What this practice really meant, though, was that the same amount of income was now expected to support two Nnaife, both of his wives, and all of their children, and especially when the household wasn't operating as a single unit, this caused a great deal of hardship, tension, and imbalance. In addition, it caused emotional and psychological grief for Nnu Ego, who had to listen to Nnaife consummating his new marriage only feet from where she lay trying to fall asleep. Truly nothing was hers after this marriage -- not even the love of her husband.
The Women of Nigeria
This is not actually the first time that Nnu Ego experiences the hardships of polygamy in the novel. She had previously been married to another man, and after a short time of her failing to become pregnant by him he took a new wife, and Nnu Ego had to work in the field and ultimately care for the new wife's child. After showing true attachment to the child by breastfeeding it while it was hungry, however, Nnu Ego is beaten and decides to leave that marriage. There is really very little that she can do, however, until her father finds her another husband -- Nnaife. This illustrates quite clearly that degree to which women in Nnu Ego's culture were essentially the property of the men in their lives.
At the same time, the hardships that women must endure due to the vagaries and prevalence of polygamy in this culture have created a sort of independence and a unique brand of what might be termed feminist thought, wherein women insist on the right to work and earn money because families would truly crumble and be destroyed without this income (Ogundipe-Leslie 1994). This is far from an ideal system, of course, but unlike the oppression of women in Western cultures that was viewed solely as a weakening and limiting force, this subjugation in Nigeria and other regions has the effect of empowering women to some degree, and showing the resolve and determination that they possessed (Ogundipe-Leslie 1994). Polygamy, in a sense, gave women more latitude and economic liberty due to the fact that the economic hardships and increased independence of the system demanded it.
This can also be seen at work in the novel, where both the positive and the negative aspects of this "empowerment" of women in the polygamous societies of Nigeria can be found. Nnu Ego is happy to be able to help support her husband and child by selling matchsticks on the side of the road at first, but later on -- especially following the death of her first child and then the entrance of Nnaife's new wife -- this work becomes oppressive to her, and a mark of the fact that there is no real support system in place for wives that are more or less discarded by their husbands in favor of newer ones. This, too, is a bastardization of Islamic laws and traditional customs allowing polygamy, where all wives must be taken care of equally and there are even some rules regarding the hierarchy of wives based on the order of their marriage, and in the novel could also represent the manner in which Western society is interrupting the way of life in Nigeria (Mashour 2005). The money and jobs that Westerners bring cannot be counted on, but are depended on, creating more imbalances and problems, and this is exacerbating the issues caused by polygamy (Mashour 2005; Ogundipe-Leslie 1994).
Polygamy is just one of many ways that human beings have found by which to oppress each other. Though this system was never fair, however, it has become increasingly worse for women in the modern era. Emecheta's the Joys of Motherhood illustrates some of the many problems that occur for women living with the institution of polygamy in the modern era.
Emecheta, B. (1980). The Joys of Motherhood. New York: George Braziller.
Mashour, a. (2005). Islamic Law and Gender Equality: Could There be a Common Ground?: A Study of Divorce and Polygamy in Sharia Law and Contemporary Legislation in Tunisia and Egypt. Human Rights Quarterly 27(2): 562-596.