The Heart of Darkness

My first thought was that this book had to be a Sea Man’s story and yes it was. On a pleasure ship called Nellie, a narrator who remained unknown through the novel introduces us to men bonding on the sea; one of them was Marlow. Through casual mediation, Marlow reflects on the dark places of the earth as England would have been before the Romans visited it.

Charlie Marlow shares the glories of his exploration as a fresh-water sailor, wanderer seaman whose home is the sea with a passion for maps. He is familiar with living in the world of water and the silent surroundings. Fascinated by the delightful discovery of the unknown places, he finds an inviting place on the map and hankers after it.  It was that mighty big river resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. The snake had charmed him; going there either by hook or by crook was irresistible. Marlow’s Enchantress was later identified as the Congo River.Heart of Darkness 1

Luckily he replaces the late Fresleven who was killed by a native Chief’s son in revenge after Fresleven had whacked his father mercilessly in front of his constituency over a quarrel on two black hens.

Marlow’s account of his voyage up the Congo River is the main narrative of the novel Heart of Darkness. It has been defined as an imperialist novel as it was written at a time when the British Empire controlled colonies around the world using economic, political and military coercion. Marlow’s meeting with men of varying European nationality as he journeys into the Congo tells that the English were not alone in the bloody and inhuman act of imperialism. The French, the Belgians whom Marlow was on this trip for among others were violently took advantage of a people and made of their wealth their private treasury.

Disembarking at the station, Marlow witnesses violence. In one event, there are black prisoners walking along in chains guarded by a uniformed black man with his rifle. On the other account, he finds the dying native laborers whom he offers biscuits. While Marlow showed a little concern to the situation of the natives, the other Europeans were not bothered in the bit.  It is while absorbing the happenings in this space that he learns of a Mr. Kurtz, the biggest ivory merchant who resides in the deep interior.

There is distrust among the Europeans and a conspiracy which Marlow feels may have been responsible for sinking his steamer. Dredging this ship and repairing it took Marlow 3 months. Thereafter Marlow prepares for a 2 months up-river trip into the interior to see Kurtz. This trip is difficult and almost impossible without the help of the maltreated Africans. This journey which Marlow shares as a journey into pre-historic earth gives room for further reflection between the primitive and the civilized. Through the difficult voyage, death skulked in the air, sea and bush. Marlow pondered more on the person of the controversial Mr. Kurtz. His eagerness to meet Kurtz draws him onward in his Journey. Perhaps his having a personal construction of the person of Mr. Kurtz will finally solve the puzzle of what happens to colonists in Africa’s Congo.

Finally the Inner Station in the interiors came into view. Arriving, he meets the Russian trader who feeds him more on yet another enigmatic depiction of Mr. Kurtz. Marlow remains helplessly fascinated by the eloquence of the Mystery man Kurtz whom he characterizes as ‘the voice’.

Mr. Kurtz eventually is an embodiment of the European’s keeping appearances and justification of imperialism, an irony of them being the light bearers for Africa. What Marlow finds is an Ivory hungry and greedy Mr. Kurtz who sets himself up as a god to the natives. Kurtz’s writing ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ speaks further on the conflict in his character and the flaws therein. He is an unscrupulous ivory hunter who could kill even his fellow European for a small stash of ivory. Marlow is further amazed by the discovery that some items he thought of as ornamental balls on the tops of fence posts in the station compound were only severed heads of rebels. Everything about Kurtz was an irony, even his name Kurtz means “short” in German, but Kurtz is tall.

Learning that Mr. Kurtz is now ill and that he Marlow has been charged with the responsibility of taking him back to Civilization in Europe defines the last part of Marlow’s journey. Kurtz’s personality and power creates further challenge for Marlow in carrying out this charge. Their being together finally creates room for some level of intimacy but one, overwhelmed by betrayal.  With a rough journey ahead, Kurtz health gets worse, displaying a sense of vulnerability fearing his own death, he hands over his documents; a symbol of his legacy to Marlow for safekeeping as he awaits death. Despite hearing his last hallucinatory words ‘the horror the horror’, Marlow keeps away from having to witness Mr. Kurtz last breath; a servant runs in shortly after to tell him, ‘Mistah Kurtz—he dead!’

