Emecheta, Buchi: Title Commentary

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The Joys of Motherhood

The Joys of Motherhood


SOURCE: Derrickson, Teresa. "Class, Culture, and the Colonial Context: The Status of Women in Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood." International Fiction Review 29, nos.1&2 (2002): 40-51.

In the following essay, Derrickson explores the theory that the women in Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood suffer from a clash between the traditions and values of Ibo culture and the values of British colonizers, instead of being victims of an oppressive patriarchal culture.

Much of the written scholarship on Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood (1979) focuses on the novel's critique of traditional Ibo society.1 Specifically, such articles read Emecheta's text as a denunciation of the reproductive practices of the Ibo people, practices that do harm to women by promoting (and indeed institutionalizing) the idea that a proper wife should seek only to beget and care for her offspring.2 As critical texts that recognize Emecheta's attempt to expose the gender politics operating within indigenous Africa, these readings are important. They collectively validate The Joys of Motherhood as a work of sociohistorical import, as a novel that fills noticeable gaps in the historical record of African women's experiences. Nevertheless, the scholarly consensus that valorizes this work obscures other thematic threads that are equally important in the recovery of African women's history. As S. Jay Kleinberg discusses in his introduction to Retrieving Women's History, the effort to rectify women's erasure in history entails not only an analysis of their work and their role in the family, but also an analysis of "both formal and informal political movements and … their impact upon women, women's participation in them and the ways in which they shape male-female interactions and men's and women's roles in society."3

Kleinberg's call for an analysis of the way in which women's experiences are impacted by local politics encourages us to return to Emecheta's text to analyze a question that most critics of this book raise but do not fully explore: to what extent does colonialism impinge upon the lives of Ibo women? One compelling answer to this question is introduced by Rolf Solberg, who suggests that the lives of the Ibo women in The Joys of Motherhood are determined by the tensions of a "culture collision" between the institutions of traditional Ibo society and the institutions of western Europe.4 The focus of this paper will be to develop this suggestion and to argue its validity. In particular, I will demonstrate that the hardships endured by the women of Emecheta's novel do not emanate from an oppressive cultural practice regarding women's role in Ibo villages, but from a historical moment of political and economic transition, a historical moment in which the values and priorities of British culture clash destructively with the values and priorities of indigenous Africa.5

The Joys of Motherhood bears out the fact that this transitional period was particularly disadvantageous for African women. As the plight of the novel's key character reveals, colonialism was a costly reality for those who were forced to walk a fine line between that which was demanded of them by their village communities and that which was demanded of them by the rules of a European political regime. This paper will demonstrate that the Ibo women of Emecheta's novel find themselves in this very predicament: specifically, they are subjected to new forms of exploitation as they are asked to assume traditional duties and responsibilities under a newly imported economic system that—unlike their native system—fails to validate or reward them for such work. In essence, this paper traces the destructive influence of Western capitalism and its associated ideologies on the relative power and autonomy of Ibo women. Colonialism, I hope to show, was a far greater threat to their collective well-being than the strictures of village patriarchy.

Set in the British colony of Nigeria in the 1930s and 1940s, The Joys of Motherhood details the life story of an Ibo woman named Nnu Ego who escapes the ignominy of a childless first marriage by fleeing to the distant city of Lagos to start anew with a second husband. Nnu Ego's simple dream of becoming a mother—a dream rooted in the cultural values of Ibo society, where motherhood is the primary source of a woman's self-esteem and public status—is happily realized several times over in this new setting. The pleasures associated with motherhood that the protagonist so eagerly anticipates, however, are ultimately negated by the difficult economic conditions of her new urban environment. In short, there are so few job opportunities for her husband to pursue (and so little ambition on his part to pursue them) that Nnu Ego spends her entire life alternately birthing children and working day in and day out as a cigarette peddler to stave off the hunger and poverty that invariably haunt her household. The novel focuses on this grueling battle, a battle that ends in a loss for Nnu Ego, as she witnesses her beloved sons grow up and leave Nigeria for good and her daughters marry and move away. Nnu Ego's hopes of living out her final years in the company of her grandchildren disappear before she turns forty, and she dies at the side of a country road, alone and unnoticed.

