The Joys of Motherhood could be considered as one of the forebears of feminist issues on reproductive justice and culture within the rich Nigerian literary tradition.
A woman is more than her womb. This is the lesson that Buchi Emecheta’s novel The Joys of Motherhood impressed on me when I first encountered it in my second year of secondary school. A simple idea then and now, yet it remains charged with socio-political tension both in Nigeria as well as in the diaspora. Especially as conversations about reproductive justice and the state’s role in controlling women’s reproductive capacities continues to become polarized and politicized on numerous stages.
It has been more than four decades since the publication of Emecheta’s novel yet the issues it attends to are far from resolved. In 1979, when The Joys of Motherhood was released, second-wave feminism which had largely centred the voices and perspectives of middle-class White women was coming to an end. Meanwhile, what we might refer to as Nigerian feminism today, was burgeoning with the establishment of the political group, Women in Nigeria, in 1983, four years after the publication of Emecheta’s fifth novel. The Joys of Motherhood could be considered as one of the forebears of feminist issues on reproductive justice and culture within the rich Nigerian literary tradition. On par with Flora Nwapa’s 1966 Efuru.
However, it is worth noting that Buchi Emecheta might have disagreed with the feminist label while more strongly identifying with Black womanism as described by Alice Walker—especially given Walker’s nuanced work on race and class. Nonetheless, Emecheta’s oeuvre serves as a foundation for what many Nigerians practice and understand today as feminism. This necessitates reading the Joys of Motherhood as a precursor to contemporary Nigerian feminist texts.
What joys in motherhood?
Though Emecheta’s text is titled The Joys of Motherhood, the story is about anything but. There is little doubt that Emecheta intended the title of her text to be sardonic and mocking. Nnu Ego fervently desires children and dedicates most of her life to having and raising her children. Unfortunately, in the end, Nnu Ego dies alone and is scorned by her village for not being content with the knowledge that her children were successful. Despite having multiple children who become successful professionally due to her sacrifices, they only return after her death to throw her a grand funeral. She never truly experiences the ‘joys’ promised to her.
In a reflection following her death in 2017, Emecheta’s son, Sylvester Onwordi notes that his mother ‘always preferred the life of the family’ and many scholars have noted that Emecheta’s feminist critique is complicated by the central role of family in African cultures. Emecheta’s text is pointedly critical of how the Nigerian society promises a utopic ideal in motherhood. Then and now, childbirth can be viewed as a culturally controlled activity that is inextricably linked with nationalistic goals when analysed on a macro level. For instance, Nigeria’s four-child policy in 1988 as a means of population control—a decision it took in conjunction with a major pillar of the World Bank’s neoliberal structural adjustment programme—is a good example of the state’s role in dictating women’s reproductive choices.
In a world rife with materialism due to widespread capitalism, the power dynamics of reproductive agency are influenced by questions of what is profitable, and what has economic value. Consider the situation in China, where the one-child policy was rolled back to two children and is now being rolled back to three given the positive impact of a more youthful population on the economy. Collectively, these show how regulation of women’s reproductive capacities exists within capitalist structures.
The Joys of Motherhood and its successors
Historically and culturally, having large family units were seen as beneficial in agrarian societies for the effective tilling and cultivation of huge swaths of lands (although this view is contested today). This belief is exemplified in The Joys of Motherhood as Nnu Ego’s first husband, Amatokwu, remarries quickly when Nnu Ego is unable to conceive, moving her to another hut for older (read: menopausal and thus unable to give birth) wives, and enlists her in farm work to manifest some other economic value since she cannot produce children to aid in the farm activities. Women producing heirs and necessary labour was considered crucial in such times to generate wealth. Hence, giving context to a cultural order that was created through economic motivations. The more children in a family unit, the more work could be done and, the more productive that family, the better off the community to which they belonged. Hence, the link between reproduction and communal imperatives. In such communities, putting motherhood on a pedestal, could be said to provide a manufactured incentive for women to undergo the challenging process of childbirth and the ensuing lifelong commitment to raising children who can perform labour, thus ensuring economic viability in the long run. This is not to suggest, that childbearing and/or rearing only occurs in response to materialist principles, but that on a societal scale, culture and beliefs around reproduction are often shaped by these principles.
