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Understanding Igbo Cosmology through the study of water spirits can be engaging and frightening too. Yet it is a reality that women and men experience in everyday lives as they struggle to have wealth, children and power in society. Igbo culture as in related African cultures depeicts a classic power of the extrahuman forces, namely mami wota. This book review highlights the fundamental issues involved in the belief and practice of mami wota rites of existence.
The Water Goddess in Igbo Cosmology: Ogbuide of Oguta Lake
In the Context of Ambivalent Feminism, Empowerment and Mami Wota Phenomenon
The Water Goddess in Igbo Cosmology: Ogbuide of Oguta Lake by Sabine Jell-Bahlsen. Publisher: Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2008. 25 chapters, xiv + 433 pages. The book provides photographs, illustrations, glossary, bibliography, and index. And it is priced at $34.95 (paper back). It can be obtained through internet major distributors such as www.amazon.com
After searching literature to speak to the issue of extra-somatic empowerment and women, I settled on the work of Sabine Jell-Bahlsen. It is a book which shows that no simple way exists to grapple with the complex relationship cultures share and go with the spirit world. This is challenging when women are specifically associated with the spirit phenomenon, namely mami wota. A study of women and mami wota in Igbo cosmology reveals the power and influence of the queen water deity in the everyday reality of Oguta group. Being a female in the area is directly a part of embracing the water goddess or her allies. It can be argued that understanding feminism in this culture is critical to understanding the ambivalent relationship defined by mami wota. Empowerment of women need to be viewed as a complex issue following different roles emerging from embracing the mami wota cult as much as it entails a lot in the identity, sex and gender struggle aimed to foster the cosmological equilibrium.
As I adopt a book appraisal approach to address the issue of critical feminism and mami wota or queen water deity, I reflect the dimensions of cosmological attachments and impacts on cultural feminism. The critical task is to learn “how women get involved with mami wota – a spirit phenomenon and in turn become empowered to challenge their own culture and assume powerful gender roles.” A book review such as this provides a scientific glimpse into the context of endogenous feminism in its own right. Sabine Jell-Bahlsen’s book shows us that human activities form different parts of the group’s cultural component and how each of such constitutive activities radiates and connects the local to exotic, old and new worlds. The author did ask: “what is the rationale to others for studying an indigenous African goddess, culture, history, and language? What is the relevance of indigenous African custom and knowledge to the world in view of rapid “progress” and the “acculturation” of African societies, and more alarmingly, in view of the environmental, economic, and political disasters, topped by the AIDS crisis and ethnic wars of to be or not to be? (cf. p.3). When analyzing and facing Africa today, Jell-Bahlsen states that we face a major challenge which includes a way to re-interpret and re-situate Africa’s edge of the junk-heaps of western civilization. She argues that culture matters to its practitioners and needs not be viewed and analyzed as if they were pristine (p. 3).
Jell-Bahlsen's book deals with the Igbo pragmatic and complex water deity. According to her, the work depicts a twenty-five years of research in Nigeria, providing a curious ethnographic study of indigenous Oguta-Igbo religion centering on women and water deity. The epistemology and social practice of the belief of water deity is framed in common experience of their daily economic, social and political life. Commentators like Christey Carwile of Warren Wilson College have noted that the book “is by far the most comprehensive and carefully researched work to date on the female water deity known as Ogbuide in the town of Oguta, Nigeria - more popularly known throughout sub-Saharan Africa as mammy wata (sea mother). Jell-Bahlsen's work is also credited to be a major contribution not only to religious studies but also to African and especially Igbo studies.
Sabine Jell-Bahlsen contends that over the years of her research, the water has emerged as the single most influential and existential force complementing the earth goddess ani, ala and the ancestral gods (p.1). In particular, in Oru-Igbo culture, the political and kinship organization, economy, art work and all else revolve around water. The Ogbuide provides a contour of the local farming world and cycle – the timing and major owu performances, including agulu and omerife festivals. People’s daily conducts emerge and interlink with their social cosmology, spirituality and moral universe (p.3) – hence lake water domain is recognized along with other fields of life shrouded in divine force and esoteric power. Sabine Jell-Bahlsen agrees with the locales that water is accorded divine power index having dual faculties, namely being both a source of life giving and life destroying pair. From various themes, photos and illustrations, the author brings out the notion, role and significance of mami wata. For example, the Oguta Lake goddess, Ogbuide, is traced against the background of Igbo, in particular Oguta myth, history and custom. Ogbuide’s varied dimensions were explored as part of a broader pantheon of Igbo gods and goddesses. Firmly rooted in Igbo cosmology and visions of the universe, the water goddess is identified with plural names, titles and powers. It is also accompanied by powerful symbols, sacred emblems and relative ecological creatures. Across Igboland, the mermaid, mami wota, queen of the ocean, is believed to be extraordinarily and superlatively beautiful. She stands as a symbol of beauty, elegance, caring, loving, jealousy, benevolence, wealth and creativity. She is judged to be multifaceted, polygamous, jealous, ominous, and dangerous. She balances between good and bad, give and take. This is confirmed by Misty Bastian’s 1987 field research in Nigeria, specifically on the Onitsha Market System, where mammy wata was commonly reported to her note-taking to be a beautiful female (nwanyi mara mma), and that she flaunts her unimaginable wealth with jewellery that blinds those who view it.
Bastian also believes that in both mermaid and humanoid form, mami wota often carries enormously expensive baubles such as combs, mirrors, and watches. Apart from tortoise and crocodile announcing its approach, a large snake, python (symbol of divination and divinity in many African cultures) frequently accompanies her, wrapping itself around her and laying its head between her breasts. Other times, she may try to pass as completely human, wandering busy markets or patronising bars. She may also manifest in a number of other forms, including as a man. Through mami wota’s role, people’s custom and sanity is helped to be preserved. She may grant wealth and children to humans. At the same time, mami wota portends danger and may cause doom, turmoil, illness and even death. Mami wota selects her devotees – priests and priestesses who are widely known as healers in the field of water and mami wota related male and female issues. In the village cultural university (p.8), the mami wota of Oguta tells of the varied lessons that flow from indigenous knowledge system and its institutions such as traditional festivals, initiations and ceremonies upon which seasonal and everyday life is organized. Techniques of survival and facing change help students of cultural institutions understand and adapt critiques of African indigenous knowledge, applications and western civilizations (p. 8).
