Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Doughty Slave-girls and slavish career-girls: Representations of the West African (Ibo) female in selected works of Emecheta and Achebe

Cynthia vanden Driesen

The slave-girl motif which first surfaces explicitly in Emecheta's novel with that title, is regarded as central to her work.1 It should be read as a trope of defiance. Briefly, it tells of the passionate protest of a young slave-girl about to be ritually entombed with her mistress. Violently clubbed into the open grave, her cries continue to resound, till finally the earth smothers her. In Achebe's novel No Longer at Ease, the bawdy songs about "young women who had become nurses or teachers instead of mothers" (42) implies a devaluation of female potential that appears to be refracted in other aspects of Achebe's works.2 This paper will consider the contrasted representation of the West African female in the work of two writers, both Nigerian, both Ibos and both addressing (broadly) similar historical moments.

Bearing in mind the importance of "the personal dimension" as outlined by Said, compilation of my "inventory of traces"3 requires mention of my life-experience of four years of living in Nigeria. The fact that my experience of West African women did not mesh with representations of them encountered in the works of male African novelists was one of the impulses behind this study. There is also a need to reiterate here a point made by Kate Millett. Granted that "literary criticism is not restricted to a dutiful round of adulation . . ." investigations of the less flattering aspects of a work need not imply devaluation of the writer's achievement. It should be possible, for example, "to make a radical investigation which can demonstrate why Lawrence's analysis of a situation is inadequate, or biased . . . without ever needing to imply that he is less than a great and original artist, and in many respects a man of distinguished moral and intellectual integrity."4 No devaluation of the work of Achebe is intended in the following study.

Chronologically beginning with Achebe seems appropriate. In these novels set in the tribal past, Achebe's narrative of the clash of tribal forces with the colonial oppressor is very much history. The shadowy female figures mutely fulfill their traditionally ordained roles as compliant wives, daughters and mothers. Okonkwo beats his wife for being late with his meal, even during a taboo period; "he was not the sort of man to stop beating somebody out of fear of the goddess."5 His wives and daughters follow him in and out of exile having no individual destiny apart from their lord and master.

In Arrow of God where the claims and counter-claims of rival priests and elders, of the native people and the colonial power are so eloquently debated, the voices of women are conspicuously silent. The narrative focus might flicker briefly over bickering wives or a young bride at her wedding, but it is the fate of the dominant male which is foregrounded. When the chief priest is imprisoned by the colonial power, the only area of decision for the women has to do with which one of his wives should be sent to cook for him.

In works set in the contemporary world women may now be "nurses or teachers" but their roles seem even more circumscribed. Now, not even accorded the status of wives they simply serve the sexual appetite of the male, whether fledgling bureaucrat or corrupt politician. Even a brilliant barrister must submit to the male narrator's salacious regard. In A Man of the People, Mrs Barrister Akielo, just arrived to meet the Minister, tells Odile, she hadn't even showered.6 His response:

. . . I thought she was beautiful even with the dust on . . . I felt momentarily awkward before her sophisticated, assured manner . . . but this awkward feeling was only momentary as I told myself Chief Nanga who was barely literate would probably sleep with her that night (MP 52)

The American woman, the acquaintance of a few hours, must also simply succumb to African male virility. Not even a phone call in the midst of intercourse can distract her:

"Don't move . . . " commanded Jean . . . then with me and all on her she began to writhe on her back towards the phone . . . (MP 52)

Later, she confides, "sex means much more to a woman than it does to a man." Achebe's modern females appear even more compliant than their traditional sisters.

Greimas' categories of the actants in a narrative (a development from Propp's work on the Russian folk-tale) can provide an invaluable insight into narrative structure.7 These can help also to focus on those silences in the text which in turn provide clues to ideological stance. None of the female figures in Achebe's novels function as "subjects" and/or "receivers." Neither do they fit any of the other functions of, "sender," "helper" or "opponent." At most, in NLE or MP they function partially as "objects," included as part of the male's goal of material success, signalled usually by the possession also of an attractive, educated wife. The marginalization of the female could not be more complete.

