by Flora Nwapa
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in rural Eastern Nigeria during the 1940s; published in English in 1966.
An exceptional woman struggles to find her place in a traditional Igbo community.
Flora Nwapa was born on January 13, 1931, into a popular and wealthy family in Oguta, in the present Imo State of Nigeria. After a brief stint teaching at Priscilla Memorial Grammar School in Oguta, she began her university studies at the University College, Ibadan. Nwapa graduated in 1957; a year later she received a postgraduate Diploma in Education at the University of Edingurgh in Scotland. Upon returning to Nigeria, she taught briefly at a female high school in Eastern Nigeria, then joined the University of Lagos as Administrative Officer and remained there from 1962 until the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war in 1967. At this point, she, like many other members of the Igbo elite, was forced to return to the Eastern region. In 1966 she published Efuru, becoming not only Nigeria’s first female novelist but black Africa’s as well. The Tana Press, which she founded in 1976, became West Africa’s first indigenous publishing house to be owned by a black African woman. Until her death on October 16, 1993, Nwapa would remain a prolific, versatile writer and a powerful influence on other black African women writers.
Igbo community life—an overview
Characterized by their republicanism and egalitarianism, the Igbo (Ibo) differed from most other ethnic groups in Nigeria by not having a supreme political authority, such as a monarch or a king. Instead, power was vested in the people directly or in a council of elders. A highly democratic people, the Igbo favored forums at which every male member of the community had the opportunity to express his views on matters of common interest before a decision was taken. In public assemblies, a common, a poor, or a young man had as much right to be heard as an affluent, influential, or elderly man in the community.
When British colonial administrators arrived in Igboland in the middle of the nineteenth century, they discovered that enforcing colonial laws was not as simple as in the Northern and Western parts of the country. In the North, the emir was an influential authority through whom the masses could be reached and whose decisions and pronouncements were supreme. In the West, the oba exercised similar presence and authority. The neighbors of the Igbo people in the Southeast—the Efik, the Ibibio, the Kalahari—all had their paramount rulers, and hence the British penetration into these areas was relatively easier. The British attempted to get around the problem in Igboland by appointing “warrant chiefs” and establishing a system called “indirect rule,” but it met with stiff resistance and generally proved unsuccessful.
The traditional Igbo lived in clusters of small, self-governing communities whose inhabitants traced their origins to a common ancestor. The community was guided by elders, who drew their inspirations from ancestral wisdom, and who settled disputes over land ownership as well as more complex matters, such as inheritance and succession. Today the Igbo occupy six states, number more than 15 million people, and, alongside the Hausa in the North and the Yoruba in the West, comprise one of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria. Although the contemporary Igbo have assiduously taken up Western education, Christianity, and other emblems of modern civilization, traditional customs and beliefs have not been totally abandoned.
Efuru, which is set in the mid-twentieth century, describes strong, deep-rooted customs and practices. As in the novel, the two major occupations of the Igbo in the traditional society were farming and trading; for those who lived by the side of rivers and lakes—as do the people in the novel—fishing was also a major occupation.
Reorganization of trade
At the time of the novel, the British Empire controlled Northern and Southern Nigeria, formerly individual protectorates. Along with Lagos, these one-time protectorates became an amalgamated colony in 1914. The construction of roads began in the 1900s, followed by the introduction of two railroads in 1912 and 1926. The rate of industrial development was gradual, especially in rural areas. On the other hand, the imposition of colonial government was pervasive. British laws were enforced by local British commissioners and their hand-picked subordinates; the government restricted which goods could be sold and how they were to be distributed, which affected trade among the Igbo in areas like Oguta, where Efuru is set.
European trading companies that became active in the region took advantage of the colonial-built roads, which in many cases bypassed established Igbo market centers, thereby shifting the flow of money to new areas. This relocation of profitable trading sites upset the traditional use of Igbo marketplaces for celebrations and meeting grounds as well as centers of commerce. Many village traders had to travel to colonial outposts to engage in business with international merchants, leaving their ceremonies and customs behind. Moreover, although British colonial officers encouraged the production of farm products like yam, cassava, and palm kernel, certain items were banned or heavily taxed by the British. For example, in the novel, the colonial government bans the production of homemade gin, prompting numerous complaints from Igbo brewers, several of whom resort to subterfuge to continue their trade. Efuru’s husband, Gilbert, tells her of one brewer who concealed all her gin in her canoe, thwarting a police raid on her house. Efuru applauds the woman for defying injustice: “Why the government does not allow us to drink our homemade gin, I do not know…. If they must stop us from cooking gin, then the white man’s gin and his schnapps should be sold cheap” (Nwapa, Efuru, p. 104).
