Women in African literature
Anthonia C. Kalu
Although contemporary African literary criticism is a product of Africa’s contact with the West, evaluation and analyses relevant to the African experience must be derived from methods intrinsic to African art traditions. The dynamism evident in African life today emanates from traditional consciousness which embeds the arts in all aspects of life. In pre-colonial Africa, this complex relationship mandated an incessant search for ways to improve current situations and impacted creativity in all areas of life. Colonial interference encouraged separation from African traditional reality and existence and resulted in cultural, social, political and other forms of disarticulation.
According to Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1972), the forced disengagement from familiar ways of knowing was recorded in narrative form: You know the popular story among our people – that the Mubia told the people to shut their eyes in prayer, and when later they opened their eyes, the land was taken. And then, so the story goes, the Mubia told them not to worry about those worldly things which could be eaten by moth; and they sang: Thi ino ti yakwa ndi nwihitukiri (this world is not my home, I am only a pilgrim)(33).
Significantly, parts of the new narrative insisted on African people’s disengagement from traditional land and arts. Consequently, African literature began early to explore the dynamics of contemporary African existence and literary criticism became grounded in the exploration of the overt expressions of the new, scriptocentric legacy. Further, the colonial educational system excluded the woman resulting in her social, cultural and political dislocation in the new dispensation. Her subsequent silence has yet to be addressed in contemporary African experience.
The dearth of African literary genres that support the African woman’s participation in the (re)creation and maintenance of societal vision provides evidence of her silencing and apparent invisibility in Africa’s encounter with the West. Her participation is more overt in the postcolonial arena. Although African writers did not exclude her from the emerging culture that impressed African experience for a largely external readership, her portrayal became problematic in the contemporary setting which devised rules for her participation in the new dispensation. This seems a minor problem except that the task of reasserting the African woman’s presence was left to western educated African men who, themselves, were inadequately inscribed in the new dispensation. Burdened with the responsibility for self-reclamation and the risk of a lost homeland, a significant number of early writers overtly articulated the African male.
For a long time, portrayals of the African female in this postcolonial arena resonated with the concept of community and/or the female principle. Although most post-independent Africanists are aware of the dynamism of art in African society, that knowledge is rarely used to foster the new African narrative agenda in accordance with traditional norms. This is because an acceptance of the colonial experience required that most elements within ancestral heritage be reconceptualized as obstacles to creativity and advancement. Consequently, most contemporary narratives re-examine the known African world or explore the reinvented terrain circumscribed by the colonial encounter.
For those born after Independence, the problem manifests as incoherence between history, political culture and the arts. Beneficiaries of conditions of underdevelopment-already-in-progress, they accept the violence of the modern African city with its bright lights that mask corruption and filth. And, such acceptance presumes congruity with a modern African state. Given this situation, contemporary African literary criticism which deploys western analytical norms, implicitly demands continuation of violence and filth in the post-colonial state.
I am not implying here that a discussion of the negative aspects of existence and experience are not valid or acceptable. Critical appraisal is necessary and pertinent. Problems arise when these become the major foci of exploration and/or creativity. Because African thought remains significant to post-independent existence, literature and literary criticism. Contemporary African literature must continue to engage viable African literature through continuous examination and portrayal of the realities of the new dispensation. In this regard, indigenous African core statements are significant to African literature because more than the writers’ ability for normal literary practice they show the capacity for change encoded in African ways of knowing. A major concern here is the re-entrenchment of women and/or female-related aspects of selected statements into contemporary discourse. The focus is to examine the society’s capacity to maintain harmony and equilibrium using some recognizable predictions embedded in the selected indigenous core statements.
For example, in Flora Nwapa’s Efuru (1966) the eponymous character, Efuru (the lost) is also named Nwaononaku (the child/one-who-dwells-in-wealth). Her two names delineate the spaces that have developed in prevailing analyses of the African woman. However, most examination of Efuru’s childlessness and her failed marriages mandate a literary criticism that mirrors Africa’s economic dependence on the West. Analytically, this focus continues the disabling postures that sustained the trans-Atlantic slave trade and subsequent colonization. This viewpoint presumes that Efuru and her experiences are individual and personal losses in an Oguta that is focused on community harmony and growth.
