Nigerian Culture: The Joys of Motherhood and the Present Day

The idea that childbirth can test a woman and perhaps lead to self-awareness serves as a major theme for Buchi Emecheta’s Nigerian novel The Joys of Motherhood, in which a young Ibo woman marries twice, the first marriage highlighting her infertility. In her second marriage, Nnu Ego has surprisingly little difficulty in reproducing; however, she faces many challenges in raising her children and maintaining her marriage. The author describes Nigerian life through the eyes of men, women, children, and various ethnic groups under British rule in the mid 1900s. It is clear that family life, gender roles, and religious beliefs in the novel are similar to that of post-colonial Nigerian culture today.

To begin, Buchi Emecheta, author of The Joys of Motherhood, was born to Ibuza parents in Lagos, Nigeria, in the year of 1944. These facts are especially important due to the story being held primarily in Ibuza and Lagos, cities Emecheta is highly familiar with. According to the Encyclopedia of World Writers, Emecheta got engaged and married as early as sixteen years old, and she later gave birth to five children (Diamond, “Emecheta, Buchi”). In her time, it was very common for women to have multiple children. Regarding her literary work, Emecheta has published many novels in which she uses fictional characters to live out her struggles as an oppressed and underprivileged wife, mother, and emigrant. To support this, Diamond states that Emecheta’s “brave approach to writing about the unspoken has set her apart from other African writers”, and she “[adds] a voice that speaks to the specific issues of women from developing countries” (Encyclopedia of World Writers, “Emecheta, Buchi). In other words, Emecheta brought herself to write about a society that faced hardships, herself included. Although she passed away in January, 2017, Buchi Emecheta’s novels will forever hold true the life she lived, and they may even teach people in more liberal countries to appreciate the “easy life”.

Additionally, The Joys of Motherhood depicts the lifestyle of a fictional character, Nnu Ego, who struggles to find her way in life. She lives a somewhat easy life in Ibuza, but she is still expected to marry young and produce many children, as this is custom to her people. Unfortunately, Nnu Ego fails to reproduce by her handsome husband, which leads to the disappointment of many. She marries again, this time to an ugly man in a foreign city, and ironically produces nine children, of which only seven survive. According to CultureGrams Online Edition, “An urban couple often has between three and five children, while a rural family may have as many as seven to ten” (Nigeria: Family). Although having many children brings Nnu Ego and her husband Nnaife an honorable reputation, they soon find parenthood both a blessing and a curse. They are a low income family, and after Nnaife is forced by the British to fight in the civil war for more than a year, his wife is left to fend for her family when market prices rise and women cannot easily find work. In this novel, Nnu Ego portrays the blood, sweat, and tears that Emecheta and other Nigerian women put in for their children to become successful and have a better life. Emecheta does well at describing the amount of effort it takes to survive in a developing country, especially as poor emigrants under foreign rule.

First, The Joys of Motherhood portrays the importance of marriage and children in Nigeria. In many cases, Nigerians have polygamous families. In reference to CultureGrams, a Nigerian “man can have as many as four wives as long as he has the consent of his wives and provided he can support each wife equally (Nigeria: Dating and Marriage). Sometimes men even inherit the wives and children that a deceased relative leaves behind. For example, in the novel, Nnaife’s older brother passes away and, with Nnaife being the oldest son left, he has the responsibility to take in his brother’s family through marriage. Although Nnaife is to gain consent from Nnu Ego, she does not like when the new wife Aduku moves in, bringing her child along; however, Nnu Ego is now a senior wife and must behave as such (Emecheta, 117-118).

Additionally, children are of great significance to the Nigerian family. In The Joys of Motherhood, sons are highly favored over daughters. According to Countries and their Cultures, “modern Nigeria is a patriarchal society [and] men are dominant over women” (Curry, “Nigeria”). So, it is common for women to produce until they have a son, and that explains why Nnu Ego gives birth to nine children, each time hoping for a son. Because of the patriarchal society of Nigeria in the novel, males overall have more power and tend to be more dedicated to their family since they will always carry the family name. On the other hand, a daughter is not thought of as completely useless. In the novel and in modern Nigeria, a daughter marries young, and her family receives a bride price in return. According to CultureGrams, “the groom is expected to give money, property (such as kola nuts, food, drinks, and clothing), or service to the family of the bride as compensation for the loss of their daughter” (Nigeria: Dating and Marriage). In the novel, for example, Adaku suggests that their daughters bride prices should be used to help pay for the boys’ schooling. (Emecheta, 127). So, by marrying off their daughters, the bride price helps relieve low income families of their financial situations. Overall, family life relates closely to that of modern Nigeria.

