Change in The Slave Girl

Emile Cassou '99 (English 27, 1997)

In The Slave Girl, Ojebeta's move from her home in Ibuza to her entrance into slavery at Onitsha market stands for the value changes associated with integrating a new people into a culture or group. Cultural practices and symbols illustrate these changes. At the outset of her new life in Ma Palagada's home, Ojebeta discovers a world where individuals compete with one another. On a commercial plane, final profit constitutes the basis for comparison between merchants. Because the comparison of individuals is located in end results and in quantities of added value, exploiting slaves does not compromise success. Slavery only affects one's means of obtaining better results than one's neighbor, and at Onitsha market means have no impact on the determination of worth.

According to the text, this system of values is traditional, but it is readily accommodated by colonialism, since the market is an important trade center where colonisers and natives meet each others' needs acording to supply and demand. In this society, the preeminent value of the individual is all-determining. By contrast, in the traditional Ibo village of Ibuza, left untouched by colonial influences, community is one of the society's leading values. Competition operates on the type of merit based on good results from hard work; success adheres tightly to the worthiness of means. Thus the existence of a slave trade is considered base and excluded from practice. Slavery symbolizes how values change from one community to the other.

Other symbolic points of interest, such as Ojebeta's bodily adornments, strengthen and vivify this process of change. Ojebeta's parents make a major investment in decorating their baby daughter with tattoos and charms, for she is an ogbanje child, and they believe that these adornments provide her only hope of survival (without them, they believe, she will continue to die and her spirit to return in her mother's next children). The charms are to be understood as an effort to attach Ojebeta to the living community. The tattoos representing meaningful designs to her people and make her recognizable as part of the community. In Onitsha, however, they change into marks by which she is singled out, made individual. In fact when, as a slave, she becomes alienated, they become an individuating mark to which she clings.

This opposition of values from one location to the other appears in the fate of her charms. Back in Ibuza, the charms function her parents' gift of life to her and therefore that by which she is humanized. Their removal at Onitsha thus represents the removal of her humanity as defined in Ibuzan terms. She is rid of superstitious and artistic paraphernalia -- which only to humans is not superfluous -- and deprived of wearing her parents' love for her -- filial love only characterizing human families -- and most importantly of her link to the community.

However, this very example helps us reveal the paradox that Emecheta's symbols of change establish. These carriers of paradox keep a reader from simply reading the work as a commentary on the radicality of changing values in colonialism. Her statement about change, illustrated in depictions of transition from tradition to a colonially penetrated world, and from freedom to enslavement, is more complex than this.

Does the gesture of sawing off Ojebeta's charms not also resemble the gesture of rupturing a prisoner's chains? Their removal could just as easily be interpreted as Ojebeta being freed from tradition. According to tradition, she was a prisoner of the endless ogbanje child cycle, making her survival a condition of wearing mystical jangles. Since she survives their removal, she is in a sense freed from ogbanje-hood. After all, incarnating an ogbanje child is a form of possession. Furthermore, as a slave, Ojebeta receives a fairly modern education compared to any she would have received at Ibuza. Apprehended through the lense of colonial values, this education is a gift of intellectual freedom. And by acquiring a higher economic social class, in which food is plentiful and her material needs easily provided, her days of slavehood earn her a type of freedom from nature. Indeed when Ojebeta returns to Ibuza many years later, her possessions earn her a freedom that none of these people have, through they supposedly possess of themselves.

Beyond this paradox of possession Ojebeta's life exemplifies the paradoxes associated with the liberating and reenslaving processes. Indeed, Ojebeta is bought back into freedom. The exchange of money for her release is a sign of her commodification; this reappropriation seems incompatible with the liberating act of ending one's objectivization as a marketable commodity. And since the author explicitly states at the end of the book that Ojebeta's marriage to Jacob is a form of reenslavement, this is equivalent to saying that Ojebeta chooses this fate. But choice being an act of free will, it is the characteristic action of a free person; to choose slavery is a contradiction in terms. The state of slavery invalidates the affirmation of free will. Furthermore, Ojebeta's choice consists of her decision to marry Jacob, whom she loves, instead of accepting Eze's relative in spite of her inclination. That she return to slavery in a marriage of love increases the paradox, since in theory this institution is the fruit of free mutual consent. Ojebeta's complete delivery of herself to Jacob is inconsistent with the theoretical implications of opting to marry out of love.

What statement emerges from these paradoxes of change? Does Emecheta wish to show the impossibility of true change? Ojebeta's life is a cycle of change that leads her straight back to where she started off: nowhere; she is threatened by non-existence, both as ogbanje and as slave. Or it might be more accurate to say no one, for the state she appears bound to is one of slavery. From birth, Ojebeta's ogbanje spirit is possessed. Her parents' cares liberate her from this cycle of infantile death and rebirth, but in so doing they bind her body and soul to mystical traditions. Paradoxically, to uphold the village traditions and to win respect at his coming of age dance, her brother violates his community's reproval of slavery by selling his own sister's body. After years of service for Ma Palagada, little of Ojebeta's soul remains free to identify with her home community. So when she is set free from market slavery a materially independent woman, her soul is still enslaved to belief in Ibuzan traditions, ironically the only trace of autonomy she has preserved as a market slave. This belief is what sadly causes her to succumb rapidly to complete enslavement once again, by following Jacob into the traditional Ibo marital institution in which a woman subordinates herself to her husband. This schematization of the multiple changes throughout Ojebeta's life clarifies that this book is deeply ironical, and not merely a lamentation on change.

Change is moot in the universe of The Slave Girl. Colonial influence first made the slave trade much more and later muchless profitable, but it did not terminate the enslaving aspects of indigenous tradition by this token either. Ojebeta's brother is an interesting secondary character in this analysis because his reasonings elucidate why constructive change is extrememely problematic in the post-colonial framework. As we have noted, he reverts to using the slave trade to make money and achieve success within Ibuza, adhering to traditional modes of recognition thereon after. We find a paradox in his behavior since he subverts traditional Ibuzan values in order to participate in a traditional ceremony at which he will attribute much value to traditional recognition of worth; therefore he subverts tradition with the justification that his ultimate objective is to uphold tradition. This justification affords Okolie acceptance in Ibuza, though he ultimately fails, presumably due to an objective lack of honesty or genuine virtue.

The book ends on a pessimistic note in Ojebeta embracing life-long enslavement. Emecheta's bitterness seems to be directed towards Nigerian society's inability to transcend the cyclical pattern of change that annihilates the reality of true liberation.