Unlike the African who is thrown out into the sea when he died, Mr. Kurtz is finally buried and Marlow returns to Brussels to dispose of Mr. Kurtz legacies. This act exposes him to meeting other associates of Kurtz, revealing more about Mr. Kurtz and bringing the story to an end.

Generally, this Novella by Joseph Conrad has been classed as a symbolical imperialist work. Published in the late 18th century, it is one of the remarkable colonial literatures that has been engaged and critiqued. Of importance is its criticism as being racist and misogynist.

From the angle of the gender critics, this novella has been faulted for presenting women in the era it was written in very limited way, adopting the presentation of flat female characters with stereotypes. Marlow did encounter a number of women like his Aunt, the two women in Mr. Kurtz’s life and a few more. But none of these were admirable. His Aunt is out of touch with the truth, living in a different world from men, just like other women. Mr. Kurtz’s native mistress is only noted for her attractive looks, gracefully draped in ornaments and nothing more. He also attaches no significant importance to Kurtz’s fiancée who he meets at the end of the story.Chinua-Achebe10--AFP-

I read this novel taking notes of the sentiments of renowned African writer Chinua Achebe who said it was blinkered with xenophobia, he called it an offensive and deplorable book that de-humanizes Africans. More appropriate here is Achebe’s quote in a different instance saying he thinks ‘decency and civilization would insist that the writer take sides with the powerless. Clearly, there’s no moral obligation to write in any particular way. But there is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless. I think an artist, in my definition of that word, would not be someone who takes sides with the emperor against his powerless subjects.’

 Even though the writer Conrad and his character Marlow are noted to be fence-sitting on their position of colonization, there is a sense in which the narratives in this book promoted imperialism as a worthy enterprise, glamourizing racism and the violence of colonialism. According to Marlow,

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.’

Though Marlow expresses shock at the treatment of Africans, it is in no way clear how progressive he is on speaking against this issue. While there is a good appreciation of sceneries in this work, it is amazing that such rich descriptions are not extended to the Africans. Rather than project the humanity in them and give them a name at least, all through the novella, Marlow generously described Africans using words like ‘Negro, Natives, Nigger, Blackman and Savage. All of these rapes Africans of their humanity, their soul and identity.

Reading this book as an African, it is indeed difficult to disagree with Chinua Achebe. But we may be more lenient if we consider that this writer wrote for a time and for an audience. This book was not written for Africans, I doubt if the writer ever thought that a time will come when Africans will read and review his portrayal of their history as am doing today. Such books help me understand the fight of Congolese Matyr Patrice Lumumba.

While the politics of skin colour was overwhelmingly present in this book written in 1899, two centuries later, it still thrives in human interactions. The writer succeeded in contributing to the discourse for demoralizing imperialism as empty and an extortionist concept for exploitation. It fails in contemporary times because it was written from a heart of darkness which couldn’t see any light or soul beneath a black skin.

 

Written by ~  Adaobi Nkeokelonye

A Man of the People

Dancers capered and stamped, filling the dry-season air with dust. It was a ridiculous festival hosted by the poor contemptible people of Anata to honour their son; Chief Nanga the former school teacher who is now the most charismatic politician in the country. It was in that time in a politician’s tenure when he had to court the villagers for their votes.  Though hindsight shows he is one of those who tuned their country down the slope of inflation, his clannish people remain satisfied with the few pound notes he sticks on their perspiring faces.

Chief the honourable M.A Nanga M.P. is the typical politician who though with a humble background has now been IMG_8531transformed by a sip of power and an insatiable hunger for position and titles. He was that Minister of Culture bloated by the flatulence of ill-gotten wealth, living in mansions built with public fund and secured by hired thugs.  Clad in voluminous damask and gold chain, he acknowledges cheers with an ever present fan of animal skin. With the young and beautiful Edna his next wife by his side, Chief is set to be a man of the people. Fulsome praises flung at his face.

