Motherhood as Seen in Two Works of African Literature
Anne M. Serafin,
Newton Yule, MA
Motherhood-its joys and sorrows-and the status of women in a particular society are major elements defining the novels So Long a Letter (originally Une Si Longue Lettre) by Miriama Bâ and The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta. Bâ's text is, in fact, a very short novel employing the epistolary form to convey the thoughts and feelings of a recently widowed woman in Senegal, Ramatoulaye, to her longtime friend, Aissatou, who lives in the United States after experiencing many of the same marital and societal problems as the letter writer. Published in 1980 by a woman who had encountered many situations resembling those of her fictional counterpart, the novel is especially striking in that it depicts the lives of educated upper-class urban people in contrast to the more familiar tales from Africa delineating village life. Emecheta's novel from the sane period, in 1979, spans the middle of the twentieth century, viewing major historical and societal changes through the prism of the life of one woman, Nnu Ego, an Igbo from Nigerian. The story chronicles and explores the experiences of a village woman who is transplanted by marriage to the urban struggles of Lagos.
Although the novels emerge from different countries and reflect considerably different cultures-Letter a Muslim world and Joys a combined animist-Christian one-they are remarkably similar in their frankness regarding women's lives and their examinations of the causes of various experiences, especially the negative ones. And while the lives of many women have improved to some extent since these novels took place, numerous oppressive laws remain that relegate women to inferior status. Many African women see these works as a watershed and attest that the customs and expectations for women's behavior in many places and among many groups have not altered considerably in everyday life.
One critic, Carole Boyce Davies, who co-edited Ngambika, a major work on women m African literatures, sees the efforts of these writers as quite comparable-and comparably bold: " writers like Buchi Emecheta and Miriama Bâ question and overturn some of the entire traditional attitudes to womanhood and women's place" (p. 242). Moreover, both works have become canonical in the field of African women~ s writing and are regularly assigned as readings in courses on African or postcolonial literature in colleges and universities. In addition, So Long a Letter has recently become a set text for the high school Advanced Placement Examination in French Literature.
This distinct approach to the topic of motherhood is dramatically displayed in The Joys of Motherhood. Motherhood, in fact, is anything but idealized in Emecheta's work to the point where at times its joys are difficult to discern. The point of Emecheta's book was to write a real story about women's lives in contrast to the idealized vision of the African woman as goddess or earth mother, particularly in Negritude literature. The protagonist, Nnu Ego, cannot feel fulfilled or even feel a "real woman" until she produces a child, preferably a male child, and until she bears a child that lives at least a certain number of years. After rejection by her first husband-who was a real man and excellent lover in her eyes-because she did not become pregnant within a year or so, Nnu Ego is relieved to learn that she can conceive, even though she disdains the appearance and occupation of her second husband. Alas, she feels failure as a woman again when her son dies after four weeks of life.
"But I am not a woman any more! I am not a woman any more."
And they all agreed that a woman without a child for her husband was a failed woman (p. 53).
Ultimately, Nnu Ego bears more children, almost all of whom survive, than she and her husband can possibly support. Yet throughout the novel, it is, paradoxically, exactly these offspring who support the mother in her greatest travails. She looks to their existence for reassurance regarding the value of her unceasing struggles. Davies goes as far as asserting unequivocally that, "for the reader the irony of Nnu Ego's life and death is a forceful lesson in the pains of motherhood" (p. 254) [emphasis mine]. This assessment, however, is too narrow an interpretation of the novel, I believe. The rigors of Nnu Ego's life definitely outnumber the riches or rewards- and the author ironically describes this mother's "reward" as finally occurring in the form of "the greatest funeral Ibuza had ever seen" (p. 224) as well as in a shrine erected in her name. Yet Nnu Ego did believe (or tried desperately to believe) that her children were her joys, and in the daily reality of her poverty-ridden life and difficult marriages, she possessed nothing else but the continually life-affirming existence of her children.
In So Long a Letter, the life of the main character, Ramatoulaye, is also dominated by her children; however, for a variety of reasons, the children are not the pivotal element of her story or, seemingly, the overriding concern of Ramatoulaye's life. In contrast to Nnu Ego, Ramatoulaye did not experience a period of barrenness, and she enjoyed a satisfying and happily interdependent marriage for many years. She was an educated woman with a career of her own, and her family enjoyed at least a minimum of financial security. Her letter to her close friend implies that while her husband remained in the marriage, she must have had to work very hard-with a teaching job and twelve children to care for-but that she had household assistance and was able to manage without undue hardships while finding a great deal of satisfaction in her life. When her husband deserts her for a young woman, Ramatoulaye then feels the great burdens of motherhood. Her experiences in tending the household and raising a large family most resemble those of Nnu Ego when she becomes a single parent (which Nnu Ego essentially is during much of her story).
