Women’s Roles in Igbo and Yoruba societies.

April 12, 2004

In our own country during the 1950’s a woman’s role in our society differed tremendously from our idea of what her position is today. When I think of what was expected of my grandmother in order to fulfill her duty as a wife and mother I can not help but cringe. The picture that is painted in my mind is of a young dainty woman quietly serving her family breakfast while her husband tells her what she is to do while he is at work. After breakfast, her family rushes out the front door, as she passes out their bagged lunches in exchange for a courteous kiss on the cheek. While they spend the day stimulated at work and school she is left at home doing mindless housework until they return home. No one asks her what she thinks about politics, or what she aspires to become, not even how her day was. What we find most perplexing about this situation is through the entire order of events she is completely content. Most women in our society today could not live their lives like their grandmothers. They take joy in leaving for work with their husbands or even leaving their husband at home to take care of the kids while they go off to be the bread winners. Gender roles differ through the ages much like they vary from culture to culture. However, no matter how simple the role may seem it is an important one for the good of the entire group. This idea is evident through the texts Things Fall Apart, Death and the King’s Horsemen, Through African Doors, and Sitting on a Man.

In Nigerian cultures the primary role of woman as child barer and caregiver though seemingly simplistic, is crucial to their society. This means that the woman does whatever it takes to ensure the livelihood of her offspring. This is made apparent in all of the texts read, however especially talked about in Through African Doors, and Things Fall Apart. For example in, Through African Doors the story of a Yoruba woman’s duties as a woman are told through Ewumi. In this society after a woman conceives she must move out of her husband house and remain celibate for a span of three years, which is the amount of time it takes to wean the child. This is so all attention from the mother can be focused on the child. When Ewumi does this she finds her husband a second wife Toro, so that he may continue producing more offspring. After the child is weaned Ewumi returns home to her husband and his new wife, who has not yet conceived. Toro is very depressed and anxious, she has fits of frustration because she has not yet been able to conceive. This feeling of worthlessness expressed by Toro, a woman who is barren, makes evident the role of woman as child barer. Later when Ewumi gives birth to her second child, Adebayo, an abiku (or spirit child) she knows she must do anything to keep him alive. Since Adebayo is weak and could be easily convinced to return to the spirit world even the slightest agitation could cause him to die. For this reason Ewumi does not return home to her husband for fear that his second wife’s fits of temper would disturb Adebayo. In Ewumi’s society the duties of a mother to an abiku (or any child) outweigh the love of a marriage. This can be attributed to the fact that in culture like that of the Igbo and Yoruba, “The child is the cornerstone of African society” (reader, pg 316) It is for this reason that the duty of raising the child is so important. Likewise in Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, the name “Nnenka” or “mother is supreme” is explained by the main character Okonkwo’s uncle:

“It’s true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And