In previous posts, I’ve established my opinion of Americanah‘s protagonist Ifemelu – I think she’s a very powerful and important female character. I’ve also discussed her mother and how she struggled with religion throughout Ifemelu’s childhood. From chapter 5 onward, Adichie has been introducing and developing more female characters. Obinze’s mother, who Ifemelu calls Ma or Aunty, stands as an independent and nonconforming woman. Aunty Uju, who we met earlier in the novel, is devolving into a husk of the woman that Ifemelu used to admire so much. Both of these women, in addition to Ifemelu’s actual mother, can be viewed as maternal figures.
Now, just because someone is a mother figure doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a positive one. Ifemelu watches her mother surrender her entire self and her identity to a variety of churches, and the power balance of Aunty Uju’s relationship with the General is unhealthy. Aunty Uju’s moods are controlled by the General, although she may not realize it. She and Ifemelu were very close, but after Uju slaps Ifemelu, their relationship changes. Because of her complete dependence on the General, Aunty is left with nothing after his death and leaves the country, only to struggle in America. Ifemelu’s mother blatantly looks down on and shames Aunty Uju for her relationship and pregnancy with the General, because it goes against her personal religious practices. That toxic degradation coming from her own mother could really have damaged Ifemelu if she had been younger; it’s a good thing that she had established many of her own personal beliefs by that time.
Out of these three women, I would argue that Ma (Obinze’s mother) is the best role model and the most influential woman for Ifemelu. Her open and honest approach to sexuality is empowering instead of degrading, and she instills a sense of responsibility in Ifemelu while building trust with her. A woman’s sexuality is demonized in many cultures and religions, but Ma avoids that entirely. She also sets a unique standard for Ifemelu: a woman without a husband making a life for herself. After Obinze’s father died, Ma did not remarry; instead, she provided for herself and Obinze all on her own.
Both Aunty Uju and Ifemelu’s mother might have started out as positive people for Ifemelu to look up to, but neither stayed true to themselves. Although these maternal figures might not have been as positively influential as they should have been, Ifemelu still developed aspects of herself from watching their trials. Perhaps some of Ifemelu’s pride in her natural hair comes from watching her mother work endlessly to relax it, only to chop it all off because of religion. She also knows to avoid absolute dependence in a relationship from watching Aunty Uju’s interactions with the General. Each woman teaches Ifemelu a unique lesson, although Ma is arguably the most maternal of the three.