A Passage into Antithetical Adulthood: Emecheta's The Slave Girl

Erica Dillon '99 (English 27, 1997)

In Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl childhood acts as a disillusioned, almost cynical, contrast to adulthood; yet this story, like Graham Swift's Waterland, also shows how destructive external forces and oppressive social situations make that stage of life unstable. The Slave Girl gives only a brief specific depiction of childhood, when Ojebeta is a young girl and both her parents alive, but this representation reverberates in Ojebeta's adult life. Ojebeta's parents coddle her, allowing her to breast feed for a long time: "Let her suck: maybe that will help her realise how much we love and want her" (The Slave Girl, 23), her father says. The previous deaths of all their girl children spur Umeadi and Okwuekwu to outfit Ojebeta with charms to keep away tempting spirits from the land of the dead, and "she was cherished and marked with special tattooes" (21). Ojebeta's parents consider her a special child, a precious gift that might be taken away.

But Emecheta depicts another reality of childhood in the lives of the other young slaves in the novel, sold by their own parents: "At birth you were owned by your people" (112), an image of a more constrained economical and social belonging than the specific livelihood that the adult Atkinsons in Swift's Waterland expect their children to carry on. Ojebeta herself later realizes this fact, yet refuses to speculate on its meaning and implications. A child is a boon to a family because it is another way to increase the family's prosperity through their labor, and, in the case of girls, eventual bride-price. "For there was a saying in Ibuza, that those who have people are wealthier than those with money." (151) Although children are a sign of prosperity, the reality is a greater risk of poverty to a family with so many mouths to feed: "It was a blessing that at least her stomach had been sold with her, so her parents would no longer have to worry about how to feed her; and perhaps the money her head had fetched had helped her family for a while." (61)

When Okolie sells her into slavery, Ojebeta is still a child (something shown by her mat-wetting at the Palagadas) but she now has the work responsibilities of an adult; yet, an inevitable progression whether or not her parents had lived. Ironically, Okolie rationalizes this act by claiming that Ojebeta is a "spoilt child who was still sucking at her mother's breast when all other children of her age had long been weaned" (36), i.e., she deserves slavery as a cure to her inappropriate coddling. The shift in Ojebeta's status surfaces in the contrast between the strong curiosity that Ojebeta displays on the way to the Eke market ("There were so many things she wanted answers to" [34]), and the grief-stricken submission she learns to assume quickly after Okolie leaves her, now a slave, with Ma Palagada ("the only course left for her was to make the best of everything, by being docile and trouble-free" [ 63]). Her facial tattoos and charms visually symbolize her special individuality; yet other women in Eke market laugh at her, not only because she appears strange, but because her parents designated her as special, in obvious contradiction to her social position. Significantly, Ma Palagada orders her charms removed.

Unlike Waterland, where childhood, in one aspect, embodies a land that the adult tries to reclaim,The Slave Girl insists that change is not only inevitable but desirable by juxtaposing a special (i.e. somewhat unnatural) childhood against the rest of Ojebeta's life as a slave (whether in bondage or marriage). But, the kind of change that Emecheta presents as desirable and necessary comes with critical examination of the self and society: as Popoff says, "the lack of such speculation leads to a continuation of the status quo and the absence of change" ("Narrator and Narrative in Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl"). The joys of childhood belie the oppressive reality of adulthood, they are an almost cruel contradiction, and the birth of children under the same social circumstances perpetuates this cruelty.