Then we meet the protagonist Odili Samalu a young village teacher, the son of a polygamous district interpreter, a former student of Chief the honourable M.A Nanga. Young he was, with every prospect that will make a politician court his loyalty. Like most young Africans, he longed for the big education of visiting Europe, but his enthusiasm for politics overshadows it. Odili is less enthusiastic of Chief Nanga and his likes whom in a country that just got independence from the colonial power, are becoming the next colonists. He was highly critical of their mismanagement of the coffee market which was the prop of the economy and the trigger for their countries financial crisis. He was defensive of Africa from the criticisms of the self-righteous Westerners. Understanding politics was important but difficult for him. Nights were when he tried to analyse his theory of why power was difficult to relinquish by African leaders.  He questioned the act of politics and its morality? Odili will later ask ;

What potent charm do politicians have? … I find myself wondering whether-perhaps-I have been applying to politics stringent standards that didn’t belong to it.

For Odili and Chief Nanga, what binds them together is smaller than what puts them apart. They are bonded by their fantasies for women, their student-teacher relationship and their tribal affiliation. Yet their idealisms for national governance were practically far apart. Their fantasy for same women creates a conflict, playing a definitive role for their political competition. Chief Nanga wrenched Odili’s lover Elsie from his hands. Humiliated, Odili sets his fight on morality which is questionable. How does he draw a moral boundary in sexual matters when he found it ok to go to bed with an Ambassadors wife? More so on what moral ground does he judge Chief Nanga when he takes advantage of the perks from his political office?

Vindictive Odili was set to revenge his lose by taking over Chief’s young palour-wife  Edna. The battle line in this book was drawn on the body of women. Perhaps Odili’s father was right in his perceptions that the mainspring of political actions was often personal gains. Odili will later admit this saying;

…My political plans which in all honesty I should admit had always been a little nebulous- until Edna came along. She had been like a dust particle in the high atmosphere around which the water vapour of my thinking formed its globule of rain.

IMG_4775Consequently, Odili re-establishes his relationship with his old friend Max who co-opts him into their new political party ‘Common People’s Convention’. After years of watching capitalist politicians with deepening disillusionment, they and other young people understood that when worthy people leave politics to the unworthy ones, corruption happens, and such cannot go on indefinitely.  The youths were hence determined to drop cats among the pigeons in their country’s political space.

After years of lethargy, the impending election created the perfect opportunity to announce the young people’s party. Odili was again concerned on how they could fight corrupt politicians without soiling their own hands. But Max the technocrat was more objective than sentimental. Their participation in politics was not without fatality, it was the tragedy of this book. Odili is beaten black and blue to a state of unconsciousness by Chief Nanga’s thug making way for Chief to win the election unopposed.  Max is murdered by his opponent Chief Koko’s thug, and his fiancée Eunice is jailed for instantly shooting Chief Koko to death.  In Odili’s words,

Max was avenged not by the people’s collective will but by one solitary woman who loved him. Had his spirit waited for the people to demand redress, it would have been waiting still in the rain and out in the sun. But he was lucky.

With so much tragedy experienced by the youth in a bid to save their country from the grip of capitalist politician, it is easy to conclude that they failed, but I thought different.  With their action, these young people were catalysts who stirred up the polity, bringing change.  The election thugs of the politicians refusing to be disbanded after the election formed bands of marauders, beginning a reign of terror.  Consequently, the Army staged a coup that had chief Nanga and other members of the corrupt government parliament jailed. Thus, Max became a hero of the revolution.

