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A Nigerian-born author who has resided in England since 1962, Emecheta is best known for her novels that address the difficulties facing modern African women forced into traditional and subservient roles. Emecheta's heroines often challenge the restrictive customs imposed on them and aspire to economic and social independence. Although some...

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A Nigerian-born author who has resided in England since 1962, Emecheta is best known for her novels that address the difficulties facing modern African women forced into traditional and subservient roles. Emecheta's heroines often challenge the restrictive customs imposed on them and aspire to economic and social independence. Although some critics have categorized Emecheta's works as feminist in nature, Emecheta rejects the label, stating, "I have not committed myself to the cause of African women only. I write about Africa as a whole."


Emecheta was born in 1944 in Yaba, a small village near Lagos, Nigeria. Her parents, both from eastern Nigeria, died when she was a child. Emecheta was taken in by foster parents who mistreated her. She grew up listening to the women around her telling stories, but in her culture women were not expected to be writers. She attended a missionary high school in Lagos until she was sixteen and then married a man to whom she had been promised since age eleven. At nineteen, Emecheta followed her husband to London. She had two children at the time and was pregnant with her third; she eventually became a mother of five. During this time in London Emecheta began to write. Her husband was so upset over her intention to become a writer that he burned her first novel, and after this, Emecheta decided to leave him. She later rewrote the novel and published it as The Bride Price (1976). While struggling to become a writer, she worked part-time jobs to support her family and earned a degree in sociology at the University of London. Emecheta's early writing efforts initially met with repeated rejections from publishers. Her break came when the New Statesman accepted several of her essays about her life in London; these eventually became her first published work, the novel In the Ditch (1972).


Three of Emecheta's works focus on events in her life. Her first two novels, In the Ditch and Second-Class Citizen (1975), are loosely based on her own experiences as a single parent and are regarded as her most accomplished works. Both books revolve around a young Nigerian woman named Adah and her search for a better quality of life. In the first book, Emecheta depicts Adah's struggle to raise five small children while depending on welfare payments, attending college, and attempting to complete her first novel. The second book recounts Adah's immigration to England and her marriage to a domineering man who attempts to thwart her educational and professional aspirations. Their marriage dissolves as Adah, influenced by the women's liberation movement, begins to assert her individuality. Head above Water (1986) is a nonfiction work detailing Emecheta's childhood in a small Nigerian village, her career as a social worker in London, and the problems she encountered in securing a publisher for her writings.

Three of Emecheta's novels dramatize the problems that African women typically encounter in a traditional, male-oriented society: The Bride Price, The Slave Girl (1977), and The Joys of Motherhood (1979). The Bride Price centers on a young woman who defies tribal custom by marrying a man outside her social class. After her husband fails to pay her dowry, or bride price, she dies in childbirth, as prophesied by tribal myth. The Slave Girl, which accuses the patriarchal social system of treating females as commodities, focuses upon the coming of age of an orphan girl whose older brother sells her to a distant relative. The Joys of Motherhood relates the story of a young Ibo woman named Nnu Ego who feels inferior when she is unable to give her husband a child. She flees her village to the city of Lagos and begins a new life with a new husband. She becomes a mother several times over, but the joy of fulfilling her dream is tempered by the reality of having to feed a large family with little income. After her children grow up and move away, Nnu Ego dies alone on the side of the road.


Critics have lauded Emecheta for convincing characterizations and amusing yet poignant evocations of her heroines' tribulations. Many critics have asserted that she provides a thorough presentation of social themes in her novels, but some reviewers have argued that Emecheta has either ignored or shied away from certain larger social issues in her works. For example, several scholars claim that she did not address sexual discrimination in England in Second-Class Citizen. Commentators have disagreed over Emecheta's relationship to feminism and to traditional African culture. Much of this commentary has focused on The Joys of Motherhood. Some critics have asserted that Emecheta created Nnu Ego as the representative African woman, while others hold that Emecheta had neither the authority, nor the intention to speak for all African women. Salome C. Nnoromele (see Further Reading) has argued that "The Joys of Motherhood is not a construction of the universal African woman.… [It] is simply the story of a woman who makes devastating choices and sacrifices her health and selfhood in the pursuit of failed traditions, capsulated in the idea of motherhood." Critics have also argued that the novels set in Africa, including The Joys of Motherhood, represent a feminist indictment of African patriarchal culture, and have lauded Emecheta for her portrayal of the effects of this culture on African women. Certain critics contend that Nnu Ego is not a victim of patriarchal oppression, but rather a victim of the clash between traditional African society and the culture of the colonizers. Critics generally agree, however, that Emecheta provides a needed feminine perspective on the lives and culture of African women. Katherine Frank (see Further Reading) concluded, "Emecheta's novels compose the most exhaustive and moving portrayal extant of the African woman, an unparalleled portrayal in African fiction and with few equals in other literatures as well."