Reading the chapters, some critical issues raised by the author as they affect feminism and gender complex in Igbo society are found interesting. Example, the Uhammiri or Ogbuide – the goddess of Oguta Lake, is revered as Eze mmiri di egwu, eze nwanyi, uhammiri and ogbuide or water monarch – accompanied by the multiple names, titles and identities the deity is adored with. Yet she is elusive, colourful, and sparklingly enigmatic and mysterious entity. Ogbuide is the value of motherhood (p. 37) and is prayed for children, productivity of their fields, crops, business ventures, fecundity, and protection. I read chapter 3 with fascination on the people’s festival of life realities, namely owu (water festival mystique, masquerading and okoroshi dance), agugu (initiation of new farming cycle and of boys into men) and omerife (new yam festival) embodying the sacred art and ritual balancing of people, nature and divine water.
The question and meaning of why people engage in ritual is explained and related to mythical events of creation and worship. Ofo ritual symbol is pointed out reflecting how Igbo petition to address their needs (p. 45); followed by examination of the local environment and the economy (p. 48). The problem with this chapter is the omission of ogu concept by the author. Igbo say he who has ogu holds ofo which declares that ogu life is the fulcrum of ethical conscientization of the Igbo when petitions are being made to the gods and declaration of innocence is sought. In this case, the concept of iju ogu by using ogu symbol of knotted young palm frond (omu), is important anywhere ofo is discussed. Eji m ogu, eji m ofo (I have ogu and I have ofo) arms a petitioner to have defence and result when dealing with both humans and the gods when compelled to face rituals and field forces of the land and water alike. However, the author attempts to show that ritual involving the water goddess is inevitable and necessary if one is to live meaningfully and for as long as ogbuide of Oguta mediates procreation, wealth and well being. Further in page 77, the author points out the power of the water goddess to change destiny. This is figured out through the imagination that the nne mmiri controls the watery transitions between life and death in the eternal cycle of time. That is, she can change human destiny – akaraka to befit her whims and choices; and may confirm or challenge an individual’s life course. Therefore, being a threat and dreaded, she is regarded as imperial in challenging or confirming one’s destiny (p.77). Yet, contrary to European-Christian beliefs and teachings, mami wota exemplifies the fact that an individual’s destiny can be manipulated, changed from what was enacted at birth where the pack was made.
Resonating in this way is that the water goddess in Igbo thought and practice recalls the critical transitions through her water domain. An individual is believed to cross the river to enter life on earth. During the crossing of the river, he or she is challenged either by mami wota or the earth goddess of wild forest/bush (onabuluwa). Two things will happen at the instance – (i) the individual challenged to defend his or her destiny, (ii) enter into a new pack for altered destiny with the goddess’ claim. The latter will entail fulfilling conditions as a devotee to the goddess in the emergent new personhood. Refusing to fulfil such requirements will lead to illnesses such as mental derangement, continued loss of wealth or children, or even premature death (p.78). I like the point of challenging one’s destiny as it is raised by the author here. The cosmological process of weaving this world and that world together is often elusive. This is moreso due to the impact of civilization and new religions such as Christianity. The author is right in vividly depicting this state of the matter of which many religious writers have ignored or failed to explain it well as the author addressed it.
Circular time, re-incarnation, multiple names and identities are themes crosscutting life cycle and reproductive chi, names and oral history, names and exogamy, greetings and titles, including case of a misnamed individual and its cultural and social consequences are discerning. As birth giver, the goddess is said to give children as one half of a procreative divine pair – therefore provides a life-giving dynamics of balancing gender context – male and female powers – in this world and the spirit world as a continuum. Ogbuide is a precursor of a flexible Igbo gender system – helping in the march for cultural development. In other words, she lays bare the collaborative idioms of existentialism and corporeal gender index of power and sexuality. Procreation and social productivity, the author argues, are a core value of the culture (p. 105). Here, giving birth to a child is highly cherished and every woman prays to be a mother with her own children and established household. In that hope, uhammiri personifies womanhood, the essence of being woman in Igboland. But to be full woman, one needs to be married and or accommodated in a sacred household as illustrated by Uhammiri’s marital relationship. Being a representative of the female side of the universe (p. 105), urashi is a husband to ogbuide and later on in chapter 9 the author shows that ogbuide is equally a subversion of the polygamous culture of the society at the same time. While men marry more than one wife, ogbuide identifies with multiple husbands – urashi and njeba being male water gods (manifesting polyandrousness), a marriage culture that is seemingly uncommon (p.142).
Ogbuide is further revealed as having many shrines of her own as do her multiple consorts and husbands. In this way, the Oguta Lake goddess is understood as a supernatural being who personifies extremes that ordinary women may not easily attain. It is interesting reading the argument brought out by the author here that, “the lake goddess does not just define social norms as a role model, but also educates, for she informs people alternative strategies and options available to all human beings – men and women alike” (p. 143). Further in page 245, the author reinforces this dimension of the water goddess as a dilemma, a source of critical empowerment, of order and disorder orchestrating identity and change as well as stressing how the water resource is primarily the medium of movement for Oguta women for trading business. On child giving power and source of wealth and power, Igbo women rely heavily on the water goddess. For example, the devotees claim that uhammiri gives children and everything else (p.117). Arguing further, the author shows that her powers and faculties are two-pronged: she may bring life, children, foreigners, wealth, or death. This deity “is a ruler of crossroads, the watery transitions between life and death, or ogbuide may give and take (p.130). She possesses beauty, tempts men, sometimes causes doom; yet promotes health and wellness – with her priests and priestesses being successful herbalists, skilful diviners and healers. Her obscure gender issue affects men and women alike.
