Author: Flora Nwapa
Flora Nwapa is the second female Nigerian writer that I have ever read – the other being the more modern writer Chimamanda Adichie. As the first African female author to be published in the English language in Britain, I was immediately attracted to her work. She has published a number of other novels – which include Idu (1970), Never Again (1975), One is Enough (1981), and Women are Different (1986) – and she is said by many to have been a feminist writer even though she never identified herself as one. Efuru, which was her first novel, is a story is set in a village called Oguta in Nigeria – which is a village that Nwapa herself was born and lived in. Published in 1966 by Heineman in London, Efuru is a story about a brave, loving, caring, successful, and what one might call in modern terms feminist woman called Efuru. The story touches on a lot of issues but the one that is most prevalent, even if Nwapa would have disagreed, is feminism.
Not being very well versed about the feminist movement myself, to say that the Nwapa portrayed the main character of this novel in a feminist way would be to throw myself into waters whose turbulence I am not sure I will be able to handle, but it is a risk I am willing to take. Even though Nwapa openly said that she did not see herself as a feminist writer, her work on this novel, and on her other novels too, would make her sound self-contradictory if she said that in 2015. It is said that she did not identify herself as a feminist because of the belief that feminism was a practice left for white middle class women during her times, and she believed that to identify herself as a feminist would not be to identify herself with the issues of black women. Her portrayal of Efuru as a woman who defied patriarchy – and example of which was her act of marrying the man she loved without waiting for the consent of her father, or how she managed to strive for leadership in her community, would qualify her as a modern day feminist writer; if I ever knew one myself.
The story follows the life of Efuru and her journey as a woman in her village. It begins with her, daughter of Nwashuke Ogene – a man of noble parentage; a “mighty man of valour,” a man who “single handedly faught against the Aros” (an Igbo subgroup in Nigeria) when they went to molest his people; a man of many victories whom people say have never seen his back on the ground – marrying Adiza – a poor man from an unknown family who people never understood why a woman so beautiful, and is the daughter of such a prominent man, would choose to marry – despite not getting consent from her father and Adiza not paying the dowry he was expected to pay traditionally.
The book, notwithstanding the mentioning of things such as Christianity and modern medicine in some of the chapters, is set during a time when traditions were still held by the people of Oguta; a time when things like Nkwo day (which is one of the four days of the Igbo calendar) were still honoured and women “took baths” (or got circumcisions) with the idea that if they didn’t, their children would die young. Efuru, notwithstanding the fact that she and her husband diverged from tradition by marrying without following the ways of their people, organized to get circumcised before having her child in her first marriage in an attempt to keep tradition.
Though Adiza worked in a farm, Efuru traded in stall she owned in town. Her husband soon left the farm to join her in her business. Because the two had married without Adiza paying dowry to Efuru’s father, the two worked together to gather up enough money for the dowry. They managed to gather enough money and the process of paying the dowry was executed without any hindrance. After the dowry was paid two years went by without Efuru bearing a child for her husband and this caused her a lot of pain. She went to her father who in turn took her to a dibia (a traditional healer) to seek help. The dibia then gave her instructions on what she must do if she wished to bear a child and told her and her father that if she does those tasks without fail, she will bear a child within a year. Efuru obeyed the dibia and, as the dibia had said to her, she soon bore their first child – a baby girl – whom they named Ogonim. Efuru took care of her daughter well but she soon had to return to trading with her husband because they were losing money. She asked her mother-in-law if she could get her a maid who would help her with Ogonim while she went to trade with her husband. Omeieaku, who is her mother-in-law, found a young girl – Ogea – who was her cousin, Nwosu’s, daughter and even though it took her a while, Ogea eventually settled in with the family as she soon became a valuable member of the family.
Two years after their child was born, Efuru and Adiza started having problems in their marriage. Adiza would come during late hours of the night and some nights he wouldn’t even come home. He later went to Ndoni in the market to trade and Efuru later found out that he had gone there with another woman. Efuru spoke to her mother-in-law about her problems and that is when she found out the sad story of Omeifeaku’s past with Adiza’s father. Omeifeaku confided in her daughter-in-law and pleaded her to be patient with her husband. She told her about her patience with Adiza’s father and asked her to do the same with her husband. While this was going on and Efuru was contemplating leaving Adiza, Ogonim then got very sick. Ajanupu, who was Omeifeaku’s wise but short-tempered sister, did all she could to help Ogonim get better but the poor child soon passed on after she fell ill. Word was sent out for her father to return but, to the disappointment of his mother and wife, he never did. So Ogonim was buried without her father present for the ceremony.
After the burial of her daughter Efuru had to find a way to get back on her feet. She soon found her feet, through the encouragement of Ajanupu, and was soon trading again. She later decided that she would no longer wait for her husband to return and went back to her father’s house. After some time Ogea’s parents returned from the farm and soon after her father, Nwupo (Ogea’s father) became very ill. He was taken to a medical doctor who performed an operation, after which he became well again. Ogea’s parents got very happy at her father’s recovery and spent all of their money celebrating and forgot to pay back the debt they owed to Efuru so they could get their daughter back. Two years later Efuru met another man, Gilbert, who proposed marriage to her which, after thinking it over, she agreed to do. Four years went by in Efuru’s new marriage and she bore no child for her new husband. This caused problems in her marriage and her new mother in law asked her to do something about it; lest she wants her husband to take a new wife who will give him children. Efuru took these words to heart but instead of going to a dibia, like she did in her first marriage, she decided to go to a medical doctor. She later learned that Umhari (the Goddess of the great blue lake) had chosen her to become one of her worshipers and this was confirmed by a dibia that was called by her father to interpret the dreams she had been having about meeting a woman at the bottom of the lake. Efuru ended up agreeing to find a second wife who will bear children for her husband and she and her mother-in-law decided to marry a young woman by the name Nkoyeni.
Efuru was hit by another tragedy when her father suddenly passed away. The whole village was sad at the passing of Efuru’s father and they mourned him deeply. Despite the expectation for him to be present at his wife’s father’s funeral, Gilbert did not come for the burial Efuru’s father and that as the beginning of the problems of their marriage. Four months went by and Gilbert returned to his wife. Soon after Efuru turned sick and there were rumors that she had committed adultery and in order for her to be better she needed to confess. Her husband also accused her of adultery and that was the end of their marriage.
Because of the era in which it was published, I believe Nwapa also wanted to show, through the story, a time when there was a major cultural and traditional change in the lives of the people of Nigeria. This is made evident by the by the choices of that people started making in their daily lives: choosing to go to a medical doctor instead of a dibia, choosing to practice Christianity instead of their pagan beliefs, young people starting to ignore certain practices and beliefs of their people, and the mention of people attending school (in order to do which one had to become a Christian first). This is a wonderfully captivating story.