Principal Works

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In the Ditch (novel) 1972

Second-Class Citizen (novel) 1974

The Bride Price (novel) 1976

The Slave Girl (novel) 1977

The Joys of Motherhood (novel) 1979

Titch the Cat (juvenile fiction) 1979

The Moonlight Bride (juvenile fiction) 1980

Nowhere to Play (juvenile fiction) 1980

The Wrestling Match (juvenile fiction) 1980

Destination Biafra (novel) 1982

Naira Power (novella) 1982

Adah's Story (novel) 1983

The Rape of Shavi (novel) 1983

Head above Water (autobiography) 1984

A Kind of Marriage (novella) 1986

Gwendolen (novel) 1989

Kehinde (novel) 1994

Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Buchi Emecheta, "Feminism with a Small 'f'!" In Criticism and Ideology: Second African Writers' Conference, edited by Kirsten Holst Petersen. Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1988, pp. 173-85.

In the following essay, Emecheta discusses her artistic concerns and feminist perspective. As Emecheta illustrates, African feminism differs significantly from Western feminism due to the distinct cultural values and sexual identity of African women.

I am just an ordinary writer, an ordinary writer who has to write, because if I didn't write I think I would have to be put in an asylum. Some people have to communicate, and I happen to be one of them. I have tried several times to take university appointments and work as a critic, but each time I have packed up and left without giving notice. I found that I could not bring myself to criticize other people's work. When my husband burned my first book, I said to him 'If you can burn my book, you can just as well burn my child, because my books are like my children, and I cannot criticize my children'. When I had my babies they were very, very ugly; they had big heads, like their father and their bodies looked like mine. But if anybody looked into the pram and said 'What an ugly baby', I would never talk to that person again. And I know that I am not the only writer who finds it hard to accept criticism. One critic asked me 'You have so much anger in you, how can you bear it?' 'Well', I said, 'I can't bear it, so I have to let it out on paper'. I started writing in 1972, and a few weeks ago I handed in my sixteenth novel. In order to make you understand how I work I will tell you about my background.

I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and was raised partly there and partly in my village, Ibuza, and this explains my wish to tell stories when I was a child. My parents both came from Ibuza and moved to Lagos in search of work. As both of them were partly educated they embraced the C.M.S (Church Missionary Society) way of life. But being of the old Ibo kingdom they made sure that my brother and myself never lost sight of home, of life in Ibuza.

We worked at home during the rains, to help on the farm and to learn our ways. If I lived in Lagos I could start to have loose morals and speak Yoruba all the time. So my parents wanted me to learn the rigorous Ibo life. You can see that even in Nigeria we still discriminate against each other.

It was at home that I came across real story tellers. I had seen some Yoruba ones telling their stories and songs and beating their drums whilst we children followed them—Pied Piper like—from street to street. But the Ibo story teller was different. She was always one's mother. My Big Mother was my aunt. A child belonged to many mothers. Not just one's biological one. We would sit for hours at her feet mesmerized by her trance like voice. Through such stories she could tell the heroic deeds of her ancestors, all our mores and all our customs. She used to tell them in such a way, in such a sing-song way that until I was about fourteen I used to think that these women were inspired by some spirits. It was a result of those visits to Ibuza, coupled with the enjoyment and information those stories used to give us, that I determined when grew older that I was going to be a story teller, like my Big Mother.

I learned to my dismay at school in Lagos that if I wanted to tell stories to people from many places I would have to use a language that was not my first—neither was it my second, or third, but my fourth language. This made my stories lose a great deal of their colour, but I learned to get by. My English must have been very bad because when I first told my English teacher, who came from the Lake District, and who was crazy about Wordsworth that I was going to write like her favourite poet, she ordered me to go to the school chapel and pray for forgiveness, because she said: 'Pride goeth before a fall'. I did not go to the chapel to pray because even then I knew that God would have much more important things to do than to listen to my dreams. Dreams which for me, coming both from the exotic so-called Ibo bush culture and the historic Yoruba one, were not unattainable.

