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Buchi Emecheta: The Slave Girl

Ojebeta is born in the Ibo (Igbo) area of Nigeria in the early part of the twentieth century. However, her parents die, first her father and then her mother, when she is seven years old, as a result of the post-World War I flu epidemic. Her older brother, Owezim, has gone off to Lagos to earn his living so she is left to the care of Okolie, her younger brother. Okolie is lazy and, instead of working the farm, prefers to play his horn. Moreover, he needs money to pay for his coming of age dance and to buy all the finery to be the leader of his age group. So he sells his sister to a rich relative, Ma Palagada. Ma Palagada may be a relative but, for her, Ojebeta is a slave just like the other slaves she owns to help her with her clothing business. In the past, Ma was able to sell slaves to the Potokis (Portuguese) but the British have driven this trade away. However, she still has several slaves.

At first, Ojebeta is naturally terrified and also somewhat rebellious but she soon learns what it takes to please her mistress. Some of the other female slaves are not so lucky, as they are sexually abused by Pa Palagada and Ma’s son from a previous marriage but Ojebeta escapes this. Even when Ma’s son, Clifford, takes an interest in her when she is older, he is fairly respectful to her and proposes marrying her. Ojebeta survives by hanging on to her memories of her family and her village, by making friends with her fellow slaves and by generally keeping in the good graces of her owners. She follows them into Christianity and gives up her traditional religion. Eventually, when Ma dies and Ma’s daughter, Victoria, wants to take Ojebeta back to her home in Bonny to look after her children, Ojebeta announces that she is going back home and walks off unmolested. She meets a nice Christian boy and, after some travails, marries him.

The strength of this book is the strength of Ojebeta who, despite her slavery and ill-treatment, keeps her spirit at all times, never becoming a slave in spirit. While the story focuses on Ojebeta’s slavery in the Palagada family, Emecheta gently points out that Ojebeta, as a woman in Nigeria, is a slave whatever her formal status. Every woman, whether slave or free, must marry. All her life, a woman always belonged to some male.

Publishing history

First published 1977 by Allison and Busby