Anywhere in the world, to be female is to be instantly othered. It is to be in a constant fight for autonomy, for personhood, for control over one’s body and mind; for survival. In The Bride Price, Buchi Emecheta is a capable surgeon; slicing right to the heart of what it meant to be a girl in Nigeria in the 1950s. With an uncompromising deftness and an artless charm, she explores the minutiae of life in South-Eastern colonial Nigeria; holding up to the light the many microaggressions that add to the framework of patriarchal oppression institutionalised as culture and tradition.
This novel is the story of Aku-nna, whose entire life boils down only to how much money she will be worth to a prospective husband. Everything Aku-nna is told and taught is geared towards preparing her to be a good wife; to bring in a large bride price; to fulfill the prophecy of her name: father’s wealth. The death of her father, however, sends Aku-nna down an unprecedented path of pain and struggle against the ‘group mind’ to find her voice and assert her will against a tradition that sought to hold her captive forever.
Using Ibusaa as a case study, The Bride Price is a socio-cultural record of the customs and tradition of the Igbo people. Emecheta painstakingly highlights the many cultural practices that originate from, and in turn, legitimise the insidiously discriminatory view of certain members - usually women - of the society as inferior. In this book, Aku-nna is the conduit, and her life, as well as those of other female characters, explore the enslavement of women by traditional practices such as the payment of bride price, widowhood rites, courting games, marriage by abductionb and the Osu Castec system.
It is Our Tradition
After the death of her husband, Ma Blackie - Aku-nna’s mother - is forced to undergo brutally dehumanising rituals to mourn him. The Ibuza customs dictate that she is to remain in a ramshackle hut for nine months; visiting and being visited by no one, never to take a bath, neither cutting nor combing her hair, and wearing only rags. She, along with her children, is then inherited by Okonkwo, her husband’s brother — a custom which reiterates the status of women as property, rather than people.
After becoming Okonkwo’s fourth wife, Ma Blackie is slowly but completely absorbed by Okonkwo family politics and the Ibusa life. This leaves her young, confused and lonely daughter vulnerable to the many cultural snares that fetter and police her into near-muteness. Culture and tradition, which should bestow individual and communal identity and enhance social cohesiveness, are instead mostly predicated on the subjugation. Wielded by a heavily patriarchal framework, the reader sees them become weapons to ensure that men retain social, material, physical, sexual and moral dominance over women.
The title of the novel is derived from a practice which is still very prevalent in many African societies: the payment of bride price. The bride price refers to a previously agreed upon amount of money and/or material goods paid by a prospective groom to the family of the woman he wants to marry. This practice — based on the idea of male-female relationships as inherently transactional — has been shown to be a cause1 of domestic and gender-based violence, as it propagates the commodisation of women and strips them of autonomy and personhood. In Ibuza, as in many Nigerian communities, girls are brought up with the idea that they are to be a source of wealth to their families.
As such, girls receive lifelong training to prepare them to be ‘good women’ who will attract large bride prices. After her father’s death, Aku-nna is only allowed to remain in school so that her education fetches a higher bride price. She is given no say in such a major decision that will affect the rest of her life. In local custom, she is little more than an item for auction to be sold to the bidder with pockets deep enough to afford her uncle, Okonkwo, taking the Eze title.
This auction takes place in her mother’s hut, where, as part of ‘night games,’ Aku-nna is visited by prospective grooms who grab and fondle her roughly — all while she is wracked with anxiety over which of these men will win the approval of her uncle. The uncertainty of her future, and her utter powerlessness against a tradition that threatens to swallow her, sends Aku-nna into a deep despair. Emecheta weaves the theme of the bride price through the whole work, as a means of symbolising the servile position of women in the society.
Feathered, Tethered, Fettered
Illustrating this further, she brings into play the Osu Caste system in the Igbo culture, and draws parallels between the way the descendants of slaves, girls and women are viewed in the community. According to Victor E. Dike, the Osu are “by definition, a people sacrificed to the gods in Igbo community.” In some circumstances, prisoners captured during inter-tribal wars were taken as slaves by their captors, which automatically marked them as part of the Osu Caste. Members of the slave caste in the Igbo society were ostracised, and prevented from intermarrying with the freeborn.
