Engendering the Genre: The Feminisation of the Lagos Novel

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Lola Akande


Culture-bound contingencies shape the perceptions of women in Africa and this often leads to totalised, uncritical and one-dimensional representations of women in literary texts that place them in the typical Manichean duality dialectics between good and evil. On the one hand, she is imagined as treacherous, cantankerous, noisy, troublesome, and therefore signification of the witch, termagant, virago, temptress, satanic, and dark. On the other hand, she is also construed as angelic, a mother figure, an enchantress, a nurturer, such that she becomes a trope for chastity, compassion, love, and affection. This paper explores the depiction of women as strong archetypes in six Nigerian novels that use Lagos as setting.  Lagos is comparable to the woman in her basic form because the city is as glamorous as the female persona. The city is also populated by beautiful women, and the beauty of the women can be likened to the beauty of the city; but beyond physical beauty, Lagos is peopled by strong-willed women, women of substance and character. The paper presents how novelists signpost the growing visibility of the female face and help in re-thinking the notion of female weakness. The centrality of women in the Lagos novel is such that the Lagos novel now becomes ‘woman.’

Key words: Lagos Novel, Women, Strong archetypes.


The centrality of women in the Lagos novel is such that the Lagos novel now becomes ‘woman.’

Lagos has a special image at all levels of academic and non-academic discourses including that of popular culture, and transnational theories of urbanisation. It is comparable to cities like London, Paris, New York, New Delhi and Johannesburg in terms of complexities. There is a peculiarity that Lagos presents to the world especially in terms of unmanageable cities. Although, cities have a common problem of managing crowds, the populatssion of Lagos has grown rapidly in the last four decades and “is growing faster than any of the world’s other megacities” (George Packer, 2006). A former Lagos State Commissioner for Housing, Gbolahan Lawal (2017) has noted that “about 87 people per hour enter Lagos.” It is in view of this peculiarity and distinctiveness that the city has attracted the attention of leading writers and artistes and has become the focus of intense scholarly interest in books such as Kay Whiteman’s LAGOS: A Cultural and Historical Companion, Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, Robert Neuwirth’s Shallow Cities,and Jonathan Raban’s Soft City. The phenomenal stature of Lagos has also necessitated the use of the city as setting by most Nigerian novelists, each chronicling and cataloguing life and living in Lagos. Hence, Charles Nnolim (2005) notes that “Lagos as setting, has come to assume a special place in contemporary Nigerian fiction.”

 Interestingly, not only are women increasingly being made protagonists in novels set in Lagos, Nigerian women may also be fulfilling two key functions in city novels. The first is to enjoy the city as a place of refuge where they find true liberation, for the first time, from the clutches of traditional practices that have tended to degrade them and diminish their individuality. Onookome Okome (2012) attests to this when he remarks that “Lagos offers the social actor the ability to act freely and unfettered” (168). The second is to contribute meaningfully to national development. One of the highlights of Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come, for instance, is the submission that the true political literature of our time is writing that allows women to become educated and better people and to share in their society’s collective burdens.  Hence, this paper is interested in how the depiction of female characters in different texts, over a fairly longitudinal period (1966-2008) has helped in shaping public discourses. The novels I deal with are A Man of the People (1966), The Joys of Motherhood (1979), Invisible Chapters (2001), Alpha Song (2001), Everything Good Will Come (2005), and Swallow (2008).How have female characters helped in re-directing social and cultural imagination? How have they helped in re-writing some of the wrong notions of female weakness? How are they standing up to be counted as strong archetypes? This paper is not interested in essentialism, that is, the essence of Lagos that cannot change; its focus is on the pivotal role played by female characters in the city. Although not all novels about Lagos place women in privilege positions, but a significant number of narratives about the city assign important roles to women such that they dominate the landscape in everyday life and to the extent that the Lagos novel now becomes ‘woman.’ The Lagos novel refers to a collection of narratives that take their setting from Lagos. This study proposes to feminise the Lagos novel in recognition of the pivotal and peculiar role of women in the Lagos novel. The paper focuses strictly on this feminisation of the Lagos novel because it is significant enough for women and Lagos to become a theory on its own.

