Fiction, Isidore Okpewho's 'The Last Duty'

Lacing the War with Women and Children

‘Back from the boats,’ [Captain Harrington] shouts, catchin’ up the hand-spike. ‘The first man that touches a boat I’ll brain. Women and children first…’

~Harrington: A Story of True Love (1860) by William Douglas O’Connor

The reality of the lives and struggle of women and children in war front cannot be known by war mongers, it’s only the imagery of this experience that we see. The lived experiences of women caught in war zones are diverse. From decade to decade, these woes continue to the point of normalization. They are captured in different media forms like photography and films. But they are also captured in fiction.
I must accept that chronicling war experiences in fiction is a really difficult thing, especially if the writer has not lived through war.http://fictioningdevelopment.org photo Yet between the lines of many fiction novels, you can have a glimpse of what life in the war front is like. Of all the fiction narratives I have read about war, the novel ‘The Last Duty’ stands out. Published in 1976, bagging the African Arts Prize for literature awards, I wonder why the excellent writer Isidore Okpewho has eluded me all these years. Perhaps he has maintained a low profile, but viewing war through the lens of his writing provoked a lot of high moment. Most significant is its ability to capture the experiences of civilians, especially that of women and children in the characters of Aku and Ogheneovo.
‘The Last Duty’ stylishly gave almost all the characters a space to tell their own war story; hence there was no single person narrative. Set in the fictional land of  Urukpe,we are exposed to a war in which every moment of it is pregnant with danger. Guerrilla air rades by the rebels happen and bodies are counted, the sounds of guns rattle in fury, tat-tat-tat-tat-tat! It awakens plain ancient fear, people learn to take cover according to civil defense instructions; under the tree, in the bunker, beneath the bed, at the foot of a wall, everywhere! Roads are chewed up and broken by the business of long fighting. Guns Booming, riffles cracking, invading planes dropping bombs…Diimm! Kpoai! Toai! There are endless wailing from the confrontations between two military forces; the federal and the Simbian. Guns answer to guns in deafening encounter.

Dorothea Lange 1936 Photograph titled 'Migrant Mother' in honor of women and children that suffered in the great depression.
Dorothea Lange 1936 Photograph titled ‘Migrant Mother’ in honor of women and children that suffered in the great depression.

Between the lines of weaving this entire story, the struggles of Aku stand out.Life and time was hard upon her. She had many things to say of her life, more so, every character held a slice of this young woman’s physiological and psycho-social existence in the war torn Urukpe.  She comes into the scene sharing her dependency and loyalty to her beloved husband (Mukoro Oshivere)whom she was willing to pine for until his release from incarceration. She admits to the readers that she and her child Ogheneovo are not secure anymore in Oshivere’s  absence. Hostile eyes assail her, no one greets her, she is isolated for her husband’s misguided accusation of being a rebel supporter by Toje his commercial rival. Yet among her catalogue of woes, Toje poses a new kind of danger; he offers her kindness bringing food, money and cloth through Odibo to her. She can see in Toje’s eyes that his gifts has a hidden emotional invoice attached to them, she is right but again, she is helpless. As a suspected rebel with insolent freedom, she is not allowed to go to the market, how do they survive without the food he offers? In her words, ‘It is a dreadful thing to be at the mercy of someone, the slave of a compulsion you know you cannot fight.’
Through the many encounters with Toje, she wavered between grudging acquiescence and unspoken protest, ashamed to admit it, the desire in her has accumulated like pus in a boil. Her heart tussling between hope and fear each day, she launches into the unfriendly open with a passion only rudely tickled every time she departs from Toju’s poor performance of regaining a deserted manhood. Her thoughts are racing with questions, ‘do I wear disgrace unmistakably on my person… Toje’s whoring mistress, bound to minister to his animal desire at the price of food and clothing, maybe even protection and occasional words of comfort?’ In spite of this, she harbors within, some adulterous longings that now strives to overpower her, her painful fancy for the 3years overdue touch of a man eventually but shamefully realizes itself in her skin fellowship with disabled Odibo, the imbecile nephew and errand boy of  Chief Toje.
In Aku‘s words; ‘Frustration has driven me to the point where I will rather live the fact than the fiction of sin. Loyalty and devotion has been strained beyond all possible endurance. Neither the mind nor the body could  any longer fight the overwhelming presence of temptation…the body could no longer be supported by the will of the mind…the entire defense came tumbling down, like an unsheltered mud wall under relentless down surge of rain
Self-gloated, overzealous antagonist Toje, wages what I call a silent guerrilla war against protagonist Mukoro Oshivere who until towards the end of the novel was a war prisoner, incarcerated by Toje’s frivolous charges. In Toje’s words, ‘The absence of Mukoro Oshevire …gives me the opportunity to re-establish my prominence.’ This absence destabilizing as it may be for Aku, gave Toje plenty space to unleash his politics of using sex as a weapon of warfare on Aku. In an environment of war, we are entertained by his many attempts at taking advantage of  Aku’s vulnerability to seek restoration for his deserted manhood which is now but a flab of flesh. Toje is finally beaten to his game by his ‘dumb and imbecile nephew Odibo  who though disabled and mocked all his life, finally gives to Aku the touch of manhood she had shamefully longed for. The revelation of this sex triangle brings the novel to a very tragic end that recreates Aku’s sorrow.
Korean-American groups persuaded the city of Glendale, Calif., near Los Angeles, to build a bronze statue of a “comfort woman.”Monica Almeida / The New York Times.
Korean-American groups persuaded the city of Glendale, Calif., near Los Angeles, to build a bronze statue of a “comfort woman.”Monica Almeida / The New York Times.