One can agree with the author’s identification of women’s seats of power as a fascinating point. She sees gender roles and proper sexual behaviour in society are defined with specifics in communities such as Oru-Igbo. We see also some reversed roles that emerge due to ritual engagements of either being a female or male – constituting empowerment for equality. The author successfully points out such contradictions, namely how water deity devotees do not conform to society’s reproductive norms and may be barren, bear twins, give yearly birth, or otherwise transgress traditional reproductive gender expectations. For example, a female worshipper having more than one spouse, marrying other women, refusing intercourse with or cooking for her husband, declaring herself “married to a river god,” or even cooking late at night (p. 148). These are observed as contradictory to expected female represented roles. Arguing, those women in Oguta and across Igbo who act so unusual, or are highly nonconformist, may be viewed as housing abomination or deemed crazy. They are likely to find refuge, consolation, and empowerment in the worship of ogbuide. Women turn into heroines through contradictory life norms in society – therefore are revolutionary of a sort. It also illustrates a point in the dynamic potentials of African cultures whose water goddess portends intrinsic part of the total custom as it at the same time harbours innovation, protecting the unusual, including transcending gender roles and gender in itself. Leadership types and powers identified range from inherited leadership – male or female titles and collective female powers to spiritually induced leadership based on vocation. In short, male ritual leadership roles have parallel and complementary female ones. Example, the owu society rites of passage, as well as agulu or New Year festival are events that bring the male and female roles out in a complementary assortment.
As a sign of her priestly authority and leadership, a female water priestess holds an ofo in Oru-Igbo, the revered Igbo wand of office. A woman holding an ofo in Igbo society is rare. Igbo men may flatly brush off or deny the possibility or assign the situation to be outrageous seeing a woman holding ofo ritual symbol. In Oguta and elsewhere, the author unveils that a water deity priestess may very well do so (p. 162). Such water deity priestess, eze nwanyi or eze mmiri, may not only hold an ofo but also wear a male privileged red cap with white feather – a symbol of recognized male chiefs. In Oguta, a fully installed water deity priestess, eze nwanyi, may even break kola nut in the presence of men if they are her juniors contrary to the general belief and practice of kola nut ceremony in Igbo society as a male privilege and cultural hospitality controlled by men (p.162). Here the author makes an insightful contribution – thereby helping the contemporary Igbo people understand the roots and nuanced issues of male and female roles arising from rituals. But some of these highly ascribed ritual roles and contested powers by the females are getting lost due to impoverishment of women and the loss of female titles, namely ada owu and ndi omu in the area due to critical male bias and colonial assault. Only umuada seem to have survived all Judeo-Christian civilisational incursions. Yet, it is important to agree with the author that those ritual activities involving women are still intrinsic part of Igbo custom - the omenala (p.165). In other words, the divine woman is phenomenal and in Igbo cosmology, she validates female power in many normal and contradictory gender aspects. Moreover, female power is not only complementary to male, but also pivotal to man in creation, procreation, reincarnation, and existence within the circular flow of time. These are expressed in female priesthood and ritual and in water goddess’s power to challenge the status quo of human destiny for life and for death. Another insightful point the author stressed is seeing female water oriented priesthood through possession by the water deities as an alternative cultural strategy and value system allowing uncontested female access to esoteric status and empowerment (p. 165). Above all, women’s ritual leadership has come to express their different but complementary and decisive status, their female powers of the universe and Igbo cosmological virtues – that provide context and skill for gender equilibrium.
Further, how ogbuide works with and is guided by order, rules that are customary in the transaction of everyday life with the Oguta society is exposed. Laws of the land, omenala allow, require, or forbid – in a way the water goddess is constantly invoked in the moral universe and in defining behaviour. Rules or taboos pertain to good life and bad life, burial rites, reincarnation, marital relations, including circumcisions. Ogbuide’s messengers and totem animals explain the sacred python (eke), crocodile (agu iyi) and the turtle (mbe) as the messenger symbols utilized by the goddess. In Oguta, these totemic animals, in particular, the python is imbued with spiritual, sacred and religious symbolism. Females are viewed as pythons as they act closely in rituals and as representations of the universe. Generally, the python signals danger, death and is feared and admired at the same time. It is the root source of tying issues up, for example, binding life and death, health and wealth, peace and war, pregnancy and birth. As to why is the symbol or image of snake used in medical profession and healing, the author explores what is called asklepian (p. 201) and provides an Old Testament healing reference theme when God instructed Moses to mount a brass serpent on a pole, and anyone who looked at it was cured. Both the water goddess and her priests and priestesses, including her totem python are at times merged and linked to healing of life threatening illness. Basically, the python of mami wota is largely recognized and emits a complex avatar of religious beliefs.
I like what I saw in chapter 15 explaining why, in the first place, some people have strange hairs that will require special ritual treatment to maintain. Commonly called ishi dada or twisted hair, curled hair strings (dada hair type, dreadlocks), it is a prominent element in identifying a link up or a tie in with ogbuide (p.227). Being a dada (dawadawa) is a personal statement (p.233), revolt, danger and sacredness. The goddess’s long hair is feminized and said to be synonymous with fertility and ability to grant, bear or beget children. Yet, the author argues, it has twists (p.239). Dada, she claims, “means connectedness to the spirit world, the esoteric, and its associated dangers and healing forces” (p. 239).
Oguta women are presented as individuals who never rest – as they always move, accumulate, and create, and are socially and economically mobile and sometimes exceedingly wealthy. Women’s cultural radicalism, particularly the non-conservative, innovative individuals see life and ecological conditions as opportunity for challenge, including contradicting barriers and norms to bring about change and progress. Being a woman in the area is not a hindrance to do like men do given the power and relevance of the water goddess, ogbuide – a symbol and patron of women’s wealth, beauty, power and children. As such, water worship, the author argues, balances territorial ambitions and attachments as women and men match each other to beget, nourish, and perpetuate life and society (p. 247).