Social organization and functions
Traditional Igbo society was mostly patrilineal, although a few matrilineal communities existed, especially in the Ohafia and Arochukwu areas of Igboland. In the patrilineal mainstream, kinship was traced through the father, as were inheritance and succession. The smallest social unit was the family; the largest, the clan. A family consisted of both nuclear and extended family members. Igbo culture allowed a man to marry more than one wife; the choice to do so was often dictated by economic rather than sexual circumstances. A family that needed more hands for farming was more likely to have multiple wives if the means existed. Also, a clan that needed more sons to fight wars with its neighbors was likely to encourage its menfolk to marry multiple wives. Given that the social system was mostly patrilineal, a couple aspired to have as many male children as possible, and if a couple took a long time to have children or did not have children at all, the husband was considered justified in marrying a second, third, or fourth wife as the case may be, until male children were born into the family. All members of the family lived in the same compound, over which the eldest male was the head. When a son came of age and married his own wife or wives and had children, his family was expected to live together with his father’s in the same compound. The family would acquire a larger portion of land so that it could build a compound that accommodated all its members.
Gender roles were rigid. Men were the main breadwinners, supporting their families by farming, fishing, and hunting; they also contributed to public festivals, honored the ancestors, and defended their communities in times of war. By contrast, women were reared from childhood to carry out household tasks in preparation for their eventual roles as wives and mothers. The primary responsibilities of married women consisted of cooking, cleaning, raising children, and maintaining a well-run household. But women also contributed to the welfare of their community through their involvement in agriculture and trade. They participated in customary religious practices too, although their role in community rituals and sacrifices was usually much less significant than that played by men. In Efuru women participate more than usual in rituals because the novel features a lake goddess who was thought to select mostly women to be priestesses.
As a community, the Igbo supported themselves mainly by farming. Large-scale annual crops, such as yam and cassava, formed the dietary staples. Profitable cultivation of these crops required abundant land and many workers. Men and women planted on communal or family farms, with the “women’s crops”—cassava, cocoyam, maize, melon, okra—maturing before yam, which was designated as the “men’s crop.” The harvest cycles provided the farming family with sustenance throughout the year.
The Igbo supplemented their agriculture with trade. Farmers would travel to village markets to exchange their produce for other necessities—meat, palm wine, and palm kernels. Some Igbo, like the novel’s Efuru, traveled to rural areas to buy merchandise (perhaps yams or dried fish) wholesale, then sold the goods at their village markets for a profit. Village trading was first the domain of women in Igbo society; men became involved when European traders infiltrated the market. A few women grew wealthy trading. Some even won the right to buy property and take a title (a mark of distinction in Igbo society), although these privileges were granted only in exceptional cases. In the novel Efuru learns that her late mother was such a successful businesswoman that she took several titles before her death.
Oguta is one of the few places in Igboland where a woman’s personal merit and achievements can lead to her taking a title. But to be so honored, the achievement must be extraordinary and unprecedented because title taking is the preserve of men. A woman so honored can participate in community leadership. Flora Nwapa was honored by the Oguta community with a title and she explained the significance:
In Ugwuta (Oguta) women have certain rights that women elsewhere, in other parts of the country, do not have. For instance, in Ugwuta, a woman can break the kolanut [to share it—a custom signifying goodwill and respect] where men are. If she is old, or if she has achieved much or if she has paid the bride price for a male relation and the member of the family is there she can break the kolanut. And everybody would eat the kolanut. But in certain parts of Igboland a woman is not even shown a kolanut, not to talk about breaking it.
(Nwapa in Umeh, p. 668)
In traditional Igbo culture, marriage had important ramifications: it brought two extended families together in an alliance that expanded economic and social opportunities. Such marriages were not exclusively love matches, though affection between potential spouses was desirable. Often a man would marry outside his village group, forging a link for himself to another village in which he could visit and trade under the protection of his wife’s family. While getting married had business ramifications, having children remained the most important reason to form such a union. Children helped the family trade or farm, performed household duties, cared for elders, and carried on the name and customs of their father’s lineage.
