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Undercurrents of Mammy Wata symbolism in Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood.

Buchi Emecheta's sardonically entitled novel The Joys of Motherhood engenders disparate readings. Does Emecheta intend to lance a scathing critique of the traditional role of motherhood in her native Nigeria? Does her protagonist's plight in colonial Africa carry a universal weight? Nigerian sociologist Ifi Amadiume is extremely wary of the Western scholar's attempt to address these questions. Katherine Fishburn, in Reading Buchi Emecheta; Cross-Cultural Conversations, shares her concern, arguing that for Western readers "it is too easy ... to think that we have engaged a stranger in a friendly dialogue when in fact we have only met ourselves in the mirror" (25). On a more vehement note, Obioma Nnaemeka would have Western critics or "foreign Africanists" disengage from the dialogue all together. (1) Irrefutably, most readers of African literature are not equipped with the same historical and cultural experience as the African author. Emecheta, nonetheless, implies the likelihood of a foreign audience to her work by writing about African experiences in English and employing anthropological digressions unnecessary to emic or "insider" dialogues in her novels. A foreign readership is inevitable, as Chinua Achebe observes: "[A] man who brings home ant-ridden faggots must be ready for the visit of the lizards" (76).

Whether the lizard hails from Morocco, Kenya, Orient, or Occident, it must still grapple with the heteroglossia inherent in Nigerian literature, and more specifically in Emecheta's case Nigerian literature about the Igbo people. Fishburn, paying homage to Gadamer, urges Western readers to question their own prejudices and transform them in the reading of African texts. The heteroglossia (or moment in the text puzzling to those removed from the text's cultural source) is not sufficiently negotiated by this introspective approach. To reach a locus of understanding between what is intended and what is perceived necessitates a multidisciplinary approach to African literature that includes recourse to the social sciences. The point of original intention (or the Achebian "where angels fear to tread") remains perhaps unattainable, but the worthy goal of dialogue justifies the quest for a locus. While, as Nnaemeka warns, African fiction is not absolute mimesis of social reality, it is nonetheless integrally related to its societal source. On the subject of culturally embedded literature, Wole Soyinka writes that "much African writing is still rooted in the concept of literature as a part of the normal social activity of man but one that is nonetheless individual in its expression and its choice of areas of concern" (67).

Deriving her title for The Joys of Motherhood from the closing paragraph of Flora Nwapa's Efuru, Buchi Emecheta establishes intertextual dialogue. Susan Andrade considers that in "doing so [Emecheta] appropriates the male purview of the production of texts by conflating it with the female production of children" (100). The male/female power struggle professed by Andrade to drive Emecheta's writing is, in my opinion, overshadowed by themes of river spirit or Mammy Wata worship which consider production (literary, spiritual, biological, and monetary) as witness to women' s ingenuity, spiritual practice, and dedication. Mammy Wata's underlying presence in Emecheta's works is characterized by Chikwenye Ogunyemi "as a mystical background [of] different water deities" whose purpose is "to enhance woman's self-esteem Maternal and fertile, bodies of water exemplify the woman writer's unique contribution to the Nigerian literary corpus" (232).

In Nwapa's Efuru, Mammy Wata symbolism is crucial, as Sabine Jell-Bahlsen points out: "[A]ll of the central characters in Nwapa' s novels ... are women guided and influenced by the water goddess" (34). Ogunyemi concurs that "the present absence of Mammywata as an inspiriting resource to resolve ... troubling issues" is integral to Flora Nwapa's work (4). I propose that Mammy Wata symbolism is equally pervasive and pertinent in the novels of Buchi Emecheta and that moments of heteroglossia in her works are due in part to an oversight of the religion that grounds her narratives. (2)