Wading through chapters 18-20, the reader sees with the author how complex it is a group’s cosmology of life can be. Even though members of the community have ideas and ways of dealing with their issues, not every person can provide details or aware of the elements needed to maintain cosmic and gender equilibrium that is devoid of the cultural theory of inequality and dominance. However, the need to keep balance between antagonistic forces in the area is a common knowledge and hope. Securing modern life is viewed as unpredictable in Nigeria and to bring unity to life and living is interrelated with the unpredictability of the field of water. Water cult and priesthood relate to a central part of the water deity in dreams and divination as in healing illnesses. Preventive medicine, infant care, and reproductive norms are equally central to interpreting and healing diseases in the ecological domain. Ogbuide’s rituals and therapies resonate with the spiritual powerful domain in which the water goddess is reinforced as a life giver. Yet, the goddess is located at the crossroads between life and death because she is ecologically and cosmologically linked to the healing of life threatening illnesses. She shows her healers (ndi dibia ya) leaves and roots that will kill and that will cure (p. 286).
Taking ill, being possessed and in-trance in reality lead to an individual’s empowerment, priesthood, title, high standing and the authority to help and elevate others (p. 303).
While I enjoyed reading the text, I was confused when I came to chapter 22 where the author reintroduces mammy wata and goes on to look at its etymology, academic discourses and repeating the issue of python, hair, red and white and so on. She should have spared the reader from this confusion by joining this chapter to the previous or providing it as an appendix or have it referred to as paper published elsewhere. If the chapter had appeared earlier, it would have been much better to relate to in the structure of the book. I did not see any new useful information in the said chapter other than the comparison made with mammy wata and ghimbala spirit possession cult of the Upper Niger Bend (p. 352) in dimensional popular religious movements – mammy wata cum Christianity vs. ghimbala cult cum Islam. Discussing religious colonialism, female divinity and customary order of things in chapter 23, the author ferociously depicts the conflicts Judeo-Christian and Islamic thinkers have of traditional religious cosmological realms and practices. She argues powerfully of the dangers of subjugation and alienation of African woman and her religious embodiments (p. 352). The impact of western religions and inherited political structures continue to be a lingering debate as when it is postulated that religious colonialism tortures the soul, and therefore creates an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty, abusiveness and general suspicion (p. 359).
In the new era of critical Pentecostalism, spiritualism and materialism are joined in the anger of having no opportunity for self realization and growth versus disease, deprivation and poverty. In the circumstance, the author contends, Christian outfits capitalize on the poverty, on no empowerment and no opportunity situation to call on the natives to discard their cultural root – the “supernatural water force” as totally garbage (p. 361). How people display their everyday reality with cosmological emblem of mammy wata in Oguta area calls for modernisation with Christianity. Referring to Flora Nwapa, Nigeria’s female novelist, author shows how she drew much of her writings based on being a daughter of the water goddess as well as having lived through the challenges of being a woman in a heavily religious ecology of Oguta side of mammy wata ambivalent feminism. Credit to Flora Nwapa, according to Sabine Jell-Bahlsen, is grounded in her contribution to legal improvement of women’s position – by always protecting female interests and promoting female empowerment and motherism.
Critical comments and conclusion
Taken the book as a whole, it offers a strong message following the author’s sustained years of intensive study of the water spirit phenomenon, mammi wata. It provides descriptions of indigenous religion as a historical, political, economic, and social process. Again, in the view of Christey Carwile, “this is most evident in the introduction, where the author argues that because the worship of the mother water deity is so intricately intertwined with local life and the environment, Igbo indigenous religion should be viewed as "alternative strategies for social and economic development". With her premise, the industrialized world has much to learn from the "university of the village" and we can use these lessons to evaluate and question the values of industrial capitalism, especially in terms of respecting and preserving our environment.
This ethnographic book crosscuts and captures Igbo feminism, history, myth, cosmology, ritual practice, and a variety of social customs. In the modern era, the importance of bringing one’s personal experiences, initiations, beliefs, conflicts and resolutions – emic and etic cultural palaver even as it mattered with the issue of being a stranger, exotic, or a foreign female or as a perceived “that other” white or black god or emissary studying mammi wata deity in the ethnographic making, would have helped readers to learn more of the balance and approaches locals use to mediate and re-structure their world in the face of critical change, and moreso, in the accommodation of others in their neighbourhood. This lack is a bit of disappointment for researchers wanting to learn from the author’s account of the cultural encounter and representations.
Generally, I found the text informative but again my frustration weighs in when I encountered chapter repetitions and over flogging of themes such as images and descriptions of the virtues of the water deity as a life giver and taker. A great part of the book chapters is brief, and some seem to contain more endnotes than ethnographic descriptions and analyses expected. In other situations, I turned to previous chapters to refresh myself with terms and registers employed. One unusual style of the author is imposing foreign terms such as “water monarch” rather than queen or king of the river common to the local population. Throughout the text, it is not clear what the local people call “Lake” other than “Oguta Lake” being a colonial inscription for tourism? The glossary did not help point out or label this vernacular either. Igbo readers like myself may become frustrated with having to turn frequently to latter chapters for definitions and explanations or may have pity for some discrepancies in comparison with other Igbo areas. But I did admire the author’s effort to stay with the local Oguta terms and dialect throughout her work.
Regardless of these shortcomings, this book as I have reviewed it is exciting to read and invaluable for its commitment to describing both the ideological and practical dimensions of mammy wata significance and challenges for men and women. The assessment of mammy wata life and culture particularly for women's empowerment and the sustainability of the local community and environment as a whole is evident in the fact that the firewood of a people cooks their feminism, masculinism, ambivalence, belief, religiosity, food and identity (nku di na mba na-esiri ha nri – literally, the firewood of a place cooks their meal and fires their wellness).
Most important of all is, Sabine Jell-Bahlsen has centrally and powerfully woven for us a voluminous ethnography of the mother of waters in a way that helps to understand an aspect of Igbo feminism and female empowerment through the ambivalent spirit world of mami wota, the eze nwanyi di egwu – the giver and taker of fertility, life-birth destiny, wealth, and power in Igbo cosmology. Moreover, her effective use of symbolic anthropological analysis on the subject of womanhood, mammy wata and Igbo culture is apt to the scholarly piece.
