The Bride Price: A Novel

Emecheta, Buchi

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Saleh, Mona
  • Date of entry: Apr-04-2017
  • Last revised: Apr-04-2017


This is a novel set in Lagos, Nigeria among a polygamous peoples and follows the formative years of protagonist Ibo Aku-nna as she experiences the death of her father, the horror of starting menstruation, and falling in love with her teacher, Chike, of whom the elders in her family do not approve because he comes from a family that was previously enslaved. 

Throughout the novel, the reader is introduced to several traditions, which speak to how women are valued less than men in this setting. For instance, when Aku-nna’s father dies, her mother must go through a special procedure for mourning, described here: 

“Ma Blackie was to remain alone in the special hut; not until the months of mourning were over could she visit people in their homes. She must never have a bath. No pair of scissors nor comb must touch her hair. She must wear continually the same old smoked rags” (p. 71). 

Another tradition is  the concept of the bride price, which is the sum of money paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family in exchange for her hand in marriage. The more valuable a daughter is (whether in appearance or family status), the higher the bride price. Further, if a girl’s bride price is not paid, it was the belief that the bride would die during childbirth.

When Aku-nna is sixteen, she finishes her schooling and learns that she has passed an examination that qualifies her to be a schoolteacher. At the same time, a youth with a limp in her village, named Okoboshi, sets his sights on her to become his wife. His family then kidnaps  Aku-nna. When a bride is kidnapped, her bride price does not apply, and it does not have to be paid. Also, if a man cuts away a lock from a girl's hair, she becomes his wife and he, again, is not responsible for paying the bride price:

“Some youth who had no money to pay for a bride might sneak out of the bush to cut a curl from a girl’s head so that she would belong to him for life and never been able to return to her parents: because he had given her the everlasting haircut, he would be able to treat her as he liked, and no other man would ever touch her. It was to safeguard themselves against this that many girls cropped their hair very close; those who wanted long hair wore a headscarf most of the time” (p. 103). 

When Okoboshi tries to have sex with Aku-nna, she refuses and says that it is because she has already lost her virginity to Chike, even though she really had not.  In disgust, Okoboshi stops trying to have sex with Aku-nna and beats her savagely, vowing to keep her as his wife in name only but then marry other women, whom Aku-nna would have to serve. Through initiative and luck, Aku-nna escapes from Okoboshi’s house and elopes with Chike. Despite how much money Chike’s family tries to pay Aku-nna’s family as her bride price, they will not accept it.  

Meanwhile, Aku-nna finds work as a school teacher and Chike is also successful at his work. They are very happy together for a time, and Aku-nna becomes pregnant. She struggles very much with her pregnancy and becomes quite weak as a result. One night, Aku-nna becomes sick and is admitted to the hospital, where the doctor informs her and Chike that she must undergo a Cesarean section and have her baby prematurely.  A baby girl is born healthy, but Aku-nna perishes due to extreme anemia, according to her doctor. Thus, the novel ends in confirmation of the superstition that if a girl’s bride price is not paid, she will die in childbirth. 


While this novel is a work of fiction, it provides excellent insight into how the status of women in a particular culture is manifested through many different outlets. For example, a widow (such as Ibo Aku-nna’s mother, Ma Blackie) is responsible for mourning the loss of her husband alone in rather brutal conditions. Polygamy is also normalized in this novel, such that it is not an outlandish threat when Okoboshi states that he will have Aku-nna act as a servant to his subsequent wives.  The concept of the bride price and the customs surrounding it that are expressed in this piece are also a useful lens into this culture’s specific brand of misogyny. The marriage of a girl is seen as a sale, with the groom’s family buying the girl from her family. The bride price is not given to the girl; it is given to her father. Thus, the girl is treated as a piece of property to be handed off from one owner to the next. If the bride price is paid and the girl’s father approves, she has no say in her own marriage, even if she detests her groom. Even the superstitions (and what actually plays out in this novel)  simultaneously disempower women while putting the burden of responsibility solely onto them. This is illustrated in the fact that if a girl’s bride price, which is the responsibility of the groom and his family, is not paid, she is the one who dies. Thus, the girl—while de-valued and even prohibited from not consenting to her own marriage—pays the consequences of the misogynistic framework in which she lives. The bride price may also be taken to represent honor, in which case the lack of honor (i.e. the lack of the bride price being paid) is such an awful idea that girls are believed to pay for it with their lives. 

The scene where the girls wear their hair short to prevent poor youth from cutting away locks of their hair (and therefore making them their wives without having to pay a bride price) is worthy of particular analysis because it beautifully portrays the wider, even global culture of misogyny. The girls cut their hair short to protect themselves, and those with long hair have to protect themselves with a headscarf. Rather than informing the youth that it is not acceptable to find wives in this manner, it is the girls and women who must protect themselves in a society where their value as autonomous human beings is almost non-existent. This is reminiscent of rape culture, which the West often sanctions. In modern-day rape culture, women are instructed to wear “decent” clothing and not drink alcohol so as to prevent their own rapes, rather than educating men that rape is not an acceptable thing to do. Misogyny, even when portrayed in cultures that are oceans apart, is always misogyny. 

A great strength of this novel is how the author motivates the reader to feel that the bride price and other systematic instances of misogyny are unacceptable without directly saying as much. Instead, by causing the reader to sympathize with Aku-nna, the victim of this infrastructure, the author gently guides the reader into siding against such injustice. 


George Brazilier, Inc

Place Published

New York

Page Count