Second Class Citizen

By Buchi Emecheta

2,270 ratings - 4.03* vote

A poignant story of a resourceful Nigerian woman who overcomes strict tribal domination of women and countless setbacks to achieve an independent life for herself and her children.

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Book details

Paperback, 174 pages
February 17th 1983 by George Braziller Inc.

(first published 1974)

Original Title
Second-Class Citizen
0807610666 (ISBN13: 9780807610664)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Sean Meriwether

Second Class Citizen is a very auto-biographical account of Buchi Emecheta’s emigration from Nigeria to London. It’s a personal story, one that candidly depicts the challenges of living with a difficult and unfaithful spouse, of being a young mother with little money, of the added challenge of “polite” racism that forced her to live beneath her previous standards, and even her own trivial concerns, such as not being properly dressed in the hospital after nearly dying during childbirth. One wants to reach through the pages and shake this obviously intelligent woman and make her stand up on her own. Her upbringing in Africa has taught her that women are second class and do not matter as much as their husbands, they are only to take care of the home and have as many children as possible. Thankfully, after living in London for years, she unlearns those childhood “lessons.” You can hear this woman’s voice as you read and know she is a person you could easily befriend and always be entertained by; she almost always finds the positive in the negative (and she’s got plenty of negatives!). Dr. Emecheta is an author who has been an inspiration to me; not only was she living in a foreign country raising five children and acting as the sole support for her family, but she still managed to have a career and write prolifically. Where she had the time is anyone’s guess.


Second Class Citizen really affected me. Whilst some cultural references bewildered me when I read its first few chapters because of my detachment from the Nigerian culture, the book hooked me right through. I loved and respected Adah for both her flaws and her strength in character; she is strong, naive, contradictory and honestly reflective and I could relate to her. I could not imagine what my life would be if I were Adah. Reading the book made me feel grateful for all the privileges I had. It was heartbreaking for me to read about a young woman of about my age (I am 22) struggling to educate herself, to bring up her five children and to deal with a parasitic, manipulative and abusive husband...whilst here I am, pursuing my passion in university, enjoying myself being loved and spoilt, daydreaming and thinking of ways to annoy grown-ups! So my responses to the book were, 'Wow!' and 'Ouch!'


“The title ‘United Kingdom’ when pronounced by Adah’s father sounded so heavy, like the type of noise one associated with bombs. It was so deep so, mysterious, that Adah’s father always voiced it in hushed tones, wearing such a respectful expression as if he were speaking of God’s Holiest of Holies. Going to the United Kingdom, then, must surely be like paying God a visit. The United Kingdom, then must be like heaven.”

Ever since her childhood in Nigeria, Adah wanted to see England. Married off at 16 to Francis, when he travels there to study, she follows along with their two small children. She’s barely 18, it’s the early 1960s and England’s a far colder place than Adah ever imagined.

Buchi Emecheta’s semi-autobiographical novel covers territory that might seem familiar, the racism of 1960s’ London, its poverty, everyday challenges like finding landlords who’ll accept black tenants, and the impact of suddenly being treated like a ‘second-class citizen.’ But, unusually for its time, it covers this from a woman’s perspective. And Emecheta’s focus here’s just as much, if not more, on Adah’s internal battles, her difficult journey to independence. Adah’s been taught her purpose is to pay for Francis’s education, and produce babies – as long as they aren’t all ‘insignificant’ girls. This is what’s expected so it’s what Adah does, meanwhile Francis does what he pleases, takes her money, sleeps around and is increasingly abusive. Adah’s cut off from a community that might help her with these problems, issues of class and background separate her from the other black families she encounters, almost as much as from the white people she meets. But after giving birth for the third time in rapid succession, Adah realises if she’s going to survive, she has to come up with a plan or she’ll be overwhelmed by the double weight of racism and misogyny.

Emecheta’s style is simple and direct, her well-crafted prose has a slightly informal quality, echoing Adah’s voice and thoughts. But the novel’s real strength is the compelling story; the sensitive depiction of Adah’s, not-always-likeable, character; and the complex underlying questions Emecheta’s highlighting around postcolonialism, cultural difference, identity and patriarchy. This also stands out for its immediacy, unlike most available books representing similar episodes in England’s inglorious past, Andrea Levy’s impressive portrayal of the Windrush generation in Small Island for example, Emecheta isn’t looking back on history in an attempt to recreate it, she’s drawing directly on her own.

