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  • Writer's pictureAisha Salaudeen

In this story, we're all fried rice.

Updated: Oct 31, 2023


Everyone has a story, what's yours?

The first time I became aware of the dangers of a single story—holding and presenting a one-sided perspective on people and things—I was a 14-year-old student in a small classroom in Ogun State, Nigeria. It was right after my classmates and I had completed reading Nigerian author Buchi Emecheta's novel, "The Joys of Motherhood."


While many memories from that time have faded over the years, one moment remains vivid—a potent mix of pain and confusion that gripped me. As Miss Egechi, my English literature teacher, encouraged our class to look into the central themes of the novel, I couldn't help but empathize with the suffering endured by the protagonist, Nnu-Ego.


Nnu-Ego, a traditional Igbo woman, grappled with the challenges of raising her children and surviving in a world that burdened her with numerous expectations. The novel explored a lot of thought-provoking themes, including gender roles, the looming influence of colonialism, the intricacies of polygamy, societal preference for male offspring over females, and the deep challenges of motherhood.


Nnu-Ego lived in poverty, haunted by thoughts of suicide following the loss of one of her children. She bore the weight of immense societal pressure regarding how to raise her children and fulfill her role as a dutiful wife. Her life was further complicated by the presence of polygamy, as her husband had multiple wives, one of whom resided with them in their cramped one-bedroom apartment. The list of adversities she faced seemed endless.


As one of my classmates narrated the concluding passages of the book that day, marking the end of Nnu-Ego's painful journey, an unexpected feeling washed over me—relief. I found myself embracing the possibility that, in death, she might finally find the peace she had so desperately yearned for.


I was wrong.


Even in death, Nnu-Ego found no respite. Her descendants often offered sacrifices to her lifeless body, seeking her spirit's favor to fulfill their desires. I remember closing the book, its title page glaring up at me, and wondering: What the hell was so joyful about Nnu-Ego’s life?


The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta
Photo by Shayera Dark.

As my classmates discussed what they believed were the book's central themes, I found myself unable to see beyond the pain and anger that had taken root within me on behalf of Nnu-Ego. I felt resentment toward her husband, Nnaife, and her first son, Oshia. Oshia, in particular, saw his father as a hero while casting his mother as a perpetual nag.


My anger stemmed from the fact that, throughout her life, Nnu-Ego had sacrificed endlessly for her children. She endured menial jobs, the cruelty of her husband, and consistently prioritized her children's well-being. Yet, Oshia often sided with his father, overlooking his mother's tireless efforts.


What pained me most was Oshia winning a scholarship to the U.S., leaving his mother to endure further hardship. He only returned after her passing to organize an extravagant funeral. I couldn't help but wonder, why wait until her funeral to show love and appreciation when he could have been a better son while she was alive?


However, as I listened to Miss Egechi and my classmates dissect the book's plot, I realized that I had been dwelling on only side of the story—Nnu Ego's pain. I had focused too narrowly on her suffering and failed to grasp the complexity of the other characters, including Nnaife and Oshia.


Take Nnaife, her husband, for instance. Yes, he was a dickhead who eventually descended into alcoholism, but he was also a hardworking man who continuously sought work to provide for his family. Oshia, despite his complicated feelings towards his mother, was a devoted, intelligent, and ambitious son who fought his way out of poverty. It's true that he held patriarchal views and perpetuated problematic gender stereotypes, but he was responding to the upbringing he received from both Nnaife and Nnu-Ego, who consistently emphasized the greater value of male children.


I learned that people can be many things, serving as extensions of their upbringing and environment.

In my annoyance, I had only considered Nnu-Ego's pain, which was undoubtedly valid, but I had failed to capture the full spectrum of the message Buchi Emecheta intended to convey in her book. That day, I learned that people can be many things, serving as extensions of their upbringing and environment. Nnu-Ego, despite her sacrifices, held patriarchal beliefs that influenced her sons, Oshia and Adim.


At the time, my 14-year-old mind might not have fully grasped this as a lesson on the dangers of single narratives, but it certainly ignited my curiosity. After that class, I became more intrigued by people—their motivations, their virtues and vices, and the intricacies that make up their lives. It’s why, today, I embrace the opportunity to explore and understand people’s complexities - no matter who they are.


In a world where it’s all too easy to judge books by their covers and see people as monolithic, what if we made room for a broader narrative? What if we recognized that people often transcend the limitations of one-dimensional portrayals?