Though the practice was eventually outlawed by colonial rule, the sentiments that held the slaves apart from the community still persist in the lifetimes of their descendants. Chike Ofulue is rich, handsome and the headmaster of the local school. Unfortunately, he is of slave ancestry, and so, he cannot marry Aku-nna - the one woman he wants. As Ogugua says: “No decent girl from a good Ibuza family is allowed to associate with him.” In this sense, Aku-nna and Chike have something in common: both are fettered by tradition, but long to move beyond the confines of their society.
Unearthing A Voice
A love story, yes, but more than that, The Bride Price is a story of self-discovery. Aku-nna is born into a tradition that allows her no autonomy, no way to control the decisions that shape her life. Here is a community where it is considered normal and legitimate for a girl to be kidnapped into marriage, or have a lock of her hair cut off by a man unable to afford her bride price. Here is a community where “every young man is entitled to his fun” but the blame “usually went to the girls.”
Here is a community where girls exist forever in survival mode, taking what precautions they can, but always prepared for the worst. After the death of her father, Aku-nna is set adrift in the traditions of her people. At first, she is content to go with the flow. At the beginning of the novel, Aku-nna does not even seem to be aware that she has a voice and a mind. Instead, she blends into her community and accepts the groupthink as her own. It is in meeting and falling in love with Chike that she starts to discover within herself something contrary to her surroundings.
Chike is not a perfect man, and I do not think Emecheta meant him to be. Compared to the villainous authoritarianism of Okonkwo and Okoboshi and all the other men Aku-nna grows up knowing, Chike’s benevolent sexism is downright angelic. Chike is, however, attracted to Aku-nna’s helplessness, which, in essence, is a pretty way of saying he is attracted to the power that he wields over her. The main aim of the story is not for Aku-nna to marry Chike and live happily ever after. It is for Aku-nna to find her voice and assert her autonomy. In Chike, Emecheta gives her something to fight for, something to help her unearth her voice.
Her education and exposure to the European way of life – an alternate way - opens her eyes. At first, she is afraid: “she was beginning to feel it was unjust that she was not allowed to have a say in her own life and she was beginning to hate her mother for being so passive about it all.” In the novel, Emecheta pits Aku-nna against the communal will in her struggle for individualism, as in the background, she pits the Western culture against indigenous customs and values.
When Okoboshi - a boy who has “been brought up to think the whole world belonged to him by right” - orchestrates the kidnaping of Aku-nna into becoming his wife, Aku-nna realises that her life belongs to her and her alone, and no one else can save her — except herself.
“A kind of strength came to her, from where she did not know. She knew only that, for once in her life, she intended to stand up for herself, for her honour. This was going to be the deciding moment of her existence."
— p. 142
Aku-nna does save herself, but only from Okoboshi, and not ultimately from the prison of tradition. After she elopes with Chike, her uncle Okonkwo is so embittered that he refuses to accept the more than generous bride price that Chike’s father offers. In Ibuza tradition, any girl married without her bride price paid is damned to die during the birth of her first child. Aku-nna - young, malnourished and under a mountain of psychological stress - unwittingly fulfils this prophecy when she dies during the birth of her daughter, Joy.
Nonetheless, Aku-nna lives the life she wants — if only for a little while. She dies, not because of a prophecy, or because her uncle keeps a voodoo doll of her in the shrine to his chi. She dies because she had lived a hard life filled with anxiety and stress; she dies because was malnourished and too young to carry a baby. Most of all, because she was unable to break free of tradition’s hold.
Have you read The Bride Price or any other Buchi Emecheta title? What do you think about her use of writing to address and/or defy tradition?
a Home, by ancestry, to Emecheta, Ibusa refers to a town in now-Delta state. In this novel, however, Emecheta creates a fictional town of Ibuza.
b Marriage by abduction is a practice in which a man and his family kidnap the girl he wishes to marry and detain her against her will. This practice is prevalent in many cultures across the world. An unmarried young girl who has been kidnapped and detained by a man who is not her husband will be considered as ‘tarnished’ and as such will have no other option than to remain with her captor as his legally married wife. However, marriage by abduction is now considered as a sex crime in many parts of the world, rather than a legal form of marriage.
1 Okemgbo et al., (2002), “Prevalence, Patterns and Correlates of Domestic Violence in Selected Igbo Communities of Imo State, Nigeria.” African Journal of Reproductive Health/La Revue Africaine De La Santé Reproductive, Vol. 6 (2), pp. 101–114.