The First Class Citizen (Buchi Emecheta 1944-2017)

The First Class Citizen (Buchi Emecheta 1944-2017)

Thursday, February 16, 2017 6:56 am

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi

By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi

On 25th January 2017, a vibrant citizen of the world and a great daughter of Africa, Florence Onyebuchi Emecheta, was called home at the age of 73. Born into a humble Igbo family on 21st July 1944 in Lagos, she grew up knowing that she was expected to go through life as a ‘Second Class Citizen’, which was the title of one of the over twenty books she would write in her lifetime.

Her parents preferred to educate her brother because he was male, fortunately, she was able to make a case for her education and she was reluctantly sent to primary school and won a scholarship to attend the prestigious Methodist Girls High School in Lagos. Both her parents died when she was young, so she was shuffled from one relative to another, living a very difficult life as a child.

When she left school at sixteen she married Sylvester Onwordi to whom she had been engaged since she was 11. She had her first child at 17 and by the time she was 22, she had given birth to five children. Her husband Sylvester left for further education in London, and she gave up a good job with the American Embassy in Lagos to follow him with their two children. The marriage between the two broke down due to abuse and irreconcilable differences. As a result, Buchi found herself on the margins of British society, a single young woman from Africa with five children to care for.


Apart from the unconditional love for her children, Buchi’s sole comfort lay in her love for writing, and her passion for this seemingly unusual interest for a black woman waxed strong, regardless of her personal circumstances. Even though she was unhappy in her marriage, she was prepared to do whatever she could to keep it going for the sake of her children.

When her husband, out of sheer spite, burnt her first completed manuscript The Bride Price, that was the last straw for her. She left him, taking all the children with her. The deprivations of her childhood and the abuse she suffered in her marriage, together with the years of near destitution struggling in London with so many children to care for alone, became the backdrop for the many stories she wrote. Her books In the Ditch (1972), Second Class Citizen(1974), The Bride Price (1976), The Slave Girl (1977), The Joys of Motherhood (1979) and many others, covered themes such as the marginalisation of women and girls, patriarchal oppression, racism, poverty, social exclusion, and all the real-life experiences she shared through the fictional characters in the books. She also wrote an autobiography Head above water in 1984.

Buchi Emecheta’s strong desire to equip herself with the tools she needed to survive the harsh life of a black immigrant in Britain was expressed through her near impossible feat of studying for a degree in Sociology at the University of London while holding down a part-time job and caring for her children singe-handedly. In her autobiography, Head above Water’ she provides a fuller context to her life than the cautious offerings of her experiences through the semi-fictitious character in her earlier books, In the Ditch and Second Class Citizen, in which she talks about some of her harrowing experiences through the character she called Adah.

Buchi’s ability to adapt, focus, strategise and plan with military precision is what eventually lifted her out of ‘the ditch’ she had found herself in. She also had the unnerving ability to speak up for herself and not suffer fools gladly. In the London of those days, that was a very tricky thing to do, but it was also something that stood her in good stead as she worked for every single thing she had – nothing was handed to her on a platter. People of all generations, young persons in particular, would do well to internalise these lessons.
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Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of, an online community for women. She can be reached at [email protected]

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