The Joys of Motherhood- Buchi Emecheta

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“Yes, life could at times be so brutal that the only things that made it livable were dreams.”– Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood

It’s been a while since I’ve read an African novel that has touched me this much. This is a story that had me transfixed from the start, a tale of heartache, hope, and change. The book’s structure is reminiscent of “Things Fall Apart” in that the early part of the book takes place in an African village that still followed its traditional ways, while the latter half has all the marks of colonialism and the struggle the locals went through to keep up with the changing society.

I’ve always felt that the most fascinating books about Africa are the ones about transitional periods because they offer so many contrasts. Emecheta uses her novel to look at colonialism, an important backdrop to the story of the female protagonist, Nnu Ego, with a critical eye. It was interesting to see the clashes between the African and the British ways; I couldn’t help but imagine what might had been had the colonialists been a little bit more culturally sensitive.

This book is rich with sociological detail. I enjoyed reading about how the migration of Nigerians from the villages into the cities created a complex society. Not only do neighbours speak different languages coming from different parts of the country, the inhabitants have to forget their village ways if they are to remain sane. The realization hits the newcomer (Nnu Ego) to the city that she has to change her ways:

“She had been trying to be traditional in a modern urban setting. It was because she wanted to be a woman of Ibuza in a town like Lagos that she lost her child. This time she was going to play according to the new rules.”

And the new rules are the British colonialist rules. I know colonialism did so much damage in Africa but it’s mainly books like this that help me understand to understand the extent to which the societies changed. Even simple things like the materials used to build a house, or the type of jobs men took to be considered “men” changed with colonialism, and these often had their repercussions:

“Things have changed a lot. This is the age of the white man. Nowadays every young man wants to cement his mud hut and cover it with corrugated-iron sheets instead of the palm leaves we are used to.”

I’m currently interested in the participation of African soldiers during WW2 so I read with interest the portions that described the Nigerian men being forcibly conscripted into the army. They went to Burma to fight yet they didn’t even know who they were fighting, why they were fighting, or where Burma was. That was one of the most upsetting parts of the book for me. When Nnu Ego said, “There is nothing we can do. The British own us, just like God does, and just like God they are free to take any of us when they wish”, I was stunned because the Nigerians, like all Africans at one time in their history, really had no power over their own country.

“It’s unbelievable…Why can’t they fight their own wars? Why drag us innocent Africans into it?”

Soon you realize the title of the book is very ironic. What are the joys of motherhood when your life is dependent on producing children, preferably sons; when you have to share your husband with another woman; when you can’t afford to feed or clothe your children, send them to school? Yet, motherhood was what made an African woman at that time a woman. No other choices were really available to her. She strived to be a complete women,” i.e. women with children.

This book was sad to read on so many levels. I was able to feel the repression Nnu Ego faced as she struggled to be “a full woman, full of children.” I felt frustrated with her at times, sometimes I just wanted to hug her when I could feel how much she was hurting and how few options she had. Emecheta showed the pressure and the strain that women were often under to be perfect, the effect that patriarchy has on women. Perhaps not much has changed.

“I wanted to die, because I failed to live up to the standard expected of me by the males in my family, my father and my husband—and now I have to include my sons. But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change all this, it is still a man’s world, which women will always help to build.”

I definitely plan on reading more books by Emecheta this year.

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12 thoughts on “The Joys of Motherhood- Buchi Emecheta

  1. The fact that there is a female protagonist in this Nigerian literature is already a hook for me, plus the fact you enjoyed it so deeply. Hearing about having to forget village ways to remain sane makes sense but it also seems ironic because they are essentially forced to forget a part of themselves, a away of life that is close to their heart. This is a bit close to home considering that this is a fictional representation of real African history. All my life, I have been told the American story. I’ll have to add this book to my “to be read” section of Good Reads so I may be more acquainted of the history of the blood that runs through my veins. Thanks for writing this poignant and brilliant review, Rowena. 🙂

    1. Although I’m not Nigerian having a female African protagonist was huge for me too! And as you’re Igbo I think Nnu Ego will mean even more to you. This is definitely a book that will stay with me for a long time and I am so thrilled to now be reading alternative narratives, it’s so refreshing. I hope you enjoy the novel, Mary ❤️

  2. I really love this review and I definitely will include Emecheta’s books on my “to-read” list. Forgetting a part of oneself to remain sane hit home. For instance,back here in Zambia,despite gaining independence since 50 years ago, we have failed to regain our identity as individuals and as a group. So many hardships we’ve had to go through but in more discreet ways than one, we still allow people of a different colour (to be specific,white skin) to define who we are. And I love the last part of your post. It’s time we placed our hope and confidence in our daughters,sisters,mothers; females,in general. And yes,the title though being ironic makes sense. Mothers,no matter how much pain they go through,still find joy in motherhood. And no matter what oppression is inflicted on us, we can still find joy in being black females. My hope is that we realize our worth and work towards bringing that worth and beauty to life 🙂

  3. I really love this review and I definitely will include Emecheta’s books on my “to-read” list. Forgetting a part of oneself to remain sane hit home. For instance,back here in Zambia,despite gaining independence since 50 years ago, we have failed to regain our identity as individuals and as a group. So many hardships we’ve had to go through but in more discreet ways than one, we still allow people of a different colour (to be specific,white skin) to define who we are. And I love the last part of your post. It’s time we placed our hope and confidence in our daughters,sisters,mothers; females,in general. And yes,the title though being ironic makes sense. Mothers,no matter how much pain they go through,still find joy in motherhood. And no matter what oppression is inflicted on us, we can still find joy in being black females. My hope is that we realize our worth and work towards bringing that worth and beauty to life 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for the very insightful comment, Fiona! The more I dwell on it the more I realize how damaging colonialism was to the psyche of Africans. I can’t even imagine having to change so much of myself in such a short time AND against my will. I would definitely have been depressed.
      And you made such a great point about Zambia not being able to maintain its individual and collective identity. Perhaps because I haven’t lived in Africa in so long it’s something I haven’t been able to witness first hand in a while. I do wonder though about the ethnic groups in Zambia, they were basically forced to see each other as Zambian instead as Bemba, Lozi etc like it was in the old days.
      And yes, unfortunately the standard of the world still seems to be the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant ideal and it’s definitely more than overdue for us to define ourselves and appreciate everything about us without comparison.
      Thanks, Fiona!❤️

  4. Thank you for review this book, Rowena. I read The Joys of Motherhood and loved it even though it broke my heart. Do you know of any other writers who have been able to show the complexities of being an African woman during “transitional periods” the way Buchi Emecheta has?

  5. *sigh*. This book is just sitting on my book shelf. I’m scared to read it. I don’t feel like being sad hahaa. I already thought Emecheta’s book ‘The Bride Price’ was depressing enough. Welp, I hope to get to this soon…one day. Great review Rowena! (Giiiirl, forgive me for binge-commenting on so many of your posts! Great, honest reviews 🙂 )

    1. It definitely wasn’t a light read but it’s honestly amazing! I don’t know whether you’ve read any Adichie? Apparently Emecheta is one of her influences and honestly her writing style is absolutely stunning! LOL, I truly feel flattered, no need to apologize:D I enjoyed reading your blog last night and I’m looking forward to reading more today:)

      1. Oh yes, I’ve read all of Adichie’s work. I def see how Emecheta has influenced Adichie with respect to honestly in her writing though – from the little I’ve read of Emecheta’s work! 🙂

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