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OTHERNESS IN BUCHI EMECHETA’S KEHINDE AND SECOND CLASS CITIZEN

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OTHERNESS IN BUCHI EMECHETA’S KEHINDE AND SECOND CLASS CITIZEN

 

Abstract

This study examines Buchi Emecheta’s motives in portraying the otherness of Igbo women through her novel Second-Class Citizen (1974). In this novel, Emecheta presents African women’s experience of otherness within a broad context of social inequalities resulting from monolithic and unyielding societal construct in the West and in the Third World. In fact, Buchi Emecheta is a marginalized African woman writer crafting fictionalized autobiography of the experience of determined first-generation diasporic mother in Second-Class Citizen while living in exile far from her home of origin. By depicting the bodily and migratory experiences of the African woman and her sense of self, Emecheta reassigns previous generalizations of “Mother Africa”. At this point, the figure of determined mother comes to the fore as a strategy of resistance to cultural expectations imposed on women or established customs as being stultifying to women, preventing self-development throughout the novel. Accordingly, in Second-Class Citizen, the mother figure is motivated by the desire both to change the community and the societal construction of citizen in London and to achive discursive agency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

INTRODCUTION

 

1.1 Background of the study

As for my survival for the past twenty years in England, from when I was a little over twenty, dragging four cold and dripping babies with me and pregnant with a fifth one- that is a miracle. And if for any reason you do not believe in miracles, please start believing, because my keeping my head above water in this indifferent society, which is probably succeeding in making me indifferent and private too, is a miracle (Emecheta, 1994, 1986: 5).

In her autobiographical work, Head above Water (1994, 1986), Buchi Emecheta describes her position as a “Third World” person since as an Igbo woman, she is a native of Nigeria and has spent much of her life in Britain. Born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1944 to “scantily educated parents” from Ibuza, Emecheta grew up in her home country and through a scholarship was educated at a Methodist Girls’ High School in Lagos (Emecheta, 1994, 1986: 16). At sixteen, Emecheta left school and married a native young man.

After leaving high school and a two-year working experience as a librarian at the American Embassy in Lagos, Emecheta was able to save enough money to send her husband to study for a degree at London University and to leave for London with her two children two years later, in 1962 (Jagne and Parekh, 2012: 148). Once she arrived in England, Emecheta realized that the Blacks in general were not warmly welcomed. In Emecheta’s words, “Our hosts in our new country simply refused to see beyond the surface of our skin” (Emecheta, 1994, 1986: 29).

Together with the racial discrimination her family experienced in Britain, Emecheta also realized that her marriage was in danger. She found herself in a difficult situation; nevertheless, she gained courage to write her first manuscript, The Bride Price. Unfortunately, her husband burned it. In such a case, her marriage ended in a divorce when she was a mother of five children. However, Emecheta continued her education, receiving an honors degree in sociology and a master’s degree in philosophy at London University (Jagne and Parekh, 2012: 148-49).

Her writing career was influenced by Igbo story-telling tradition. Under the influence of it, Emecheta desired to be a story-teller herself (James, 1990: 37). Shortly after, she published In the Ditch (1972), followed by other novels which explore different sides of African women’s conditions. As Mary E. Modupe Kolawole explains in her work, Womanism and African Consciousness, “Buchi Emecheta represents the ambivalent heritage of African women, and her experience is a symbol of the dual heritage in a practical way” (187). In this respect, most of her fiction tells the experience of Igbo women fluctuated between the social norms of their own society and those enforced by British colonialism. As a writer of diasporic origin, Emecheta then illustrates how these forces oppress these women in her fiction from the consciousness of being an African and a woman (Umeh, 1996: xxxv).

 

1.2 Statement of the problem

Even though Emecheta portrays the hard times of black women in her fiction, she rejects feminist labelling in relation to her works and herself. She then highlights that “the main themes of my novels are African society and family; the historical, social, and political life in Africa as seen by a woman through events” (Bruner and David, 1985: 11). She further adds that “I always try to show that the African male is oppressed and he too oppresses the African woman… I have not committed myself to the cause of African women only. I write about Africa as a whole” (Bruner and David, 1985: 11). Here, through her fiction, Emecheta’s intention is to both portray the oppressed African women in racist or patriarchal societies and to show the negative impact of this oppression on the lives of African men.

