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Originally written as a collection of “observations” and published serially in The New Statesman, In the Ditch, Buchi Emecheta’s first novel, is discussed almost always only in relation to Second Class Citizen (1974), its rightful chronological predecessor. Like its companion piece, In the Ditch is heavily autobiographical, following Eme-cheta’s own descent into the “ditch” of welfare living and enforced dysfunctionality.

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Adah, the protagonist of the novel, is an intelligent, hardworking woman who has to fight against considerable odds to keep from being driven insane by the degrading welfare system. The story chronicles her struggle to maintain her pride and dignity as a welfare recipient and her keen desire for independence for herself and her children. The novel begins at the point when Adah is newly separated from her husband. Alone and vulnerable, she battles the squalid conditions of the rat-and cockroach-infested room that she is forced to rent from an unethical landlord who uses his “juju” wiles to terrorize her and her children. Faced with a choice between one of two evils—enslavement and exploitation by the landlord on the one hand or a prisonlike existence of welfare living at the Pussy Cat Mansions—Adah opts for the latter, which she argues offers a qualified independence. The story concentrates on Adah’s indoctrination to the slum life of the welfare system and chronicles her struggle to support and rear her children alone. Despite her desperation at the beginning of the novel, Adah is introduced as an ambitious evening-school student of sociology and a civil service librarian at the British Museum with middle-class and creative aspirations.

The burdens of an obviously stressful financial situation, parenting five small children between the ages of eight years and four months old, and the wiles of an unsympathetic and exploitative landlord set up a predictably negative framework for the novel. The novel’s gloominess is evident in the constraining alternatives open to Adah and the desperate choices that she must make. Adah is inexorably pauperized as she must give up her job at the British Museum to qualify for the dole and membership in the ditch-dwellers’ community. Consequently, the focus of Adah’s story becomes the inevitable acceptance and rejection of the welfare system and its devastating psychological effect, which ironically is to dominate Adah’s life and education literally and figuratively as a sociology student. The welfare system of council housing comes under scrutiny in a love-hate relationship. Adah’s indoctrination into the slum life of the Pussy Cat Mansions estate chronicles the descent of bright, able-bodied, capable, and otherwise productive people such as Adah into the inevitable dependency inherent in the welfare system.

Officialdom defines the Mansions by dysfunctionality, by “problem families” who are characteristically large, possibly belonging to a minority group, and often headed by single parents, usually by “failed and rejected women” living on the dole and belonging to no particular class. It is to the oppressive hierarchy of this cult of ditch-dwellers that Adah must learn to yield and play dumb in spite of her pride. Survivor that she is, she learns to play the game just well and long enough to emerge from the experience more admirable, dignified, respectable, and wholesome than any of the other ditch-dwellers.

Context

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Along with fellow second-generation African woman writer Mariam Ba, from Senegal, Buchi Emecheta has been described as a sustained and vigorous voice of feminist protest. Emecheta has dramatized in eight novels the entire realm of African women’s experience: childhood, family, marriage and arranged marriages, perpetual pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood, widowhood, and polygamy. While she has pointedly disclaimed any feminist consciousness in her writing, many critics have avowed that her novels teem with a feminism more poignantly articulated than many avowed Western feminist novelists. Unlike first-generation writers of the 1960’s—Flora Nwapa, Grace Ogot, and Rebeka Njau—Emecheta departed from the common themes of childlessness and marriage to the more complex issues of racism and sexism in a modern society in which tradition and modernization are at a crossroads. Her denial of conscious feminist writing not only has raised the issue of the genesis of African feminism but also has brought into focus the dire need for an African women’s history, one which will historicize the important events in the lives of African women that colonialism has conveniently omitted.

Like her subsequent novels, In the Ditch provides a feminine perspective on the social issues of racism, injustice, the welfare state, and women and the culture of poverty. Compared to her predecessors’ portrayal of African women, Emecheta’s women characters are more profoundly sketched and better articulated. While her African women may still be marginalized by gender realities, they certainly are not depicted as the stock, stereotypic characters often found in portrayals by African male writers or the first-generation women writers. With Emecheta, characterization means not only recognizing the female stereotypes but also revealing sensitively and clearsightedly how her female characters are both living out and transcending these stereotypes. Characteristic of her portraiture is a sense of identification with her characters—an identification nurtured by her personal experience of marginality—which enables her to articulate Nigerian women’s reality both objectively and in the context of an ever-evolving culture.

In this regard, the immediacy of her women characters’ existence and the articulation of their oppression challenge the masculinist practice of dismissing women in Nigerian and other African literatures as a monolithic unit. Also, all of her novels add a holistic and humanized (as opposed to a simply feminized) dimension to Nigerian and African literatures. While Emecheta demonstrates unequivocally women’s ability to choose and to execute their choices, she is aware through her own marginalization of her strong, independent characters that social changes to a patriarchal mind-set provoke a backlash. In the Ditch began a tradition of the female Bildungsroman and unapologetic protest in African literature.

Bibliography

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Brown, Lloyd W. Women Writers in Black Africa. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981. A compilation of essays on the contribution of African women writers—the “other voices, the unheard voices”—to African literature. The introductory chapter gives a broad survey of African women writers and their articulation of the female experience. Chapter 2 offers an excellent introduction to the curious indifference to female voices of protest. Chapter 3 provides criticism of Emecheta’s first five novels.

Frank, Katherine. “The Death of the Slave Girl: African Womanhood in the Novels of Buchi Emecheta.” World Literature Written in English 21 (Fall, 1982): 476-497. An extensive critical examination of the protest tradition of Emecheta’s novels, with particular attention to her fourth novel, The Slave Girl (1977). Frank tends to argue for a strictly feminist reading of Emecheta’s account of African womanhood.

Katrak, Ketu H. “Womanhood/Motherhood: Variations on a Theme in Selected Novels of Buchi Emecheta.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 22, no. 1 (1987): 159-170. Discusses the major theme of Emecheta’s concern in her major novels, especially The Joys of Motherhood.

Porter, Abioseh M. “Second Class Citizen: The Point of Departure for Understanding Buchi Emecheta’s Major Fiction.” The International Fiction Review 15, no. 2 (Summer, 1988): 123-129. Argues against the persistent attempt by some Western scholars to read many of Emecheta’s novels only within the feminist tradition. Demonstrates the danger of focusing almost exclusively on her feminist themes at the expense of the universality of her novels. Discusses Second Class Citizen, the companion piece to In the Ditch, as a powerful example of the Bildungsroman in Africa.

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