The genre in this paper refers to the novel genre. The paper engenders this genre by giving it a sexual identity. It is possible to interrogate this idea from two perspectives. The first is to take the perspective of the African tradition which is the idea that the folktale, which is a precursor to the novel, is essentially woman. In most cases, it is the female grandparents and parents that tell stories to the children because men are often concerned with farm work, hunting, and other ‘masculine’ outdoor activities. The second perspective is to look at the rise of the novel and the decisive role of women in the process. I argue that writers like Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding wrote for women because women tended to have a lot of leisure time. Hence, it was the women that were going to borrow books from public libraries. Therefore, whether we look at the novel genre from the African tradition or the Western perspective, we find women shaping and influencing it fundamentally and decisively. Interestingly, it has never been any less so till the present because women continue to be at the forefront of novelistic story-telling. Consequently, women engender the novelistic genre.

Theorising the Woman

Womanism proposes that a woman could be studied and appreciated from her everyday way of living. That a woman could be a child, mother, sister, colleague and that there are more than one way to picture a woman in the society. This critical approach and other African theories of womanhood such as motherism and African feminism have succeeded in placing the woman at the centre of discourses. One of Nigeria’s leading womanist theorists, Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi (2007) encourages men to expand their view of the woman beyond her capacity to fatten up the man. She asserts that the womanist theory is important because it deals with the woman in and of herself. It recognises that a woman is a normal member of society who ought to be looked at in her own right to significance. Similarly, Jenika McCrayer (2015) asserts that womanism gives women the opportunity to be at the centre of discourses, and have “scholars […] focus on women’s unique experiences” (5). It “makes woman’s experiences a priority” (5). Consequently, the fact that women are increasingly taking the centre stage and becoming more visible in literary works is germane to the present discourse. Additionally, the manner in which the authors of the selected novels assign important roles to women in their novels  provide a sufficient handle in terms of having a gender issue to contend with.

 In theorising the woman in relation to the city, it becomes apparent that the city is female in her basic form because like the woman, the city is equally attractive. Also, like the female persona, the city is complex, mysterious, and almost unknowable. A woman is synonymous with the city in terms of personality. The personality of the city is comparable in many ways to the personality of the woman. Using the analogy of the woman to metaphorise city space, it is important to exemplify how the woman tends to be conceptualised in the Nigerian novel. In Heroes, Festus Iyayi gives an insight into how the woman may be imagined in a typical Nigerian novel:

   […] the flashes of lightning came right through his window and they were in his room at the foot of his bed, bright and clear and dangerous as a beautiful woman (4).

   The house had two more rooms and these had beds and were called ‘slaughter rooms’ by the soldiers because they frequently brought their women and slept with them here (136).

   Remember that shooting a gun is different from driving big cars and going out with women. […]This business requires intelligence and hard work. It takes much more […] than it takes to sleep with your women (119).

In general terms, African women are conceived as a bundle of contradictions; at once angelic and satanic. This suggests that the mysteriousness of life seems to be incarnated and embodied by the woman. Specifically, the Nigerian woman tends to be conceptualised as an embodiment of Ogun, the god of iron and restorative justice, the paradox of life. Writers like Iyayi who depict women in this manner seem to believe that there is something destabilising about the woman. Also, because scholars and non-scholars alike have attempted but failed to agree on how to characterise the woman and what she represents, she appears mysterious and unknowable. In Nigeria, there is the general and familiar reference to a woman as ‘a necessary evil.’ This is the oxymoron that sometimes characterises the woman as a phenomenon, an entity, a category in many Nigerian novels. The three languages spoken by the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba identify the woman as yanrinyan, nwanyi and obinrin. It is possible to argue that all the three names conjure mental images of prettiness and sexual allure.

However, some of the novels of Lagos portray the woman as the counterpart of a male. Unlike Iyayi’s depiction of women in Heroes, male and female writers such as Chinua Achebe, Maik Nwosu, Buchi Emecheta, and Sefi Atta who engage Lagos in their narratives show that the woman in the city is more than her physicality. This researcher is in agreement with what seems to be the position of these writers about female characters in the Lagos novel; hence, this study examines the latencies of the woman in Lagos, especially her inner competencies.

Interestingly, the way men are attracted to women is the same way writers are attracted to the city because the city is characterised by glitter, by kaleidolights, by what Ayi Kwei Armah refers to as “the gleam” in his novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) and the “cargo mentality of wealth” in Fragments (1970). Another point to note is that because of the marked and significant differences between city space and rural area, people tend to migrate from the rural world to the city world. Apart from the glitter of city life, the potentialities of the city also enable city dwellers to enjoy anonymity; hence, they can commit crimes or go into alcoholism or prostitution without the prying eyes of family members. Therefore, city dwellers enjoy the comfort of anonymity that the city provides. Also, in the city, there is variety of life, the hustle and bustle of the city afford residents to get in the swing of things. The city is swanky, trendy and bohemian; it is unlike the rural world that appears to be more judgemental and censorious probably because it is closer to nature. Also unlike the rural world where people are closer to custom and tradition, in the city, they practically come into their own, they are their own creator.

