The Joys of Motherhood

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The Joys of Motherhood
Joys of motherhood.gif
Book cover
Author Buchi Emecheta
Country Nigeria
Language English
Genre Bildungsroman
Publisher Allison & Busby
Publication date
Media type Print

The Joys of Motherhood is a novel written by Buchi Emecheta. It was first published by Allison & Busby in 1979 and was reprinted in Heinemann's African Writers Series in 2008. The basis of the novel is the "necessity for a woman to be fertile, and above all to give birth to sons".[1] It tells the tragic story of Nnu-Ego, daughter of Nwokocha Agbadi and Ona, who had a bad fate with childbearing. This novel explores the life of a Nigerian woman, Nnu Ego. Nnu’s life centres on her children and through them, she gains the respect of her community. Traditional tribal values and customs begin to shift with increasing colonial presence and influence, pushing Ego to challenge accepted notions of "mother", "wife", and "woman". Through Nnu Ego’s journey, Emecheta forces her readers to consider the dilemmas associated with adopting new ideas and practices against the inclination to cleave to tradition. In this novel, Emecheta reveals and celebrates the pleasures derived from fulfilling responsibilities related to family matters in child bearing, mothering, and nurturing activities among women. However, the author additionally highlights how the ‘joys of motherhood’ also include anxiety, obligation, and pain.

In the words of critic Marie Umeh, Emecheta "breaks the prevalent portraitures in African writing.... It must have been difficult to draw provocative images of African motherhood against the already existing literary models, especially on such a sensitive subject."[2]


Nwokocha Agbadi is a proud, handsome and wealthy local chief. Although he has many wives, he finds a woman named Ona more attractive. Ona (or a priceless jewel) is the name he has given her. Ona is the daughter of a fellow chief. When she was young, her father took her everywhere he went, saying she was his ornament, and Nwokocha Agbadi would say jokingly in response, "Why don't you wear her around your neck like an Ona?" It never occurred to him that he would be one of the men to later ask for her when she grew up.

During one rainy season Chief Agbadi and his friends have gone elephant hunting and having come too near the heavy creature, is thrown with a mighty tusk into a nearby sugar-cane bush and is pinned to the floor. He aims his spear at the belly of the mighty animal and kills it but not until it has wounded him badly. Agbadi passes out and it seems to all he has died. He wakes up after several days to find Ona beside him. During this period, he sleeps with her, and after eighteen days he finds out that his eldest wife Agunwa is very ill and died later. It is thought that perhaps she became ill as a result of seeing her husband on his apparent deathbed.

The funeral festivities continue through the day. When it is time to put Agunwa in her grave, everything she will need in her afterlife having been placed in her coffin, her personal slave is called. According to custom, a good slave is supposed to jump into the grave willingly to accompany her mistress but this young and beautiful slave begs for her life, much to the annoyance of the men. The hapless slave is pushed into the shallow grave but struggles out, appealing to her owner Agbadi, whose eldest son cries angrily: “So my mother does not deserve a decent burial?” So saying, he gives her a sharp blow with the head of the cutlass. Another relative gives her a final blow to the head and she falls into the grave, silenced forever. The burial is completed.

Ona becomes pregnant from sleeping with Agbadi and delivers a baby girl named Nnu Ego ("twenty bags of cowries"). The baby is born with a mark on her head resembling that made by the cutlass used on the head of the slave woman. Ona gives birth to another son but she dies in premature labour and her son also dies a week afterwards. Nnu Ego becomes a woman but is barren. After several months with no sign of fruitfulness, she consults several herbalists and is told that the slave woman who is her Chi (goddess) will not give her a child. Her husband Amatokwu takes another wife who before long conceives.

Nnu Ego returns to her father’s house. She is married, sight unseen, to a new husband who lives in Lagos; so she journeys from her village to the city where she meets her new husband, Nnaife, whom she does not like but prays that if she can have a child with him, she will love him. She does give birth to a baby boy, whom she later finds dead. Shocked, she is on the verge of jumping into the river when a villager draws her back and comforts her. Over the course of her life, she gives birth to nine surviving children. Her husband, a laundryman for a white man, is drafted into the army during wartime, but on her own Nnu Ego can barely manage to feed them. When her husband's brother dies, he inherits his four wives and moves the youngest and prettiest, into the home. Nnu Ego enjoys a bitter rivalry with this new wife. In the midst of the war, the new wife leaves to become a prostitute while Nnu Ego devotes her life to providing for her children. She scrimps and saves to provide a secondary school education for her oldest son, in the hope that he will help support the rest of the family. After he graduates, he expects more support so he can study abroad. Her second son wants the same thing. Her third child, a girls, runs off with a Yoruba butcher's son. When Nnaife gives chase, he injures a man and is taken to court where he is put in jail. Nnu Ego's fourth child marries the lawyer who pleaded Nnaife's case, and offers to rear the fifth child. Nnu Ego returns to the village, where she is feted as a great woman because with two married daughters, and two sons abroad (the second son emigrates to Canada), she is expected to be filled with the joys of motherhood. It is suggested that her children's success should be enough for her. She dies a lonely death in the village, and is regarded as a mad woman. Only after her death do her children arrive to throw a lavish funeral for her; they spend time and money on her funeral which they did not spend in her life. It is noted that Chi never gives children to women who pray to her for them.

Critical reception[edit]

The reviewer in West Africa wrote: "Buchi Emecheta has a way of making readable and interesting ordinary events. She looks at things without flinching and without feeling the need to distort of exaggerate. It is a remarkable talent.... this is, in my opinion, the best novel Buchi Emecheta has yet written."[3] A. N. Wilson in The Observer said: "Buchi Emecheta has a growing reputation for her treatment of African women and their problems. This reputation will surely be enhanced by The Joys of Motherhood."[4]


  1. ^ Hans M. Zell, Carol Bundy & Virginia Coulon (eds), A New Reader's Guide to African Literature, Heinemann Educational Books, 1983, p. 385.
  2. ^ Marie Umeh, "African women in transition in the novels of Buchi Emecheta", Présence Africaine, no. 116, 1980, p. 199.
  3. ^ K. M. in West Africa, quoted in Zell, Bundy & Coulon (1983), p. 151.
  4. ^ A. N. Wilson, The Observer, quoted in Zell, Bundy & Coulon (1983), p. 151.

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