By Ilerioluwa Olatunde
“You better learn how to drive before you get married.” These words resounded with shock in my ears as I wondered how my conversation with an older man diverted to this. Ever since I graduated, the next expectation almost everyone has had for me is marriage, and everything seems tied to this phase of life. Even within the four walls of my house, I must perform roles in preparation for marriage. I constantly hear, “You need to learn how to cook. No man will help you in the kitchen.”
I keep wondering why everything I do or not do must be related to this marital status. As a young woman with aspirations, I wonder why no one has ever spoken about my ambition. Why I haven’t heard, “You need to learn how to cook in preparation for living independently or when you leave this country and you’re far from home.” Why can't I have a conversation with an older person without the mention of marriage?
What broke the camel’s back for me was the follow-up comment, “You are getting old.” Seriously, I am in my early 20s, and that is “old.”
This is one of many unfair societal expectations women have faced in the past, and books like Ogadinma remind us that there is a long way to go.
Set in the 1980s in Nigeria, Ogadinma tells the story of a 17-year-old journey to freedom, battling everything the patriarchal society in that era threw her way. Throughout the book, the author paints a vivid picture of the different shades of patriarchy. Right from the first scene, we see the protagonist, Ogadinma, under the heel of someone ready to take advantage and an unjust circumstance. Ogadinma, in need of admission, went to Barrister Chima in the hopes that with his status and influence, he would be of great assistance. But, unknown to her, this will lead to a sequence of events characterised by manipulation, abuse, exploitation, and betrayal. Smitten by her desire for admission, the barrister took advantage of her desperation and coerced her into having sex with him.
Ogadinma’s misfortune with Barrister Chima was the beginning of an emotional roller-coaster I experienced as a reader. This scene triggered a series of emotions, anger, clenched fist, and anguish. However, Ogadinma wasn’t oblivious to the lawyer’s intention. She didn't explicitly refuse his advances; instead, she stumbles to his repeated sexual demands because she believed he could secure her a spot at the university.
“There was a moment when a scream came to her throat, but she clamped her lips shut. She would be going to the university. She would get into the best university. She would study Literature, and all of this would no longer matter. She spoke those words to herself, even when her body stretched, and a sharp pain travelled swiftly to her waist.”
I was angry that he took advantage of her naivety and vulnerability. I was more furious that she laid there and willed her body to the lawyer’s sexual wants. As humans, we are prone to letting our anger drive us to the path of judgement and criticism. But when you think deeply, you realise anyone could have fallen victim. You realise that we are all vulnerable in our times of need, and it only takes special grace not to stumble.
Despite stumbling to the lawyer's needs, the admission didn’t come through. Then, Ogadinma finds out she is pregnant. Out of fear of the stigma associated with having a child out of wedlock and its threat to her education, she aborts the pregnancy. When her father, a single parent, discovers what she had done, he sends her away to Lagos as punishment and to bury the shame of the situation.
What struck me the most was how the author effortlessly portrayed our society’s response to such situations. When young girls are raped and violated, they are made to believe it's their shame to carry, not the rapist. Women are made to stumble through disgrace despite being victims and silenced while the perpetrator walks free.
While Lagos offers Ogadinma a fresh start and love, we learn all that glitters are not gold. She falls in love with Tobe, her uncle's wife's brother, and after a brief, undefined relationship, he proposes marriage to her. The weeks leading up to the wedding reveal Tobe's controlling tendencies. He was always dominating her decision and choice, to the extent that he didn't let her select her wedding dress. Of course, it didn't help that Ogadinma and Tobe were eighteen years apart.
The advice Ogadinma got from her aunty was, “Be a virtuous wife, and you will enjoy him well-well.” Yet, another narrative is that she must do his biddings if she wants to enjoy her marriage. The institution of marriage is still regarded positively by both men and women in Nigeria. However, women are unfairly expected to maintain the marriage. The author left no stone unturned in portraying this societal expectation through the story of Ogadinma.
When a military operation led to her husband being sent to prison, Ogadinma was oblivious to the trauma this event would spring up.
“She had never imagined that they would lose everything, that Tobe would come out of prison with nothing to go home to, and this filled her with horror. She had grown up with little and could cope with any circumstance she found herself in. But Tobe, without his wealth, was an image she had never thought to visualize. She didn’t know that Tobe. And now this idea of him terrified her.”
The experience changed him, and her fears became real: “He left home early and returned late. He spoke little at home and lingered in the bedroom, and when she forced a conversation or told a joke, he did not laugh too loud, did not argue too eagerly, and he no longer sang his favourite song when they came on the radio.”
The abuse progressed from verbal to physical assault, and Ogadinma left for her father’s house as she wasn’t sure she could endure the new Tobe. Her father's response to this situation represents society’s perspective in defining a woman’s worth. To many, a woman’s value depends on keeping a man and bearing his name. Anything contrary is often met with contentions, and women who are brave enough to break free are criticised. Hence, expecting Ogadinma’s father to protect her is to build castles in the air: “You think you have endured what others haven’t? He asks upon her return to Kano. ‘You must forgive him. Do you understand me?”
