been taken away from them. The shame of it is they don’t know it. All they see is the money, shining white man’s money.’
Emecheta defines womanhood and the evolving role of women in an era of polygamy, male-dominance and colonialist oppression. If a West African woman was subject to her husband’s will in all matters, what of one who was married to the servant of a white man?
‘They are all slaves, including us. If their masters treat them badly, they take it out on us. The only difference is that they are given some pay for their work, instead of having been bought.
In a roller-coaster ride of bearing child after child for Nnaife, who loses one job after another and is at some point sent off by the British government to fight in the Second World War, Nnu Ego juggles the responsibilities of motherhood, bread-winner and obedient wife.
After much drama, discourse and dissension, Nnu Ego separates from Nnaife and moves back to Ibuza a ripe old woman who has seen life in the big city. She keeps going on and on about her sons abroad until…
… one night, Nnu Ego lay down by the roadside, thinking that she had arrived home. She died quietly there, with no child to hold her hand and no friend to talk to her. She had never really made any friends, so busy had she been building up her joys as a mother.
As I imbibed the last chapter of the story, I was awash with a mixture of anger and disappointment. After reading chapter after chapter of Nnu Ego’s struggles with loneliness, poverty and marital abuse, I expected a ‘happily-ever-after’ ending to the story. I was angry that the protagonist did not reap from the toil and hardship she had endured as she invested all her life’s work into the well-being of her children.
On the other hand, Emecheta reminds us of the glaring reality of what it means to be a mother in most parts of the world. Although Nnu Ego is a West African mother, many women around the world can relate to her story.
I suppose ‘the joys of motherhood’ for Nnu Ego, as is the case of most mothers, was watching her children grow up strong and healthy, having provided for their basic needs. In an era when having children was a married woman’s pride, Nnu Ego had proven her critics wrong by bearing male and female children for her husband.
Nevertheless, the story speaks to the joys, not the perks, of motherhood.
Even though I am unable to exhaustively address the complex sociological issues Emecheta discusses in this novel, I review this book in honour of mothers around the world.