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During the colonization process, many changes have occurred in Africa and the indigenous populations were forced to adopt and adhere to the western values and lifestyle. The effects were felt on all levels of society and in her novel The Joys of Motherhood; Buchi Emecheta highlights the consequences of this confrontation on a traditional Igbo woman, Nnu Ego. It is show at the very beginning of the novel that fertility is a determinant factor of a woman’s status and reputation. This standard established by this patriarchal society is anchored in Nnu Ego and she does not know how to be self-fulfilled other than the cult domesticity. However, with the changes that occurred in her society, the joys and rewards of motherhood that she desired for a longtime have been compromised.
This extended essay thus investigates the impact of the clash of cultures on Nnu Ego. To do so, I first examined the situation of women during the pre-colonial Nigeria in order to underline the differences during the colonial time. Then, I analyzed the two main conflicts of the novel which are the protagonist’s struggle for self-fulfillment and her dilemma between assimilating the colonial lifestyle and clinging to her traditional values.
After this investigation, I came to the conclusion that the tragedy in the story of Nnu Ego is that her imprisonment in tradition prevented her to recognize and embrace the changes that occurred before her. Emecheta’s novel is thus both a critique of colonization and the conservative nature of the Igbo tradition that prevents women to emancipate and build a better future.
European colonization in Africa has had both favorable and unfavorable consequences as far as it has destabilized and controlled the indigenous’ ruling systems while bringing modernization to the continent. This notion of modernity is however just as problematic because it represents an antagonism to the traditional African values which resulted in an inevitable clash opposing tradition to modernity. The confusions and struggles raised from this conflict are dealt in different ways and as regards African women; they are confronted, until now, to obstacles in the cultural, economical as well as the political side. Indeed, in most of African cultures, women are victims of subordination within their society because the opposite gender overpowers and retrains them in their development by dictating their thoughts, behavior and decisions.
Buchi Emecheta is one of the first African women novelists to address the issue of the conditions of women and their battle for self-fulfillment and emancipation. In her novel, The Joys of Motherhood, she explores the positive and negative effects of modernization on women as well as their imprisonment between tradition and change. Through the story of Nnu Ego, the protagonist, she also shows how the strict traditions discriminate women who are regarded as men’s property, producers of children and are placed in second position on the social pyramid.
In order to understand the impact of Nigeria’s confrontation with western world on women, the following essay will first take a look at the situation of women during the pre-colonial and colonial Nigeria. Then, it will examine the struggles of Nnu Ego for self-fulfillment and emancipation and finally, her dilemma between assimilating the colonial lifestyle and clinging to her tradition.
The clash of cultures in The joys of Motherhood and its impact on Nnu Ego
The downfall of African women from a position of power happened during the process of colonization. Prior that, societal roles were equal and there was a complementarity between the roles played by each gender. For instance, they even switched roles and women were allowed to work in the agricultural field. In addition to that, women did not only work in pairs with their male counterparts but they were also respected and sometimes worshiped. Most men like Agbadi, a renowned chief and the father of the protagonist, preferred a woman who: “was troublesome and impetuous, who had the audacity to fight with her man before letting him have her” (p.21). Ona, the mother of Ngu Ego represented that type of women and was depicted as a strong, stubborn and highly respected character. She functioned as queen sister, a chief and was an inspiration to the young women in her village because showed the men that she was just as powerful as them.
However, during the colonial era, the traditional rules concerning women were rigidified, which led to the devaluation of female roles and status. Indeed, by introducing capitalism as a new economic system and Christianity as a new spiritual doctrine, the English colonizers have indirectly modified the roles and status of the genders in Nigeria. In modern and capitalist societies, money is a determinant factor of one’s status and women have gradually been excluded from trading or any paid work. This resulted in uplifting the status of men and diminishing the status of women whose only roles now were to maintain the household and carry children. As shown in the book, these changes have also affected the vision men had of women because: “in [Agbadi’s] young days, a woman who gave in to a man without first fighting for her honor was never respected. To regard a woman who is quiet and timid as desirable was something that came after his time, with Christianity and other changes” (p.10). Thus, considering the fact that men married women: “who could claim to be helpless without them” (p.36), women were forced to comply with the new standards. Strong minded women like Ona gradually disappeared and women who used to be equally treated in her time were now considered as more vulnerable and weaker than men. By introducing her novel with a short description of Ona’s life, Buchi Emecheta’s purpose was to show that the subordination of women is a result of a change in beliefs which gradually anchored in the Igbo tradition. It moreover helps the reader to understand the contrast between Ona and Nnu Ego and gives an insight on Nnu Ego’s struggles.