Rating: 3.5

(prequel to In the Ditch)


Very interesting but sad book. I found it hard to put down. However, I found that plot picked up too fast at the end, with too many events happening in the last few chapters. The ending I found unsatisfactory - there needs to be a sequel, otherwise the book just feels incomplete.


The time it takes for a normal human being to mature completely is something that is still very relative and sometimes, can feel like a mirage. Growing up mentally is a tedious process, more for the body, the physical self, that becomes accustomed to its surrounding. The world outside is strange and weird, full of soul-crushing impediments.

Buchi Emecheta's Second-Class Citizen is a soul rendering growth of Adah Obi. Crushed by her own bigger family since an early age, her willingness to learn never fades. Nothing vouchsafes strength and power more than African women writers. This semi-autobiographical work emaciates the gap that is present between what we know and why we think it happens.

Sarah Anne

"She, who only a few months previously would have accepted nothing but the best, had by now been conditioned to accept inferior things."

My partner bought me this book as part of our Christmas book challenge. A slight Jólabókaflóðið rip off, we picked countries out of a hat and bought books for the other based on the country we picked. I got Israel, my boyfriend got Nigeria. Second Class Citizen was my Christmas Eve book!

Buchi Emecheta is considered by many to be the a "pioneer among female African writers." Born in Lagos, she came to the UK in the 1960s. She published many books, including Second Class Citizen, including In the Ditch and The Joys of Motherhood. Writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have spoken of their admiration for Emecheta. She died in January 2017.

I, rather shamefully, had never heard of Emecheta until I read this book. I'll be making an effort to read more of her stuff from now on.

Second Class Citizen is semi-autobiographical. It tells the story of Adah, a Nigerian woman who comes to the UK to seek a new a life. It's the 1960s and her illusions are shattered pretty quickly when she's confronted with the racism and classism of 1960s England. On top of that she has to deal with her abusive husband who regards Adah's thirst for independence as something shameful. The parallels with Emecheta's life are obvious.

This is a sad but brilliant book that's still relevant in 2018 even though it was published in the 1970s. Adah is a brilliant character and I wish Emecheta had written more about her. There are moments when you literally want to climb inside the book and fight on her behalf. I’m glad this was my first book of 2018.

M. Ainomugisha

Second-Class Citizen covers surprising topics for its era. This is the sort of fictional writing that should be hailed alongside Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o in high school curricula. I’ve always wondered about African women fiction writers of that period and it’s always so heartening to find them out now. -It’s never too late to start reading their bodies of work.-

We commence by quickly identifying with Adah and her relentless desire for all forms literacy; first formal education and later reproductive enlightenment.
This theme carries the book. -I was frequently shook at the decisions Adah had to determine for herself amidst various forms of torture.-

An unlikely thread in this text is the changes in worship. What worship looked like to Adah and her relatives back in Nigeria transitions into a new worship when Adah and her children arrive in London and continues to transition as Francis takes to being a JW devotee.
-There is a paragraph where Adah describes her unique connection to prayer and a scattered few where she derides Biblical zealots, more especially her husband Francis, *very enjoyable stuff*.-

Adah comes of age with a lot of troubles and with a style so unfettered, demanding release from bondage. Second-Class Citizen reflects emotionally true to the kind of biographical read Emecheta’s introducing us to; the story of second-caliber humans.


This was a great read, I really enjoyed this book. I love the characters as well as the story line. One of the quotes I got from this book is

' A man who treated his mother like shit would always treat his wife like a shit'
I believe this to be true because I have come across it. It shows how life is like in Nigeria as a woman and what some of them went through by having hard times living by the rules.


I picked up a copy of this book because of my regularly refreshed familiarity with the contents of 500 Great Books By Women. I have also seen Emecheta's name crop up in other officiated channels, and the generally positive reviews reassured me that this particular acting on a whim had a good chance of being worth it. However, I'm not longer at the stage where I need a bare bones anthropology narrative regarding a mid 20th century Nigerian's time in jolly old England, and Emechta's story, however tortuous, built up to a certain degree, stagnated, and then ended on a veritable cliffhanger where a reader couldn't really believe anything would change. I've read and found magnificent other crushing narratives, but those always had an extra bit of something to them, whether rhetorical oomph or gripping imagery, and this, barring a few surreal runs of events three quarters of the way in and just before the end, never really got past an almost dry litany of a person's life and choices and resulting misfortunes, albeit in a combination of character and country that I don't encounter much in my reading. For whatever reason, I was not inspired, and whether this is due to my own cynicism or understanding that such enthusiasm does little good in the long run remains to be seen.

