Tuesday, 5 May 2009
The Bride Price - Review
It is just as well that I was reading Buchi Emecheta's 1976 novel, 'The Bride Price' at the same time that Wole Soyinka's play 'Death and the King's Horseman' premiered at the National Theatre in London recently. Soyinka's work focuses on themes such as: tradition, identity and the clash of cultures. Buchi's novel also addresses these issues. And both writers use their native Nigeria as the canvas on which to sketch out the plotlines that deal with these topics.
However there are stark differences. For starters, Soyinka's play takes place in the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo (note to theatre reviewers, 'Oyo' is one of the many kingdoms in Yorubaland as well as its capital, it is not a town) where one of the horsemen of the recently deceased king decides to take his own life following local custom encountering, however, fierce opposition from the British district officer.
'The Bride Price', on the other hand, focuses on an Igbo family, a different ethnic group in Nigeria. Aku-nna and her brother Nna-nndo are just thirteen and nine years old respectively and living in Lagos when their father, Ezekiel, dies. Their mother, Ma Blackie, who has gone back home to try to find a remedy for her allleged infertility, comes back to Lagos unaware of the calamity that has befallen her family. Having arrived a day after Ezekiel's funeral, Ma Blackie is told the unfortunate news. The next morning the whole family travels back to Ibuza, their hometown.
Woven adroitly into the plot is Buchi Emecheta's depiction of Nigerian polity as a society deeply rooted in traditional and conservative morals. To begin with, following her husband's death, Ma Blackie becomes automatically her brother-in-law's wife. Okonkwo, Ezekiel's sibling, has big plans not just for his new spouse - whom he impregnates immediately - but also for her daughter, Aku-nna. This is the second element Buchi so ingeniously builds into the novel's plot: women's subjugation to men. Everywhere there are both direct and subtle indications that this is a very patriarchal society where women depend on men. Although Aku-nna is merely thirteen when her father dies and has not even had her first period yet, already her stepfather, or new father, is thinking of marrying her off to the highest bidder. His idea of becoming a chief in his town spurs him on to allow the girl to carry on with her studies thus making her a more coveted prize. But life has a surprise in store for Aku-nna. Just before they reach Ibuza, Ma Blackie and her two children come across Chike, a teacher at the school of the Church Missionary Society. Aku-nna falls for him straight away without realising the dangers ahead. Chike is a descendant from slaves, which, in Nigeria's very own caste system, is as low as someone can be regardless of his/her purchasing power.
It is Aku-nna first period that sets in motion the series of events that will ultimately end in tragedy. At first, the, by now fifteen-year-old, girl hides this biological change from her classmates and friends. The pressure to marry is too much to bear and as a consequence her state of mind is badly affected. When she is finally found out after a trip to the river (and here Buchi Emecheta again exposes yet another archaic local tradition whereby menstruating women are banned from crossing the river) Okonkwo wastes no time in accepting several offers for Aku-nna's hand. One of them comes from Okoboshi, a local young man, who is so physically brutal in his approach to the young bride that Chike, the young teacher, has to interfere to save her from the pain the former is causing her. The result of this confrontation sees Aku-nna being kidnapped by Okoboshi's men. When Aku-nna rejects Okoboshi's sexual advances telling him that she has already given herself to Chike and is therefore no longer a virgin, the jilted lover reacts by refusing to lay a finger on her and by telling the entire village. That same night Chike rescues Aku-nna and the two flee to nearby Ughelli, a town where the school teacher has secured work. A short time after the two start living together, Aku-nna becomes pregnant. Unbeknownst to her, back in Ibuza a doll in Aku-nna's image has been made and a spell cast on her. Meanwhile Aku-nna is having a difficult pregnancy, falling ill on many occasions and it's not hard to predict what her fate will be. However she does manage to give birth to a baby girl, a much needed auspicious sign in the midst of a grim finale, since girls are supposed to be 'love babies' according to the locals.
One of the reasons why 'The Bride Price' works so well at exposing the different layers of women's forced submission to men in patriarchal Nigeria is that Emecheta avoids a preachy tone and goes rather for a sympathetic, authentic and humourous approach instead. Unlike Soyinka's play, where the clash of cultures is mainly between Western and Nigerian values, in 'The Bride Price' the confrontation is between urban and rural, an example of which can be found in Aku-nna's hesitation to bathe in the river (pre-menstruation), in Ibuza, with almost nothing on and in full view of everyone. By the same token, identity is explored when Aku-nna reflects on men's attitudes towards women and wonders whether her own father behaved the same way towards her mother and if it is her fate to accept those traditional values without questioning them.
And therein lies one of Emecheta's biggest achievements. In placing all these doubts (true, not always voiced, but usually implied) in this thirteen-year-old's head, she makes us confront a triumvirate with which some women the world over have been faced and which they have tried to overcome for a long time: identity, tradition and cultural clashes. From tribal societies to more modern ones, this is one of those conundrums that gets people hyperventilating and reaching for their smelling salts. However it is necessary to study and analyse these three phenomena closely because, and I think that the author would agree with me on this, above all, above all traditions, customs and rituals, we must always think first and foremost of the human being inside the man or the woman in this case. Aku-nna is a commodity for her stepfather, for her kidnapper and for her community in general. She has no control over her future, not even over her own body; Buchi Emecheta's vivid description of how suitors touch, pinch and squeeze young girls' nipples when they come to propose to them, had me turning various shades of red with anger.
My only criticism of this otherwise excellent novel is that Okoboshi's persona is too one-sided. He has a limp and is not physically attractive. So Chike, by default, emerges as the knight in the shining armour. However, in a book that is so short - just over 200 pages - that is not a literary sin. And the central message is not compromised in any way.
Just like in 'Second Class Citizen', the only other novel I have read by Buchi Emecheta, the non-judgemental and non-intrusive style used by the author enables the reader to make up his/her own mind. A mighty accomplishment indeed.
Next Post: 'Meme of the Moment' to be published on Thursday 7th May at 11:59pm