Cowries for Ojebeta and for the Yoruba

Margaret Hander '00, English 27, 1997

Cowries, which Ojebeta keeps with her always as tokens of her cultural identity, are also tools of divination in Yoruba culture. The system of "the sixteen cowries," practiced by both men and women, reveals the coming of any of five blessings or five evils, "long life, money, marriage, children, and defeat of one's enemy. . . [or] death, illness, fighting, the want of money, and loss. . . the client may then ask what is necessary to insure the promised blessing or to avert the predicted evil" (Bascom, 8).

The diviner appeals to the power of the deity Olurun, "who assigns and controls human destinies." He is most important deity to "the yoruba [who]believe in reincarnation and in multiple souls" (Bascom, 33). Buch Emecheta's Slave Girl begins by tying Ojebeta to Olurun in a particular way: she is an Abiku.

If a woman has several children in succesion who die at childbirth . . . they may not be different ancestral souls, but one ancestral soul being repeatedly reborn . . . It does not want to remain long on earth, preferring the life in heaven.. Such children are known as Abiku or "one born to die" (Bascom, 35).

Villagers believe she has already come to earth many times in the form of her many deceased older sisters and must be persuaded to not run away again soon with her omnipresent playmates from the spiritual world. Yoruba diviners also call upon the Egungun, who "some say are the dead ancestors returning from heaven" (Bascom, 51). These alliances with Olurun and the Egungun link the divination ceremony of the cowries more strongly still to that of the bones, both as a bond with the dead which guide to a better future.

These two symbols of divination fit snugly into a socio-political interpretation of the novels as truthful, critical explorations of the African situation, as novels seeking change for the better, just as the traditional diviner did when he looked into an individual's soul to prescribe actions to be taken to regain personal health. The two authors use different strategies, though. First take the scene in which the blacksmith files off Ojebeta's charms:

Ojebeta could cry no more. She saw the charms which had been tied on by her loving parents, to guide her away from the bad spirits of the other world, filed painfully away. The cowries, too, which hung on banana strings were cut off with a big carved knife. She now cried in her heart which was throbbing up and down as though it would burst, as the hard lesson made itself clear to her that from this moment on she was alone.

Her survival depended on herself.

"May I take them with me?" she begged the blacksmith when he had finished. . .

Chiago looked helplessly at the little girl who was doing her utmost to cling to her individuality. She did not know yet that no slave retained any identity: whatever identity they had was forfeited the day money was paid for them. She did not wish to rob the girl of the small bit of self-respect she still had.

"Have them, but you must hide them in your npe." (71-2)

Beginning here, the theme of maintaining one's individuality, rather than succumbing to slavery, which renders human beings a soulless commodity, becomes central to the novel. Ojebeta goes on to be the one slave of her household who remembers her origins, which later allows her to escape indenture and, in what promises to be a romantic conclusion, re-integrate into her village life, then finally into a middle-class urban life.

Emecheta's Ambiguities:

Emecheta does not, however, write such a simple equation for fulfillment as that suggested by the image of Ojebeta's faithful guarding her cowries. That image suggests that individual health and satisfaction flower unambiguously from awareness of one cultural identity. Ojebeta, in fact, fails to escape slavery completely as she indentures herself to her husband, Jacob, who pays Clifford for her, who had inherited her from her original owner, Ma Palagada. Knowledge of her origins, though it once housed and nourished her, did not in and of itself escort her to freedom.

Should the cowries then be seen as Ojebeta's bondage to a overbearing, patriarchal society that passes her around like the proverbial sack of potatoes? Or, rather, is Ojebeta betraying her cultural roots by moving to the city and detaching from traditional life styles? The latter is a possible interpretation, especially because no mention of the cowries are made in the latter chapters of the book.

Emecheta often employs this technique of leaving the reader with opposing yet possible and likely interpretations of her statements. Fishburn refers to these ambiguities as Emecheta's heavy use of "'hybrid construction'-- that is, statements that seem to emanate from one person but in reality convey 'two semantic and axiological belief systems'" (94). This technique appears throughout the novel, especially in Ojebeta's thoughts. For example, When Ojebeta is purchased by Jacob he is referred to in what would be bitter terminology from the mouth of a modern Western woman, as her "new master" (178). Soon thereafter, however, she reflects that she feels "free in belonging to a new master" (179). When the men joke about spending money on women, she laughs: "For had she not been rightly valued?"(179)

The Western reader is left confused. The book's ending, whose interpretation affects the interpretation of the meaning of the cowries, affects the reader similarly. In showing us the reality behind Ojebeta's rags-to-riches marriage, "perhaps the novel is a feminist critique of marriage -- an interpretation that allows us to maintain our identification with Ojebeta. This identification is brought to an abrupt halt, however, when we see how honored she is when her husband buys her from the Palagadas" (Fishburn, 94). Thus the question remains unsolved, that of whether the metaphor of the cowries implies that a better life lies in nourishing one's connection to one's "ancestors" or cultural past. She seems both to suggest this and to add that it is not enough. Such ambiguities appear to be Emecheta's strategy of representing this complex society, one influenced by two contradicting cultures.


Bascom, William. Sixteen Cowries: Yoruba divination from Africa to the New World. Bloomington, Indiana U. P.: 1993.

Ephirim-Donkor, Anthony. African Spirituality: on Becoming Ancestors. Trenton, N.J., Africa World P.: 1997.

Fishburn, Katherine. Reading Buchi Emecheta: Cross-Cultural Conversations. Westport, C.T., Greenwood P.: 1995.