Sometimes parents betrothed their children to each other or an older man picked a young girl and waited for her to reach marriageable age (about 16 years old). In other cases, families made arrangements for a man and a woman who were of the same marriageable age. A young man could also choose a prospective bride, then seek his parents’ consent to marry the girl. However the match was made, people regarded marriage as a serious matter in Igboland. Again, they considered it a union of two families rather than a private arrangement between two consenting individuals. The woman shared fully in the rights and privileges of the family, lived in the compound, and associated with everyone else there. So in the process of bringing a woman into the family through marriage, everyone was allowed a say, and the various views of the family—especially those of existing wives—were carefully taken into consideration. First and foremost, investigations were made by both families into the pedigree and ancestry of the prospective partner to ensure that he/she was socially acceptable. In some parts of Igboland a social class known as osu (outcast) exists, and it is taboo for a non-osu to marry an osu. Families also investigated the health of a mate’s lineage—to ensure that there was no history of insanity or other abnormal disease—the relationship between the family and its neighbors, and its material circumstances. A young woman’s family ensured that their prospective son-in-law had income enough to support a wife and children. A man’s family made sure that their prospective daughter-in-law had a good upbringing, had not been wayward, and had generally good morals and manners. They also tried to ensure that she would be able to bear children. If all seemed promising, the bridegroom’s family made a formal application by, for example, presenting a gift of palm wine to the bride’s family. Often several such gifts were made before the bride price (a type of dowry paid to the woman’s family) was agreed upon.
The next stage of courtship involved tests of character. The groom’s family invited the prospective bride to their house, observed her housekeeping and cooking, and judged her temperament. If she passed this test, the marriage proceeded.
To formally hand the bride over to the bridegroom, her father had her publicly identify her future husband and declare openly that she chose him. Next her father handed her a cup of palm wine, first taking a sip. She then went “in search” of her fiancé, who “hid” in the crowd until she “found” him and brought him to her father, in front of whom both kneeled for a show of allegiance to each other. The girl drank a little from the cup and handed it to her fiancé, who finished off the contents. The girl’s father then blessed the couple and the marriage was solemnized. The two became husband and wife, and a great feast followed.
Polygamy and divorce
At the time of the novel, polygyny—marriage to more than one wife—was standard among the Igbo. In fact, Igbo women tended to be proponents of it because their husband’s heightened prestige reflected on them. Polygyny signified status and prosperity—rich men tended to have more than one wife. The additional wives gave him more opportunities to father children (preferably male) that would continue his family line. The first woman he married enjoyed the status of headwife, taking precedence over subsequent wives who joined the household. The wives lived together in the same compound, helping one another care for their children, thereby lightening the domestic load and giving themselves more time to engage in trade.
Divorce, though uncommon and generally frowned upon, was an accepted practice in traditional Igbo society. Both the man and the woman had the right to initiate it, but, regardless of who instigated the separation, the woman would be the one to leave the compound and go back to her natal home. Her children, considered their father’s, remained with him, as did most of the family property, except for the possessions that the wife acquired by herself over the years. Items bought for her by her husband during the marriage might or might not be taken back, depending on the husband’s disposition or the nature of the offense leading to the divorce. If circumstances proved the wife had committed adultery, the husband was justified in taking them back. In other circumstances he was considered mean-spirited if he took back such gifts. It was assumed that her years in the marriage had earned her the gifts, especially if she had borne to her husband children whom she was leaving behind. After a woman returned to her natal home, the bride price was paid back to the man to finalize the divorce. If she intended to remarry right away, the new husband usually reimbursed the old one.
Traditional Igbo religious worship revolves around belief in a supreme god and a pantheon of lesser deities. The supreme god, Chukwu, is the creator of life, the elements, and all things comprising the human world and the spiritual world. Chukwu is not worshipped directly, but is thought to be the ultimate recipient of the worship given to minor deities. The people likewise share a common belief in Ala, goddess of the earth and of fertility. However, there are also local deities, such as nature gods, who vary depending on location, and these deities command a central role in the daily spiritual life of a particular community.
