Societal expectations of African women in marriage


The Joys of Motherhood
By Buchi Emecheta
Heinemann Educational Publishers (1979)
ISBN: 043590972 X

SOCIO-CULTURAL beliefs in most parts of Africa show that for a woman to achieve happiness, she should get married and have children, with one man, and she must be obedient.
It is through such beliefs that the patriarchal institution continues to dominate and it is sad to note that some cultural practices in Africa even go to the extent of humiliating and belittling women for reasons of infertility.
Such societal expectations burden women to assume the role of being a mother or wife hence many are forced into marriage while others marry for the sake of societal expectations.
In the book under review this week, the late renowned Nigerian author Buchi Emecheta tackles many issues that highlight the plight of an African woman.
Titled The Joys of Motherhood, the book is a phenomenal piece of literature that continues to be relevant.
In the book, Emecheta also confronts themes of class struggles, culture and the colonial system.
Without doubt such themes continue to control human and societal development in Africa.
Emecheta uses her book to attack as well as correct ‘bad’ societal practices among the Ibo people.
It is through her narrative the clash of African and Western civilisations comes to the fore.
The Joys of Motherhood argues that both civilisations were unfavourable to the African woman who tried to balance the expectations of the two.
The plight of Nnu Ego highlights how colonialism was a costly reality for those who wanted to adhere to the British colonial system as well as trying to respect the values and traditions of the Ibo society.
Nnaife, husband to Nnu Ego, is a character representing blackmen working for low wages as houseboys for the British.
His duties that include washing the white woman’s undergarments is not only a disgrace to the blackman but also strips him of societal respect and as head of the family.
“The Yaba housing estate, a little distance from the island, had been built by the British for the British , though many Africans like Nnu Ego’s husband worked there as servants and houseboys”, writes Emecheta.
In The Joys of Motherhood, the reader is drawn to the plight of Nnu Ego, who is subjected to new forms of exploitation, which come with colonialism, as well as assume traditional duties and responsibilities.
The capitalist system does not provide her with access to economic development opportunities thereby confining her to harsh levels of poverty making it nearly impossible for her to feed, clothe and educate her eight children.
Emecheta’s narrative becomes the voice of the voiceless women who are also controlled by the practices of their kith and kin. Women in Ibo society are defined by their roles of being child bearers and carers.
“In Ibuza sons help their father more than they help their mother. A mother’s joy is only in the name. She worries over them, looks after them when they are small; but in the actual help on the farm, the upholding of the family name, all belong to the father,” Emecheta writes.
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.
“On her way back to their room, it occurred to Nnu Ego that she was a prisoner, imprisoned by her love for her children, imprisoned by her role as the senior wife,” writes Emecheta.
“She was not even expected to demand more money for her family; that was considered below the standard expected of a woman in her position.
It was not fair, she felt, the way men cleverly used a woman’s sense of responsibility to actually enslave her.
They knew that the traditional wife like herself would never dream of leaving her children.”
It is Nnu Ego‘s subordination that is shaped by the dominance of patriarchy that stripped her of happiness in life but left her with the satisfaction that she was able to produce eight children.
By killing her character, Emecheta highlights that some traditions in various African societies may take a while to change and will take long for women to enjoy their emancipation.


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