Second-Class Citizen

by Buchi Emecheta

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Chapter 1 Summary

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Last Updated on July 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859

The narrator recounts the early life of the protagonist, Adah, as well as the origins of her dream to one day go to the United Kingdom, which she calls “a Presence.” Adah does not know how old she is, but she guesses she is about eight and knows she was born during World War II. She feels eight because she thinks that is an appropriate age for her to have the dream to go to the UK. Her parents, family, and tribe were hoping for a boy, and since Adah is a girl, her birth was not recorded with the proper detail.

At this early point in Adah’s life, her community is excited for the arrival of the first lawyer in Ibuza. Adah’s parents tell her romanticized stories about how perfect Ibuza was and how unfortunate she is to have to live in Lagos instead. One reason they don’t like Lagos is because of the more “Western” approach to the law; it is not permitted for citizens to handle conflicts themselves, as it was in Ibuza. The women from Ibuza make sure to wear nice clothing, straighten their hair, and otherwise adhere to Western beauty standards in order to impress the lawyer. Adah very much wants to attend the arrival of the lawyer, but she cannot, because she would have to miss school.

Education is extremely important to Adah, but she is not allowed to go to school at first, mostly because her mother, called Ma, thinks it might not be “wise.” Adah’s younger brother, Boy, attends a preparatory school, Ladi-Lak Institute; Adah wants to attend but knows it is too expensive. One day, she decides to sneak out of the house while Ma is distracted. She collects some items from around the house to bring as school supplies and goes to her neighbor’s class at the local Methodist school. Adah is encouraged by Mr. Cole’s previous friendly behavior and is convinced that he will smile and welcome her.

Mr. Cole does allow Adah to join the class, but she is disappointed when the school day ends and she must return home. Mr. Cole tells her that she can come back to school, but if her parents don’t allow it, he can still teach her the alphabet. Mr. Cole offers to walk her home and buys her a roasted plantain on the way. When they get to Adah’s house, they discover that her mother is being punished by the police for neglecting Adah. They are forcing her to drink something called gari, which is cassava flour and water. Eventually, the chief policeman lets her stop drinking the gari but warns her that this cannot happen again and encourages her to send Adah to school.

After the officers leave, Adah’s father, Pa, half-heartedly beats her to appease Ma, but it is eventually determined that Adah should start going to school. Pa’s pride leads him to send his daughter to the “posh” school with Boy. (She attends Ladi-Lak with her brother until their father’s death, several months later; after that, both children transfer to a less expensive school.) Adah’s new forays into education prevent her from attending the arrival of Lawyer Nweze, who is the source of much anticipation and excitement for the town. People expect him to improve their living conditions.

Later, Adah hears about the lawyer’s arrival from the women who attended. They were excited to be photographed by Europeans, who apparently saw them as curiosities. On the day of Lawyer Nweze’s arrival, the women dressed nicely and wore their hair straight, just as they had planned. They created musical rhythms with their beaded gourds to give him a cheerful welcome. They danced and performed for the Europeans as they came ashore, and the white men were surprised, because these customs were all foreign and new to them. Pa relates that the men are to meet with the lawyer the next Sunday, because they could not miss work to go to the wharf. Pa says that the Nigerians must water down the lawyer’s food to make it edible to him, implying that the lawyer is weaker than the local men. The men are pleased, however, that Nweze did not bring a white woman.

From a later perspective, Adah recounts how much Nigeria changed after the lawyer’s arrival. The river goddess Oboshi seemed to lose her power, she says, as Ibuza men were murdered and even married white women without any consequences. It is assumed that those who offend Oboshi will come down with leprosy, but Adah notices that white oilmen are able to dig in the river for oil without contracting the disease.

Just after the lawyer arrives, though, everyone is very excited, and Adah talks about him often, calling him her cousin. However, she keeps her dream of going to the United Kingdom secret for now. She behaves in the prescribed ways and pretends to believe in the customs proper for her social status, but Adah feels her dream with her always, gaining “substance,” “a Presence” that accompanies her through her days.

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Chapter 2 Summary