The title of Emecheta's novel is patently ironic, for it would seem that there are few joys associated with motherhood after all. And yet while that reality is certainly one message the novel imparts, there is far more to the text than a critique of motherhood. The fact that Emecheta's novel moves beyond this critique to explore the costs of colonialism for women in urban Nigeria is summarized in a crucial passage midway through the novel in which Nnu Ego pauses to assess the injustices of her life in Lagos: "It was not fair, she felt, the way men cleverly used a woman's sense of responsibility to actually enslave her.… [H]ere in Lagos, where she was faced with the harsh reality of making ends meet on a pittance, was it right for her husband to refer to her responsibility? It seemed that all she had inherited from her agrarian background was the responsibility and none of the booty."6 This excerpt is key in locating the source of Nnu Ego's anguish not in her position as a mother per se, but in her position as a woman who is asked to assume the same obligations of her "agrarian background" within a new cultural setting that confers "none of the booty" normally associated with such labor. Nnu Ego is able to interpret the inequity of this exchange as something that "enslaves" and "imprisons" her. She is also able to identify, at least on some level, the political economy of colonial Lagos as the Western construct of "the new" that proves to be unaccommodating of her traditional role as wife and mother: she notes, for example, that it is the "harsh reality of making ends meet on a pittance" that secures her thralldom.

Before discussing in further detail the political dynamics underwriting this thralldom, it might be useful to review the role women played in Ibo society before the widespread influence of British rule. As Kamene Okonjo points out, the popular belief that African women were impotent and/or trivial in the male-dominated communities of Ibo culture is a gross misconception.7 While men's labor was widely considered to be more prestigious than women's labor, and while the practice of polygamy and patrilocal domicile (married women dwelling in their husbands' villages rather than in their own) secured men's power over women in general,8 Ibo women still wielded considerable influence both within their marriages and within the larger community. Women, for example, were a major force in the society's agrarian economy: they planted their own crops, sold their crop surplus (as well as that of their husbands), and exerted exclusive control over the operation and management of the village market, the site where all local commerce took place.9 In addition, women were active participants in the dual-sex political system of Ibo society, a system in which Ibo men and Ibo women governed themselves separately, both sexes selecting their own set of leaders and cabinet members to legislate issues relevant to the members of their respective constituencies.10

Women's formidable presence in the economic and political realms of the village gave them significant say in how the village was run and ensured that their needs would not be ignored. Surprisingly, the practice of polygamy worked in subtle ways to contribute to this outcome. While polygamy was not a perfect marital arrangement, it was well-suited to the agrarian lifestyle of the Ibo people and contained several built-in mechanisms that allowed women to better cope with the burdens of that type of lifestyle. As Janet Pool observes, polygamy allowed co-wives, for example, to "form a power-bloc within the family," a power-bloc that was notoriously effective in coercing an otherwise stubborn husband to behave in ways congenial to his wives.11 Polygamy also eased the workload of Ibo women by making it a common practice for women of the same union to share domestic chores, such as cooking and babysitting. This benefit was particularly advantageous in the context of Ibo society, for Ibo women were encouraged to have numerous children—far more children than they were probably able to manage on their own.12 Finally, in addition to the cultural prestige conferred upon those associated with such a union, polygamy protected the economic interests of women by ensuring that a given family had enough members, that is, sufficient manual labor to produce and harvest a bountiful crop.13

It would be incorrect to assert, even in light of the foregoing facts, that the status of women in precolonial Ibo society matched the status of men, for this was simply not the case. However, as Leith Mullings argues, although women of African agrarian societies did not enjoy the same roles and privileges as men, they were equal to men in all the ways that counted: they had equal access to resources and to means of production.14 As Mullings goes on to explain, the shift of indigenous Africa from subsistence-based societies to money-based societies (a shift precipitated by British colonialism) upset this power balance by introducing a new type of production called cash-cropping. Planting crops for cash (as opposed to planting crops for food or exchange) was a form of labor that was quickly taken up and dominated by African men. Cash-cropping proved so superior to other forms of productive labor within the context of the new capitalist economy that it immediately undercut the value of women's work (which was not aimed at producing cash) and rendered such work practically superfluous.15

These facts are crucial to understand the hardships experienced by the female protagonist of Buchi Emecheta's novel. As the novel makes evident, Nnu Ego is a victim of this newly imported capitalist society, a society in which African women are required to continue performing traditional duties and responsibilities in an economic setting where that labor is no longer of any market value. In other words, Nigeria's transition from a tribal culture and a tribal moral value system to a Western capitalist system with all its benefits and pitfalls has occurred at the expense of women like Nnu Ego, who have exchanged one form of patriarchy with another, while being stripped of former privileges and denied the right to new ones.

