Themes and analysis of the Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta


The Joys of Motherhood themes are the issues discussed by Buchi Emecheta in the novel. Through these issues, we might come to terms with our own reality and see for ourselves why people act as they do.

From cultural beliefs to poverty, education, religion and marriage, Buchi Emecheta gives us a complete idea of what motherhood is to the African, from different perspectives: the old and new views.

The Joys of Motherhood Themes

Explained below are the different Joys of Motherhood themes that Buchi Emecheta seems to pass across to us brilliantly in a way that will make us understand ourselves and our world better.

1. Theme of Cultural Belief

The novel, The Joys of Motherhood, revolves around Nnu Ego, a young woman so deeply rooted in the custom and tradition of her people, she wouldn’t stop reminding everyone who cares to listen how great her father is. In fact, her life throughout the story shows a woman who doesn’t want to let go of her old life for the new one. Even the fact that she now lives in Lagos where a woman also has to work and supports the family does not really bother her. Another interesting aspect of this is the belief in chi, a personal god responsible for the people’s fate. When Nnu Ego consults the dibia, a herbalist regarding her infertility, she is told her chi is responsible. Little wonder then that after losing her first male child, she goes haywire. Emecheta lets us into her thinking thus:
It would all soon be over, right there under the deep water that ran below Carter Bridge. Then she would be able to seek out and meet her chi, her personal god, and she would ask her why she had punished her so. She knew her chi was a woman, not just because to her way of thinking only a woman would be so thorough in punishing another. Apart from that, had she not been told many times at home in Ibuza that her chi was an slave woman who had been forced to die with her mistress when the latter was being buried? So the slave woman was making sure that Nnu Ego’s own life was a catalogue of disasters. (p. 9)
This clearly expresses the belief in reincarnation in the novel.

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2. Theme of Poverty

As one of the Joys of Motherhood themes, Emecheta seems to drive home a point that life in a rural area is more prosperous than in the city. Even Nnu Ego won’t stop making reference to this whenever Nnaife, her husband, can’t live up to his expectations. Apart from that, is it not ironical that a poor Nnaife who slaves for a white master as a laundryman could take on more than one wife? Even more interesting is an idea that sometimes poverty is self-inflicted. For instance, had Nnaife been reasonable with spending the money he makes each time, life could have been a little easier on them. And when we talk of poverty in the novel, we cannot but make reference to the very touching scene of Oshia’s illness. The boy looks so thin Nnu Ego fears he is going to die until Iyawo Itsekiri, her neighbour comes to their rescue. Meanwhile, Nnu Ego had earlier believed the boy was suffering from fever, but Iyawo Itsekiri’s diagnosis soon proves her wrong after giving her a plate of porridge to feed him. It turns out the poor boy is actually suffering from malnutrition. Here’s how Emecheta aptly puts it:
Iyawo Itsekiri’s fears proved quite unfounded. Oshia did not wait to be invited. He crawled from the mat on which he was lying, and at his efforts to reach the bowl of porridge his mother wept – he was like a moving carcass. But he refused her help, and reached the wooden tray just as Iyawo brought in the spoons. All of them, with the exception of the baby who was peacefully sleeping on the bed, pounced on the stew. Nnu Ego swore that she had never tasted anything so tasty. (p. 105)

3. Theme of Education

Of all the themes in the novel, this appears the most emphatically established. The essence of getting an education is so drummed into our ears as if it is the magic wand to instant success. Well, when we consider that the story is set in a pre-independence Nigeria, we cannot ignore the significant role of education, most especially one earned outside of the country, in nation-building. So apart from being very proud of his son Oshia for doing well in school and their unrealistic expectations from him when he completes Standard Six, his going abroad on a scholarship for further education makes Nnu Ego and Nnaife superheroes in spite of their disappointment. But the question really is, could the Owulums have misprioritised their reasons for sending their sons to school? Also, when after all the sacrifices made to pave the way for the boys to be educated, all Nnaife could ever get in return is Oshia’s rudeness, we are faced with yet another question about the freedom that comes with being educated. Even Nnu Ego only gets to enjoy the dividend of her sons’ education posthumously through a fanciful burial. Could this be a way to tell us to not think of education as an investment that needs to instantly yield returns? Or to put in it another way, how much of education is worth the sacrifice for it? Similarly, it is touching that Nnu Ego has to seek Mama Abby’s help each time she needs to visit the post office or the army barracks. With this, education really is light.

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4. Theme of Religion

In Nigeria, nay Africa, religion is everything – it is hope, it is a community, it is opportunities, it is also a lifestyle. In Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, it is all of these and more to different characters in the story. To Nnu Ego religion is a belief system, it is custom and tradition that must be adhered to. Despite her living in Lagos where people would rather bother themselves on how to make ends meet Nnu Ego still believes her chi is responsible for all her woes. For Nnaife however, even though he lives in the city and has really not left everything tradition, he really has less time for church-going. Even being a Christian won’t stop him from inheriting his late brother’s four wives though he knows his new religion doesn’t accept polygamy. How about the dibia Nnu Ego runs to for help for protection of Oshia from anyone who might want to harm him out of jealousy and for Nnaife against the ghost-playing-the-guitar story which Adim later finds laughable? Obviously, to that dibia, religion puts food on his table as sacrifices will have to be made with food items and some money. To further establish the state of religion among many Nigerian city dwellers, Emecheta’s use of the story of Nnaife going to the church to offer a bribe to one of the pastors who has promised to help him find a job is a pointer to the fact that most people commit to a religion for the material gains they derive from it. After all, people attend church or mosque activities with the hope they might have the rare opportunity to network with the rich and the influential in society. So as one of Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood themes, this is pointing to the notion of religion by the African.

5. Theme of Marriage

The issue of marriage is archetypal in African Literature. You hardly read a truly African novel without one. From Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, Ama Ata Aidoo’s Anowa to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine this is a recurrent issue. This is probably because marriage in Africa presents a unique perspective that sets the tone for a highly resourceful idea about an ideal situation. Of course, the ideal situation is that a marriage should be mutually beneficial to both the husband and the wife. But in an African setting – in this case, a Nigerian setting – marriage means social approval; it means long term servitude and sacrifice. In Africa, an infertile woman is often mocked, molested and abandoned. In short, having children (even in poverty) is an achievement and approval of a social standard. It is this Nnu Ego demonstrates throughout the story. Had she not cared much about what people would say and how scornful she would look in the eyes of the people if she has just one child, she could have subscribed to the idea of family planning and probably could have escaped the abject poverty that they swim in. But due to societal judgment of her, she sees herself a failure when she loses Ngozi, her first male child, and therefore attempts to commit suicide. Even much more interesting is the commodification of childbearing. To an average African, the more children you have, the richer you will be. This is why to Nnaife, his male children, Oshia and Adim are an investment he is waiting to cash on when the time is ripe. Isn’t that the reason he gets mad at Oshia when the latter decides to further his education rather than stop at Standard Six to take over the financial responsibilities in the home? Not to mention his impatience to marry off the twins – Taiwo and Kehinde – so that at least he could reap the fruit of his labour through their bride price. As one of the Joys of Motherhood themes, marriage is presented as an institution where childbearing is the ultimate achievement of the wife whether she is happy or not.

In all, Buchi Emecheta is one of Africa’s finest writers and her treatment of some of Nigeria’s prominent issues in The Joys of Motherhood is not only artistically powerful but also didactically relevant.

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