Some of these early missionaries did not really penetrate the African mind. That incident confirmed what I had always suspected as a child, that the art of communication, be it in pictures, in music, writing or in oral folklore is vital to the human.

I never learn from my experiences. My first attempt to write a book, called The Bride Price was resented by my husband. He too, like my English teacher, told me that 'Pride goeth before a fall'. I left him and I found myself at twenty-two, husbandless with five young children. I thought I would wait to be as old as Big Mother with a string of degrees before writing. But I had to earn my living and the only thing I could do was write. Whilst looking after my fast-growing family I decided to read for a degree that would help me master the English language and help me write about my society for the rest of the world. I chose sociology and continued writing. I had enough rejection slips to paper a room. But in 1972 the New Statesman started serializing my work and those recollections later appeared as my first book, In the Ditch.

I have been writing ever since, and I am now living entirely on my writing. Those babies of mine are now beginning to leave home. One of them has started to write as well, so perhaps writing runs in the family. I am not doing anything particularly clever. I am simply doing what my Big Mother was doing for free about thirty years ago. The only difference is that she told her stories in the moonlight, while I have to bang away at a typewriter I picked up from Woolworths in London. I am not good at reading, and sometimes when I write I can't even read my writing. Writing is a very lonely profession. One is there at one's desk, thinking of ideas and reasoning them out and putting them into works of fiction or stories, and if one is not careful, one will start living the life of the characters in the book. Conferences like this one save some of us from becoming strange.

Writers are often asked 'Who are you writing for?'. How am I supposed to know who is going to pick up my works from the library shelf? I wonder sometimes if people ask painters, when they are doing their paintings, who they are painting them for. The painter can control the picture while he is still painting it, but can we expect him to foretell who is going to love looking at it? A book is akin to a child on his mother's back. The mother knows she is carrying a baby on her back but the child can use its hands to lift anything that passes by, without the mother knowing. I find this question sometimes rather patronizing. In fact it is sometimes healthier not to think of one's readers at all. Writers are communicators. We chronicle everyday happenings, weave them into novels, poetry, documentary fiction, articles etc. The writer has the freedom to control, to imagine and to chronicle. I write for everybody.

The writer also has a crucial control over the subject s/he writes about. For myself, I don't deal with great ideological issues. I write about the little happenings of everyday life. Being a woman, and African born, I see things through an African woman's eyes. I chronicle the little happenings in the lives of the African women I know. I did not know that by doing so I was going to be called a feminist. But if I am now a feminist then I am an African feminist with a small f. In my books I write about families because I still believe in families. I write about women who try very hard to hold their family together until it becomes absolutely impossible. I have no sympathy for a woman who deserts her children, neither do I have sympathy for a woman who insists on staying in a marriage with a brute of a man, simply to be respectable. I want very much to further the education of women in Africa, because I know that education really helps the women. It helps them to read and it helps them to rear a generation. It is true that if one educates a woman, one educates a community, whereas if one educates a man, one educates a man. I do occasionally write about wars and the nuclear holocaust but again in such books I turn to write about the life and experiences of women living under such conditions.

Maybe all this makes me an ordinary writer. But that is what I want to be. An ordinary writer. I will read to you two pieces from my own observations. The style is simple but that is my way. I am a simple and unsophisticated person and cultural people really make me nervous. First I want to read a short piece about polygamy. People think that polygamy is oppression, and it is in certain cases. But I realize, now that I have visited Nigeria often, that some women now make polygamy work for them. What I am about to relate happened only a few weeks ago. I was in my bedroom in Ibuza listening to a conversation. It was cool and damp and I was debating whether to get up from my bed or not. I knew it was about six in the morning. I did not have to look at the clock. I just knew because I could hear the songs of the morning, children on their way to fetch water, a cock crowing here and there. Then the penetrating voice of Nwango, the senior wife of Obike came into my thoughts. 'Go away you stinking beast. Why will you not let me sleep? I have a full day ahead of me and you come harassing me so early in the morning. You are shameless. You don't even care that the children sleep next-door. You beast. Why don't you go to your new wife.' Now the man: 'All I have from you is your loud mouth. You are never around to cook for me, and when I come to your bed, you send me away. What did I pay the bride-price for?' The voice of Obike was slow and full of righteous anger. 'Go to your wife.' 'She is pregnant', said Obike. 'So what, get another woman. I need my energy for my farm and my trading, and today is the market-day', Nwango insisted. I was sorry to miss the end of the quarrel because my mother-in-law came in and told me not to mind them. 'They are always like that, these men. They are shameless. They think we women are here just to be their partners at night. He can marry another girl. But again which girl in her right senses will take him? He is too lazy to go regularly to his farm.' My mother-in-law should know. She had thirteen children. They lived in the capital, Lagos, and her husband did not have room to bring home another wife, so she had to do everything. If they had spent their life in the village it would have been different.

