I read Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen recently, and I almost tore the book into shreds. Why, you might ask: well, let me share this dialogue between couple Francis and Adah, the two main characters from the novel and then I’ll explain.
“What’s come over you?” he demanded, not believing his ears. “What’s happening to you?”
“You want to know what’s happening to me? I’ll tell you. You will have to know sooner or later. If anything happens to my son, I am going to kill you and that prostitute. You sleep with her, do you not? You buy her pants with the money I work for, and you both spend the money I pay her when I go to work. I don’t care what you do, but I must have my children whole and perfect. The only thing I get from this slavish marriage is the children. And, Francis, I am warning you, they must be perfect children.”
For starters, Francis is nothing but a parasite disguised in human form. He milked Adah dry — financially, emotionally, physically and materially and all in the name of marriage. But I should add: it’s because Adah let him.
As a little girl, Adah was determined to get an education in an age where the people of the tribe she comes from seeing girls as lesser creatures that should only be seen and not heard. And so getting an education as a girl-child was totally out of the question.
When she was about eight years, she decided to take herself to school (since her parents wouldn’t), her only connection to which was when she saw her younger brother off to his. In her innocence, this resolve to be a pupil at all cost almost sent her mother to prison, because she was charged for child neglect.
The death of Adah’s father did not stop her thirst and hunger for education, even if it meant stealing the two shillings that were the entrance examination fee into secondary school and receiving 103 strokes of a special type of whip called koboko – the one used up north on horses – for it.
Education in Adah’s days was seen not just as a means to be able to read and write but it was seen as a tool for change, a ticket out of poverty, a means for fighting for the rights of people but reserved mostly for boys. You got a penis, there is no question of if you needed education or not; but you come with a vagina, just like Adah did, and it took a lot of back and forth before you could win the privilege. In most cases, all a girl got was primary school education – that’s if she’s not asked to drop out after the first three years.
The plan was for her to be married off, a plot she rebuffed over and over. Her suitors were bald men, old enough to be her dead father’s age. If her dream of getting a university education required her marrying a man and having a home where she could study, then she would; so she settled for Francis, a young man who was studying to become an accountant.
Adah eventually got a job with the American consulate as a Liberian with a salary three times more than that of Francis, Soon, she activated her life-long dream to travel to the united kingdom with her husband, who went along with her plans; but Francis’ father thought otherwise: Adah had to stay back in Lagos with the kids, while Francis makes the trip to the united kingdom – all-expense paid by no other than Adah, the dutiful wife.
Adah gladly paid, because she believed that through her husband her dream of becoming a “been-to” (as those who have travelled out of the country were referred to in Lagos) will come true.
She eventually left with her kids to meet Francis in England, where she suffered. She suffered to the point where she regretted leaving Nigeria in the first place. With all she went through abroad in the hands of Francis, I had to ask myself why she chose to stick with him through it all.
But then I remember that there are still women like Adah even now who will stay in a toxic relationship or wedlock. Women who would endure all manner of abuse from a man that will eventually lead to their ruin and that of the children they think they are trying to protect.
Second Class Citizen is a classic that is still relevant in our world, especially in Africa. But if you are a feminist or you are like me who believes women deserve to make their own choices without being stereotyped by society for those choices, you will be appalled by Adah’s high level of stupidity.
Buchi Emecheta is still able to make readers feel all shades of emotion through the pages of her book, some 46 years after it was published.