Study Guide

The Joys of Motherhood The Supernatural

By Buchi Emecheta

The Supernatural

As she walked, pain and anger fought inside her; sometimes anger came to the fore, but the emotional pain always won. And that was what she wanted to end, very, very quickly. 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. She knew her chi was a woman, not just because to her way of thinking only a woman would be so thorough in punishing another. Apart from that, had she not been told many times at home in Ibuza that her chi was a slave woman who had been forced to die with her mistress when the latter was being buried? So the slave woman was making sure that Nnu Ego's own life was nothing but a catalogue of disasters. Well, now she was going to her, to the unforgiving slave princess from a foreign land, to talk it all over with her, not on this earth but in the land of the dead, there deep beneath the waters of the sea. (1.8)

In the first chapter, we learn that the Ibo believe each person has a personal god who watches over their life. Nnu Ego's chi (personal god) is a vengeful woman, a slave woman who was forced to die with her mistress. Nnu Ego's chi is now taking out her bitterness over the shortness of her life on Nnu Ego.

Goats were slaughtered every day to appease Agbadi's chi; others were left alive by river banks and at Ude to appease the other gods. (2.10)

Sacrifices are one of the ways that the Ibos pray to the gods when they are making a request.

Ona went to do as she was told, thinking to herself how unfair it was that Agbadi should accuse her of having a heart of stone. How else could she behave since she could not marry him? Because her father had no sons, she had been dedicated to the gods to produce children in his name, not that of any husband. Oh, how torn she was between two men: she had to be loyal to her father, as well as to her lover Agbadi. (2.35)

We see the importance of having sons here. Men must have their names passed down from one generation to the next through their sons. In this case, because Ona's father had no sons, Ona must sacrifice her life so her father achieves immortality through her children.

Nnu Ego was the apple of her parents' eyes. She was a beautiful child, fair-skinned like the women from the Aboh and Itsekiri areas. At her birth it was noticed that there was a lump on her head, which in due course was covered with thick, curly, black hair. But suddenly one evening she started to suffer from a strange headache that held her head and shoulder together. In panic, Ona sent for Agbadi who came tearing down from Ogboli with a dibia.

The dibia touched the child's head and drew in his breath, feeling how much hotter the lump was than the rest of her body. He quickly set to work, arranging his pieces of kolanut and snail shells and cowries on the mud floor. He soon went into a trance and began to speak in a far-off voice, strange and unnatural: "This child is the slave woman who died with your senior wife Agunwa. She promised to come back as a daughter. Now here she is. That is why this child has the fair skin of the water people, and the painful lump on her head is from the beating your men gave her before she fell into the grave. She will always have trouble with that head. If she has a fortunate life, the head will not play up. But if she is unhappy, it will trouble her both physically and emotionally. My advice is that you go and appease the slave woman." (2.131-132)

The slave woman has her revenge, since she didn't want to die. Nnu Ego's life will be dictated by the emotional whims and desires of this dead slave.

After a while, Nnu Ego could not voice her doubts and worries to her husband any more. It had become her problem and hers alone. She went from one dibia to another in secret, and was told the same thing—that the slave woman who was her chi would not give her a child because she had been dedicated to a river goddess before Agbadi took her away in slavery. When at home, Nnu Ego would take an egg, symbol of fertility, and kneel and pray to this woman to change her mind. "Please pity me. I feel that my husband's people are already looking for a new wife for him. They cannot wait for me forever." (3.38)

Nnu Ego suffers in silence as her infertility becomes increasingly obvious, and as her chi fails to come to her aid.

She would have to put up with things. She would rather die in this town called Lagos than go back home and say, "Father, I just do not like the man you have chosen for me." Another thought ran through her mind: suppose this man made her pregnant, would that not be an untold joy to her people?