This fiction book, tells the story of what happens to women and children when men go to war. Like Ogheneovo,  children learns violence.  More so, the only toy left for children are guns, the ambition left to their admiration is to become a soldier. For women, displacement, rape with impunity, hunger, prostitution among others hangs over their lives. Aku’s experience is similar to that of the South Korean comfort women who served as prostitutes for the military, commemorating their woes in a status. The lives they had before the war is suddenly nibbled away with every gunshot and death and destruction around them.
Writing ‘Harrington:A story of true love in the 18th century, William Douglas O’Connor  is recorded to use the phrase ‘Women and Children first’.  This phrase has grown so wide and far to the point that the two words ‘women’ and ‘children’ are almost an alliteration. Beyond it being a sort of crisis conduct code in the maritime world, this phrase has gradually planted its self historically in almost every war speech.Protecting women and children has been used by leaders to sweeten their words when bidding for war. It is the holy mantra invoked to make intentions of advocating for or against war seem noble, it is used to placate the sound of war drums.
Vietnam War in Picture: Women and children crouch in a muddy canal as they take cover from intense Viet Cong fire at Bao Trai, about 20 miles west of Saigon on Jan. 1, 1966. http://tiny.cc/14stex
Vietnam War in Picture: Women and children crouch in a muddy canal as they take cover from intense Viet Cong fire at Bao Trai, about 20 miles west of Saigon on Jan. 1, 1966. http://tiny.cc/14stex

With benefit of hindsight, the adoption of this phrase, just like the Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict (adopted in 1974) and the Fourth Geneva Convention for the protection of civilian persons ( adopted in 1949), however has made little or no impact to the lives of vulnerable non-combatants in the many war so far fought.  Do leaders just politically exploit the myth of women and children? Do they care to understand the true meaning of protecting women and children and the impact of not protecting them in the many war we tag them in?
In the words of Major Ali, the stranger from up country protecting  Urukpe,  ‘ that woman (Aku) meant more than just the wife of a detained man, … she was the measure of justice.’ The impact of war on women and children, more so the elderly and every vulnerable person, is the true measure of any war.  I wish that my vision of a war-less world is possible, but with hindsight, this vision has eluded human nature. I however agree with C. JoyBell C view on war; “the country with truly strong men is able to have soldiers that need not a knife, that need no guns! And if you can soar even higher than that; fight with your pens! Let us all write! And see the substance of the man through his philosophies and through his beliefs! And let one philosophy outdo another! Let one belief outlast another! And let this be how we determine the outcome of a war!” 
To leaders who add to the sounds of violence, using women and children to muffle the drum beats of war, I will say this; there is more to us than guns and bombs, if truly you care about the dignity of women and children, you will stop these wars and come to an understanding with the innocent. Therein is your power.
To Women and Children caught up in the raging wars of  Syria, Congo, Sudan among others, I wish you courage for the days ahead that may be harder to get through and grace for when the time comes to let go. More so, from my depth, I wish you comfort.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye
 
 
 

Women and Children in Quotes

Women and Children 2
Extracts from War and Conflict Speech of World Leader with emphasis on ‘Women and Children’.