Second, gender role in Nigeria is very distinct in families. Men and women have their own responsibilities; however, there is a strict line between the two genders. According to CultureGrams, men make the most important decisions for the family, and women are important for childbirth and taking care of the house (Nigeria: Family). This conception holds true in The Joys of Motherhood, as Nnu Ego stays home to nurse the children, prepare meals, and clean. Although women in the story are not expected to bring home a major source of income, Nnu Ego’s family is poor, so she must go out to the market each day to trade. When her son is old enough, Nnu Ego even sends him out to watch her stall where she trades items for money (Emecheta, 103). Moreover, “in lower-income families, boys and girls may work to support the family, often by trading in the market” (Nigeria: Family). So, for that matter, the roles of children in the novel go hand in hand with the reality of Nigeria. Also, regarding the fact that Nigerian women are seen as important for childbirth and little else, readers may have sympathy for Nnu Ego once infertility and the death of her children fill her life with pain and uncertainty. Finally, sons are more privileged than daughters. For example, Nnu Ego decides to use her daughter’s bride price to pay for her son’s schooling (Emecheta, 127). This goes to show that Nigeria truly consists of a patriarchal society in which males dominate. Furthermore, CultureGrams states that “many families do not send their girls to school because of a belief that learning to be good mothers and wives is more important than formal education” (Nigeria: Family). Hence, men and women are not thought of as complete equals in Nigeria.

Lastly, some religious and mythological beliefs in the Nigerian novel remain the same in reality today. People of the Ibo tribe, including Nnaife and Nnu Ego, believe in their own chi. According to World Literature and Its Times, “the chi [is not] solely a spiritual force but also a person, perhaps an ancestor or other village inhabitant, who has been reincarnated in an individual at birth” (Franey, “The Joys of Motherhood”). Basically, each person has their own personal god. With this in mind, Nnu Ego’s chi is a slave who was put to death after her mistress died, a common ritual performed when someone of high importance passes away. She had begged for her life, and yet it was taken from her by one of Nnu Ego’s relatives (Emecheta, 23). The slave woman comes back as Nnu Ego’s chi, and when her infertility becomes quite obvious, a dibia claims that Nnu Ego’s chi is punishing her for her death. Furthermore, Nnu Ego and her family must offer sacrifices to her chi to lessen the burden.

On another note, Nigerians put their rested assurance in dibias, a “generic word for doctors” (Martial Arts of the World, “Animals and Power). Notably, these dibias aren’t average doctors. For example, Nnu Ego’s son places a rat inside of a guitar, and one night the guitar seems to magically play by itself; however, Nnu Ego does not know the rat is inside of the guitar, so she consults a dibia to learn the meaning behind this. The dibia suggests that her husband plays the guitar without skill, and that this has summoned the spirits from the dead to come get rid of his instrument (Emecheta, 33). With that being said, Nigerians do place their trust in dibias for help. Now, when it comes to religion, the novel stays close to reality. In Nigeria, most people are either Christian or Muslim. While Nnaife works as a slave for the British, he becomes accustomed to Christianity and often attends church; however, it could be argued that Nnaife is not Christian since he practices polygamy, something of Islamic culture. Though, according to CultureGrams, “Many non-Muslim men also practice polygamy” (Mattison, “Marriage). So, all in all, The Joys of Motherhood sticks close to Nigerian views and beliefs.

The Joys of Motherhood stays true to the culture of Nigeria today. With that being said, reading historically accurate novels, especially those written by Buchi Emecheta, can be helpful for someone interested in learning about cultures of other countries. Emecheta can be praised for her credibility, as she took her life experiences and placed them inside a book for the world to understand the hardships that she and many other Nigerians actually endured.

