Nnu Ego as an Epitome of Culture with Reference to Womanhood
The joys of motherhood deal with the portrayal of the African woman Nnu Ego. This novel shows what it means to be a cultural woman in the society. Buchi Emecheta, creative writer, relates to Nnu historically and culturally. Refracted through centuries of usage, the word 'culture' has acquired a number of different connotations. It is associated with both the past and the future. In the past it had a sacred function and was posited against the wasteland of contemporary life. Its association with the future brings before us a utopia where labour and leisure would exist together. The one definition of culture which is familiar to most of us is that culture is a standard of aesthetic excellence. The second meaning of culture refers to a way of life:
It expresses certain meanings and values not only in art and learning, but also in institutions and ordinary behaviour. The analysis of culture, from such a definition, is the clarification of the meanings and values implicit and explicit in a particular way of life.1
True, culture involves the relationship between life and literature. Without appreciating good literature, we cannot understand the nature of a particular society and secondly literary critical analysis can be applied to certain phenomena so as to illuminate their meanings for individuals and societies. This requires a literary sensibility to read society.
It is with this reconciliation between literature and life that the present paper chooses one female character from The Joys of Motherhood —Nnu Ego. She is a treasured daughter of Nwokocha Agbadi, a wealthy chief and his beloved mistress Ona. Agbadi performed penance for a long time in the hope of begetting sons. But instead of sons, she begets a daughter. She is named Nnu Ego after the goddess with whose blessings she is born. She is extremely beautiful with lotus like eyes, slender waist, ample hips, elephantine gait, etc. " This child is priceless, more than twenty bags of cowries. I think that should really be her name, because she is a beauty and she is mine. Yes, Nnu Ego: twenty bags of cowries."2
A year after the birth of Nnu Ego, Ona died. Nnu Ego's birth heralded a future that would be marked by misery, when her father tells her that her husband will die within a year. He asks her to choose another man as her husband. But Nnu, with utmost meekness and unwavering mind, tells her father: "Parents, death and husband gain a woman once in her life. From all these three things I will not choose for the two times."3
This is one of the gretest utterances found in any culture past or present. In these lines, Nnu seems like Savitri - the character from the Mahabharata. When Narada tells her that Satyavan will die within a year, Ashvapati asks her to choose another man as her husband. But Savitri with fixed mind, tells her father:
The death can fall but once; a daughter can be given away but once and once only can a person say I give myself away. These three things can take place only once. Indeed, with a life short or long, possessed of virtues or bereft of them, I have, for once, selected my husband. Twice I shall select not.4
From Nnu Ego's stubbornness, Agbadi agrees to allow Nnu to marry Amatokwu of the neighboring village of Umo-Iso. The marriage takes place in the third chapter. Nnu discards her rich clothes and quietly accepts the life of a very simple lady. She wins the affection of her in-laws by her obedience. She wins her husband's trust and love by her honeyed words and love.
After a year of marriage she is believed to be barren because she is unable to become pregnant—"let her go, she is as barren as a desert." This thought haunts her mind all the times, yet she keeps smiling and never fails in her duties to her in-laws and her husband. Amatokwu declares after a few days that he would marry another woman; she gives him freedom to remarry someone who might produce a healthy generation for him.
Amatokwu clearly recalls Dhritrashtra, especially in the matter of "Blindness". The only difference is that Dhritrashtra is physically blind, while Amatokwu, as many of his friends said, was too much of a visionary, and was often blind to the realities of life. He is unable to read the face and peep into the heart of Nnu Ego. As Throor puts it, "He had the blind man's gift of seeing the world not as it was, but as he wanted it to be."5 She tells him that she will not leave her husband and live with him. Neither he nor her in-laws are able to stop her from doing this.