Before the appearance of Emecheta's first novel, In the Ditch (1972), Nigeria had passed through the traumatic experience of civil war, 1967-1970. She herself was one of the students demonstrating in Trafalgar Square in London at the time.8 Her earliest (strongly autobiographical) works recounting an African woman's struggle for survival with five children in London, won her early acclaim as one of those writers "who belie the myth that feminist issues are not important to African women."9 Subsequent works interrogate the social and familial structures that regulated the life of the Ibo female into the earlier decades of this century. What Emecheta records is herstory, the varying success of women seeking their own forms of self affirmation within the constrictions of the patriarchy.

In The Bride Price (1976) Akunna successfully defies family and social taboos to marry her low caste lover.10 Raw male aggression is subverted by female strategy when Okoboshi her kidnapper is frustrated of his lust. At the very moment he has forced her onto the bed and is untying his lappa,

. . . she laughed like a mad woman . . . Look at you, she sneered . . . shame on you. Okoboshi. You say your father is a chief - dog chief that is what he is, if the best he can manage to steal for his son is a girl who has been taught what men taste like by a slave . . . " (BP 138).

This deliberate use of the image of the violated female body functions like a Medusa-head to terrify the male who is caught thus in his own male-created taboos. It is a motif that recurs also in Destination Biafra (1982). For the woman able to survive the ordeal, an important stage of her empowerment is reached.

Ojebeta in The Slave Girl (1977) shaves her head in order to escape the possibility of enforced marriage. She too, asserts her freedom in the choice of her marriage partner. Nnu Ego, in the ironically titled Joys of Motherhood (1988) could be regarded as the ultimate female victim of a patriarchal society which only valorizes her child-bearing capacity so as to perpetuate a society in which male privilege remains enshrined. Her capacity for survival independent of the assistance of a token husband establishes her as a symbol of female self-sufficiency.11

Greimas' categories of actants again provide a useful shorthand permitting some conclusions as to the feminist idealogy of these works. The "subject" and "receiver" functions are filled exclusively by female figures. Their "object" tends to be not so much a broad socio-political goal as with Achebe's male figures, but a more personally oriented goal of self-fulfillment. It is nevertheless an object which involves a breaching of social structures designed to ensure the continuance of male privilege. The function of "opponent" accrues consistently to the male figures, usually representatives of the patriarchal family. Emecheta does not oversimplify. Occasionally there is evidence of a degree of psychological collusion in her own disempowerment on the part of the protagonist herself. Besides there emerges also a degree of ambiguity in Emecheta's own authorial stance.12

Education functions most perceptibly as "helper." Often the degree to which defiance is sustained seems to be directly proportionate to the extent and quality of the education the protagonist receives. More significantly, these females each appear to possess in varying degrees a vitality, a quality of resilience that functions indubitably as helper. It seems also to function as "sender," the initiating impulse to defiance. I have designated this quality "The 'Umuisagba' factor."13 In The Slave Girl it is explicitly associated with the women from this particular village:

"This Umuisagba pride was so well known that some conservative homes were reluctant to marry girls from there . . . they never call the gods of their husbands houses to help them - they would rather call on the goddess of the market to help them out. (SC 11)

The protagonists occasionally show an awareness of some supra-personal factor, "a madness" or "a presence" that assists them in moments of crisis. Adah, in Second Class Citizen (1974), actually visualizes this Presence from childhood on to adulthood.

In Emecheta's Destination Biafra (1980) and Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah (1987), both works set against the backgrounds of political emergency, the two writers' representations of the West African female might seem to evince some surface similarity. In the text of Anthills Achebe seems to have inscribed in the words assigned the writer Ikem (an Achebe surrogate?) an apologia to women.14

In a somewhat arbitrarily introduced sequence, Ikem thanks Beatrice, the central female figure, for her gift to him of "insight":

You told me . . . that my thoughts were unclear and reactionary on the role of modern woman in our society. . . . you were right . . . a novelist must listen to his characters . . . (AS 96)

Like Debbie, Emecheta's heroine, Beatrice seems to represent an attempt to explore the potential of the African female in a society reduced to a shambles by male decision-makers. Both women are represented as highly educated, ambitious, physically attractive, and socially so placed as to have access to the corridors of power. There the resemblances end.