 

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Do They Hear When You Cry?

Oasis Academy Hadley #FightforYashika Campaign
Oasis Academy Hadley #FightforYashika Campaign

For many social causes that make headlines these days, there is an individual at the center to humanize it. In most cases they enjoy the support of  their community. Yashika Bageerathi, became a ‘star pupil’, making headlines in the past weeks, thanks to her community and fellow students at the Oasis Academy Hadley, United Kingdom. The ‘Fight for Yashika’ campaign gathered thousands of votes on Change.org  to ensure that Yashika, a 19yrs old Mauritian student who came to the United Kingdom as a refuge, was not deported to Mauritius without the chance to complete her A-levels. They pleaded that she should not be torn away from her family and be given a lonely deportation to Mauritius where she had no family or friend to rely on.
Yashika Bageerathi
Yashika Bageerathi

All of that fell on the deaf ears of the UK Home Office whom do not mix business with sentiments. Despite the knowledge that Yashika is a model student,a valuable member of the Einfield Community, and on the good side of the migrant books, she was deported.  Yashika’s case does not stand out. Lorin Sulaiman, the Kurdish school girl, whom with her family fled persecution in Syria and claimed asylum in the United Kingdom, faced similar circumstances. Again the school community came to her aid with a huge ‘Free Lorin campaign’. Unlike Lorin, Yashika was eventually deported, plucked away from family and friends to Mauritius by a system that has shown it knows no compassion. She sought for so little; a chance to complete her exams before she was disproportionately deported against Article 8 of the Human Rights Act (respect for private and family life). But all effort did not go down the drain, thanks to the 178,000 votes gathered, the jammed lines and media platforms of MPs, Home Office, Air Mauritius and Heathrow Airport. Being at the center of media broadcast, this case helped to refocus attention on the horror of Yarl’s Wood detention centre where Yashika like other refugees and deportees are kept on arrival and prior to deportation. This structure projects the lack of compassion in deportation systems around the world.
Refugees who seek asylum are stereotyped as scroungers who lie to get into privileged systems. Not much can dismantle this stereotype which has filled the knowledge void of the average person whom knows nothing of a refugee experience. What happens in Yarl’s Wood and other detention centers no longer remains within. Yarl’s Wood Immigration removal center has made negative headlines with stories of death, torture, hunger strike, sexual abuse among other forms of injustice experienced by refugees.51ZDNH9WJNL
Seeking to capture this in fiction novels has been a little challenging. But my friend Mary Okeke reminds me of Mark Twain’s quote ‘The truth is stranger than fiction …Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t ’. The truth of the horror of detention experience was painfully captured in the novel ‘Do they hear when you cry?’ With an emotionally provoking title, Layli Miller Bashir helps the author Fauziya Kassindja, narrate her experience as a refugee. This rare piece of work coming from Fauziya emerges from Togo where literary works are sparse in comparison to their neighboring countries. Fauziya is born into a middle class Muslim family in Togo, to a society where polygamy, teen marriage, genital mutilation among other practices are normalized. With the death of her father, she is married by a polygamist who requires that she be mutilated to qualify as his wife. With the help of her sister, Fauziya escapes to America via Ghana and Germany.
This non-fiction novel, gives us a first-hand account and a lens to view the experiences of refugees especially from developing countries. The irony of the refugee experience is well captured here; they leave the tortured spaces in search of their romanticized land of freedom in Europe, but the sanctuary they hope for welcomes them with the incarceration and persecution they run from. Fauziya was mortified, stripped naked, forced to bath in the open, given bad food and isolated in prisoner style by our dear America. Her failing health and dying hope was restored by Karen Musalo and the law student Layli Miller Bashir, together with Washington College of Law who helped gain her an asylum status.
Not many are as lucky as Fauziya to have been freed. More refugees are still being held at different detention center around Europe where they are treated as criminals which is against their human right. While the British Government expresses its promise to remove those who have no legal right to remain in the UK,  a complex debate on the rights of refugees and Asylum seekers continue. The 1951 Geneva Refugee convention relates to the Status of Refugees (CRSR). This United Nations multilateral treaty defines the status and rights of a refugee, and setting out rights of individuals granted asylum and the responsibilities of their host nations. For a convention that was approved in 1951 and entered into force in 1954, it has not done much to protect the right of refugees even in ratifying nations.
Over the years, organisations like Women for Refugee Women, individuals like Fauziya, Melten Avcil, Yashika, and others have achieved more in highlighting the unjust treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Fauziya Kassindja’s case provoked the acknowledgement that victims of Female Genital Mutilation are worthy of Asylum in the USA. Melten Avcil (who at 13yrs was locked up Yarl’s Wood in 2007 with her mother and later released) is currently championing a campaign, petitioning Theresa May, British Home Secretary to end the detention of women who seek asylum in the UK. We can support this worthy cause by signing and making up the 50,000 signatures needed by Melten Avcil’s petition here change.org
What I am doing, is not to obscure the wider issues and challenges of migration control. I do understand the need for nations especially in the developed country to put further curbs on immigration for obvious reasons. The idea of this article is not to justify illegal migration or to ask that humane asylum policy should be led by emotions and not law, no! I believe that despite the challenges, we can still preserve the rights of persons who are fleeing persecution as stated in the 1951 Geneva Convention.
Men,Children and Women in particular who flee death, torture, rape and imprisonment do not deserve to be incarcerated if their do they hear you when you cryonly crime is fleeing persecution in their home land. They do not deserve to be welcomed by the very devil they fled from in sanctuary Europe, or to be forcibly returned to the country they flee from.  In the word of Melten Avcil ‘If a woman has already experienced rape, torture, and imprisonment in her home country then it is really hard for her to be locked up here’.
Yarl’s wood and other detention center across Europe and America are no refuge for refugees. Sadly,they still have hundreds of asylum seekers locked up in them. Dear leaders, do you hear when they cry?
 