Despite our pretences to the contrary, Nigeria in the modern era is no different. Miscarriages and stillborn children are still considered a taboo as well. ‘What will people think’ is silently whispered in Church about women who lose their babies to such health complications. The pity towards such women is apparent and thick with condescension. The popular elementary school song declares that motherhood is ‘precious and unaffordable’, however, the reality laid bare in texts like Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood show how stifling and constrictive it can be instead.
With that in mind, the parallels between Emecheta’s Nnu Ego, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Olanna in Half of a Yellow Sun, Lola Shoneyin’s Bolanle in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, and Ayobami Adebayo’s Yejide in Stay With Me are striking. These women, like Nnu Ego, had to negotiate their place in a society that had cultural expectations of fertility while struggling to conceive. Yet, what is perhaps most striking is that despite the variance in settings (historical and geographical), these characters have a shared experience. The same issues Emecheta wrote on in 1979 with Nnu Ego, are still being contended within more recent texts such as the 2006 Half of a Yellow Sun, the 2010 The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, and the 2017 Stay With Me. A poignant scene in Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun that helps underscore this is Olanna’s encounter with the mother (Mama) of Odenigboho accuses her of being a witch because she allegedly did not suck her mother’s breasts a scene made more harrowing when an impassioned Onyeka Onwenu delivers it to a visibly shocked Thandiwe Newton in the film adaptation. The implication here is that Olanna is unnatural and unfit to raise Mama’s grandchildren because she was not nursed by her mother—that is, how can Olanna be a mother when her own mother was not an ‘adequate’ mother to her? It is following this that Olanna and Odenigbo decide to start trying for a child, her failure to conceive making her feel something might be wrong with her body.
Comparably, in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, Baba Segi, Bolanle’s husband, tells Bolanle: ‘your barrenness brings shame upon me,’ before agreeing to see a doctor to resolve what he views as an ultimate failing in their partnership. Bolanle is also made to feel that there is something wrong with her, a suggestion that takes root due to unresolved trauma. She, too, becomes engaged in a (largely unwarranted and coerced) struggle with her body. In Stay with Me, Yejide’s meddling in-laws take matters of her inability to conceive into their hands by making her husband marry another woman. Yejide, who openly spoke about her inability to have children, becomes shocked by her in-law’s aggressive approach. Then there is Nnu Ego in The Joys of Motherhood, a character whose struggles foreshadow, and begin the conversation for these later fictional successors. The women are ethnically different with none inhabiting the same setting; yet they mirror each other’s experiences and share the same cultural context.
Problematizing reproductive agency in Nigeria
In the foregoing texts, the women are keen to fulfil their prescribed reproductive duties, and everything around steers them towards that promised ‘ultimate destiny’ through which they ought to self-actualize. When they struggle to conceive, that ‘failing’ tattoos shame across their psyche, making them question their bodies. Their personhood seems to be premised on their ability to give birth. The expectation of women to aspire to ‘the joys of motherhood’ is the conventional wisdom that is embedded within our cultures; hence a child is the currency that secures a woman’s place in her in-laws’ home. In a shared cultural context where family comes first, this is rarely seen as a burden.
There is also a religious component to these patriarchal expectations as religious texts are sometimes misinterpreted to suggest a forced responsibility of childbirth, which often exists to maintain an oppressive power dynamic. The interplay of religion, culture and reproductive agency in Nigeria is nuanced and not a binary situation of ‘powerful male clergy’ versus ‘hapless and oppressed women’. Spirituality or religion in Nigeria is a superstructure within which struggles around reproductive agency occur, and childbirth is not beyond the average Nigerian’s tendency to rely on spiritual aid to solve problems. Take the innumerable prayer programs for ‘fruit of the womb’ where people congregate in large numbers in search of clergy who can bestow divine fertility. We see this reflected as Nnu Ego desperately seeks aid from dibia (spiritual figures in her Igbo culture) about interceding with her chi. A scene that is in conversation with Adebayo’s in Stay With Me as Yejide dances with a swaddled goat on a mountain summit at the request of Prophet Josiah in the hope that she may conceive. This is despite the fact that both novels were written with almost four decades apart and located in different settings: Nnu Ego finds herself moving between rural South East Nigeria and Lagos in 1930s and 1940s (The Joys of Motherhood), while Yejide’s struggles occur against the background of Ilesa post-1985 (Stay With Me). Yet, the desperation is similar. The enduring circumstances point not just to a shared cultural context, but also a structural failing that continues to impede on women’s reproductive agency. The fact that Yejide’s story is still so resonant today, 40 years after Nnu Ego was introduced shows that despite how far we have come with regards to women’s rights, reproductive agency is largely still held captive by a patriarchal society.
