Freedom in Chains: A Review of Emecheta’s “The Slave Girl”.

This Post is a Tribute to Florence Onyebuchi Emecheta (21 July 1944 – 25 January 2017).

If this story were told to me under the full gaze of the moon, it would be a beautiful experience. The novel written in 1977, is intricately woven around the Igbo tradition in Nigeria and saddled with rich Igbo imagery and language. Though Emecheta is conscious of her non-Igbo readers and tries to cater for them by explaining some concepts and words. More hilarious are the pronunciations she tries to capture e.g. ‘Felenza’ which in English is Influenza.  More of these kind of Igbo-English words are seen in the book which would definitely put a smile on your face as you read.

The book centers on Ojebeta, a young girl who comes as an answer to the prayers of her parents who desired to have a girl child especially since every girl child that was born to them died shortly after birth. Ojebeta is called Ogbanje Ojebeta because she is believed to belong to the spirit world and would die shortly after birth. Her parents take Ojebeta to a seer and she has to wear charms made from cowries and metal which makes noise when she walks. The noise according to the Seer, will scare away Ojebeta’s friends from the spirit world who would want to call her back.

Ojebeta is the only girl after her two brothers and they lose their parents to the epidermic that ravaged their town. Okolie, Ojebeta’s brother decides to sell Ojebeta to slavery. This is where the real story begins. A young girl who has always known the love and affection of devoted parents is suddenly sent to Onitisha to become a slave to Ma Palagada. It is as though Ojebeta starts to have a better life as a slave because she is fed and can wear good clothes unlike if she had remained in her home town in Ibuza.

Emecheta makes us examine how slavery is not just a racial problem but a human problem. Though Nigeria was under colonial rule but it did not stop Nigerians from oppressing one another through slave trade. Emecheta also draws our attention to the fact that Ojebeta being a woman is faced with more tragic problems. She can only be free through marriage. At this point, the reader gets excited when a man like Clifford, the son of Ma Palagada (Slave Owner) shows interest in Ojebeta. So, maybe freedom was on its way. Sadly, it was the an opportunity for Ma Palagada to enjoy the benefits of her purchase and send Ojebeta for trainings so that she can be the perfect wife for her son. One cannot but notice that all through the novel, Ojebeta has the status of a property. She never really was free.

Though she runs out of Ma Palagada’s house after her death because of Victoria’s (Ma Palagada’s daughter) maltreatment, she returns to Ibuza under the watchful eye of her uncle and aunt who even argue on who should marry Ojebeta. Ojebeta thinks that she is free and can assert that freedom by running away with Jacob. For her, it showed her as brave because chose her husband.  She becomes a slave to her husband again. Her story doesn’t improve much. Emecheta puts it this way,

“There was certainly a kind of bond between husband and wife, a bond produced by centuries of traditions, taboos, and latterly, Christian dogma. Slave, obey your master. Wife, honour your husband who is your father, your head, your heart, your soul. So there is little room for Ojebeta to exercise her individuality, her own feelings, for these were entwined in Jacob’s… In her own way, Ojebeta was content and did not want more of life; she was happy with her husband, happy to be submissive, even to accept occasional beating because that is what she had been brought up to believe a wife should expect.” (178)

The African woman has been raised to believe she has no voice whatsoever. She really is not free according to Emecheta. As long as the woman believes that her value is in a man, she is a slave. Ojebeta said after her husband refunds the money collected from Okolie when Ojebeta was sold to slavery,“… I feel free belonging to my new master from my very home town… Thank you my new owner, I am now free in your house. I could not wish for a better master…” This is just an illusion of freedom.

Emecheta ends the novel with statements that call for deep reflection. “So as Britain was emerging from war once more victorious, and claiming to have stopped slavery which she had helped to spread in all her black colonies, Ojebeta, now a woman of thirty five, was changing masters.” (184)

In this day, women still face numerous challenges. They work as hard as their men counterparts but are not fully appreciated as they should in terms of wages and they face troubles at the home front as every religion and societal dogma still places the woman under. Is she truly free? Emecheta calls for a mental shift and a cultural revolution which must start from the woman herself.

Interestingly, Emecheta had also had her fair share of marginalisation and domestic violence until she decided to take the bull by the horn and own her life. Her stories capture realities and she carefully asks her readers to consider these matters critically. A woman should not be marginalised based on her sex or socially ascribed roles. A woman must be recognised as an individual deserving of respect. These were the issues Emecheta brought to the fore in her writings. Now, she has left the earth, her stories still vibrate with life and intensity.

We would like to know which of Emecheta’s stories have touched you. Feel free to write a review and send to We will publish it.

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