Reading Questions for Emecheta's The Slave Girl

Provided by members of English 27, Brown University, 1997

[See also questions posed by members of the the Spring 1997 class.]

1. "It was because his sister had a very interesting face. All over her features were traced intricate tattoos, the pattern of spinach leaves, with delicate branches running down the bridge of her nose, spreading out on her forehead and ending up at the top of her ears. On each cheek was drawn the outline of a large spinach leaf looking ready to be picked. It was not that many Ibos would have put so many on the face of little girl. But Ojebeta's mother Umeadi, when she realised that her daughter was going to live, had had reason for going to the expense of engaging the services of the most costly face-maker in Ibuza. For, with such a riot of tribal spinach marks on her only daughter's face, no kidnapper would dream of selling her into slavery. What was more, if she got lost her people would always know her, for although the patterns on her face might seem madness here to these Ibos from the East who frequented Otu Onitsha market, among the Western Ibos called the Aniochas it was a distinctive and meaningful design. (45)

Safety is a prevalent topic of The Slave Girl. As the book progresses we learn how frightening and unsafe the world of the living is for Ojebeta who is decorated with cowries and silver bells to protect her from "evil friends". Ojebeta's mother decorates her face with tattoos in order to save her from slavery. Ironically, it is her own blood brother who sells her; and the tattoos make her conspicuous as she tries to escape from slavery in the marketplace. Her tattoos and other visible safety precautions bring her redicule. Why does Emecheta make such a point of depicting tradition, when it is only false security? Why is irony such an unpleasant and large focus of Emecheta's novel? Has she turned her readers into naive Ojebetas, endulging us in pleasantries of home and safety only to tear them away with cruelty and slavery? [Corey Binns]

2. Throughout Emecheta's novel, fully detailed descriptions of actions seem to be the author's powerful yet subtle means of casting biting commentaries and judgments on various moments in Ojebeta's life. When Ojebeta is sold into slavery, the animalization of those involved in the transaction would serve to condemn their injustice and treachery. Toward the end of the book, how in effect is Jacob implicitly being characterized through his description? Sometimes portrayed as a Westernized, Christian saviour who escaped death at an early age by fleeing from tribal barbarism, at other times he appears as a carrier of Ibo tradition, as he wishes to respect the opinion of Ojebeta's guardians, or as he proves to be a traditional, occasional wife-beating husband. A seeming representative of some colonially shaped, syncretic culture, is Jacob the exemplary Nigerian of his day according to Emecheta, or rather a man having taken to the cruel practices of both worlds?

When Ojebeta finally marries in white dress, her wedding is descirbed in a highly anticlimactic way, a bystatement that holds in a couple of sentences. Again, Emecheta must be making a statement here, but can we clearly identify her point of view on the colonial influence in Nigeria?

What is Emecheta's tactic in making all subjective statements in her book stylistic implications? While her descriptions appeal to a Western reader, the narrative voice she uses often resembles a form of (African) indirect speech. Is a farther statement contained in this form of writing? Is this the author's way of signalling her unbiased standpoint on Ojebeta's life story, since her narrator displays insight into both the Ibo and Western colonizers' cultures? [Emilie Cassou]

3. I was struck by a sentence in the prologue of Buchi Emecheta's Slave Girl which, to me, rings of the biblical Genesis and wandering exiles -- and particularly the language like "you shall increase and multiply."

Where this gourd drops to the ground, there shall be our home and there you shall increase and multiply, and you people, your sons and daughters, shall fill the new town, and that town will grow and will always be yours. (9)

Later, the introduction of the two sons Owezim, the industrious farmer, and Okolie, the good-for-nothing son evoked in my memory the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Furthermore, when the treasured daughter Ojebeta is sold into slavery by her brother, I couldn't help but recall how the favorite son Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery in a foreign land. I find these images curious reading a Nigerian novel which (thus far in my reading) has not directly addressed Christianity or Christian people, and I wonder if these stories are references, or if they could as easily be coincidental; human themes rather than Judeo-Christian ones? How should these similarities be read? A result of biblical influence (where in the story there has been none)? A result of common humanity? My own cultural background as the reader? [Jenni Ellingson]