In direct contrast to the certainty of Ogunyemi and Jell-Bahlsen, Fishburn queries rhetorically: "[W]hat is a river goddess anyway?" (87). The answer is as multifarious as the prodigious and widespread population of river spirit initiates. Mammy Wata is acknowledged and worshipped in myriad ways from Liberia, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Congo extending to the former slave-trade destinations of Cuba, Brazil, and Suriname. (3) Water spirits are in essence unpredictable and communicate with their initiates through dreams and visions. The subjective interpretation of dreams and visions concordantly gives rise to innovation in individual rites and rituals. Although Mammy Wata's cultural and geographical dissemination results in varying rituals and names for her (and in some cases him), a vein of common attributes unifies water spirit worship. Addressing the pluralistic notion of Mammy Wata in her novels, Flora Nwapa confirms that the different concepts and names appearing in her work allude to the same spirit (Jell-Bahlsen 32). Ogunyemi reiterates that "despite the many faces and names of Mammy Wata, the symbolism that inspires her devotees remains largely homogenous ..."(21).

In order to clarify Mammy Wata's role in The Joys of Motherhood, a brief look into the symbolism associated with her is in order. The goddess may be depicted symbolically by a mirror posed next to a water-filled calabash, whereas her figurative image is often drawn from a nineteenth-century Indian snake-charmer lithograph, (4) Bedecked in gold jewelry the figurative Mammy Wata resembles a Punjabi Princess with her flow of wavy black hair. Her consort, the royal python, furls himself around her wrists to form an arch above her. Mammy Wata is the spiritual and psychological personification of water and all its life-sustaining force. Rivers, for example, usher forth wealth in sustenance and increase the possibility of acquiring more wealth by enabling trade. Mammy Wata's blessings of wealth culminate in the public market where she oversees trade, abundance of goods, and the exchange of money. Water as a spiritual element consequently represents fecundity in the largest sense of the term, and I dare posit that this semantically rich brand of fecundity is an underlying cultural value in Nigerian women' s literature at large.

This quintessential fecundity is maintained through purity, which gives rise to the many taboos and rituals connected with Mammy Wata worship. For the Igbo people, one must be purified to cross a river without disturbing spirits or bringing bad luck. On a symbolic level crossing a river is also a means of entering the land of the ancestors. In this cosmological realm of reincarnation, Mammy Wata acts as a gatekeeper deciding whether to send children to awaiting mothers (marking some of them as future initiates). Mammy Wata's power to choose the destiny of the unborn and their mothers is a recurrent theme in Emecheta's novels. The deity's appearances within The Joys of Motherhood, however, tend to be subtle and fleeting. Emecheta resorts only to vague or at best modest explications of Mammy Wata cosmology. Consequently, the Goddess's presence (or "present absence" as Ogunyemi refers to it) could easily be overlooked by the essentialist or uninformed reader.

The influence of Mammy Wata upon the characters becomes clearer when the symbolism of her faith is considered in their construction. Functioning in much the same way as a griot, Emecheta carefully narrates her anti-heroine Nnu Ego's Igbo family history. The wealth and titles with which they are depicted attest to the grace the river goddess has bestowed upon them. Nnu Ego's strong ties to the spirit world are solidified by this heritage along with the events preceding her conception and birth. Emecheta describes Nnu Ego's father, Agbadi, as "a very wealthy local chief. He was a great wrestler, and was glib and gifted in oratory ... people naturally accepted him as their leader" (10). Interviews with priests of Olokun sects in and around Benin City (in Edo State bordering Igbo) reveal that the oba or chief is the counterpart on land of Olokun The oba's rights to chiefdom are said to have been gained in wrestling coral beads away from Olokun, a male sea deity who is paralleled to Mammy Wata by some adherents. (5)

Emecheta's fictional Igbo chief, Agbadi, though married to many beautiful women, spends most of his time with his haughty mistress Ona (whose father is also a chief). Villagers, baffled by Agbadi's favoritism for Ona, suspect supernatural forces at work and presume that she has bewitched him. Her seductive and mystical persona can be understood as a powerful Mammy Wata priestess, or the Goddess incarnate. Reminiscent of Flora Nwapa's Lake Goddess devotee Efuru, Ona refuses marriage and is markedly independent and childless.

