The concept of tradition versus modernity has been widely explored in the novel entitled Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta. Every aspect including the setting of the novel, the tribal community that exists, the characters, the lifestyle which the community adopted and the values that each characters hold reflects the existence and also the confrontation between tradition and modernity. In this novel, the author has shown how modernity and its values try to seep into the community of Ibuza, a place where tradition and customs are strongly uphold by its residents.
During the period from 1850 to 1960, Nigeria has been colonized by the British power and just like any other colonizers, the British asserted their dominance in the country through many mediums. It is also through this colonization that modernity was brought to the country. One of the changes that have been made was abolishing the slavery system which has been practised widely in the country. Slavery has been practiced in Nigeria for more than 300 years since the beginning of the 15th century and was then known as the “Slave Coast”.
Apart from this, the colonial power has also made it a point to bring change to the country by introducing Christianity to the people and also using education in the excuse of “moulding” them to become more civilized and to cultivate a more proper way of thinking. In actual, education was used as a tool by the British to oppress the people of Nigeria and by subjecting them into accepting these foreign values. In relation to this, the Nigerians have yet to be able to escape from the dominating presence of the British power even after the nation has achieved independence.
As a consequence, the community of Nigeria is exposed to the modernity brought upon by the colonial power and thus making them vulnerable to confront with these changes. In a way, the British Colonial Heritage represents modernity and change whilst the Nigerian livelihood was seen as a representation of tradition and customs. Thus, when the two of this concept coincide with one another in a community, conflict arises and one is forced to make a choice or else face the possible implications that might take place especially when issues concerning traditional values comes into the picture.
In the “Bride Price”, the author, Buchi Emecheta, a novelist whose themes includes child slavery, female independence, motherhood and freedom, portrays to her readers about the clash between the endlessness of the tradition and values practiced by a small community in the Ibo village and the influences of the colonial powers as seen through the eyes of the main protagonist, Akunna. Through this novel also, readers are able to see how the women characters’ life are enveloped by patriarchy and how these women are trapped in the intricate life of the Ibuza tradition.
Apart from that, the contradiction between tradition and modernity can also be seen as importance are placed on the community rather than the private self. And in relation to this, women need to give in or else there will be chaos and they will have to face the implications like how Akunna did. Hence, this paper intends to explore of how tradition and modernity are represented together with the instances and implications of tradition clashing with modernity.
Tradition as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom)”. The concept of tradition has been widely represented in this novel through many aspects. The title itself, “The Bride Price” represents a fee that is traditionally paid by the prospective husband’s family to the future wife-to-be. The writer of this novel uses this concept of the bride price to symbolize women’s submission to men and also to depict the traditional custom practiced by the communities of the small Ibo village.
In a traditional village like Ibo, women are seen as a property with no freedom and they do not have a say on who they want to marry. If the girl’s father accepts the bride price, then the girl would have to marry off to the boy’s family who had given the bride price. It is compulsory for her to be with the husband chosen by her father and she would have to accept it even though she has no feelings for the man chosen for her or if she was in love with another man. The worthiness of a woman is only measured by how much of a bride price she can bring for her father and her family.
However, if a man could not afford the bride price, he could just sneak up on the girl and cut out a curl from her hair so that she would become his forever and that he could treat her however he likes. And even if this was the situation, the girl’s family would not be able to do anything but to just accept it as it is and no one from the girl’s family can save her as it is according to the tradition that a girl would be the property of a man if her curl of hair was to be cut off by the intended person.
In addition to that, women in this traditional context are expected to bear children and it is preferably that they bear boys instead of girls. Thus the bride price serves as compensation to the woman’s family for the “loss” of a reproductive member. Women who are infertile are considered as not valuable as a marriage is only complete if she can bear lots of children for her husband. Another aspect which the writer touched on is how tradition influences the gender difference between men and women in the community of Ibuza.
Men, in this traditional community are of the more privileged group as they are given a lot of freedom to do what they like. In terms of sexuality, single men are allowed to have affairs with women before they get married. Nobody in the community will question them for committing such acts and not only that, boys who come as suitors to the girl’s home are allowed to fondle her breasts and to molest her in any way they like as it is the custom practiced by the people in Ibuza. In this case, the girl’s mother and family are actually aware of what’s happening and they allow for these acts to be committed on the girl.
In contrast, a girl is expected to be a virgin before she is married off to the husband chosen for her and her blood stains from the consummated marriage is shown to family members as a prove that she was pure before she got married. However, if she were to have affairs before she is married off to another family, she would be looked down upon and will be treated even worst than a slave. In Akunna’s case, she claimed that she lost her virginity to Chike, a descendent of a slave, to protect herself from being mistreated by Okoboshi.
