The Joys of Motherhood

Written by Buchi Emecheta (1979), this book is about the life of Nigerian woman, Nnu Ego. Nnu Ego's life revolves around her children, and through them Nnu Ego gains the respect of her society. When colonial influences begin to change traditional tribal values, however, Nnu Ego is faced with new truths that she must learn to live with. The book takes us on a journey with Nnu Ego as we participate in her struggle between understanding and accepting the new ways of her people or clinging to her traditional values. This book provides excellent insight to the effects of colonialism on native Nigerians.


About the Author

Buchi Emecheta is an Ibu woman who was born near Lagos (where this story takes place). She currently lives in London where she moved with her husband and children. She found "herself ultimately alone, raising children in a hostile and poverty-ridden climate" (Brians). She graduated from London University with a degree in sociology despite conflicts from her society against female receiving schooling. Many of the conflicts that Nnu Ego faces are most likely very similar to the conflicts Emecheta faced as she pursued her degree.

Emecheta focuses on the role of women in traditional African cultures and the conflicts they face as they are forced to assimilate into a colonial-influenced lifestyle. She has been rejected by some male African writers as a "hostile emigrant contaminated by European views" (Brians). Emecheta has also published works that deal with the experience of Nigerian women in Europe.

Emecheta's other works include: In the Ditch (1972), The Bride Price (1976), The Slave Girl (1977), The Wrestling Match (1980), The Moonlight Bride (1980), Destination Biafra (1982), Naira Power (1982), Double Yolke (1989), The Family (1990), Head Above Water (1994), Second Class Citizen (1994), and Kehinde (1994).


The Effects of Gender on Education in The Joys of Motherhood and Nervous Conditions

"Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables" (from Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga).

In contemporary America it is often difficult for us to comprehend the acceptance of status relative to gender, yet, in both of these books we are hit in the face with the reality of gender "discrimination" in the African education system. (I put discrimination in quotation because I am viewing this from an ethnocentric background which believes in equality regardless of race, religion, gender, etc.)

In The Joys of Motherhood, Nnu Ego and her husband, Nnaife, give up everything so that their eldest son, Oshia, can have the benefit of an education. The leftover money, if there had been any, would go to educate their second son, Adim. There was never any thought given to educating their daughters. Daughters were looked at as an investment. Hopefully, they would marry well and bring in a good bride price (which would most likely go towards their brothers' education). Nnu Ego assumes that her sons will come home to live and will care for her as she ages. "Nnu Ego realized that part of the pride of motherhood was to look a little unfashionable and be able to drawl with joy: "I can't afford another outfit, because I am nursing him, so you see I can't go anywhere to sell anything." One usually received the answer, "Never mind, he will grow soon and clothe you and farm for you, so that your old age will be sweet"" (Emecheta 80).

Nervous Conditions, although it takes place in an entirely different area of the African continent, reflects the same values of gender education. Nhamo, the only male heir, was selected by the elders of his family to receive an education. He was then expected to get a good job and provide for his family. When Nhamo dies, the family eventually decides that it will be acceptable for Tambu, the eldest daughter, to receive an education since there were no more male sons. Tambu is also expected to provide for her family after she graduates and there is quite a bit of discussion among her family members about the worthlessness of her education since she would eventually only be helping out her husband's family and not her own.

Both of these books seem to reflect the experiences women have had all over the world as they fought for their independence and equality. We have a difficult time accepting that these beliefs are still being practiced in some areas of the world. Adeola James goes so far as to suggest that "the real reason for the tragic disruption of society depicted in Things Fall Apart [by Chinua Achebe] is because the female principle is neglected whilst the male principle, with its strong-headedness and inflexibility, is promoted above all else" (James 42).

In her interview with James, Buchi Emecheta responds to James' assertion: "I discussed that idea in my latest book, The Rape of Shavi, which is about the rape of a culture. At the end of that rape we find it is women who bring things together. Whereas, if they had allowed women to take part all along, maybe the rape would not have taken place" (James 42).

Through their writing both of these authors attempt to bring to light the unfairness that still exists between genders regarding education in Africa. Although both writers were able to eventually receive an education, they realize that many of their African sisters do not and will not have the same opportunities unless someone speaks up for them--at least until they learn to speak for themselves.


Time to Start Writing About Ourselves

In an interview with Adeola James, Buchi Emecheta states that African writers need to diversify. "Everything coming out of Africa, in literature, is still concerned with colonialism, what the Englishman has done to us. We forget that some of us have been independent for more than two decades. It is about time we started writing about ourselves now" (James).