Her father sends her back to her husband’s house, comparing her attitude to her mother’s. Ogadinma's mother's problem is that she didn't fit into what Nigerians call "wife material," a woman who suppresses her aspirations and identity to satisfy her husband. "You know what your mother’s problem was? She was too ambitious. She wanted to do everything in the world as though she was a man, reducing my son to the wife, and it didn't work." In a world like hers, it's as though we can't have both a career and a family.
In Nigeria, it’s the woman’s job to build the home and make it a haven. Hence, the woman is often blamed for whatever happens in the home. Upon returning home, her aunty questioned Ogadinma’s attitude mercilessly, without once questioning the man who had the guts to raise his hands on a woman. Repeatedly, we are reminded of how women are blamed for the man's bad decisions, choices, and troubles and how women are expected to behave and act as if nothing happened. As Ogadinma’s aunt puts it, “Don’t be angry when he takes out the frustration on you; that’s the burden we women have to bear.” This belief that women act as catalysts for such fury indicates how abuse is seen as an inevitable part of married life.
Tobe finds every opportunity to blame his self-inflicted misfortunes on Ogadinma, which leads to another molestation by a religious icon in the name of deliverance. Ogadinma said, “As a child in Kano, I heard about preachers who blamed women for the misfortune that befell their men, how they put women through series of rigorous cleansing ceremonies.” While it's not Tobe but an innocent victim that winds up at the receiving end of this emotional and physical exploitation, this reality is not far from home.
In this intriguing novel, Ukamaka Olisakwe helps us see the notion that a woman’s self-worth is dependent on being someone’s wife. So, it’s little wonder, Ogadinma’s father sent her back to her husband despite the abuse. Also, to many people, it doesn’t matter the woman’s accomplishments. If there is no man, she is incomplete.
Ogadinma’s boss insisted on her marital status because it earned her the respect she didn't receive as a single woman despite her accomplishments. “She recently married one small boy like that and now insists everyone must add “madam” to her name as a sign of respect. You know, as a married woman…. I don’t blame her, people disrespected her because she was unmarried, even though she is the most successful hairdresser in Lagos. So, she got herself a small boy, married him and took his name, and now wants everyone to call her ‘madam.’”
Ogadinma is a powerful and evocative novel, making it compulsive and arduous. Compulsive that I didn’t want to put it down, and yet at the same time, I couldn’t bear to carry on reading as it unsettled me and triggered a turbulence of emotions. It felt like I was ripped into the protagonist’s struggles and could feel her emotions. Notwithstanding, Ogadinma is exceptionally crafted so that it provokes thoughts that linger long after you close the book.
The novel reminded me of His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie, where we experienced all the headlong emotional soaring and plummeting through the quest for identity and independence of a young woman and the rules she might have to break in the process. While Ogadinma ended on a cliff-hanger, His Only Wife ends by breaking a notion that Ogadinma lacks; the idea that a woman’s success depends on a man.
I appreciate Ukamaka Olisakwe’s detailed attention to political events and the mention of African literary classics. She reminded me of Colours of Hatred by Obinna Udenwe, as it is another historical and military-characterized learning curve. In addition, I love that the author portrayed Ogadinma in such a way that makes the reader aware of her naivety. Finally, the exploration of friendship is also worthy of mention.
Readers are compelled to empathise with Ogadinma in this powerful prose as the author blends a descriptive writing prowess with an emotional story to make a compelling case. Ogadinma, which means “everything will be alright,” will seem contradictory as the protagonist stinks deeper into turbulent water. Regardless, Ogadinma is a steady narrative that shuns parody to keep you engaged while hoping the protagonist snaps out of her naivety and the bondage of societal expectation and the culprits are punished. While the latter is a reality we never got, the former eventually came into being. When another abuse landed her in the hospital, Ogadinma must decide if that will be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Described as a 'feminist classic in the making,' Ukamaka does not spare any effort to expose the systemic oppression of women and the culture of sexism in Nigeria. Overall, the author presents a compelling flak of historical and cultural practices that persist today, practices that are far too relevant to be ignored.
Book Reviewer’s Biography
Olatunde Ilerioluwa is a creative writer and public speaker interested in fiction, creative nonfiction, and performance poetry. Her love for books has also influenced her book reviewing. She writes to take her readers on a journey of insight, knowledge, and excitement. Her work focuses on book reviews, lifestyle, and the human condition. She draws inspiration from the books she reads, societal issues, personal life, interaction with others, and her relationship with God.
When she is not writing and journaling, she reads, listens to music, has fun in her head, or does research. A Karen Kingsbury book is all she needs after a stressful day. She hopes to write more and publish books.