Last Updated July 11, 2023.
The Concubine is a 1966 novel by Elechi Amadi. It was published as a part of the Heinemann African Writers Series. This project was designed to help disseminate the works of African writers to a global audience.
Notable alumni include Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Nadine Gordimer. Amadi was born in Nigeria, and The Concubine has been widely praised for its literary attributes and portrayal of a society largely untouched by Western influences. At its core, the novel explores a culture defined by spirituality and superstition, questioning whether these forces are real or merely fantastical explanations for more mundane phenomena.
The novel is set in the village of Omokachi, where the beautiful Ihuoma is happily married to Emenike, a well-respected hunter and wrestler. However, following an altercation with his rival, Madume, Emenike falls ill and eventually dies—though whether the fight had anything to do with his death is left to interpretation. Ihuoma is left heartbroken. As customary, her brother-in-law, Nnadi, steps in to assist her in handling her affairs.
Over the next year, Ihuoma grieves for her deceased husband, dutifully tending to his land and raising her three children with the help of her family and neighbors. In particular, a young man named Ekwueme becomes a major source of support for her. Meanwhile, Madume’s greed drives him to try to claim both Ihuoma’s hand in marriage and Emenike’s land for his own.
Ihuoma rejects him, and when he tries to cut down a plantain on Emenike’s land, a serpent spits in his eye. This is portrayed as an act of divine retribution against Madume for trespassing against both Emenike and Ihuoma. Madume later goes blind and hangs himself in shame. Suicide is considered taboo in Omokachi, so Madume’s body does not receive the customary funeral rites. It is also implied that he has destroyed his chance to be reincarnated.
Although Ihuoma and Ekwueme develop feelings for one another, when Ekwueme proposes marriage, Ihuoma rejects him, as it would be indecent for a young man like Ekwueme to take a widow as his first wife. While polygamy is a common practice in Omokachi, Ekwueme is a young man with no children. Marrying Ihuoma would mean that her children with Emenike would become Ekwueme’s “burden.” Furthermore, Ekwueme is already engaged to Ahurole, a young woman from a neighboring village.
Omokachi is an explicitly patriarchal society, but Amadi portrays healthy marriages as involving mutual respect and shared burdens. Madume beats his wife and daughters, and he is lazy about caring for his lands. As a result, the villagers ostracize him, and his family abandons him after his blinding. Emenike, by contrast, was gentle and playful towards his wife and children, and he worked hard to provide for his family. Ihuoma’s grief speaks to the depth of their affection for one another.
Ekwueme reluctantly marries Ahurole to appease his family. However, the marriage is an unhappy one. Ahurole is immature and prone to weeping over the smallest arguments. Ekwueme, meanwhile, continues to pine for Ihuoma. Their mutual frustration results in the normally gentle and kind Ekwueme physically and verbally abusing Ahurole, which brings him great shame.
Desperate to fix her failing marriage, Ahurole acquires a love potion and uses it on Ekwueme. However, the potion does not work as expected, instead driving Ekwueme mad. Ahurole flees back to her family, fearing the repercussions of her involvement.
A “bewitched” Ekwueme is nursed back to health by Ihuoma, and the two grow closer than ever before. With Ahurole now gone, Ihuoma agrees to marry Ekwueme. Their happiness...
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is cut short by a startling divination from the village medicine man, Anyika: Ihuoma is actually a sea goddess who has been incarnated as a human. Her jealous husband, the Sea King, will not allow any other man to marry her. Anyika insists that this is why both Emenike and Madume died, and he warns that the same fate will befall Ekwueme if he wishes to marry Ihuoma. Instead, Anyika proposes that Ihuoma become Ekwueme’s concubine—meaning that she would live with him as his lover, but have a lower status than a wife.
Ekwueme declares that he “shall marry Ihuoma” no matter what, and he travels to a neighboring village to seek another medicine man named Agwoturumbe. The second divination yields similar results, with one key difference: Agwoturumbe knows a way to “bind” the Sea King so that he cannot harm Ekwueme. An overjoyed Ekwueme begins gathering the materials needed to perform the ritual.
Tragedy strikes on the day of the ritual: Ekwueme is shot by a stray arrow and killed. Ihuoma is left inconsolable. Whether the Sea King truly intervened to prevent the marriage or Ekwueme died purely as a result of bad luck is left open to interpretation. However, his death nonetheless grants credence to the pantheon of gods and spirits that the villagers of Omokachi worship.