Buchi Emecheta evokes in her novel two elements which represent an obstacle to Nnu Ego’s self-fulfillment which are the relationship between men and women and children. The protagonist lives in a man’s world in which women must prove that there are good daughters and then good wives in order to gain respect. As an example, when her father arranged a second marriage for her, Nnu Ego did not approve of her new husband, Nnaife, because he was physically different to the men in her village, Ibuza. However, she wanted to prove to herself, to Agbadi and to her society that she wasn’t barren but a complete woman. “She would [have] rather [died] in this town called Lagos than go back home and say ‘Father, I just do not like the man you have chosen for me'” (p.44). She gradually learned to respect this man and “put up with his crude ways and ugly appearance” (p.44) because he fulfilled her dream which was to have a child. Yet, with the other pregnancies, their relationship degraded because Nnu Ego lost all respect for her husband. She was not given enough housekeeping money because her husband, Nnaife, spent most of the money on his drink and the children were starving. She then realized that:
she was a prisoner, imprisoned by her love for her children, imprisoned in her role as the senior wife. She was not even expected to demand more money for her family; that was considered below the standard expected of a woman in her position. It was not fair, she felt the way men cleverly used a woman’s sense of responsibility to actually enslave her” (p.137).
It is shown trough this excerpt that in a couple, the woman must be worthy and accept her fate without complaining. If she fails in doing so, not only will she be branded as a bad and not respectful wife but she would also bring the shame over her family. As Nnu Ego said it, she is imprisoned in a code of conduct established by her patriarchal society which preaches submission. As a result, the man takes all the decisions and as regards the protagonist’s husband, he is depicted as a selfish man who spends his money without taking into consideration the needs of his family. She was consequently powerless and when Nnaife returned from war with a big fortune he gained the fear and respect of Nnu Ego. “He could even afford to beat her up if she went beyond the limits he could stand” (p117). This demonstrates on one hand that money and violence are the primary sources of power for men. On the other hand it testifies that the submissive image of women to which Nnu Ego must comply represents an obstacle for her emancipation and self-fulfillment. This code of conduct imposed on women is also responsible for the fact that a woman’s voice was rarely taken into consideration as regards the important decisions. For an example, when her husband was at war, Nnu Ego gave birth to a child to whom she did not attribute a name before the return of her husband. She was scared of being “regarded as overcivilised woman who chose the names her children by herself, just because her husband was fighting in the war”(p.155). Stated differently, “endemic sexism, patriarchal attitudes, and the force of blinding tradition bond African men in a hegemonic system that nourishes and protects their interest “. This can also be seen through the two polygamous marriages undergone by Nnu Ego. In the first one, she was unable to produce a child and lost her position as a senior wife. Yet, the major function of a wife in her culture is to bear children. Women just like men, grant much importance to the fertility of a woman because it is the only way to gain respect from the community. The marriage is only truly strengthened with the birth of a child, particularly a boy who will be the heir and the support of the family. The Igbo woman is thus subjected to a lot of pressure during the first years of the marriage because her reputation is concerned. Childless marriages are rarely recognized because: ”when a woman is virtuous, it is easy for her to conceive ” (p.31). Nnu Ego is a very emotional character and her barrenness only accentuated her unstable state of mind which manifested through endless “tears of frustration and hopelessness” (p.32). This situation drove her husband to become polygamous which also undermined her self-confidence. “Few had noticed that it was bad for her morale to hear her husband give pleasure to another woman in the same courtyard where she slept” (p. 21). In the end, the fact that she remained childless for two years led to the disintegration of her marriage.