The broad picture we gain from this study is that mami wota is a resilient supernatural force with productive and devastating influence in the affairs of women. It, moreover, illustrates the fact that women and men construct gender relations, namely opportunity, power and position in a stream of tested and imagined social, cultural, economic and political realities. And calls for inclusion and equal treatment of men and women in occupational and expert professional roles such as in customary and healing rituals and in the workplace subsist with equal social status in the community and household for the benefit of all people. In a shared relationship between mami wota and Oguta women to explain the spiritual dimensions of critical feminism, exclusive roles for men cast as taboo for women are tested through extrahuman power and authority assumed by women. The study equally demonstrates, as Nancy Bonvillain once said, “analyses of expert gender roles and constructs in societies throughout the world demonstrate the diversity of possibilities of human life” for change and continuity, rights and survival.
In short, mami wota reinforces the fact that the gender and cosmology of creatorship in a given culture is strongly correlated with feminism and the status of men in the world of that population group. I can comfortably say that Sabine Jell-Bahlsen’s work is a typical ethnography of one intensively studied African Igbo-village, the Oguta community, with insights that link mami wota, feminism, cosmology, power, gender and extra-somatic empowerment extensively.
A Second Book Review of Interest is Published in a website as below
Appraising "Single Mother Of Five: Insights For Fathers, Mothers And Counsellors"
Appraising Single Mother of Five: Insights for Fathers, Mothers and Counsellors (2010)
by Patrick E. Iroegbu
I was contacted to review the book, Single Mother of Five: Insights for Fathers, Mothers and Counsellors, written by Dr. Rose Joshua, for the occasion of its public launch on Saturday, July 23, 2011 at St. Edmund’s Catholic Parish, Edmonton, Canada. It dawned on me to scrutinize the book and make sense of it around our lived marital challenges, social, religious and economic realities for Nigerian and African families and elsewhere. First of all, the entire book, which I am about to review is captured by an Igbo proverb which says, Onye ajuru anaghi aju onwe ya! (this literally means, when one is forsaken, one does not let up, but to face it and move on).
In a recent third edition of Author’s Forum held in Ibadan of Nigeria captioned ‘How to make People Love Books’ reported by DAMIETE BRAIDE of the Daily Sun (July 14, 2011), it was held that there is a need to develop the culture of public reading as a way of getting a lot of people to read. It was also observed that in Asia and the West, authors make more money through public readings because it helps to publicize their books. Publishers and book sellers are encouraged to organize book launches and public readings, which in turn would boost sale of books. Common in Nigeria, for example, is the call to bring back the culture of reading and campaign for the return of books. Professor Akachi Adimora Ezeigbo, who chaired the occasion, said this,
“I love books and I have always loved where books are discussed. There was a time when books were rare in the country but today, books are everywhere. I cannot imagine today a world without books; books construct wisdom, inspire, shape values and interests, empower and represent a repository of knowledge and they should be celebrated. Reading is one thing that should be encouraged and reading should not die. In the West, they read a lot; so, a young child who discovers the world of books is very enchanting.”
The African people are often cajoled by the westerners for the fact that to read books is to trouble them. Therefore to hide knowledge from the African, write it in books. They won’t read it has become a common catch-phrase!
The coming of internet, namely electronic writing and communication, may appear to have replaced books. It is not true . Books are still relevant despite the use of modern technology like e-book. Like physical books, electronic devices simply add to the ways of learning what books teach.
Not long ago, Dr. Rose Joshua contacted me from Calgary via facebook and requested to be helped to settle down to her new job in Edmonton. Dr. Rose Joshua had lived in and studied in several cities in Canada and of course in USA too. Poised I did become after reading her exciting and intimidating resume on the internet. Not only did I quickly place a phone call on one of the Real Estate guys here but I also went over to say hi, there is a great guy coming from Calgary to settle down here in her new employment. But she is seeking for help to find a temporary accommodation until she will sort out what she will require in the area of housing. Just take it up and help. Choices were offered and here we go, she settled down and has been awesome with reaching out to the community.
Dr. Rose Joshua has just settled down here in Edmonton with a strong purpose. Her settling down in the city coincided with the rough moments Nigeria Association of Alberta (NAA) was having with the so-called unpopular Caretaker Committee and the NAA Board as at then. The rest of the story is history as all of us know where we are in the trend of things – to be or not to be.
I am not going to review the book – Single Mother of Five – based on the circumstances of Nigerians in the Diaspora such as the history of NAA and its present predicaments – much like in a broken family. But I will offer a review based on the mindset of a scholar and community responsibility to make sense of the book.
Why Is a Review of this Book Necessary?
People often ask, why do we have to review books, can’t readers do it themselves? Good question. Reviewing books is an important way of bringing the knowledge of a book to the fore. A review is a highlight of the book. It helps to give authority and credibility to the work. Reviews offer both critical comments and praises of the work. Not only that reviews put value to a book, they also redirect the focus for intellectual skill, social policy and market value. Since libraries can’t buy books unless they have been reviewed and/or recommended, and even many individuals won’t buy books unless they have read a review, reviewing books can definitely shine light on the book and advance the field of the author. To review a book therefore demands from the reviewer to be an active reader of the book. A reviewer is a reader who reads meaning into and beyond a book.
Having said that, my task today is to share a comment about the book Single Mother of Five. That brings me to thequestion, why is this book written? What inspired it? How is it written, what circumstances surrounded the writing of this book. What is the book’s central argument? Did the book do what it set out to do? Is the book well written? How accurate is the information provided? What course can it be used for? Who will benefit from reading this book? More importantly, what critical message and lessons can we draw from the author’s approach, perspective and experiences shared in the work? In short why are books written, especially why is the Single Mother of Five written? Why also should a literature like this be launched? Books are judged, I need to mention, not by the reviewer’s intentions but essentially by the author’s goal and approach. More importantly a review tries to assess if the book has covered a good ground by standing out as a genuine contribution to the field, and indeed, adds to our knowledge. The most important element about a book review is that it is a commentary, not just a summary and quotations from the book. Even though critical reviews will point out areas not covered by a book or references deserving of inclusion but ignored by the author, it matters to keep in mind that the reviews evaluate the overall thesis of the book and its validity through explanations, interpretations and analyses. Yet book reviews, unlike reports which discuss content, can vary in length, scope, intended audience, and complexity.
