So Long a Letter

I walked out of the airport in Dakar with a feeling of gratitude; it was my fastest immigration clearance in my travel history. Into her warm embrace, Mother Senegal was set to welcome myself and many other youths arriving for the World Youth Movement’s conference on “Youth leadership and democratic transition in Africa”.

Pleasant were the people of this clime, their hospitality overwhelmed my struggle to adjust with the language barriers. In Senegal, I reunited with old friends, expanded my network of new friends and most importantly I learnt a lot of things that provoked my questioning some dominant narratives about governance in Africa.mariama ba

Earphones went off and on according to the language of the speakers; a proof that though we were a people of one continent, we spoke in different tongues. Clearly, the conference discussions had begun with some high and low moments.  For the dreary moments, I flipped through Mariama Ba’s celebrated Novella ‘So Long a Letter’ which came in handy for this trip; it remains my best Senegalese Novella.

From the inter-generational conversations, the conference topic shifted to the role of African youths in democratic transitions. While exploring the stakes for youths and the struggle for democracy, a discussant asked an important ‘Where are the Young Women?’ The perception was that the young women were participating in the engineering of Africa’s democracy at an insignificant level. I received this question and the discussions to follow as a projection of the thought that young African women were like their mothers-before-them being strategically marginalized and not being given the opportunity to participate in political exercises.

My gender sensitive self was reactive to this question but between my threads of thought, my humanist self-prevailed with some inciting questions. While it was clear that the ratio of educated boys versus girls in Africa will suffer imbalance, it’s acceptable that the fate of young women in education was no longer as bad as it used to be – thanks to the massive awareness on girl child education. Finding young women who are equipped with the education, critical thinking, leadership skills, compassion and wit necessary to drive a political career in Africa isn’t difficult. But are the young women ready for politics? I further wondered if the young women could first identify themselves with common experiences that qualify them as a politically marginalized group. Do they have interest in governance and the political exercises therein? If yes, should they wait to be given power or do they have to take power using their agency? Is it right to apply a gender lens here? Is it fair to blame their insignificant participation in governance on others (perhaps men) thereby making a gender case?

I left the conference hall personalizing the questions. I am that humanist who doesn’t believe that the gender lens always serves, or that affirmative action or quota system must apply to all things. My sincere response as a young African whole-woman was that I wasn’t ready for politics. I guess I must be constructing politics with my moral lens; applying stringent standards that didn’t fit it, hence participation in politics meant the soiling of hands with corrupt politicians.

It was sunset when I returned to the pages of Mariama Ba’s ‘So Long a Letter’. It was a pleasant coincidence to find the dialogue between the major character Ramatoulaye and Daouda Dieng discuss women’s place in African politics. My Senegalese choice of best novella held within some validation.

‘Four women Daouda.  Four out of a hundred deputies. What a ridiculous ratio! Not even one for each province’. Ramoutoulaye said.

‘But you women are like mortar shells. You demolish. You destroy. Imagine a large number of women in the Assembly. Why, everything would explode, go up in flames.’  Daouda responded.

‘Nearly twenty years of independence! When will we have the first female minister involved in the decisions concerning the development of our country? And yet the militancy and ability of women, their disinterested commitment have already been demonstrated. Women have raised more than one man to power…when will education be decided for children on the basis not of sex but of talent?’ Ramoutoulaye continued.

‘Whom are you addressing Ramatoulaye? You are echoing my speeches at the National Assembly, where I have been called a “Feminist”. I am not in fact, the only one to insist on changing the rules of the game and injecting new life into it. Women should no longer be decorative accessories, objects to be moved about, companions to be flattered or calmed with promises. Women are the nation’s primary, fundamental root, from which all else grows and blossoms. Women must be encouraged to take a keener interest in the destiny of the country. Even you who are protesting; you preferred your husband, your class, your children to public life. If men alone are active in parties, why should they think of the women? It is only human to give yourself the larger portion of the cake when you are sharing it out.’ Daouda said.

