Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood as an African Feminist Text
Upon my first reading of Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood, I immediately rejoiced--in this novel, I had finally encountered an account of a female protagonist in colonial and postcolonial African life. In my hands rested a work that gave names and voices to the silent, forgotten mothers and co-wives of novels by male African writers such as Chinua Achebe. Emecheta, I felt, provided a much-needed glimpse into the world of the African woman, a world harsher than that of the African male because woman is doubly marginalized. As a female in Africa, the opposite of male, woman suffers sexual oppression; as an African, the opposite of white in an ever-colonized nation, the African woman also suffers racial oppression. Nnu Ego, Emecheta's protagonist, became at once for me the poster female of Africa, a representative of all subjugated African women, and her story alerted me to all the wrongs committed against African women, wrongs that could only be righted through feminist discourse.
As with many surface readings I have performed as a student of literature, however, my perspective on The Joys of Motherhood began to evolve. First, I realized and accepted Nnu Ego's failure to react against oppressive forces in order to bring about change for herself and the daughters of Africa; I consoled myself, reasoning that the novel still deserves the feminist label because it calls attention to the plight of the African woman and because its author and protagonist are female. Rereading the novel, however, also triggered the silencing of my initial response. I focused on such passages as the dying wish of Ona, Nnu Ego's mother, who implored Agbadi, Nnu Ego's father, to allow their daughter "to have a life of her own, a husband if she wants one" (28); such a request failed to resound with the progressive timbre of my ownfeminist ideology. Yet what ultimately resulted in my desire not to claim the novel as a feminist text was something said not by a fictional character, but by Emecheta herself as she sat among other authors at the Second African Writers Conference in 1986:
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... . (178)
No feminist, I angrily concluded, could ever support polygamy, a practice in which women are regarded in terms of property value and in which men use their female property as they deem fit. Emecheta's own text did not even provide me with a positive depiction of polygamy; for instance, readers learn of Agbadi that he "was no different...