In the second marriage, she succeeded in having eight children but it did not prevent her husband from looking for a second woman. Nnu Ego and her co-wife were complete opposite and “she hated this type of woman, who would flatter a man, depend on him, need him” (p.118). Nnu Ego was compared to a “jealous cat” because she could not understand why her husband bought a new wife especially when they were living in such terrible conditions. She tried to control her feelings, to be sophisticated just like she had been taught but the unfairness of the situation revolted her. She withdrew in herself but was forced to behave properly. She “[had] to be careful if she did not want her sons’ future wives to say ‘but your mother was always jealous whenever her husband brought a young wife'” (p.185). Polygamy is in the book another mean for men to control women. Nnu Ego had the feeling she was given more power as a senior wife but in fact, she was imprisoned in her role and her love for her children forbad her from reacting indecently. Moreover, as a senior wife, Nnu Ego was force to follow some standards which restrain her in self-expression. Indeed, when her husband was enlisted against his will to fight with the English during the Second World War, she and her co-wife were terrified. However:
“her culture did not permit her to give in to her fears. She was supposed to be strong, being the senior wife, to behave more like a man than a woman. As men were not permitted open grief, she had to learn to hide hers as well. She heard Adaku crying, and she envied her freedom” (p.140).
The effect achieve by Emecheta was to show that a traditional woman like Nnu Ego is forced to abide to traditional customs, values or beliefs in order to feel fulfilled. If she doesn’t she runs the risk of being denied by her husband, classified among bad women and at the same time, compromising her children’s reputation and future.
Children thus play an important role in the sense of women’s achievement and represent another element which empowers Nnu Ego. Her only goal throughout the novel was to have children and raise them properly since “she had been brought up to believe that children made a woman.” (p.219) A child is part of a woman’s identity and the only symbol of hope, success and self-fulfillment for women. This vision of femininity and motherhood established by her culture was the main cause of Nnu Ego’s failed suicide attempt. When her first child died, Nnu Ego was desperate, in grief and fell into depression. All women “agreed that a woman without a child for her husband was a failed woman” (p.62). She was brought to perceive herself as a failure and even her closest friends where comforting her husband rather than her. They said to Nnaife who felt guilty: “you are to give her children and food, she is to cook and bear the children and look them. A woman may be ugly and grow old, but a man is never ugly and never old. He matures with age and is dignified” (p.71). This disparaging declaration clearly illustrates the image of women and men in the Igbo society. In all cases, the woman is to blame and this has a negative impact on emotional and unstable characters such as Nnu Ego. It could have been fatal but she was determined to refute the fact that she was a failed woman. She lastly gave birth to several children and it is from this moment that she drastically evolved. The financial situation of the couple did not allow them to feed correctly the children and her vision of motherhood began to change. She compared her life to her colleagues who worked and had few children and she regretted having so many children. Her children suffered from malnutrition “yet all because she was the mother of three sons, she was supposed to be happy in her poverty, in her cramped room” (p.167). She became self-aware that being a mother did not only revolve around having many children but also about raising them properly. She wasn’t able to put all the eight of them in good conditions so she put all her hope into her eldest son. “Before, her refrain used to be: ” All will be well when Nnaife returns from war”. Now it was: “All will be well when Oshia returns from college”(p.190). She believed that with rewards of motherhood, she will acquire a higher social status and that he will feed her in her old age and will wipe the tears of shame.
In addition to struggling for self-fulfillment, Nnu Ego also struggled between assimilating the colonial lifestyle and sticking to her tradition when she made the transition from a rural world to a modern life. This constitutes another major external conflict of the novel because Nnu Ego was living in a society whose mode of thought and behavior were evolving while she remained firmly attached in traditions. For example, Buchi Emecheta painted a vivid picture of the strict gender division among the Igbo society in her novel. The father instructs his son about how to manage a house, protect the women and introduces him to the rites and traditional meetings. In contrast, the young girl’s duty is only to help in the house holding. She is firmly taught that her life strictly concentrates on the marriage, having children and cook for her husband. Through this informal education, the young boys are influenced to perceive themselves as higher, better and more important than women whereas the young girls are educated to see themselves as a complement of men. They are also taught to be submissive by bending to the men’s requests and desires. As a result, men along with women accept their gender roles as a matter of fact. However, since Lagos is rapidly evolving and tending towards modernization, the daughter of Nnu Ego, Kehinde doesn’t understand why she and her sisters have to stay home while her brothers get the chance to study. “But you are girls! They are boys. You have to sell to put them in a good position in life, so that they will be able to look after the family. When you husbands are nasty to you, they will defend you” (p.176) is the answer given to Kehinde from her mother. This shows that Nnu Ego is still hampered in her tradition while her daughter’s mentality is changing. This difference of opinion between Nnu Ego and her daughter foreshadowed another major conflict at the novel opposing Kehinde to her parents.
