Her baby…her baby! Nnu Ego's arms involuntarily went to hold her aching breasts, more for assurance of her motherhood than to ease their weight. She felt the milk trickling out, wetting her buba blouse; and the other choking pain got heavier, nearing her throat, as if determined to squeeze the very life out of her there and then. But, unlike the milk, this pain could not come out, though it urged her on, and she was running, running away from it. Yet it was there inside her. There was only one way to rid herself of it. For how would she be able to face the world after what had happened? No, it was better not to try. It was best to end it all this way, the only good way. (1.4)
Nnu Ego's sole pride in her identity as a woman is as a mother. When she loses her baby, she loses her identity.
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. (1.8)
We get a glimpse here of the often damaging relationships between women in Ibo culture. Nnu Ego is certain that only another woman would take away her child from her.
Like most handsome men who are aware of their charismatic image, he had many women in his time. Whenever they raided a neighbouring village, Agbadi was sure to come back with the best-looking women. He had a soft spot for those from big houses, daughters of chiefs and rich men. He knew from experience that such women had an extra confidence and sauciness even in captivity. And that type of arrogance, which even captivity could not diminish, seemed to excite some wicked trait in him. In his young days, a woman who gave in to a man without first fighting for her honour was never respected. To regard a woman who is quiet and timid as desirable was something that came after his time, with Christianity and other changes. Most of the women Nwokocha Agbadi chose as his wives and even slaves were those who could match his arrogance, his biting sarcasm, his painful jokes, and also, when the mood called, his human tenderness.
He married a few women in the traditional sense, but as he watched each of them sink into domesticity and motherhood he was soon bored and would go further afield for some other exciting, tall and proud female. This predilection of his extended to his mistresses as well. (2.1-2)
We see here the contrast in the ideal woman before colonialism – a proud, sarcastic woman who could deal with male arrogance – and the ideal woman after Christianity came – a timid, quiet woman.
Nnaife could tell that Nnu Ego did not approve of him. But he could not help the way he was made, and what anyway was she going to do about it? In his five years in Lagos he had seen worse situations. He had seen a wife brought for an Ibuza man in Lags running away at the sight of her future husband, so that friends had to help the poor bridegroom catch the runaway bride. At least Nnu Ego did not do that. Very few women approved of their husbands on the first day. It was a big joke to the men, women from home wanting to come to Lagos where they would not have to work too hard and expecting a handsome, strong figure of a husband into the bargain. Women were so stupid! (4.17)
In this paragraph, we learn that Nnaife is so confident that he doesn't care how Nnu Ego perceives him. As he sees it, he's the husband and it doesn't matter what she thinks of him. But we also see what he thinks of women and their expectations: pure ridiculousness.
"Pity your ideal Amatokwu almost beat you to death because you did not bear him a son. Look at yourself—you look pregnant to me, and you were not like that when you came here. What else does a woman want? I've given you a home and, if all goes well, the child you and your father have been wanting, and you still sit there staring at me with hatred in your eyes. The day you mention Amatokwu's name in this house again I shall give you the greatest beating you have ever had. You spoilt, selfish woman! You who put Amatokwu's manhood in question so that he had to marry again quickly and have many children in quick succession. Now you come here, where I did not particularly press you to be pregnant in the first month, and you talk this foolishness." (4.53)
A woman who cannot get pregnant is considered a failed woman, but her failure also reflects on her husband.
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 points out the hypocrisy of whites in Nigeria: they outlaw slavery for the black master but they then essentially enslave blacks. Cordelia, meanwhile, points out that men may be slaves to the whites, but women are slaves to the men.
"Well, your second son is at St Gregory's. Who pays his fees?"
"I do, I pay his fees with the profits I make from selling firewood and other things."
There was a suppressed ripple of laugher in the court.
"But your husband told us he pays the school feels, how is that?"
"Yes, he pays the school feels."
"Do you mean the two of you pay Adim's school fees?"
"No, I pay."
The laughter that followed this could no longer be suppressed. Even the judge smiled unwillingly.
"Mrs Owulum, will you please explain."
"Nnaife is the head of our family. He owns me, just like God in the sky owns us. So even though I pay the fees, yet he owns me. So in other words he pays."
"Oh, I see. And you clothe and sometimes feed the family, too?"
Nnu Ego nodded, not knowing that with that one nod, she had nailed the last nail in Nnaife's coffin. It became clear that she was doing nearly all the providing…(18.43-54)
In this courtroom scene, we can see clearly the difference between traditional ideas of the husband/wife relationship and the more modern relationship. According to the traditional definition of a relationship, the husband owns the wife's labor power as well as the profits from her labor. In a modern husband/wife relationship, the profits from each person's labor belong to the individual.
She smiled to see the wonder and surprise on Nnu Ego's face. She would have passed on her former stall to Nnu Ego, she said, but she was leasing it to someone who would pay her yearly.
"That will take care of my rent, at least," she finished, laughing.
"You mean you won't have to depend on men friends to do anything for you?"
"No," she replied. "I want to be a dignified single woman. I shall work to educate my daughters, though I shall not do so without male companionship." She laughed again. "They do have their uses."
Nnu Ego noticed that Adaku was better dressed—not that she wore anything new, but she put on her good clothes even on ordinary market days. She laughed a lot now; Nnu Ego had never known her to have such a sense of humour. Adaku said she had a separate room of her own, much bigger than the one they had all shared before…
After that she stopped going to Adaku in the market…Why should she deceive herself? The woman was better off as she was; she would only be socially snubbed. Nnu Ego said to herself, "I may not be snubbed, but can I keep it up? I have no money to buy food, let alone abadas in which to attend meetings and church." (15.3-8)
Nnu Ego is respected, but has no money to feed herself or her children. Adaku has given up the traditional role of women, said "Damn respectability," and is now enjoying wealth. Nnu Ego suddenly realizes that there's a problem with this situation. But instead of changing the way she does things, she simply stops going to see Adaku.
She was becoming fed up of this two-way standard. When the children were good they belonged to the father; when they were bad, they belonged to the mother. Every woman knew this; but for Nnaife to keep hurling it in her face at the slightest provocation was very unfair. (17.69)
Nnu Ego is finally getting sick of the double-standard that keeps her working so hard all the time to make sure her children behave the way society expects them to behave. She is beginning to realize that she will never be rewarded for doing her duty as a mother.
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! Still, many agreed that she had given all to her children. The joy of being a mother was the joy of giving all to your children, they said.
And her reward? Did she not have the greatest funeral Ibuza had never seen? It took Oshia three years to pay off the money he had borrowed to show the world what a good son he was. That was why people failed to understand why she did not answer their prayers, for what else could a woman want but to have sons who would give her a decent burial? (18.119-121)
At her death, Nnu Ego finally receives the honor and respect she always expected as a mother during her lifetime, but it's too late. She is so angry with how she was treated in life that she refuses to answer prayers for children. Apparently, her joy in life wasn't her children, even if the people said it should be.