Such a conclusion is at odds with the widespread assumption that African ways of knowing assert the supremacy of community because it assumes a narrative vision that portrays characters whose experiences are non-essential to societal objectives and goals. This study of the African woman seeks to transcend current pressures to normalize the adversity and disunity in the African woman’s experience. Rather than facilitating her full domestic and international participation, such pressures hinder her and stall African advancement. A brief survey of some prevailing viewpoints in contemporary African literature will illustrate what I mean here.
Activist Feminism: A prevailing view in African literary criticism is rooted in the need to create a niche for the female African writer and critic within the contemporary literary tradition. This approach develops out of the years of silence and struggle that many African women scholars experienced in the academic arena. Many African women scholars opposed the silencing which seemed supported by a male-dominated African literary criticism. In theory, activist feminism maintains that only the African woman can convincingly explore her experience. This school seeks validation of the African woman through in-depth exploration of other exclusionary traditions. Subscribers also agree that: ‘African feminist criticism is definitely engaged criticism in much the same way as progressive African literary criticism grapples with decolonization and feminist criticism with the politics of male literary dominance’ (Davies, 12).
Though most adherents agree that ‘for African feminists, the double allegiance to women’s emancipation and African liberation becomes one’ (Davies, 12), they find that Negritude, for example, was wrong-headed in creating romantic and mythic images of the African woman. Also, the African male writer and/or critic’s glorification of African motherhood is seen as oppressive and offensive because their expressed views conform to ‘other prescribed female role which is at the core of most African poetry’ (6). However, this school’s argument ignores the fact that the creation of mythic African womanhood is coextensive with the proposal that the African woman’s world be seen through her own eyes.
By assuming a universalistic approach to liberation, women’s emancipation, African liberation and African women’s emancipation, this approach evokes a veneration of the African woman with ‘mountains on her back.’ It uses a postcolonialist feminist ideology that prompts a metaphysical filter of inclusion by exclusion, to set up barriers similar to those whose elimination remains part of its agenda. But stated commitment to the cause of the African woman’s liberation is usually present as a major concern. Significant analyses advocate a confrontational research programme that perceives the African woman’s liberation as a struggle against non-feminists, perceived traditionalists and men.
Borrowing from activist oriented ideologies, this research programme (re)defines the African woman’s world for her, setting parameters that are based on what she ought to see rather than on her reality. However, this school admits the existence of pockets of power which ‘allowed’ women by recognizing aspects of women’s participation in decision-making institutions within traditional African communities. Generally, it faults all men for keeping power to themselves and, in particular, African men for not decrying debilitating African traditions that seek the perpetuation of oppressive roles for the African woman.
Missionary Feminism: This school of thought employs a predominantly moral approach. Some aspects of feminist consciousness grounds the thinking of most adherents. One of its earliest practitioners was Amanda Berry Smith, a 19th century African American missionary in Africa. Part of her report on African women presents most of the issues that current missionary feminists deal with and deserves quoting in detail:
The poor women of Africa, like those of India, have a hard time. As a rule, they have all the hard work to do. They have to cut and carry all the wood, carry all the water on their heads, plant all the rice. The men and boys cut and burn the bush, with the help of the women; but sowing the rice, and planting the cassava, the women have to do.
You will often see a great, big man walking ahead, with nothing in his hand but a cutlass (as they always carry that or a spear), and a woman, his wife, coming on behind, with a great big child on her back, and a load on her head.
No matter how tired she is, her lord would not think of bringing her a jar of water, to cook his supper with, or of beating the rice; no, she must do that. A great big boy would not bring water for his mother; he would say: ‘Boy no tote water; that be woman’s work.’
If they live with missionaries, or Liberians, or anyone outside of their own native people, then they will do such things; but not for one another (Amanda Berry Smith, 17).
Smith’s account is filled with the usual stories of heathenism, witchcraft and the darkness predicted for non-Christians. Within her narrative, her own ministering to the Bishop is not considered oppressive because the Bishop needed her services and the ‘backward natives’ were too ignorant to eat by the clock.