I know this is a situation which our Western sisters will find difficult to understand. Sex is important to us. But we do not make it the centre of our being, as women do here. In fact most of the Nigerian women who are promiscuous are so for economic reasons. The Yorubas have a saying that a woman must never allow a man to sleep with her if, at the end of the day she is going to be in debt. Few of our women go after sex per se. If they are with their husbands they feel they are giving something out of duty, love, or in order to have children. A young woman might dream of romantic love, but as soon as they start having children their loyalty is very much to them, and they will do everything in their power to make life easier for them. In the villages the woman will seek the company of her age-mates, her friends, and the women in the market, and for advice she goes either to her mother or to her mother-in-law. Another woman in the family will help share the housework, like Nwango cited earlier. The day her husband wanted her was an Eke day, a big market day. She had to be up early to be at the market. She had to contribute her twenty naira which is almost ten pounds, to the savings fund of the market women. That is the way we raise capital for our business without having to go to the bank, because most banks will not lend money to a woman. So she had to contribute her twenty naira and later on in the evening, she had to put on her otuogu and she had to be at the Agbalani group, as they were going to dance at the second burial of the grandmother of one of their members. For that dance they had to tie the otuogu with the Akangwose style; all of which took them three years to save up for. They had to wear a navy-blue head-tie and carry a navy-blue Japanese fan and wear black flat shoes or slippers. None of these items was bought by their husbands. Nwango worked on her cassava farm four days of the week—we have a five-day week—and sold the garri made from the cassava on the fifth day, Eke market day. She gave twenty naira esusu of her profit to the collector who was one of the women in her group. It is from this esusu forced saving that she is sending her son to college, and she spends the rest exactly as she likes. At the funeral dance the group will give the bereaved lady a thousand naira (about five hundred pounds), from their fund to help out. And the dance will go on till very late. At about eight p.m. one will hear these women going home, singing their heads off. They drink anything from whisky, beer, gin, brandy, you name it, and no man dares tell them not to. Cooking for the husband, fiddle sticks! Get another woman to do it. Especially if the other woman is still a young seventeen-or eighteen-year old with her head full of romantic love. By the time she is twenty-five she will become wiser too. Nwango's husband is almost a stud. Not a nice word, but that is the way most village women feel.

Sex is part of life. It is not THE life. Listen to the Western feminists' claim about enjoying sex, they make me laugh. African feminism is free of the shackles of Western romantic illusions and tends to be much more pragmatic. We believe that we are here for many, many things, not just to cultivate ourselves, and make ourselves pretty for men. The beauty in sisterhood is when women reach the age of about forty. The women who cultivated sisters either through marriage or through the village age-group start reaping their reward. In England for example I belong to the war-babies. They call us 'the saltless babies'. That means we were born in Nigeria when they didn't have salt because of the war. So in our village we were called 'the Saltless Women'. There are about sixteen of my age-mates in London, and we have our own group here too. Last year a member of our group was in hospital and she said that other patients called her the Princess of Africa. On visiting days the nurses and doctors invariably shooed us away. She was there for three weeks, and the two days I went to visit her I had to wait over fifteen minutes before it came to my turn. I live in North London, a long way from her house, but those members who lived near her made sure she had visitors every night as well as her seven children. Her husband left her over three years ago to do some business in Nigeria, but we all know that he lives with another woman over there. Did our group member care? No. She is too busy to care. If he returns, good, if not, better still. She is training to be a hairdresser, now that all her children are at school. She is converting her large house into flats so that she and her older daughter can start a bed-and-breakfast business. And when she is ready she is going to come to our group and take an interest-free loan from our funds. If her husband had been around he would probably have been a help, just by being there, since he had no job anyway, but he could also be in the way of our member's self-realization. Looking after a man for sexual rewards does take a lot of time. I assure you.