Ramatoulaye's vivid descriptions of her daily efforts-the "details" of her life as mother in literature, for example
The purchase of basic foodstuffs kept me occupied at the end of every month; I made sure that I was never short of tomatoes or of oil, potatoes or onions during those periods when they became rare in the markets
The last date for payment of electricity bills and of water rates demanded my attention. I was often the only woman in the queue.
Replacing the locks and latches of broken doors, replacing broken windows was a bother My son Mawdo Fall complained about burnt-out bulbs that needed replacement (p. 51).
Her life, though, while exhausting and frustrating and, undoubtedly, terrifying at times-particularly when children become ill or injured, continues to have far more compensations than that of Nnu Ego. Ramatoulaye has money for sufficient food and even has modern conveniences in her home-in a middle-class section of her city, as opposed to Nnu Ego's lower class housing status; also, she can find solace or at least distraction in the cinema or the radio-avenues not available to Nnu Ego.
Nevertheless, Ramatoulaye has other experiences which match those of Joy's protagonists-while the children cause a great deal of her daily trials and drain her energy, these same dependents rouse her from her personal misery. Rama explains: "I adopted a sprightly tone to rouse my battalion. The coffee warmed the atmosphere, exuding its sweet fragrance. Foaming baths, mutual teasing, and laughter." After documenting numerous further items of their lives, she summarizes these quotidian particulars with a brief but plaintive cry: "I shed tears of joy and sadness together: joy in being loved by my children, the sadness of a mother who does not have the means to change the course of events" (p. 53). This last statement unites Bâ's and Emecheta's works regarding the central issue of motherhood for their main characters. However, no matter what level of society they belong to or what degree of hardship they endure, these characters apparently experience surprisingly similar emotions and share the frustration-at least to some extent-or not determining the events of their families' lives.
Concomitantly with the experience of motherhood, both novels also examine the lives of their protagonist as women in their societies. Initially, these two societies, the Senegalese and the Nigerian (Igbo)-appear significantly disparate, yet some very basic human experiences are depicted and interrogated in both societies. Decisions regarding marriage, family, property are all at the disposal of the males of both societies. In both novels, the woman's situation as beloved wife is undermined by the husband taking another (and younger) wife, an action sanctioned by the religion and officially by the society but which, according to the effects that occur in both stories, destroys the trust of the marriage, the self-esteem of the wife, and the fabric of the family's life together.
Emecheta's book, through its focus almost exclusively on Nnu Ego's motherhood, dramatizes the almost utterly dependent and therefore helpless position of women in her society. Interestingly, though, the women of Lagos had one avenue of independence-the market-not available to their sisters in other parts of the country or in many other countries of Africa. The market women of Nigeria-and of some other areas of West Africa such as Benin, Ghana, Niger and Togo in particular-have a well-established tradition of economic endeavor, and consequently, considerable (if intermittent) financial independence in their society.
The ability to participate fully in the market, however, is determined largely by one's state in life. Ironically, in Joys of Motherhood, Aduka, the co-wife of Nnu Ego, who is fraught with misery because she has difficulty producing children and not a son at all, is thus unencumbered enough by responsibilities to gain great advantage from working in the market. In contrast, Nnu Ego, who is "blessed" according to her culture with multiple children including several sons, who thus needs money desperately, is inevitably limited in the amount of time and effort she can put into market work. She gains some self-esteem early in the novel when she earns a fair amount of profit form her work, but the restrictions of her life-mainly imposed by her society-prevent her from continuing on a profitable scale. Nnu Ego's husband, Naife, certainly does not support his wife's market activity, although he clearly benefits from her earnings. (He does give her "credit" when it suits him, such as when he is "kidnapped" and persuaded to join the army, thus leaving her alone to run the household as best as she can.) Generally, entrenched patterns of distrust and jealousy of his wife's degree of independence appear in Naife's taunts: "You think you can be defiant just because you sell a few wretched cigarettes," he berates her angrily (p. 135).
On the whole, The Joys of Motherhood shows a society in which women are not accorded great respect or value-and then only as long as they adhere to the narrow strictures of their society. And none of these women, to repeat Ramatoulaye's lament, has "the means to change the course of events." The one hope for any change in this society is seen in Nnu Ego's belief in the efficacy of education for her children. Yet, even that route will be generally denied to the daughters for, again following the prescriptions of their culture, the sons will be sent to school first if money is short and the daughters will be married fairly young, bringing a bride price to relieve the family's financial difficulties and to pay for the education of their brothers.