Ketu Katrak's analysis of the effects of the colonial capitalist system on women's sociopolitical situation in Nigeria confirms that the local economy was indeed a major force in contributing to the subjugation of women like Nnu Ego.16 Katrak explains, for example, that while African men were allowed to enter the formal economy of colonial Nigeria by acquiring jobs that paid standard wages, African women were excluded from this sphere and were edged instead into the informal and highly unstable economy of street-side peddling: "Women were forcibly kept outside of the wage market dominated by men in this Nigeria of the 1930s and 1940s."17

The gender bias inscribed in the new, dominant capitalist system proves to be devastating for Nnu Ego, who is pressured to maintain her role as a traditional wife and mother regardless of the fact that this new system works against the success of that role. Nnu Ego's barred access from reliable modes of production confines her to levels of poverty that make it nearly impossible for her to feed, clothe, and educate her eight children. This would not have been the situation in her tribal village of Ibuza, where Nnu Ego's crop yield would have sustained her large family, and where Nnu Ego and the other women of the community would have controlled key sectors of the local economy through the production and exchange of household goods and services. Women's influence over the economic affairs of their community gave them significant political leverage and allowed them to participate in village-wide decisions that affected their well-being as women.

Nnu Ego's life in colonial Lagos not only lacks this measure of security, but it also entails a life of self-abnegation that is never mitigated by the kinds of dividends—both abstract and concrete—that Nnu Ego has come to expect in return for the fulfillment of her maternal role. Her largest payoff, for example, never materializes. From the very onset of the text, Nnu Ego anticipates the rewards she will reap as a result of her motherhood, dreaming that "her old age [will] be happy [and] that when she die[s] there [will] be somebody left behind to refer to her as 'mother'" (54). This reward, however, remains elusive, a fact that Nnu Ego begins to realize long before her eldest son's move to the States exposes the presumption of such an expectation. In a moment of clarity she reflects, "I was born alone, and I shall die alone. What have I gained from all this? Yes, I have many children, but what do I have to feed them on? On my life. I have to work myself to the bone to look after them, I have to give them my all. And if I am lucky enough to die in peace, I even have to give them my soul" (186). This interior monologue interrogates the gross discrepancy between the struggles and rewards of motherhood, a discrepancy staged by a new capitalist economy that not only promotes Western values of individualism over familial responsibility, but also no longer awards security and status solely on the basis of one's offspring. Nnu Ego is forced to adhere to the rules of her indigenous culture even though she realizes, on some level, that those rules are no longer the ones that govern what is of value in the colonial context.

The absence of appropriate returns in exchange for Nnu Ego's self-sacrifice is apparent in other situations in the novel as well. At one notable point, for example, Nnu Ego tries to comfort herself with the fact of her privation, recalling that in Ibo society, "part of the pride of motherhood was to look a little unfashionable and be able to drawl with joy: 'I can't afford another outfit, because I am nursing [my child], so you see I can't go anywhere to sell anything'" (80). This reminder of the former esteem of hardship, however, fails to console Nnu Ego. As the passage suggests, the kind of poverty associated with motherhood in Ibo society was not a burden or an embarrassment, but a point of pride. In Ibo society having children was the primary index of a woman's worth, and therefore the straitened circumstances brought about by childbearing were of little consequence, for they were far outweighed by the symbolic value of being a mother. Although Nnu Ego's own penury is a result, in part, of the children she has borne, she nevertheless is unable to take comfort in that fact. Her situation is shaped by a harsher economic setting, a setting where poverty is not alleviated by the "blessing" of children because children are too much of a material liability in a place of such limited resources and because there is no longer a communal setting or a community forum where the "flaunting" of one's maternal success can occur. Thus, while Nnu Ego is obliged to accept cheerfully the fact that "money and children don't go together" (80), she is denied the maternal pride and recognition that once would have made it acceptable for her to endure the kind of poverty associated with childbearing. She is, in this way, injured by the new political economy of Lagos, injured by a social setting where the tribal glorification of motherhood is still espoused in the face of cultural and economic forces that no longer reward women for their role as mothers.