In the West many women hurry to get married again after a divorce or a bereavement. Our women are slower. And many who have children don't even bother, because a new life opens for them. A new life among other women and friends. Women are very quarrelsome and jealous. We always make it up, especially after we have had a few brandies and consumed, I don't know how many chicken legs. This is because we realize that what we gain by forgiving one another is better than what we gain by being alone in order to avoid jealousy. In my book Joys of Motherhood I describe a family in which the women went on strike and refused to take the housekeeping money, because they knew that the husband was drinking the greater part of his income. I also describe a life of another woman who was so busy being a good mother and wife that she didn't cultivate her women friends. She died by the wayside, hungry and alone. In the same book I describe how jealous she was, when her husband brought home a new wife. Instead of going to sleep on the first night she stayed awake listening to the noise made by her husband and the new wife in love-making. She learned only a few days later that it would be better and to their mutual advantage, if she and the new wife became friends, rather than quarrel over their shared husband. They soon became so busy in their everyday life that sexuality was pushed into the background.

In many cases polygamy can be liberating to the woman, rather than inhibiting her, especially if she is educated. The husband has no reason for stopping her from attending international conferences like this one, from going back to University and updating her career or even getting another degree. Polygamy encourages her to value herself as a person and look outside her family for friends. It gives her freedom from having to worry about her husband most of the time and each time he comes to her, he has to be sure that he is in a good mood and that he is washed, and clean and ready for the wife, because the wife has now become so sophisticated herself that she has no time for a dirty, moody husband. And this in a strange way, makes them enjoy each other.

The small son of one of our group-members in London told his teacher that he had two Mummies. 'My Mummy number one is working. Mummy number two will come and collect me.' The teacher did not understand until she realized that his solicitor father had two wives, and the little child enjoys being loved and looked after by two women, his mother and the senior wife. What a good way to start one's life. In Ibuza it is the same. Once a woman starts making money she stops having children regularly. This is because women who are lucky to find the work which they love and which they are good at derive the same kind of enjoyment from it as from sex. Many female writers, many English female writers I have spoken to claimed that they find their work, not only sexually satisfactory but sometimes masturbatory. I certainly find my work satisfying. Sex is part of our life—it shouldn't be THE life.

In this next section I will give you a quick overview of some issues concerning black women. In many parts of Africa only one's enemies will go out of their way to pray for a pregnant woman to have a girl-child. Most people want a man-child. The prayers will go: 'You will be safely delivered of a bouncing baby boy, a real man-child that we can and make jolly with whisky and beer.' The pregnant woman will not protest at this prayer because in her heart, she too would like to have a man-child, who will not be married away, but will stay in the family home and look after his mother when she becomes weak and old. In most African societies the birth of a son enhances a woman's authority in the family. Male children are very, very important. Yet, this girl-child that was not desired originally comes into her own at a very early age. From childhood she is conditioned into thinking that being the girl she must do all the housework, she must help her mother to cook, clean, fetch water and look after her younger brothers and sisters. If she moans or shows signs of not wanting to do any of this, she will be sharply reminded by her mother. 'But you are a girl! Going to be a woman.'

It is our work to bring the next generation into the world, nurture them until they are grown old enough to fly from the nest and then start their own life. It is hard. It could be boring and could sometimes in some places be a thankless job. But is it a mean job? I had my photograph taken once in my office where I do my writing. The photo-journalist was a staunch feminist, and she was so angry that my office was in my kitchen and a package of cereal was in the background. I was letting the woman's movement down by allowing such a photograph to be taken, she cried. But that was where I worked. Because it was warmer and more convenient for me to see my family while I put my typewriter to one side. I tried to tell her in vain that in my kitchen I felt I was doing more for the peace of the world than the nuclear scientist. In our kitchens we raise all Reagans, all Nkrumahs, all Jesuses. In our kitchens we cook for them, we send them away from home to be grown men and women, and in our kitchens they learn to love and to hate. What greater job is there? I asked. A mother with a family is an economist, a nurse, a painter, a diplomat and more. And we women do all that, and we form, we are told, over half of the world's population. And yet we are on the lowest rung. Men did not put us there, my sisters, I think sometimes we put ourselves there. How often do you hear colleagues say; 'Oh, I don't know anything I am only a housewife'?

