In Kehinde, Buchi Emecheta used brutal ‘documentary-style’ realism to showcase the plights of women in patriarchal societies, and often, the question that lay beneath was, what would our world be if women were freed from toxic gender roles?
I read my first Buchi Emecheta novel, The Joys of Motherhood, when I was 12 years old. Life as the fourth of five daughters ensured that my understanding of the constraints society imposed on women’s lives was well developed—my ability to extract nuanced meaning from the written word less so. I absorbed the story of Nnu Ego, a Nigerian woman who would drape her body over broken glass to provide a softer path for her children’s fragile soles. This was how I remembered her, as symbolic of the lesson learned (‘Don’t be like Nnu Ego’), although I had no real understanding of which decisions had to be undone to alter her fate.
As an adult, I returned to Emecheta’s fiction, intent on immersing myself in the worlds she crafted. In works like her 1994 novel, Kehinde, Emecheta used brutal ‘documentary-style’ realism to showcase the plights of women in patriarchal societies, and often, the question that lay beneath was, what would our world be if women were freed from toxic gender roles? Still, initiation into motherhood, or the negative space of its absence, constitutes pivotal plot points in many Buchi Emecheta stories. Characters like Maria Ubakanma in A Kind of Marriage express longing for children, usually in response to societal pressure. Even so, reactions to conception, pregnancy, and birth vary within Emecheta’s large oeuvre. While Umeadi in The Slave Girl excitedly embraces and finds personal fulfilment in the nurturing mother role, Double Yoke’s Nko, after discovering that she is expecting her lecherous professor’s child, accepts this unplanned initiation with resigned commitment to her new responsibilities. These women, with their complete devotion to the ‘mother’ role, form the background against which Emecheta’s two fully depicted fictional abortions stand distinct.
ABORTION IN THE RAPE OF SHAVI AND KEHINDE
In The Rape of Shavi, Ista’s abortion announcement is abrupt but unsurprising. The image constructed of this European (the only character introduced with her professional title, Dr.), is that of an accomplished modern Western woman whose career is the foundation upon which her identity is built. After her group is airship-wrecked in Shavi, the Shavians marry her to one of her companions, John Mendoza. Ista settles into the domestic comforts of her new life, discovers passions ‘of a depth she had never imagined’, and falls pregnant. The new couple’s return to Europe reminds Ista of her distaste for John’s domineering ways, and she decides that keeping the baby is not worth a lifelong attachment to him.
Ista’s story does not end here, in this perfect profile of the late-twentieth-century emancipated Western woman archetype. Emecheta returns to Ista’s perspective in an eponymously titled chapter, separate from the central narrative of the novel, in which Ista wades through her regrets and guilt. Ista questions her decision to abort, her early thoughts about her ability to parent, and her motivation to continue helping other women birth children if it entails forever confronting her own foreclosed paths. Communal life in Shavi and Ista’s abortion shatter her self-perception. Most striking is the question she poses at the end of the chapter, superficially rooted in concerns about the consequences of bringing Western modernity to Shavi: ‘…so that they can repeat our mistakes?’. The reader is left wondering whether the abandonment of the traditional roles of women within the family and community is the central folly of which she speaks.
A man is just as central to Kehinde’s abortion. In Kehinde, a Nigerian immigrant in Britain aborts a fetus after coercion from her husband, Albert. At the beginning of the novel, the eponymous Kehinde could not be more different from Ista. Although she has a better-paying, more prestigious job than Albert does, she performs the role of the obedient, submissive wife. She believes her marriage is equal, relative to her sister’s polygamous Lagos family, but interactions between her and Albert, where she diminishes herself to soothe his ego, prove the falseness of her claims. Albert wants Kehinde to earn a promotion and continue working to fund his move back to Lagos, so he tells her that, for their family’s sake, she must get an abortion. She does. The regret is immediate, unambiguous. Kehinde dreams of her father, whose attempt at reincarnation, she believes, has been thwarted by this medical intervention. She also thinks about her chi, the guiding spirit that was her twin, Taiwo, who died in the womb they shared. Taiwo reminds her of their mother’s final sacrifice, the decision to birth Kehinde at the cost of her own life. Kehinde stews in her guilt, without comfort from her physically close but mentally distant husband.
BUCHI EMECHETA SPEAKS ON ABORTION
Ista and Kehinde struggle with internal conflict centred around their rejection of a duty they consider natural. To whom a child is given, self-sacrifice at the altar of motherhood is expected. They contemplate motherhood as central to the experience of womanhood: Ista questions and Kehinde knows. These regret-centred scenes are to be expected, given Emecheta’s personal beliefs at the time. In her autobiography, Head Above Water, published three years after The Rape of Shavi, Emecheta states that she does not believe in abortion. Eight years later, she expanded on this statement in an interview with Oladipo J. Ogundele, when she said:
Well, coming from Africa where life is sacred and where we believe in the reincarnation of our ancestors, I said in Kehinde that after remaining in the womb for a certain time, the chi of the child is already formed. The child has a life. That is why I am not for abortion on demand. I think it should be left to the woman. She should have a chance to make that decision. I personally won’t abort or encourage any of my children to abort a child unless there is physical illness or danger to the life of the mother.