But by doing so, she put her own life at risk and even tarnished her own reputation in her own community. Another instance would be in terms of education. For example, boys are allowed to further their studies until the highest level as long as their families can afford to do so. Meanwhile, girls are not as privileged as it is taken for granted that girls are not expected to study in school. However, even if her family were able to support her in terms of education, she would only be able to study till she gets married as once she is married off, she would be expected to stop studying and to perform her duties as a full-time wife.
And even if she is educated, this only means that she would be able to fetch a much higher bride price for her father and her family. In addition to that, the writer of this novel has also highlighted the concept of tradition through the aspect of slavery and discrimination. This aspect can be clearly seen in the character of Chike, a descendent of the slave family. His grandmother who was a princess from a neighboring village was kidnapped and later enslaved.
The people of the Ibuza community especially with its endlessness of tradition believe that anyone who comes from a slave family is considered as not worthy of respect and they have this mentality that “once a slave, forever a slave”. This continue to persists even though the Europeans have long abolished this practice and no matter how educated or rich Chike and his family is, they will never be of the same level with the villagers in Ibuza as they come from the descendent of slaves. In relation to this, no father would allow his daughter to marry a slave as his family will be forever looked down upon and outcasts by the community.
Throughout this novel, Buchi Emecheta has shown to the readers the traditional customs practiced by the people of Ibuza. In one of the chapters The Burial, the writer described the customs practiced by the community when Akunna’s father, Ezekiel Odia, passed away. The process of the funeral was described in such detail starting from the mourning till the body was brought home. It was depicted that Akunna had to mourn endlessly for days during her father’s burial to perform her duties as a filial daughter. On and on went Aku-nna, repeating her father’s attributes.
She did not stop, not even when the other mourners became more subdued. Nobody could stop her, for this was what was expected of a daughter. People later remarked that for a girl not born in Ibuza she did not do too badly. (Pg 27) In this chapter, it was also shown how the communities of Ibuza come together in times of trouble. Everyone came together to mourn the death of Aku-nna’s father and women from the community came to help Aku-nna in feeding and taking care of her brother. They even lend a helping hand to assist Aku-nna when she was too tired after the long process of the funeral.
One of the pots was theirs, and it was Aku-nna’s task to fill it with water every evening after the meal so that Nna could wash himself before leaving for work in the Loco yard in the mornings. She knew that she had not filled the water pot because of the happenings of the night before. Yet when she lifted the tin cover she was not surprised to find it filled with nice cool water. One of their neighbors must have done it; she wondered who. Since the announcement of her father’s death, she had never stopped marveling at the unwritten ways of her people. (Pg 35)
In her novel, Buchi Emecheta has also tapped in the elements of modernity through various aspects. One main example would be through her characters in the novel. Aku-nna, the main protagonist of the novel, clearly reflects elements of modernity. Aku-nna, a 13 year old girl who comes from the city of Lagos, is an independent and intelligent student. Ever since her father’s death, she moved to the small village of Ibuza where she tries to adapt into the lifestyle and customs of the community. She strived to continue her education and aimed to be an educated person unlike many of the other girls in the village.
She questions about how things are done in the community, her culture and her family but yet, she never voiced them out as it is considered to be rude for her to do so. For example, she never liked bathing nude in public and she could never understand how girls in the community could walk around half naked. As a girl who has studied the European ways in school, Aku-nna has the mentality of a civilized and educated person. She has her own individual desires and she is not afraid to go against norms to fight for what she believed is right for her.
On the other hand, there is also another character which clearly represents the concept of modernity. Chike, a descendent of slaves, is a handsome; young man who teaches at Aku-nna’s school and whom Aku-nna eventually marries. He is the one who guided Aku-nna through her first menstruation experience and he is also the one helped her through her lessons. Coming from a wealthy and educated background, he is a free-willed and free-spirited person who has his own principles. He believes in following what his heart tells him and he refuses to be told what not to do.
Moreover, he is not afraid and couldn’t care less of what the traditional community thinks about him and his family. He, for one, is a risk taker unlike the typical community of Ibuza who is bounded by their culture and norms. Another aspect in the story which reflects modernity would be the setting of story in the early chapters. Lagos, a port city in Nigeria, is where Aku-nna, her parents and her brother lives. The port city which is also known as an industrialized urban center is a total contrast with the traditional and customary village of Ibuza.
This is the place where Aku-nna’s father, Ezekiel goes for treatment for his ailing foot and where Aku-nna and her brother go to school. Churches are also found in the city where Christianity is preached. Ezekial Odia, a religious Christian follower, often goes to the church to serve the local Christian organization and he even had his marriage sanctified by Anglicanism. This shows that Lagos is a place where education, health facilities and religious avenues are much more accessible compared to the Ibuza village.
In comparison to the Ibuza village, Lagos is definitely more modern and not as restricted in terms of its culture and facilities. Clashes of tradition and modernity It is evident throughout the novel that there were many instances of contradictions between tradition and modernity. One of the very first examples portrayed by the author is during Ezekial’s burial ceremony. Conflict arises between the Christians and the Ibo people when it comes to who should be the group to sit next to Ezekial’s body. There was a long argument to which group of privileged mourners would sit next to Nna’s bdy.
