Credit: Sylvester Onwordi
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Remembering my mother Buchi Emecheta, 1944-2017

The Nigerian-born British novelist Buchi Emecheta wrote a regular New Statesman column which became her first book, In The Ditch, in 1972.

An Ibusa village girl, brought up in Lagos of the 1940s, Buchi Emecheta had a life that was always overshadowed by the poverty and the deprivations of her early years. She was a poorly, undernourished child both physically and emotionally, but with a ravenous desire to survive.  She lost her father - who doted on her - when she was eight years old. Her father, my grandfather, was a railway worker who died of complications brought on by a wound contracted in the swamps of Burma, where he had been conscripted to fight for Lord Louis Mountbatten and the remnants of the British Empire.  With her father’s passing, Buchi and her younger brother were left at the mercy of a mother who, due to lack of education, was unable to appreciate the talent in her young daughter.  

It was a benefactor in Ibusa, Mr Hallim - a former government Permanent Secretary – who, according to family legend, spotted the intelligence in the young girl with the large, forever watchful eyes. He gave her the support she needed and encouraged her to continue her education, rather than work in the market selling oranges as her mother wanted. 

Buchi won a scholarship to a prestigious high school in Lagos where she mixed with children of the Nigerian nobility. In her first year there her mother also died and she was passed back and forth between distant relatives within the Ibusa community in Lagos. During holidays, while her classmates returned to their family mansions, she elected to remain in the empty dorms taking refuge in books and in her imagination - regaling her friends on their return with the wondrous things she had done during the summer. 

She used to tell us as children that if you believe in yourself strongly enough then you could make any dream come true. It was almost an article of faith with her, one that made her the forceful character she became, but which could also render her impatient with people who were less driven than she. When her schoolteacher beat her in front of the class for announcing that she wanted to be a writer, she bore the pain in silence and became more determined than ever to make her transgressive dream a reality. Years later, in the UK, when her husband burned the handwritten manuscript of her first novel, she again quietly determined that she would find her own way.  She surprised him with a separation and set about raising her five small children (of whom I was the second eldest) alone, while studying at night school for a Sociology degree and working by day as an administrator at the British Museum.

Some writers write because they have to. Buchi was a compulsive writer. She once admitted half-jokingly that writing kept her sane and that this and the love of her children were what made her get up in the mornings. She would write whole manuscripts long-hand before later transcribing them to type. Hardly was one novel finished when she would be starting on the next, bouncing ideas around the kitchen table which was where she did her typing - an activity that seemed as normal to me and my siblings as her cooking or her storytelling.

I recall as a child at the close of the 1960s being very poor - living, in a series of one- and two-room slum apartments, and later, on various council estates. By my mid-teens I realised that we had somehow become comfortable and middle-class. We could afford holidays and even a car - a red Austin 1100, in front of which I remember my mother proudly posing in her black gown and mortarboard for graduation photos, to send to Ibusa to let the folks back home know that she had “arrived”.  

These changes were reflected in Buchi’s often-autobiographical literary output, from In The Ditch, her 1972 breakthrough novel (with origins in a New Statesman column), which dealt with a single black mother struggling to cope in England against a background of almost Dickensian squalor; Second-Class Citizen (Allison & Busby, 1974), which focused more squarely on issues of race, poverty and gender, through Gwendolen (1989), The New Tribe (1999).

The main source of inspiration for her writing, however, was Africa, and in particular the villages of Ibusa in Eastern Nigeria where her family came from. Even though she had spent a relatively brief period of her childhood there, the villages and the stories she heard on her visits with her mother left an indelible mark on the impressionable young girl and became the lodestone for all she wrote. In The Slave Girl (1977, for which she won the New Statesman’s jock Campbell award), The Bride Price (1976), and the ironically titled The Joys of Motherhood (1979), she poignantly captured, in a manner reminiscent of her male contemporary Chinua Achebe, a vanishing Igbo culture in the process of transition to modernity. 

Buchi was flattered by her success, but also bemused and irritated by it. Though a feminist in all she said and did, her feminism was very much inscribed in her identity as an African woman, with African values, and political discourse did not always chime with the rhetoric of her sisters in the UK and US. Writing was a vocation but it was also a job, a way to feed the family and keep the wolves from the door. Always preferring the life of the family, she would return from some far-flung conference and plonk herself in front of the telly with a sigh of relief to be back home.

A constant refrain throughout my childhood was that she would one day return to Ibusa - a place that took on an almost mythical significance for us within the family.  She made many plans to return over many years, even building a house in the village while working as professor at the University of Calabar – an experience that formed the basis for her novel Double Yoke (1983).  But having lived in the UK for so many years, she found it increasingly difficult to adapt to life in modern Nigeria. And Ibusa, in her long absence, was transforming itself into a town and a conurbation that she barely recognized any more.

The death of her two daughters affected her in later years, and I felt that as a person and as a writer she was never quite the same again. As she entered middle age, some of her drive seemed to leave her and the passion for writing that had fuelled her for so long became swallowed in a private grief. My deepest sorrow was that Buchi did not understand how much she was loved and appreciated by her readership, not only in continental Africa but all over the world. I also felt that always living a provisional life, based to some extent on survival, she did not really get to enjoy the full fruits of her success. A few weeks before receiving her OBE, she suffered a devastating stroke, which left her housebound and increasingly disabled.

Though towards the end of her life her illness stole from her the ability to manipulate words and to travel, the cruel beauty of dementia allowed her to take refuge once more in her imagination, where she would revisit the landscapes of her early years, peopled with characters and stories that she would no longer be able to write.

Sylvester Onwordi is the son of the late Florence Onyebuchi "Buchi" Emecheta.

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.