The best part of this work was when Adah was a gangling child wrangling with life and death and education until she had the means the vision of her future to seeming fruition. Once her penultimate goal of expatriation was achieved, all of that went and stayed downhill for pretty much the rest of the narrative. While there was a brief burst of interesting material near the end, especially with the mentions of Nwapa and Baldwin, it was a story I'd heard before in a less than novel guise, and it grew onerous, despite the text's brevity, to continue on for so long in predictably agonizing circumstances. As said previously, it all ends so abruptly that one isn't left with much, if any, sense of closure, and with a narrative this short, it's almost vital to have something of that sort before moving on. Longer narratives can sometimes both benefit and suffer from a reader waiting for it to be over, but a novella is best as a brief yet pithy punctuation mark, and this dragged and then barely gave any sense of follow through. I understand that this is autobiographical, but I still feel I've read this narrative elsewhere in a more engaging format, and there are no quotes or notable events that bubble to mind to convince me otherwise.

This wasn't the most fortuitously spontaneous 500 GBBW pick up, but I've had too many rewarding experiences with the directory to start hesitating now. Not everyone's going to have my above average (for an Anglo White who's never stepped outside the US, at least) experience with Nigerian/postcolonial expatriation narratives, and so their introduction will not have so many previous remembrances dangling in the background. As such, this is not the book for me, but it has a good chance of being the book for other,s so I will be glad to send it on its way to a possibly fortunate college student (my copy has a used textbook sticker on its spine). Looking back at the year thus far, I've either rounded or am rapidly approaching the curve of halfway through my challenge reads, and I'm looking forward to engaging with two group reads next month that happen to be concerned with two as of yet so far unread challenge books. For now, though, I have another book selection to ferret out that, hopefully, will make for an experience that fits in better with its rave reviews.


Second Class Citizen refers not only to Adah's status as a Nigerian immigrant in 1970s England but also as a woman in a traditional culture who refuses to comply with conventional gender roles. From the onset of the book, we see Adah defy the implicit rules that define her cultural standing when she leaves her house at the age of five to attend school without telling her parents. The incident almost lands her mother in jail for neglect but Adah is granted her wish: not only to attend school but to go to the fancy school where her brother Boy goes. This early scene plays itself out again and again throughout the book as Adah faces numerous emotional, social, and economic challenges both in her personal life with an Ibo man she marries who lacks drive and resents his wife's ambition to the point of physical and emotional abuse and in her migration to England where she faces racism and sexism on a daily basis.

Yet the book is not completely dreary. For one, despite the challenges Adah faces there are always aspects of her life that she is grateful for --her love of learning and of satisfying work, her love for her children even when she is overwhelmed by having 3 very young children with a man who is an absent father and who cannot financially provide for them, and her eventual awakening to become a writer. I do wish her dreams of being a writer were threaded earlier on in the novel as it suddenly becomes part of the plot to leave her husband who increasingly becomes a tyrant and abuser. Secondly, there is a craftiness to Adah that is highly appealing. She is able to manipulate situations to her advantage and while this may ostensibly be unethical if one manipulates to have power over others but in her situation it is what women have been doing for centuries in order to make something of themselves by breaking with tradition.

Some of the most horrific parts of the book also display her strongest skill as as a writer, descriptive passages with a high level of emotional intensity that never becomes sentimental or melodramatic, particularly in dealing with her body as the space where the public and private intersect. throughout a good portion of the book, Adah is pregnant or trying to avoid becoming pregnant; she is often raped by Francis or provides him with sex so she can do other things (the latter kind of behavior is not deviant but what women do when confined to particular situations where they have little control). Social prohibitions around birth control including abortions but also something as benign as trying to use a diaphragm take on larger dimensions as she faces humiliating circumstances to acquire birth control only to have her husband find out and tell his family back in Nigeria so that she is shamed for wanting control over her own body. She is also shamed by her obstetrician, also an immigrant who while somewhat sympathetic to her plight must abide by the patriarchal dictates of Francis and the social mores of England. Other heart-breaking scenes involve being denied a place to live by white landlords not only because they are black but also because they had children and ending up in a run down house owned by a Nigerian and his Anglo wife. The lack of any kind of support or advocacy groups or legal retribution for that matter is difficult to imagine even though I'm sure this kind of discrimination still continues.