Again, use of Greimas' model of actants can help highlight the divergences. The function of Emecheta's heroine Debbie as "subject"/"receiver" is clear; Beatrice's is more problematic. She shares the function with two other male figures, Ikem and Chris. As "helper" all three have education as well as intellectual and artistic gifts. Their "goal" appears to be the promotion of a political ideal of shared responsibility in which the privileged must reach out to the politically marginalized, the poor and uneducated. The "opponent" is identifiably the dictator with his ambitions.

In relation to the two male figures, the female is already marginalized since the narrative space accorded her is also circumscribed. Her function as subject begins to appear more superficial as the narrative progresses. Both male figures are accorded martyr's deaths, Beatrice is scarcely bloodied by the action. Disappointingly, despite her superior advantages, Beatrice, like the career girls of Achebe's earlier works, seems to rely mostly on (what is vulgarly called) "bottom power" for survival.

She is first directly presented responding mutely to the peremptory summons of the dictator. Her resentment expressed in her refusal of the appropriate seat in the official car is, she recognizes, "a puny empty revolt, the rebellion of a mouse in a cage" (AS 72). She is not permitted to accomplish more. At the dinner she fails in an apparently patriotic effort to supersede the American female for the President's attentions, "her tears flowed in torrents" (AS 81). For Beatrice male support seems indispensable to survival. First she leans on Ikem; next on Chris, and as soon as Chris is out of the picture, the Nigerian major provides a prop, with the young University student for good measure.

Quite simply Beatrice spends too much time in bed with her lover to be convincing as a model for Nigeria's New Woman. When she does venture out to share part of Chris's last flight - the routine of a whole family is disrupted so Beatrice can be provided with a bed for her, by now, stereotyped contribution. An attempt to confer a "godessy" ambience on her remains too superficial.15 She herself is allowed to claim, "I feel like Chielo" (AS 114) but the only prophecy she articulates is a somewhat superfluous and belated warning to the already percipient men.16 In their last encounter, Chris supposedly detects again this "godessy" ambience, but a goddess making despairing love in the discomfort of a bug-ridden bed in a one-room hovel is a strain on reader tolerance.

Serving the sexual appetite of the lordly male appears to be the limits of female destiny. Ikem Osodi, the sensitive writer, values Elewa more for her sexual athletics that her pure soul:

. . . her love-making is just sensational . . . I suppose I shall never discover where in that little body of hers she finds the power to lift you up bodily on her trunk while she is curving upwards like a suspension bridge . . . And then - mixed metaphors - unmixed blessings, shake you like a miner panning for gold . . . (AS 38)

Finished with, she is despatched home in a taxi at midnight; he would find it impossible to work with Elewa's hands "cradling his damp crotch" (AS 38). That Chris should die in the attempt to protect a woman from the soldier's assault has a tinge of poetic justice. Shortly before, he and the young student have subjected the young woman to the characteristically (in Achebe's novels) predatory male scrutiny.

Where Beatrice's function in the Achebe work remains problematic, Debbie in Emecheta's novel, clearly and exclusively fills the role of "subject" and "receiver." Her "object" envisages unequivocally a self-fulfillment beyond the traditionally ordained roles:

She wanted to do more than child-breeding and rearing and being a good passive wife to a man whose ego she must boost all her days. Yes she would join the army . . . It would be much more difficult for a woman . . . but she was going to fight. She was going to help . . . not as a cook or a nurse but as a true officer (DB 45)

As "helper" Debbie has education and the social advantages that Beatrice has also been equipped with. Beyond this, she enjoys the energy of "the Umuisagba factor," as shown in her readiness to engage in a "more difficult" task, and her determination "to fight." As to be expected, her opponents - as with all Emecheta's heroines - are the male figures synonymous with the authority of the patriarchy, whose innermost bastion of privilege she attempts to breach in her choice of the army as a career.