4. Staying with the idea of community, I've been trying to examine the differences between Anthills of the Savannah and The Slave Girl, in the way they value community, and the way they portray it. I think that Achebe's book placed a high value on community, a very new and specific community, as a way of effecting true and beneficial change. Emecheta seems a bit more ambiguous. Consider for instance that all the slave children have forgotten where they came from, their original language, etc. Their new community is of women, true, and helps them survive without madness, but is clearly a far cry from the kind of unity in Achebe. Ojebeta holds onto her individual self and justifies her role as protagonist by remembering, by retaining the charms of her childhood, and by thinking. And yet, "she too, Ojebeta the only daughter of Umeadi, who had been encouraged to trust everybody, to say what she felt like saying, to shout when she felt like doing so, would start behaving like these girls who so reminded her of the wooden dolls in front of her chi shrine at home in Ibuza" (87). Basically, I think the distinction is that Achebe shows us a strong, unified, egalitarian community formed out of mutual will and need, as an ideal model (very ideal). Emecheta is less upbeat, showing the joy of one's own community, contrasted with an externally and forcibly created one. She "judges" more as to what kind of community or communal bond is really good or healthy. So, finally, the question is this: how much are these differences products of their temporal settings, and how much are they each relevant to the problems Achebe was endeavoring to fix, if only fictionally? That is, given this sort of past of multiple elites and slaves and masters and rich and poor, is Achebe's image simply fanciful? I realize this is outside the scope of the text, but how much can be answered from within, if any? [Greg Gipson]


Every woman, whether slave or free, must marry. All her life a woman always belonged to some male. At birth you were owned by your people, and when you were sold you belonged to a new master, when you grew up your new master who had paid something for you would control you.

In The Slave Girl , Emecheta portrays the harsh life of Nigerian women. In Ake , Soyinka used the issue of women's taxation to show the increasing power of women in Nigerian society, whereas Emecheta briefly mentions it as a passing event. In Anthills of the Savannah , Achebe provides viable options for improving the role of women. Emecheta, however, seems resigned to the fact that women will always belong to a subordinate class. Why is Emecheta so pessimistic? Could it be that she is depicting reality, whereas Soyinka and Achebe are depicting potential, ideal realitites? [Alaka Holla]

8. In the following passage from The Slave Girl, Emecheta portrays the life of one couple through the eyes a town:

In fact she had been thinking of taking Ojebeta as her own child, the daughter she had never had. She had borne one son, in her younger days, but had never been pregnant again since then; rumour said it was because she was so narrow that she could not carry children. However, her husband Eze was so satisfied with her that he never even thought of getting himself another wife. This was one of the reasons why people thought him stupid, that he worshipped his woman and did not wish to expand his family. What man in his right senses would trust his whole future to one son only, and at that a son who had been pampered and spoilt by his mother? He must be a stupid man. And since his wife Uteh visited the medicine man more frequently than was considered good for any woman, who was to say she was not mixing some concoction into his food so that he would have eyes for no one but her? Did one ever see a person with such eyes that watered all the time? So people speculated."(39)

How does this passage portray the values and traditions of Ibuza society, specifically regarding marriage, polygamy, and reproduction? Is Emecheta criticizing a community which creates stories that denounce a man who "worshipped" his wife and a woman who received "all she wanted," her husband's kindness? How are Uteh's personal relationships with her family affected by the community's perspective of her? In general, how are characters' personal identities shaped by the sentiments of society? [Giridhar Mallya]

9. "No one actually knew whether this type of display managed to bring many pagans to Christ,; what was apparent was that in many Ibo towns the wealthy and successful people were usually members of the Church of England. The masses, on the other hand, tended to become Roman Catholics....[Ojebeta] did not much listen to the sermons and the readings, but she sang joyfully to all the new church tunes she had learned from the white woman at Sunday School....