We used to get up in the morning early; I would boil some water and make the Bishop a cup of cocoa or coffee, and so give him an early breakfast. The natives were always kind and hospitable; they would have their meal about nine or ten o’clock; but we would be very faint by that time, not being used to it; and, as the Bishop was a very early riser, I knew it was best for him to have something to eat before that time. And then I always took a cup of tea, or something it was late in the day... (17).
Nowhere in Smith’s account does she stop to ask why the Bishop did not boil water for his own tea. The prevailing viewpoint is that of a missionary trained to detect and correct the wrong practices of the native; the missionary’s major focus is the native’s conversion. Smith’s vocation enables her to see her chores for the Bishop as her duty and to defend the missionary ethic as objective truth. This leads the reader to believe that Smith’s Africans sleep through the better part of the morning (they do not eat breakfast until nine or ten o’clock); and, their laziness requires missionary intervention as part of their redemption.
Unable to perceive herself as a returning native, Smith fails to see that the cutlass-carrying African male ‘walking ahead’ and his burdened wife are both victims of slave raids that required able-bodied African men to protect women and children from raiders of African bodies for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Continued myopic reading of this African family caravan is based on the premise that armour-wearing and magnificent-white-horse-riding men are chivalrous, non-African inventions while cutlass or spear-carrying African men are primitive and oppressive. In other words, cutlass or spear-carrying men do not (cannot?) protect or rescue women or children in distress.
Undoubtedly, Smith recounts events that took place in the 19th century. But this way of looking at Africa is current. For example, in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), Netie is both missionary and social critic in fictional Olinka and reflects prevalent US views of Africa and African women. Also, Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) extends this burden of social criticism ‘on-behalf-of’ oppressed African womanhood into the area of activism in creative writing. According to the narrative objectives of Smith’s and Walker’s works, African women are either inherently incapable of seeing the extent of their own oppression or they lack necessary objectivity in their thoughts and writings about it. Among the works of African-born women writers, Buchi Emecheta’s writings best exemplify this school of thought.
This approach seeks to redirect the African woman toward a better way of life. It explores issues like the brutality of polygamy; the unreasonable expectations of mothers who cannot bear to see their daughters choose different lifestyles; the inability of the modern African woman to make up her mind about feminist ideas and attitudes and, of course, ‘female genital mutilation’ (Nama 1986; Levin 1986). It convinces by promising to ‘put [African] women at the centre...’ (O’Barr 59) and ‘... rais[e] consciousness ... "through the" articulation (of) the inequities they experience in fictional form ...’ (69). Using the consciousness raising approach, it evokes the need for a ‘crucial union of westernized, feminist and African culture...’ (Katherine Frank 19).
Crucial to this school of thought is the idea of the African woman’s development into an independent individual. However, her independence requires the negation of African concepts of sharing and community because these tie the woman to tradition. It advocates a new kind of sharing (Frank 19) involving acceptance of the West and western feminist ideals which signal conversion to a new equality. Significantly there is usually no suggestion to western women to share western cultural norms with African women or their own Africanized sisters.
Adherents to this school assume the African past is predictable and pernicious and they seem surprised at the African woman’s inability to cope in a transitional society that lacks autonomy and access to self-validation mechanisms at the international level. Efforts to authenticate supportive traditional structures are interpreted as lack of creativity and incipient romanticism. Also problematic for the African woman involved in the conversion process is the identification of the contemporary African male as a ‘modern’ man who is nevertheless distinct from modern men.
Publication in African languages is perceived as restricting access to African women’s works, and the learning of a European language (preferably English) predicts resourcefulness. Typical of this approach, recommendations enjoin continued imposition of traditional constraints that control women’s behaviour. Although usually engaged in issues of women’s progress, the missionary feminist’s analysis is unclear about which culture’s constraints should guide behaviour; but it is never equivocal about the advantages of European language choices. Given the complex relationships between language and culture, the suggestion that local advancement is enhanced through publication in English (or other European languages) demands specific responses to the postcolonial experience.
Focusing attention on the perceptual distances created between African peoples by slavery and colonialism, this approach also maintains a separatist vision that refuses to acknowledge African progress on both sides of the Atlantic. Its continuing evocation of Africa as the Dark Continent and indictment of people of the African diaspora as dreamers of unnecessary, if not impossible, dreams is a challenge to African and African diaspora scholarship, unity and advancement.