The Woman as Analogous to the City

The way the woman throws up different vistas and perspectives to her personality is comparable to the city’s strong capacity to engender different and often conflicting interpretations and opinions of social life. Women are often characterised along binary paradigms or character grid. On a positive level they are seen as symbols of love, chastity, affection, and they represent mother figure, nurturers. Contrariwise, they are also seen as temptress, seductress, prostitute, virago, termagant, witch, and nag, given to quarrelling. The city’s character grid is similar to that of the woman. Initially, it seduces its potential residents with its apparent glitz and glitter; but it eventually proves to be like the cobra, as Femi Osofisan warns in Morountodun (1982).  Every snake carries its own venom, no matter the gloss, so, is the city. As much as it is characterised by allure, it is also characterised by callousness, hence, when people go to the city, they literally get swallowed in the belly of the beast. The city is characterised by antipathy, selfishness, man’s inhumanity to humanity, and territoriality as every resident wants to stake out their own territory and they would not care whose ox is gored.

 In Femi Fatoba’s poem, “Eko” (1998):

The star of Lagos was thrown in the dye pot

                                               Yet it continues to shine:

                                               The aim of every blind man

                                                Is to see what Lagos is

                                                The lame stops thinking about legs

                                                  Once he gets to Lagos

                                                  The ambition of the deaf

                                                   Is to sing the song of Lagos

                                                   The day a dumb regained his tongue

                                                   “I am going to Lagos” was his first sentence.

                                                    Lagos is a riddle

Inside a lidded calabash of confusion

(Lagos of the Poets: 168).

It is in the light of the foregoing that everybody wants to come to Lagos, that is to say, the imaginary Lagos. And it is this sense of complexity, of mysteriousness, of the many sidedness of Lagos that tends to attract writers to it. Undoubtedly, this has partly precipitated the formulation or founding of the Lagos novel.  Also, because Lagos has so many sides, so many elements to it, as men lust after women, so do writers more or less run after Lagos. They want to write about Lagos.

Like every other thing, women are seen to totalise both good and evil but in this paper, I will dwell on the positive archetypes because the positive attributes of the woman are often given scant attention by scholars and critics. The Nigerian woman, over time, has suffered invisibility, subjection, repression, but with the coming of democracy, there has been a kind of democratisation of the public space especially through education; and with education comes affirmative action. Consequently, we are beginning to find strong African amazons coming into public limelight. Some of the names that readily come to mind include Amina Mohammed, Nenadi Usman, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the late Dora Akunyili, Folorunsho Alakija, and Kemi Adeosun. In recent times, women are not as side-lined or marginalised as they had always been. Interestingly, this growing visibility of the female face has been signposted by writers. Flora Nwapa’s Efuru and Beatrice in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah bear testimony to the assertion that Nigerian writers have used female characters as positive archetypes. Elsewhere in Africa, Negritude a la Leopold Sedar Senghor also posits that arts revolve around the image of the African woman. The African woman is characterised by voluptuousness, ‘fullbodiness.’ Thus, unlike the Western woman that pursues the course of thinness, the African woman pursues the course of fullnesss. From the foregoing argument, there is a sense in which the Lagos novel can be seen as female and it is this feminisation of the Lagos novel as a genre that this paper probes.

Lagos as Women’s Place of Refuge

Literary rendering of Lagos life often suggests that female characters treat the city as the emancipator; that which takes away a particular social attitude towards women and liberates them from a particular stereotype. Many of the novels show how the condition of living in the city, with its stress and strains, rescues the women from being mere appendages of the male counterpart and how the role of women in the city goes beyond being wives and sexual partners. In the light of the foregoing, a major issue that runs through Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood (1979) is the latitude which women who live in the city tend to have. Events in the novel clearly show that women in the city, whether married or not, are able to assert themselves better on account of the city freedom. From the heroine, Nnu Ego, to her twin daughter, Kehinde, and her co-wife, Adaku, the women in the novel all seem to be celebrating their city-given freedom. For instance, Nnu Ego retaliates when being beaten by her husband.  “Nnu Ego lifted the head of the broom and gave Nnaife a blow on his shoulder” (91). Her husband, Nnaife, also recognises that his wife is using the opportunity of their living in the city: “Who is your father that you can come here and beat me, just because we are far away from anywhere?” (91).

