Mama is being abused by Papa.
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Several characters are gripped with silence throughout the novel. Kambili suffers the most, unable to speak more than rehearsed platitudes without stuttering or coughing. Her silence is a product of the abuse that she endures at the hands of her father. Kambili does not allow herself to tell the truth about her situation at home. When her classmates taunt her for being a backyard snob, she does not explain that she does not socialize out of fear. She is not allowed to dally after school lest she be late and beaten.
When Mama miscarries, Papa makes the children say special novenas for their mother’s forgiveness. Even though he is to blame, he insinuates it is Mama’s fault. Mama believes that she cannot exist outside of her marriage. She dismisses Aunty Ifeoma’s ideas that life begins after marriage as “university talk.” Mama has not been liberated and withstands the abuse because she believes it is just. Ultimately, she poisons Papa because she can see no other way out. The abuse has repressed her to the point that she must resort to murder to escape.