Buchi Emecheta’s The Wrestling Match was first published in 1983 in Great Britain by Oxford University Press, in conjunction with University Press Ltd. of Nigeria. The story is a deceptively simple tale of a boy coming of age in a Nigerian village, but Emecheta uses the tale as a commentary on war, as well as on relationships between generations and the need for everyone to have productive work.
Emecheta retains the strong storytelling tradition of her Nigerian homeland; The Wrestling Match is told in simple yet vivid language, and makes readers feel as if they’re in “an open clearing in which children and old people sat, telling stories and singing by the moonlight,” as the narrator of the book notes.
Many of Emecheta’s works deal with poverty and the oppression of women, both in Nigeria and in England; in this sense, The Wrestling Match is a departure, as it tells the story of a young man and his uncle, and the women in it are marginal characters who retain their traditional roles as wives or wives-to-be.
In an interview with Julie Holmes in The Voice, Emecheta told Holmes that writing is the “release for all my anger, all my bitterness, my disappointments, my questions and my joy.”
The Wrestling Match opens with a conflict that disrupts a quiet evening in the compound of Obi Agiliga, when his senior wife, Nne Ojo, yells at his sixteen-year-old nephew, Okei, for Okei’s sullen bad manners. Okei has been adopted by his uncle because his family was killed in the Biafran War, or Nigerian Civil War, and the event has left him confused and rootless. Also, like some of his agemates, he has had some education, which makes him reluctant to labor on his uncle’s farm, work he sees as demeaning, exhausting, and fruitless, since every year they end up going hungry no matter how hard they work. Like teenagers everywhere, he is fed up with being nagged and told, “When I was your age” by his uncle and others.
His uncle tells him that some of his age-mates have been stealing from old people. Okei discusses this with his friends Nduka and Uche, who are shocked, and also annoyed at the fact that because they are all in the same age-group, they will all be blamed. Like Okei, Nduka and Uche are fed up with being told they have to grow up, with being nagged to work on their parents’ farms, and with being compared to the “good” boys of their agegroup, who did not go to school and who are content to work on the farms.
Okei and his friends head toward the neighboring village, Akpei, to meet girls from their own village who are coming home from selling plantains there. The girls walk the distance instead of selling in their own village because they can make a little more money at the other market. The boys overhear the girls bathing in a stream and gossiping, saying that maybe the boys did rob someone, since everyone in the other village is talking about it and “there’s no smoke without fire.” They also comment on the fact that because the boys have been to school, they are “bigheaded.” Unlike the girls, who have to work all the time, the boys have plenty of free time to get into trouble, and the girls complain about the way the people in the other village are saying bad things about their boys. The main gossiper is Kwutelu, a seventeen-year-old who is the leader of her age-mates. She is known for her sense of style and her sharp tongue. Her friend is Josephine, a quieter girl.
Okei is upset by their gossip. He tells his friends that they must go around the village the next day and make announcements that all the members of their age group will meet for a discussion, but he doesn’t say what for.
Obi Agiliga is working on his farm, and takes a rest in the heat of the day. He wishes he could have more help on the farm, and his youngest son, Onuoha, asks him why Okei won’t join them. Onuoha admires Okei’s strength, and Obi Agiliga worries that when he is older, he will turn into a shirker like Okei....
(The entire section is 2,059 words.)