What may be described as cultural permissiveness in the city is also a veritable weapon of liberation not only for the heroine, but also for other women in the novel. Adaku, Nnaife’s wife by inheritance, takes advantage of her coming to live in the city to assert her independence by abandoning her unhappy marriage to Nnaife and moving out of her matrimonial home to live as a single parent. Thoroughly frustrated by her inability to produce male children as demanded by village tradition, Adaku embraces what appears to be the nonchalant attitude and disposition of the city. She gets as daring as announcing her readiness to join the prostitution trade to show that she is no longer tied down by village beliefs and values. Perhaps, the most daring of the women is Kehinde, one of the heroine’s twin daughters who marries outside her ethnic nationality despite her parents’ protestations. Kehinde not only ignores her parents’ opposition to her intended marriage, she goes ahead to get pregnant for her man and leaves her parents unannounced  to live with the family of her Yoruba husband while her father languishes in prison having been found guilty of unlawfully attacking his would-be in-laws. Indeed, the city air gives freedom to Emecheta’s female characters in The Joys of Motherhood

However, to be able to truly make use of the freedom which the city offers women, Emecheta insists that women in the city must be able to make financial contribution to the running of the family. Unlike in the village setting where women are not engaged meaningfully, as a necessity, to have visible means of livelihood beyond assisting their husbands on the farm; women in the city have significant and even crucial economic roles to play, if the family must survive in Emecheta’s city. Two reasons appear to make this demand compelling. The first is that oftentimes, the man in the city, especially the urban poor, earns so little and the cost of living is so high that except his wife works or trades to augment the man’s income, the family may not be able to stay afloat. Two, the vagaries of the city frequently take the man out of the matrimonial home sometimes for long periods of time thereby compelling the woman to take charge of crucial family affairs including feeding and payment of house rent and children’s school fees among others. Throughout the novel, the heroine’s husband, Nnaife, is not stable at the home front. At a point, he is conscripted into the army and taken away to some unknown countries for as long as four years. At other times, he is hopping from the city to the village in search of an inherited or new wife. He is not always around. During these periods, Nnu Ego works tirelessly to feed the family, pays the children’s school fees, the house rent and generally prevents the family from disintegrating. She does all these alone without the support of relatives as would have been the case in a village setting. It seems, therefore, that as much as the city grants women a lot of liberty to proclaim their relevance and assert their independence, it also imposes a high degree of responsibility on them.

Writing more than twenty-five years later, Sefi Atta seems to be in agreement with Emecheta’s position and even takes the issue of the opportunity the city gives women to assert themselves to an elevated level. In Everything Good Will Come (2005)Atta’s heroine treats the city’s freedom as an asset and demonstrates how women who are not economically independent in the city only make themselves vulnerable not only to male domination and oppression, but also to poverty and misery.  Hence, she ensures that most of her female characters hold careers so as not to be vulnerable or slavish to men.

Also in the novel, all rural ethics are transferred and domesticated to city ethics because it is unlikely that a woman in the village would have the nerve to disagree with her husband over NGO issues if at all there are NGOs in the village. It is a similar situation in The Joys of Motherhood with Emecheta’s character, Nnu Ego who discovers her hitherto hidden strength in the city. The capacity to run the home in the absence of her husband is a feat Nnu Ego would not have believed was possible in the village. The environment in the city appears to be one in which all inhabitants, irrespective of gender, must strive for their survival.  Also, beyond acquiring a survivalist instinct in the city, Emecheta’s characters, like Atta’s, become bold and confident in the city. As Nnu Ego is bold enough to resist wife battery and goes as far as hitting her husband back without fear, so does she, at a point in the novel, courageously refuse to share her already overcrowded single room with her husband’s new wife. Adaku, does in the city what is totally unimaginable in the village setting. She wilfully abdicates her matrimonial duties and gleefully announces her decision to embrace a life of single parenthood. To these characters therefore and by extension their authors, women have to live in the city as the city lets them.

Thus, Emecheta and Atta seem to hold a positive view of the city in their writing apparently because of the greater freedom it gives women. Notwithstanding the numerous challenges that confront women in the city, both writers appear to agree with the submission of Joyce Carol Oates (1981) that the city promotes individuality and that it is a good enough reason for writers to celebrate the city. This paper also notes that the ability of many Nigerian women to make positive use of the city’s freedom has engendered not only greater positive self-esteem for them, it has also enhanced their capacity to make meaningful contribution to national development especially as formidable individuals rather than mere appendages to men.