Given this school’s missionary focus, statements like ‘African society’s intolerance of one’s right to choose one’s destiny rather than consider the common good...’ (Umeh 179) create a dilemma for the would-be African missionary feminist. Also when observations like the following are presented as admissions of limited feminist consciousness or indicators of retarded development, it becomes difficult to question these same assertions as valid indicators for the marginalization of African American women in advanced countries like the United States.
…the right path for [the women] is not clear as Mrs. Nwaizu ... puts it:
‘We are still a long way away from that yet. Here feminism means everything the society says is bad for women. Independence, outspokenness, immorality, all the ills you can think of...’ (Umeh 176).
Whether it is the brutality of polygamy, African-descended women’s rape and abuse in United States’ slavery, or current ceilings on the African feminist’s expectations, it will be difficult to use ‘the master’s tools [to] dismantle the master’s house’ (Lorde 1984). Despite our frustrations with history, all African-descended women are responsible for the development of research programmes that are sensitive to the unique locations we inhabit. In the final analysis, the missionary feminist’s agenda does not proclaim the West as a haven for the educated, idealistic and tradition-free, modern African woman. That is the challenge for all women of African descent. Contrary to this school of thought, the new African woman is not an unfinished version of the western feminist. If, as Audre Lorde implies, development does not depend on a western-based conversion agenda, then transcendence of current oppression must not mean that the contemporary African woman will be better-off in a modified colonialism.
Neo-colonial Feminism: Colonialism’s negation of African womanhood, the pervasive ambivalence regarding postcolonial thematic constructs, and the harsh realities of contemporary Africa’s snail-paced economic progress – all pose unique problems for the development of research agenda on the African woman. Identifying locations for change and new methods of survival in the postcolonial state are the major focus of this school. Questioning the contemporary African woman’s views of change, some concerns of this school overlap with those of missionary feminism; but some of the methods are similar to those employed by activist feminism.
This school points out the African woman’s lack of development in sophisticated thought and action, insisting that adaptation to changing norms must be accompanied by attainment of power within the changing society. Changes in the domestic arena and the work place are emphasized. Rarely confrontational, neocolonialist feminism focuses on the African woman’s sense of self, her identity. Consequently, the major targets are her feelings and knowledge of security in African constructions of knowledge.
This approach debunks articulations of traditional bases of the postcolonial woman’s achievements (Brown 1981: 6) and makes her incapacity to exploit the resulting void the reason for seeking advancement. Circumscribing her through the dismissal and exclusion of ideas that validate her points of origin, this school makes it difficult to develop contemporary economic and ideological markets that support the African woman’s intellectual products.
Although neo-colonialist feminist thought acknowledges this underdeveloped market, it argues that the contemporary African woman’s advancement depends on her removal from the supportive background of African ways of knowing. Rather than acknowledge that the western educated African has developed the capacity to straddle two or more cultures, neo-colonialist feminist thought maintains that such ability predicts the absence of a significant African worldview. This kind of argument precludes the possibility that pre-colonial African thought is receptive to ideas about women’s autonomy, and concludes that feminism per se is foreign to the African woman’s experience.
Amajor part of the neo-colonialist feminism’s call to the African woman is predicated on the articulation of the absence of an autonomous viewpoint about women in the works of male authors. As a strategy, this approach encourages removal of the African woman from the African base by isolating women writers’ works through the implication that their successes are beyond African men’s.
Writers like Aidoo, Sutherland and Nwapa have made distinctive contributions to the genres in which they work – Aidoo in the short story, Sutherland in the play, and Nwapa in the novel. They have managed to develop their themes in such a way that their chosen forms are inseparable from the manner in which they perceive women and society in general. In each case, the selected form reflects the experiences of the woman. Finally, Sutherland’s plays repeatedly develop analogies between the role playing of the theatre and (sexual) role playing in society (13).