Nna was a pagan first, then a Christian, then a Christian and a pagan; so it was difficult to predict where exactly he was going after death. (Pg 38) Ezekial was shown as living in a conflict of two cultures even after his death. One coming from the influences of colonial power and another coming from his original roots and customs. The Christians believed that Ezekial will be going to heaven and living among the angels meanwhile the Ibo people affirmed that Ezekial’s father would be in the earth ‘ani nmo’ waiting for his son. Even when Ezekial was still around, he was also constantly living between two cultures.
Although he consistently went to Church, sing choirs, and believed in the existence of God, he still maintained his traditional way of life. For example, after many failed attempts of trying to get his wife pregnant, he decided to send her off to Ibuza to pray to the Oboshi river goddess so that she would be able to give him another child. Another example of contradiction could be found in the character of Aku-nna herself. As portrayed in the novel, Aku-nna defies all odds in order to be with the person she loves who is also a descendent of the slaves’ family, Chike.
Throughout the story, she was caught in between her individual desires and the traditions of her community. She knows that she is not supposed to be in a relationship with a slave but yet she gained up the courage and followed her heart. She even risked it all to be with the person she loved even if it means forsaking her family and tradition. Even after she got married and moved in with Chike whilst living in a modern and comfortable surrounding, she still thinks about her family in Ibuza and also realizes the fact that they would never forgive her actions.
However, what she worries most is the bride price, as she knows that if a bride price is unpaid, it will result in death at childbirth. Unfortunately this traditional superstition came true for Aku-nna and her story was told and served as a lesson to the others so that they would not go against the traditional norms and follow the footsteps of Aku-nna. The same goes for Chike as well, when he first fell in love with Aku-nna. As a descendent of slaves, he is fully aware of his position and that tradition does not allow him to be involve with people from the Ibuza community. Even hough he has been warned by his father, Chike still insists on going against the tradition to pursue Aku-nna. When Aku-nna was kidnapped by Okoboshi to be made as his wife, Chike went all out to safe Aku-nna and helped her to escape although it was illegal for him to do so. He knows that he has to do everything he possibly could to take her out of the rigid community and provide her with a chance to live freely and comfortably. While Aku-nna was pregnant with his child, he noticed that she constantly worries about the unpaid bride price even though they have long left the traditional village of Ibuza.
Although he is not a person who strongly believes or conforms to the customs and traditions, Chike still tries in vain by urging his father to pay the bride price to Aku-nna’s stepfather, even if it’s at a much higher price. He was hoping so badly that Aku-nna’s stepfather would accept the bride price so that his wife would not need to be depressed over this matter. Nevertheless, his was never able to fulfill this wish of his wife and he was left to watch her die in the end.
Based on the ending of this novel, Buchi Emecheta has led her readers to believe that tradition has win over modernity when Aku-nna died during her childbirth. Her story was told to the future generation to convey the message that nobody can go against tradition. Through the conclusion of the story, it was evident that Aku-nna had to resign to her destiny, and accept the predetermined fate that the curse of the unpaid bride price will come to claim her life. Although she was able to escape from the traditional village of Ibuza, she was never able to escape from the constant fear that there is a possibility that she would die in the end.
Aku-nna’s life has been a constant battle. It is a battle to gain individualism and freedom of choice in the midst of a traditional and uptight society. In a way, the author has led us to believe that women in the traditional community have not much options to choose but to give in and to accept their fate because if they rebel, they will have to face the consequences and that tragedy might befall upon them. Meanwhile, Chike’s determined rebellion towards tradition has also led him to the loss of his most beloved wife.
No matter how modern or educated he is, he still could not change the reality that this is the fate of Aku-nna. It does not matter, whether he believed that Aku-nna’s death was caused by the curse or not as there was nothing that he could do to bring back his wife or to stop the so-called “curse” of the unpaid bride price. Through this novel, Buchi Emecheta has shown the readers that the acceptance of the community is very important and that there is no way that modernity can exists on itself without the support or acceptance from the community.
In Aku-nna’s case, she has to succumb to her predetermined fate as her actions was not approved and supported by her own family and the community around her. It also shows that importance is very much placed on the perceptions and beliefs of the community rather than the individual needs of a person. Thus, it can be concluded that change can only take place, if the traditional society is willing to take the risk and move forward to create a more hybrid culture where both tradition and modernity can exist together in one space.
1. Babaee, Ruzbeh & Babaee, Siamak. “Tradition versus modernity: A study on Emecheta’s The Bride Price.” Journal of African Studies and Development Vol. 4(6): 150-154. August 2012
2. Emecheta, Buchi. (1976). The Bride Price. United Kingdom: Allison and Busby.