While reading this book, I sought earnestly for what made the writer Chinua Achebe a most wanted man by the Chinua-Achebe10--AFP-Nigerian government in the season it was published. Significantly, it presented a post-colonial Africa and principally Nigeria, where corruption and conflict of interest had become the order of the day amongst leaders.  Its climax in a coup d’état arguably made it a predictor of the near future of many African countries and one could herein understand why writers will remain enemies of tyrant governments. Most striking was the series of violent transitions that Nigeria survived shortly after the publication in 1966, seemingly making Achebe a prophet.

Almost fifty years after A Man of the People was published, not much has changed in the governance of African countries. I am tempted to say that this book will never grow old, but I pray it does. I encourage young people to read this book. Perhaps we can hear the author again making a clarion call for youths to understand that a genuine democracy requires their participation. Youths remain a formidable social force and the most active segment of the society, but they remain exploited as politicians pun and their participation in politics are characterized by the violence they create.

It is my desire that young people can once again set cats among the pigeons. It is my prayer that a new Africa emerges to cause a wrinkle on Chinua Achebe’s book  A Man of the People.

– Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye

There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe: My Review!

Why would I review an Author’s personal account of the realities of his time on a page that deals with fiction and development issues? Drawing from a background of literature and history, I believe that  the book ‘There was a Achebe_review1Country’ by Chinua Achebe gives deeper insight into the development of the country Nigeria. It gives relevance to the past and the future of our world perhaps projecting the need of a better perspective for younger generation trying to understand their root.

This book comes littered with thought provoking poems that gives the right ambience to the issues discussed. It speaks of an era when renowned authors responded to development issues using fiction writing that produced satiric works like ‘Before the Black out’ by Wole Soyinka and Man of the People by Chinua Achebe amongst others. It tells of the role of a writer in social and national development. Chinua Achebe emphasizes that ‘if a society is ill, the writer has a responsibility to point it out’. It highlights the political position of creative writing in the advancement of development in any era.

Beyond this, the book indeed has placed a moral lens on how we as young people view our history and our past leaders (villains and heroes alike). It helps one position the intentions of the many giant nations, especially the western nation in the development of Nigeria. It is here to help us look through our national pathologies and indeed unlearn things that will stop ugly history from repeating.

The Biafran war remains a very political issue; it is not spoken of without raising a tribal dust. Its realities are barelyBLM-Biafra-Flag-Waving-Large known to people like me who were born three or four decades ago. For most of us, Biafra was that war that failed to divide Nigeria; it’s when the people of Ibo descents wanted a country of their own. Not many of us have strived to understand clearly the roots of this desired separation. Perhaps it has been politically hidden in our education. As the Author clearly asked, ‘why has the war not been discussed, or taught to the young, fourty years after its end?’

Reading this book, momentarily estranged me from my generation and I kindled to the life and truth of the Author’s generation, it gave my life more depth, meaning and resonance. I understand the war began not just as a result of belligerency raised by some primitive Ibo tribe. It was not a war between progressive nationalist and retrogressive tribal bigots. By Achebe’s projections, it started with a military coup that was misconstrued and given a tribal colour, it was stirred by a pogrom committed severally against a group. It was fuelled by manifold rivalry allowed by a complacent government.

When you read of the Asaba and Calabar Massacre, amongst others followed by the many pogroms that preceded it in Nigeria, you may like myself be tempted to ask if an apology by the incumbent leaders at the time was enough? Did this belated apology change the fact that there was genocide in Biafra? Will it change the alterations their acts had done to the present day people and their families who as the children of yesterday watched their father and brother’s Chinua-Achebe10--AFP-bloods splashing on their faces and settling in violation on the earth?

I am not trying to raise a settled dust, No! The dusts are not settled! Again and again they rise with the tornadoes of many injustice and cycles of inter-ethnic and inter-religious killings littered all over Nigeria. They are there in the life and family of the many Ibo fathers, who were Biafran casualties, who wake up spontaneously angry, violent and abusive to wives and children for reasons they do not know. Perhaps they still duck under cover, hear the howls of pain, picture Biafran babies with washed out ribs and blown out bellies starved into submission in a landscape where the air is heavy with odours of blood. Hmmnn…to the children of yesterday, there is a cry for justice. To the children of today, there is a hunger for peace. But there will be no peace without justice.