Similar to the cultural "privilege" of poverty, the accolades of the title "senior wife"18 are also undermined in the colonial context and no longer offer the same material and psychological benefits for the Ibo women it describes. This shift does not go unnoticed by Nnu Ego, who on more than one occasion questions the motives of a patriarchy that insists on using such a title despite its irrelevance outside the tribal sphere. After a scolding by her husband for engaging in a cooking strike, for example, Nnu Ego lashes back, charging, "Whenever it comes to sacrifice then everyone reminds me about being the senior wife, but if there is something to gain, I am told to be quiet because wanting a good thing does not befit my situation. I can understand the value of being a senior wife in Ibuza; not here [in Lagos], Nnaife. It doesn't mean a thing" (134). In a later passage, Nnu Ego makes a similar reflection: "Men [are] so clever. By admonishing [me] and advising [me] to live up to [my] status as senior wife, they made it sound such an enviable position, worth any woman's while to fight for" (167). These passages underscore the fact that Nnu Ego's standing as senior wife requires her to engage in "sacrifice" and self-restraint, and yet, once again, the gains that would presumably compensate for such sacrifice are notably absent. Nnu Ego mentions these benefits elsewhere, observing that "[a]t home in Ibuza [I] would have had [my] own hut and would at least have been treated as befitting [my] position" (137). In urban Nigeria, however, where financial hardship places space at a premium and where the newly imported capitalist ideology of the nuclear family enforces cohabitation of spouses,19 Nnu Ego is left without these rewards. Her predicament as a woman is exacerbated, therefore, by the fact that the capitalist system she now lives under still requires her to play the role of the responsible senior wife without offering her the small privileges and benefits that once accompanied that role under the former tribal system.

The overall effect of this cultural confrontation between Ibo traditions and morals and Western traditions and morals is registered most profoundly in the decline of women's political agency within the domestic sphere. This shift of power can once again be traced to broader economic structures within urban Nigeria, where the lack of formal employment opportunities for women altered their position in the home by forcing them to become materially dependent on their husbands. Indeed, as Maria Mies argues, the very structure of imported Western capitalism arranges for this dependency by insisting on a separate domain for women, one that removes them from spaces of public production and exchange and secures them in the role of the housewife, making them financially reliant on their husbands.20

The fluctuating levels of poverty that define Nnu Ego's situation throughout the novel illustrate this new dependency. When Nnaife works, Nnu Ego and her children are schooled and fed, but when Nnaife stays at home or when his paychecks fail to make it back to Lagos in a timely manner, Nnu Ego and the children face starvation. Such a situation would not have been the case in the agrarian economy of Ibuza. As Nnu Ego herself admits as she prepares to return to her village for the last time, "at least there would be no rent to pay and, if it came to the worst, [I] could always plant … food at the back of [my] hut" (219).

The city setting of Lagos does not offer these alternatives, and hence Nnu Ego's life there is characterized by a material dependency on her husband. The resounding failure of the novel's infamous cooking strike demonstrates that her new role as a trapped housewife divests her of virtually all political power within the home. In a rare show of solidarity, both Nnu Ego and Adaku (Nnaife's second wife) agree to stop preparing meals for their husband until Nnaife increases their housekeeping allowance. Their dependence on him is so great, however, that his blanket refusal to raise the amount forces Nnu Ego to end the strike for her children's sake. Her prompt capitulation underscores her new predicament as an African woman in Lagos: neither she nor Adaku are in any position to make demands as to how their home will be run. Their shared political impotency is inscribed in Nnu Ego's pathetic groveling: "[She] went on pleading till morning, and when Nnaife was setting out for work she ran after him and begged him again.… 'Please help, Nnaife, please!'" (137).