"O my chi," she prayed as she rolled painfully to her other side on the raffia bed, "O my dead mother, please make this dream come true, then I will respect this man, I will be his faithful wife and put up with his crude ways and ugly appearance. Oh, please help me, all you ancestors. If I should become pregnant—hm…" She nursed her belly, and felt her rather sore legs. "If I should ever be pregnant." …

In her exhaustion, she dreamed that her chi was handing her a baby boy, by the banks of the Atakpo stream in Ibuza. But the slave woman had mocking laughter on her lips. As she tried to wade across the stream to take the baby from her, the stream seemed to swell, and the woman's laughter ran out in the dense forest. Nnu Ego stretched out her arms several times, and would almost have touched the baby, had not the stream suddenly become deeper and the woman risen to a higher level. "Please," Nnu Ego cried, "please let me have him, please."

[…]

She opened her eyes, startled. "Do you think I shall be tempted to take other people's babies in this town? I dreamed that I was doing so…" (4.20-22; 25)

Nnu Ego's longing for a child is so strong that she interprets this dream as her willingness to take another woman's child. She doesn't realize that the dream, sent by her chi, is foreshadowing the death of her first baby.

When months later, Nnu Ego fell into that tired sleep often characteristic of early pregnancy, she dreamed she saw a baby boy, about three months old, who had been left by a stream. She had wondered to herself why this child should be so abandoned. He was half covered with mud, half with mucus from his nose and mouth. She shuddered when she came closer to pick him up. He was very dark with the type of jet blackness of her father, but chubby and extremely dirty. She did not think twice, but picked the child up and decided to wash him clean by the stream and then wait for his mother. His mother did not come, and Nnu Ego dreamed she put him on her back, as the child was sleepy. Then in her daze she saw the woman slave, her chi, on the other side of the stream, saying, "Yes, take the dirty, chubby babies. You can have as many of those as you want. Take them." She had laughed and her laughter was ghostly as she disappeared into the grove of thick forest that bordered the stream. (7.49)

Nnu Ego has another dream in which her chi offers her another baby, but this one is neglected and hungry and dirty. Nnu Ego gets to keep this baby, and can keep as many of the dirty, chubby babies as she wants. Sadly, Nnu Ego has no idea how true the dream will be in real life.

"Oshia, when are you going to buy your father a bottle of white man's whisky to toast your chi for making you pass your exams?" Nnu Ego prompted. (17.18)

Though Nnu Ego credits Oshia's personal god with helping him in school, it is his father who should reap the reward.

She had been brought up to believe that children made a woman. She had had children, nine in all, and luckily seven were alive, much more than many women of that period could boast of. Most of her friends and colleagues had buried more children than they had alive; but her god had been merciful to her. Still, how was she to know that by the time her children grew up the values of her country, her people and her tribe would have changed so drastically, to the extent where a woman with many children could face a lonely old age, and maybe a miserable death all alone, just like a barren woman? She was not even certain that worries over her children would not send her to her grave before her chi was ready for her. (18.87)

Though Nnu Ego still believes her chi was good to her, by giving her so many children and letting them live, she hasn't figured out that perhaps her chi hasn't been good to her after all. The world has changed so much that having many children is detrimental. Nnu Ego has spent her life sacrificing for her children, but they won't feel the obligations to care for her in her old age that she's expecting. Her chi might be laughing at her after all.

When her children heard of her sudden death they all, even Oshia, came home. They were all sorry she had died before they were in a position to give their mother a good life. She had the noisiest and most costly second burial Ibuza had ever seen, and a shrine was made in her name, so that her grandchildren could appeal to her should they be barren.

Stories afterwards, however, said that Nnu Ego was a wicked woman even in death because, however many people appealed to her to make women fertile, she never did. Poor Nnu Ego, even in death she had no peace! (18.119-120)

According to Ibo thought, when your life ends on earth, you become an ancestor, with spiritual power over your descendents' lives. You can answer their prayers, or not answer their prayers. The irony of Nnu Ego's death is that she regrets her strong desire of having children and refuses to answer people's prayers for children.

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