Achebe’s personal accounts, gave an insight into the genesis of election rigging (another national cancer) as an eclectic seed of the West. The manipulations of the embittered British Colonists aided the transfer of power to the then most conservative elements in the country hence inspiring the perpetual death of faith in genuine democracy. The character of the independence given to the country Nigeria came with so much ease that one would wonder if it were not a Greek gift.

13201_biafrapound1_1_jpg52d5260fbadee7189d2c5a2cc71cdbe7This book showcased landmark events that could have catalyzed development in Africa. But rather our leaders compromised or altered them with mediocre thinking which enshrined our government. Perhaps we may need to ask what our acclaimed altruistic leaders had done with the ingenuity of the Biafran scientist and think-tanks who fourty decades ago, could pilot planes and generate technologies they used to fight their cause. These people survived for years refining their own oil and maintaining their vehicle with no western aid or resources. What happened to the indigenous skills of this group of people who did what the Europeans may have tagged impossible for Africa in that time? In three years of the war, necessity gave birth to great inventions which if integrated into national development could advance a nation and perhaps a continent. But alas, we buried them all, we buried true African independence with the memories of men and women en-masse that died for theirbook1 faith.

The late writer paid his last due by putting in our hands the gift of a little history book and now I can confidently say that ‘There was a Country’! I am always of the opinion that our African fathers failed us by their choices and decisions in a revolutionary era. Now I am tempted to say that my generation may be on the verge of failing our children by being complacent and not questioning many past and present conventions, for fear that we will raise another dust! But must Biafra come again?

 

 

 

 

By Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Marriage is a Private Affair

images (5)‘… when it comes to marriage, it’s not that simple’ Nnaemeka said in Achebe’s ‘Marriage is a private affair’.  Iimagese  believe him, considering the different dynamics the marriage concept has produced over the years. Marriage permeates almost every culture and society in the map of humanity, promoting sexual, emotional and other forms of commitment between two (or maybe more) people. That commitment in itself has serious implications to the economic development of a people. It has continued to thrive through many decades and centuries. But in the wind of change, many things wither.

It is amazing to see how like humans, social concepts evolve and change. Marriage too has changed. In growing up days, we were all children of two parents. The only kid who had just a mother had lost his father not long before. As the years rolled on, more students images (6)had one parent and later in life when I visited homes of friends, their parents were more of house mates and that commitment that bonded many marriages was fast withering. More so, some mothers I knew were never called wives before their children came forth.

In this era, the increasing rise of homosexual marriages is undeniable. The changes also spreads to parenting. Few years after Elton John and his husbands’ adoption denials caused media frenzy and increased awareness on homosexual parenting thereof. There are so many intersections to this issue and I cannot exhaust them.

images (3)Whether or not we choose to acknowledge marriage as an institution, it sure has lots of benefit and administrative convenience going for it. Married workers are considered more productive, hence marriage benefits earning. Marriage gives automatic inheritance rights and grants social security benefits. It protects and can reward your emotional investments when things don’t work out unlike when you just date. There are many more unspoken advantages of being married than I know of.

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This week, I am reviewing this concept through works of fiction to help elucidate the politics and drivers of the marriage concept. On my table already is Achebe’s ‘Marriage is a private affair’. Suggestions of other works of fiction I could consult will be highly appreciated.

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

Things Fall Apart: Modeling Masculinity

151758_stock-photo-close-up-of-african-man

1231947178e6SVpwFiction 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.

okonkwoUnlike 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.

Chinua-Achebe-71 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.

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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?

17097444-exhausted-african-man-sitting-in-chair-over-white-backgroundIt 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

Fiction and Development

 -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 Clark2Pepper 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’

6568430-MHe 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. ngugi1The 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.

animal-farmThe 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!