Updated: Jun 15, 2022
So while I usually have a blog about all the books I read in a month, this one just stood out and I feel it needed its own moment to shine (and I had a lot to write about it). I know I also don't do a favourite book of the month in my reviews, but this one was just *chef's kiss* amazing. So, sharing today: The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare .
The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare (2020)
It's been a while since I read a novel because I've been reading a lot of non-fiction books lately. It's also been a while since I've cried so much reading a novel. This was a powerful and moving story of strength and resilience and highlighted the importance of empowering young women through education.
The protagonist of this novel is Adunni, a young Nigerian Ikati village girl. At the start of the novel, she is only fourteen years old. The most important people in her young life are her mother and her younger brother. Her mother's wish was for Adunni to get an education, to be able to read and write in English and to make a life for herself beyond the village. She sold food (puff-puffs) to earn income for Adunni's school fees as well as their family living expenses. However, Adunni's mother got sick and passed away, but her dying wish was that her husband would continue to support the children's education.
Adunni's father didn't have steady work and couldn't make enough money to keep Adunni or her younger brother in school. Her older brother worked in a mechanics shop and her father wanted her younger brother to follow suit. In order to afford rent and food for their family, Adunni's father breaks his promise he made to Adunni's mother and marries her off or "sells" her for a bridal price to Morufu, a relatively well off local taxi driver to be his third wife. Morufu is almost the same age as her father, and Adunni is still 14 at this time.
Morufu's first wife, Labake, is the same age as Adunni's late mother, and their eldest daughter is the same age as Adunni. The second wife, Khadija, is only 20, and already has borne 3 daughters and carrying another in her womb. Morufu wanted to marry Adunni because he wanted sons, as his children with his first two wives were all girls. Labake is jealous, unwelcoming and treats Adunni unkindly, but, Khadija befriends Adunni and looks out for her. In his desperation to have a son by his new wife, Morufu consumes a drink called "Firecracker", an aphrodisiac then proceeds to rape Adunni consecutively. As Morufu continues to rape her, he tells her to make sure she bears him a son, otherwise, he will demand his money back from her father and throw them all to the streets. Remember, she is still 14. Khadija feels sorry for Adunni, as she was forced to marry Morufu under similar family circumstances, and Khadija knows a 14-year-old's body is not matured and strong enough to bear children. As Adunni shares her fears of not wanting to get pregnant at such a young age, Khadija shares secret herbal recipes that prevent pregnancies and can induce a miscarriage. However, they both had to be careful in collecting the ingredients and where they made it, otherwise Lakeba would tell on them to Morufu.
Another secret Khadija shares with Adunni is that the child she is carrying is not Morufu's. Morufu had also threatened Khadija that if she gives birth to another daughter, he will chase them all out of his house. So, Khadija slept with an ex-boyfriend, Bamidele, from the neighbouring village, hoping that he will give her the son that Morufu couldn't. However, Khadija feels there are difficulties in her pregnancy, and asks Adunni to take her to Bamidele's village. She explains there are certain pregnancy rituals specific to his village and she feels she must undertake them as she is carrying his child. Adunni obviously feels this is bullshit and they should go see a doctor instead, but Khadija keeps insisting they need to carry out the ritual of bathing in Bamidele's village river to bless her child. Adunni can't say no to Khadija because she has been her only friend. However, when they reach Bamidele's village, they find he is married and his wife is pregnant. Bamidele sneaks out from his house without his wife knowing, and escorts them down to the river for the bathing ritual. It looked like a storm was coming and Adunni wanted to turn back, but Khadija insists to go on since they'd come so far. As they near the river, Bamidele says there is a special black soap required for the bathing ritual, and he'll run and get one. He leaves the two by the river, as the clouds darken. The air gets colder and Khadija goes into early labour by the riverside. Bamidele is nowhere to be seen. Khadija keeps crying out in agony and pain, as she slowly dies by the riverside. Bamidele has left her there to die.
Adunni knew she couldn't go back to Morufu without Khadija, because he would blame her for Khadija's death and may even kill her. Adunni knew she couldn't confront Bamidele, as she was a stranger in the village and it would be Bamidele's word over hers, and they may kill her. Adunni knew she couldn't go back to her father, who would give her over to the village judges and they may kill her. Her only choice was to run. She escaped to her mother's old friend, who helped her to find a job in Lagos, the capital city. While she was temporarily relieved to escape the village, life in the city was not what Adunni expected.