In Her Own Voice: Buchi Emecheta's Opinion on Various Issues Regarding Her Writing and Her Culture

The following are several comments taken from an interview by Adeola James with Buchi Emecheta. Her comments may help us to better understand the conflicts faced by African emigrants as they attempt to preserve their cultural heritage.

Although Emecheta left Nigeria and has been living in England for most of her adult life, she still feels a deep emotional attachment towards Nigeria. She comments on the frustrations she feels when she visits her homeland, however, especially with the women. She feels that Nigerian (and African women in general) need to band together to support each other instead of "bitching about each other" (James 36).

The forthrightness that Emecheta is well-know for often gets her in trouble in Nigeria. She learned to speak her mind through the influence of her British culture, and this goes against her native culture. "In Nigeria women are riddled with hypocrisy, you learn to say what you don't feel. You learn to laugh or not to laugh too loudly" (James 38).

Emecheta knows that her Africanness is becoming diluted. One of her publishers has even stopped putting her books in the African section because they feel that she has lost her African perspective and voice.

Emecheta feels that Africa needs to do more to support African writers. She says that Africans would rather read cheap American novels than novels by African writers. Because of this, African writers end up moving to Europe out of necessity because Europe will support them by accepting their books.

When writing about women, Emecheta says she tries ask the following: "Why are women as they are? Why are they so pathetic? When you hear about traditional women who were very strong, you wonder, why are we today so pathetic, so hypocritical? (James 42).

Recurring Themes in Stories about Colonization

The following theme pages may further develop your understanding of post colonial literature as it relates to Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood.


The question of assimilation is omnipresent in post colonial literature. How has being colonized affected the colonized? The colonizer? When is someone "assimilated" into a new culture? How do they influence the culture they are assimilated into?


The audience an author has in mind for a written work inevitably influences the way in which the author writes it. Here we will start to look at how authors' intentions can be discussed in relation to the audience they address.

Literary Influences

Books fit into the evolution and progression of a preexisting body of literature. Where do they fit? How have they been influenced by previous literature? How do they influence literature to come?


Many authors utilize written material to influence social and political currents. Here we will begin to look at different means of social change authors write about, and how they are differently portrayed.

Literary Style or Historical Fact

Here we will begin to examine how authors--James, Equiano, and Zinn in particular--combine techniques of historical documentation with literary styles, and the effect this has on the interpretation and impacts of their works.


***All Africa is a website that is continually updated with stories from over 80 African news agencies. You can search the site by region, by country, or by subject matter. There is a site dedicated to African books and a site for women and gender issues.

**The Absence of Joy in Motherhood. This is a paper written by Tracy O'Bryan. It is a comparison between The Joy of Motherhood by Emecheta and "Breast Giver," by Mahasweta Devi.

**An annotation and commentary on the book by Aull Felice, New York University Department of English. This site also has many other commentaries on such topics as aging, colonialism, childbirth, poverty, and many more.

*Brown University has a Postcolonial website and a 1997 student, Corey Binns, has written some interesting comparisons of The Joys of Motherhood with Graham Swift's Waterland, Rushdie's Shame, and Sara Suleri's Meatless Days.

***Suite101 has an extensive list of links relating to Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood, and Nigeria in general. This is an excellent resource.

***Africana Collection: The University of Florida has a wonderful site dedicated to African authors. Here you can find an excellent bibliography of Emecheta and the influences her life experiences have on her writing.

**Emory University's Buchi Emecheta site. This site contains a brief biography as well as a discussion of the themes found in Emecheta's works.

**"Nnu Ego's Enslavement": a student paper from the Postcolonial studies class at Breman University.


Teaching African Literature


The book, Long Drums and Canons: Teaching and Researching African Literature by Bernth Lindfors, is a good resource for any teacher who wants to incorporate African Literature into the curriculum. ISBN 0865434379.

Another excellent book is African Novels in the Classroom edited by Margaret Jean Hay. ISBN 1555878784.


Africa is My Home: Atlantis Productions. This film follows the life of an African girl who is born at the time of Nigerian independence and grows to maturity while Nigeria confronts the issues and conflicts of a developing nation.

In Search of Myself: United Nations, Narrated by Alistair Cooke. Discusses the art and life of Nigeria; includes dancing and folk opera sequences, from works by Nigerian musicians and authors.