Works Cited

III, William C. Mattison. “Marriage.” Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, edited by Ian A. McFarland, et al., Cambridge University Press, 1st edition, 2011. Credo Reference. Accessed 17 Apr 2017. Animals and Power.” Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation, edited by Thomas A. Green, and Joseph R. Svinth, ABC-CLIO, 1st edition, 2010. Credo Reference, CURRY, TIM. “Nigeria.” Countries and Their Cultures. Ed. Carol R. Ember and Melvin Ember. Vol. 3. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2001. 1624-1642. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 15 Apr. 2017. Diamond, Marie Josephine, ed. “Emecheta, Buchi.” Encyclopedia of World Writers, 1800 to the Present. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2011. Bloom’s Literature, Facts On File, Inc. Emecheta, Buchi. The Joys of Motherhood. N.p.: Pearson, 2008. Print. Franey, Laura. “The Joys of Motherhood.” World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them. Joyce Moss and Lorraine Valestuk. Vol. 2: African Literature and Its Times. Detroit: Gale, 2000. 225-235. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. “Nigeria: Dating and Marriage.” CultureGrams Online Edition, ProQuest, 2017. Accessed 15 April 2017. “Nigeria: Family.” CultureGrams Online Edition, ProQuest, 2017. Accessed 15 April 2017.

Portraits of Nigeria in Two Novels

The novels Things Fall Apart and The Joys of Motherhood both present Nigeria as a competitive, consumption-crazed country. Each novel, therefore, also creates a parallel between Nigeria and capitalist, Western societies–yet each one shows that the differences are not in degree, but in the details. Furthermore, both Things Fall Apart and The Joys of Motherhood present alternative viewpoints on how colonialism impacted the country’s traditional morals and values.Early on in The Joys of Motherhood, Emecheta foreshadows that Nigerian society will change forever. He writes, “The Ibuza people…fought and won many civil battles against their hosts” (11). Similarly, Achebe again and again describes how the Ibo culture is caught between primitive and progressive worlds, but belongs to neither. Both novels call into question the motives not only of the colonizers, but also of the natives, who are not as dissimilar from their oppressors as they would, perhaps, like to believe. There is no romanticization of the cultures of Nigeria in either Things Fall Apart or The Joys of Motherhood; instead, both author express tremendous courage in presenting the truth of their heritage, without opting to simply show outsiders as corruptive influences. Things Fall Apart is primarily a story about a farming existence, taking the yam and its position as a cyclical crop so necessary to the survival of the civilization as a symbol of masculinity. As Achebe writes, “Yam, the king of crops, [is] a very exacting king” (34). The metaphor expands from there, including the representation of women as the working model without which production would collapse. Women do the chores and raise the children, but are never as important as the yam itself…or the man. In The Joys of Motherhood, meanwhile, the divergence between life in the small village and life in the city is more problematic. While the life left behind was hardly one of perfection, moving socially upward into urbanity’s sophistication is not a panacea. If the country can be viewed as a link to the primal past and the city represents progress, this novel seems to be saying that emasculation awaits men and commoditization awaits women. This sad state of affairs is addressed by Nnu Ego when she despairs “that by the time her children grew up the values of her country, her people and her tribe would have changed so drastically, to the extent where a woman with many children could face a lonely old age, and maybe a miserable death all alone” (219). Death, despair and the loss of humanity seem to be inescapable parts of progress. The ultimate message may be that there is no escape, but only a transformation from one set of problems into another. Nnu Ego’s clash with the strangeness of life in Lagos is manifested by the introduction of Adaku. Polygamy is not new to Nnu Ego. What is different in Lagos, however, is that the value of women is no longer based on incalculable fertility, but has sunk down to the same economic means of production as everything else. The choice