Buchi Emecheta (1944-2017)

Buchi Emecheta was an important member of a group of African women writers who set their authorial eyes on the conditions of women living both on their home continent and abroad. She took her place among Tsitsi Dangarembga, Miriama Ba, Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, Lauretta Ngcobo, Lindsey Collen, and others, as writers who formed an intense new voice of African womanhood. Emecheta published more than 20 novels and works of nonfiction, including In the Ditch (1972), Second-Class Citizen (1974), The Bride Price (1976), and The Slave Girl (1977). 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. Some of her novels mirror her own experience as an expatriate living in London, while others focus on her native country of Nigeria. The Joys of Motherhood (1979) 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.

Buchi Emecheta was born in 1944 in Lagos, Nigeria, to parents who were Igbo from the Delta State. The Slave Girl was inspired by her mother, Alice (Okwuekwuhe), who had been sold into slavery by her family. In spite of deep societal biases against women and girls, Buchi was able to persuade her parents to send her to school. She was awarded a full scholarship at a Methodist girls school, where she studied from ages 10-16. At 16, she was married, and eventually moved to London, where her husband was attending a university. The couple eventually had five children, but the marriage was an unhappy and violent one. Emecheta found solace in writing, which her husband responded to by destroying her work. At age 22, she left her husband and began working to support her children on her own. She also continued her studies, earning a degree in Sociology from the University of London in 1972—eventually earning a PhD.

Emecheta’s writing career began with a regular column in the New Statesman magazine about Black British life that became the basis for her first book, In the Ditch in 1972. That work was quickly followed by several more successful books throughout the 1970s into the 1980s. During the 1980s, Emecheta was a visiting professor at several universities in the United States as well as at the University of Calabar in Nigeria. In 1986, She became a Fellow at the University of London. She was an OBE of the British Empire in 2005. Emecheta suffered a stroke in 2010, and died at the age of 72 in January of 2017. She left behind an impressive body of work—including several semi-autobiographical novels—that describe and explore racial and sexual discrimination from her perspective as a Black woman born in Africa and living in the UK.

Sociological Context for The Joys of Motherhood

Emecheta’s works are not strictly feminist in the western sense of the term, and she did 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 Igbo men of her generation. The Igbo—sometimes referred to as the Ibo—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 Igbos who take advantage of male privilege, citing it as a justification for the oppression of their wives and daughters. Emecheta defended polygamy, or multiple marriage, seeing the system as a necessary community that aids in the rearing of children. However, she argued that it is not a presumed right that every man holds, especially when a husband is unable to afford and support additional family members. She saw 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 explored by Emecheta in The Joys of Motherhood is the colonial influence. Emecheta turned her critical eye to the mostly white Europeans whose governments seized control of various African nations, fundamentally annexing them. European powers turned to developing parts of Africa as a rich source of raw materials, products, and labor. This foreign presence not only brought a new economic order to the colonized nation but influenced and altered 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 Igbo.