By Peace Osemwengie
Title: Second- Class Citizen
Author: Buchi Emecheta
Publisher: Allison and Busby,1974, London, George Braziller, 1975, USA
Second- Class citizen was written by Nigerian author, Florence Onyebuchi Emecheta, better known as BuchiEmecheta. Most people are familiar with her book, The Joys of Motherhood. The novel was originally published in London in 1974 and was published the following year in the USA. The book may be called a novella as it has 174 pages. It is often regarded as a semi-autobiographical work and was later published in one volume, together with the author’s other book, The Bride Price.
Second- class citizen is somewhat fictional, yet it is not. Set in the years preceding Nigeria’s independence, from the 1940s, it chronicles the author’s (Adah) growing up years, her determination to be the best she can be regardless of the rules that society has placed before her and tells of her mischief and cunning in getting the things that she wants and the mistakes that she makes, both as a child bride and later as a young mother.
The book opens with Adah reminiscing about her dream which is a direct consequence of her birth and the nonchalant approach to life by her parents that follows. Her birth is treated with indifference because she is a girl and her parents were expecting a boy. This is typical of the attitude of the western Ibos of Nigeria who regard a woman as nothing more than an extra mouth to feed until she is married off to the highest bidder. Adah describes how her defiance results in her getting a primary school education to the horror of her mother and to the slight amusement of her father. This victory was not secured by no small means as she had to sneak out of the house and run all the way to the nearest school where she is laughed at by the school children because her dress is two sizes too large, the class teacher however gives her a seat and feeds her afterwards. Adah goes home to find that her mother has been arrested for child neglect and her father blames her because she is a woman and does not know any better. The police officer decides that Adah must be sent to school since she likes it enough to run away.
There are so many themes woven into the book, the most prominent of which is feminism. Emecheta highlights her victories over the many obstacles that tradition and society place before her because she is a woman. She doesn’t overwhelm you with a tasteless account of matriarchy, rather she presents her cause in the most appealing of ways and persuades you to join her crusade. She mentions the power of dreams and their ability to drive an individual as seen here,
“but she made a secret vow to herself that she would go to this UK one day. Her arrival there would be the pinnacle of her ambition. She dared not tell anyone; they might decide to have her head examined or something. A small girl of her kind, with a father who was only a railwayman and a mother who knew nothing but the Ibo Bible and the Ibo Anglican hymn book from the Introduction to the Index, and who still thought that Jerusalem was at the right hand of God.”
She also highlights the tragedies of colonialism and its effect on national unity, national identity, tribalism and the concept of civilisation. Second-Class Citizen also highlights racism and its effects on the thought processes of blacks, Pa Noble, her husband, Francis and their neighbours are prime examples. The distinction between whites and blacks in England in the ‘50s is made harrowingly clear to Adah by Francis when he says, “you must know, my dear young lady, that in Lagos you may be a million publicity officers for the Americans; you may be earning a million pounds a day; you may have hundreds of servants; you may be living like an elite, but the day you land in England you are a second class citizen. So you cannot discriminate against your own people, because we are all second class.”
But far from the obvious issues of race, second class citizen draws you to notice the woman’s struggle for survival in a world dominated by men and society’s expectations of her. It shows you with vivid clarity the pressure the African woman is subjected to daily, the sacrifices that a mother must make for her children and the prayers that she must offer for her marriage to work. It shows you how personal religion is to the woman as Emecheta emphasises a more personal relationship with him as opposed to the congregational worship of him. We see this in the questions that spring up in Adah’s mind about the Christians who are superstitious, fanatic and hypocritical and who will do anything without giving a thought as to what God, whom they supposedly believe in, might think of them.
The book is simple, written in straightforward English. Emecheta uses comparisons beautifully and these comparisons are worthy of each other, for instance, when she compares an old woman’s refusal to rent out her house to Adah and her husband because they are black, to Jesus being born in a manger because Joseph and Mary could not get a room at the inn. Adah says Jesus is coloured because he is an Arab but the English worship him yet refuse to rent out their houses to coloured people. Her sense of humour is endearing and makes you appreciate the witticisms of a mother. The references to poems and old English tales show a master at work, separating truth from fantasy, a trait that is not commonly shared among writers today.
This book, though written by an author who is now late, is one that champions the cause of the African woman. It showcases femininity in its glory and gore and is a legacy that is left to us by one of the greatest females in African literature.