Women as Strong Archetypes in the Lagos Novel     

In spite of Chinua Achebe’s significance and contribution to African literature, he is often pilloried for perceived relegation of his female characters especially in his rural novels. However, in A Man of the People, he seems to have realised that in the city, women will necessarily assume a more important role and that the inner workings of the city are such that does not permit the relegation of women to the background. This is the point Okome makes eloquently in his essay when he notes that “the map of urban relationships is a contrast to that which exists in rural Africa because the city is defined by new sets of social and cultural values” (168).  Hence, Eunice’s character in A Man of the People is significant in a number of ways. It is Achebe’s first real attempt at according value to his women characters; an attempt that becomes emboldened in Anthills of the Savannah where Beatrice, a highly educated and intelligent woman, is assigned the task of helping the male characters. Also significant to the character of Eunice and the status of women living in Lagos is the way she is martyred as a result of her commitment to the protection of the rights of the common people. Although naïve and obviously inexperienced with her political commitment emanating more from her emotional dedication and loyalty to the leader of her party, Max, with whom she is romantically linked, she however demonstrates uncommon bravery by avenging the brutal murder of her fiancé:

                   Eunice had been missed by a few inches when Max had been felled. She stood like a stone figure […] for some minutes more. Then she opened her handbag as if to take out a handkerchief, took out a pistol instead and fired two bullets into Chief Koko’s chest (160).

Eunice’s unusual courage may be viewed as Achebe’s tacit acknowledgement of the uncommon bravery of women living in the city. He seems to admit that women in the city cannot be the same as women in the village. City women are constantly being moulded and remoulded by the city and they get toughened in the process; unlike their village counterparts.

Segilola, the adopted daughter of Madam Bonus, is arguably the most formidable character in Maik Nwosu’s Invisible Chapters. Segilola is enchanting, beautiful, cheerful, radiant, intelligent, creative and interesting. Yet, she is deep, thoughtful, focused, determined, decent, serious, responsible and dependable. She has a pathetic family history beginning with the death of her unnamed mother and dancing colleague of Madam Bonus while giving birth to her. This was after her mother’s attempted marriage to a highly polygamous Benioise (Segilola’s father), was prevented by a gang-up of the man’s five other wives. Segilola is therefore an orphan because she has known neither her mother nor her father and although her birth occurred during Christmas season, a time usually associated with joy and laughter, her life seems to have been dogged by strange experiences usually at Christmas such that she has come to believe that “there must be such a thing as a Christmas jinx” (48).

In spite of her unhappy circumstance however, Segilola refuses to give in to sorrow or despair. Also notwithstanding the fact that she was raised in a “shack” in slummy Maroko by a kind-hearted but alcohol-loving Madam Bonus, Segilola is determined to make her mark in the city. Although she is a graduate of a catering school she means a lot more than a caterer to Madam Bonus and Maroko residents:

                   Segi was the toast of New Maroko. Both the enchanting dancer at the Bonus Club as well as its manager, her virtuousness was, to many, as puzzling as it was endearing. On the dance-floor, she was quite a naughty temptation; off it, she was the incarnation of forbidding virtue. She it was who usually strove…to temper Madam Bonus’s drinking excesses (20).

It is indeed incredible that a young girl who does not know her biological parents, who is raised in a slummy neighbourhood of a permissive city and whose foster mother and ‘guardian’ is an alcoholic, remains a virgin throughout her maiden life. Even more astonishing is the fact that Segilola has spent her formative years in a brothel where she was born but she refuses to yield to the corrupting influence of her environment and is unwavering in her determination “to make the best of a life that could be better” (65).

Nwosu seems to use Segilola’s character to make a positive statement about women living in the city and to insist that it is possible to survive and even live well in the city without succumbing to the city’s negative influences. Segilola’s life, character, conduct and utterances in the novel all bear testimony to the abundant positive possibilities in the city even in spite of the city’s apparent challenges. Nwosu successfully uses Segilola to convey his admiration for women who are true amazons in spite of the apparent ugliness in the city. The author seems to say that if a young girl with no decent background, no parental love and guidance can work in a city like Lagos, then she is a woman of substance!

Upon the sudden death of her foster mother. Segilola successfully takes control of the management of the Bonus Club. She organises the girls and even the men in the employment of the brothel and gives the brothel a competitive edge over its business rival, the Good Evening Hotel. Added to her good managerial skill is her excellent ability to manage crisis. When an epidemic breaks out in New Maroko and leaves in its trail causalities that include one of the prostitutes at the Bonus Club, prostitutes at the Good Evening Hotel promptly begin to spread the rumour that all the girls at the Bonus Club have been infected with the dreaded Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) virus. The rumour is to discourage patrons of the Bonus Club from further patronising the club. This is intended to bring the Bonus Club to disrepute and ultimately paralyse its business. Again Segilola rises to the occasion:

                   She declared the Bonus Club closed for the time being and organized medical tests for the girls. To their own surprise, none of them was diagnosed infected (206).