The issue on the page, Emecheta claimed, was that of men coercing women into making life-changing decisions, but is that a believable explanation for Ista’s mental trajectory?
Kehinde agrees to the abortion with the added condition of a tubal ligation. She circumvents Albert’s future control of her reproduction. In this battle for power over her body, Kehinde fully rejects the prospective social role of mothering newborns. ‘When we get to Nigeria … …if I am really going with you, I am going to enjoy myself. I’m not going to get there and start carrying babies again,’ she says. This is not a new motif in Emecheta’s fictional narratives: Adah, the heroine of the autobiographical novel, Second Class Citizen, also seeks contraceptives to prevent future births. However, it is an early sign that Kehinde is not the traditional submissive archetype the reader might expect from her early interactions.
Things go downhill for Kehinde after the abortion. Her husband and children return to Lagos while she works in London and tries to sell their house. When she quits her job and joins them in Nigeria, Kehinde discovers that her husband has married a second wife, a university lecturer, and that he has fathered a young boy, with another on the way. Worse still, her children have embraced this woman and Albert’s disrespectful relatives. Kehinde is hemmed out of the family dynamic for which she shaped herself into a subsidiary being. She is also unemployed and financially reliant on the ‘goodwill’ of Albert. She has no stable ground upon which she can construct an identity—not the Western feminist ideal of the career woman, not the traditional nurturer and wife.
With the help of a female friend, Kehinde returns to Britain and earns a sociology degree. Along the way, there are familiar scenes of menial work to fund her children’s potential travels; her time as hotel maid ends when she flees sexual harassment from a wealthy guest. The most memorable scene in Kehinde is the final one. Her son, Joshua, has recently arrived in London, where he hopes to become his father’s proxy, the male head of the home. Joshua tries to shame Kehinde for her affair with her younger Caribbean tenant, then he lays claim to her house. She shuts it down. She tells him to get a job to support himself during his tertiary education instead of depending on her. Kehinde reminds him that she has friends, a degree, and a job, a full life that is not constructed around a husband or her children. She no longer has the energy to ‘carry everybody’s burdens’ because ‘mothers are people too’. Over the course of the novel, Kehinde has loosened the shackles of both the submissive wife and devoted mother role; she shapes herself into the person she wishes to become.
By Kehinde’s final scene, when Kehinde claims that she has a lot of life left to live, she is 45 years old, about the same age as Nnu Ego is when Nnu Ego dies in The Joys of Motherhood. In later interviews, Buchi Emecheta refers to The Joys of Motherhood as a population control tale. She implies that if Nnu Ego had stopped after two or three children, like Kehinde did, perhaps she would have avoided her terrible fate. But the tongue-in-cheek narrative tone, similar to that used in describing Ogbanje Ojebeta’s move from indentured servitude to a traditional marriage in The Slave Girl, comes into action when Nnu Ego only has to provide for her first two children, Oshia and Adim. Even then, her problems are plentiful, her friends few. The ironic undertone questions the zeal with which she throws herself into the prescribed social role of ‘mother’. The second half of The Joys of Motherhood is figuratively an unending incantation with one repeated question: ‘Is this worth it?’ Is setting yourself on fire to warm your children a worthwhile endeavour?
KEHINDE – A STORY LADEN WITH QUESTIONS
Kehinde was published in 1994. When Buchi Emecheta wrote it, she was in her late forties, and her children were adults. It is the last novel she published that centred a Nigerian woman’s experiences. It is also the novel in which ideas that had been blooming within Emecheta’s fiction for decades openly battled for supremacy. The individualist drive of many modern fictional feminist heroines, like Ista, which is shaped by a self-perception driven by ambition and professional achievement, clashes with societal expectations that the traditional African woman must kowtow to the man and surrender all for her children. The ‘natural’ role of women as nurturers and protectors of the family unit comes into conflict with the individual freedom of liberated women. Emecheta does not pick one or the other. Instead, her work highlights the failings of both models; how they restrict women’s choices and passions; the singularities within which the models operate. Kehinde ends on a complex middle ground, where the titular character admits the impact living for others had on her life, rejects rigid gendered roles within the society, and pursues individual happiness while still maintaining a community of her own. Her job contributes to her self-perception but is not central to it, and so do her children and tenant boyfriend. Kehinde explores the gifts life has to offer without concern or shame. She is a character that will remain in many memories for a long time.
Although Kehinde’s final decisions centre her as an individual first, she does not constitute a decisive last word on the matter. Kehinde abandons the set path at an age where, with adult children, her obligations are minimal. If young women, even those like Ista, are naturally inclined to nurture and mother, how do they avoid being consumed by the responsibilities motherhood brings? Perhaps the ‘individual’ and ‘mother’ identities are not inherently oppositional, just like Emecheta implies, but they are often situationally so. Is it possible for young women to combine these roles with Kehinde’s ease?⎈
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