There should be more choices for women, certainly women who wish to be like Geraldine Ferraro should be allowed to be so. We need more of her type, especially among the black women. We need more Golda Meirs, we need more Indira Gandhis, we even need more Margaret Thatchers. But those who wish to control and influence the future by giving birth and nurturing the young should not be looked down upon. It is not a degrading job. If I had my way, it would be the highest paid job in the world. We should train our people, both men and women to do housework. A few privileged African women are now breaking bonds. They live at home and work outside. Most of these women were lucky enough to come from families where the girls were allowed to go to school and to stay there long enough to acquire knowledge to equip them to live away from their families and to rub shoulders with men. Black women are succeeding in various fields along these lines.

This we must remember is not new to the black woman, because her kind has always worked. In the agrarian setting women do petty-trading. Usually, they have small children with them. They trade in anything from a few loaves of bread to a few packages of matches. The lucky ones have stalls or sheds. Others not so fortunate use the front of their house as their stall. Many Nigerian women live in the cities, collect their esusu profits and bank it when they think it is big enough. I have a great number of friends who have built up their families this way. This means that the others who were trained to do the lower-middle-class jobs of, for example, teaching have invariably given up their work in order to take up trading.

Being successful in whatever we undertake is not new to the women of Africa. The Aba riot is a case in point. This was a riot that spread from Owerri in Eastern Nigeria to Calabar among women who did not even speak the same language, and it included all the towns in the area to Onitsha by the river Niger and went further across the river to include women from the Asaba area. Although the white male chroniclers called it a riot, it was a real war. It was a marvel that women at that time were able to organize themselves; remember, there were no telephones, no letters, only bushtracks and dangerous rivers. The whole area was equivalent to the distance from London to Edinburgh. The actual war was organized with women from different groups wearing various headgears and all using their household utensils as weapons. The war, which took place in 1929 was in answer to British demands that women should pay taxes. The black women of that war were praised by all their menfolk. They received admiration not rebuke. And in desperation, the British administrators jailed all men whose wives took an active part in the war. They could not acknowledge that women, especially barbaric women, could organize themselves to achieve such a feat.

Working and achieving to great heights is nothing new to the woman of Africa, but there are still many obstacles in her way. Her family still prefers to educate the boy, while she stays at home to do the important jobs called 'women's duties'. And we accept the tag, knowing full well that the boy, however clever he is, would not be where he is today without the sacrifices made by his mother, his sweetheart, his wife or even his sister. The African woman has always been a woman who achieves. This does not necessarily mean that she becomes a successful international lawyer, a writer or a doctor, although African women in these professions are doing very well, and there are quite a few of us. But for the majority of women of Africa, real achievement—as I see it—is to make her immediate environment as happy as is possible under the circumstances, by tending the crops or giving comfort. But she still will have higher aspirations and achieve more when those cleverly structured artificial barriers are removed, when education is free and available to every child, male or female, when the male-dominated media does not give exposure to a black woman simply because she is a beautiful entertainer, thereby undermining our brain power, and when we ourselves have the confidence to value our contribution to the world. It is about time we start singing about our own heroic deeds.

Title Commentary

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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.

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Allan, Tuzyline Jita. "The Joys of Motherhood: A Study of a Problematic Womanist Aesthetic." In Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics, pp. 95-117. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995.

Examines Emecheta's themes in comparison to Alice Walker's womanist aesthetic presented in her work The Joys of Motherhood.

Davis, Christina. "Mother and Writer: Means of Empowerment in the Work of Buchi Emecheta." Commonwealth: Essays and Studies, no. 13 (autumn 1990): 13-21.

Discusses how Emecheta empowers her female protagonists in her fiction.

Ebeogu, Afam. "Enter the Iconoclast: Buchi Emecheta and the Igbo Culture." Commonwealth: Essays and Studies 7, no. 2 (1985): 83-94.

Analyzes Emecheta's relationship to the Igbo culture and her portrayal of it in her fiction.

Emenyonu, Ernest N. "Technique and Language in Buchi Emecheta's The Bride Price, The Slave Girl, and The Joys of Motherhood." Journal of Commonwealth Literature 23, no. 1 (1988): 130-41.