Thus, while the African woman writer’s success facilitates her deletion from African society, it (re)creates her as an incident in western literature in Africa. The point here is that isolating the African woman from African society is at odds with African ways of knowing. Educated or not, African men, like men from other societies, constitute neither an autonomous cultural nor national alliance. Though it is not necessary that men and women always agree on all fronts, Africa’s advancement is coextensive with the recognition of the existence of a common base, shared experiences and heritage.
It is important to state here that western feminism posits a different viewpoint, not a separate society, culture, politics and so on, from western patriarchal norms. In general, western feminism assumes the validity of woman-as-woman as it modifies western knowledge bases while validating women’s positive participation. This fact is central to the different approaches that inform western (white) feminisms and the liberation struggles of women of colour in general and African women scholars in particular.
African Feminism: Most creative writers in postcolonial Africa assume the influence of an African narrative tradition and culture in their works. Although portrayals of the African woman’s experiences reaffirm her position and power within African conceptions of the world, it has been difficult to delineate the utility of these relationships in the scripto-centric, new dispensation. Colonialism’s early focus on writing as a male-dominated activity created obstacles for the education of women and the early exploration of women-centred ways of knowing in the African knowledge base. This made it difficult to understand women’s advancement in the changing society. African feminism explores the inscription of the African woman on the continent and the diaspora. Recognizing her circumscription in many areas of contemporary experience, it emphasizes the need for an extension of boundaries so as to facilitate validation of her participation as woman-as-woman. African feminism asserts the African woman’s narrative and viewpoints as routes to understanding her experiences.
African feminism usually adopts an explanatory stance and emphasizes understanding of African cultures and social systems. Insisting on another way of reading Africa’s written narratives, it assumes that the African story in a European language has more than one level of meaning. For example, in her exploration of Camara Laye’s use of language, Phanuel Egejuru (1978) says:
... the author is defending the position of the African woman before an audience that has either misunderstood that position or has been ignorant of it. Camara does not need to prove this to an African audience. Furthermore the use of ‘our’ and ‘we’ shows that the author is distinguishing himself and his society from the foreign reader (141).
Also, in relation to writers in other parts of the world, the position of the African writer is unique on account of language and history. We have for the first time a group of writers committed to dualism of audience (241).
Explications by the African feminist school straddle general and encompassing views and close readings of selected texts (Egejuru 1976). Examination of particular texts and particular features of African ways of knowing are more detailed in the works of scholars like Irene d’Almeida (1986), Mildred Hill-Lubin (1986), Nana Banyiwa-Horne (1986) and Charles Nama (1986).
This school of thought consciously reappropriates concepts of African womanhood retained in African American culture from slavery to the present as well as the different meanings of African womanhood within the traditional African knowledge base. African feminism insists on continued application of concepts which maintain a system of knowledge that assumed her visibility necessary for effective participation. Refusing to be relegated to the position of a congenial ‘other’ who endorses her own subjugation, African feminism asserts that current self-expression reinvigorates a sense of wholeness embedded in a viable past. Although it agrees with activist feminism on the necessity of developing an objective African feminist paradigm, it rejects its confrontational strategies that constrain exploration of pre-colonial Africa’s constructions of knowledge to gender conflicts.
In this regard, references to practical adjustments made by women of African descent using the African knowledge base in times of conflict are useful. For example, this school sees women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth as resisting and fighting disabling paradigms through the use of creative applications of African traditional assertions of women’s inherent freedoms. The concept of harmonious coexistence is presumed at the core of the African knowledge base. For the contemporary African woman working within unreconciled African and western systems of knowledge, the possibilities of this school of thought are endless.
As Wa Thiong’o notes early in his career (Nama 141), the African woman’s beauty ‘in the tribe’ must first be acknowledged by herself rather than by an alien, conflicting worldview. According to Dubois, inhabitants of that opposing worldview invariably ‘look(s) on in amused contempt and pity’ (DuBois 1903: 3) while the African struggles for self-assertion or moves toward self destruction or communal chaos. Clearly, convincing African literary critical and analytical strategies should have the potential to acknowledge and practice Africa’s right to an all-inclusive heritage. This does not preclude learning from and/or borrowing from other cultures. But it requires constant revisions of multi-dimensional research programmes in search of underlying ideals and meaningful change.