After he had repeated the name several times Ma recognised that he was referring to them. She stood up in all her majesty, walked down the aisle to the back seats where her household was sitting--amidst the admiring glances which she was very aware were following her progress--and made frantic signs for them to come up...The Bishop took the gifts from them, blessed the labour of their hands, and told them to obey their masters and work dilligently in all they were employed to do. And he begged God to accept the offerings of his subjects." [110]

How does this passage compare to similar situations in Sarowiwa's work?

"Many Ibuza girls went to the C.M.S. church then, attracted by the songs, especially the translated Ibo songs...

'I would like to marry in church and wear a long white dress on the day of my marriage.'

'What is wrong with our own music, and our own way of a girls going to her husband's house?'

'Its the work of the devil. The Bible and the Catechism books say so. I must be married in church.'

'This church thing does not bother me too much' Eze said by way of compromise. 'But if I wanted to go to church I would go to the 'Father' ones. They have more magic, and their outfits when they do their perfomance resemble those of our head juju priests. They really command respect...The Fathers speak a strange language of the gods. You may not understand it, but you can feel immediately that you chi is near when one of the Fathers starts his magical incantations.' ...So afraid was Ojebeta that all she had learned at Ma Palagada's would be wasted that she prayed to God to send her an Ibuza man who had experience of the white man's work and would know the value of what she had learned.

Meanwhile she and some of her friends still looked down on the other age-groups who carried akpu and who did not go to church; and even before they were baptised they all found it fashionable to take European names. [153-154]

What is Emecheta saying about Christianity? Is the attraction of Christianity for Ibo people, primarily economic or spiritual? For rural people in Ibuza, it does not hold the same economic significance as for merchants such as the Palagadas. At first, Ojebeta's introduction to Christianity is simply an opportunity to gain education and better her situation. What is the ultimate meaning/impact of Christianity on Ojebeta's life--her marriage prospects, personality, self-concept? She sees the music during services as a greater attraction than the ideology presented. More broadly, what specifically is Christianity's role in cultural change/westernization in the novel? Clearly it's introduction underminines the authority of older generations, as well as tradition. And what is the cultural significance of the split between Roman Catholicism and the Church of England? [Irene Tung]


Ma Mee walked back to her stall telling herself that buying and selling people could not be helped. "Where would we be without slave labour, and where would some of these unwanted children be without us?" It might be evil, but it was a necessary evil.
Considering that a slave society existed and was seem as normal, can we condemn Okole for the sale of his sister to a wealthy woman, when he himself was not yet of age and unable to take responsibility for himself? How is Ojebeta's being sold into slavery different than Chiago's story? (p60-1) Were not both families in dire straits? Or did Okole have other options? Was it because of shame or greed that he did not accept Eze's offer to care for his sister? (p42) What insight does this give us into the role of extended families and friends in the different towns/societies of The Slave Girl? [Dave Washburn]

11. The Slave Girl illustrates the position of women in numerous ways, including commentaries on the inheritance of women by men, the similarity between slavery and marriage, and the restrictions and expectations of women in mourning. In addition, it is interesting to note the (in)ability of the male characters to adequately control the positions so pointedly depicted as thiers by right, in contrast to the many strengths of the subordinated women.

One striking method Emecheta employs for highlighting the inequality of women is by creating male characters who are incapable of effectively embracing thier roles of power. The inherent interdependence between men and women in society is structured so as to delineate roles of power and authority. The men in this book who have inherited this authority are ultimately controlled by the stronger female characters. Essentially, the extreme contradiction between thought and action serve to display the irony that is intrinsic within these communities.

Pa Palagada is recognized as the true owner of the slaves, yet does not hold any true authority or ability to succeed independently of Ma Palagada. Okolie is a superficial socialite failure, his brother Owezim left the family and negleted the responsibilities of inheritance. Eze, Clifford and Jacob are all depicted as a bit pathetic in their own ways. These men explicate the ridiculousness of thier ownership claim over the women. "Slave, obay your master. Wife, honour your husband, who is your father, your heart, your soul" (173). None of the men in this book diplay heart and soul with the depth and understanding that the women do. The frustrating nature of this book is due to the complicit acceptance by the women of being owned propety, in contrast to the actual strengths the characters (male and female) display.[Molly Yancovitz]

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