 
Written By~Adaobi Nkeokelonye

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Is Sizwe Bansi Dead?

When a piece of writing gets you a space in jail, then it struck a very sensitive cord for the incumbent government. The texture of such writing, are absurd, dealing with surreal subject matters.  Sizwe Bansi is Dead is such; a dramatically provocative piece with strands of humor and layers of irony. It excites the good and the bad. Despite not mentioning the word ‘Apartheid’ in all of the book, it triggered the then South African Apartheid Government to arrest Athol  Fugard and his African co-writer/performers John sizwe banzi is deadKani and Winston Ntshona for treason. Talk about a piece of fiction that has aged gracefully, this is it!
Written in 1972, it is set in a South Africa when blacks could only find peace in their grave. With a sparse setting, we meet three major characters, Styles the photographer and narrator, Sizwe Bansi whose experience the drama is centered on and his friend Buntu. Styles established his ‘strong room of dreams’, a photo studio representing an escapist world which presents a space for other blacks to interpret their dream. Behind his lens, they share their dreams, aspirations and achievements. With a click of his camera, he immortalizes them. When finally they are dead and buried like his father, their photo is their only memorabilia. This profession gave Styles fulfillment away from his former job with ‘Ford Motors’ where he was only a ‘circus monkey’ that would be rewarded with just a gold wristwatch after 25yrs of service. With little choice, Styles locates his dream studio next to a funeral parlor, he wages war against some symbolic cockroaches; social venom without which he could not function.