She had to work as a housemaid for Big Madam, one of the wealthiest women in Lagos. Big Madam abuses Adunni, overworks her from 5 am to 9 pm and allowing her only one meal a day. Her husband, Big Daddy, is an obese, abusive alcoholic and womaniser, and takes an interest in Adunni. Remember, she is still 14. In her new hell, Adunni finds friendship with Kofi, a Ghanian chef who has been employed by Big Madam for 5 years. Adunni reminded him of his own daughter in Ghana and treated her with the kindness she did not receive from Big Madam or Big Daddy. Not only does Kofi help Adunni polish her broken village girl English, but also looked out for her when Big Daddy made sexual advances on the 14-year-old and even gave her food from the kitchens when Big Madam wasn't looking.
Big Madam loved hosting parties to show off her wealth, and through these social gathering, Adunni meets Ms Tia, who eventually becomes like a fairy godmother figure to her. Ms Tia is a wealthy young Nigerian woman who grew up privileged and educated overseas. As Adunni shares her life story with Ms Tia, she feels moved by this young girl's resilience and determination, and the number of difficulties she has had to overcome. number. Through Ms Tia and Kofi's encouragement, Adunni secretly works on improving her English more to be able to apply for a scholarship to escape Big Madam and Big Daddy.
Big Madam thinks Adunni is unintelligent because her English is so poor and because she came from a rural village. As Adunni's English improves, she tells herself English is not a marker of intelligence. English is not a marker of common sense. Big Madam speaks perfect English, but she is the stupid one who lacks common sense for staying with a cheating and abusive man like Big Daddy. One night, Big Madam finds Big Daddy attempting to rape Adunni. That same night, she also found out that Big Daddy had been cheating on her with one of her best friends. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. While Big Madam is in emotional distress over Big Daddy, Adunni finds out she has received the scholarship. Ms Tia decides it is now time for Adunni to leave that place. She takes Adunni and reminds her it is now her turn to find her own place and own voice in the world. She is free.
That's probably the most thorough book review I've done since Form 7 English 😂 🤣. That's how much I enjoyed the story and was moved by it. At the start of each chapter, there was an interesting fact about Nigeria so you get an additional insight into the cultural context of the story. In terms of the writing style, the first few chapters are written in a "broken English style" which shows Adunni's naiveness and shows she is still a young village girl. As the story progresses, her English becomes more polished and grammatically correct, which reflects her growth and learning throughout the novel. Education really is a way out, and the resilience of a young woman determined to achieve her goals and find freedom is something to be applauded and encouraged.
Can you imagine though, at 14, being sold off for a bridal price to a much older man, whose eldest daughter is the same age as you? Me at 14, I was probably in Form 3. Boys were not on my priority list, and I needed to come first in my class or else my dad would give me a beating 😂 It's unfathomable for me who grew up in a family where education is so highly valued, to be pulled out of school and forced to get married. However, this is a reality for some. Child marriage is still an issue in some countries, and young girls are disproportionately affected by this.
Read more on child marriage (Unicef website)
I guess it's easy to say things like "Child marriage doesn't happen in Tonga. Why should I care about it then?". Maybe not in the context of a 14-year-old girl marrying a 40-year-old man like in the novel. But perhaps a more relatable Tongan context is of young girls, usually, teenagers, being forced to drop out of school and get married if they're pregnant. That's something we see in Tonga and while that's not exactly the same as child marriage, I think the common issue in both is that girls in such a situation will not have access to education and they are more likely to have fewer opportunities than their peers in the long run.
Another part of the novel I think is an important lesson is where the main character realizes that English is not a marker of intelligence. English is not the superior default language. Just because someone speaks perfect English with an American/Kiwi/Aussie/UK accent does not mean they are smarter than you or superior to you. I think that's an important reminder because even in Tonga, people tend to make fun of others for speaking or writing in broken English or English in a strange accent. My Japanese mum speaks English with a Japanese accent, and I remember I joked about it once, and she said "My English sounds funny to you but I learnt English on my own. I didn't learn it in school as you did. That makes me smarter than you! I'm self-taught" 😂 My mother is savage, and absolutely correct.
Throughout the story, Adunni had people that looked out for her despite the horrendous situations she was in, and she learnt from them. I think this is also an important reminder, that we look out for others, especially those younger than us. Adunni was guided by Khadija, and she learnt from Khadija's mistakes. Adunni was later guided by Kofi and Ms Tia, and they helped her find other opportunities. The idea and reminder here are that mentorships, friendship and guidance are important for young people, especially young girls, who are still finding their places in the world. Regardless of where you are in the world, I think that's a powerful reminder.
Finally, the title in itself "The Girl with a Louding voice" subtly hints that the main character's voice and self-confidence grow slowly and her freedom at the end is the loudest, most triumphant shout. As we grow through life, things won't always be easy, and as a woman, our voices won't always be heard. To continue believing in yourself when your voice is silenced and ignored is difficult, but it is such a blessing to have others who continue to believe in you and help get your voice heard.
I swear, I love this story so much, and I would love to see a Nollywood adaptation of this novel in the future as well.
Koia pe malo pea tu'a 'ofa atu.