Author Buchi Emecheta wrote a captivating story others can relate to with similar cultures and upbringing. Nnu Ego is a Nigerian Igbo woman struggling with a rapidly changing patriarchal society under Colonial rule. Tradition, customs, and change can create good and bad experiences for women and mothers under a patriarchal system.
How is Africa represented within the book?
Post-colonial Nigeria is on the horizon while the country is under British control. The transition from rural life to Lagos's big city has been both negative and positive for various ethnic groups (i.e., Fulanis, Hausas, Ibgos, and Yorubas). Many struggle with remaining traditional and embracing Lagos's modern world; some are uneducated (illiterate) former farmers who relocated to the big city to find employment with the British masters or traders in the local markets. The adjustment is too much to bear for some who were hard-core traditionalists.
What images, ideas, beliefs, and attitudes about African society are expressed?
Emecheta educates the reader about some traditions, customs, and sayings about the Igbo people. Nnu Ego’s father, Nwokocha Agbadi, a wealthy local chief in her hometown of Ibuza, senior wife, Agunwa, dies. Her slave is killed (she was from another ethnic group in Nigeria and didn't understand her master's people's customs) and buried with her; the slave vows to come back as a legitimate daughter. Personal slaves were to accompany their mistress upon death to continue their duty in the next life. Nwakusor, a member of Nnu Ego’s village, sees a woman violently trying to keep others from letting her commit suicide, and he recognizes her from back home. Committing suicide in Nigeria because “ . . . you are simply not allowed to commit suicide in peace, because everyone is responsible for the other person”. (p.60) Nnu Ego loses her first son, Ngori, and runs out of the home. A law was passed against anyone dying at home to discourage people from visiting their "native medicine men." (p.67) Iyawo (Yoruba word) is for new wives who are childless. Mama Abby refers to Oshia as "our son." (p.107) (In many Black communities today, you will hear the elders referring to each other’s children as son, daughter, play nephew or niece, and so on.) Nnaife's elder brother dies, and he becomes the head of the family; Igbo custom required him to take on his brother’s wives and children as his own to carry on the family bloodline. Nnaife marries the dead brother’s wife, Adaku, and takes on her daughter by his deceased brother.
How are gender relations described in the book?
Author Buchi Emecheta . . . “depicts a world in which indigenous and colonial forces continually subordinate African women’s material and psychological needs to those of others.” (Robolin, 1979, p.1) Ona, Nnu Ego’s mother, was a mistress of her father Nwokocha Agbadi. She was a challenge for her father because some felt she was stubborn and arrogant. Her father, Obi Umunna didn't have any sons and was very protective of his daughter; Ona didn’t want to become Agbadi’s wife (she had no issue with being his lover). Many of his wives envied her seductive power over him and his heart; she could get away with saying certain things they could not. Emecheta describes life in Lagos for men and women; city-dwelling was different from rural life and more challenging. "In Lagos, a wife would not have time. She had to work. She provided the food from her husband’s meagre housekeeping money, but finding the money for clothes, for any kind of comforts, in some cases for the children’s school fees, was on her shoulders.” (p.53) More children came along over the years for Nnaife and Nnu, and more financial burdens. Nnaife (after losing his job as a washerman) struggles with his ignorance of the oncoming changes in Nigeria, his lack of education, and traditional ways of thinking about his role as head of an extended family. He declares to his wife, Nnu Ego, “ . . . I’m not an ideal husband, I am not like your father. I am not like your former husband. Oh, I know all about that. But, woman, you have to look after your child. That at least is a woman’s job.” (p.86) As time goes on, more children come, and more challenging times continue. Two of their children broke traditions; Oshia, the eldest son, wanted to become educated and modern, and Kehinde wished to marry a young Yoruba man. Nnaife wanted to bear no responsibility or recognize that the world was changing. The children were his when they were right and were Nnu Ego when they were terrible.
What do you perceive of women’s and men’s roles and/ or status?
“The explicit association of women’s status and enslavement runs throughout Emecheta’s substantial oeuvre. This linkage stresses the oppressive domestic and social conditions that force African women into lives of self-abnegating servitude.” (Robolin, 1979, p. 2-3) Nnu Ego's mother, Ona, had the aptitude to see how her lover, and Nnu’s father, treated his wives and the culture. It went against her own beliefs and desire to remain in control of her own life. The idea of a man owning and controlling her wasn’t attractive; Nnu inherited some of her mother’s qualities, which made life emotionally and mentally challenging; she learned to become independent in her village. Adankwo, Nnaife’s inherited wife from his deceased brother, explains to Nnu Ego her responsibilities as a senior wife to Nnaife while he is away in the military, “ . . . You are the senior wife of your husband, you are like a male friend to him. Your place is at his side, to supervise his younger wife.” (p.158) The first set of twins, Taiwo and Kehinde, are girls, and they question why their brothers are treated differently. Their education is put on hold or limited because they must contribute to the family by trading goods in the market while their elder brother, Oshia, attends school. Nnu Ego learned that life is not the same as it was for her growing up in Ibuza. Nnaife is arrested for attacking a Yoruba young man who he thought took his daughter and learned that she wanted to marry him voluntarily. He’s arrested, put to trial, and cluelessly, Nnu testifies to his detriment; she conflicted with Nnaife's testimony. The result-five year prison sentence.
How is the impact of colonialism or postcolonialism on African society described within the story?
“For Nnu Ego and Nnaife, the allure of the city gives way to meager job prospects, limited resources, racism, and exploitation. The resulting strains and discombobulating experiences throw cultural traditions-familiar ways of thinking, being and making sense of the world-into disarray, forcing newcomers to forger new ground in order to gain their footing.” (Robolin, 1979, p.3) Many former rural people experienced humiliating work environments and endured bigotry and racism from white employers. The choice of remaining in the small towns and villages as uneducated, low-skilled people, fighting to survive financially, or relocating to a big city like Lagos wasn’t easy. Nnaife and Nnu Ego were both ignorant and illiterate. Nnaife worked as a washerman, washing the white masters' clothing; language barriers prevented him from understanding the word “baboon” his boss, Dr. Meers, called him. He was proud to be working as a washerman. “He was one of the Africans who were so used to being told they were stupid in those days that they started to believe in their own imperfections.” (p.83) (Frequently, many Black men today endure bigotry and racism in the work environment because they lack the education, limited marketable skills, criminal records, and few job options.). The British controlled Nigeria and were the major employers. Nnaife's friend, Ubani, had to marry his wife, Cordelia, to save his job in a Catholic church. They were at the mercy of their white employers because of their lack of education and transferrable skills; they had to depend on small severance payments from their employers who took a vacation, went back home to England, or relocated their businesses. Ubani’s wife, Cordelia, said to Nnu Ego, “They are all slaves, including us. If their masters treat them badly, they take it out on us. The only difference is that they are given some pay for their work, instead of having been bought. But the pay is just enough for us to rent an old room like this.” (p.51) Oshia, the elder son, watches his father struggle in a modernizing world with his limited education, traditional ways, and stubbornness. He was exposed to more affluent Nigerians in school who embraced European influences. He refuses to become like his father and goes to college in the United States.
Emecheta made the Ona, her daughter, Nnu Ego, and other wives question their rights and place in their own country under British control. Traditions, customs, men, and illiteracy
controlled their lives; it revealed why women should be entrepreneurs, seek higher education, and unite for their betterment.
Emecheta, B. (1979). The Joys of Motherhood. Britain: Allison and Busby Limited