Buchi Emecheta is one of a growing number of African women writers who have set their authorial eyes on the conditions of women living both on their home continent and abroad. She takes her place among Tsitsi Dangarembga, Miriama Ba, Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, Lauretta Ngcobo, and Lindsey Collen, to name a few, as writers who have formed an intense new voice of African womanhood. Emecheta has published more than twenty works, including the novels Double Yoke, The Bride Price, Head above Water, Destination Biafra, and Kehinde. Each is an exploration of what it means to be a woman and a mother in rapidly evolving societies where traditions and mores are in a constant state of flux. While some of her novels mirror her own experience as an expatriate living in London, her work mostly focuses on her native country of Nigeria. The Joys of Motherhood is among her most pivotal works, as it offers critical commentary on colonialism, tradition, capitalism, and women’s roles as they come to affect one woman, Nnu Ego, and her family.
Emecheta’s work is not strictly feminist in the western sense of the term, and she does not fully identify with Western feminist ideals. Many African women have not typically viewed themselves as domestic drudges, confined to the endless domestic cycles of childbearing and child rearing. Instead, Emecheta and others have pointed out that African women have a different cultural understanding of the role and function of work, identifying themselves as powerful economic forces who have always been a significant source of the family’s income.
Still, Emecheta does not back down when it comes to critiquing the often repressive attitudes commonly held by many Ibo men of her generation. The Ibo, sometimes referred to as the Igbo, are a group of people who originally settled in southeastern Nigeria. Traditional Ibo culture called for strict regulation of women’s roles and a proscribed subservience to men. In her novels, Emecheta is often critical of authoritarian Ibos who take advantage of male privilege, citing it as a justification for the oppression of their wives and daughters. Emecheta has always defended polygamy, or multiple marriage, seeing the system as a necessary community that aids in the rearing of children. However, she argues that it is not a presumed right that every man holds, especially when the husband is unable to afford and support additional family members. She sees the unquestioning application of repressive attitudes and behaviors as systematically silencing women and barring them from realizing their full potential.
Another source of conflict and change in Emecheta’s work is the colonial influence. Emecheta turns her critical eye to the mostly white Europeans whose governments seize control of various African nations, fundamentally annexing them. European powers turn to developing parts of Africa as a rich source of raw materials, products, and labor. This foreign presence not only brings a new economic order to the colonized nation but influences and alters the values, community standards, and ways of life of the native residents. In The Joys of Motherhood, the family is affected most profoundly. The young are lured by the promise of higher education and the temptations of wealth, individual advancement, and personal gain. The colonial influence challenges and effectively erodes the communal and clan value systems that once defined and unified the Ibo.
These concerns are simply backdrops to the human drama Emecheta anchors firmly at the heart of her novel. Emecheta’s art lies in her exploration of individual lives buffeted and shaped by larger social, economic, and national concerns. Nnu Ego stands as both a test case and a warning to a society that traditionally values motherhood at the expense of all other roles women could assume. Nnu Ego is caught between worlds and between diverse, often warring traditions. Change and resolution come only at the expense of her happiness and her illusions.