Segilola’s activities in the novel also tend to underscore the arrival of women in the scheme of things in the city. With Segilola’s excellent performance, her astute business sense, industry and high intellect, the modern woman seems to be acquiring a new destiny and relevance in the city. The relevance of women in the city also promises to go beyond the freedom and liberty the city grants them which the countryside has denied them for so long; to include the more important function of coordinating, controlling and administering people and resources in the city to the overall benefit of humankind.

Perhaps, the most endearing part of Segilola’s character is the dignity and high sense of decorum with which she handles Ashikodi’s love advances to her which earns her not only Ashikodi’s respect but also the respect and admiration of all observers and watchers of their intriguing love story. Although she has the disadvantage of having been raised in “the city of sin” (205) and even the added misfortune of having to live and work in a brothel as a young adult, she nevertheless resolves “never to become another sex commodity” (65), which her late mother and Madam Bonus were at the Kalakuta republic prior to her birth. Her resolve to live a life different from that led by Madam Bonus and her late mother informs her abhorrence of sexual liaisons with men that patronise the Bonus Club and gives her the inner strength to reject Madam Bonus’s counsel to her to “take in a man or two, at least” (65), on the excuse that she is a woman after all and that she should not deny her body “its natural cravings.” To Segilola’s credit, she avoids illicit sex with clients of the Bonus Club and she does not give in easily to Ashikodi’s love advances despite being aware that his interest in her is genuine and notwithstanding the fact that she feels the same way about him. Segilola is a pride to womanhood in the city. Also in the novel, there is Asampete, the dazzling beauty in search of her biological father who considers the New Maroko as the most probable place where she may find him. Within a very short time, she becomes settled enough to establish a school.

Similarly, in Alpha Song, another novel by Nwosu, there is Esther who works in a night club; yet, she never takes part in immoral activities which her colleagues indulge in on a daily basis, and she refuses to be seduced by any of the club’s patrons throughout the novel.  Rather, she performs her duties with utmost diligence and earns her living without subjecting her body to sexual abuse just as she never undertakes any activity she reasons may endanger her life. Also worthy of note is the fact that Esther secures a decent job while still working at a night club and her new employer happens to be a club patron who gives a personal attestation to her good character explaining that he has observed the young girl over a considerable length of time and has found her worthy of being his employee.

Another character in the novel, Tricia, is a worthy illustration of the presence of chastity in the city.  Taneba encounters Tricia at a night club, but she refuses to give in to his amorous advances demanding instead that the protagonist cultivate a proper and decent relationship with her if he truly cares about her. “I don’t sleep around. I just come here to have fun” (126), she tells Taneba with confidence and without mincing words.  To Tricia’s credit, she refuses to yield to Taneba’s persistent effort to sleep with her throughout the novel. Thus, events in Alpha Song, the attitude and eccentricities of characters in the novel seem to provide enough bases for this work to support Egunjobi’s (1999) assertion that cities are inherently neither good nor bad and that cities are like fire which can be used or misused.

Swallow, by Sefi Atta, tells the story of an averagely educated and relatively young, unmarried Nigerian woman, Tolani Ajao, who sojourns in Lagos to earn a living but who soon finds out that earning an honest living in a city like Lagos can be more difficult than she had anticipated because “Lagos had the worst of city life” (170). Armed with a Diploma Certificate in Secretarial Studies from a polytechnic and now employed as secretary by the Federal Community Bank in Lagos, Tolani’s dream of becoming a happy city dweller seems accomplished but it turns out to be a life dogged by unimaginable challenges. First, Tolani discovers that the cost of living in the city is prohibitive. Hence, she has to share a flat with a female colleague; also unmarried working in the same bank with her because neither of them can afford a separate apartment. In addition to the challenges of sharing an apartment with a hitherto strange person from a completely different background, world view and idiosyncrasies, Tolani  finds that the rent nevertheless takes as much as half of their pay thus making living precarious. Another problem that confronts Tolani in the city is the chaotic transportation system which hampers free movement of residents from one point to the other. Consequently, she leaves home as early as 5 o’clock every morning in order to be able to report for work at 8 o’clock and returning home is no less difficult. Besides, the daily journeys carry a lot of risks including death through accident. Nevertheless, Tolani continues to weather the storm in the city amidst mounting pressures. She learns to cope with the rigours of city life without compromising her ideals.