Ona's barrenness is overcome after an unsettling seduction which results in Nnu Ego's myth-like conception. The scene is set on a royal hunting expedition where Agbadi is tellingly gored by an elephant's tusk. From his deathbed he miraculously finds the strength to have sexual relations with the only nursemaid he will suffer, Ona Emecheta writes that the convalescing chief "slid on his belly, like a big black snake, and covered her mouth with his" (19). Emecheta's choice of simile is poignant considering the python's role as messenger for the Mammy Wata. Ona cries out during the sexual encounter that results in her first and long-awaited pregnancy. Agbadi is later told, "You and your Ona woke the very dead" (22). This comment proves to be an accurate premonition of things to come. The spirits of the ancestors invoked during Nnu Ego's extraordinary conception profoundly influence her destiny. Sociologist Victor Uchendu attests to the primacy of the esoteric in the lives of the Igbo people, writing: "[T]here is constant interaction between the world of man and the world of the dead; the visible and invisible forces ..." (12).

At Ona's cry and Nnu Ego's conception, Agbadi's senior wife falls ill and dies. This senior wife's eldest son demands that his mother be buried with her most loyal female slave. To demonstrate the senior wife's power and rank, the slave woman, described as "beautiful," is beaten down into the grave. The dying slave woman's last words are: "I shall come back to your household, but as a legitimate daughter. I shall come back ..." (23). The newly pregnant Ona fails unconscious as the slave woman is buried. (6)

Nnu Ego is born with a lump on her head and the "fair skin of the water people" which the dibia (or traditional healer) diagnoses as indications of the slave woman's return (27). The "slave woman is reincarnated as Nnu Ego's chi, the Igbo term for the human soul or inner deity. Agbadi, upon discovering the slave woman's manifestation in his daughter, does everything in his power to appease her. In a fervor of repentance, he releases and adopts the slaves remaining in his compound. To honor Mammy Wata, Agbadi has the slaves cleansed in the stream and sprinkled with a purifying chalk commonly used in river spirit worship. These rituals however do little to appease the slave woman's chi that resides in Nnu Ego.

Cursed with barrenness like her mother, Nnu Ego discovers that before her capture the slave woman had been dedicated to serve Mammy Wata (31). Breaking taboo and stealing from the goddess, Agbadi has incurred her wrath. She revokes her blessing on his compound and the members of his family start dying; even Agbadi's beloved Ona is reclaimed by the spirit world. Nnu Ego carries within her soul (or chi) the wrath intended for her father Agbadi as well as the reincarnated spirit of a priestess dedicated to serve Mammy Wata. Colonialism will later play a great role in the demise of Nnu Ego's imposed, urban nuclear family, but the binary opposition residing in her own soul sets the course for her miserable destiny.

In direct correlation to Flora Nwapa's novel, Nnu Ego, like her protagonist predecessor Efuru, dreams of Mammy Wata and her watery "queendom" on a regular basis. Efuru, a confirmed River Goddess devotee, is comforted by her dreams and grounded in spirituality. Nnu Ego, on the other hand, is bewildered by them: "Somebody was calling her. Was it her imagination or was it real? Was she going completely mad now?" (73). Nnu Ego makes offerings to the part of her chi that belongs to Mammy Wata and eventually gives birth to a son. The goddess allows her some moments of joy but ultimately takes her revenge with the infant's untimely death. In a fit of momentary insanity, Nnu Ego attempts to drown herself as "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" (9).