The goddess of Oguta Lake provides an example of such a local deity. To the Oguta people, the lake determined their farming cycles by the flooding and receding of its waters. Moreover, villagers relied on the lake for fishing, washing, and even social activities such as swimming and boating. In the novel Efuru worships the lake goddess—called Uhamiri, Uhammiri, or Ogbuide—who is the quintessence of feminine beauty and morality. In reality, as in fiction, the Oguta people’s concept of the lake goddess is that of a deity personified in a beautiful, ageless woman who is herself partial to women. Uhamiri is known for her beauty, her control of entry and exit between this world and the next, her role as the goddess of crossroads, and her ability to bestow or remove prosperity. There is a discrepancy between her image in real life and in the novel, however. Uhamiri is depicted in the novel as childless; she is even blamed by some of the villagers for aggravating the childless condition of her worshippers. Efuru is the sole offspring of her late mother, who also worshipped Uhamiri, and Efuru herself loses her only daughter, Ogonim, to a childhood illness. One can speculate that Nwapa eliminated the fertility goddess aspect of Uhamiri to heighten the parallels between the deity and her heroine, to demonstrate that being a wife and mother is not the only way for a woman to lead a rewarding life. Nwapa herself has explained this phenomenon in the novel, saying that at the time Efuru was written and when she was growing up, “nobody associated the Woman of the Lake with children” (Nwapa in Umeh, p. 640). So Nwapa was simply being faithful to social reality and perceptions of her time in her creative rendering.
THE MISSIONARY MOVEMENT
Although the main characters in Nwapa’s novel worship the indigenous Igbo gods, they are also aware of the spread of Christianity in their region. The Anglican Church Missionary Society settled in Igboland in 1857 at Onitsha—the Igbo heartland—and spread from there to areas like Oguta, which is not far from Onitsha. In time, rivalries among different missions and denominations increased their activity. Starting in Nigeria in the 1910s and 1920s, missionary movements of various denominations established churches, schools, and health facilities. Churches were built to enhance evangelism and retain new converts. Schools were establ ished to attract the young and promote literacy.
Christian schools disturbed Igbo community life because the schedules of students conflicted with those of their peers who stayed home. As both groups matured, the division between the schooled and unschooled widened. Those educated in mission schools secured government posts and teaching positions, while their uneducated contemporaries were left behind. Indeed, the material advantages provided by a formal education convinced parents to send their children to a Christian school, even if they did not agree with its teachings or bemoaned the loss of traditional influence in the lives of children. In the novel, Eneberi, Efuru’s second husband, attended a Christian school that gave him the baptismal name of Gilbert and tried to wean him from Igbo customs: “The Church regarded it as pagan to continue dancing with your age-group when you were in school. When your parents sent you to school, you automatically became a Christian” (Efuru, p. 103).
The novel begins after Efuru, the beautiful, rebellious daughter of one of Oguta’s most respected residents, meets Adizua, a young man of limited prospects, from a much less prominent family. After a whirlwind two-week courtship, the young couple elopes because Adizua cannot afford to pay the necessary bride price. The elopement causes a great scandal in the village but Efuru’s charm and determination to remain with her husband soon win over the elders and, eventually, Efuru’s own father, Nwashike Ogene.
During the early days of the marriage, Adizua works on a distant farm while Efuru establishes herself as a trader and businesswoman. Motherless since childhood, she also develops close relationships with her mother-in-law, Ossai, and Ossai’s outspoken sister, Ajanupu. Ossai even arranges for Efuru to undergo circumcision—euphemistically referred to as “her bath”—in hopes that it will help her daughter-in-law conceive a child. After only a month’s confinement, Efuru is eager to resume her work as a trader. Meanwhile, Adizua, bored by his job, leaves the farm and joins Efuru in selling yams and crayfish in their town. They earn enough money to pay off Efuru’s bride price, and their two families are reconciled at last.
A year passes without Efuru becoming pregnant, and she begins to fear that she is destined to be childless. Her sadness is compounded by malicious gossip among the other villagers. Efuru and her father consult a dibia (healer) who tells her to make special sacrifices to the ancestors every week. She follows his instructions and, to the joy of her family and the whole village, becomes pregnant within a year, giving birth to a baby girl, Ogonim. Thereafter, Adizua continues trading while Efuru takes care of Ogonim, but he lacks his wife’s business acumen. The couple hire Ogea, a young girl whose family has fallen on hard times, to look after Ogonim so Efuru can return to work. When Efuru and Adizua visit the dibia to thank him for his help, he divines trouble in the couple’s future and privately vows to counteract it. Unfortunately, he dies in his sleep before he can warn Efuru and Adizua of what lies in store for them.
Efuru resumes trading and enjoys great professional success, but her family life suffers. Adizua starts leaving home without explanation. One day Efuru hears gossip that he has gone to the village of Ndoni with another woman, who has a bad reputation as an adulteress. Worried, Efuru seeks guidance from her mother-in-law, who sadly informs her that Adizua takes after his father, a wanderer who left his family when Adizua was five years old. Ossai reveals that she remained true to her husband in his long absence until he came home many years later to die. Despite her sufferings, Ossai advises Efuru to follow her example and remain faithful to Adizua. Efuru counters that “to suffer for a truant husband, an irresponsible husband like Adizua, is to debase suffering. My own suffering will be noble” (Efuru, p. 73). On the advice of her father, she decides to wait a while longer for Adizua to come home before she makes any permanent decisions.
