The young and beautiful Nnu Ego is shamed in only the way a traditional African woman can be: Her body has betrayed her. She can’t bear children. As a woman, she is worthless. This sting only burrows deeper into her soul because she is the daughter of a chief–the favorite–the only child of his most beloved woman.
But Nnu Ego’s chi, her avatar, is cursed. Her chi, everyone believes, comes from the slave woman her father ordered to be slaughtered when his favorite wife, Nnu Ego’s mother, died. The chief has since renounced his ways, freed his slaves, and tried to make amends. But it is no use. The sins of the father are indeed visited upon the daughter.
That’s how the book begins. Despite the protagonist being an uneducated Nigerian woman of the Ibo tribe sometime before World War II, *I* identified with her life, like crazy.
I too have felt the shame…not of my childless state, which is certainly looked at with tolerance, if not approval in the modern world, but of being…grossly overweight. Yes, I too have felt like less of a woman. I too have felt the stares of strangers like poisoned darts ripping and tearing my flesh with their judgment. Their condemnation. How is that attractive to a man, the voices whisper? And for poor Nnu Ego, how is a “dry and juiceless” nervous childless woman to marry again?
THE VERY FIRST QUESTION EVER
If you think about it, the first question that is asked about a child is this: Boy or girl? No wonder our gender identity is so deeply rooted within us. No wonder it hurts so bad when, for whatever reason, our failure to be the perfect woman or perfect man shames us.
But Nnu Ego does not have to suffer for long. Her father procures a divorce from her attractive, impatient young husband and marries her off to a city slicker in Lagos, the capital, where she will be far away from the avaricious eyes and gossipy tongues of her former in-laws. Soon, Nnu Ego is pregnant with her first child. Joy! Or…not. She finds her husband a bit repulsive because he’s lazy, he’s the White Man’s tool, and er…well…he’s fat. And has a big head. In more ways than one.
Never mind, she has about 6 more children by him and does earn the respect of the community and of the farming village she left behind. However she still isn’t happy. Wtf? Society has told her all she has to do is pop out kids to feel fulfilled? So what’s wrong with her?
MY HUSBAND IS A TOOL
Nnu Ego can see clearly that her husband is a fool. She suffers several episodes of starvation. She wants to go back to her village, but is prevented by the thought of what all those relatives will say. She feels she has to make it in the capital, where life is much harder, she has to sacrifice for her children, which she dutifully does. She does it even though it hurts in the present and there is no reward; even though her oldest son is an entitled shit who takes after his father and never lifts a finger to help her. She sends him to America to study and she hopes and thinks and prays he will support her in her old age. Then it will all have been worth it.
But will there be an old age with Nnu Ego working herself to a sliver to support all those kids?
Ah, the joys of motherhood. They’re compounded when her husband’s older brother dies and he “inherits” the man’s four wives. As you can imagine, Nnu Ego is *NOT* happy about this. But she has very little choice. “She knew this woman, an ambitious kind of woman, who thought that now she was in Lagos she would eat fried food.”
Interestingly, this woman, the 2nd wife of Nnu Ego’s husband and the 4th and youngest wife of his late brother, she decides to run away. She decides she’s had enough of this man’s family, and she wishes to be free. So, she decides to set herself up in the market stall, put the money she inherited into schooling for her 2 daughters, and support herself as a prostitute.
Oh, the irony! The only freedom for women is through prostitution, but plural marriage has already made prostitutes of them. Hmmmmm.
Ms. Emechta does a brilliant job in describing a Nigeria that is changing so fast that its people can’t keep up with it. You feel sorry for the men who are as trapped in their traditional roles, then no longer valued, as the women. But the women do have it hard. Brilliantly written, supremely felt.
And, having heard all my life from certain American relatives that “If I had it to do all over again, I would never have had children,” …it makes a person think.
5 Dozen Kegs of Palm Wine: The book was in fact pure and intact when it came to me.*
(Otherwise the wine kegs, supplied by the Ibo groom’s family, would have been only half full.)