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Of Buchi Emecheta and womankind

By Margaret Olele
14 March 2017   |   3:40 am
How do we celebrate the death of an illustrious daughter in Africa?Sounds like the question you get from the people on the other side who believe that Africa is just one country in its primordial state...

Mrs. Florence Onyebuchi Emecheta

How do we celebrate the death of an illustrious daughter in Africa?Sounds like the question you get from the people on the other side who believe that Africa is just one country in its primordial state, Tarzan-like existence, and endless gyrations of drums and female waists. To my question – it depends on the part of Africa and in the case of our renowned author, Buchi, the place in Nigeria she came from.

I first learnt about her death from a generic e-mail sent to a group I belonged to and I was shocked. The thing about literary works is that they confer on the writer some attributes of eternity. Your books make you alive forever in the minds of the reader- it is an unconscious harmony of writer, story and character immortalised in the mind of the reader. So I never expected it nor to be frank,truly appreciated the works of this great pioneer African female writer as I should.

As a student of literature, I soaked myself in Apartheid literature especially the works of Alex la Guma; when I was not doing that, I reveled in the works of our Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, the sagely works of Chinua Achebe and not too long ago organised a private meeting with Chimamanda Adiche and my former Japanese MD who not only asked that her buy all her books for him, but that he needed to meet with her.

Looking back now, I wondered why I never had Buchi on my radar. Her CV spoke volumes of her achievement and many laurels followed her steps. As I am wont to do, when starting any research, I did a quick check on Wikipedia and even this basic source spooled out the enormous achievement of this literary prodigy. She had over 16 novels in her kitty, not to mention the short stories, and plays. I remember growing up, we had The Slave Girl on the shelf in the sitting room, but I busied myself with the romantic books of Dennis Robbins and Barbara Cartland that competed for space on the shelf. The Slave Girl had no chance. Just like the proverbial hunter who scorned domestic animals, but yearned for the forest beasts, I took her works for granted and even when I began reading African writers, her works did not bubble up my interest pot.

Indeed Buchi Emecheta was from Ibusa, Delta State, a place I come from and much of her works highlighted the traditions and cultures of not just an ethnic group but the peculiar experiences of the mid-western Igbo. Her works echoed the Igbulu nna ngo ( marriage of a late brother’s wife), the ancient burial of life slaves with the their masters or mistresses, the forced marriages and kidnap that young girls faced, the countless deaths in families which may have been caused by Sickle Cell Anaemia, but attributed to a curse or Chi. Her works chronicled the story of her people from pre-colonial times to an exodus period in the 50s and 60s when a lot of people moved North (especially Kaduna, Kano, Jos) and Lagos to seek better and modern lives working with the Nigerian Railway and Police. Others like my Maternal Grandfather learnt artistry and raised their Family in Kano or Kaduna. That was the age of dispersal. Some took bolder decisions and by sheer dint of hard work and intellect, got scholarships as espoused in her life story. My own father was part of this later overseas dispersal. She touched on the civil war in her book and In the Joys of Motherhood, the hardship of the war and how a character, the young wife in a polygamous setting became a prostitute to eke her living.

In all her stories, the plight, challenges, and on a few occasions the triumph of womanhood remained foregrounded. And just like her characters, she poured out her life in her biography which was a litany of endless challenges, of abuse and the courage to get beyond this. She drew strength from her plight, remaining focused on her work and eventually winning for herself literary laurels that adorn the African Writers Hall of Fame and most importantly made her one of the most celebrated female novelists – even outside Africa.

The truth is that Buchi was not celebrated as much as her male contemporaries. Like most situation whether work, sports or politics, women will need to work twice as hard to get the same kind of recognition as their male counterpart and when I say hard work, I mean brain hard work. When they fail especially in politics, it hits the media rooftops like the plight of President Park Guen-Hye of South Korea. It is important that women should know that they need to work harder in everything including integrity to achieve success and confront this knowledge with the actions required. Constructive women support works and women icons, not feministic hysteria have opened doors for women through centuries and will continue to do so for a long time.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea that a woman could vote or become someone greater than a housewife was atypical, not to mention vying for presidential election or becoming a president. With the progress women have made so far, I know that someday people will no longer have to write essays and novels propagating women’s rights – who knows, the focus may shift to animal rights.

So back to Buchi- how do we celebrate the death of an illustrious daughter? The sound of the local guns will definitely be heard to herald her death and tell the people they have lost an illustrious daughter. Her children will have to get a big fat cow to her family-in a ceremony called IKPU ESHI. Not that the cow is a replacement for the loved one, but it is an opportunity to share from the bounty of the dead sister. The cow is killed and distributed to all in the Ogbe or village, with the titled men or Obis having the larger share followed by the men and lastly the women who take the Ukwu or lower end of the cow.

She will probably have the honour of the Okanga dance, largely for men, but also for women who have matured in age and status. Then there will be the IKPU NNU… We celebrate death because we believe it is a rite of passage into eternity. Buchi Emecheta would have had the colourful dances that flowed with this rite. She may have had the Egwu-in-law.

Anyway, this did not happen in the UK. There were no traditional frills. Buchi had an English burial, with flowers, eulogies et al. and from the pictures simple, very well attended and dignified burial too.

I have my own version of the burial rites. I will pass by my family house and pick the dusty Slave Girl Novel forgotten on the shelf. I will read this and give it also to my daughter, nieces to read. We must keep alive the names of women who have done greatly to highlight the narrative of the African woman and womankind. She told it simply and fearlessly. She transited quietly and fearlessly. We too have a responsibility to tell the woman’s story simply, but fearlessly.