Nwaononaku – an African Perspective on Womanhood: Although the African feminist approach remains sensitive to issues that are important to the contemporary African woman, it does not go far enough in its exploration. This is because it generally appraises her losses and proclaims her beauty through textual exploration of familiar postures like the fact of grandmother roles or the extended family in African societies. This approach creates an impression that indepth explanations and/or analyses are not essential for developing viable analytical strategies when researching African women’s life and literature. To a certain extent, this feature of African feminism creates a false universalism, which in turn creates difficulty in the initiation of new analytical frameworks to advance research and creativity using such explanations. While African feminist scholarship is brilliant, it primarily reflects prevailing interpretations and emphasize textual readings.
This work initiates a new approach to the interpretation of the African experience by expanding the scope of relevant aspects of societal structure. Working from the assumption that before the African woman’s voice was silenced through slavery and colonialism, it was heard within societal frameworks that assumed women’s participation as significant to normal cultural practice. I also focus on the woman’s position relative to other significant aspects of society. Regarding the question of silenced voices, for example, it seems logical to assume that the woman’s voice in society reflected a position of relative and crucial power. Thus her power was based on established socio political, religious and/or other norms. Careful examination of African literature engaged in the project of self-reclamation supports this claim.
In this work, I define women’s writing as a pervasive text – it is written on the body with uli, on paper with the Europeans’ indelible uli, and in the society in all aspects of life, i.e., as ubiquitous. For example, although the main character in Tutuola’s Palm-wine Drunkard (1953) is a man who seems unconscious of either his plight or that of his people, he does not negate the lives of the women he encounters. Early in the story, he transforms himself into a lizard in order to discover the secret of restoring the voice of the beautiful woman who had chosen to marry ‘the Skull as a complete gentleman’ (25-26). Always, he shows concern for the women in his life and takes risks on their behalf.
For example, Achebe’s Chielo (Things Fall Apart) is a priestess and a healer whose roles allow her control of spaces that the fearless Okonkwo is cautious about entering. Confident of these spaces and the social environment on a moonlit night, she runs through the town with a sick Ezimma on her back. Throughout Chielo’s race that night, her voice calls out greetings to notable community personages and agbala. Suggesting only confidence and reliance on a rich ideological resource base, Chielo’s voice shows no hint of oppression or suppressed womanhood. The fact that Ezimma recovers after the encounter with Chielo also speaks about Chielo’s power in agbala.
Significant to the re-envisioning of African womanhood here is the paradox of agbala. Always in collaboration with women, agbala is an oracle, a force beyond human understanding and strength. But it is also the name given to a man without a title (Achebe 1958). The brave Okonkwo trembles in the presence of the former and despises the latter. Agbala is an early indication of the woman’s location in a traditional Igbo (African) society. In Efuru (1966) Flora Nwapa further expounds on the complexity of Igbo thought on women.
Rooted in Igbo narrative traditions, Nwapa does not refer directly to the Igbo practice of multi-voicing. Like Achebe, Nwapa also uses and explores the concept of duality-in-existence. Within the practice of duality in which everything has its opposite and complement, Nwapa, the narrator, names everything at least twice. To begin with, the traditional narrative mode assumes that narrative land exists as a complement to the world of the living. It is seen as a parallel universe whose world turns in ways similar to the world of the narrator and her/his audience. Consequently, whatever the narrative names is seen as parallel and complementary to that which is known at the concrete level.
Through narratives, community members name the contents of Spirit-land, the complement of the world of the living. Through symbolism and allusions, the narrator provides the route to and the proximity with Spirit-land. These allusions and symbols are essential to the relationship with the community’s ancestors and are indispensable to African life and living. The woman-as-mother is the primary narrator to the child. She teaches the child about the society’s ways of knowing. In this way, the woman-as-mother becomes significant to the essential development and maintenance of the community. Chielo, racing through the town with Ezimma on her back symbolizes this role and function.
There is no male equivalent to this role of the priestess in African life. And, Okonkwo must follow later and wait in the shadows as woman- as-priestess and agbala renegotiate the child’s health and continuance. Significant here is the fact that the processes of ritual and negotiation are embedded in narrative tradition and practice. Like Achebe, Nwapa makes use of this relationship in Efuru in which the major characters have praise names – the complement of given names. According to Achebe (1975: 96) names reflect the circumstances of one’s birth and family background.
