The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta
The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta. Oxford University Press, USA (2000), 104 pages. First published 1976.
Buci Emechetta’s Bride Price is a hautingly beautiful novel about Aku-nna, a young Nigerian women caught in the demands of her family and of her Ibo culture.
I chose to read this book for the African Reading Challenge because I had been impressed with Emechetta’s Joys of Motherhood when I read it years ago. At first I wasn’t sure that The Bride Price was going to live up to my memory. The opening chapters were full of interesting details about life in Nigeria after World War II, but I had trouble caring about the characters. The language was too starkly simple for me. Then Emechetta describes a funeral with the rich, lyrical language I had remembered. As the mourners cried out, “The first storm of them rose like an anger thunder, in different, deafing pitches.” From then on I was carried along, fully engaged in the twists of the story and eager for her language to explode again and again into colorful imagery. Some of her descriptions relay heavily on the Nigerian experiences but are so apt that they carry meaning for all readers. For example, Emechetta describes young women, “their necks craned like those of young giraffes looking for fruits in the tops of trees.”
The plot of the book centers on struggles over whom Aku-nna will marry and more importantly the awarding of her “bride price.” Unassuming and an outsider in her uncle’s family, Aku-nna drifts into a romance with her teacher, the one person who seems to value her, but he is a man the family can never accept.
Along with rich descriptions of Ibo urban and rural life, Emechetta conveys a sense of fatalism and deference in Ibo culture. Early in the book, Aku-nna knows she must not ask simple, factual questions about her father’s absence. The mourners grieve not only the death of one individual but the death that comes to all. I will be curious to see if more recent writers still describe this attitude among Nigerians or if it has been lost. And yet, Aku-nna finds surprising strength to resist her own oppression.
The particular oppression of women is a main theme in The Bride Price. As Emechetta tells her story, the recurring problems are not simply that women have fewer options. Men are free to act deliberately and regularly in ways that hurt the women over whom they have power. Hurting women is a way of proving one’s manhood. The women do not unite against such male behavior, but compete as individuals for the attention of a powerful man.
Emechetta gives us a story about Nigerians’ relations with each other. Whites appear only in the background, structuring events with new job possibilities working for oil companies, for example. The characters in the book mainly discuss Europeans in their lives by protesting the legal changes that require them to treat ex-slaves as equals.
The book raises questions of how we are caught in webs not of our own making and what the tradeoffs are when we resist. I found this a painful book, but an excellent one.
I recommend The Bride Price to all readers, especially those who complacently believe that it would be easy for others to get themselves out of bad situations.