Traces the development of Emecheta's technique and her use of language through The Bride Price, The Slave Girl, and The Joys of Motherhood.

Ezenwa-Ohaeto. "Tropes of Survival: Protest and Affirmation in Buchi Emecheta's Autobiography, Head above Water." In Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta, by Marie Umeh, pp. 349-66. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, Inc., 1996.

Highlights Emecheta's instinct for survival and penchant for protest that emerge throughout her autobiography Head above Water.

Frank, Katherine. "The Death of the Slave Girl: African Womanhood in the Novels of Buchi Emecheta." World Literature Written in English 21, no. 3 (autumn 1982): 476-97.

Asserts that feminist themes are present in Emecheta's novels and contends that her works portray a broad spectrum of the lives of African women.

Hunter, Eva. "'What Exactly Is Civilisation?' 'Africa', 'The West' and Gender in Buchi Emecheta's The Rape of Shavi." English Studies in Africa 37, no. 1 (1994): 47-59.

Discusses critics' differing interpretations of Emecheta as an African or feminist writer and traces her portrayal of African and colonial cultures in The Rape of Shavi.

Iyer, Lisa H. "The Second Sex Three Times Oppressed: Cultural Colonialism and Coll(i)(u)sion in Buchi Emecheta's Women." In Writing the Nation: Self and Country. The Post-Colonial Imagination, by John C. Hawley. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996.

Analyzes different types of oppression from which Emecheta's heroines suffer.

Katrak, Ketu H. "Womanhood/Motherhood: Variations on a Theme in Selected Novels of Buchi Emecheta." Journal of Commonwealth Literature 22, no. 1 (1987): 159-70.

Discusses Emecheta's demystification of African motherhood in her novels.

Mezu, Rose Ure. "Buchi Emecheta's The Bride Price and The Slave Girl: A Schizoanalytic Perspective." Ariel 28, no. 1 (January 1997): 131-46.

Applies Gilles Deleuze's and Felix Guattari's theory of schizoanalysis to Buchi Emecheta's The Bride Price and The Slave Girl.

Nnoromele, Salome C. "Representing the African Woman: Subjectivity and Self in The Joys of Motherhood." Critique 43, no. 2 (winter 2002): 178-90.

Contends that many of the feminist readings of Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood actually reinforce stereotypes of African women and offers a differing viewpoint to Nnu Ego's experience in the novel.

Oha, Obododimma. "Language and Gender Conflict in Buchi Emecheta's Second-Class Citizen." In Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta, edited by Marie Umeh, pp. 289-308. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1996.

Analyzes the role that language plays in the gender conflict in Second-Class Citizen and Emecheta's use of rhetoric.

Solberg, Rolf. "The Woman of Black Africa, Buchi Emecheta: The Woman's Voice in the New Nigerian Novel." English Studies 64, no. 3 (June 1983): 247-62.

Examines Emecheta's conflicted feminist perspective and her representation of African women and contemporary social themes, asserting that her harsh criticism of male chauvinism is tempered by a respect for traditional African culture.

Sougou, Omar. "The Experience of an African Woman in Britain: A Reading of Buchi Emecheta's Second-Class Citizen. "In Crisis and Creativity in the New Literatures in English, by Geoffrey V. Davis and Hena Maes-Jelinek, pp. 511-21. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990.

Asserts that Emecheta's Second-Class Citizen examines issues beyond female oppression and explores the racial discrimination the narrator faces in England.

Uraizee, Joya. "Buchi Emecheta and the Politics of Gender." In Black Women Writers across Cultures, by Valentine Udoh James, James S. Etim, Melanie Marshall James, and Ambe J. Njoh, pp. 171-203. Lanham, Md.: International Scholars Publications, 2000.

Asserts that the focus of Emecheta's writing is on African patriarchal systems and how they oppress women of all classes and races.

Ward, Cynthia. "What They Told Buchi Emecheta: Oral Subjectivity and the Joys of 'Otherhood.'" Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 105, no. 1 (1990): 83-97.

Discusses the oral subjectivity in Emecheta's work.


Additional coverage of Emecheta's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; Black Literature Criticism Supplement; Black Writers, Vols. 2, 3; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 81; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 14, 48, 128; Contemporary Novelists, Vol. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major Twentieth-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 12, 14; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vol. 66; and World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2.

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Emecheta, Buchi (Contemporary Literary Criticism)