Head Above Water The Negotiations of Buchi Emecheta

Having been brought up in a culture of storytelling, Buchi Emecheta would have been aware, from a young age, of ways in which her local tradition marginalized women and reinforced male supremacy.

discovered Buchi Emecheta one muggy Saturday morning, sitting behind a long table in the refectory of Uzommiri Study Center, an Opus Dei club for children in Enugu where I grew up, to which I went faithfully every weekend. I believe Uzommiri was only for girls (or maybe boys came on a different day) and our activities often involved arts and craft, games and baking. I don’t recall any of the games we played or the craft we made or what we baked but I remember sitting in front of a screen and being mesmerized by the story of this Nigerian woman in England who was both a single mother and a writer.  In my memory, the documentary showed her children, spread out like tentacles around her. Years later, when I started writing in Belgium as a young mother, I drew strength knowing that Emecheta had done it before me and had done it successfully under more trying circumstances.

Buchi Emecheta was born Florence Onyebuchi Emecheta on July 21, 1944, in Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria. Coming two months early, she had not been expected to survive. Her mother, Alice Ogbanje Ojebeta Emecheta was a former slave girl, sold into slavery by her brother to a relative in another town to raise money for silk head ties for his coming-of-age dance. (Ogbanje Emecheta’s story is the inspiration for Emecheta’s 1977 novel, Slave Girl.) When her mistress died, Ogbanje Emecheta returned home to freedom. She trained as a seamstress. She married Jeremy Nwabudinke, a railway worker. The couple moved from Umuezeokolo, Odanta, Ibusa (now Delta State), their ancestral home, to the then-capital city of Lagos to seek their fortune. They had two children, Buchi and her younger brother, Adolphus Chisingali Emecheta. Like many in their situation, the family went back to Ibusa during the holidays so their children could stay rooted in their culture, their values and their ancestors’ way of life. In Ibusa, Emecheta and her brother helped on the farm and listened to folktales.


Having been brought up in a culture of storytelling, Emecheta would have been aware, from a young age, of ways in which her local tradition marginalized women and reinforced male supremacy. She would have been aware of folktales in which independent-minded women were punished and ‘proud’ girls who dared to be picky with the suitors who came to ask for their hands in marriage ended up marrying ghosts (and not escaping unscathed from their spirit husbands). These stories obviously, contrary to the lessons they were supposed to teach, made Emecheta painfully sensitive to the gender roles expected of women as well as the erasure of women in her patriarchal, Nigerian society in public spaces. Expected to marry (eventually) and have children, girls were, as a rule, not sent to school. Sending a woman to school, it was reasoned, was a waste of money.

Emecheta’s parents, not atypically, sent their son to school but kept their daughter home to learn domestic skills necessary for being a successful wife and mother. What they had not counted on was on the ‘stubbornness’ of their daughter whose own mother accused of thinking too much ‘for a woman.’ Emecheta decided that if her brother could go to school, she deserved to go, too. One day, without the knowledge of her parents, while her mother was distracted, the young Emecheta sneaked off to Lady Lak Institute, the school where their neighbour taught. It was this neighbour who convinced her parents to break with tradition and send their intellectually curious girl to school. At the school, she learned to read and write English.

When Emecheta’s father died in 1953, the family disintegrated. Her mother, Alice, was ‘inherited’ by her dead husband’s brother (and moved back to Ibusa where she bore him a son), Emecheta and her brother were sent to live with relatives in different parts of Lagos. Emecheta’s continuing education was thrown into jeopardy. She lived with a family who did not treat her well. It was there she realized that she had no one to lean on but herself and ‘the force within her’, which she referred to as ‘The Presence’. It was this ‘presence’ that prompted her to appropriate two shillings from the family’s food money to pay for a scholarship application and entrance examination to secondary school. She passed the entrance exam and won a scholarship to the coveted Methodist Girls’ High School, a missionary school, where she discovered and revelled in William Shakespeare and John Keats and Rupert Brooke, and escaped a fate that would have had her married by the age of 12. It was here, in an English Literature class taught by an Oxford-educated English missionary, Miss Humble, that Emecheta first articulated that she wanted to be a writer. She writes of this encounter in her 1986 autobiography, Head Above Water,

‘Pride goeth before a fall!’ Miss Humble said in a hoarse, low voice and her protruding teeth looked as if they were going to fall out. Then she stretched herself, standing on her toes as if she was determined to reach the ceiling, and pointed at me stiffly…’

‘…I said I would like to be a writer.’

‘Go out, out and straight to the chapel. Go there and pray for God’s forgiveness.’

Emecheta never prayed for forgiveness. She kept dreams of writing and of moving to the UK close to her heart, never disclosing them to anyone else lest it got her in trouble. At 16, she graduated from Methodist High and succumbed to pressure to get married. However, true to her independent streak, she refused to marry any of the men picked for her. If she must marry, it had to be to someone who shared some of her dreams. In Sylvester Onwordi, a handsome, young man from Ibusa who also harboured dreams of migrating to the United Kingdom, Emecheta imagined that she had found a soul mate. In 1961, Sylvester went ahead of his family to England while his wife, who earned good money working at the American embassy, stayed back and saved up enough to join him in 1962 with their two children.


Emecheta arrived England on a cold, wet, March morning (this dreary welcome to the country permeates much of Emecheta’s works set in London). It was nothing like she had expected and was a foreshadowing of her early years: there were no jobs waiting for her; her husband lived in a rented one-room apartment where the children slept on the couch he had bought with part of the money Emecheta had sent him to buy her a coat (the rest of the money he spent on a coat for himself); 12 days after her fourth child was born, she came home to find her husband in bed with another woman; when she finished her first novel and gave it to him to read, he burned the manuscript (which would later become The Bride Price).  She knew then that she could no longer stay with him.