of language used by Nnaife could not be more succinct nor profound: “Did I not pay your bride price? Am I not your owner?” (48) In Ibo society, polygamy was viewed as “natural” because all wives shared equally and, in theory, lived in harmony. In Lagos, however, the underlying dynamic has changed to reflect the competitive nature of that society. A wife who is younger is deemed more valuable because she can produce more children, making the female little more than a necessary cog in the economic machinery. The view of polygamy in Things Fall Apart is not significantly different from the perspective that women are viewed an economic means; what is different is that this system is not viewed with suspicion or subversion by the author. The simple description that “He had a large barn full of yams and he had three wives” (6) is pregnant with underlying meaning. Attention is not brought to the fact that women and yams are viewed as essentially the same, as products to be acquired. Instead, is it the mundane and disinterested tone of the sentence that carries the full meaning. Women are simply objects to be bought and sold, traded, bartered, and even willed among the men. Thus, polygamy in Things Fall Apart seems to be more naturalized and normalized than in The Joys of Motherhood, where the author appears to attack the institution. The expectations of women in The Joys of Motherhood are shown by the emphasis placed upon the woman as a receptacle for reproduction. Fertility, above all else, was prized and honored. The death of a child or fetus is portrayed as more than mere tragedy; it becomes a comment upon a woman’s placement in society. Such is this ideological attachment to fertility engendered that it is only after her son’s birth that Nnu Ego begins to feels like a “real woman” and is gratified that there will be somebody left behind to refer to her as “mother” (54). This, of course, comes after her suicide attempt as a result of losing her firstborn. While Emicheta’s novel cries out against this to the point of comparing it to slavery, Things Fall Apart has been targeted for implicitly supporting that patriarchal view. There is much in the novel to indicate that the author believes that it is the males who truly represent the African character, and that to be a man means to eschew all things feminine. Okonkwo’s relationship with his father is vital to the man he becomes; central to that wish to escape the past is the language used to describe masculinity: “he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was an agbala, that was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title” (10). Despite this, of course, it is also true that Okonkwo’s conception of what it means to be masculine is not one that is widely shared throughout the clan. He is almost alone in believing that masculinity equates with aggressive behavior. The clash between the white man’s world and the Nigerian world in The Joys of Motherhood is presented prosaically. IT begins when the men, who insist that they remain what they used to be, become diminished in the eyes of women as they are forced to sell their labor to the colonialists. Cordelia’s observation that “men here are too busy being white men’s servants to be men” (51) indicates that the absolute power held by the men is now a dying tradition. Once the men have been emasculated symbolically in the eyes of the women, social change is not only inevitable, but already in motion. By contrast, the clash is offered in a much more stylized, symbolic manner in Things Fall Apart, highlighted by a metaphorical comparison of the white man to a plague of locusts descending upon the indigenous natives. The locusts that “settled on every tree and on every blade of grass” represent the unstoppable impact of the coming colonists. These locusts have been on a long journey and their arrival is greeted with both relief and trepidation. Just as real locusts change the geological landscape of an area, so the colonists change the psychological landscape. Once the colonists arrive, they will be just like the locusts, feeding on the natural resources for their own needs and leaving behind devastation without concern. They will be settlers just as the grasshoppers are settlers–but the land will not belong to them. Unfortunately for the Nigerians, the land they own once the colonists move on may not resemble what they have come to know.

