The Role of the Nigerian Woman in Emecheta's The Slave Girl

Barnali Tahbildar '97, English 27 (1997)

In Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl , Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, and Ken Saro-Wiwa's "Home Sweet Home," narrative technique, imagery, and historical context function together as a means of elucidating the changing role of women in Nigerian society. Although Ojebeta, Beatrice, and the female narrator of Saro-Wiwa's "Home Sweet Home" share the title of "Nigerian woman", the social, economic and political freedom assigned to this title, or lack thereof, accounts for thematical differences in the writing of Emecheta, Achebe and Saro-Wiwa. In The Slave Girl, "one of Emecheta's main themes involving slavery is the assertion that in Nigerian society, all women are enslaved to and by men." ("Marriage and Slavery in Buchi Emecheta." Whereas Emecheta presents the Nigerian woman as continuously enslaved to male master figures, Achebe and Saro-Wiwa present independence for the Nigerian woman as a conceivable possibility.

In Emecheta's novel, the literal and figurative enslavement of the female protagonist coincides with the expansion of European "master" cultures into an enslaved and colonized Nigerian society. Set in the early years of the twentieth century, Emecheta's narrative unfolds at "a time when it was glorious to be an Englishman, when the reign of the great Queen Victoria's son was coming to its close, when the red of the British Empire covered almost half the world, when colonisation was at its height, and Nigeria was being taken over by Great Britain" (15). At a time in which Nigerian peoples changed masters from Portuguese to British rule, Emecheta creates the story of Ojebeta, the slave girl who, like her mother country, is continuously at the mercy of male master figures. The story of Ojebeta is, in essence, the story of a woman caught in a complicated traditional cycle of oppression:

All her life a woman always belonged to some male. At birth you were owned by your people, and when you were sold you belonged to a new master, when you grew up your new master who had paid something for you would control you. It was a known fact that although Ma Palagada was the one who had bought them, they ultimately belonged to Pa Palagada, and whatever he said or ordered would hold. (112)

Transferred from brother to female slaveowner, from slaveowner to husband, Ojebeta cannot escape her position as a female object that is figuratively and literally exchanged within a patriarchal economy. Although Ojebeta perceives herself to be "free" at the end of the novel because she has chosen a husband based on her free will, Emecheta's narrative voice reiterates to the reader that Ojebeta is still enslaved and, as "a woman of thirty-five, was changing masters." (179) In Emecheta's novel, the female protagonist experiences momentary feelings of independence -- for example, when Ojebeta returns to Ibuza and when she marries Jacob -- but the main emphasis of the novel suggests that, for the Nigerian woman, freedom is ephemeral and independence from one master only leads to enslavement by another.