The hold Mammy Wata has over Nnu Ego is well established in the opening chapters of The Joys of Motherhood. Nnu Ego's first husband, an exploited peon of the colonial regime reminds her that "it is known that your chi came from the people down by the river. Their women are said to be very strong" (32). Indeed the river spirit is strong in her power to bestow but also to curse those who defile or ignore her. Inflicting a wrath much like that of the sirens, Mammy Wata beckons to offenders in order to drown them or take back their children. (7) Mammy Wata also inflicts malediction through possession or insanity. Much current information on river spirit worship is derived from testimonies by indigenous priests and priestesses treating individuals seeking release from Mammy Wata possession. Western medicine has also examined the treatment of Mammy Wata-induced psychosis as the psychiatrists Ronald Wintrob's research in Liberia and Michel Ogrizek's research in Congo and Central African Republic attest. Telltale signs of such possession color Nnu Ego's portrait in The Joys of Motherhood Her disheveled appearance, odd behavior, and trance-like state play a large role in her character's construction. Salome Nnoromele finds a correlation between Nnu Ego's behavior and madness throughout the narrative. Questioning the source of Nnu Ego's emotional instability, Nnoromele writes: "[A]re her actions governed by certain cultural codes of conduct or do they imply a type of character defect?" (182). Nnoromele's query pinpoints the crossroads of heteroglossia that traverse The Joys of Motherhood. Explanations for Nnu Ego's puzzling behavior are attributed, in this case, to madness and according to other critics to a confusion of gender roles, feminist rebellion and/or an inability to adapt to an urban environment. In the latter instance, Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi argues that "Nnu Ego's inability to separate sex from gender, and her stubbornness and resistance to change, compound her situation, diminish her faith in her own identity and stifle her agency when she moves to Lagos and starts having children." (41).

Nnoromele also finds Nnu Ego's character unwilling to evolve and precludes her victimization, as she is not an "object upon which society heaps its 'unfair' practices and demands, but ... a subject of her own actions ... an active determinant of her own destiny" (181). The inability to accept and exploit her spiritual heritage attributes directly to her antisocial and self-destructive behavior. Her tragic flaw is as conflicted as her chi; she is possessed by Mammy Wata yet lacks the vision to mount an effective coping strategy or seek mediation. The irony of her spiritual blindness is metaphorically highlighted in the novel. As Nnu Ego runs to drown herself, she knocks down a blind beggar in front of Mammy Wata's secondary abode, the marketplace. Later, in a dream, the Goddess ominously mocks Nnu Ego, foretelling the many children she will have. Her wish to be a prolific child-bearer is finally granted followed by the realization that she has no other form of wealth: no money, no friends, no fulfillment. Although her chi drives her destiny, she relinquishes the option to direct it. Clarifying the role of the chi in Igbo cosmology, Chinua Achebe explains that the "chi has unprecedented veto powers over man's destiny" (164) but "there is a fundamental justice in the universe and nothing so terrible can happen to a person for which he is not somehow responsible" (165).

Overlooking the role of spirituality in the protagonist's destiny, Nnaemeka, Sarr, Dubek, Nfah-Abbenyi, and Nnoromele attribute Nnu Ego's tragedy to her rejection of a female support system. They unanimously point out that Nnu Ego's inertia is countered by other women characters who cultivate themselves and evolve despite the upheaval of colonialism. The aforementioned critics concur that Nnu Ego's co-wife Adaku exemplifies the power of personal initiative. While Nnu Ego resigns her seven surviving children to abject poverty and misery, Adaku joins women's groups, educates her daughters, cultivates friendship, and mounts a very successful business selling wax print cloth. Susan Andrade does not consider Adaku a Mammy Wata, a blessed tradeswoman, but nonetheless concedes that "her greater economic security signifies a certain success in the context of Igbo valorization of women as good traders and contrasts sharply with Nnu Ego's poverty" (103). Nfah-Abbenyi continues in defense of Adaku, whose "ability to combine traditional and urban values are no match for Nnu Ego" (43) and "by refusing to 'kill' herself physically, psychologically, and economically, Adaku rejects the equation of childlessness or having female children with madness for women.... She is also rejecting the radical feminist stance that might posit women's oppression and women's powerlessness as resulting from (absolute) male power" (45). Mammy Wata conversion offers an alternative explanation for Adaku's agency, as her initiates are freed from the pressure of childbirth and maintain independence under the auspices of common worship. Although admonished by terms like "prostitute" for having the bravado to make her own way and direct her chi, Adaku succeeds without negating men or other women. Her success stems from an inner strength that has more to do with Mammy Wata devotion and Mary Modupe Kolawole's notion of "womanism" than it does with Western feminism, which more often than not defines itself through negation and exclusion.