Judith Van Allen's comparative analysis of the political power exercised by Igbo women both before and after colonialism suggests a second loss encoded in this incident that is inextricably connected to the loss of domestic authority experienced by both wives as a result of their dependency on Nnaife. Such a loss entails a forfeiture of the powerful gender alliance that unites Nnu Ego and Adaku as women of common interests.21 Van Allen's historical review of precolonial indigenous power structures affirms that African women, as a unit of solidarity, exercised considerable influence over village affairs and were notoriously effective at using boycotts, strikes, and a process called "sittingonaman"22 to legislate the politics of both their private lives and their communities.23 The effectiveness of such collective maneuvering was, as Van Allen observes, not in question: "where individually [Igbo] women couldn't compete with men, collectively they could often hold their own."24

Thus the cooking strike of the text illustrates not only the new marginalization of African women within the home but also the way in which colonialism dismantles the collective power of women by requiring them to place their own needs over the needs of other women. An explanation for this shift resides, according to Johnson, in the fact that precolonial alliances between women were forged on the basis of their shared roles in the agrarian economy and on the mutual class standing that such roles arranged.25 By forcing women out of these formal sectors of exchange and by introducing a class system of advanced social stratification, the adoption of a Western capitalist system not only destroyed the basis on which African women's coalitions were formed, but it also relegated women to the ranks of such destitution that collective action was no longer a possible means of organization: survival became a competitive game that was best played on one's own.

Nnu Ego has no choice, then, but to think of her own children and to arrange a separate truce with Nnaife. She tries to explain her actions to Adaku, arguing, "we can't carry on this way and let the children starve.…I'mnot going to play strike with my children's stomachs" (138). However, this explanation does little to appease Adaku, whose similarly precarious situation in terms of money and provisions leads her to question Nnu Ego's motivations. Adaku, for example, assumes that Nnu Ego ended the strike in order to curry favor with Nnaife, in order to ensure that she—Nnu Ego—might be seen as the more favorable wife, as the wife most deserving of money and support. Tensions mount between the two as their shared needs lead them to act in increasingly selfish and divisive ways.

According to Susan Andrade, the hostility between Nnu Ego and Adaku is due primarily to their struggle over "limited resources in the urban colonial context."26 The novel confirms this conclusion by revealing Nnu Ego's feelings toward Adaku as the two wives meet for the first time: "Jealousy, fear and anger seized Nnu Ego in turns. She hated this type of woman, who would flatter a man, depend on him, need him" (118). As this passage suggests, Nnu Ego hates Adaku not so much because Nnu Ego feels personally threatened by her or inferior to her, but because Adaku is "needy" and "dependent." Nnu Ego realizes that her own well-being and the well-being of her children are jeopardized by this new woman who will undoubtedly make demands on the family's scarce resources. Any possible alliance between Nnu Ego and Adaku is thus spoiled from the beginning by the grim financial conditions of their shared situation, conditions caused by a colonial economy which denies women the opportunity to obtain positions as wage laborers and thus the chance to support themselves.

The rivalry between both women becomes so intense that it ultimately drives them apart, and their paths do not cross again until the end of the novel. The physical separation characterizing their relationship is not only suggestive of their loss of political power within the home, but it also signifies the loss of a collective support system within African society. Village life was characterized by an informal system in which women worked together and interacted with each other throughout the course of each day. Such interaction was crucial, for it enabled women to deal with the dual demands of marriage and motherhood in ways that took less of a physical and psychological toll on each person.

Nnu Ego's return to her village home of Ibuza after the death of her father underscores the importance of female affiliation by demonstrating the way in which African women express solidarity through shared tasks and other meaningful encounters. It is notably a girl who first greets Nnu Ego and her family as they arrive on the outskirts of Ibuza. The girl "came tearing into the motor park, hugged each of the children and said she was going home straight away to fetch the young men to help them. Noting Nnu Ego's pregnancy, she instructed her not to move an inch until the men arrived. She left her bowls of groundnuts for the children, then dashed into the market to bring them some salted ukwa bean cake" (151). This passage illustrates the nature of the informal support structures that bind African women together. Several scenes describe how efficiently women work together and provide emotional support for each other. As Nnu Ego enters her village, she is immediately welcomed by another woman, who instantly takes it upon herself to lighten the older woman's load by volunteering to summon the help of the village men. This errand is carried out, however, only after the girl orders Nnu Ego to rest and takes over Nnu Ego's responsibilities as a mother, feeding her children and rushing off to secure even more provisions for them. Another passage involves a group of women working collaboratively to assist Nnu Ego as she bathes her children (152). Shortly thereafter, we see women helping Nnu Ego prepare her father's widows for mourning (154). Later on we learn that a trusted female friend is caring for Nnu Ego's latest child (156-57). These scenes all situate Nnu Ego as the recipient of female compassion and assistance. The pattern they construct establishes an important contrast between traditional Igbo society and colonial Lagos. While the female collective of the village succeeds in mitigating the burdens of motherhood, the female collective of Lagos is all but inaccessible to Nnu Ego and thus does little to ameliorate her situation.

