A Life Still to Live: Kehinde’s Path to Independence

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Kehinde, in Buchi Emechete’s novel of the same name, is a representation of the author herself. Throughout the chapters of the novel the reader witnesses Kehinde transform from a deeply traditional life, to one who realizes the value of breaking away from custom when discovering she can be better served. Christopher Smith wrote of Emechete, “[s]he always feels for the oppressed and presents their plight in a way that engages the reader’s sympathy... she has looked at the ways of the west through the skeptical, appraising eyes of a trained sociologist” (296) and in this case, does just that through her character Kehinde. From the beginning of chapter nineteen where Kehinde is depicted as a timid, reserved woman who struggles not only to find her own way through life but to support her family in Nigeria as well, to the end of chapter twenty-one where Kehinde has firmly identified who she is and wishes to be in relation to the world, Emechete tells the tale of one who discovers what it is to be alive and truly what it means to be a woman.

Chapter nineteen is aptly title “Starting Again” as it represents the beginning of great things to come in the life of Kehinde. When the reader meets her, it is learned that she is working as a cleaning woman at a London hotel, despite holding a sociology degree and being far-overqualified for the job. In discussing the matter with her co-worker Duro, she mentions that people in their position take jobs such as these because there is money to be made and one can live on the salary. She goes on to describe how honest people are not afforded a chance in Nigeria and only the “corrupt politicians” can make a living. She resigns the discussion by saying “all that is doing nothing for our dignity, I know, but that is how it is” (Emecheta 123-4). Her meaning, however, is far greater than simply working a menial job for a white employer. She refers to the traditionalism that still remains in Nigeria. She refers to the way in which her husband had taken on another wife after marrying her. She refers to all of the things in life that dissatisfy her and her resignation of ‘that is the way it is’ shows her acceptance of such things.

Chapter twenty depicts Kehinde presented with an opportunity in an Arab sheik’s request that she teaches English to his wives. Throughout this chapter the sheikh represents the tradition to which Kehinde is growing increasingly intolerant and his wife, her pupil, Fatima represents the slave to that tradition. From the first meeting between the sheik and Kehinde, there is a passively antagonistic relationship as he does not request but rather commands her to do things. The reader learns her opinion of the Arab through her thoughts, but not wanting to forego the opportunity of the money to be made, she reluctantly perseveres. When the Arab simultaneously reduces his wife to tears and commands Kehinde to strip for his pleasure, the last bastion of her adherence to accepted customs is shattered. Emechete describes, “She picked up her coat from behind the door and walked quietly out of the suite. The sheik might want to see what a black woman’s body looked like, but that body was not going to be hers. She was aware that the man was speaking, but she ignored him” (132) depicting Kehinde’s transition from her old life to her new one as she left the scene behind.

The final chapter examined, “The Rebel” shows Kehinde completely embracing her new life. This is not only evident in that the chapter depicts her in debate with her son over his predisposed beliefs of the way things ought to be and the way things are, but also in that the chapter is not centralized upon Kehinde’s work. Through the course of the chapter, the reader can see how she begins to wear away at Joshua’s preconceived notion of tradition letting him know that things work differently in the real world. It is learned that she was begun seeing her tenant, Mr. Gibson romantically, and when asked about their relationship, replies “it’s not a crime to love. Your dad has taken two other wives in Nigeria, and I’m not complaining. That’s one of the beauties of polygamy, it gives you freedom” (Emecheta 138). Kehinde reveals not only that she has cast off the shackles of tradition, but also embraced turning it against itself, enjoying the privileges once afforded only to men.  While her son disagrees with her way of thinking, she will not be deterred.

Buchi Emecheta’s Kehinde is a character who seizes the opportunity to become a woman. She ceases to lament and endure the disparities she faces in the world and rather discovers that she is able to turn things in her favor. As with all changes, however, some things must be left behind. Kehinde shows that some traditions, particularly those that hider the natural progression of things of often best forgotten. As she says at the conclusion of chapter twenty-one, “[c]laiming my right does not make me less of a mother, not less of a woman. If anything, it makes me more human” (Emecheta 141). Truer words were never spoken.

Works Cited

Emecheta, Buchi. Kehinde. Long Grove, Waveland, 2005.

Smith, Christopher. "Emecheta, (Florence Onye) Buchi." Contemporary Novelists, edited by Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer, 7th ed., St. James Press, 2001, pp. 295-297. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com.ezproxy2.cpl.org/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=clevnet_cpl&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CCX3401500177&asid=764cc6544fa095d1d9abe238c1514112. Accessed 2 Aug. 2017.