Soon after, Efuru’s daughter, Ogonim, falls seriously ill and dies. A messenger is sent to retrieve Adizua, but he fails to return and Ogonim’s burial takes place without him. After mourning her child, Efuru goes in search of Adizua to discuss their marriage. Unable to locate him, she informs Adizua’s family that she can no longer be his wife. Ossai and Ajanupu sadly accept her choice, remaining her friends. The rest of the community supports Efuru’s decision and commends her virtue.
With Ogea, Efuru returns to her childhood home. She cares for her father, running his household and continuing to flourish as a trader until she meets Eneberi, another childhood acquaintance who is now called Gilbert, a name he received from Christian missionaries who baptized and educated him. Efuru and Gilbert fall in love and marry, Gilbert punctiliously observing all the necessary marriage customs before the wedding. At first, the newlyweds are blissfully happy and all their business enterprises prosper, but their contentment is ultimately marred by Efuru’s failure to conceive, which, again, elicits considerable comment from malicious village gossips.
Around this time, Efuru consults a dibia about a recurring dream, during which she dives to the bottom of the lake and meets “an elegant woman” who escorts her to her underwater domain and showers her with riches (Efuru, p. 183). Efuru has discovered that every morning after she has the dream she sells all the goods she brings to the market. The dibia tells Efuru that she has been chosen to be a worshipper of Uhamiri, the goddess of the lake, who will protect and reward her with wealth and good fortune. He instructs Efuru to respect Uhamiri’s laws, observe Orie as her sacred day, and make periodic sacrifices to the goddess. On hearing of the dream, Efuru’s father informs her that her late mother was also a skilled businesswoman favored by Uhamiri. Awed and astonished, Efuru carries out the dibia’s instructions and continues to thrive as a trader. She remains barren, however, and begins to wonder if her devotion to the childless lake goddess has something to do with her infertility. Ultimately, she reasons that”[Uhamiri] cannot give me children, because she has not got children herself (Efuru, p. 208).
After four years of marriage, Gilbert grows discontented; hoping to restore his happiness, Efuru heeds the advice of his mother and suggests that he take a second wife who can bear him children. Gilbert agrees, and marries Nkoyeni Eneke, the younger sister of Gilbert’s friend, an army serviceman. Nkoyeni joins the household and becomes pregnant, but the marriage is not especially successful. The situation worsens after Gilbert reveals that he has an illegitimate son from a liaison with a girl in Ndoni. Although angered by Gilbert’s secrecy, Efuru rallies after the first shock; Nkoyeni, however, is outraged and refuses to let the illegitimate child stay with them. Like Adizua, Gilbert begins spending long periods away from home.
During one such absence, Efuru’s father dies and is mourned by the whole community. To Efuru’s rage and sorrow, Gilbert does not return for the funeral or for the birth of Nkoyeni’s son. The baby is two months old when Gilbert, looking haggard and unwell, finally returns, refusing to say where he has been. Ajanupu hears a rumor that Gilbert was in jail for three months for robbery and passes the information along to Efuru, who angrily confronts her husband. Gilbert confirms the rumor, but adds, “I went to jail, but I did not steal. I was foolish that’s all, and I paid for my foolishness” (Efuru, p. 267). Relieved that Gilbert is not a thief, Efuru stands by her husband, although other villagers, including Nkoyeni, are convinced he has done something shameful.
Hoping to alleviate the domestic strife caused by Nkoyeni’s accusations, Gilbert and Efuru choose Ogea to be his next wife. But before the marriage arrangements can be finalized, Efuru falls gravely ill. One famous dibia attributes her illness to her neglect of Uhamiri and instructs her family to perform an elaborate sacrifice of white hen’s eggs, palm oil, and unripened plantains to appease the goddess. Efuru still does not recover, however, and Omirima, the most vicious of the village gossips, spreads the rumor that Efuru’s illness is caused by her adultery. On hearing the rumor, Gilbert exhorts Efuru to confess to this sin, lest she die. Horrified by her husband’s words, Efuru sends for Ajanupu, who upbraids Gilbert for believing such gossip and reminds him of his own reprehensible behavior. Gilbert strikes Ajanupu, who retaliates by hitting him over the head with a pestle, inflicting an injury that sends him to the hospital.
