Fiction writer Paulo Coelho once twitted a question asking ‘What do you consider a ‘real man’ though?’ It evoked many responses. Thinking through, it occurred to me that a real man might be someone who can provide for his family or maybe someone who can impregnate a woman or be sexually in charge like Baroka the chieftain of Ilujinle (in ‘the lion and the jewel’). Then I thought I might want to see a real man as one who has a good head on his shoulder. What makes for a good head and how the shoulder carries that head is yet to be ascertained. I have thought through many men I know to find a ‘model man’ that has stood the test of time but my search suffers a dearth. Indeed all things fall apart, that precisely is the fate of life.
Things fall apart, Chinua Achebe’s magnus opus became my focus for its conceptualization of what many of us understand as a ‘man’ through the character of Okonkwo. In my memories, Okonkwo is one man that equalled so many. He graced our reading tables through novels and our television sets in the 1980’s.
Unlike Unoka his father, Okonkwo was the heroic wrestler, a stoic clan leader, economically mobile through resolute hard work, tirelessly toiling the earth, sexually in charge enabling him to take over Ekwefi who was another man’s wife. He is the funder and defender of his household, father to male and female children, owner of lands, and the companion of more than one woman. Though showing flashes of affection, he didn’t subscribe to showing mild emotions even after a machismo slashing of his son’s (Ikemefuna) head. If it was not a show of extremely aggressive emotions like beating his wife and children, fighting for his culture amongst others, then it was too womanly for him to identify with. The brutally fearless Okonkwo in different ways had a presumption of what a man should do, have, and be like. It is seen in his assumptions that his son Nwoye is (feminine just like Unoka) having the predilection of a woman. Ironically, his daughter Ezinma in her sickly body had ‘the right spirit’ of a man.
In Okonkwo’s ideologies, there were indeed men trapped in women’s bodies and women trapped in men’s bodies. His ideologies extended to religious issues where part of his anger with the Christian God is because it was feminine; men are living fire, women are the impotent ashes so are the Gods alike. He hated everything feminine, including living with his mother’s people on exile in Mbanta after committing a female crime in Umuofia. He hated Egonwa for being feminine and discouraging a war against the white
Set in the land of Umuofia where they had male and female crimes, the character of Okonwo in Chinua Achebe’s ‘things fall apart’ is an exciting model of masculinity in the world of literary fiction. The character of Okonkwo is well put together in an admirable way encapsulating the resilience of the Igbo man (if not Igbo people). Though years have passed, yet Okonkwo is an idol to many, sculpting many expressions of a ‘man’ in our society today.
More than before in development, interest on the constructions of masculinity has risen. Institutions are trying to decipher precisely how roles and identities collide to produce what different societies call a ‘man’ and the expectations thereof. This is traceable to many gender influenced crimes that accrues into the abuse of human rights in recent times. At the centre of such is gender based violence manifesting its self recently in the violent rape of women in different parts of the world. The gang rape of Jyoti Singh by five men struck a cord with the media amongst other and galvanized huge rage in the international community requesting that the anti-rape laws be revised. This raised questions and actions as it is seen to emanate from a lack of respect for the women by men.
Looking at the character of Okonkwo and considering his many protege in the light of international development concerns, some pertinent questions come to mind. Given the time and the number of years that Okonkwo has lived amongst us, has masculinities been redefined or its still primitive covered by modern clothing? How is the adoption of major traits in this model fracturing the human right of individuals in our society? What are the possible pathways it presents and how sustainable is it? Will the dance of time predict new models of masculinities for future generation or will they remain Okonkwo’s protege?
It is my theory that maybe following Okonkwo’s model of masculinity may give insight into why men have shorter life expectancy than women. I also agree that the strength of Okonkwo’s model of a man is fragile, being built more on roles rather than identities. This way, many external factors can impact negatively and rupture its cells. The struggle with the Gods over ownership of Ezinma (the only one with the right spirit of a man amongst his children), connotes the struggles of defining masculinity. This might be suggestive of the fact that the masculinity Okonkwo sought may be phantom and may only be found in dead men or the unborn children.I may get it wrong, I am however open to learning…
-Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye
-Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye
Remember reading about Erin Gruwell and the 150 students who used writing to change their life in ‘The Freedom Writer’s Diary’, it demonstrates the power of writing as a tool for social change. Similarly, I could understand why writers are often the enemies of tyrant governments around the world. The unrest created by their work is a proof that the act of writing can be an emancipatory force for change. Like painters, writers weave words together to create colours, lines and stories that are undoing silences in many societies.