As though the above dialogue highlighting salient points on the place of women in politics was not apt enough, Ramoutoulaye will later harness it, sharing her young daughter Daba’s views on politics in some form of monologue:

‘She reasons everything out, that child… she often tells me: I don’t want to go into politics; it’s not that I am not interested in the fate of my country and, most especially, that of woman. But when I look at the fruitless wrangling even within the ranks of the same party, when I see men’s greed for power, I prefer not to participate. No, I am not afraid of ideological struggle, but in political party it is rare for a woman to make break-through. For a long time, men will continue to have the power of decision, whereas everyone knows that polity should be the affair of women. No: I prefer my own meditation, where there is neither rivalry no schism, neither malice nor jostling for position; there are no post to be shared, nor position to be secured.’

Young Women participants at the World Youth Movement Conference, Dakar, Senegal.

Young Women participants at the World Youth Movement Conference, Dakar, Senegal.

As I muse over this 1981 Noma Award winning epistolary novella by Senegal’s daughter Mariama Ba, it becomes interesting to note that even with a more enabled space in governance, the reason for young women’s lingering absence in politics may not be far from Daba’s as captured above. If my suppositions are right, then the need therefore arises to reorient young women, support them to critically question their narratives and unlearn their assumptions about activities associated with governance.

With more reflections days after the Youth leadership and democratic transition in Africa conference ended, I am grateful for the discussions it offered. I am also grateful for the insight given by this Senegalese Novel.

Hereafter it’s my opinion that beyond the preparation of young women towards a significant level of participation in politics, what the African governance space needs dearly is not affirmative action, quota system or our focusing on the gender of the political office holders. While inclusive governance is ideal, I think that we need feminist leaders like Daouda Dieng who understands the need for creating enabling spaces and equal opportunities for all. Africa requires leaders who are sensitive to the fact that women are a nation’s primary, more so, Women, Disabled Persons, Children and all other vulnerable and marginalized groups of persons in our society must be encouraged to take a keener interest in their country’s governance.

~Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye.

The Dearth of the Happy Single Woman…

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Anu Verma

It was just before spring, in the winter of 2012, I heard Anu Verma speak for the first time in our all women gender class at the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton. I had seen her severally and for most times, I admired her because just like me, she mostly adorned her traditional attire, the Indian Salwar kameez in cold England.  Over time, she became even more remarkable; her passion for single women issues shined through her questions and contributions in our small group sessions. I appreciate Anu Verma, I think she is pretty and brave but I was very weary of her arguments which presented Single Women as a relevant category for marginalized persons. I was weary because I wondered if the experiences of being a single woman could be conceptualized as marginalization.

Being in my early 30’s, I have been single for quite a while. In my part of the world, this status certainly comes with more unpleasant than pleasant experiences.  On the pleasant side, my status has opened unique doors of life to me and strengthened my individuality. But there are loses too. On the altar of marriages, many valuable relationships are slaughtered; I have lost the individuality of my friends to marriage. I feel strategically isolated by married friends who litter their conversations with stories of their husband and sometimes children but rarely of themselves. For comic tickles, our girlfriends when engaged like to display their trophy rings to spite, at the cost of seeming disabled in one hand 🙂 .  Over time one becomes a sex prey for married men, and ego booster for single men. As a single woman, I tread carefully, walking on eggshell amongst married colleagues lest I get personal and excite their partners negatively. Pressure from family and friends can be stifling; I am reminded that a lonely old age is staring me in the face. To make it worse, the social identity constructions of a single woman lacks dignity; she is either a whore or unlucky in love. All my other achievements crumble like cookies every time I hit the speed bump question; are you married, why are you single, when is he coming forth…?

All of these experiences though psychosocially disturbing and indeed destabilizing could not justify my being a voice for single women as my friend Anu Verma. I often wondered if other single women had similar experiences. Will they be unashamed to openly identify with these experiences, or be willing to hold extended discussions on these phenomena? I have been unable to write or identify with Anu’s cause because I felt this issue will be easily derided as idiocies.

