Second Class Citizen

Elizabeth Lawal

Edited by Muireann Crowley

Art by Zoë Guthrie http://zoeguthrie.com/

Second Class Citizen (1976) by Buchi Emecheta is set in Lagos, Nigeria during World War II, and is about a woman called Adah and her marriage to Francis. Although life initially seems rosy for Adah, things turn sour when it becomes clear that Francis is physically and emotionally abusive.

When I was in high school I came across this book by chance; it was in a box full of books the teachers said we could take for free. The main reason I picked the book was because I noticed that the writer was Nigerian and of Igbo descent. Later on, I gave a presentation on it because there were no books by a black woman on our English Literature syllabus. After the presentation I asked if the book could be added and although the teacher was encouraging, my classmates were not. I think it was quite different to what they were used to – most of my classmates were white British. I vividly remember an Irish girl shouting from her desk, “I don’t want to learn about Africa.” I was a confrontational child, so I asked, “Why?’’ And she hit me with: “I just don’t.” I remember being so disappointed, and saying, “Well, I don’t want to learn about James I or Shakespeare and the Industrial Revolution, but you don’t hear me complaining.” This was met with silence.

Buchi Emecheta was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1944 and died in 2017. She moved to London in 1960, and later studied Sociology and worked in North London as a community worker. Her experiences in London were a major inspiration for her writing; her work often speaks on sexual politics and racial prejudice. Emecheta’s work is intersectional in its scope, representing the diasporic single woman, the effects of colonisation, and the clash of tradition with modernity. When she wrote about gender and race issues it would often cross with education and poverty, and question traditional ideas regarding women and education.

In Second Class Citizen, Adah is highly aware of the roles gender and education have played in her life. In Nigeria, parents often tend to send boys to school and push girls towards marriage. The main reason for this is because, as Naminata Diabate noted in her PhD on West African literature and culture, “patriarchal cultures typically stigmatize female sexuality as inferior… unclean” intended only for “fertility and procreation” (2, 4). Emecheta utilizes Adah’s sex life to highlight this cultural attitude towards female value. Adah doesn’t indicate she enjoys any aspect of sex; sex is depicted as oppressive, weighing her down because she is constantly getting pregnant. This is evident, for example, when Francis speaks to her about the Bible and the virtuous duties of a woman, and “he [gets] excited”  (98). Francis’s sexuality is weaponised against her, as she has no right to refuse the sexual advances of her husband. Diabate also notes that not only do women experience social pressure to give birth, but they also bear the responsibility of producing male children (45). This is mainly due to the higher social value placed on boys over girls, which is evident when Adah gives birth to her first child, a girl, and is given the “is that all look?” despite having a “long and painful ordeal” (112) .  

Growing up, I noticed that once a woman had a child she was no longer referred to by her given name but became “Mummy X”. Emecheta uses themes of family and womanhood to critique how for Nigerian women identity is tied to their womb, their husband, and their children: there is no room for individuality. We see Adah having one child after another, unable to pursue her dreams of writing until the very last chapter of the book.

This book spoke volumes to me. I remember talking to someone from my extended family about my commitment to higher education, and they asked: “What about your husband?” and “what about marriage?” To them, my life would be incomplete without the institution of marriage. I do in fact want to get married and have children, but my life will not be of lesser value without it.

I feel that this text should be included on university curricula. It can be studied in the context of English Literature, African Studies, and even Sociology. With English Literature, it could be included in a module on Gender in African Literature or a postcolonial module, possibly looking at how African writers can successfully write their own stories and cultures without the looming stereotypes of a “primitive” nation overshadowing stories of the clash between tradition and modernity. Within Sociology, it could be studied in a module on gender and education in Nigeria, to provide a literary account by a Nigerian writer. Through the study of this work, we give African female writers the opportunity for their voice to be heard, and for people to realise there is more to fiction than just the words on a page.

Works Cited

“Buchi Emecheta – Literature.” British Council | Literature,

https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/buchi-emecheta” Accessed 23 Jan. 2018

Diabate, Naminata. “Genital Power: Female Sexuality in West African Literature and Film.” PhD Dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin, 2011.

Emecheta, Buchi. Second-Class Citizen. London: Allison & Busby, 1974.

About the author:

Elizabeth Simisola Lawal is a final year Law student at the University of Birmingham, with a focus on Gender and Law. She is interested in pursuing further study in the near future, and is currently writing about child marriage laws in Nigeria.

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