A few years ago, I wrote a story about Mustapha Sallah, a Gambian who nearly lost his life while attempting to migrate to Europe undocumented. In 2017, at the age of 25, Mustapha embarked on an excruciating journey in search of a better life for himself and his family. Along the way, he encountered numerous hardships, including starvation, forced manual labor, and incarceration in a Libyan detention center. When you consider Mustapha's story and compare it to the countless news reports of people perishing at sea while fleeing their home countries, you may wonder why he chose to subject himself to such danger. You might even think of him as reckless for undertaking this risky journey while breaking the law.


In a world where it’s all too easy to judge books by their covers and see people as monolithic, what if we made room for a broader narrative? What if we recognized that people often transcend the limitations of one-dimensional portrayals?

But it's important to pause and consider the context. Mustapha pursued his migration plan despite being aware of the potential danger. Why, in the face of such glaring risk, did he persist? Yes, his journey involved criminal activity, such as smuggling himself into another continent without proper documentation, but he didn’t do it because he was bored. He did it because he was among the 41.7% of Gambians living in poverty, struggling to afford basic necessities. He did it because he believed that reaching Europe would enable him to study Computer Science, secure a decent livelihood, and send money back home to support his family.


By examining different facets of his story, we learn about the broader systemic issues at play and can work toward addressing them instead of fixating solely on Mustapha's decision. Asking various questions and understanding the context allows us to uncover underlying problems like poverty and how exploitative networks prey on vulnerable migrants. That’s the importance of considering multiple narratives, and that’s why we mustn't lose sight of the need to dig beyond surface-level characterizations. Every human being is a blend of strengths, weaknesses, virtues, and flaws, and behind our personalities are untold stories waiting to be explored, painting a more complete picture.


Recognizing the complexity of individuals and their multifaceted nature isn't the same as making excuses for bad behavior or justifying criminal actions. It's simply acknowledging the significance of context and perspective. For example, learning that a murderer grew up in a rough neighborhood dominated by cultism—and had to join for survival—doesn't transform them into a saint. They remain a murderer who should ideally face consequences for their actions.


The thing about seeking to understand people’s motivations isn’t that it cancels out their mistakes or bad decisions; it just gives us perspective about how they’re shaped by their experiences, environment, and upbringing.

However, understanding their neighborhood context enables us to comprehend their actions, choices, and beliefs. It challenges us to step into their shoes, see beyond the surface, and grasp the factors that led them to where they are. More importantly, it equips us with knowledge about that neighborhood and the necessary steps to prevent more individuals from following the same destructive path.


The thing about seeking to understand people’s motivations isn’t that it cancels out their mistakes or bad decisions; it just gives us perspective about how they’re shaped by their experiences, environment, and upbringing.


When I, as a 14-year-old, gained a better understanding of Oshia, Nnu-Ego's son in that small classroom many years ago, it didn't automatically mean I perceived him as perfect. It simply allowed me to see beyond my initial anger and understand that his decision to leave his mother with his father was also an act of survival. He had to toil hard to attend school, earn money, and extricate himself from the chaos and poverty that defined his life with his parents. He too harbored dreams and aspirations that would have been stifled by remaining with Nnu-Ego.


It’s why, today, I advocate for nuance, for embracing people’s complexities, for looking beyond defining people as just one thing - when they’re a mix of all their life experiences. In a world where it’s easy to stick to snap judgments and simplistic characterizations, understanding that people are defined by many factors can serve as our beacon of enlightenment.


In this story, we're all fried rice.

I leave you with this: Every individual is like fried rice. Fried rice, on the surface, looks simply like colored rice. But she's more than that; she's a harmonious blend of multiple vegetables, well-seasoned stock, vegetable oil, and an array of seasonings. Describing her as just “rice” is accurate, but you’ll be telling a more complete story by acknowledging all the ingredients that contributed to her transformation into the glorious meal she is today.


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4 Comments


Muhammad Tahir Hasssan
Muhammad Tahir Hasssan
Sep 07, 2023

I appreciate that you clearly stated that recognizing the complexity of individuals and their multifaceted nature is not the same as making excuses for bad behaviour or justifying crime. This is something we must put at the back of our minds.


Thank you for such a well written piece.

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Aisha Salaudeen
Aisha Salaudeen
Sep 07, 2023
Replying to

Yes, of course, it is not an excuse for bad behavior. Thank you for reading.

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Victor Okoli
Victor Okoli
Sep 07, 2023

A beautiful write up

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Aisha Salaudeen
Aisha Salaudeen
Sep 07, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for reading.

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