Nwapa’s presentation of Efuru in her various roles and functions model traditional narrative practices and modes. On the first and most obvious level is Efuru (the lost one), the barren woman. As a childless woman, this character challenges the notion of Nneka – Mother-is-Supreme – a concept Achebe introduces in his exploration of Okonkwo’s exile in Mbanta, his mother’s home of birth. Agreeing with Achebe’s articulation of duality-in-existence: Wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it, Nwapa presents a character whose inability to be biologically prolific will pose a major dilemma expressed by Nneka: what happens when the woman is without child? Do women without children share in the power that motherhood endows on mothers in the society?
By the story’s end, Nwapa solves the puzzle by presenting an Ugwuta-Igbo as a complement to childlessness – Uhamiri, the woman of the lake. For the disabled (because it suggests lack) condition of childlessness, the beautiful Uhamiri’s abundant wealth provides an opposite and necessary complement. Efuru’s wealth provides her an alternate avenue to motherhood. She uses it to take care of Ogea, Ogea’s parents and others in the community who would otherwise have no access to the benevolent interventions associated with motherhood. Emerging from the intricate web of relationships is an Efuru whose praise name, Nwaononaku (the one-who-dwells-in-wealth), is manifested in an economically productive life. Efuru’s effortless profits in the marketplace reflect an ideologically rich resource base, which the community supports using the Uhamiri metaphor.
Understanding womanhood as a discursive framework for explaining women’s role in most African communities therefore requires epistemological specificity and historicity of African ways of knowing. The complementarities of paired-outcomes in Igbo (African) epistemology evident in Achebe and Nwapa’s works sufficiently straddle the (pre) colonial and postcolonial contexts for understanding the woman’s role in society. An approach that inheres from Igbo (African) thought, it allows for analytical depth whether or not the woman is biologically and/or economically prolific. By exploring essentially paired-outcomes within the epistemological discourse, it becomes possible to explicate the necessity for women’s participation.
In Nwapa’s Efuru (1966), for example, Nwosu and Nwabata seek out Efuru who agrees to train and nurture their daughter, Ogea. Eventually, Efuru also begins to take care of Nwosu and Nwabata. Since Nwosu is Efuru’s sister, existing African norms allow both to recreate Ogea as Efuru’s maid as a way to alleviating misery and suffering for Nwosu who has lost his yams to flood. Nwapa’s narrative project is purposefully based on Igbo thought and practice of conversation and rhetoric. Instead of proverbs, she uses conversation to revisit the issue of male death as an accepted form of payment for any death (Achebe 1958) by asserting the predominance of a mutual search for life.
Deriving her vision from Igbo narrative traditions, she stresses the extent to which Ikemefuna’s death by Okonkwo’s hand is inconsistent not only with Okonkwo’s character but with Ugwuta (Igbo) thought and character. Structurally, Ogea’s arrival in Efuru’s household is introduced using a frame that is comparable to that which presents the arrival of Ikemefuna to Okonkwo’s household. This structure signals Nwapa’s purposeful use of Igbo rhetorical modes to engage Achebe’s presentation of the use of male death to alleviate grief and misery:
That is how Ogea came to live with Efuru and her husband. She was a mere child, only ten years old. How could she look after a baby? Ogea cried and cried when her parents left her. She refused to eat and refused to do anything in the house. She was so uncooperative that Efuru did not know what to do with her. At first she was soft with her. But when she saw that this did not work, she became very firm and flogged her when she was naughty. Once or twice, she threatened to put pepper in her eyes (40).
Like Ikemefuna, Ogea brings folk tales, song and dance with her to her new home. Collectively, the women in Efuru’s life nurture Ogea into a mature Oguta womanhood. Together with Efuru, Ogea learns about industry, success, joy and grief. Ogea moves with Efuru from one home to another. She observes and absorbs Oguta life and thought through Efuru’s experiences in her marriages, life in her father’s compound and her relationship with Uhamiri, the Woman of the Lake.
