The Joys of Motherhood is a novel by Buchi Emecheta about the lives of African women and the themes of fertility and tradition. After being injured during an elephant hunt, the chief Nwokocha Agbadi has a daughter with his favorite wife, Ona. The daughter, Nnu Ego, grows up but is barren. After numerous attempts to conceive a child and after one child dies, she gives birth to four children. She takes care of her children, sending them off to study, and eventually dies alone.
Nwokocha Agbadi is a proud, handsome and wealthy local chief. Although he has many wives he finds a woman named Ona more attractive. Ona (a priceless jewel) is the name he has given her. Ona is the daughter of a chief. When she was young, her father took her everywhere he went, saying she was his ornament, and Nwokocha Agbadi would say jokingly, "Why don't you wear her around your neck like an Ona?" (a priceless jewel). It never occurred to him that he would be one of the men to ask her when she grew up.
During one rainy season chief Agbadi and his friends have gone elephant hunting and having come too near the heavy creature he is thrown with a mighty tusk into a nearby sugar-cane bush and is pinned to the floor. He aims his spear at the belly of the mighty animal and kills it but not until it has wounded him badly. Agbadi passes out and it seems to all he has died. He wakes up after several days to find Ona beside him. During this period, he rapes her, and after eighteen days he finds out that his eldest wife Agunwa was very ill and died later. It is thought that perhaps she became ill as a result of seeing her husband pass out.
The funeral festivities continue through the day. When it is time to put Agunwa in her grave, everything she will need in afterlife having been placed in her coffin, her personal slave is called. According to custom, a good slave is supposed to jump into the grave willingly to accompany her mistress but this young and beautiful slave begs for her life, much to the annoyance of the men. The hapless slave is pushed into the shallow grave but struggles out, appealing to her owner Agbadi, whose eldest son cries angrily:“So my mother does not deserve a decent burial?” So saying, he gives her a sharp blow with the head of the cutlass. Another relative gives her a final blow to the head and she falls into the grave, silenced forever. The burial is completed.
Ona becomes pregnant from Agbadi's rape and delivers a baby girl named Nnu Ego ("twenty bags of cowries"). The baby is born with a mark on her head resembling that made by the cutlass used on the head of the slave woman. Ona gives birth to another son but she dies in premature labour and her son also dies a week afterwards. Nnu Ego becomes a woman but is barren. After several months with no sign of fruitfulness, she consults several herbalists and is told that the slave woman who is her Chi (goddess) will not give her a child. Her husband Amatokwu takes another wife who before long conceives.
Nnu Ego returns to her father’s house. She is married to new husband whom she does not like but prays that if she can have a child with him, she will love him. She does give birth to a baby boy, whom she later finds dead. Shocked, she is on the verge of jumping into the river when a villager draws her back and comforts her. She subsequently gives birth to four children. Her husband, a laundryman for a white man, is drafted into the army during wartime, but on her own Nnu Ego ensures all her children have a good life, sending two abroad to study. After she dies a lonely death, her children all come home and are sorry they were in a position to give her a better life but alas! they could not. She is given the greatest burial in their town.
When all her children are unable to have offspring the Oracle reveals that this is because Nnu Ego is angry with them. Stories say that she is a wicked woman even in death. Still, they agree that she has given everything to her children and that this is the joy of being a mother.