A Good Girl in Africa

D.A.N. Jones

  • Double Yoke by Buchi Emecheta
    Dgwugwu Afor, 163 pp, £3.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 9508177 0 8
  • The Aerodrome by Rex Warner
    Bodley Head, 304 pp, £6.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 370 30926 X
  • A Very British Coup by Chris Mullin
    Hodder, 220 pp, £6.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 340 28586 9
  • An Ice Cream War by William Boyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 370 pp, £7.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 241 10868 3
  • Tempting Fate by Michael Levey
    Hamish Hamilton, 220 pp, £7.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 241 10801 2

Buchi Emecheta’s novel is dedicated to her 1981 students at the University of Calabar. Double Yoke is a tale of student life at that university and evidently the teacher has learned a great deal from her pupils, pulling out passages from their essays and exercises to make her own point about their lives and ideas. This is not an English-style comedy of university life, like Chukwuemeka Ike’s Toads for Supper: it belongs to another genre of Nigerian fiction – the self-confidently didactic style of S. L. Aluko, the engineer who wrote One Man, One Wife and One Man, One Matchet, informing the outside world about Nigeria and telling Nigerians how to behave: two burdens, perhaps, a double yoke.

Like Aluko (or Henry Fielding), Miss Emecheta is happy to halt her pacey narrative and tell the reader bluntly what she thinks of her characters and life in general. This technique, the sermon in parenthesis, is acceptable in skilful story-tellers, like Miss Emecheta. Storytelling is a traditional Nigerian accomplishment, so that one wonders whether the students of Calabar really need a modern course in Creative Writing.

Double Yoke firmly suggests that they do. It begins with a Calabar teacher instructing pupils to write ‘an imaginary story of how you would like your ideal Nigeria to be’. This teacher, Miss Bulewao, is a Nigerian writer normally resident in England, ‘better known abroad than in her own country’ – like the author herself. Only male students come to her classes, since the girls are too shy. The boys are surprised that she seems ‘more like any mum, any farmer’s wife’, than a writer.

One of the boys, Ete Kamba, plans a story about the punishment of a wicked professor who seduced Ete’s girlfriend by promising extra tuition and a good degree. This interesting, violent tale takes up most of the novel (told in the third person, mostly from Ete’s point of view, with Miss Emecheta’s authorial comments). Finally, the teacher’s voice is heard again, praising her pupils for writing so autobiographically. When she gets Ete on his own, she rebukes him for the lifestyle he has revealed to her and urges him to sort his ideas out, so that he becomes ‘a modern African man’. She says that his girlfriend, Nko, is ‘a modern African lady, but you are still lagging – oh, so far, far behind!’ Miss Bulewao’s next lesson begins: ‘Today we shall explore the possibility of working on biographical details, to make them look fictitious. Ete Kamba, you have to start ...’

But Ete is not there. His girlfriend, distraught over her father’s death, has gone to her family home, with Ete in attendance. Miss Bulewao draws a moral lesson from this (with her familiar feminist sting in the tail) about the ‘double yoke’ of tradition and modernity – here seen as community-versus-individualism. Many other aspects of ‘tradition-versus-modernity’ are discussed in the novel, and one of them is now expressed by Ete’s friend, Akpan, who says dreamily: ‘Give me a 14-year-old village girl with uncomplicated background any time.’ The fictional Miss Bulewao mocks him for this – and the real Miss Emecheta joins her. The last sentence of the book is: ‘Poor Akpans of this world!’

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