With These Hands: How Women Feed Africa: A documentary presenting the stories of three women from three African countries: Burkina Faso, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Each woman tells in her own words of the struggle to feed her family.

Discussion Questions For The Joys of Motherhood

  1. Why is it important for Emecheta to tell the story of Ona before trying to tell the story of Nnu Ego?
  2. How do we know that mothers are important in Ibo society? Give specific examples from the novel.
  3. The novel ends with the sentence, "Nnu Ego had it all, yet still did not answer prayers for children." Why do you think she wouldn't answer the prayers from her children after she died?
  4. Towards the end of the book, Emecheta writes that Nnu Ego was happy to see her children happy. Is this a truth?
  5. What did you think of Nnu Ego's prayer asking God when he would "...create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody's appendage?" Was Nnu Ego ever fulfilled on her own? Compare the times she was with her husband to the times he was gone.
  6. When talking to Ubani, Nnu Ego says, "The money may be small, and the work like slave labour, but at least your wife's mind is at rest knowing that at the end of the month she gets some money to feed her children and you. What more does a woman want?" Well, what more does a woman want? What else does Nnu Ego come to find that a woman wants? Does she stick by that early rhetorical question and continue to believe that this is all a woman could want, or does she change her mind?
  7. How does Nnu Ego's attitude towards change affect her relationships within her family? How do others' attitudes towards change affect their relationships? Does Nnu Ego change? If so, how does this affect her situations differently than when she resists change?
  8. Oshia is expected to always be a loner, because he "put ambition first at the expense of his family." Who else in the novel is portrayed as ambitious? How does ambition affect the characters' situations? How does ambition relate to the social changes going on throughout the book?
  9. Chi is an important concept in understanding the traditional Ibo society. What effect did colonization of the Ibo society have on the importance of chi to the individual, the family, and the Ibo society?
  10. Discuss how colonial influence created the dilemma Nnu Ego faces. How did colonization make the practice of traditional Ibo religion impossible? In what ways do you feel she is a slave owned by her husband? How, or does, she appear as a feminist?

Lesson Plans

This book would be an excellent vehicle for a webquest (see below).

Some goals could be for students to learn more about Nigeria, the role of gender in Africa, the history of the women's movement in the United States, the impact of religion on African culture, etc.

Relevant Information

The following sites would be very helpful in developing a WebQuest for your students...

Nigeria Page: Visit a site about Nigeria and its culture created by University of Pennsylvania professor Ali B. Dinar.

African Literature for Young Adults: Compiled by the Flint Library, this is a very short list but can be used as a starting point.

Yoruba Information: A comprehensive site compiled by the University of Iowa. Includes information on Yoruba art, history, religion, economics, etc.

Igbo Information: Another comprehensive site compiled by the University of Iowa. Includes information on Ibgo art, history, economy, politics, and religion.

Nigeria and the Igbo Culture: This is an individual site that is still under construction. There are many useful links to information about Nigeria and its culture.

G.I. Jones Photographic Archive of Southeastern Nigerian Art and Culture: This is a great site for viewing artifacts from Nigeria circa 1930s.

African Voices: This is part of the Smithsonian Natural History website. This is a great site to take your students. They can access information on basically anything that the Smithsonian has by taking a virtual tour through the museum.

Khoi Ta created a student website about the Ibo culture. There are links to Ibo government, social structure, religion, spiritual beliefs, funeral ceremonies, masks, drums, statues and more. The pages seem to be well written and researched. In addition, she has some wonderful photos of Ibo culture.

Motherland Nigeria: Everything you could possible want to know about Nigeria past and present. This is the best site out there about Nigeria. You have to visit it to appreciate it. Also includes links to Ibo recipes, samples of Nigerian music, current affairs, travel information, a pen-pal sign up, games, stories, and much much more. This site will keep you and your students busy for hours!

Teaching Links

A Study Guide from Washington State University's Department of English. This is a chapter-by-chapter guide with questions to stimulate critical thinking as your students read the book. Also, visit another site by Washington State University which lists lesson objectives, ideas for discussion, journal topics, and writing exercise for The Joys of Motherhood.



Brians, Paul. "Buchi Emecheta: The Joys of Motherhood." Department of English, Washington State University, 1996.

Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Seattle: Seal Press, 1988.

Emecheta, Buchi. The Joys of Motherhood. New York: Braziller, 1979.

James, Adeola. In Their Own Voices: African Women Writers Talk. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1990.


Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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Last Updated: June, 2001