The dominant stereotypes of African motherhood. The ever sacrificing mother that lays down her life for her children, heir protector against pernicious kinsmen intent on swindling them out of the family inheritance . Is this even a true image? Or is it just the one we romanticize? Our vision of the perfect mother? The archetype of the Mother, Nneka in Igbo-Nigerian mythology and ideology. Idealized and idolized motherhood.
Yet for every story of the martyr mother there is the mother that abandons her children when she leaves her husband as required under some tribal laws and this was evocatively told in Sade Adeniran’s 2007 novel “Imagine This”. Based on the authors own experience it’s the tragic story of two British-Nigerian children voluntarily left by their mother after she divorced their father. She made no attempt to contact them.
Contrast this with Remi Obasanjo’s autobiography “Bitter Sweet: My Life With Obasanjo”. She was deprived custody of her children forcibly and possibly illegally and spent most of her time and effort trying to regain custody.
In the corner of Nigeria where I grew up in neither way was right or wrong. I separated from my husband when my children were still toddlers. Whenever I visited my fathers village from Lagos where I lived with them the old women (the Umuada) scolded me for using my resources raising children for my husbands people. “An animal with young cannot run fast.” they would say to me. “Return these children to their people”. Under patriarchal tribal laws that was the logical thing to do. Move on, start another family, drop the baggage and get a new life.
The women of my husband’s village on the other hand (my co-wives) encouraged marital reconciliation, a focus on nurturing my children and the dangers my absence would expose them to, reminded me of my ‘status’ and rights in the clan guaranteed for life through my sons, shared stories of misbehaving husbands, the trials of motherhood and marriage and always treated me as one of them decades after I left.
I grew up without my mother; I understand the peculiar difficulty it presents in Nigeria. Empathy is scarce, competition is fierce, and I was still idealistic and romantic. So I challenged my husband and his people for custody and won, sort of, but that’s another story for another day. My point is there were two distinct pressures on me, the Ndiyom (co-wives) and the Umuada (kinswomen).
I think this is something we miss in our discourse about African feminism and women’s rights, ancient and modern. African mythology is a balance of opposites. Women were never treated as a homogenous group. We understood that wives and daughters have opposing interests and we created a situation where the two influences could exert pressure on decision making and choices. For men the two polarities were the paternal and the maternal kinsmen.
Daughters and kinswomen were highly valued and respected. A man’s soul could not cross over to the other side after death if Umuada did not come to his burial. Great effort and ritual was made to ensure a good relationship. In return kinsmen were a woman’s protection from abuse in her marital home. Today the once super powerful Umuada are a shadow of their old feisty selves. The church in Igbo Nigeria has privileged the Ndiyom group and through the veneration of the Virgin Mary privileged motherhood even further. The distortion is fuelling a cruel kind of gender discrimination.