The Destructive Clash of Cultures

In their respective works Things Fall Apart and The Joys of Motherhood, both Chinua Achebe and Buchi Emecheta depict the effects of colonialism on Igbo society.While Achebe demonstrates the gradual process of colonial imposition, Buchi Emecheta examines its aftermath. Nonetheless, Nnu Ego and Okonkwo endure a parallel struggle with the conflicting cultures of Igbo tradition and colonial society. The gradual downfall of Okonkwo and the eventual solitude of Nnu Ego are byproducts of these clashing attitudes. Essentially, they both are enslaved by their inherent devotion to tradition. For Okonkwo, the colonial imposition undermines every value and influence that has shaped his existence. In an analogous way, Nnu Ego attempts to fulfill her traditional goals of motherhood amidst the “modernâ€? and colonized city of Lagos. Both characters inevitably fail as the discord between the cultures proves to be insurmountable.Although colonialism is the main focus of Chinua Achebe’s novel, a significant portion of the book is devoted to establishing Igbo culture, untouched by western influences. In his description, he attempts to be an objective historian as he relates all aspects of the culture, even those that seem outrageous. For example, twins were viewed as an abomination in Igbo society and, accordingly, would be abandoned and killed. However, unlike a common historian or textbook, Achebe incorporates a personal aspect to his accounts; he not only describes the actions, but also details the reasoning and values which support them. In effect, the reader is immersed into the society rather than simply informed of it. Although it may be difficult to empathize with such radical traditions, one can nevertheless sympathize with them after thoroughly understanding their foundations. Achebe’s emphasis on the values and beliefs of Igbo society is essential to recognizing why “things fall apart.â€? Okonkwo’s character embodies these traditions. Thus, his gradual downfall parallels the breakdown and dissolution of Igbo culture. Achebe realizes that understanding the culture itself presupposes the understanding of its collapse.After firmly establishing the fabric of the society, Achebe describes its encroaching colonization. The primary step of imposition is changing the fundamental Igbo mentality. In order to affect this deep-rooted state of mind, the Christian missionaries attack the foundation of their entire way of life, which is essentially based on their spiritual beliefs. By making them doubt what they have accepted as spiritual conviction, the missionaries gradually gain validity and support among the clansmen. For instance, when the Christian church survives the notorious Evil Forest, many long held superstitions and beliefs are called into doubt. Thus, things begin to fall apart as more people convert to Christianity. In other words, everything Okonkwo deems important and true in life is threatened—especially with the conversion of his own son. After Christianity is established as a religious influence, other western institutions such as government are also introduced. Each additional institution brings with it more restrictions and further demeans Igbo tradition. Attempts to resist such imposition, like the burning of the church, begin to have legal ramifications according to “whiteâ€? law. Soon after, the clansmen were even denied the right to assembly. Ultimately, resistance proves to be futile. Despite his devotion to tradition, Okonkwo lacks the necessary support of his peers to adequately counter white subjugation. His suicide represents the death of a culture; his decision to take his life parallels his realization that Igbo society is beyond salvation.A similar conflict with tradition can be seen when examining Nnu Ego’s circumstances in The Joys of Motherhood. Her mentality reflects the traditional Igbo sense of a woman’s role. Initially, she assumes the role of a “goodâ€? daughter, complying with her father’s desires and aspirations. As a result, what her father expects of her translates into what she expects of herself: becoming a good wife and mothering many children are deemed top priorities. The fulfillment of these priorities is the standard by which society judges a woman’s worth. For example, male children are a measure of greater wealth and status than daughters. Because Nnu Ego values these traditional views with the utmost conviction, her happiness is contingent upon their fulfillment. Accordingly, she attempts to kill herself after the death of her first son. Emecheta thus establishes the significant relationship between Nnu Ego’s personal happiness and her children. She justifies her complete devotion to the role of a caretaker by appealing to its rewards: her children are expected to reciprocate such care in her old age. No matter how much pain she endures, Nnu Ego continually reminds herself of the future benefits. Thus, these rewards are the driving motivation for her self-enslavement to this role.A conflict arises when Nnu Ego attempts to transfer these traditional beliefs into the opposing culture of the colonized Lagos. Fundamentally, the need for money, which is nonexistent in Ibuza, poses a problem. This need requires Nnu Ego to step outside of the traditional woman’s role in order to contribute financial support. Thus, yet another responsibility is added to an already long list of duties. Such a monetary need also causes a conflict with the traditionally-valued notion of bearing many children. In its practical and economic application, more children entail greater burden within an urban context. Such an urban setting also has a significant effect on the attitudes of the children themselves. Education, for example, possesses greater weight in Lagos than in the more traditional Ibuza: the aspirations of Nnu Ego’s children intrinsically incorporate education for the sake of itself. Although Nnu Ego also adopts this value of education, she does not fully comprehend the process in its entirety. She works hard to provide for this education, understanding its benefits for the future of her children; however, she does so always with the traditional and ultimate hope of reciprocated caretaking. In the end, what she had always expected to be the “joys of motherhoodâ€? are unfulfilled; her attempts to achieve the goals of the traditional Ibuza mentality in a colonized urban environment fall short.Nnu Ego’s incomplete assimilation effected her heartbreaking tribulations. For the sake of survival, she is able to somewhat adapt to the Lagos way of life; however, she fails to overcome the conflicting disparity between her firmly embedded traditional values and the colonized urban society. With both sons pursuing further education abroad, Nnu Ego never receives the comfort they were intended to provide. Facing a similar clash of cultures, Okonkwo exhibits obstinate resistance to the “whiteâ€? invasion which preceded his tragic demise. His tale deserves merely a paragraph in the Commissioner’s book, “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.â€? This reduction corresponds to the British imperialists’ ignorance of Igbo culture that Achebe strived to demonstrate. Essentially, Achebe’s novel serves as an opposing alternative to colonial “historyâ€? books describing African societies that naively classify them as “primitive tribes.â€?