Despite all, I have been a happy nullipara, never-married single woman, who is not ashamed to flaunt this status and the dividends therein. Between heartbreaks, pressure, ridicule, distress and the pain we humans  feel, there is a moment of rupture. Amid my fractured lines of rupture, are busted marriage myths that has liberated and strengthened me from living under this marriage pressure that always hanged like a heavy mist over our lives. But such freedom and happiness do not go unchallenged. Indeed my confidence in my status was challenged when my right to shelter was severally denied, not because I had no money, but because I was single and not married.  All these years, being single seemed like a social problem that has no name, but my inability to rent a house in Ibadan (a Semi-Urban town in Nigeria) gave it a name; Marginalized! In that moment of discrimination, I realized that Anu had a case and I was willing to research more on other people’s experiences.

My search led me to many extensive works done by a fantastic woman, Jill Reynolds (RIP). Her book ‘The Single Woman, A jilldiscursive investigation’ contributes to the understanding and experiences of the stigma attached to the Single Woman Identity.  Learning from social diversity, the experience of being single differs and has critical intersections of gender, culture, religion amongst others. For single women in the developed world, it might mean being a wo-man without man, living a man free life, suffering social drought and having less sex. But for women in developing countries like India, Pakistan and others, it means a denial of basic human right and a threat to survival.

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Anu Verma working with women Sangathans of Rajasthan in relation to intersections of marital status,caste and religion.

There are no United Nation’s Conventions on this issue, but there are interests expressed by groups and individuals. With the support of Action Aid Gujarat, Anu’s research paper also made a strong case for India’s Dalit Single women. Titled We are told we have rights…but where are they! , this research chronicles a reflection on the life threatening experiences of exploitation, hardship, chronic poverty, lack of education and livelihood opportunities for these women as life with dignity becomes their major struggle. Their threatened well-being, loneliness, shame and vulnerability reminds us of the need to make them an agenda in literature.

Situating Dalit women in Manusmriti system (a prescribed code of conducts for Hindus), some disturbing verses were quoted;

 ‘By a girl, by a woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house… her father protects her in childhood, her husband protects her in youth and her sons protect her in old age; a woman is never fit for independence’ (Manusmriti V.174 & X.3)

10299197_10152378608124914_1238874614_nThe quote captures the tough patriarchal society these women are up against. The normalization of this perpetuates the continued isolation of this category of Dalit Women to the margins of social structures for the sin of being unwed women. Collective action enacted in the Dalit Single women group/Sangathans  is helping. In India, they now have 7 states/provinces with more than 80,000 single women association striving for social change with their own movement.

My scope of enquiry was extended to literary fiction. How have writers presented the single woman character in their work? Are writers reinforcing the stereotypes or challenging it? Can I clearly find a single woman character in literature who is admirably happy, and whose source of unhappiness is anything else but a man, marriage or children? This was a challenge as I suffered a dearth in the severe drought of such characterization. The plots of many literary works focus on single women’s struggle to find lasting love, or manage love and its heartaches. Their lives are woven around men, clinging on the happily ever after myth that begins with being the woman in white, ending with them finding love or beginning a new life after being unlucky in love.

150px-Womens_Room_coverUnlike their western counterparts, African women writers, though very militant with their feminist writings, also align with the above plots as seen in our review of the models of femininity in Africa’s popular fiction. Marylyn French, a renowned feminist whom I admire, authored her novel ‘In the Women’s Room’ in 1977. It was described as an influential novel of the modern day feminist movement. Yet, the major character Mira Ward is a conventional and submissive young woman in a traditional marriage; we are entertained by her divorce and gradual feminist awakening. The story of Mira and many others may be captured in the voice of ‘Amaka’ in ‘One is Enough’ by Flora Nwapa:

 ‘… I don’t want to be a wife anymore, a mistress yes, with a lover, yes of course, but not a wife. There is something in that word that does not suit me. As a wife, am never free. I am a shadow of myself. As a wife, am almost impotent. I am in prison, unable to advance in body and soul… I don’t want to go back to my ‘wifely’ days. No, I am through with husbands.’books (1)

But the question that the character Nnu ego in ‘The Joys of Motherhood’ by Buchi Emecheta asked God is the same question I am asking writers.  She said;

God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage?” she prayed desperately. “After all, I was born alone, and I shall die alone.