Ajanupu takes Efuru to a doctor who cures her. After her recovery, Efuru assembles the members of her age group as witnesses and proclaims herself innocent of adultery before the shrine of the goddess Utuosu. Exonerated, she returns home, packs her belongings, and leaves Gilbert, a decision that shocks the community. That night Efuru, finally at peace, dreams again of the woman in the lake. The novel concludes with a probing question about the goddess Uhamiri: she “gave women beauty and wealth but she had no child. She had never experienced the joy of motherhood. Why, then, did the women worship her?” (Efuru, p. 281).
The community of women
Ironically, Efuru is today commended for the very thing for which it was reviled upon publication: its painstaking depiction of women’s lives in a traditional Igbo village. Some critics could not easily adjust to Nwapa’s departure from the female image that was dominant in novels written by men and set at the same time as Efuru. In contrast to the image of womanhood depicted in these novels—as weak, inconsistent, promiscuous, and parasitically dependent on male partners—the female protagonist in Nwapa’s novel is economically independent, resilient, adventurous, and materially successful. Critics of the time found these characteristics unconvincing largely, it seems, because they did not take into account the environment in which the novel is set. They appear to have known little of the rich tradition of Oguta, “where women paddle canoes up, down and across Ugwuta Lake transporting passengers and their wares for a nominal fee, where women are leaders in trade and commerce, where a democratic sex-gender system recognizes talent, regardless of one’s sex, where confidence and perfection is nurtured in both females and males” (Umeh, p. 664).
Literary critic Florence Stratton contends that Efuru is not a tragedy, as some have argued, but “a novel of successful development, of a woman’s successful development—a female bildungsroman” (Stratton, p. 86). Efuru’s maturation is sometimes helped, sometimes impeded, by other women in her community. Having lost her mother as a child, she comes to value, even rely upon, the advice of her mother-in-law, Ossai, and Ossai’s sister, Ajanupu. The two women provide the young bride with contrasting examples of how to cope with life’s disappointments—passive, long-suffering Ossai recommends patience after Efuru is abandoned by her first husband, while active, strong-willed Ajanupu understands and even predicts Efuru’s decision to end the marriage.
A less direct but no less pervasive influence on Efuru’s life is the atmosphere of gossip and innuendo that surrounds her every action. Nearly all the criticism directed at Efuru originates from other women in the village who seem to envy or, at the very least, disapprove of the way she challenges their most deeply ingrained beliefs. Incredulous upon learning that Efuru plans to hire a maid for her infant daughter so she herself may return to trading, a friend declares, “What is money? Can a bag of money go on an errand for you? Can a bag of money look after you in your old age? … A child is more valuable than money. So our fathers said” (Efuru, p. 40). Omirima, the most venomous of the gossips, visits Efuru’s second mother-in-law to stir up trouble about Efuru’s infertility. For a time, Efuru herself equates her worth as a woman with her ability to conceive a child; she feels validated after giving birth to Ogonim: “I am a woman after all” (Efuru, p. 32). She laments Ogonim’s death just as sweepingly: “My only child has killed me” (Efuru, p. 89).
Ultimately Efuru finds her true calling not as a wife and mother, but as a worshipper of the lake goddess, Uhamiri, who bestows beauty and prosperity on those she favors. Efuru continues to thrive as a worshipper of Uhamiri, becoming ever more beautiful and prosperous. She also attains a wisdom that allows her to accept with serenity the conclusion that Uhamiri, childless herself, cannot give children to her worshippers. In other words, she crosses the line between male and female and gains self-awareness in the process.
After her second marriage, like her first, fails because of her husband’s infidelity and untrustworthiness, it is Efuru’s worship of Uhamiri that gives purpose to her life. Once she leaves Gilbert and moves back to her late father’s house, Efuru is “quite literally a free and independent woman,” no longer subject to the demands of masculine authority (Stratton, p. 98). Her dream of Uhamiri, which ends the novel, seems to presage a future of wealth, beauty, and even happiness for a woman who, through her own efforts, has at last carved out a niche for herself in the community.
Efuru’s metamorphosis takes place during a crucial point in Nigerian history. As Stratton observes, “Ugwuta has not as yet felt the full impact of colonial occupation, but it is on the verge of rapid social and cultural transformation” (Stratton, p. 87). Initially the novel depicts a community in which “a childless woman is regarded as a sort of monstrosity … [who] has failed to fulfill her function in life,” but later it acknowledges the possibility that single women can achieve professional success through its portrayal of Efuru and, to a lesser extent, of Nkoyeni, the schoolgirl who marries Gilbert (Basden, p. 213). When Gilbert complains that educating a girl destined only for marriage is a waste of money, Nkoyeni’s brother lays the blame on “us men” who “should allow [girls] to finish their schooling,” adding, “It does not always end in the kitchen, when the girl is allowed to finish, she can teach and thus bring in money that way” (Efuru, pp. 242-43). Through such deceptively casual remarks, the novel anticipates a future in which women’s lives extend far beyond the kitchen and the nursery.
Sources and literary context
Igbo culture harbors a strong oral tradition of songs, folktales, proverbs, riddles, legends, and myths. Such oral traditions introduced Nwapa to the craft of storytelling during her childhood in Ugwuta and found their way into Efuru. At one point in the novel, for example, a traveling storyteller tells the village children the tale of a beautiful young girl who disobeys her mother’s orders to stay inside the house and, as a result, is married to a malignant spirit. The girl has four sisters named for the days of the week—Eke, Orie, Afo, and Nkwo—but only Nkwo helps the girl escape her husband. This story combines a lesson in morality (obey your elders) with a lesson about kinship (help your sisters and brothers).
Efuru occupies a special place in Nigerian literature as the first novel to be written by a Nigerian woman. Published in 1966 it was also among the first novels to be written by Nigerians after independence. Chinua Achebe (who was instrumental in the publication of Efuru) originated a literary tradition in Nigeria with his 1958 classic, Things Fall Apart (also covered in African Literature and Its Times). Combining the traditional with the modern, he incorporated proverbs and other aspects of folklore into fiction, expanding the frontiers of the English-language novel to accommodate African culture. Along with male novelists such as Amos Tutuola, Cyprian Ekwensi, Wole Soyinka, and John Munonye, Flora Nwapa followed with fiction that developed this tradition. The pioneer of Nigerian female writers, Nwapa introduced a subjective female point of view and became the first to deal with issues of importance to Nigerian women, the traditional roles—wifehood and motherhood—into which they have been socialized, and the difficulties that arise from being restricted to these roles. Nwapa’s detailed presentation of women’s lives provided a dramatic contrast to the male-centered literary perspective of her contemporary Elechi Amadi whose novel, The Concubine (also covered in African Litera-
WOMEN AND LEADERSHIP
Even colonialists would learn that Igbo women could be a force with which they had to reckon. Before colonialism, Igbo women played an official role in community government. A woman chieftain (called an omu) was appointed to look after women’s affairs and issues concerning the marketplace. The omu’s influence on public life included the power to publicly punish a transgressor, much to the dismay of British authorities, who consolidated power into their own system of native leaders/agents, or warrant chiefs. When the colonialists revamped village government, the omu no longer had an official say in village proceedings. However, women still managed to exert influence by organizing groups to manage the women’s affairs in their villages. Two such organizations were the Association of Daughters and the Association of Wives. Daughters had great influence in their natal homes; their opinions were valued there even after they married and moved to other compounds. The Association of Daughters disciplined erring wives and administered punishments. Although less powerful, the Association of Wives nonetheless became a forum in which women voiced their opinions. According to scholar Theodora Akachi Ezeigbo, such organizations made it possible for women across Igboland to unite during the 1929 Women’s War (Ezeigbo in Umeh, pp. 655-60). This conflict took place in response to rumors that the British government planned to tax women as well as men in Igboland, even women who had no source of income because they stayed at home to tend the family. Armed with sticks, machetes, and bamboo rods, outraged women chanted war songs and rioted. At the community of Oloko, they staged a mass protest and obtained a written guarantee from the authorities that they would not be taxed. News of the triumph spread, sparking protest by women throughout the region over the women’s tax and other injustices. In some areas, the outraged women burned government courts and drove off and/or looted native functionaries of the colonial power structure.
ture and Its Times), was also published in 1966. Although Efuru and The Concubine both feature beautiful women who are mysteriously linked to water deities, Amadi’s novel depicts a conventional woman passively accepting her community’s rules; Nwapa’s, an unconventional woman who successfully challenges those rules.
The end of colonialism
While the colonial government is not an overwhelming presence in Efuru, its laws remain a source of irritation and inconvenience to the residents of Ugwuta. Disgruntled farm workers complain, “These white people have imposed so much strain on our people. The least thing you do nowadays you are put into prison” (Efuru, p. 7). Between the period in which the novel was set and that in which it was written, the nationalist movement grew, heralding the end of the colonial era. Although Nigerians had advocated self-government since the 1920s, the nationalists gained momentum in World War II (1939-45). Ethnic boundaries between British troops and Nigerian soldiers—such as Gilbert’s friend Sunday Eneke in the novel—became less relevant than their shared military experience. Wartime ideals and the Nigerians’ contribution led the British government to rethink and reevaluate Nigeria’s political future. (Three battalions of the Nigerian Regiment fought for the Allies in the Ethiopian campaign, and Nigerian units served alongside British forces in Palestine, Morocco, Sicily, and Burma.)
In 1946 a new constitution was drawn up that gave more power to the regions of Nigeria while maintaining British power in central government. Later versions of the constitution (in 1951 and 1954) strengthened regional powers against those of the British government. At the beginning of the decade in which Efuru was written, on October 1, 1960, Nigeria was granted independence by an act of the British Parliament. The territory became a federation of three self-governing states (Western, Eastern, and Northern), and it declared itself a republic three years later.
Western education was implemented in Nigeria gradually but steadily throughout the colonial period. By 1950, Nigeria had adopted a three-tiered system of education—primary, secondary, and post-secondary, with the widest participation coming from a base of students at the primary level. During the late 1950s Nigeria’s remarkable educational growth led to a movement for universal primary education in the Western region. From 1947 to 1957 primary-school enrollments increased dramatically: from 66,000 to 206,000 in the North; 240,000 to 983,000 in the West; and 320,000 to 1,209,000 in the East. Meanwhile, secondary-level enrollments increased throughout the country, from 10,000 to 36,000 (Metz, p. 142).
The rising number of females in education reflects to some degree an increase in the number of women who, like Efuru, looked to avenues outside, or along with, family life for fulfillment. From 1960 to 1972 the number of female students more than doubled. Whereas in 1960 only 24 percent of girls attended school, two decades later the proportion climbed to 64 percent (Davidson, p. 190). Women had actually begun their gradual ascent in the professional world much earlier. In 1934 Nigeria called to the bar its first black woman lawyer. Longstanding efforts followed by groups like the Lagos Women’s League, which before World War II had pressured the government for improvements in women’s health and education. The number of women who would become political leaders was to remain scant over the next few decades, but by the time of the novel’s writing, West Africa was producing a growing number of female judges, doctors, ambassadors, and businesswomen.
Initial responses to Efuru were generally negative. Many critics thought that Nwapa was merely imitating Chinua Achebe’s style of realism and were disappointed that the novel concentrated on women. Efuru suffered, too, from comparisons to Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine, published the same year. A review in the Times Literary Supplement praised both Amadi’s and Nwapa’s novels as works of “considerable quality and promise,” but Eldred Jones and Eustace Palmer—two well-known African critics—declared that the advantages were all on Amadi’s side (Times Literary Supplement, p. 281). Other critics faulted Nwapa for elements of her style that are now thought to distinguish her, criticizing her for stating too much and dramatizing too little.
Many years later critics and academics began to recognize the merit in a writing style that embodied culture and tradition without over-dramatization. Nwapa’s writing has since undergone a renaissance and reevaluation. “Today,” observes one scholar, “Efuru is seen as an early classic of African literature, since it explores a world close to its precolonial roots and women’s important roles in that world” (Wilentz, p. 180). Others have called Ejuru a literary milestone: “[W]ith the stroke of her pen, Nwapa initiated the development of African women’s literature with independent-minded, savvy and successful female characters…. Flora Nwapa will go down in history as an illustrious woman who achieved extraordinary feats” (Umeh, p. 48).
—Pamela S. Loy and Ernest N. Emenyonu
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Emenyonu, Ernest N. “Portrait of Flora Nwapa as a Dramatist.” In Emerging Perspectives on Flora Nwapa. Ed. Marie Umeh. New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1998.
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Metz, Helen Chapin, ed. Nigeria: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, 1992.
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Review of The Concubine, by Elechi Amadi. Times Literary Supplement, 7 April 1966, p. 281.
Stratton, Florence. Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender. London: Routledge, 1994.
Umeh, Marie, ed. Emerging Perspectives on Flora Nwapa. New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1998.
Wilentz, Gay. “Flora Nwapa.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 125. Eds. Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.