ho Will Greet You At Home is a story about the pressure to create the perfect child and the sacrifices women are willing to make to achieve this. The protagonist explicitly states: “a mother should give all of herself to her child, even if it requires the marrow in her bones.” This statement, whilst seemingly self-sacrificing and noble, takes on a sinister turn in this story. It can be read as critique on the idea that to be the best mother, one must give up the best parts of themselves.
Arimah’s protagonist repeatedly gives away some of her joy in exchange for the blessing required each time a child is created. The giving away of Joy seemed to me a reference to the Buchi Emecheta novel ‘The Joys of Motherhood’, in which children, despite being something of a blessing, also took a great toll on the well-being on the protagonist. In fact, the tragic ending of Emecheta’s protagonist is a warning that has continued to go unheeded by many women in Nigeria, who allow societal pressures to overwhelm common sense.
INFERTILITY AND INFANT MORTALITY
Ajayi, a leading IVF specialist in Nigeria, posits that there is a 25 percent infertility rate in the country, where men make up majority of that figure. The reality in many Nigerian communities, however, is that women bear the brunt of the blame for infertility issues in marriages, often dealing with the emotional toll that the stigma takes, and lacking the benefit of professional support.
Infertility issues can sometimes be short-term issues caused by undetected Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) or toilet-related diseases. In a society where men are sometimes adamantly against such tests, the issue will continue to have more weight than necessary. Of course, the cost of IVF for those with more severe infertility issues is astronomical to the many disadvantaged by the ever-growing wealth gap in Nigeria.
Most striking in Arimah’s story is the absence of men, mainly because Nigeria is a country where there is an average of 1.05 men to every 1 woman. This feature is pronounced in a story about birth and children. By removing men from the equation in her story, the problem of fertility is eliminated. Arimah’s story presents childbirth solely as a female affair; there is a distinct exclusion of men even at the stage of ‘procreation’. The women in Arimah’s world decide when they have babies, yet what cannot be combated is infant mortality.
At the story’s beginning, the protagonist, Ogechi, has lost her umpteenth child because it was an impractical addition to her life. In the world Arimah creates, babies are not made through sexual intercourse but are constructed from day to day materials by the mother, and turn into human babies a year after creation.
The women are thus charged with ensuring the survival of the child for the duration of that year, a feat which Ogechi has repeatedly failed to achieve. UNICEF estimated in 2015 that an average of 2,300 infants under the age of five die daily in Nigeria. This is attributed to lack of proper healthcare and nutrition; a side effect of abject poverty. For Ogechi, this is true, as abject poverty has heavily contributed to the demise of her babies.
HOME AS MORE THAN A PLACE
The story’s title Who Will Greet You At Home, presents home as a place to which all women long to return. Strangers in the narrative, on seeing a woman with a freshly crafted baby, offer the song:
The familiarity of this song is evident in its call and response set-up as well as its repetition within the narrative. There is clear pride in returning home to one’s mother sporting a new baby to be blessed. “Who Will Greet You At Home?” is a marked question, enquiring almost into your lineage. The response, “my mother will”, shows how intricately bonded mother and child are expected to be in Arimah’s world.
I say expected because this is a stock song recited for every child, even Ogechi who, having fallen out with her mother, must now trade some of her joy/happiness to have the ironically named ‘Mama’ bless her child. The figure ‘Mama’ has managed to capitalise on the misfortune of broken families by stealing happiness amongst more tangible resources from poor women around her. In this world, women are not presented as pristine but still take on all the character dimensions of any society.
In Nigeria, a great deal of the stigma faced by ‘infertile’ women come from other women. Relatives, friends and “well-wishers” often chime in their 2-kobo to re-iterate the ways one is failing in the wifely duty of procreation. The presence of the song in Arimah’s novel, sung by familiar and unfamiliar well-wishers, is evidence of the continued presence of public interest in female reproduction be it wanted or no.
THE LIFE POVERTY OFFERS
As previously stated, Ogechi’s babies die due to poverty but her mother also has a great deal to do with some of these deaths, we learn. This involvement by her mother is what leads to the fallout between the two, leading Ogechi into the grasping hands of Mama. Ogechi’s mother is a realist aware of their status in life, and as such implores Ogechi to construct her child out of materials that will give her a toughness for the life poverty offers.
Ogechi is however fanciful, looking to make her child out materials that speak of a delicate life. In this world, status is reflected in the niceness and lack of durability in the items with which one constructs their child. Ogechi’s lack of status fails to deter her frivolous creations and her mother’s insistence that, “soft children with hard lives go mad and die”, only heightens her stubbornness. The brashness of this statement is reflective of experience which Ogechi, young and so wrapped up in the fantasy of perfect motherhood, fails to comprehend till the story’s conclusion.
The baby crafted from wool and that crafted from wrapping paper, which she presents to her mother for blessing, are easily destroyed by wear and water to show her how impractical her crafting is. The craftsmanship of the child determines its ability to navigate the realities of the world it is born into, rather than its fate in life: the lesson Ogechi’s mother tries and fails to impart. For Ogechi, physical appearance is the most important feature in a child, leading to confusion when she comes across a new mother beaming with pride while unveiling her twig baby.
Physicality, rather than substance, holds more weight for Ogechi and this obsession nearly kills her. Ogechi is willing to give up her joy to gain a physically beautiful child, so little import is placed on joy because it is not tangible. Arimah’s story, while seemingly a critique for the pressures on women to produce beautiful babies in a timely manner, can also serve as critique for Nigeria where appearance/status continue to override substance.
Today, young men and women – infants in the workforce – are constantly being charged across the world for crimes of fraud. The need to be seen as having “made it” appearing to be the major drive towards this mode of acquiring wealth. There is a belief that appearance negates the need for work. Ogechi is so concerned with making a pretty child, she fails to consider the impact her role as mother could have on the child’s future. Beauty is skin deep might be a cliché, but clichés are born from experience.
Lesley Nneka Arimah's Who Will Greet You At Home was shortlisted for the 2017 Caine Prize.