In Buchi Emecheta's novel In the Ditch, Adah, a single mother with five children, struggles to survive in London. As the story opens, Adah and her children are terrorized by a landlord who asserts his power over the family even as they fight the rats and cockroaches in their rented room. An important theme appears early on as readers are guided to thinking about power and vulnerability and the ways people try to obtain and retain power over others. The landlord is in a position to take advantage of Adah and his family, and he knows it.
Adah, therefore, must make a difficult decision between two poor options. She can remain at her current residence or go on welfare and live at the housing project Pussy Cat Mansions. She chooses the latter because she will be free of the nasty landlord, but she actually finds herself enslaved in a whole new way. She quickly sinks into the welfare system. Adah is a librarian and a sociology student (she takes night classes), but soon she has to let go of her job so she can get the financial help she needs to raise her family. If she makes too much by working, she won't get benefits. Yet she wants to work, for she enjoys her job. That job, however, doesn't pay enough to keep her family going. Here, we see another theme in this novel: the vicious cycle of a broken welfare system that keeps families trapped in poverty.
Adah's neighbors in the Pussy Cat Mansions have been designated as “problem families,” and Adah and her family are now among them. Society looks down upon these families as useless and troublesome. Many people think they merely sponge off the government without trying to improve themselves. But this novel shows us the life of these families from the inside. They are often large and led by single parents, yet they are certainly not all bad. They are merely caught in a cycle and a system of which they cannot get out, and they have to play along to survive. Adah plays the game, too, but through her hard work, she manages to come out on the other side with her dignity.