Miriama Bâ's book features a character who is much more articulate and unaccepting of the narrow role allowed to women in her society. In contrast to Emecheta's women, Bâ's female characters have been called "champions of change and justice" who "inspire other women and people to live and carry on" (Chain, 1987, p. 100). Ramatoulaye does suffer some of the same restrictions on her movements as Nnu Ego does by virtue of being a wife and mother. She spends a great deal of her life feeling that events are out of her control: marriage (although she and her husband had chosen each other rather than entering into an arranged marriage), property ownership, domination by in-laws, her husband's desertion.
Nevertheless, for many reasons (and in distinct contrast to Nnu Ego) because of sufficient money and an education, Rama finds the strength to oppose some of the expectations of her society. She learns to drive, forces herself to go to the cinema alone, notably refuses marriage offers from men of high repute (primarily because they are already married) and courageously accepts her second daughter's unwed pregnancy without reprimanding her or even indulging in the wailing that is traditionally expected of her.
Edris Makward declares that Bâ is "the first African writer [of either sex apparently] to stress unequivocally the strong desire of a new generation of Africans to break away from the age-old marriage customs and adopt a decidedly more modern approach based on free mutual choice and the equality of the two partners" (p. 278). In addition, Rama's daughters-at least the two presented directly in the novel-represent a new direction for women in their society. It is her children, especially these daughters, who are adamant that their mothers divorce their father when he takes a second wife. Both Daba and Aissatou clearly seem like people who will make decisions for themselves. Daba, who has earned a prized baccalauréate and freely chosen a man to whom she is engaged, actually challenges her father by deliberately appearing in the nightclubs where he and his new wife (originally her classmate and friend) spend their evenings. "[S]he would arrive late on purpose so to sit in full view of her father" (Bâ, p. 50). This young woman is no withering, oppressed victim of society.
The second daughter is named after the full-fledged rebel in the story (who never appears, but is the recipient of the letter), Ramatoulayess friend Aissatou, who did divorce her husband when he took a second wife. The daughter Aissatou is quite aware of the import of her unmarried pregnancy. But Rama is amazed that, although Aissatouss confession is delivered "in a broken voice accompanied by much sniffing," it is yet "without any regret!" (p. 82). This young woman is not a victim either; she has entered freely and lovingly into a sexual relationship and is thoroughly willing to assume responsibility for the consequences of her actions.
All of the female characters in So Long a Letter represent women who attempt to, and to some extent succeed in, taking control of their lives. Rama closes her letter (the novel itself) by asserting that 'I have not given up wanting to refashion my life. Despite everything-disappointments and humiliations-hope still lives within me" (p. 89). This bold affirmation is in sad contrast to Nnu Ego. "She became vague, and people pointed out that she had never been strong emotionally" (Buchi, p. 224) [a grossly erroneous judgment of the woman, to be sure]. However, Miriama Bâ herself declared in an interview she gave after accepting the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa that a unity of all women can not be denied, " there is a cry everywhere, everywhere in the world, a woman's cry is being uttered. The cry may be different but there is still a certain unity"(in Chain, p. 89). Herein lies the ultimate commonality of these two characters.
The truly radical nature of the two novels cannot be overemphasized. Not only are both books utterly engrossing as good stories and extremely well crafted works of art, but they also make dramatic statements about the position of women in their societies. Maryse Conde contended that "the personality and inner reality of African women have been hidden under a heap of myths, so-called ethnological theories, rapid generalizations and patent untruths" (in Davies, p. 242). So Long a Letter and The Joys of Motherhood have contributed enormously to stripping away these coverings and misconceptions; even more importantly, they convincingly display both the truth and the strengths of women in African worlds.
Bâ, Miriama. So Long a Letter. Translated by Modupe Bod & Thomas. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1980.
Buchi, Emecheta. The Joys of Motherhood. New York, NY: George Braziller, Inc., 1979.
Chain, Mybe B. "Contemporary Society and the Female Imagination: A Study of the Novels of Miriama Ba," in Eldred Durosimi Jones, Eustace Palmer and Marjorie Jones, (Eds.) Women in African Literature Today. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1987.
Davies, Carol Boyce. "Motherhood in the Works of Male and Female Igbo Writers: Achebe Emecheta, Nwpa and Nzekwu," in Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves (Eds.) Ngambika. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1986.
Makward, Edris. "Marriage, Tradition, and Woman's pursuit of Happiness in the Novels of Miriama Ba," in Eldred Durosimi Jones, Eustace Palmer and Marjorie Jones, (Eds.) Women in African Literature Today. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1987.
Reference Citation: Serafin, Anne M. (2000) "Motherhood as Seen in Two Works of African Literature." WILLA, Volume 9, p. 27-30.