There are many answers one can offer in response to the above questions. Social analysts and pundits have ways of mirroring a book such as the Single Mother of Five. More importantly when a book is written by a scholar like Dr. Rose Joshua, some readers attempt to view such books to be out of their reach or comprehension. People read books or articles for different purposes. I need to tell you one thing, some people read books written by people they know to default them, not to appreciate the work. For example, some will read a book to criticize the style of writing – that is the use of language by the author. Others will read it to scrutinize the life and troubles a writer may have had in life. Yet others read a book to capture the idea of the author and lessons intended of the book. In one way or the other, a book has something to offer and it depends on what the reader is prepared to take out of a book.
Authors like Dr. Rose Joshua, and a whole lot of African, Asian, Middle-eastern, European, Canadian, American and entire western and non-western writers have one thing in common – the desire to communicate an experience, a thought, idea, a lesson, a research finding, a subject of interest and, in deed, a story – true or fiction. Keep in mind that the popular novel,Things Fall Apart written by Prof. Chinua Achebe was written as folklore – being an account of the missionary and colonial encounter with the Igbo people. He was not the only one who experienced the circumstances of that historical come-across – was he? Not at all, but because he felt there was a need to tell that story in his own perspective, so he wrote it. Things Fall Apart was rejected by all most all major English Publishers in UK as at the time because it was reviewed as untellable and non-sellable material in the sense of what mattered in the then English literary domain and world. Until one professor who just returned from African university tour of duty was approached to read the book. In his review reply, that is what evaluators call assessment and relevance for academic knowledge and market value, he said “this is the best of any ‘African writer and topic’ he has read and deserves to be read by the world about African knowledge system and the western world”. There you go; the success story of Things Fall Apart that has become the most read book out of Africa today written by an Igbo person began. Changes like you know have occurred on how manuscripts are assessed by publishers before they hit the press. Today we have self-publishing made possible by the electronic and internet resources. Self-publishing requires heavy publicity network which includes book launching to bring the work to the attention of readers and users.
The First & Current Edition
I did not have the opportunity to read the first edition of Single Mother of Five. When the author was asked about what significant changes occurred that warranted the second edition, she opined that there was not a radical break away from the first edition but the second arose out of the need to add feedbacks and reinforce some of the arguments raised by readers’ of the first edition. I am happy the second edition has been able to address the readers increasing quest to have out there a standard book to address motherhood, fatherhood and counselling in the face of doing it alone.
As a reviewer of this book, I just want to tell you that I have read the book – SINGLE MOTHER OF FIVE: INSIGHTS FOR FATHERS, MOTHERS AND COUNSELLORS (2ND.ED.) 2010.
I read it with deep pleasure. I can testify that I found the book easy to read, even though I am not a trained Church Pastor of the verses from the bible which the author so much used to blend the hard core issues involved in her narratives. But such verses were carefully drawn and beautifully woven around the themes explored. At a point of reading the text, I kind of wondered how long it consumed this woman to scrutinize the verses and made sense of them, including even applying them to teach and counsel. Only a creative mind and sound intellect would have been able to do that. Another surprising thing is that our Author, Dr. Rose Joshua is far way off the pedigree of a literary storyteller. But I found in her book that her story flowed from her heart and daily experiences far more than a professional story writer will put forward. She majored in computer science and gained her Ph.D in computer science knowledge systems – not in the field of literary criticism and politics of writing stories and launching stories. We will not give her award for colonial and missionary writing in Africa like Prof. Chinua Achebe and Prof. M.J.C. Echeruo. The latter being the first Nigerian professor to Head English Department in a Nigerian University at University of Ibadan. He was also the first Igbo Ahiajoku Lecture laureate to teach the largest educated Igbo audience at Owerri the matter of Igbo Identity - Ahamefuna. In the same light as Achebe, Echeruo and many others have done and continue to do, Dr. Rose Joshua has written a book – Single Mother of Five to teach us how to survive and care for our off spring even when we are abandoned, divorced or separated from our married partner. Like Achebe and Echeruo, Joshua set out to educate us about family survival in diaspora, even when one’s partner is missing. By so doing she raises the cultural saying that onye ajuru anaghi ajuju onwe ya (one does not abandon oneself when one is disserted or betrayed). To survive the misfortune of being dumped, being made vacant, empty, one has to figure it out and move on by being on the determination and solution side of things. Regretting and living by the shadow of that regret will not help, she argues, until one concretely begins to fill the gap of emptiness with God the maker and giver of all things. Many things can lead to divorce or separation. The following theme lists some examples of such situations.
Factors that Lead to Failed Marriages
Several situations can account for a husband and wife calling it a quit to their relationship. In every relationship, it is said that degree of love for one another determines everything. But love in itself is a function of contribution each partner brings to make the relationship work. No one eats love like food; though love satisfies our emotional and psychological need to share with another in a companionship. The following situations are examples that may bring about the break down of relationships; although this book did not elaborate on this list of issues and situations but it can be inferred from the reading of the work.
1. Quarrel about income, spending, money issue, poverty or greediness
2. Level of trust and communication issue
3. Cheating/infidelity issue, Igba outside game
4. Child care issue
5. Career issue, irreconcilable religions and outings
6. In-laws and friends issue
7. Immediate and extended family issue
8. Opposed social and political interest issue
9. Physical attraction, sex thing and love making issue
10. Religious views, inclinations and associations
11. Intercultural conflicts – life in diaspora vs. home culture
12. Gender dominance, put down and power struggle issue
13. Fear of death, health and wellness issue.
I simply like this book because it made some 90 degrees departure from common publications on family and child rearing practices. It told the story of the other side of the coin as never before when divorce or misfortune takes the stage and the audacity to move on is religiously imperative. This is not to say instances of disappointment do not exist. They do in many ways and in many places – local and urban. People loose their partners to death, misfortune of different kinds and also to divorce. But we rarely tell the story the way this author has turned her experiences into a counselling literature for us to learn from and grow stronger. The book also turns the page to help understand another folklore in Igbo which says, a man or woman does not count him– or herself lucky until after marriage. This means that to the Igbo as it is for many other related societies, marriage shapes the family and public destiny of a person.
