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Buchi Emecheta: The Joys of Motherhood

The title of this novel is, of course, ironic and might just as well have been entitled The Joys of Marriage. The story tells of the unfortunate lot of Nigerian women, particularly Igbo women, and how they suffer under male domination, with males being far more valued than females. The story opens in 1934 with Nnu Ego in Lagos, on her way to kill herself by throwing herself off a bridge. A flashback tells us how she got to that state. Her father was a chief in a village in Ibuza and had an affair with (but did not marry) Ona, her mother, the daughter of a chief. Ona was wild and spirited but her father’s only child. When she became pregnant, the father, as is Igbo custom, kept the child, Nnu Ego, while Ona went back to her father. Nnu Ego’s father and mother both died when she was a child. When she grew up, she was married to another chief but could not bear him any children so was returned to her family. At this point she was sent to marry Nnaife in Lagos.

She had never been out of Ibuza before. Though Nnaife was an Igbo, he worked for an English family as their washerman. Nnu Ego finds this very demeaning. More particularly, Nnaife is not a good husband, being both lazy and bullying. Nnu Ego manages to make some money trading illegally bought cigarettes, as Nnaife is reluctant to spend any money. She soon gets pregnant and has a son, Ngozi. However, one day she finds him dead and runs off to kill herself (this is where we came in). She is prevented from doing so. The rest of the novel tells of her travails. She has several children, some of whom cause her problems. The oldest, Oshia, costs money, as he wants education. He goes off to the United States and does not return. The second child ends up in Canada. The oldest girl, Kehinde, goes off to marry a Yoruba, causing her father to attack the family and ending up in jail. Apart from the jail episode, Nnaife is not a good husband. He loses his job when the English family return to England for the war and then he is press-ganged into the army. When his older brother dies, in accordance with Igbo tradition, he takes his wife. (The brother has three wives but one goes back to her family and the oldest one stays in Ibuza.) Nnu Ego is resentful but, while Nnaife is with the army, the new wife leaves to become a prostitute. When Nnaife returns from the war, he then takes another wife to salvage his pride. He is also a heavy drinker.

Nnu Ego does not have a happy life. She struggles to make ends meet. She never copes with Lagos nor with her husband. She only returns twice to Ibuza. The first time it is to see her beloved father die and the second time it is for her own death. Emecheta makes it clear that many of Nnu Ego’s problems stem from the way women are treated in the Igbo culture, though British colonialism is also a factor. The ending is not happy and, according to Emecheta, how could it be?

Publishing history

First published 1979 by Allison and Busby