In a war situation the sheer physical vulnerability of the female is exacerbated. As the Ibo soldier reminds Debbie's mother, devastated by the brutal rape of her daughter: "Give her water to wash herself. Hundreds of women have been raped - so what? It's war. She's lucky even to be alive . . ." (DB 135).

Debbie suffers the ultimate act of male aggression when she is raped by the Nigerian soldiers. From being a biological hazard, her female body acquires through its degradation the Medusa-like power mentioned before. Debbie is able to taunt the Commanding Officer, who has also planned to rape her, secure in the knowledge he will not now touch her. The atrocities against woman are specifically slanted against her femaleness: the rape of the aged as well as of young women; the rape and murder of pregnant women and the slaughter of unborn infants. Women die in childbirth on the highways and newborn infants perish within days of birth. War becomes a theatre not for male heroics but for female endurance. Amongst Debbie's helpers are other courageous women - Mrs Madako with whom she completes the nightmare journey to Biafra, her mother whose metamorphosis from social butterfly into gallant survivor inspires Debbie's own recovery.

The writer Ikem (Achebe's surrogate) admits to Beatrice, "I can't tell you what the new role for woman will be. You have to tell us . . . " (DB 98), but a possible answer is suggested by Debbie in Emecheta's work. Beatrice at the end of Achebe's narrative is left still mourning her dead lover; Debbie is pictured on an airfield amidst a deadly rain of grenades and debris rejecting the chance of escape with her lover, her "male concubine" (DB 259). In response to his question as to what she will do now she outlines her perception of the task ahead, in which the nurturant (female) role appears significantly conflated with the professional (male) role:

There are two boys . . . and many other orphans that I am going to help bring up . . . And there is my manuscript to publish (DB 258).


Some Distinctive Features of West African Women's socio-cultural Milieu - Implications for Application of Western Feminist Theory.

1. Conflation of motherhood with female identity - traditionally the female performed her tasks in the field or in the market-place with her baby strapped on her back, the roles of mother and worker were not dichotomous. Emecheta dedicates SC to her children, "without whose sweet background noises, this book would not have been written." (In DB Debbie's last speech envisages no conflict between the nurturant and professional woman's role.)

2. The polygynous household - This could sometimes provide a support system against the autocratic male. In the traditional context with each wife in her separate dwelling-place with responsibility for her own children, there was a degree of autonomy in the arrangement. Economic factors made it a necessary arrangement. (TFA - the senior wife lies in order to protect a junior wife. JM - the two women conspire against their husband.)

3. "The 'Umuisagba' factor" - This factor of the inherent vitality or resistant power of the West African woman is probably traceable to a number of factors in her traditional heritage. West African women have always enjoyed a degree of economic freedom and women regulated their own affairs in this sphere. The Ibo Women's War (1927, interestingly inscribed by colonial historians as "the Aba Riots") was an outcome of this independence of spirit. Through her trading and the marriage system, women actually had a wider "network" system than men. Women would also support each other in domestic difficulties. The custom of "sitting on a man" was one where women would come together to chant satirical songs and ridicule a man as a mode of containing male aggression.

The worship of goddesses, the power of priestesses, suggest other sources of female influence. Matrilineal ties were particularly important in times of misfortune. Colonialism destroyed this traditional world.

(The novels contain numerous instances of females supporting each other in times of familial or social stress. Even Okonkwo in TFA is compelled to show deference to the priestess, Chielo. His exile is spent in his mother's village. The Umuisagba factor is evident in such figures in Achebe's novels as Ezinma the daughter Okonkwo he wishes had been a son, or her mother, who despite being married to another man walks into his hut to become his wife.)

* Most of the features mentioned as requiring investigation here necessitate exploration of historical, sociological and anthropological materials such as Sylvia Leith-Ross, African Women - A study of the Ibo of Nigeria, London: Faber & Faber 1938. (An older, but still extremely informative study.)

Ifi Amadiume, Afrikan Matriarchal Foundations - The Igbo Case, London: Karnak House, 1987. (The writer's thesis is that Igbo society is fundamentally matriarchal and has suffered an imposition of patriarchy upon it.)

Within parentheses are included broad reference to supporting evidence in the texts of the novels referred to in this study.