Coming to the specifics of her book, Single Mother of Five, Dr. Rose Joshua highlights the point that in the face of failed relationships, businesses, betrayals and struggles with children’s behaviour, we are faced with a monumental challenge. Yet, all hope to re-invent and bounce back to life is not lost unless when we ignorantly and arrogantly allow it (see Preface, p. iii). Offering a remedy, she stated that life in itself is veiled or covered with “opportunities which must be sought out and explored despite roadblocks.” I cannot agree more with this insight. Throwing a PITY PARTY in our Minds is not a solution, she claims and advises. This is because life is a critical struggle, to be or not to be; a battle of opportunities and misfortunes. One has to fight this battle to be, to live, to shine, and to contribute. As such, we need to pick up and move on! Resorting to common proverbs and metaphors of life for wisdom to endure – she further says, “It is of no use crying over spilt milk”. Clean it and get another or seek for an alternative. Spilt milk has logical consequences – natural and financial – and both are inevitable when milk is spilt or relationship is broken. In the author’s way of saying the same thing, she writes – take time to improve and beautify yourself (man or woman), and let the devil be put to shame” – the knife that cut the two apart. That is, taking time to work through it is good and again realizing that one has children to mentor and grow to live a good life must not be lost sight of than chasing the cross (absent partner) – of the spilt milk. The author’s ultimate is that where there is a will, there is a way too. One way closes, another opens is what that supposes. At home, we often read inscriptions on Trucks, Lorries and Buses thus: “Will is Way”, “Good Hope”, and “Thanks Be to God”. What did this author conceive of as the will and the way? How did she figure it out and advice us to imbibe that philosophical horizon of surviving in the face of a broken home, a broken life and deep confusion?
It is at this point I think, from the instances in the book, that this author knew very well what she is talking about. Her work did not just show a life of poor economic experience to survive for the next moment but also a life discovered through urgent career, motherhood, devotion to God and community and the need for a better society through giving to the child. Love is often defined through the female side whereas economic achievement is on the male side. Dr. Rose Joshua was of the view that in the circumstances she faced, including most women, there is a need for women to move away from that notion of being dependent. The author’s narrative of her economic successes – houses and sizes in different cities she has lived in were paid for by her hard work and devotion to exemplify this. Come to talk of it, her academic records to the highest university degree is exemplary also. In her case, many women would have dropped out – called it a quit and lived in deep weeping and nagging to bargain the emotional and mental torture – therefore stand out on a pity philosophy to chase men around for easy virtue and support. Sex craze, the so-called bottom power would have been the best of all opportunities available. But she refused to let it go that way. It takes a strong spiritual, intellectual and social mindset to take that extra mile to be there.
How Does the Statistical Notion of Single Parenthood Look like Today?
Ladies and gentlemen, in North American Society, research shows that single household amounts to 60% which suggests a huge culture change in modern society caused by the challenges of industrialization. On the contrary, traditional family-stead consists of the remaining 40% as it is envisioned by dogmatic theology of family constitution. African families are quickly joining the trend of large number of single parenthood.
This brings me to the next point. Why did this author not consider re-marrying as an option? What do we take out from this book in the context of re-marrying when one’s first marriage hits the hard Aso-Rock or fails and the children are out there to be supported and raised to live their lives? Your guess is as good as mine. But again wadding through the book, the author brilliantly connected God as the answer to the dilemma raised by the question of why not remarry? She shows that it is only God who makes things happen. We need therefore not force God to do what will hurt the children in the making of their world.
As much as one may like that position, if one will divorce tomorrow, one would be happy to have one’s children raised without another marriage involving one’s ex. But as a man will one remain celibate? That is to stay without another marriage? We can find answer to the situation when we deeply understand the type of marriages – legal marriages and co-habitations and all the social and cultural issues that pertain to the western and non-western lifestyles.
Having addressed these concerns and questions a reader may raise by reading this book, I contend that this book helps us to show the new us, new me, new you by changing the way we look and take things to promote or demote our cravings and destinies. A close reading of pages 125 – 128 with the themes change your wardrobe and carrying ourselves like kings and queens with an honest purpose resonates with time offs to rejuvenate. Our author points to phrases like “take me break time and pampering oneself” – time off to be and live, and to train others on our availability (p. 128). Another is what she termed having a weekend off” and what that should mean in the practice of taking time off. For example, send the kids away, get out yourself if affordable. She shows that spending your valued time off on divine meditation or prayers counts as part of taking time off as well as reducing one’s fatigue cycle. Important to mention also is the gym life and physical appearance which the author emphasized (pp. 116 - 120).
Chapters that Stood Out
This book is written with 12 chapters as a whole. Nevertheless, all the chapters in this book are good to read and to follow the depth of social and moral philosophy and theology it explored. Not only do I want to mention a couple of chapters that stood out for me, it is also useful to draw attention to them due to their significance in the work.
They include chapter 2, which points out that we are not alone when we feel abandoned. Though this chapter will require a further explanation of the characteristics of whom a “bully devil” is that needs to be chased away (p. 16).
Chapter 3, headed as Build a Strong Support Community is engaging. It details the need to belong to a community – church and cultural groups and how these community associations must in turn challenge us and build us to be better.
Another is chapter 6, captioned Fulfill your Dreams – Pick up and Progress – which discusses dreams and resilience to move on. It reveals the emotional challenges and life views of women in a shelter and how women should think and act to overcome their tragedies.
Chapter 7, named Shoot for Financial Freedom, is an important one because it is a bother to most mothers and fathers. It is also a challenge for counsellors when discussing factors that lead to marital breakdowns among couples. The insight the author brought into it is worth reading and following.
Chapter 8, titled Maintain a Healthy and Happy Lifestyle is one of the secrets of success no one should ignore. This chapter caught my attention by the way it details the day to day issues that often trouble mothers from acting right. Her approach to overcome this will work for many who will try it. Her conclusion is that God wants us to be healthy and whole to function well (p. 114). Our genius and our best self can only be transmitted to our off spring when we are totally functioning in our best of mind and body; period.