Emecheta got a job at the British Museum. Threatened by her growing independence, and dissatisfied with burning her manuscript, Sylvester sought ways to break her. He found ways to coerce her into sex, cornering her on her way to work when she could not say no to him. When Emecheta eventually moved out with the children, he discovered where they were and raped her, getting her pregnant with her fifth child. When she took him to court, he denied that he was the father of the children, denied that he and Emecheta were married and as he had burned all legal documents, there was no way of proving otherwise. Emecheta, not yet 22 and eight months pregnant, was now free of him. But she was also left to raise the children, Florence, Sylvester, Jake, Christy and Alice, on her own and go to university. By sheer force of will, she got a university grant, bought a car and changed her lifestyle. As a student of Sociology at the Polytechnic of Central London, she also started writing again. She spent four hours every Saturday and Sunday writing what would become In the Ditch. First serialized in the New Statesman, her stories got her the attention of agents and publishers.

In 1972, the first of her books was published. In the Ditch chronicles the difficulties Adah, Emecheta’s alter-ego, encounters in London as a Black woman and as a single parent to five children, straddling two cultures. Semi-biographical, or ‘lightly disguised autobiography’, as Charlotte Brunner terms it, Adah’s resilience and determination to get her family out of the slums of London and out of the ditch pays off. In her essay in Nigerian Female Writers, Chukwuma writes that before Emecheta,

Female characters’ trained ambition revolved round marriage and procreation. Her other female obligations ranged further to cooking the family meals, honouring her husband’s bed, on invitation: and other times merging with the home environment peacefully.

Emecheta’s Adah’s ambition is to be a breadwinner, the one who is honoured for looking after her family well. This novel placed Emecheta immediately on the map as a new important voice from the African Diaspora and a pioneer of Black British (women’s) writing.


After her 1972 book, at least 20 more books followed including Second Class Citizen (1974) which tells the fictionalized story of Emecheta’s early life in Nigeria and her early years in England; The Slave Girl (1977) inspired by her mother’s life;  The Joys of Motherhood (1979); The Rape of Shavi (1983) in which Emecheta turns to a different form: utopian/dystopian science fiction to fashion an allegory about the intercourse between the colony (Europe) and the colonized (Africa) and Destination Biafra (1982), one of the earliest and one of the few fictionalized accounts of the Biafran war by a woman author—it is often considered Emecheta’s most ambitious and most radical work. In it, Emecheta creates not just a counter-discursive narrative to the dominant male genre of war narratives but defines a new option to/of motherhood. Emecheta’s protagonist, Debbie Ogedembe, is an Oxford-trained, intellectual, child of extremely wealthy (and extremely corrupt) parents who returns to Nigeria just before the events that lead to the Nigeria-Biafra war start. Debbie feels greatly marginalized and like all of Emecheta’s female protagonists, tries to define her individuality and assert her right to be seen beyond the roles society has set up for her as a woman. She rejects the idea of marriage as typified by her parents.

Emecheta’s women value community over individualism and come to self-realization through love (sexual or familial). They remain within patriarchy while challenging it and seeking ways to negotiate around it. Perhaps, Akunna’s failure in The Bride Price is in not finding a viable way to negotiate culture. Emecheta’s own life was symbolic of this constant negotiation. She writes, for instance, in Head Above Water of how she let her family bully her into discussing some sort of reconciliation between her and her estranged husband. She even paid for a suit for him so they could go to her cousin’s wedding as a family and found him a job (which he gave up after a while).

Emecheta writes. ‘…with me to work and boost his ego, he could one day be very powerful. Mine was to be the reflected glory. But then, is that not the lot of most women?’ His mother pays her bride-price (five times higher than the average girl’s) to her brother so that she becomes a ‘full wife,’ and fulfils tradition. Emecheta recounts this with an awareness that this is her culture and the only way to fight is with her wits. She keeps making excuses not to have her husband move in with her and the children until she gets fed up and asks him to leave her life forever. ‘He made his way down without protest, because now that he had a job, he felt he could get any woman he wanted and reshape his life.’

And Emecheta, with her writing and her education, could raise her children on her own. She writes that she never demanded that her bride price be returned because, arguably, she is practical about the limits of her power, as one woman, against a long-standing culture. She gets the last word, however, by writing and documenting the challenges that women face, that she faced and the uphill battle that it is to be visible in a culture that seeks the erasure of women. A battle that is not completely unsurmountable, given the right tools, of which education (and economic independence) is one.


Critics have often read Emecheta’s female protagonists as feminists but perhaps, in choosing negotiation (within patriarchy) rather than an overhaul of patriarchy, they are, like Emecheta (who often described herself as feminist with ‘small letter ‘F’) negofeminists. As proposed by Obioma Nnaemeka, negofeminism is no ego feminism, negotiative feminism and the brand of feminism practiced by African women who have to find ways to assert their individuality and strength within patriarchy.

Emecheta was made an OBE –Officer of the British Empire—in 2005 and died on January 25, 2017 in London, UK after a brief illness. I hadn’t known Emecheta well enough on a personal level to claim any sort of familiarity—in 2004, when I was on the Caine Prize shortlist, she had lunch with the shortlisted candidates and spent an afternoon with us—yet, when I heard of her death, it was as if a well-loved aunt had died

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