All I learnt about the Nigerian Civil came from stories, novels, poems, dramas amongst others. ‘The Casualties’ by John Pepper Clark brought the realization that I too was a casualty of a war that hit the dust long before my birth. My knowledge on different cultural practices have been highly influenced by writing of people from different landscapes. Most of these works have been fictional, making secret the names of people and places they wrote about but yet one can understand their message, as though belonging with them.That is the strength of literary fiction in passing knowledge.
In the wake of many development issues which has become a global challenge, I have begun to ponder on the power different works of fiction have in dispersing knowledge on international development issues. How have they presented the alterations in social structures in our society in the past and present? How are they forecasting the changes in nature, in the future of our social institutions, and life in general?
The need to explore these questions further gave birth to a column on Compass Newspaper (a Nigerian national newspaper) of which this blog springboards. In the first edition, we considered how “Fiction writer Peter Abraham envisioned a new country, through his work ‘Tell Freedom’
He landscaped an egalitarian society that will break out of a womb infested with racism. His work gave insight into the social structure at the time of writing, depicting strongly in his narratives what it was like to be caught in the skin shades of white, black and in between”.
The works of Ngugi wa Thiong’o was mentioned exploring the impacts of an imperialist type of governance in his historical fiction ‘Weep not Child’. It has been stated that Mau Mau uprising arguably set the stage for the Independence of Kenya. The intricacies that played out and the different masks the organisation had worn over the years in the anti-colonist turmoil were represented in the intrigues of ‘Weep not Child’. Capturing the hopes of a character Ngotho, he characterizes the saviour of the Kenyan people as the son of their soil and no longer the British Colonist. In this way, one will arguably say that ‘weep not child’ held within a prophecy of the future governance of Kenya. The emergence of Jomo Kenyatta as the first president of the Kenyan republic is arguably a testimony to this.”
Not forgetting to mention Chinua Achebe’s ‘Man of the People’, it represents a post colonial Africa and principally Nigeria, where corruption and conflict of interest had become the order of the day amongst leaders. Most striking of this work of fiction is its climax in a coup d’état which arguably gave it relevance as a prophetic piece predicting the near future of many African countries. Shortly after the publication of this piece in 1966, Nigeria survived series of violent transitions very similar to the one that our dear Chinua Achebe had written about.
Away from the African landscape, consideration is given to the renowned work of George Orwell in Animal Farm. Animal farm was an anti-soviet work of fiction personifying different leaders of the Soviet Union revolution at that time through animal characters like ‘Old Major, Napoleon, Snowball and others.
The deliberate use of pigs to characterize the ruling class is indeed offensive to the dictatorial government of the Soviet Union in that era. In retrospect, the use of animal characters by George Orwell at that time goes to tell of poor human right practices restricting freedom of speech as is today against the International human rights law. This in all speaks of the impacts of totalitarian indoctrinations as even educated people are unable to express their true opinions in this landscape and others where democracies are weak.
These examples show that fictional works are not just a figment of a writer’s imagination created to amuse and entertain readers. Literary fictions have catalysed changes in development and are continuously acting indirectly as custodians of history. A line up of different historical period in the life of a society captured through their fictional works can contribute hugely in deciphering a pattern in their development or under-development, it will also portray their responses to social challenges at different times.
International development issues are seen from multidisciplinary binoculars as they cover huge areas like governance, environment, human right, poverty, amongst others. All of this have been presented in different platforms, most especially in academic and policy papers. Perhaps for its lack of quantitative data, literary fiction remains questionable as an authoritative source of knowledge in the field of development.
However, I imagine that how literary fiction has contributed in giving context to social concepts, explaining patterns of qualitative changes in different social frameworks, can be explored using relevant works of fiction. In subsequent posts and editions of the fiction and development column, I intend to make inferences on modern day development issues, linking them to the themes, characters, scenes amongst other things in existing works of literature. I hope this helps the understanding of how fiction writers are using characters and themes to identify, critic, advocate and also compare local, national and global issues that are significant to international development.
Suggestions are highly welcomed!