Mammy Wata cults, some functioning syncretically within missionary churches, exemplify affirming female communities. Indeed, heeding Mammy Wata's call and joining a women's support network may very well have lessened Nnu Ego's misery and would certainly have increased her market savvy. Ogunyemi explains adherence to the Mammy Wata faith as happening "when tragic circumstances or outright failure defy logic, the immersed subject moves toward the supernatural, seeking help from the other world ..." (18). Solace lies in Mammy Wata, "who is figured as performing a maternal function in the society at large" (32). In her documentary film Mammy Water: In Search of the Water Spirits in Nigeria, Jell-Bahlsen includes several scenes that depict the stabilizing force of Mammy Wata in the lives of women once marginalized through barrenness or antisocial behavior. As Mammy Wata devotees, they were transformed into active and accepted members of society. If we consider what Mammy Wata represents, her attributes and her influence on the Igbo people may not resolve the enigmatic nature of Emecheta's novels, but they bring the reader closer to her locus of intention. The protagonist's destiny in The Joys of Motherhood with this point of view in mind becomes less a feminist critique of maternity than an insight into the destructive combination of colonialism and spiritual inertia.

On the relationship between African culture and literature, Obioma Nnaemeka denounces the use of ethnographic studies as pertinent to literary criticism. She contends that these references aid in the transformation of a fictional work into an overly generalized anthropological case study of African women. Her reproach is aimed at Western feminists who seek to transpose their war on patriarchy onto African women's literature. Indeed, Susan Andrade relates the textual dialogue between Efuru and The Joys of Motherhood as feminist rebellion serving to shift "responsibility for conception [i.e. barrenness] onto the man" (100). To avoid falling into what Nnaemeka considers the "trap" of "anthropologizing" (and/or projecting a Western agenda onto African literature), she counters that "the outsider needs the keen eye of the insider to decipher the nuanced margins of African literature." This keen eye is unattainable from the "outsider" even with the aid of field study or reference to social science publications. Nonetheless, reference to the latter enables the negotiation of meaning. Despite textual heteroglossia remaining present for most readers and critics of African literature, a multidisciplinary approach increases the possibility of dialogue. Although the threat of continued imperialistic criticism (intentional or otherwise) looms on the horizon, keeping the channel of dialogue open assures its mediation and eventual elimination through counter discourse.


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(1) Nnaemeka's article systematically asserts that "white feminists" seek imperialistically to appropriate and negate African literature and African writers, as their "Feminist politics makes the silencing, trivialization and misrepresentation of African women possible" (104). Colonialism, corruption, the IMF, and the current Nigerian cleptocracy apparently play a secondary role in comparison with the criminality of these "feminist" villains. Her neo-segregationist stance is made more apparent by her intolerance for the use of Russian or French theory in the criticism of African texts, whereas black American women, such as Toni Morrison, are welcome to discuss African writing using cliches about jazz music.

(2) For a discussion of river spirit symbolism in The Bride Price and The Slave Girl, see Friedli 31-65.

(3) Scholarship, commencing with the art historians Jill Salmons and Henry Drewal, focuses on Mammy Wata's origin and symbolism in the Nigerian delta. The ensuing discourse from Salmons to Drewal contrasts traditional/indigenous river spirit worship with foreign-trade-influenced syncretic forms of river spirit worship. The 1997 research of Gore and Nevadomsky seeks to dispel Drewal's notion of a homogenous, Pan-African Mammy Wata.

(4) See Drewal for discussion of the pertinence and historical dissemination of the Indian prim (38).

(5) For an analysis of the difference between Olokun and Mammy Wata worship, see Gore and Nevadomsky (61).

(6) Emecheta's use of the terra "slave" in her texts rather than "female-husband" is somewhat misleading, given the dynamics between river spirit worship and the accumulation of wealth from the cooperation of "female husbands." For a full discussion of this Igbo cultural phenomenon, see Amadiume.

(7) For a discussion of Mammy Wata's wrathful tendencies, see Frank.
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Author:Friedli-Clapie, Lisa
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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