This is a complete plot of Buchi Emecheta’s great novel, The Joys of Motherhood .
The story opens with Nnu Ego running like a madwoman to commit suicide in the Lagos Lagoon. Emecheta tells us: “She would soon be there, she told herself. 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.”
But before Nnu Ego ends her misery, we are led into how she arrived at that decision in the first place. Her parents, Nwokocha Agbadi and Ona Ummuna, had given birth to Nnu Ego in a most controversial manner. Ona and Agbadi had become husband and wife to the disapproval of Obi Ummuna, Ona’s father, who had no problem with his daughter having a child by the arrogant Agbadi. But the idea of his only daughter being a wife to another man was condemned by him even till death.
To worsen the situation, Ona’s daughter from the affair, named Nnu Ego “twenty bags of cowries” by Agbadi, is said to come with misfortune struck her by the former slave to Agbadi’s first wife, who was violently made to die with her mistress as custom demanded. For this singular act, Nnu Ego would be treated with disdain; and her barrenness after marrying Amatokwu, who later abandoned her is also attributed to that unfortunate situation. To salvage the little pride in his name, the proud Agbadi has to marry Nnu Ego off to Nnaife Owulum, a man he knows little about, though his family in the village appears familiar.
After trying her best to accept her new husband who slaves for the white masters in Lagos as a washerman, Nnu Ego is comforted with the birth of her first child, a boy named Ngozi. But a few weeks later, that joy of motherhood is shortlived when she finds the child dead by her store. To the young woman, whose main aim of marrying Nnaife is to bear children, she has become a failure again. Overwhelmed by the loss, she attempts suicide at the Lagos Lagoon only to be rescued by people plying the route early in the morning before Nwakusor recognizes and takes her home.
The Meers whom Nnaife and his colleagues work for as servants are returning to England because a war has just started and Dr. Meer will be fighting against the Germans. It is the Second World War. This news shatters the household of Nnaife. The master’s departure brings untold hardship to the family as finding another job becomes very difficult at the time. At first, Nnaife wants to wait for Dr Meers’ replacement, but it never happens, and months and months rolled by yet Nnaife is still without a job.
One day, pissed off by his wife’s constant nagging, he dashes out angrily in search of a job, any job. Not without a scary note of warning though. He says:
“I’m not coming back until I find a job, and if I don’t find a job, I will join the army. So if you don’t see me again; then I am dead. And, believe me, my chi will never give you or your godforsaken father any peace. I swear!”
Luckily, Nnaife gets a job on the ship sailing to Fernando Po, leaving his wife and two children to abject poverty. But his return a year after soon brings respite as he comes with some money and a few items. Not long after his return, the family is back to square one, as Nnaife doesn’t hesitate to lavish and squander the money on alcohol and merriment. He even gets himself a new wife, Adaku, an inheritance from his elder brother’s death. As custom demands, his brother’s wives become his.
Having finished the little money from Fernando Po and with more mouths to feed, Nnaife searches for and finds a new job as a grass cutter at the Railway Corporation. One evening, just finishing from work and heading home, he is among many young men rounded up by the army. Thus, Nnaife finds himself enlisted in the army to fight against an unknown enemy in a war he knows nothing about.
Though fighting in the war is a risky adventure, he still prefers it to the life he will be leaving behind, especially knowing that his family would be taken care of. As a responsible man, he asks that some of the money be sent home to his family for their upkeep.
Nnu Ego’s father is dying and so she has to go home to pay him her last respect. But Adaku is left at home with her daughter. By the time Nnu Ego returns after her father’s burial, Adaku has broken even with her trading from her own share of Nnaife’s generosity.
To her shock, she has also decided to live separately as a single parent. Nnu Ego can’t hide her jealousy of the new wife. Now that her own means of livelihood has been taken away by neighbours who had taken advantage of her absence to engage in the kind of business she was selling before leaving, she begins to device a means of survival. She decides to save more and spend less. And to complement the little money left with them, the children too have to raise money for the household by hawking different wares.
And when Nnaife returns, things brighten up a little in the house. The children have all grown up and Oshia and Odim are doing well at school. But after spending senselessly his entitlement and paying Oshia’s school fees, he expects so much from them in return. So when Oshia finishes Standard Six and is planning to further his education rather than work to support the family, Nnaife loses his cool. He becomes so frustrated and disappointed in his children that he turns impetuous at every opportunity.
On one of such days when Nnaife is not in a good mood, he vets out his anger on Kehinde, one of his daughters, who had rejected his offer of a suitor, saying she wants to marry Ladipo, a Muslim Yoruba guy and a butcher.
When that night Nnaife is woken to the noise of Kehinde missing, he guesses she must be at Ladipo’s place. So without thinking, he picks up a cutlass and heads for the butcher’s house, brandishing the deadly weapon. In a fit of rage, he nearly chops off the hand of one the men in the house whom he has mistaken for Kehinde’s lover. For this, Nnaife gets six years in jail. But he is soon released a broken man, through a plea from some influential people. Meanwhile, Taiwo is married and Kehinde is already pregnant for Ladipo. Nnu Ego returns to the village where she lives and dies lonely, like a woman without children. Sadly, her death is the most celebrated in the entire village, as Oshia and Adim prove to the people how much they love their mother.
Isn’t it true after all that “If you don’t have children the longing for them will kill you, and if you do, the worrying over them will kill you”?
In this beautiful story, The Joys of Motherhood , by Buchi Emecheta, we’ve seen the reality – that the daunting task of motherhood is endless and most times selfless.