Unlike Okonkwo who eventually kills Ikemefuna, Efuru nurtures Ogea to eligibility for marriage to her husband, Gilbert. Ogea’s social growth speaks to the amplitude of the structure of Igbo thought on the applicability of the concept of woman-as-female-and-principle to development in personal and community life and living. Rather than advocating polygamy, what is presented for consideration here is the potential for cooperation which women adapted and/or reworked for individual and group advancement.
Apprenticed to Efuru, Ogea can never be lost to Oguta womanhood. From this point of view, Nwapa’s refusal to be labelled ‘feminist’ makes sense, for she is not arguing for equality between the male and female principle. That is already a given. What is important here is the (re)presentation of traditionally established strategies for continued exploration of routes to individual and group advancement. Even though they do occur, violence and violent deaths are not acceptable conclusions within this structure in which simultaneous existence of the corporeal and the intangible is a norm. Most African societies continually strive for harmony between the ancestral world and the world of the living. Creating or maintaining rifts between these two worlds is considered an abomination in most African cultures.
In this regard, Ghana’s Ama Ata Aidoo’s fictional and analytical works examine similar ideas. In The Dilemma of a Ghost (1965), she explores some of these concepts through complications arising from the introduction of the returning native, Eulalie, Ato’s Afro-American wife. Like most African women in contemporary African women’s literature, Eulalie is portrayed in the complex environment of the African family. Part of the question Aidoo explores here is: How do those who stayed behind explain African norms about family to those whose ancestors went away and became a part of western norms and values? Also, significant to the situation in The Dilemma ... is that the Ghana in question is new to all the characters. In the new dispensation, the negotiations and transitions are no longer smooth as everyone strives for harmony, full participation and recognition.
The women participate in the restructuring process. Esi Kom invests all her family’s wealth in the possibilities of the new dispensation by paying for her son’s education in the United States. Later, when Ato brings Eulalie home, she finds out that Ato had neglected to tell his wife about basic processes of maintaining continuity and harmony through hospitality. Ato’s wife throws away her mother-in-law’s gift of snails because she had never ‘seen a single snail crawling on the streets of New York. And seeing snails and eating them are entirely different things!’ (32) She also does not offer her mother-in-law drinking water or an invitation to spend a night or two at her home.
Esi Kom and Monka insist on a discussion of the situation. During the discussion, the women maintain control of the discussion, which quickly develops into a quarrel. It soon becomes obvious that Esi Kom had pawned family land and other heirlooms to pay for Ato’s education. In the process, she had neglected Monka’s needs. Esi and Monka indicate that they had hoped Ato’s return would enable their family to rise again to their former status. Although the women are both angry, they refuse to be relegated to the background, insisting that Ato listen to them. But listening does not always mean understanding.
Ato continues to misrepresent his people’s tradition through his silence. By telling Eulalie not to worry when she expresses anxiety about having children, Ato refuses to be a narrator in the African tradition. But his silence and inaction are only evident when his leadership role in the Odumna Clan house is at issue. Ato does not hesitate to assert himself when Eulalie realizes that the elders expected them to have children and confronts him. He slaps her, expressing the growing gulf between him and the female principle in particular and members of the Odumna Clan house in general.
Aidoo’s narrative vision brings together the old and the new, insisting that the new dispensation need not be a negative experience for Africans, especially women. Using female characters from both sides of the African experiences of enslavement and colonialism, Aidoo’s carefully crafted narrative project asserts that the female principle can be used to heal the chasm between the old and the new, the educated elite of the new dispensation and the uneducated traditional leaders. Especially instructive is the narrative’s suggestions about the process of healing the rift that resulted between Africans as a result of the experiences of slavery in the New World and colonial domination on the continent.
At the end of the story, a tired and weak Eulalie returns to the Clan House, which she left in anger after the fight with Ato. As she is about to ‘crumple in front of the courtyard,’ (52) Esi Kom who had found out that Eulalie’s mother was dead, ‘rushes forward to support her on’ (52). She steers her daughter-in-law ‘through the door that leads into the old house’ (52). Given that Esi Kom had earlier mined old family wealth to pay for her son’s education in the West, it is likely that given the new circumstances, she will go in search of traditional wisdom to enable Eulalie’s socialization into the family.
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