I liked chapter 9, captioned Nurture a Mother-Child Partnership. From the author’s professional role as a scientist and counsellor, we are made to understand the need to appreciate psychological counselling as a way to go and reinvent. Her obvious argument here is that there are lots of things involved in taking care of our children (p. 134). Many things, we often, take for granted in our rearing beliefs and practices should not be so. The chapter points out what some of those things are. In particular, she notes that the first mistake her fellow mothers (or fathers) make is the neglect of their children’s psychological welfare when we have family crisis (p. 135). To think that kids do not need counselling is untrue , argues the author. The author’s narrative of her experience in this domain is revealing for everyone to read (pp. 135-137).
Chapters 11 and 12 discuss forgiveness and seeing oneself as being on a mission. I need not over labour the concept of forgiveness for it is not only crucial to religious life, but also to the dimensions of mothering and fathering, and moreover, to community relationship dynamics. The book chapters in its entirely are crafted in a way to define the problem of single motherhood and at the same time offers a solution to look ahead as one on a mission. The various chapters constitute a global call of what we have to be in our changing and challenging world. Drawing from a song by Whitney Houston and Brandy’s Cinderella, Dr. Rose Joshua’s Single Mother of Five asserts in page 195 that mothers need to be told that they are women on a mission. Her pledge and mission (our author’s) is therefore,
1. To protect my children from harm, show them God’s way, pray with them, and teach them to become the role models and leaders of tomorrow” (p. 195).
2. To ensure that my children will not be counted in the negative statistics of “children from broken homes”.
3. To change the world’s view of children from broken homes – from negative to positive one – have my children not broken in themselves.
4. To be a woman on a mission refusing to fail in the face of adversity, but to succeed with God’s help (p. 201).
Critical Comments and Conclusions
Taking the book as a whole, I must say I enjoyed the effort and daily graphic details the author gave to the themes and the story of a Single Mother of Five. In a suddenly broken down home where a partner is thrown into a severe confusion, the book reflects on the challenges faced by the mom or dad and worries that in a clinically counselled system, someone needs to make sure the parent’s voice continues to be spiritually modelled, heard and listened to.
In modern day family life, a book of this importance would have created more admiration if the author had included some beautiful images or pictures of the family. Who would not like to see the family photo of the FIVE Children restored to hope by God? If I were the author, her first house as described in the book would have endeared readers to see the transitions in the success story of her survival and appreciation to God and community support.
Another small observation I made while reading the book is – not all chapters of the book were supported by a list of references. Why the author chose to provide some references for selected chapters and accorded no references to others were not explained to reduce the confusion a reader might develop.
It is noteworthy of the author to have indicated that King James Version of the Holy Bible was used and quoted extensively. I took time to scrutinize the verses and found them nicely chosen and explored.
I liked the aspect where the writer used the God question and community ethos as a strategy of survival. It not only held the author in a much potential for improving the quality of emotional release and hope fostering practice but also in a socially oriented health services support. Ultimately the community religious initiative may often tend to exclude important victims and crucial aspects of single mother family primary care. Our society has diversified so much that sometimes I wonder how easy PASTORS and Counsellors find it to preach the concept of “hanging in there” in a deep turbulent relationship.
Perusing the chapters and themes of the book, one gets the impression that with God all is cool and done. I do not belittle the fact that with God all things are possible when we carry ourselves to be solution, determination, focus and hard work. Yes, with God, according to the author of Single Mother of Five, we are empowered to overcome all tragedies and roadblocks if we try. So without trying and working hard, we stand to complicate the tragedies of life in loneliness, in dependence, in complaining – hence the essence of community and association with zero tolerance to failure, ethnic rancour and hate, conspiracy and discrimination of all sorts. It is like what the author calls for is that a fractured home requires all the divine help, community support, not blame and distraction, to rebuild.
One point of view the author shows is the importance of investing in God as the solution – to give us what no other person can offer us. That God is the abundance of love. If a human person will deny us love and care, God provides it as the source of true and unfailing love. When human love fails, the author argues, we need not forget God who is the Alfa and Omega of providence and love. A partner shares a minor love; God the giver hugely nourishes us with the major and abundant mercy and love.
I need to state that the author of Single Mother of Five succeeded in taking the narrative of her story with a psychological, religious and philosophical calm. The book’s argument suggests that every mother or father can do it as the author experienced it and braved it only if one is ready to learn and follow up. It resolved the conflict and contradiction of asking people to divorce or misunderstanding mothers and children emerging from broken homes. One can also take from the author’s charge to single households that God and children are centrally the ultimate focus that offers us the way to balance the outcomes of our lived reality. Addressing several issues of practical reality – from self-care and self esteem, to finances, the work charges parents involved in child rearing practices to collaborate with communities around them with a variety of perspectives (p. iii). To say the least, this book can be described as an ethnographic text of survival told by a single mother of five. Not only does it shed light on being and becoming, but also it provides details on the opportunity for growth in any encounter – encounter surrounded by divine life, community order and group support.
I conclude that having reviewed this book and commented on the findings, I strongly think it is a valuable book to have in our homes, schools, churches, libraries, and communities. Thank you Dr. Rose Joshua for challenging yourself to write and to share the story of being a Single Mother of Five. It really provides a well grounded insight from a female gender perspective of survival in the face of a broken home we cannot ignore to read and advance the dimensions of her perspective. Grab a copy – for it fits as a must read and a pendulum of crucial survival, in particular, when one is faced with a broken home and disserted. By reading this book you will discover as I did that the notion that a broken home cannot be better and that single mom and single dad child rearing practices is handicapped with the missing link and therefore over troubled is challenged by Dr. Rose Joshua's book. A must read by all, particularly, those who are faced with living alone to give to the child in a changing situation.
Publication Year: 2010.
Number of Pages: 201.
Publisher: Blitzprint Inc. Calgary, AB. Canada.
Canadian Library & Archives Info: BV4529.18.J67 2010 248.8’431 C2010-905726-0.
Copy Right: Family Defense International, Inc. Canada.
Author: Dr. Rose Joshua
Dr. Patrick Iroegbu is an anthropologist, community health advocate and leader. The author of Marrying Wealth, Marrying Poverty: Gender and Bridewealth Power in an African Society (2007) as well as Healing Insanity: A Study of Igbo Medicine in Contemporary Nigeria (2010). Both books and others are available online – www.amazon.com