Her rejection of being labelled as a feminist is also highlighted in her speech: “Being a woman, and African born, I see things through an African woman’s eyes… I did not know that by doing so I was being feminist. But if I am now a feminist then I am an African feminist with a small ‘f’” (Nfah-Abbenyi, 1997: 7). Subsequently, she clarifies her perception of feminism in an interview: “I do believe in the African type of feminism. They call it womanism, because, you see, you Europeans don’t worry about water, you don’t worry about schooling, you are so well off. Now I buy land, and I say ‘Okay, I can’t build on it, I have no money, so I give it to some women to start planting’. That is my brand of feminism” (Nfah-Abbenyi, 1997: 7). Regarding the “African type of feminism”, “womanism,” the term phrased by Alice Walker, refers to women of color who hope to define themselves instead of being defined by others (Bates, 2005: 99). In this manner, Emecheta hopes not to be defined by Western feminist ideology, the origins of which reinforce the superiority of white Western women.

 

1.3 Purpose of the study

This work is to orientate people on the many impacts of women in society. It encourages for increased education and enablement of women in the society.

 

1.4 Significance of the study

This research will provide a reservoir of information that pushes the frontier of knowledge in this sphere of research where future research works can be referenced from.

 

1.5 Scope of the study

The scope of this work is is on women in Nigeria.

 

1.6 Methodology of the study

Interviews and surveys were carried out among selected states in Nigeria.

 

1.7 Research questions

  1. Are women disenfranchised in the Nigeria society
  2. What is the relationship between female education and gender inclusiveness
  3. What is the level of national orientation on equal access to social infrastructure by both males and females

 

1.8 Biography of the author

Florence Onyebuchi “Buchi” Emecheta was born on July 21, 1944 in Yaba near Lagos, Nigeria, to Igbo parents, Jeremy Nwabundinke and Alice Okuekwuhe Emecheta. Her parents were from Umuezeokolo Odeanta village in Ibusa, Delta State. [1] Due to the gender bias in her community, Emecheta was kept at home as a child while her younger brother went to school. Although not having gone to school immediately like her brother, Emecheta’s childhood was filled with the stories of her people and culture, told to her by her grandmother. These stories instilled in Emecheta a desire to write her own stories as well as the ones her grandmother told. Thus Emecheta quickly became interested in going to school, and after finally persuading her parents to consider the benefits of her education, Emecheta was granted her wish and began her schooling at Ladilak School and later Reagan Memorial Baptist, an all-girls school. At the age of nine, her father passed away due to complications brought on by a wound he contracted in the swamps of Burma. He had been enlisted for Lord Louis Mountbatten to fight for the British in Burma [2].

 

After her father’s death, Emecheta’s mother could no longer support her, and the family was separated. Emecheta was sent to live with her mother’s cousin in Lagos while her younger brother went to live with her father’s brother. According to the cultural custom, Emecheta’s mother was remarried to her husband’s brother. A year later, Emecheta won a scholarship to Methodist Girls’ High school which she attended until she was 16. Emecheta hoped to go on to the University of Ibadan, but that dream was thwarted when she was married off to Sylvester Onwordi to whom she had been betrothed at the age of 11. Together they had four children. Her husband then went to study at London University. Emecheta stayed in Lagos and worked at the American Embassy for two years to support her children while her husband was away. In 1962, she and her children moved to London to join her husband, their father. Together in London they had their fifth child. The names of Emecheta’s children are – Chiedu, Ikechukwu, chukuemeka, Obiajulu, and Chiago.

 

While in London, she worked as a librarian at the British Museum. Surrounded by books and having had the dream of becoming a writer since childhood, Emecheta began to write in her spare time. However, her husband was suspicious of her writing. When she finally completed her first manuscript, he burned it. After already having a marriage filled with moments of unhappiness and even occasional violence, Emecheta’s husband’s destruction of her manuscript finally led to their separation. After separating, Emecheta continued to work at the library to support her children. In the meantime, she attended classes at the University of London, eventually earning an honors degree in sociology in 1974. Despite the emotional strains, social pressures, and financial difficulties of being an African woman and a single parent in Great Britain, she graduated with her BA Honours. Emecheta speaks openly about the hardships she faced in her autobiography Head Above, stating, “As for my survival for the past twenty years in England, from when I was a little over twenty, dragging four cold and dripping babies with me and pregnant with a fifth one – that is a miracle” [3] (Emecheta 2013,5).

