She whirled round. "Who is going to stop me? Who dares to stop me? You?" she wailed, very near hysteria. "Bah! You think you have the right to play God, just because you are Agbadi? You have your wives—they can look after you. You have your slaves—let them mop up your stinking blood!" (2.26)
In this fight between Ona and Agbadi, we see that in traditional Ibo culture, there is a distinction made between wives, on the one hand, and slaves on the other. We also know that slaves could become wives, and we see that women are considered to be owned by their husbands.
Then her personal slave was ceremoniously called in a loud voice by the medicine man: she must be laid inside the grave first. A good slave was supposed to jump into the grave willingly, happy to accompany her mistress; but this young and beautiful woman did not wish to die yet.
She kept begging for her life, much to the annoyance of many of the men standing around. The women stood far off for this was a custom they found revolting. The poor slave was pushed into the shallow grave, but the struggled out, fighting and pleading, appealing to her owner Agbadi. Then Agbadi's eldest son cried in anger: "So my mother does not even deserve a decent burial? Now we are not to send her slave down with her, just because the girl is beautiful?" So saying, he gave the woman a sharp blow with the head of the cutlass he was carrying. "Go down like a good slave!" he shouted. (2.84-86)
Though it is the custom and tradition that slaves die with their owners, this slave woman is stubborn and doesn't want to die.
Nwokocha Agbadi took his daughter home. Most of his wives, now elderly, were sympathetic and nursed her mentally back to normal. They made her feel that even though she had not borne a child, her father's house was bursting with babies she could regard as her own. Her father renewed his expensive sacrifices to her chi, begging the slave woman to forgive him for taking her away from her original home. He told her through the rising smoke of the slaughtered animals that he had stopped dealing in slaves and had offered freedom to the ones in his household. He even joined a group of leaders who encouraged slaves to return to their places of origin, if they could remember from where they came. All those in his own compound who refused to go were adopted as his children; he had seen to it that proper adoption procedure was carried out, in that they were dipped in the local stream and had the chalk of acceptance sprinkled on them. It would be illegal for anyone in the future to refer to them as slaves; they were now Agbadi's children. He made all these concessions for the emotional health of his beloved daughter Nnu Ego. (3.64)
It is believed that Nnu Ego's infertility results from the influence of her cruel, slave woman chi that is tormenting her. Because of his daughter's experience with infertility, Agbadi realizes that he wants nothing more to do with slavery.
All the time he was saying this, a sick sensation was turning round and round inside Nnu Ego's head. That she had to keep such a joyous thing as this quiet because of a shriveled old woman with ill-looking skin like the flesh of a pig! If Nnaife had said it was because of Dr Meers, Nnu Ego might have swallowed it; but not for that thing of a female whom she would not dream of offering to an enemy god. O, her dear mother, was this a man she was living with? How could a situation rob a man of his manhood without him knowing it?
She whirled round like a hurricane to face him and let go her tongue. "You behave like a slave! Do you go to her and say, 'Please, madam crawcraw-skin, can I sleep with my wife today?' Do you make sure the stinking underpants she wears are well washed and pressed before you come and touch me? Me, Nnu Ego, the daughter of Agbadi of Ibuza. Oh, shame on you! I will never marry you in church. If she sacks you because of that, I shall go home to my father. I want to live with a man, not a woman-made man?" (4.58-59)
Nnu Ego has not adjusted to the situation in Lagos, where black men are often the servants of the wealthy, powerful whites. Nnaife wants to keep his job, so he wants to follow the rules that his employers set down, but Nnu Ego believes that makes him like a slave.
When Nnu Ego later confided in Cordelia, the wife of Ubani, she had laughed at her moanings about her husband and had said to her, "You want a husband who has time to ask you if you wish to eat rice, or drink corn pap with honey? Forget it. Men here are too busy being white men's servants to be men. We women mind the home. Not our husbands. Their manhood has been taken away from them. The shame of it is that they don't know it. All they see is the money, shining white man's money."
"But," Nnu Ego had protested, "My father released his slaves because the white man says it is illegal. Yet these our husbands are like slaves, don't you think?"
"They are all slaves, including us. If their masters treat them badly, they take it out on us. The only difference is that they are given some pay for their work, instead of having been bough. But the pay is just enough for us to rent an old room like this." (4.66-68)
Nnu Ego finds it hypocritical that whites in Nigeria would outlaw slavery for the black master, but then enslave blacks themselves. Cordelia, meanwhile, points out that men may be slaves to the whites, but women are slaves to the men.
Dr Meers paid them off and before he went back to defend his country he told his bewildered servants that they could stay on in the "boys' quarters" until a new master came. Nnaife was given a generous reference: it said he was a devoted servant, that he knew how to bleach sheets white, knew the correct amount of blue to add to a shirt and that he never overstarched his master's khaki shorts. Nnaife was assured that the piece of paper would get him a new job.
"But Nnaife, that paper alone won't employ you, will it?" Nnu Ego asked. "You must have a master first. All I see all over the place are soldiers of different races—some white with round-shaped faces, others with eyes sunk into their heads. Are they to be the new masters? Why are they all here in Lagos?"
"There is a war going on. I have told you before. The new master could be an army man. I only hope he turns up soon, as our money is running out." (8.23-25)
Though servants aren't slaves, they are utterly dependent on their masters. As soon as a servant loses one master, he immediately starts looking for the next one, as we see Nnaife doing here.
Her love and duty for her children were like her chain of slavery. (15.148)
Nnu Ego begins to realize that she is a slave, a willing slave, perhaps, but a slave nonetheless.
The arrival of her new twin daughters had a subduing effect upon Nnu Ego. She felt more inadequate than ever. Men—all they were interested in were male babies to keep their names going. But did not a woman have to bear the woman-child who would later bear the sons? "God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody's appendage?" she prayed desperately. "After all, I was born alone, and I shall die alone. What have I gained from all this? Yes, I have many children, but what do I have to feed them on? On my life. I have to work myself to the bone to look after them, I have to give them my all. And if I am lucky enough to die in peace, I even have to give them my soul. They will worship my dead spirit to provide for them: it will be hailed as a good spirit so long as there are plenty of yams and children in the family, but if anything should go wrong, if a young wife does not conceive or there is a famine, my dead spirit will be blamed. When will I be free?"
But even in her confusion she knew the answer: "Never, not even in deaths. I am a prisoner of my own flesh and blood. Is it such an enviable position? The men make it look as if we must aspire for children or die. That's why when I lost y first son I wanted to die, because I failed to live up to the standard expected of me by the males in my life, my father and my husband—and now I have to include my sons. But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change all this, it is still a man's world, which women will always help to build." (15.152-153)
Nnu Ego realizes that motherhood is slavery, and that she will never be free of it.
"But I don't understand it. Why were they all laughing at me? Was I saying the wrong things? Things surely have changed, but Nnaife still owns us, does he not?"
"I'm afraid even that has changed. Nnaife does not own anybody, not in Nigeria today. But, senior wife, don't worry. You believe in the tradition. You have changed a little, but stood firm by your belief."
"Try to forgive my condemning your leaving Nnaife when you did. I am beginning to understand now." (18. 82-84)
Nnu Ego and Adaku have an important conversation, where Nnu Ego admits that she is beginning to understand that the traditional way of life, where a husband owned his wife, may not be the best way.