Why do writers of popular fiction invalidate happy single women characters? Is it a tale sign that books with such characters will be unaccepted or perhaps make poor sales? Considering the role of writers in influencing development, it is disillusion and myopic to promote false dichotomy. As children and teenagers, we had no one model of a happy single woman in the press, media or even in our school books. We have all been educated to become the woman in white and just marry, but the reality of our present day lives contradicts these models.

goingsolo2-385x584According to Eric Klinenberg’s ‘Going Solo’, there are more single people today than anyone could think. In fact, being single is the world’s biggest social change in the last 50years. This is true with huge possibility of being a continuing trend in the coming years. The alterations of lives and social impact this will have in future are unimaginable.

Let us remove the covers and blinders that are obscuring reality; there are lots of people out here who by choice are single, living fulfilled lives with no plans for marriage. We must acknowledge that we are first a person, before anything else.  Not everyone will be married and if we are to marry, life’s trajectories are different, so are the ravages. Many will be single for longer than others. No one is married all their lives, hence there is a time to be single. How can a society ensure the psychosocial well-being of persons living single either as a phase or permanently? How are we protecting the human rights of those whom marriage does not fit their lives? How do we as individuals hold them in honour and give them a better worth?

If I smell your thoughts, my writings may stink of anti-marriage views, I am not anti-marriage; I detest social conventions which do not appreciate that life’s trajectories are different for each one. While I agree marriage can be good, the over-privileging of marriage and long-term partnerships in our society contributes to the marginalization of persons like the Dalit Single Women, among others as Anu’s research and other literature captures.

I am by choice, a happy single woman who continues to negotiate her identity, refusing to allow society inject shame into her. I now understand the challenges of people like myself, but again because of my education, I feel the responsibility of my privileges compared to the Dalit Single Women. Thus, through this writing, I wish to validate the Dalit Single women.  I am saying they are not outsiders, they too belong here. Life is not an unaccompanied journey because you are single, you do not travel alone, I am with you.

Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

The Battered Woman

We both came forth from this world as equals.

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My name is SHE, I have known HE,

I have a life, but one with fear of HE.

I have left my enemy to define me and my fate,

for everything here has the picture of he on it.

 

HE says I am more beautiful with tattoos of painful

bruises carved by violent and repeated hits.

My experience of  foreplay are, whips, kicks and throws.

My tattoos increase when I differ, when I cry forBody_art,_1907

wanting lovemaking and not sex.

 

They are more when I am rightfully barren

 and worse when I am pregnant.

When I have tattoos on my face, only few ever see it,

The veil of silence masks it.

 

I know I do not want these tattoos,

but my tattoos are justified for nothing has been done to stop it.

SHE is blamed and HE is vindicated.

My only rescue is ssshhhh… msmagazine.comblog20100519abused-women-in-maryland-arent-lying

                                                                                                

 

 

King Kalid Foundation-womens-abuse-english                                                                                 –Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye (2004)

Models of Femininity in Africa’s Popular Fictions

imagesI would think of a woman’s body as a battle ground you know, but it’s not only her body, it’s her identity and her dignity. Writing this week’s column, I thought about what makes a female a woman.  I realize how many times I hear that word ‘…like a woman’. It’s either talk like a woman, sit like a woman, behave like a woman, dress like a woman… On and on it goes. I began reflecting through my first paragraph;

‘Woman! Thou art only a ribbon taken from a man’s chest. Your worth is in your dowry, your honour is in your virginity, your pride is making a man’s tummy quit rumbling with your sweet meal, and it is in sexually massaging his ego by giving freely of yourself. Your respect is in being called a wife. That is the story of your life and so has it been.’

To be a woman, you have to become an appendage to a man; this has been the predictions of our literatures from the times Things fell apart through to the days of the Lion and the Jewel. Even the Gods are not to blame for this as men alone told the stories. And what do you expect if our husband has gone mad again? He will write in a language of patriarchy, painting the world only in the colours of black or white. There is never a grey colour in between or any other colour.

This remains a burning issue in international development; gender equality! It has become an analytical category for virtually everyk3468324 development activity. We have made a gender case for domestic violence, for agriculture, for health and every other constraints of progressive development around the world. I know many development practitioners like Gloria Steinem, are feminist. They hope for a future where everyone’s individuality and dynamism has expression without discouraging the balance of human right. Thus we continue to appreciate studies that explore the constructions of femininity and masculinity to know precisely where to focus our interventions and alter some undesirable realities in our society.