 

Once her novels began attracting global attention, she began lecturing in U.S. universities such as Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers University, Yale University, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From 1980 to 1981, she was senior resident fellow and visiting professor of English at the University of Calabar in Nigeria. From 1982 to 1983 she and her son, Sylvester, started and ran their own publishing company, Ogwugwu Afor, publishing her own work under the company’s name, the first being a novel titled Double Yoke (1982) [4]

 

Tragically in 2010, Emecheta suffered a stroke.  She passed away at her home in London on January 25, 2017.

 

Emecheta’s life experiences reflected in her writings are a platform for voicing her desire to achieve human rights for African women.

 

Writings

 

Her writings have been said to show her as an author who portrays herself through several identities that coincide with one another. Some of the lenses she presents include single African woman, sociologist pulling from urban African ways of life, narrator of African myths that clash with modern society, and the remembrance of enslaved Africans. These lenses suggest that Emecheta’s novels remain grounded in stories from her personal life as well as cultural facts. Her work accurately reflects Igbo society’s attitudes about the necessity of motherhood as well as the double standards for men and women. Emecheta’s most important lens that most people never see, is her identity as a feminist. She doesn’t consider herself a feminist, saying, “I work toward the liberation of women but I’m not feminist. I’m just a woman” [5]. She considers herself simply a story teller. Emecheta explains, “Apart from telling stories, I don’t have a particular mission. I like to tell the world our part of the story while using women’s voices.” [6] Emecheta’s purpose for writing is to inform her audiences about African lifestyle, and the gender discrimination that not only she faced, but that all African women faced and still face to this day in African society.

 

Throughout her life, Emecheta was subject to gender discrimination and female objectification. She was kept from attending school simply because she was a girl, betrothed as a child, and eventually married to a man who did not respect her – leaving her to find her strength and independence as a single mother and African woman overseas in an unwelcoming society. In most African cultures, women are viewed as the property of their husbands. They do not have a say. Having experienced this herself, Emecheta took it upon herself to speak against it. Despite the obstacles, writing provided a way for her to rise above these gender injustices and expose the truth of the world she was living in. Emecheta’s writing was not only a way for her to send a message to society but also was a way for her to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming an author.

 

Emecheta highlights retrogressive Igbo cultural norms that prevented women from participation in a wide range of activities said to be the preserve of men. She speaks out against the subjugation of Igbo women in the quest for social change. She talks about her personal experiences ever since she was a little girl. Emecheta published 16 adult novels as well as four children’s books, numerous articles, and produced televised plays. Each of her novels is based on her life experiences.

 

Her first novel, In the Ditch, published in 1972, is semi-autobiographical. It first appeared as a series of episodes, published in The New Statesman. This novel follows Emecheta’s own descent into the “ditch” of welfare living and enforced dysfunctionality. It chronicles Adah’s (the protagonist’s) struggle to maintain her pride and dignity as a welfare recipient as well as her keen desire for independence for herself and her children. [7]

 

Her second novel, Second Class Citizen, published 1974, is the sequel to In the Ditch. It showcases a fictionalized portrait of a poor young Nigerian woman struggling to bring up her children in London – thus it echoes the challenges Emecheta herself faced when raising her children. The young woman in the story classifies herself as a second citizen in Nigeria when her parents initially refuse to take her to school and arrange her marriage instead. When the woman goes to London to raise her family, she realizes she is equally a second citizen in England because she is a black African.

 

The Bride Price, published in 1976 and The Slave Girl, published in 1977, both focus on the role of women in Nigerian society. Later The Joys of Motherhood, published in 1979 depicts an account of women’s experiences bringing up children in the face of changing values in traditional Igbo society. All three novels reveal the honest struggles that Nigerian and Igbo women face both culturally and societally.  Her powerful storytelling in The Slave Girl won her the New Statesman Jock Campbell Award.

 

Emecheta’s other novels include Destination Biafra, published in 1982; The Rape of Shavi published in 1983, Gwendolen, published 1989 (was published in the US as The Family); Kehinde, published in 1994 and The New Tribe, published in 2000. Destination Biafra is set in the background of Civil War in Nigeria (sometimes called the Biafran War) while The Rape of Shavi is the account of European colonization of African countries. Gwendolen is the story of a young West Indian girl who lives in London. Kehinde depicts the story of a Nigerian wife and mother who comes back to Nigeria after living in London for many years. In the novel The New Tribe, Emecheta highlights the importance of cultural identity and difference, cultural assimilation, responsibility and proper parenting.