Photo: www.theatreroyal.com enactment of Sizwe Bansi is Dead
Photo: www.theatreroyal.com enactment of Sizwe Bansi is Dead

Sizwe is Styles client with a dream to get employment in Port Elizabeth, away from his home in King Williams Town where he could not provide for his wife and kids. But with a passbook that declares it illegal for him to reside or gain employment in Port Elizabeth, Sizwe is boxed! This scene captures the realities of migrants seeking greener pastures outside their home zone and abroad.  Unlike most illegal migrants of today who have relative freedom to move around and live in most countries, Sizwe could not. Sizwe’s movement was strongly regulated by the apartheid system in place.His passbook (Visa) required him to return to King Williams Town in three days. Like Buntu his friend, Sizwe is battered but still hopeful.
This drama, projects for me, the extreme sacrifices many migrants and perhaps desperate job seekers make to survive in a strange land. Sizwe saw himself as a ghost; after all he lived in a strange land where he was irrelevant and unnoticed. More so, not being able to earn income to sustain his household meant he was not a man but a dead man. With the help of BuntuSizwe finally puts his self to death.  He gave his life and body to a dead man’s name, incarnating his self into Robert Zwelinzima, (the dead man) whom Buntu performs a surgery on his passbook which still holds a job seeker’s permit. Buntu replaced Robert’s picture with Sizwe’s. Sizwe Bansi is dead, Robert Zwelinzima is alive!
Sizwe Banzi Is Dead Photograph: Robert Day from theguardian.com
Sizwe Banzi Is Dead Photograph: Robert Day from theguardian.com

Sizwe (now Robert) with a new job, wearing a new suit, Stetson hat, a pipe in one hand and cigar in the other, is transformed to who he wants to be. Styles escapist world is the best place to capture the birth of the new Sizwe for his wife and family in King William Town to see. The whole play is climaxed in this scene where Sizwe struggles with constructing his new identity. This has supported the projection of the theme of this novel as that of Identity struggle.
While identity as a theme is obvious, it should not overshadow the significance this drama gives to the reality of migrants especially in the world today. It frames the struggle for identity, projecting the realities of shifts necessary for a migrant’s survival.  It fits within the development context of migration and human right discourses, detailing the negotiations of national identities and other struggles migrants experience in the search for livelihood in a foreign land.
Migrants don’t arrive alone; they bring with them their culture, values and perspectives to life. In some cases, they don’t leave their homes willingly, they are forced to migrate. In the struggle for survival, most migrant job seekers have to live with an uneasy switch to dualism, impersonating other people’s privileges; this for them is worth it if they can survive. Diffusion into a new society is difficult, both for the migrant and their host society. Governments and people struggle to give space to migrants. In this process, many migrants are displaced, left at the margin of their new society. Some are made to feel they are just invisible, and just don’t count.
Wajiha Hamid (Third from left) with some Migrant Workers in Singapore.
Wajihah Hamid (Third from left) with some Migrant Workers in Singapore.

The way individuals and communities respond to the challenges of immigration and settlement is a trendy issue in International development. This has been expressed by the United Nation’s Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers. Adopted in 1990, it entered into force in 2003.Though in place, it has only been ratified by just forty states, exclusive of major immigration country.
Taking a leaf from the knowledge on the plight of migrant workers in countries across the world, the vizualmusing blogger; my dearest friend Wajihah Hamid with the support of her Sister Aisha organized Project Parallel Paths. They brought together 18 injured migrants workers and 13 natives of Singapore for an excursion to some places of interest in Singapore. The migrant workers were given Cameras to take individual photographs within a theme that captures their perspective of their host community.
Participants discussing their photos after Project Parallel Walk.
Participants discussing their photos after Project Parallel Paths.

The outputs are amazing and insightful pictures of Singapore in the eye of a migrant. Most importantly, it created a space for injured migrant workers to relax, eat out, visit the beach and mix freely with the natives. This ingenious project inspired by Waji’s experiences of her dissertation which included participatory action research method for once exalted neglected migrant workers from being research guinea pigs to active participants in research processes.Relating her key lesson from this initiative to me, Waji said ‘I have learnt that people sometimes overlook each other, and that given an opportunity, they can stop, re-think and make an effort to acknowledge the presence of ‘the others’ within their society’.
I appreciate Wajihah, Athol Fugard, and his African co-writer/performers John Kani and Winston Ntshona, and many others who are creatively helping migrants to live and make a living in a foreign land. The Sizwe Bansi of our time doesn’t have to die if more concerned people will address the plight of migrant workers world over.
Singapore
A collage of some activity pictures from Project Parallel Paths

– Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye