I read this fascinating novel for the Africa Reading Challenge hosted by Kinna Reads: Elechi Amadi is a notable Nigerian author who writes in English. The Concubine (1966) is one of his five novels, the others being The Great Ponds, The Slave, Isiburu and Estrangement.
According to Wikpedia, ‘Amadi’s novels are generally about African village life, customs, beliefs and religious practices, as they were before contact with the Western world’ and this is certainly true of The Concubine. There is no mention of any western influences or events, and the novel has a timeless quality. The rhythms of village life seem eternal, and the routines immutable. Characters have speech patterns that reflect (presumably) old ways of thinking and talking, and they use greetings that seem charming, such as the call and response used when parting at evening: ‘May the day break/May it break’.
Before long the reader is captivated by this tale of doomed love.
A beautiful young woman, Ihuoma, is suddenly widowed by the accidental death of her husband, and though his death is attributed by the villagers to a fight he had with a rival, Amadi hints that some supernatural force is at work. This doesn’t deter Ekwueme, who falls passionately in love with Ihuoma, though until now he’s been in no hurry to marry. But fate steps in: he’s been betrothed since childhood to Ahurole, and such are the traditions of his village that it will cause a major scandal if he doesn’t go through with it.
It’s a patriarchal society, and despite some attempt to thwart his fate, Ekwueme has to obey his father and marry the girl. There are elaborate preparations which take a very long time (especially when you consider how long they’ve already been betrothed!) The details of the pre-nuptial ceremonies are carefully crafted by the author to show how this marriage is a village affair, not a matter between two individuals:
The two old men joined the others and conversation flowed on again. Presently Wonuma brought in a calabash of carefully pounded yam. Her daughter Ahurole brought in another. She gave a general greeting and walked out quickly. Ahurole was pretty. There was no doubt there. As for her slimness, that would be an old story after her first child. Her waist was heavily bedecked with large beads and a beautiful new wrapper just failed to cover her knees. She also had beads at the knees and around her neck. Her little bare body showed disappearing marks of indigo which her mother had put on her some eight days before. Her breasts stood firm and defiant. The ojongo hairstyle became her well. When she went out, the men avoided looking at each other. No one wanted to betray his admiration. There was silence for a time. (p119)
But the marriage is a disaster. Ahurole doesn’t match up to Ekwueme’s preference for the maternal type, and she’s weepy and wilful. She sulks and she nags, with the inevitable result in a society where males may ‘chastise’ women who ‘deserve it’. When jealousy of Ihuoma rears its ugly head, Ahurole seeks a love potion to bring Ekwueme back, but the results are not what she expected. A medicine-man (dibia) is like anybody else in business, and they’re not all reputable or trustworthy.
But still, they wield enormous power. It is Ihuoma’s fate that the divinations of the local dibia Anyika reveal her to be the sea-god’s concubine, and he is a jealous god who will intervene if any other man tries to have her…
What made this book so interesting for me was the way it challenged my western feminist view of gender relations. The Concubine is almost biblical in the way it portrays women, who are either eerily deferential to their men as Adaku, Ekwueme’s mother is, or tiresome harridans as Ahurole is. Ihuoma becomes a prisoner of the gracious, ‘well-behaved’ persona she has created for herself in her widowhood, and Wigwe, Ekwueme’s father is grave, dignified, and always lord in his own home, even though he doesn’t always know best. But male dignity is undercut by the representation of the young men of the village, who often seem to act more like adolescents than men in their thirties. This is especially true of Ekwueme who defers leaving the parental home as long as possible, makes no secret of the fact that he prefers his mother’s cooking, squabbles with Ahurole over trivia and sulks in his room by himself rather than try to patch up his marriage.
Having finished the book, I am still not sure if Amadi is satirising this state of affairs and the spiritual beliefs of the villagers, or indulging in nostalgia for the traditional pre-colonial lifestyle. I wonder what contemporary young Nigerian women think of it!
Author: Elechi Amadi
Title: The Concubine
Publisher: Heinemann African Writers Series, 2008 (first published 1966)
Source: Personal library