 

Emecheta’s children’s novels include Nowhere to Play, published in 1980; The Moonlight Bride, published in 1980; Titch the Cat, published in 1979; The Wrestling Match, published in 1981. She also wrote plays which include, Juju Landlord (1975), A Kind of Marriage (1976), Family Bargain (1987). Juju Landlord and A Kind of Marriage, performed at the London theatre also shine a light on the inequalities African women face in their day-to-day lives.

 

Emecheta also authored several influential articles such as: The Black Scholar, November-December, P.51;  “Feminism with a small ‘f’!” in Kristen H. Petersen(ed.), Criticism and Ideology: Second African Writers Conference Stockholm 1988, Uppsala: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1988, pp. 173-181; Essence Magazine, August 1990, p.50; New York Times Book Review, 29 April 1990; Publishers Weekly, 16 February 1990, p. 73; World Literature Today, 1994, p. 867

 

Resistance

 

Emecheta translated her real life experiences into narrative novels to use these stories as a platform to expose the hardships African women face in their everyday lives, as well as advocate for the rights of African women in Igbo, Nigeria, and ultimately all of Africa.

 

In each of her writings, Emecheta laments as well as protests the oppression, powerlessness, and voiceless aspects of life that manifest and dictate the lives of women. In The Joys of Motherhood, her magnum opus, Emecheta breaks away from the common portraiture in African writing that narrates a dominantly patriarchal way of life and instead focuses on a matriarchal approach to African life where motherhood is depicted as honorific and central to African societies, communities, and families. According to the protagonist, Nnu Ego, “the joy of being a mother is the joy of giving all to you children” (Emecheta, 1979, 219). Even though the main theme for this novel is that motherhood ultimately leads to and brings ambiguous joy, Emecheta paves a far different path for her protagonist, Nnu Ego, and she shows us two sides to what it takes to be an African mother. Rather than being self-fulfilling and life-giving, Emecheta shows that motherhood and the responsibilities it creates in African communities can turn into a form of enslavement. For example, for Nnu Ego, her life, hope, and identity depend on her ability to bear children. In the eyes of the community, she has no other primary function and no other means of achieving status and respect other than through this motherhood. As an Igbo mother, Nnu Ego is expected to arm her sons for the future at the expense of her daughters. Emecheta shows her readers that Igbo society views girls as having little worth, valuable only for the bride price they will one day fetch when their marriage is arranged. Nnu Ego anticipates and longs for the day when women in her culture will be of prime importance, rather than simply being vehicles that serve and aid men and children at women’s expense. She hopes that women can achieve a life of satisfaction and self-fulfillment. [8] In this novel, Emecheta believes that women deserve to be liberated from the traditional shackles of having to be mothers who are forced and expected to raise their children a certain way according to specific cultural standards, and have to be servants to their husbands.

 

Continuing her theme of female oppression, Double Yoke illustrates the tragic limitations of Nigerian women in pursuit of academic excellence. The novel, set on the campus of a Nigerian University, tells the story of two female undergraduates who must confront the conflicting demands of tradition vs. modern and progressive society. One of the protagonists, Niko, ends up overcoming these contrasting demands and pursues her education despite the resistance from those who feel a woman’s role and identity is subsumed in traditional marriage. By describing the sexual and cultural politics of Nigerian society, Emecheta once again advocates against female subjugation in Igbo society and champions women’s liberation.

 

The female students, heroes, and courageous individuals in her novels do not simply lie down and submit to the cultural “norms” and tradition-based confines of their societies. Instead, her characters resist and challenge their predetermined fate, attempting to negotiate for a peace to exist between what they believe and their accepted traditions.

 

Even though Emecheta’s works are a cry for the rights for African women, these agitations expressed in her writings, aim to improve the quality of life between men and women and their communities. She also writes to proclaim hope for growth and the realization of equality between African woman and men. Emecheta shows her audiences her vision of an Africa where women and men share cultural and societal roles in common and in harmony; an Africa where neither men – nor women, especially – are enslaved by one another.

 

Emecheta’s hope for this vision to become a reality is the reason she turned her own life stories, and the traditional stories told by her grandmother, into books. She was able to use her voice to elevate and expose the lives of African women, and advocate for freedom of women from cultural and traditional oppression.  Buchi Emecheta inspires women and men to coexist with one another: she encourages men to respect and understand the role of women in the society and encourages women to fight for their freedom, using herself as an example.

 

 

 

 

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