Buchi Emecheta: The Joys of Motherhood (1979)

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Buchi Emecheta emigrated from Nigeria to London with her young husband, only to find herself ultimately alone, raising children in a hostile and poverty-ridden climate. Through hard work and study she became an influential writer focusing on the roles of women in both the traditional and emigrant societies. Her portrait of Ibo culture is a very different one from China Achebe's; but we must bear in mind not only that she is writing as a woman, but that her novel is set long after Things Fall Apart, when traditional structures have begun to malfunction seriously under the impact of urbanization.

Because she shares many western feminist concerns, she has been embraced by many feminist writers, but she herself does not identify entirely with western feminism. Many male writers in Africa have rejected her as a hostile emigrant contaminated by European views. See if you can discover what her analysis of women's roles is about from her own point of view.

Chapter 1

The Hausa are the most important group of Muslims in Nigeria, living mostly in the north, and outsiders here in Lagos. How does Emecheta use the concept of chi (personal spirit) differently from Achebe?


Chapter 2

What kind of women does Nwokocha Agbadi prefer? What are Ona's attitudes toward men? Agbadi's attitude toward her? Compare how Emecheta has described polygamy so far as compared with the way Achebe described it. Note the treatment of slavery and human sacrifice in this story. Unlike Ach

ebe, Emecheta raises some of the negative aspects of traditional Ibo society early in her novel. The sacrifice of slaves to accompany dead leaders has been practiced in many cultures, most famously in ancient Egypt. Why does Ona refuse to marry Agbadi? What is the meaning of Nnu Ego's name? What significance does it have? What is Ona's last wish for her daughter?

Chapter 3

Note that Nnu Ego's virginity at marriage is a cause for celebration, and that all of the focus on her future deals with her role as a mother. Modern statistics tell us that infertility is extremely common; yet many traditional cultures make no allowance for such a situation. How does Nnu Ego achieve some of the joys of motherhood? It has been well established that sufficient stimulation can cause some women (and even rare men) to lactate without pregnancy. What is her father's reaction to Amatokwu beating her? The corrugated sheets now used for roofs are less attractive than the old palm leaves, but they are much more effective at keeping the weather out and do not harbor insects and other vermin as did the old roofs. What reason does Nnu Ego give for needing a child on p. 38?

Chapter 4

"Lorry" is the British/Nigerian word for "truck." Why does Dr. Meer's wife argue with him? What are Nnaife's views on marriage? In what ways does Nnu Ego feel differently about Nnaife than she had about Amatokwu? Why does Nnaife feel he "owns" Nnu Ego? What is her attitude toward Christianity? What effect does Cornelia say the dominance of the whites has had one the Ibo men? In West Africa it is traditional for women to engage in trade. Indeed, retail commerce is dominated by women. What is the difference between traditional married life and married life in Lagos?

Chapter 5

Why is suicide difficult in Nigeria? Why is Nnu Ego able to resist so successfully the men who are trying to save her? How do people's attitudes change when she tells them what has happened to her?

Chapter 6

"Pap" is gruel, or mush. Why is it illegal to allow a child to die at home? What does Ubani say at the end of the chapter is the difference between men and women?

Chapter 7

In what ways does Nnaife disappoint Nnu Ego? What are Nnu Ego's views on white men and women? "Bush" is the wild rain forest; so a "bush pig" is a wild rather than a domesticated pig. How are women's roles diminished in the city?

Chapter 8

What effects does the outbreak of World War II have on the residents of Lagos? What is Nnaife's reaction to being supported by Nnu Ego? Why does she object to soldiers? Why is Nnaife's threat to call the police laughed at? Fernando Po is the old name of an island off the coast of Equatorial Guinea now named Bioko where the capital is located. It got the name of Fernando Po while under the control of the Spanish. Note that Nigeria is a very vague concept to Nnu Ego. She is uncertain whether the British "own" her home town.

Chapter 9

Note the change of point of view in this chapter. How does it affect the story to have it told now though Oshia's eyes? How does Nnu Ego justify selling her clothes? Her reproaches to Oshia make more sense if you remember the Ibo tradition that children sometimes willfully die to spite their parents. Note how Nnu Ego focuses almost obsessively on motherhood. Practically everything she says relates to it. Why hasn't she named her new baby?

Chapter 10

Why is local gin prohibited by the British? The custom of levirate marriage, which requires a man to marry and care for his dead brother's wives, was also observed in ancient Israel, where affects the stories of Onan and of Ruth. How does Nnaife gain Nnu Ego's "respect?" Why can she not appeal to her father for help when Nnaife gains a new wife? How does this instance of noisy lovemaking compare with the one earlier in the novel, concerning Nnu Ego's mother?

Chapter 11

What evidence is there in this chapter that tensions are common between co-wives? According to Nnu Ego, how is being a senior wife different in Lagos than in Ibuza? How does she attempt to save Adaku from being beaten? Why doesn't she leave her husband?

Chapter 12

12 degrees Centigrade equals 56 degrees Fahrenheit. 20 degrees Centigrade equals 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Colonial troops fought in both world wars for both the British and French, to preserve the independence of the countries that had taken their own independence away. In what way does Ubani compare the British to God on p. 148? In modern Africa and in developing nations elsewhere it is all too common for men to have to leave their families in order to earn enough to support them.

Chapter 13

Groundnuts (so called because they grow underground, on the roots of the plant) are peanuts, originally cultivated in South America, but very popular in Africa in modern times. An Obi is an important inherited post in Ibo culture. How are Agbadi's widows provided for?

Chapter 14

Why can't Nnu Ego stay in Ibuza? What argument does Nnu Ego try to use to convince Adaku not to become a prostitute? How is it typical of her?

Chapter 15

Why is it said that "Ibuza men gloried in the unfaithfulness of women?" Note that Nnu Ego is preparing her daughters to follow in her footsteps by giving them an inferior education and training them in housework. What other actions and speeches of hers in this chapter show how she discriminates between the girls and the boys? Why does Oshia prefer his father to his mother? Given what you know of Nnu Ego, how realistic do you think her prayer on pp. 186-187 is?

Chapter 16

What is Nnu Ego's attitude toward her ninth baby? The emphasis on the value of fertility should go far toward explaining why Africa has the highest birthrate of any place in the world.

Chapter 17

What shift in attitude creates a split between the generations? Ibo separatism was to reach a head in the late 60s in an attempt to secede from Nigeria and form a nation called "Biafra." This attempt led to a catastrophic civil war and permanently strained relations between Ibos and others. So-called "tribalism" in such nations is the natural result of very different peoples being forced together during the colonial period into artificially created "nations." How does Kehinde's attitude toward marriage reflect the split between the generations? Note how her attitudes are not entirely dissimilar from those of her grandmother. Why does Nnaife curse Nnu Ego?

Chapter 18

To be "canonized" is to be formally declared a saint. What do you think of the ending of the novel? The title is obviously ironic. What do you think the main messages of the novel are?


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Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.

Version of January 18, 1996.

This page has been accessed times since June 6, 1997.