Throughout history, women have had to use their bodies to overcome oppression.
Although Jashoda, the heroine in Mahasweta Devi's "Breast-Giver" and Nnu Ego,
Buchi Emecheta's heroine in The Joys of Motherhood, live in different corners of the
world, both have similar experiences and use similar tactics to try to achieve their
goals. However, both women are ultimately thwarted by the effects of colonialism.
One common feature of the texts is that both women have certain notions about
female behavior and motherhood that are based on the traditional conventions of
their respective villages. For Jashoda, a Brahmin Indian female, motherhood is an
enviable position. She describes her environment as follows: "In this city, this
kingdom, the amateur beggar-pickpocket-hooker has no place" (222), and by
contrast she rapidly asserts that she is "a mother by profession, professional
motherhood" (222). Jashoda revels in the almost goddess-like feelings of having
sustained too many births and of having nursed excessively.
Likewise, in the beginning of The Joys of Motherhood, we find that Nnu Ego
recognizes that her function is to produce and care for the progeny of her
husband's family. Because she is unable to present her first husband with the
expected children, she is ridiculed and shunned, not just by him but by society.
Nnu Ego feels her lack acutely and longs for a child so that she can claim a
respectable place in village society. For her, motherhood is the only possible
vocation. Her delight in achieving this goal with Nnaife, her second husband, is
short lived as the first baby soon dies. Her initial unsuccessful experiences with
mothering perhaps provide further impetus to produce multiple progeny but also
perhaps serve as a foreboding sign of the trials of motherhood. When she finally
does produce children, like Jashoda, Nnu Ego initially revels in the assumption
that her life is complete and secure.
The relative economy of the environments exerts a strain on the women in both novels. Devi's
Jashoda is forced to support her husband and sons after her husband is crippled in a car
accident. Though she lacks formal education skills and skills, Jashoda is faced with the
seemingly insurmountable task of keeping her family fed and housed. Like many women in her
position, she finds that her one alternative is to somehow market her body, and consequently,
she sells her services as wet nurse to the Haldar house. Although this arrangement manages
to sustain her family, the labor takes its toll on her body and her health.
We can draw a parallel between Jashoda's and Nnu Ego's reliance on their bodies as a means
of survival. While Nnu Ego does not market her body in the manner that Jashoda does, she
does attempt to use her body to insure her and her family's future. Nnu Ego's idea is that by
having many children, she will be provided for in her old age, and the older children will
eventually contribute to the household and thus to the support of the younger siblings. Contrary
to Jashoda's experience, Nnu Ego's goals are never really realized. Not only is the older son
not inclined to get a job and support his brothers and sisters, but he also expects his parents
to support him financially while he pursues a higher education. Nnu Ego's plan backfires in a
manner similar to the way Jashoda's plan ultimately does.
The local and general demands of motherhood affect both of these women in a correlative
manner. Both women used their bodies in what most people would consider a noble manner —
motherhood and nurturing. Jashoda's breasts had provided sustenance for the children of the
Master's household as well as her own children, but in the end it is the cancerous breasts that
are her downfall and lead to her demise. Jashoda dies alone in the hospital, forgotten and
abandoned by all of her "children." Similarly, Nnu Ego's final days are spent alone as she relies
on the sympathy of the village families for her survival. The multiple births and certainly the
heartache of her abandonment lead Nnu Ego to a premature death and like Jashoda she dies
alone on a roadside. Both heroines expected one thing from their families and from society -
traditional respect and reverence for Mothers. Why weren't these expectations met? In both
situations, many of the obstacles to "joy" were rooted in colonialism. For Jashoda and Nnu
Ego, western occupation and domination corrupted traditional society by infusing a new set of
social and economic expectations.
In Nnu Ego's case, England, the colonizing country, brought new industry and a different kind of
job market to the urban areas. This drew many of the villagers from their homeland and
repositioned them in an environment where the lifestyle and society were very different. In the
village, the women had formed a strong, supportive network. In Lagos, the network was broken
because of the dispersal of the population and because the women were preoccupied with
working within the colonial industry. Also, the colonial society brought new concepts of family
and mothering to the environment. It seemed that western children were privileged with
education and independence and therefore not expected to contribute to the family. It is
because of this western influence that blah blah doesn't understand his mother's expectations.
Thus, in The Joys of Motherhood colonization broke up the women's traditional support system
and changed traditional attitudes about family and motherhood.
We can equate the colonial situation in Lagos to that of India, where England was also the
colonizing force. Like Nnu Ego, Jashoda has traditional expectations of all of her children, the
ones she bore and the ones she nursed. She assumes that if she nurtures the brood, she will
be assured of a secure future surrounded by those she fed. However, the western influence has
made its mark here also. We can see early on in the story that there is no longer prestige in
mothering activities like nursing since the Haldar women choose not to nurse so they can
maintain a model's figure. In the end, rather than occupying a place of prestige in the society,
Jashoda is regarded as simply a retired laborer. She is no longer of any use to either family and
so she is discarded. The society is no longer interested in traditional reverence for motherhood.
Instead, they are caught up in western concepts of honoring what is marketable and useful, and
Jashoda is neither. In this way, Jashoda's position corresponds to Nnu Ego's since she is the
victim of a changed social and economic order brought about by colonialism.
By the end of both stories, the titles of both texts can be viewed ironically. As the Breast-Giver,
Jashoda is betrayed by the very breasts that she thought would win her respect and a secure
position in society. Likewise, Nnu Ego finds that there has been very little "joy" in motherhood.
In both texts, the tradition of motherhood is corrupted by the impact of colonialism.