However, she and her friend experience a series of unhappy events in the novel. These events truncate her plans and leave her utterly confused.  She suffers an undeserved suspension from her place of employment following her refusal to yield to her randy boss’ sexual overtures. Although she feels totally overwhelmed by challenges, what is most significant to the author’s conceptualisation of women is that Tolani is a working class woman. Tolani presents a very positive image of women because she escapes the lure of cocaine and still goes to the office and escapes the lure of virtual prostitution imposed by an employer. It means she is not as vulnerable as her feminine image suggests because her vulnerability would have meant either that she succumbs to the first or the second.

Atta’s heroine in Everything Good Will Come is Enitan, which in Yoruba language means “a person of history.” The choice of the name may have been deliberate. If this is so, perhaps, Enitan must make history by bringing about radical changes in the way women are perceived and treated in Nigeria. Her character succeeds in admonishing women in the city to strive to possess excellent administrative and managerial skills which will imbue them with the capacity to become relevant in the scheme of things in the city. This is demonstrated by the way she successfully takes control of her father’s law chamber. It is remarkable that she takes on an important leadership role such as managing a law chamber in spite of her delicate pregnancy. She functions in the chamber not just as a lawyer but also as the administrative head of the office managing, coordinating and controlling all her father’s staff.

Grace Ameh is arguably the happiest and most fulfilled woman in Everything Good Will Come and her life and activities celebrate and glorify women’s capacity to achieve true greatness in the city. A seasoned journalist, writer, wife and mother, Grace is brave, intelligent, hardworking, focused and determined. She is also compassionate, responsible and dutiful at the home front and there is enough indication in the novel to suggest that she succeeds in managing both her career and family because she is firm, skilful and yet flexible. Grace believes in moderation. She appears to know when to be firm, rigid and insistent as different from when to be soft and even plead for mercy. For example, the same Grace who tells Enitan that the reason why she enjoys the support of her family as a journalist and activist is because she “wouldn’t have it any other way” (262), also reveals to the heroine that she did not hesitate to beg the men of the State Security Service for her freedom when she was being held by them. She states further that she does not believe in foolish heroics and that she makes no pretences about it.

 I was at Shangisha last night, State Security Service headquarters […]. They took me to Shangisha to explain why I made mention of a military coup in a work of fiction. I begged them. What else was I to do with philistines? […] I begged them on my knees” (238-239).

Later on she explains:

Those men I begged at Shangisha, they could easily have harmed me […]. Make no mistake, I am not about to be recognized posthumously […]. I may not be able to write freely with the threat of treason over my head, but I cannot write if I’m dead, eh?” (263).

Similarly, she counsels the heroine to “use” her “voice to bring about change” and to “stand with others” because, according to her, if the heroine chooses to do it all on her own, she may end up being “nothing but another victim” (263). It is instructive that when Grace notices Enitan’s extreme approach, she does not hesitate to tell Enitan that – “your views are impractical” (301). Grace is a very strong character in the novel; she is strong and fit enough to survive in the city. It does not come as a surprise therefore that Grace not only survives in the city, but she also does so without suffering undue pressure, frustration or unhappiness. Grace is an accomplished city dweller, wise to the city’s ways, able to easily adapt to prevailing circumstances, and above all, careful, moderate and reasonable in all her quests in the city, which, perhaps, is the secret of her continuous survival and happiness in the city.

The uniqueness of Nnu Ego’s character in Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood comes from her total disinterest in the frills of the city. To her credit and unlike most protagonists in city novels, she remains focused and steadfast throughout the novel. Her mission in the city is an uncommon one. She aims to achieve motherhood, and having achieved her goal, her next focus is to care for her children, to nurture them, and give her best to the task of motherhood. Her expectation is that in her old age, she will enjoy the fruits of her labour. Also, when she realises that the values of the city are radically different from those of the countryside, she quickly adjusts her ways, adapts to the new attitude of the city and reconditions her mind towards her role as a mother in an urban landscape. Her strong capacity to adapt to new demands and strange situations and to confront unexpected challenges in the city is illustrated by her survivalist activities through trading and the maintenance of a high moral standard throughout the novel. Notwithstanding her frequent lamentation that she does not enjoy a normal marriage (181), she never contemplates betraying her husband. She never engages in sexual immorality.  Although her husband’s appetite for sex is insatiable as revealed by his sexual liaisons with other women, Nnu Ego never contemplates revenge. It is important to emphasise that Nnu Ego’s relationship with Mama Abby, a single parent, is to the family’s advantage. Nnu Ego learns how to save money and plan for the future in addition to the older woman’s frequent positive interventions and assistance, especially to Nnu Ego’s children.