As a man reading these texts, the actions and emotions underpinning the fervent (and in many ways culturally manufactured) desire to be a mother is alien to me. Even as I struggle to understand the failures of the male characters to meaningfully empathize with the protagonists of these novels, I am reflective of my own privilege as to never having to weigh the well-documented risks of childbirth to my health and body. More to the point, I am appalled at the husbands’/partners’ actions in all texts, but at the same time, I am forced to ponder upon my complicity with the conditions that enable these cultural practices. Nevertheless, Emecheta’s work and the books that follow in that legacy serve as an important intervention with regards to my own ethical grappling with my positionality in relation to such discourses. I will never know truly what it feels to have my personhood reduced to a part of my body, but these texts enable me to start critiquing my own politics and socialization. I often echo Angela Davis in saying it is not enough to not be racist, one must be anti-racist. Yet do I apply the same principle towards challenging patriarchy and misogyny? How about a commitment to being anti-misogynist, and what does such an ethical and political theory look like? These are the questions I find myself returning to as I engage with these texts and come face to face with a culture that denies reproductive agency.
Moving towards feminist autonomy
In the Western world, the debate about reproductive justice almost always hinges on the pro-choice/pro-birth polemic. A frame that does very little to address many of the underlying issues around reproductive justice and tends to be employed cynically in negative partisanship strategies to provoke outage on both sides of the aisle. In Nigeria, we are too socially conservative (or at least so it appears) to have such a polarized discourse occupy the public consciousness. Resistance comes in other forms instead. To borrow from Franny Choi’s timely poem ‘The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On’, our ‘coat-hanger apocalypse’ occurs out of sight for fear of stigmatization. Yet we all hear the stories. Beyond this, however, motherhood is the pinnacle, the ultimate prize none should deny. However, in elevating motherhood to a mandatory ‘aspiration’ that all women are coerced into striving towards, can reproductive agency still be said to exist? And what does such a culture say about our ethical prerogatives? Motherhood can be a blessed state when chosen freely and adequately supported. Though this is often a choice that is complicated by the socialization of gender roles, and political imperatives in a global society upheld by numerous coercive and oppressive systems such as capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism and racism. In actuality, autonomy is a fraught and contested concept that is constantly negotiated amid numerous external pressures. Nonetheless, the decision to become a mother can be immensely rewarding and fulfilling when it is made as freely and independently as possible. But when motherhood becomes the entirety of a woman’s worth, that ‘blessing’ begins to look like a cage.
In centring reproductive capacity above all else as the key metric of a woman’s worth, the patriarchy is still as much at work as it is in the more topical women’s issues such as domestic violence, sexual violence, and access to healthcare. While women’s bodies continue to be appropriated as sites for systemic violence, the strategies for exercising domination and control are ever-changing. Globally few texts are cited more often than Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale for shining a spotlight on the politics at play in reproductive issues and control of women’s bodies. Buchi Emecheta however, accomplishes this half a decade earlier and locates it within a tradition of modern African feminist writing. We have never had to speculate about our trajectory to a world in which women are often reduced to their wombs. That world is already here, has been here for quite a while.
All four books—the Joys of Motherhood, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and Stay with Me—present distressing accounts of the issues surrounding female reproductive justice, rights and agency in Nigeria through fiction. The authors’ make dramatic choices that hold our collective feet to the fire. Nnu Ego, Olanna, Bolanle, and Yejide are not unfamiliar to us. We know these women. They are our sisters, our aunts, our friends, our mothers. For some of us, they remind us of ourselves. We know their stories, yet by encountering them on the page their private anguish becomes more palpable and authentic. We understand better how ruinous these circumstances can be. The goal being of course that we do not just read, discuss, and move on. By telling us these stories, the authors point not just to the problems, but also to possible places from which to start dismantling these inequities. There is something striking in the way Emecheta resolves her novel; Nnu Ego resolutely refuses to grant the prayers of her descendants seeking children of their own. She gets her last laugh instead in her death, becoming a powerful subversive symbol that says instead the buck stops here, no more of this rubbish. Look, Buchi Emecheta, is saying here. Look at what else women can be, look at what else we always have been⎈
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