Tribute to an African woman of courage
Born of Igbo parents from Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta region in July 1944, her father was a railway worker who died when she was nine. She was brought up by her mother in the cosmopolitan colonial capital of Lagos, having to convince her parents to let her join her brother to go to school. She won a scholarship to Methodist Girls’ High School at 10, but left school seven years later, marrying Sylvester Onwordi to whom she had been engaged since she was 11.
Emecheta moved to London when her husband went to study there the same year as her country achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1960. However, her own life in exile proved to be anything but a personal liberation. She had five children in six years, and endured an abusive, loveless, and sometimes violent marriage. Her spouse burnt the manuscript of her first novel, The Bride Price, which she later had to reconstruct.
She said at the time that she felt that her husband had burnt her child. Demonstrating the incredible resourcefulness, discipline, and strength of many of the female characters in her often semi-biographical novels, Emecheta – a redoubtable African Mother Courage – often woke up early in the morning to write, even as she brought up five children on her own, worked as a library officer in the British Museum, while completing a bachelor’s degree in sociology. She would later work as a youth worker and community worker in impoverished black inner cities in North London’s Camden Town.
Emecheta’s publishing career started when she wrote a regular column for the New Statesman which provided the inspiration for her 1972 novel, In The Ditch, describing the difficult experiences of a single mother, Adah, living in a grimy housing estate in London while struggling as a librarian to bring up five children. Her novels Second-Class Citizen (1974), The Bride Price (1976), The Slave Girl (1977), The Joys of Motherhood (1979), and Destination Biafra (1982) all dealt with similar themes of gender discrimination; racial, sexual and colonial oppression; the disempowerment of women; and female independence and ingenuity.
All these tales had strong female lead characters struggling to free themselves from the shackles of patriarchal and colonial domination. Emecheta relentlessly excoriated the male-chauvinist notion that the main ambition of women should be to have children and stay at home as property of their husbands. She wrote in an uncompromising and unvarnished style, determined to give voice to the voiceless and to portray the bleak world to which African women were often consigned by societal hierarchies.
Emecheta’s most famous novel, The Joys of Motherhood, remains a Pan-African classic. Bathed in pathos and the unfulfilled dreams of the heroine, Nnu Ego, the book was an urban response to the pioneering Flora Nwapa’s Efuru published 13 years earlier. Nwapa’s novel was set in a village and portrayed a childless but independent woman who worships a similarly childless and independent water goddess. Both women, however, achieve fulfilment outside marriage and motherhood. Emecheta borrows the title of her classic novel from a question in Efuru, responding to Nwapa’s question of why women worshipped the deity despite her never having achieved the “joy of motherhood.” In her novel, Emecheta demolishes this idea as a myth, based on her own largely joyless motherhood. Her novel is an ironic exposition of motherhood’s many humiliations and unfulfilled expectations, amidst the enormous unacknowledged sacrifices of Nnu Ego.
The heroine dies a lonely and tragic death, abandoned not only by friends but by her seven children. Ego’s lament is truly heart-wrenching: “God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled by herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage?” Emecheta’s iconoclastic novel sought to shatter the stereotypical, one-dimensional ideal of the pure, heroic mother-figure often portrayed in the first-generation of African literature. The critic, Elleke Boehmer, noted that The Joys of Motherhood “exposes the overall emotional and spiritual barrenness an African woman…can experience, no matter how richly she is endowed with children.”
Emecheta was a pioneer, tackling patriarchy – based on her own personal experiences – even before an international women’s movement had arisen championing a new generation of social rights and equality in male-dominated societies. In that sense, she was like another pioneer, Kenya’s Wangari Maathai, the late Nobel peace prize laureate and environmental, gender, and human rights activist, who also left an abusive husband who was uncomfortable with her self-recognition. She was not afraid to express her discomfort with the alienating, western middle-class feminism that she found in Europe that did not speak directly to her own lived experiences. As she later noted: “If I am now a feminist, I am an African feminist.”
Emecheta was a visiting professor in English at the University of Calabar in Nigeria between 1980 and 1981, but was not tempted to settle back home. She lectured at the Universities of Yale and London in 1982, and travelled the globe promoting her vision of women’s empowerment. Even as a widely published author, Emecheta never stopped learning and obtained a doctorate in social education from the University of London in 199. She had founded the Ogwugwu Afor Publishing Company with her son, Sylvester, in 1982, and devoted much of her time to this venture in her latter years.
Emecheta published 16 novels, an autobiography, Head Above Water (1984), three children’s books, and three plays. She won the Jock Campbell Award for The Slave Girl in 1978; was listed by Granta magazine as among the “Best Young British Novelists” in 1983; two of her plays A Kind of Marriage and A Family Bargain were produced for BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation) television in 1976 and 1987 respectively; she was honoured in 2004 by the British Library as being among the 50 black and Asian writers to have made a major contribution to British literature; and, a year later, was awarded an honorary OBE (Order of the British Empire). Emecheta described her books as “stories of the world where women face the universal problems of poverty, neglect, violence, and oppression, and the longer they stay, no matter where they have come from originally, the more the problems become identical.”
She inspired a generation of African and black British writers. Marie Umeh noted that: “It is through Buchi Emecheta that the souls of voiceless Nigerian women…are revealed.” Emecheta was regarded by friends – as Danuta Keane noted in her obituary of Emecheta in The Guardian of London – as “warm, caring, and humorous.” Her books have formed part of the curriculum of universities across Africa and its Diaspora for decades, and it was in the Diaspora that Emecheta lived most of her life and died. A dyed-in-the-wool Pan-African, she once famously exhorted: “Black women all over the world should reunite and re-examine the way history has portrayed us.”
• Prof. Adebajo is the director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.