Edith Cowan University

Selected Works by Chinhua Achebe and Buchi Emecheta: details of 1st publication, of editions referred to in this study, main characters and abbreviations of titles of novels.

Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart. London: Heinmann 1958, 1987 Okonkwo. TFA.

No Longer at Ease. London: Heinmann 1960. 1964 Obi Okonkwo. NLE.

Arrow of God. London: Heinmann 1964. Ezeulu. AG.

A Man of the People. London: Heinmann 1966. 1976 Odile. MP.

Anthills of the Savannah. London: Heinmann 1987. Chris Oriko, Ikem Osodi, Beatrice. AS.

Buchi Emecheta

In the Ditch. London: Barrie & Jenkins 1972.

Second Class Citizen. London: Allison & Busby 1974. Adah. SC

The Bride Price. New York: George Braziller 1976. Aku-nna. BP

The Slave Girl. London: Allison & Busby 1977. Ojebeta. SG

The Joys of Motherhood. London: Heinmann 1979. Nnu-Ego. JM

Destination Biafra. London: Allison & Busby 1982. Debbie Ogedembgbe. DB


1 Katherine Frank, 'The Death of The Slave Girl: African Womanhood in the novels of Buchi Emecheta" World Literature Written in English, 21.3, 480.

2 Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease, London: Heinmann, 1976, abbreviated in the following pages as NLE. Carole Boyce-Davies concludes that "While Achebe's works are obvious classics within the African literary tradition, a re-examination of his work from a feminist position reveals woman as peripheral to the larger exploration of societal issues." See "Motherhood in the works of male and female Igbo writers: Achebe, Emecheta, Nwapa and Nzekwu" in Ngambika : Studies of Women in African Literature, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1986, 247.

3 Edward Said, Orientalism, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978, 25.

4 Kate Millett, Sexual Politics, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1971, xii.

5 Achebe, Things Fall Apart, abbreviated in the following pages as TFA.

6 Achebe, Man of the People, abbrevated in the following pages as MP.

7 A. J. Greimas, Structural Semantics: An Attempt at a Method, trans. Daniele McDowell, Ronald Schliefer & Alan Velie, London : Univ of Nebraska Press, 1983. See ch.x, "Reflections on Actantial Models," particularly 207-209. In constructing a narrative grammar, Greimas subordinates characters to action by calling them actants. He distinguishes between "acteurs" and "actants." The former can have specific qualities varying in different narratives, the latter are general categories underlying all narratives. Both can include not only human beings but while acteurs are numerous, Greimas' model has six actants only: sender Ð object Ð receiver Ð helper Ð subject Ð opponent.

8 Buchi Emecheta, Author's Foreword, Destination Biafra, London: Allison & Busby, 1982, vii. Future references in the text, abbrevaited as DB, are to this edition.

9 Nancy Topping Bazin, "Weight of Custom. Signs of Change : Feminism in the Literature of African Women," World Literature Written in English, 25.2, 1985: 183-197.

10 Buchi Emecheta, The Bride Price New York, Braziller, 1976, abbreviated in the following pages as BP.

11 "True feminism is an abnegation of male protection and a determination to be resourceful and self-reliant," Filomena Steady, The Black Woman Cross-culturally. (Cambridge Mass: Schenkaran, 1981) 7-36.

12 This ambiguity is explored in Rolf Solberg, "The Woman of Black Africa, Buchi Emecheta: The Woman's Voice in the New Nigerial Novel," English Studies 3, 1983: 247-261.

13 The Appendix to this paper indicates some of the factors subsumed under this term. All of these need more detailed exploration and analysis before an adequate feminist theory applicable to the West African context can be developed.

14 Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah, London, Heinmann, 1987, abbreviated in the following pages as AS.

15 The adjective appears Achebe's own coinage: "Chris had noticed . . . that she carried with her a strong aura of that other Beatrice whom he always described in fearful jest as 'godessy' . . ." (AS 199).

16 In Achebe's novel TFA, the priestess Chielo is represented as a figure whose authority and power is respected even by the irascible Okonkwo (see ch. 11, TFA).

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