Abi Daré’s debut novel, The Girl with the Louding Voice, is not a comfortable read, but reviewer Gail Collins couldn’t put down this tale of a Nigerian girl whose life is dominated by lack of education, poverty and modern slavery.
FACT: Despite the creation in 2003 of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, to tackle human trafficking and related crimes such as child labour, a 2006 UNICEF report showed that approximately 15m children under the age of 14, mostly girls, were working across Nigeria.
It is currently estimated that seven out of every 1,000 Africans are trafficked into slavery (Walk Free Foundation & The International Labour Office).
The 2020 debut novel from Abi Daré, The Girl with the Louding Voice, is not a comfortable read but it is unquestionably an emotional one. Set in Nigeria in 2014, a pre-election year and the year Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls, we meet Adunni, a 14-year-old girl from a small village several hours’ drive away from the former capital city of Lagos.
The book is written in the first person using Adunni’s unique voice – a broken English with a disregard for grammar and tenses, solely due to a lack of enough formal education.
When I first began reading it, I occasionally had to revisit some of the narrative but at some point, during the initial chapters, I realised I was beginning to connect with her view of the world and her uncomplicated vocabulary, which often provided images that were so unexpected but astonishingly perceptive, they would elicit a chuckle.
However, there is nothing funny about this book, it is purely Adunni’s resilience and bright spirit that at times provide a light relief.
Adunni is not just a fictitious character emerging day by day from the author’s imagination – she is the representation of millions of young girls whose lives are dominated by a lack of education, poverty and modern slavery.
The book begins with an insight into small-village life, where self-governance is apparent, often paying little or no attention to the rules and regulations of conventional authorities.
Adunni lives with her father and two brothers. Her mother has died and even through the darkness of her own immeasurable grief, she puts caring for her father and younger brother Kayus before her own needs.
Having already been disallowed to continue schooling to help look after the family, she dreams of returning one day to fulfil her goal of becoming a teacher – an achievement that would give her the ability to take away hardship for her father and brothers.
Against her fierce wishes, she is sold as a commodity by her weak-minded, lazy, poverty-stricken father into marriage, for money and livestock, and so begins Adunni’s heart-breaking, gruelling and untimely journey from girl to woman.
Vivid cast of characters
The author’s skilful and wise use of Adunni’s voice throughout the book generates an intimacy that might otherwise not have existed, and having the ability to understand Adunni’s thoughts and views on everything she encounters, means that the reader is literally walking by her side; and you can only remain humbled by her acceptance of the past, struggle in the present and determination for the future.
The vivid cast of inspired characters encountered in Adunni’s life frustrate, horrify, disturb and relieve you as they each play their part in the drama that unfolds.
Morufu, the “old man taxi driver in our village with the face of a he-goat,” is the man she will marry, so destined to becoming the most junior of three wives and a life of torment from the most senior.
Tragic events beyond her control take her to Lagos – “Tall buildings with wall of glass, and shape like ship, like hat, like choco-cubes, like circles, like triangles, all different shape and colour and size” – with Mr Kola, an agent allegedly finding her work. Big Madam becomes her new employer – “She is not having a neck, this woman. Just a round, fat head on top the wide chest with breast that must be reaching near to her knees area.”
And so, once again her life depends on the whims and dispositions of others – and Adunni’s guileless but candid observations on ostentatious wealth, false friendships and human flaws will have you nodding your head in agreement or shaking it in despair.
You will feel her joy when she finds friends in Kofi, the Ghanaian house chef, and Ms Tia –“Honest, honest, her voice is doing music inside my ears, and I am just feeling something in my belly, like I want to be singing.” You will feel her fear when she tries to uncover the mystery of the last housemaid – the missing Rebecca.
Once I started reading this book, I finished it quickly because quite simply, I needed to know what happened to Adunni. I cared about her.
“I don’t just want any kinda voice… I want a louding voice.”
About Abi Daré
When her eight-year-old daughter said that she did not feel like emptying the dishwasher, Abi Daré quickly retorted that there were girls of her age in Nigeria who did housework all day for a living.
This exchange followed by her young daughter’s bewilderment became the spark of inspiration that led to her captivating and bold debut novel – The Girl with the Louding Voice.
Abi Daré grew up in a middle-class affluent housing estate in Lagos, Nigeria with an awareness that having a housemaid was the norm. They were often young girls brought in from small villages or neighbouring countries.
She had her own memories of young unkempt girls working in her neighbourhood, but it was not until she had her own daughters that she began to reflect on the reality of the lives these girls led.
Her parents were divorced so she and her brother were raised by their mother, who used her own education and opportunities to ensure her children received the best schooling possible.
After attending the Vivian Fowler Memorial College for Girls in Nigeria, she went to the UK in 2000 and has a law degree from Wolverhampton University, an MSc in International Project Management from Glasgow Caledonian University and more recently, in a bid to improve her writing, attained an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London, where she graduated with distinction. The Girl with the Louding Voice was actually written as part of her thesis.
In 2018, her manuscript won the Bath Novel Award. She later discovered it was the final manuscript to arrive, due to her uncertainty as to whether she should send it.
She currently works full time as the Head of Programme Management for a large medical clinical trial and data intelligence company and lives in Essex with her husband and two daughters.
Abi Daré was deservedly included in New African’s Most Influential Africans listing of 2020. She has lived her life by the wise words of her mother:
“Everything can be taken from you, your health, your money, life sometimes, but if you’re alive and you have an education, that’s the only thing that no one can take from you.”
Read more about African literature on our New African Readers’ Club page.