In trying to bridge the gaps between fiction and development on the issue of gender constructions, I took a look at how femininity has been modelled in our works of fiction. Works of our renowned authors Ola Rotimi, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka amongst others were ??????????????????????????????????????explored. In their books grown women carried the pot on their heads as Obiageli in ‘Things fall apart’, twisted and untwisted their The Gods Are Not To Blame tnwaist with the smoothness of water snake like Sadiku in ‘The lion and the jewel’, competed and fought their sisters to own the man and capture his straying affection like Lizzy and Sikira of ‘our Husband has gone mad again’. Indeed, women in the era of these works were presented as having small brains, as tools of reproduction, they were possessions of a man, bought and sold by men, promoting polygamy, caressing the man’s ego and enhancing his social status. The characters of Sidi, Sadiku and Ailatu, showed that women helped men build their world. They were defined according to their responsive roles to a man and their domestic diligence. These women were always docile; rarely did they show excitement or speak from their depth to the audience in a voice that conflicts the constructions of femininity portrayed above. I have wondered why there was no woman that sometimes felt like screaming, that told her husband when she did or didn’t want sex. Was there none that sincerely got tired of her marriage sometimes? How about sharing pain and the joys of motherhood? Then I remembered that when men tell the story alone, history is altered.

Flora Nwapa’s ‘Efuru’ came into the literary stage capturing an exact voice for women, be it when they spoke of love, malice or anger. Then Buchi Emecheta was like a breath of fresh air. She brought to the scene a new model of femininity presenting women whose destination was Biafra, who could tell ‘the joy of motherhood’, who shared the pain in being ‘second class citizens’, who were working 11613648-african-womanhard to sustain themselves even though it meant increasing the value of the bride price. Feminine models who questioned conventions burst the scenes. ‘God when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage?’ Nnu Ego cries out.  Emecheta’s belief in individuality of human beings showed in her feminist view that laces all her work.

Reading through some of them three decades after they were published, it echoes strongly the thoughts of more women in this generation than in the era it was written. I am tempted to say that most of Emecheta and Nwapa’s works were forecasting and portraying different models of femininity in the future. It is a future where most women like ‘Amaka’ in One is not Enough will express their frustrations and speak out precisely for what they want. ‘… I don’t want to be a wife anymore, a mistress yes, with a lover, yes of course, but not a wife. There is something in that word that does not suit me. As a wife, am never free. I am a shadow of myself. As a wife, am almost impotent. I am in prison, unable to advance in body and soul… I don’t want to go back to my ‘wifely’ days. No, I am through with husbands. I said farewell to husbands the first day I came to Lagos.’joysofmotherhood

But how have these models impacted the world of today’s woman? Does Buchi Emecheta’s work represent a certain calibre of women while the depictions of the male authors represent another? Do we have an eclectic combination of the above models in today’s woman? The latter may be the case as our women still set very high premium on children even where they reject the roofs of patriarchy looming over the marriage institution. Like Debbie, many are tired of playing the prescribed wifely role but may play it until they know the joy of motherhood. While morality hangs on conventions of the femininity of the past, it is not seen as a strong driving force for the choices that women make today. Motherhood remains a drive in the definitions and identities women give to them self. It creates the space they need to live a fulfilled life and often their agency is expressed strongly through it. Hence being a wife is still important and honourable but is less honourable than being a mother. That seems like the story of today’s woman.

400_F_42582281_ZUNp1Kbliek4wVQ5lOoVIw9WSABV14qQIt’s amazing how two roles a person plays can strongly define the dignity of an identity. In Flora Nwapa’s character ‘Efuru’, we see how all of her success collapses under the weight of not being a wife or a mother according to a divine order. While being a wife and a mother is a role females can choose to play, it has strongly defined the identity of every female making them worthy or unworthy. I would begin to wonder how happy a female can ever be if she were none, can she just be a woman without being a mother or a wife or does it make her less human? This is the burden of identity women carry through their lives as they live in societies that hold the values that the authors have portrayed in the literatures above. Maybe one radical act a female may adopt, is to claim ownership of her body and her identity, but it seems we were groomed from the cradle not to.

-Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye