In The Slave Girl (published in 1980 by George Braziller), Buchi Emechata tells an award winning story that centers around Ogbanje Ojebeta, a girl sold off by her very own blood into slavery to the house of Ma Palagada and husband.
Ojebeta’s birth was very unique in that all other girls had by her mother died immediately after birth. She was believed to be an Ogbanje–a child that comes and goes. After her birth, her mother waited for her to die but was surprised when after a while the child refused to die. She then decided to nurse the baby. Everyone loved Ojebeta, including her mother and two brothers, and even her father who went miles to get tin amulets to guard the child’s life as advised by the oraclist.
Six years after her birth, her parents died and the family’s prospects worsened as a result. Enuhu, one of the brothers ran away and Okolie, her other brother decided to sell her off to their rich relative as a slave.
The book follows Ojebeta’s life with the Palagadas. The woman of the house is a very strong woman with a keen business sense. Also, she is hardworking and good natured and has amassed a lot of wealth. By convention, however, all her wealth belongs to her lazy husband. The slave girls in the Palagada household are slightly more fortunate than the slave girls of other homes since their Ma is a very nice woman. The eldest of them, Chiago, however, is secretly being forced by the master to have sexual relations with him. She consents though sadly. `What choice do I have’ she thinks to herself.
The Ma’s only son – Clifford comes back from the city and finds that he is attracted to Ojebeta. He tells her, rather too stiffly without asking for her opinion and she accepts to wait till he is ready to propose formally. Meanwhile, Chiago becomes pregnant and is sent away to give birth. After a while Ma becomes very sick and her two daughters come to take care of her. Ojebeta goes through hell as Victoria, one of the daughters is very demanding. Ma Palagada gets well but with time she becomes sick again and this time, she does not survive. After her death, Ojebeta decides to return to her homeland. She is granted freedom by Pa Palagada and bid journey mercies by the slave girls including Chiago who has now assumed the new role of the Ma of the house.
Back home, Ojebeta is warmly received by her people and she basks in the sweetness of being free and doing what her other village age mates do. She is even some distance ahead of them as she is firmly secured in her trade with some money she had stashed away during her stay with the Palagadas and she has even learnt how to read. She later agrees to marry Jacob, an educated, hardworking man who fully pays her slavery money to Clifford and sets her totally free.
The Slave Girl is far more than a feminist’s ramblings. It is a book about the mistreatment of women and that intensely talks about their condition as they try to meld the present and the past together in their effort to find a position which is much more than the kitchen and babies. It tells of women who want to be more but have to settle for what tradition and the society itself dictates. It is one of the very best pre colonial African books and is heartily recommended. It won the Jock Campbell New Statesman Award.