One can easily see the opening scene of the III chapter, 'The Mother's Mother', as a point against the traditional African culture and how unfair these standards are towards the women. There are several outstanding unfair standards: firstly the sole value of women being placed on the production of children, and secondly, their lives are worth nothing if they are not extending the name and magnanimity of men. Nnu worships her Chi god for the long life of her husband. This novel can be compared, though not appropriately, to two Greek myths. The first is that of the Orpheus and Eurydice in which the latter dies but the former does not follow her immediately after her death. It is during his wanderings that by chance he enters the under world. His music enchants Pluto and he gets a boon—he can take his wife without looking back. But he does look back and thus looses his wife. The second legend is that of Laodamia and Protesilaus. The element of predestination is there and it is the wife who prays to the gods, but Laodamia gets her husband back only for three hours and after the expiry of those three hours she too dies with him. Thus the similarity between these two myths and that of the Nnu and Amatokwu are only superficial. This story is also compared to the Egyptian myths of Isis and Osiris, as king of Egypt, is married to his sister Isis. One day their brother Seth, an evil person, locks Osiris in a coffin and throws it into the sea. Isis goes in search of her husband's body and brings it back. Seth again finds the body, cuts into pieces and throws them into Nile. She again searches for these scattered pieces, but this story is once again very different from that of Nnu Ego's and Amatokwu. When Amatokwu gets ill and is about to die, Nnu had heard that there is a great Saint, wholives in the forest of Ibuza and only he ca save her husband. Nevertheless, she would never allow herself to be a family disgrace. Nnu was determined to accept—with patience—what she knew that it was going to be a great test for her. She decides to go to him (the Saint) by hook or by crook. She goes in search of the Saint and finally finds him. After he cures her husband she thanks him:
Thank you, God's messenger. You are the greatest doctor I have ever seen. You diagnosed our illness in your head and without bothering us, you prepared the medicine and applied it to him. … Once more, thank you.6
Nnu Ego was in many ways sensitive to her husband, but unfortunately he neglected her. Her struggle upholds the family status in society and also contributes to the positive male image of her husband. It was her duty to protect her husband and her in-laws. Nnu represents the ideal of womanhood. She has great strength of character which is the result of a pure righteous mind. Her resolution never wavers. Her greatest quality is that she never weeps. Even when her husband is about to die, she does not weep she acts a cool calculating person who never gives up. Every other character in this story weeps except Nnu. Her in-laws weep out of their helplessness. Nnu's calm, tearless eyes do not show a hard hearted woman without feelings for others but reflects her firm purpose. She cannot be called an Amazon. Chi God pleased at her; blesses her with two sons. She becomes pregnant and gives birth to two sons: Oshia and Ngozi. But her struggle does not end here. She quietly prays: "Please God, let my sons stay with me and fulfill all these my future hopes and joys.".7
She tried very hard to make extra-money in order to educate her eldest son, Oshia, who was by tradition to take care of her in her old age. But Oshia was subjected to the white man's ideals which she readily accepted. Tragically, the endless sacrifices she made brought Nnu little reward. In the last years of her life, she was alone and not cared for by her sons, as it was traditionally intended. There is another angle from which we can look at Nnu. Emecheeta narrates her story as an example of chaste woman. We can compare her with Sita, Draupadi, and Mandodari. Chastity with reference to married woman seems to be a kind of paradox, especially, in the case of Draupadi, who has five husbands. In the Indian tradition Ahilya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara, and Mandodari are called Panch Kanya. But to compare with Nnu, these appear to be passive figures. Draupadi is comparatively more vocal; she is avenged by her five husbands. Sita too is rescued by Rama. Sita follows her husband in exile as part of ancient Indian tradition—that a wife should follow her husband. It is Nnu Ego who follows her dying husband and rescues him like a hero. Ahilya, Tara, and Mandodari dwindle into insignificance when compared with Nnu. Ahilya remains a woman and suffers the wrath of her husband Gautama unjustly without ever getting a chance to prove her innocence. Sita and Draupadi suffer and cry and are rescued by their husbands. It is Nnu, alone, who rescues her husband. Besides, it is she who chooses her husband and remains firm about her choice even after knowing that Amatokwu will die very soon; while Sita and Draupadi are won in Swayamvara.
Perhaps, it is because of three things in her that: she does not weep; like a male hero, she rescues her husband; and like a man, she chooses her husband. Because of these traits she does not find favour with many critics, storytellers, and novelists. In contrast, much has been written about Sita, Draupadi, and Ahilya that can only be called reinterpretation.
Nnu Ego performs all her duties as a wife, daughter-in-law and as a mother, but she is unable to gain her accurate position in her family. She is not just a woman; she is the epitome of an ideals woman.
1Raymond Williams, The Long Rvolution (New York: Penguin, 1965), p. 70.
2Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood (New York: George Braciller, Inc., 1979), p. 27.
3ibid., p. 31.
4The Mahabharata, Vol. III. Trans. Pratap Chandra Roy (Calcutta: Oriental Publishing Co., 1984), p. 3.
5Shashi Throor, The Great Novel, (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 85.
6Buchi Emechet, p.106.
7ibid., p. 79.