Though many themes and poignant arguments arise in Buchi Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood, the most bold of these is the impact of colonial rule on traditional African society and its ambiguous affects thereafter. These themes specifically come about in the text as the clash between colonialists and Africans and how colonial occupation comes to alter the natural development of African cities and villages. It becomes obvious that the influences of colonial presence in Africa are and will continue to be disruptive and detrimental to the lives of Africans.
Though this colonial disruption is highlighted immensely, the oppressed people continually move to sidestep the obstructions placed within their society. Even with the oppression of colonial rule upon them, Emecheta’s characters manage to create insular communities to maintain both dignity and tradition. Nnu Ego returns to her father’s house and is again married off, but this time to a fellow Ibo working in Lagos as a domestic for British colonials.
The arranged marriage between Nnaife and Nnu Ego is never smooth, and indeed from her first sight of her husband on their wedding day in Lagos, Nnu Ego is disillusioned, though willing to follow custom and fulfill her duties as a wife (Emecheta, 43). Though Nnu Ego is unhappy with Nnaife’s duties as a domestic servant, she stays positive in the marriage in the hopes that her chi will bless the union by allowing her to become a mother. Though her first child dies, Nnu Ego eventually goes on to mother eight children.
Despite his less than desirable position as a British domestic servant, Nnaife fully assumes his position as the male head-of-household in his home in accordance with Ibo custom (Emecheta, 47-48). As the eldest son of his family, upon his younger brother’s death, Nnaife marries his two sisters-in-law and brings one of them to Lagos and incorporates her and her children into the household with his family with Nnu Ego (Emecheta, 120). The marriage of Nnu Ego and Nnaife contain many examples of the endurance of traditional African culture throughout colonial rule.
As an Ibo minority in Lagos among Yorubas and British imperialists, Nnu Ego and her family struggle and live below the poverty line. One of the main conflicts depicted for Nnu Ego, her family, and society is the navigation of the British imperialistic order. United against a common adversary, the Ibos and Yorubas in The Joys of Motherhood forge a loose knit community and rely on each other during hard times. This alliance between Ibo and Yorubas is especially apparent in the relationships between the women. For instance, as a new wife in Lagos, neighboring women show Nnu Ego the best places to market for cheap, fresh foods (Emecheta, 52).
When Nnaife loses his job, the neighboring women help Nnu Ego find cigarettes and other goods to stock a roadside retail stand in order for her to earn extra money (Emecheta,103). Through these hard economic times under colonial rule, the enduring principle of African community values emerges strong as ever. The women of the town especially rely on each other when the men work away from home and during the war when many are drafted into the British army. When the British army commandeers her living quarters, Cordelia helps Nnu Ego move her children and belongings into new housing (Emecheta, 98).
When Nniafe is drafted and Nnu Ego is unable to read his letters, Mama Abby helps to read the letters and deposit his allotment checks into the bank (Emecheta, 149-150). Though these allotment checks from the British are extremely useful in caring for the household, Nnu Ego is working constantly and not knowing when Nnaife will return. Though it seemed that colonialism provided new opportunities for the poor to improve their economic woes, would they have been as poor to begin with if colonialism was not the rule of the land?
The separating aspect of taking the men from Africa was extremely detrimental not only to those left behind but also to those who go to war. Many return mentally scarred or are ostracized for their involvement with Europeans (Lunn, 45-46) Nnu Ego and her fellow neighbors experience the variations of a changing society but manage to do so without losing the essence of their traditions. As had become custom of imperialism, Africans suffered many hardships under colonial rule for the most part without knowing what the conflicts of the “Western powers” were about.
Asks Nnu Ego of her friend, “But, Ato, on whose side are we? Are we for the Germans or the Japanese, or the other one, the British? ” Ato answers back, “I think we are on the side of the British. They own Nigeria you know. ” Nnu Ego responds back, “And Ibuza too? ” “I don’t know about that,” Ato states (Emecheta, 98). The implication of this exchange demonstrates that while the British may have political and economic control over the country, the cultural essence of the people cannot be owned.
According to Lunn, most African communities were staunch in asserting tradition and sticking to it in these colonial times, showing a strength that Europeans undoubtedly were not expecting (Lunn, 46). The Joys of Motherhood portrays a distance between the generations in the relationship between Nnu Ego and her children, and in particular, the relationship Nnu Ego has with her oldest son, Oshia. In keeping with tradtion, the family invests in Oshia by providing him with the best education, and respecting his status as an elder male, and in return he is expected to take care of the family (Emecheta, 190-191).
As a product of an imperialist society, Oshia is educated in a British school system and goes abroad to college where he learns the western value of self-reliance and making his own fortune independently out in the world (Emecheta, 200-201). His selfishness is borne from two both traditional and colonial influences. The fact that he’s the first-born son grants him privileges and honor from the first day he is born along with his association with wealthy students at school teaches him to expect more from life.
However, in the end it is the dissociating factor of colonialism and individualism that pulls Oshia away from his family duties. The demonstration of how Nnu Ego, Nnaife, and their neighbors maintain their traditions is embodied by the numerous celebrations they have throughout the novel. Although money and power are in short supply, the African society continues to celebrate births, homecomings, and marriages. The hosts of each party are certain to have large supplies of palm wine and food for everyone, even if they cannot afford it. Upon his mother’s death, Oshia returns to the village and throws a costly funeral celebration.
The funeral puts him into debt which would take three years to pay off, but there is a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that an expected ritual has been performed to honor the dead (Emecheta, 224). The new colonial economic order impacts cultural customs is always present, though. When Nnu Ego returns to Ibuza to visit her father, she is happy and becomes comfortable with the ease of being at home and surrounded with fellow villagers (Emecheta,156). However, a grand-aunt admonishes her to return back to Lagos and not to shame the family by failing to live up to her responsibilities as wife (Emecheta, 159).
In this respect, tradition is extremely limiting, in that Nnu Ego’s life and her children’s lives would be much easier in Ibuza than in Lagos. Though traditions can be limiting, especially in the case of a traditional marriage such as Nnu Ego’s, the traditional bond is what links and sustains the community in Lagos. What on the one hand undermines tradition as limiting can also be seen as the thread of continuity necessary for the cultural health and identity of people. The issues about traditions that Emecheta raises stem from the dilemma of how a society reconciles and develops when ideals between cultures clash.
British colonial rule certainly made life more difficult and even began to chip away at certain norms and traditions such as familial duty and class systems. The individuality espoused by British culture was in direct violation of the Ibo culture of Nnu Ego. A certainty represented in The Joys of Motherhood is when the community and family worked together, they would thrive. The individual must look to find acceptance in ways that merge into the larger cultural community and that are mutually beneficial to the traditional culture that remained steadfast and a rock during the tumultuous days of colonial rule.