Highlighting the story of one female character, Ojebeta, Buchi Emecheta shows the complexities of slavery within the social system of British colonial Africa. By focusing on this individual, the author indicates ways that specific people, including women, negotiated a patriarchal system that disadvantaged females and used the commerce of human beings as an important element of its economy. Emecheta uses a traditional African storyteller as the novel’s narrator, who provides background on the social organization of the fictional Ibuza until the early 20th century, when Ojebeta’s story begins.
The girl’s parents, Okweukwu and Umeadi Oda, also have two sons. Although the only girl child in the family is treasured by her parents, when they die in an epidemic, her eldest brother, Okolie, becomes her guardian. As he must pay the expenses for his coming-of-age ceremony, Okolie sells his sister to help raise the funds. At age seven, Ojebeta becomes the slave of Ma Palagada and moves to Onitsha. This relative, who is a market trader, has six other slaves.
While Ojebeta is living and working in the Palagada household, she is allowed to attend school. When Ma’s son, Clifford, desires to marry the girl, her status correspondingly increases. However, when his mother dies, he loses interest and agrees to his sister’s suggestion that Ojebeta serve as her maid. Instead, she returns home and, emulating Ma as a businesswoman, establishes herself as a trader. Another Palagada slave, Chiago, marries the widowed father, and two of the other slaves marry each other.
When she and Jacob Okonji decide to marry, he must pay the bride price to Clifford, who became her owner when his father died. They marry, however, without doing so and have two children. Jacob’s delay in paying is later is interpreted in causing her to miscarry in her next pregnancy. Jacob pays Clifford when he comes to town. Although slavery has already been outlawed under British rule, the traditional marriage payment system was allowed to continue.
That The Slave Girl is narrated by a storyteller is apparent through its structure: Its prologue is one of mythical beginnings that relates the founding of Ibuza by a young prince, Umejei. The stage is set for the story, which takes place in the early twentieth century, of Okweukwu and Umeadi Oda, their two sons, Owezim and Okolie, and their daughter, Ojebeta.
Although “only a daughter,” Ojebeta is beloved because she is the only girl child who survives after so many have not. Her specialness is demonstrated through her ogbanje charms, which her father has to travel miles through dangerous territory to obtain, and her intricate facial tattoos, both of which are to ensure that she will not be sold into slavery. However, when Ojebeta’s parents die of “felenza,” the seven-year-old is sold to a relative by her brother, Okolie, for eight pounds, money that he uses to pay for his coming-of-age dance. Ojebeta becomes one of five slave girls and two boys owned by Ma Palagada, a successful market trader.
In Onitsha, Ojebeta lives the life of a slave girl; however, because of Ma Palagada’s wealth and eventual conversion to Christianity, she is allowed to attend school, to learn to sew, and—once Ma Palagada’s son, Clifford, informs his mother of his desire to marry Ojebeta—to receive special, more sophisticated refinement training. When Ma Palagada dies, Clifford becomes preoccupied with taking over the business, and one of Ma’s daughters intends to take Ojebeta as a maid for her children. Remembering her past life in Ibuza and having had dreams of running away, Ojebeta decides to return to her homeland rather than be bought a second time.
The more refined Ojebeta does return home, begins to sell palm oil, and becomes rich based upon the village standards. That the enslaved Ojebeta has fared better than those who have never been enslaved is suggested with her prosperous return. This notion is also reiterated through the fate of...
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