At first, Emecheta obscures this discrepancy, highlighting the philanthropy of an urban-based women's group that lends Nnu Ego both the money and the know-how with which to start her own business (52). Emecheta also equips Nnu Ego with a friend, an Owerri woman named Cordelia who responds to Nnu Ego's unspoken appeal for companionship with an appropriately charitable response: "'We are like sisters on a pilgrimage.

Why should we not help one another?'" (53). This spirited invocation of sisterhood, not unlike the sympathetic intervention of the urban women's group, suggests the presence of an extensive female support system that binds and unifies the indigenous women of Lagos. And yet, in reality, these passages serve only to underscore that which is generally not accessible to African women in urban areas. Nnu Ego's forays into the business of petty trading, made necessary by the increasing demands of her children, render her a slave to cheap labor and prevent her from maintaining contact with the women who originally helped her. The loss of such companionship is acutely felt (cf. 72; 81).

The impetus behind women's isolation is both colonialism's new capitalist economy and the pressures that such an economy places on lower-income families. It is the need to earn money that keeps Nnu Ego on the streets. It is the need to earn money that bars her from attending church services and women's meetings (171). And it is the need to make money that prevents her from feeling part of a larger community in Lagos. Nnu Ego has internalized the script of a modern housewife, accepting the home as her proper domain and her position therein as subordinate. The economic strictures of a male-controlled economy and Nnu Ego's own attempt to play according to the rules of her newly westernized setting (81) enslave her in a role in which she is prevented from forming useful relationships with the women around her.

The loss of such companionship and of any meaningful connection with the public sphere are explicitly inscribed in one of the most pervasive visual images of the text: the encroaching walls and cramped spaces of Nnu Ego's one-room flat. Nnu Ego's isolation within the confines of this space prevents her from accessing opportunities that almost certainly would have made her job as a mother of eight more bearable. The image gives definition to the person Nnu Ego becomes and also reflects the experiences of the other women in Lagos who share similar circumstances. That their lives are imprinted by the profit motive of capitalism and by other social forces that extend beyond the material fact of gender is a conclusion that is both readily apparent and highly problematic. It is only after a life of want and struggle that Nnu Ego finally realizes the value of female companionship, admitting that she "would have been better off had she had time to cultivate those women who had offered her hands of friendship" (219). At the same time, however, she concedes

that her forced situation as both a mother and a household provider does not afford her the luxury of accessing the friendships available to her. Pressured to be a model African mother, but stripped of the means and incentives to fulfill that role successfully, Nnu Ego becomes a casualty of a conflict between the old and the new, a casualty of a colonial system whose modern values and modern economic configurations are fundamentally irreconcilable with the traditional social structures of indigenous Africa. That Nnu Ego finally comes to recognize her predicament as such by the end of the novel is somewhat auspicious, and yet Emecheta ultimately offers no real solution as to what it means to be an African woman who is contained neither by the confines of the old patriarchy nor by the confines of the new. Nnu Ego's final role as a vengeful spirit who denies the blessing of children to other Ibo women seems to locate one solution in a shift toward Westernization, and yet cultural homogenization can hardly be the answer. Adaku, who chooses that path, finds herself rejected by her own people. Nnu Ego, who chooses the opposite, dies destitute and alone. In the end, each path is condemned as unacceptable for African women, a fact that remains both the point of Emecheta's novel and the problem it cannot solve.