Adaku’s role in the same novel is that of a trail blazer for women living in the city. Her sojourn in the city seems to be to demonstrate to women, perhaps, to men too, the capabilities of the modern woman who has the privilege of dwelling in the city. Her character is a perfect illustration of how women can take advantage of city life to free themselves from the shackles of tradition that tend to undermine their individuality and condemn them to perpetual subjugation to the men folk.Adaku is a cheerful woman by nature. She is also confident, charming, polite, unassuming, moderately ambitious and roundly harmless. Finally, unable to gain the respect of her people and now living in a city with boundless opportunities for freedom, Adaku decides to embrace the freedom offered her by the city. She liberates herself from gloom and despondency by opting out of an unhappy marriage. To her credit however, Adaku does not break loose into a life of promiscuity and irresponsibility in the city although she once threatens to do so in a moment of anger and frustration. She however comports herself, choosing instead to live a responsible but free life as a single parent dedicated to taking care of her  children. She concentrates her energy on doing honest business in the city which provides her with sufficient money to put her daughters in good schools. “I want to be a dignified single woman. I shall work to educate my daughters…” (170-171), she tells Nnu Ego proudly.Adaku appears to be a pacesetter for women of her generation after which many more women will throng the city in search of mental, psychological and economic freedom. 

Thus, Buchi Emecheta shows how the inability of the city to offer men decent employment enables women to expand their range of activities. Although her characters are illiterates, they nonetheless demonstrate a strong desire for ‘independence.’ Her heroine encourages a companionate marriage by showing that a woman can command economic resources of her own. Atta shows that women can be represented in the public service and other important sectors of the economy such as non-governmental organisations. She demonstrates how women in the city have greater opportunity to be part of the decision making processes in the economy, politics and important professions such as law. Atta’s heroines display courage, fearlessness, initiative, and are capable of meeting their difficulties philosophically, displaying a zest for life. Achebe and Nwosu also celebrate the triumph of women and their capacity to organise themselves effectively in the city.


The selected novels for this study show how women in the city are free from tradition-laden prohibitions and are able to create effective structures that are different from the patriarchal types in rural societies. It is also important to revisit claims by some observers of city life like Lewis Mumford (1961) that the city induces its residents into making unhelpful decisions that leave negative consequences in their trail. Undoubtedly, the condition in Lagos easily predisposes its residents into making mistakes. Okome’s remark in this regard that “those who live in Lagos will readily attest to the fact that ‘life no be cinema’” is instructive; but he is quick to add that “they come to realize, sooner or later, that they also live in the […] world that dream creates for them and the anonymity it offers” (168). Events in the lives of female characters in the selected novels illustrate that while Lagos exerts considerable influence on its residents in their day-to-day activities and especially in their struggle to survive, in-depth textual analysis of the novels suggests that the natural tendencies and personal idiosyncrasies of most of the characters make greater contribution to the determination of their fate in Lagos. Specifically, the choices made by women, propelled by their inner strength,ultimately transform a majority of them to personal freedom.

Increasingly, both male and female Nigerian novelists that use Lagos as setting acknowledge that the condition of living in Lagos, particularly the prevalent high cost of living often give women the opportunity to demonstrate their strength and become economically independent since the men are often unable to shoulder the family responsibilities alone. What is significant to the conclusion of this paper is the finding that Lagos does not necessarily bestow greater sense of self-worth on women that inhabit the city space; but the atmosphere allows women to extract dignity, honour, and satisfaction from the free but turbulent Lagos. Women take liberty from Lagos atmosphere to reject their age long  domination by men and to insist on their views not only being heard but also being heeded in all areas of human endeavour including family, political and Rights issues. Consequently, there seems to be a consensus among writers that Lagos treats women differently from the way the countryside treats them, and more importantly, that Lagos treats women differently from the way other Nigerian cities treat them. Also, the way women conduct themselves in Lagos is different from the way women living in other Nigerian cities conduct themselves. The atmosphere in Lagos is unique; it is different. It encourages women to discover their inner competencies, and to apply themselves to coming into their own. The authors of the selected texts seem to agree with this position. Their agreement is exemplified in the way Segilola in Invisible Chapters, Tricia and Esther in Alpha Song, Nnu Ego in The Joys of Motherhood, Tolani Ajao in Swallow, Enitan Taiwo in Everything Good Will Come, and Eunice in A Man of the People are presented as strong characters able to carve a niche for themselves in Lagos.


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