However, Nnu Ego eventually rebelled and decided to break the chains of tradition because she could not see her children suffer anymore. In fact, there is an old and Igbo sacred saying which stipulates that women and money are incompatible and if ” you spent all your time making money and getting rich, the gods wouldn’t give you any children ; if you wanted children, you had to forget about money, and be content to be poor.” (p.80). Ngu Ego decided during her second pregnancy to abandon her trading works because she firmly believed that it was because she didn’t follow the rules that she lost her first child. However, two years later, the family was very poor because Nnaife’s incomes were not enough to satisfy their needs. Nnu Ego’s internal conflict plunged her during a long period of self-doubt and dilemma because she wanted to put her two children in better conditions but was afraid to lose the other child she was carrying. She eventually decided to cross the line which made her benefit from a certain control over the household expenses. The effect achieve by Buchi Emecheta was to show that to be independent, women must initially have some financial freedom. Contrary to her counterparts in Ibuza, Ngu Ego did not completely depend on her husband anymore. It represented on one hand the first sign of revolt and rejection of traditional beliefs. On the other hand, it was a major step for her emancipation and self-fulfillment because she was able to raise her voice. She discovered her power as mother, a woman and a worker.
Nevertheless, the fact that Nnu Ego was being more independent did not help her to reach her goal. On the opposite, even if she sacrificed all her money, time and energy on the education of her children, “her love and duty for her children were like her chain of slavery” (p.186). Emecheta compares Nnu Ego’s life to a slave in order to emphasize the fact her success will be determined by the success of her children. She strove throughout the whole story to send her boys to school so that they will be member of the new Nigerian elite and tried to raise her daughter according to the traditional model. Such devotion should have helped her to reach her goals but it was not the case because by the time her children grew up the values of her people have changed considerably while she stood firm to her tradition. Nnu Ego refused to adapt to the new mentalities and beliefs and this resulted in a series of disagreements with her children and a series of failure. In the first place, when her eldest son won a scholarship to study in Canada, her husband was firmly opposed to this idea. In the Igbo culture, when the father reaches a certain age, the eldest son must take over the whole family. However, Oshia’s dream was to get a higher level of education and this resulted in an irrevocable quarrel. In the end, Oshia was denied by his father and Nnu Ego was blamed for not bringing well her children. From this moment, Nnaife started to refer to the children as Nnu Ego’s and she “was becoming fed up of this two-way standard. When the children were good, the belonged to the father; when they were bad, they belonged to the mother” (p.206). It is the same with her daughter who married a man from another tribe. This is considered as the worst act of betrayal and Nnu Ego plunged into despair. She did not understand where she failed and Emechata thus symbolizes Nnu Ego as the danger of resisting change. The heroine was so hampered by tradition which make it looks like women must “aspire for children or die”(p.187). The conservative side of tradition prevented her from seeing the change around her and its impact on her children’s education.
This means that the title of the book, The Joys of Motherhood, is thus ironic and a double-edged sword. On one hand, Nnu Ego’s cup of happiness was almost full because she was pleased to see her children happy. She was very proud of the fact that she brought up her children even if the road was strewed with difficulties. Her reward was also in the fact that “those same children might rub shoulders one day with the great men of Nigeria” (p.202). On the other hand, she died alone with a husband who denied her, “no child to hold her hand and no friend to talk to her”(p.224). Throughout this journey, Nnu Ego has matured and realized that until women keep subscribing to the laws imposed by men, they will be powerless, dominated and unfulfilled. She finally understands that if she failed to live according to the standards expected of her it is because she was a prisoner of traditional values and customs in a modern world.
As shown in this essay, the patriarchal society in which Nnu Ego lived has established the standards for female valorization. A woman has no identity of her own as far as it is the status and the position of their husbands that defines them. Through the journey of Nnu Ego, Buchi Emecheta shows that the influence of the tradition is highly responsible of the Igbo women’s situation because it has on one hand, determined the boundaries between the genders and one the other hand, established standards to which women must follow in order to gain respect and to feel fulfilled. However, colonization has eroded the Igbo traditions which made Nnu Ego’s life a journey of endless struggles.
As a result, the novel is not only a criticism of tradition as regards women’s emancipation and self-realization. It is also about a warning of resisting change and it encourages women to fight for gender equality. Nnu Ego’s self-examination over her successes and failures conveys a powerful message. Indeed, women subscribe to the traditional customs and laws more than men and until they revolutionize this, they will not be able to build a better future for the upcoming generations.
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