  1. The Igbo are a society of African peoples who dwell primarily in southeastern Nigeria. They constitute one of West Africa's many diverse ethnolinguistic groups. Although the preferred name for these people is "Igbo" rather than "Ibo," I have used the latter spelling to be consistent with the version used in Emecheta's novel. See Victor C. Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965) for an engaging look at Ibo culture and society.
  2. See Marie A. Umeh, "The Joys of Motherhood: Myth or Reality?" Colby Library Quarterly 18.1 (1982): 39-46 and Nancy Topping Bazin, "Venturing into Feminist Consciousness: Two Protagonists from the Fiction of Buchi Emecheta and Bessie Head," Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta, ed. Marie Umeh (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1996) 141-54.
  3. S. Jay Kleinberg, introduction, Retrieving Women's History: Changing Perceptions of the Role of Women in Politics and Society, ed. S. Jay Kleinberg (Paris: Unesco Press, 1988) ix.
  4. Rolf Solberg, "The Woman of Black Africa, Buchi Emecheta: The Woman's Voice in the New Nigerian Novel," English Studies 63 (1983): 250.
  5. The historical moment in question refers to the period of colonization that brought present-day Nigeria under the control of the British Empire. The British had been in West Africa since the mid-seventeenth century, initially to steal a piece of the lucrative African slave trade, and then to wrest control over the sale of Africa's natural resources. Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, became a British colony in 1861, but it wasn't until 1906 that the entire country was formally brought under the control of the British government. The setting of The Joys of Motherhood takes place in the 1930s and 1940s, a time when many parts of Nigeria were still adjusting to the changes imposed by foreign rulers. See Helen Chapin Metz, ed., Nigeria: A Country Study (Washington. DC: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1992).
  6. Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood (New York: George Braziller, 1979) 137. All subsequent references are to this edition and are cited in the text in parentheses.
  7. Kamene Okonjo, "The Dual-Sex Political System in Operation: Igbo Women and Community Politics in Midwestern Nigeria," Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change, ed. Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976) 45.
  8. Robert A. LeVine, "Sex Roles and Economic Change in Africa," Ethnology: An International Journal of Cultural and Social Anthropology 5.2 (1966): 187.
  9. Uchendu 24-25, 27 and Okonjo 48-49.
  10. Okonjo 45-55.
  11. Janet E. Pool, "A Cross-Comparative Study of Aspects of Conjugal Behavior among Women of Three West African Countries," Canadian Journal of African Studies 6.2 (1972): 252.
  12. According to Pool's study (255), a "small" family among West African women, even after years of European influence, meant a woman having four to seven children.
  13. Pool 249, 252.
  14. Leith Mullings, "Women and Economic Change in Africa," Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change, ed. Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976) 240-44.
  15. Mullings 247-49.
  16. Ketu H. Katrak, "Womanhood/Motherhood: Variations on a Theme in Selected Novels of Buchi Emecheta," Journal of Commonwealth Literature 22.1 (1987): 159.
  17. Katrak 167.
  18. In a polygamous marriage, the co-wives of a common husband are ranked according to their seniority. The first wife, generally referred to as the "senior wife," is assigned special privileges and responsibilities associated with her status as the primary wife.
  19. Maria Mies, "Colonization and Housewifization," Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women's Lives, ed. Rosemary Hennessy and Chrys Ingraham (New York: Routledge, 1997) 182-83.
  20. Mies 175-85.
  21. Judith Van Allen, "'Sitting on a Man': Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women," Canadian Journal of African Studies 6.2 (1972): 177-78.
  22. According to Judith Van Allen, "'Aba Riots' or Igbo 'Women's War'? Ideology, Stratification, and the Invisibility of Women," Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change, ed. Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976) 61, to "sit on a man" describes a practice in which the women of a given village collaborate to punish a man who has in some way offended one or more of them. The village women exact their punishment by meeting at the man's hut and "dancing, singing scurrilous songs detailing the women's grievances … banging on [the man's] hut with the pestles used for pounding yams, and, in extreme cases, tearing up his hut." The women generally refuse to leave the man alone until he expresses contrition for his wrong-doing and promises to mend his ways.
  23. Van Allen, "'Sitting on a Man'" 169-71.
  24. Van Allen, "'Sitting on a Man'" 170.
  25. Cheryl Johnson, "Class and Gender: A Consideration of Yoruba Women during the Colonial Period," Women and Class in Africa, ed. Claire Robertson and Iris Berger (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1986) 238.
  26. Susan Z. Andrade, "Rewriting History, Motherhood, and Rebellion: Naming an African Women's Literary Tradition," Research in African Literatures 21.2 (1990): 103.