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Joys of Motherhood

By Buchi Emecheta Obe | Reviewed by: Olatoun Gabi-Williams

What has she seen? What terrible thing has this young woman seen? The opening of the book is magnificent: a dishevelled woman, eyes wild with terror, colliding with the door as she backs out of a room, into the compound, suddenly bumping into the washing line which makes her “whirl around with a jerk like a puppet reaching the end of its string.” Now, facing a road her glazed eyes cannot see, she begins to run. She runs “like someone pursued”, without seeing into a sweeping panorama of Lagos over which the sun is rising. A beggar’s angry outpouring greets the morning as she runs into him. He is a blind beggar, furious in his belief that his assailant intends to rob him of his alms. A perfect and brilliant opening to a narrative which flows like a river, comes alive like a moving picture and reads as a harsh indictment of the poverty colonisation brought in. The first time I read this book – years ago now- I didn’t see beyond the title’s irony: “The Joys of Motherhood”.

The spectrum of emotions generated by barrenness and maternity were to my mind the dominant themes, the ones that stayed with me. But now, re-reading it, I realise that from these vantage points what Buchi Emecheta has actually achieved is a compelling view of Nigeria’s difficult, ongoing transition from an agrarian civilisation founded on indigenous customs into an industrialised model founded on western thought.

Lagos is the setting of The “Joys of Motherhood” which unfolds in the years between 1930 – 1950. Familiar landmarks map the action: Marina, Ebute Metta, Yaba. When Emecheta takes us to Sabo and Oyingbo Markets, I smile lightly wrinkling my nose, recognising too well the market smells that assail customers and the colourful noises of negotiation. Nnu Ego’s son Adim, picks St. Gregory’s College in Obalende as his secondary school. And there’s Carter Bridge: the author chooses it as the location for an attempted suicide. Here, I felt nostalgia: Carter Bridge was a beautiful structure which no longer exists in its original state but is now one of a network of bridges connecting Lagos Island to the Mainland.

Emecheta sheds a harsh light on the distortion of traditional values that has already set into the Lagos of 1934. Refracted through the lens of the city, the symbols of success which the book’s characters aspire to, have acquired a doubtful value. What were sources of joy in their native village of Ibuza have degenerated into sources of misery in colonial Lagos. “Oh, what a confusing world it is!” cries Nnu Ego from the desperate hollows of her soul. But however much she suffers, she cannot break out of the paradigm for living imposed by her village culture. Senior wife to Nnaife Owulum, she play by the rules, frowning on Adaku, her “junior wife” whose pragmatism, commercial acumen and flouting of custom, she puts down to poor breeding. Nnu Ego can sneer all she likes, Adaku is devil may care. Tired of poverty, tired of breeding girl children and of her marginalisation as a second wife, she reinvents herself, becoming a scarlet woman of the city. By so doing Adaku pays respect to economic imperative and bows the knee to gender imposed limitations. She gets rich, sits back, smirks in her finery, and from her place of freedom, looks on as her senior wife and rival, struggles with her tribe of growing children, against chains she cannot and will not loose.

Emecheta’s use of English is refreshingly Nigerian and so completely does she transport the reader into the world of domestic staff and labourers that I felt I knew Nnaife and Nnu Ego Owulum better than the people who work in my own compound. Master story teller, the most striking of her contrasts - and surprising - is the contrast between Nnu Ego and her mother Ona. It is true that Ona is bound by obedience to her father’s authority, but that is where the similarity to her daughter ends. Where the doors are closed to Nnu Ego, Ona can access freedom in her role as mistress to the powerful Nwokocha Agbadi. In situations in which her daughter, a married woman, must give in, Ona is free to play hard to get. As Agbadi’s mistress, not his wife, her power depends on driving this renowned lady killer to distraction. Her biting tongue matches his own and masks her tender feelings for him. Emecheta weaves magic out of this romance, which provides the true opening to the story, endowing a heroic stature on Ona Umunna and Nwokocha Agbadi . Óna and Agbadi tower above the cast of characters. Over the course of the novel, their romance acquires legendary status, imbuing mystique and grandeur on Ibuza, the village in which, like gods, they play out their love. What a contrast with the life of their child! Nnu Ego’s marriage is beset not by the violence of passion which elevates her parents’ love, but by strife. If Ona and Agbadi lived in the village in a state of grace, Nnu Ego’s life with her Nnaife in Lagos is the fall. The Owulum’s marriage will never rise above the meanness of the struggle to survive and the attendant humiliation because while she finds her husband’s work as a “washerman” demeaning, Nnu Ego’s alarm at the news of the sudden departure of his employers, provides Nnaife with a perfect opportunity to defend it: “So you see Nnu Ego, daughter of Agbadi, that washing the white woman’s underclothes was what was able to keep us alive. Only now do you know it’s value, when even that is taken away from me.” The idea of an African man washing a woman’s underwear, is a source of so much spousal contention, that the washing line in the opening scene takes on the significance of an emblem; one of gender violation and cultural defeat. How can we have come to this?

In the village, their family names Agbadi, Owulum, carry weight: She is “daughter of Agbadi”. He, Nnaife, is “son of Owulum”. In his latter years, as a village elder who had paid his dues, Nnaife would have been celebrated; praise names greeting his entrance and his departure. Though a simple man, he is faithful to his culture and might, like his father in law, have become a great man: goats would have been slaughtered before the announcement of his death and loud gun shots would have proclaimed it. Before Nnaife and Nnu Ego each made their humble entry into the city - without the ammunition of western education – someone ought to have warned them that the future the city has scripted for those who cannot speak or read and write English (and even for those who can), is a very far cry from this. Click Here to get a copy

4 Comment(s)
Posted by John Davys | 05.January.2024 8:53:06 I enjoyed reading this review and I hope that I'll enjoy the book as much. Damilare successfully conveys the story and the author's style in a way that makes one want to read the book, and shows an understanding of real events that the book aims to reflect. My only question - is there anything about the book that you didn't like?
Posted by Alison Taylor | 28.December.2023 11:36:28 Damilare’s review is superb. Compelling, informative and beautifully articulated. It persuades me to want to read the book.
Posted by L.L. | 23.December.2023 6:23:14 The choice of subject refreshing and important. Well-reviewed. This is the most important statement: “It's more a case of enough hints to ground the reader's interpretation in the real and ongoing rise of the far-right and throughout Europe, the emergence of fascism and fascist policies.” This must be said! Thank you.
Posted by Dr. Adenike Yesufu | 20.December.2023 2:33:18 Damilare’s review of Paul Lynch’s novel Prophet Song is spell bounding. Dami has employed a review style that has remarkable fluency and flow. Although I have not read the book, Dami's comprehensive coverage in his review gives the reader an excellent capture of the essence and message of the book. Dami’s eye for relevant details in the book and his interpretation of some of the events captured in the book gives the reader a sense of familiarity with events and people in the story. For ins

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