On my shelf this season…

IMG_7448If you could give me just one gift for the rest of my life, make it a book. Books are gifts we never get tired of opening. They are the cheapest form of tourism I discovered; it amazes me how I travel to different parts of the world just inside one book. So I felt loved to get fantastic gifts of books from my friends Zoe, Mun, Samtito and Vicky. I did not forget to reward myself with some books I have long desired. In the same spirit, I am sharing the list of books I received and will be reviewing this season.

Nathan Filer ©telegraph.co.uk

Nathan Filer ©telegraph.co.uk

I am grateful to my inspiration Muneera Parbeen for the gift of ‘The Shock of the Fall’ by Nathan Filer. Aside appreciating that reviewing this book will partially de-list me from being stereotyped an ageist by some of my critics, I am excited about this book because it captures a peculiar group present in our society but marginalized. It projects the place of care and support in sustaining the well-being of persons receiving mental healthcare services, while sharing their realities. The author Nathan Filer is a young British writer. His debut novel The Shock of the Fall has won several major awards, including the 2013 Costa Book of the Year and the 2014 Betty Trask Prize.

10152999_10152346295389914_5621460594907841966_nMany thanks to Samtito Olatito, I will be reviewing more collections of books I have yearned for. ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ and ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’ by the late Colombian writer Gabrielle Marquez. When this famous writer Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez known as Gabo for short passed away last year, I felt bad I never read any work of his while he lived. But the saying that writers never die is true. Gabo still lives through his books. ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’ is a controversial love story weaving together the tales of a 90-year-old man and a pubescent concubine. ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ chronicles a fictional South American rural community Macondo highlighting their challenges and the fabric of their realities.

beahGravitating away from fiction, I will be reviewing memoirs that particularly focus on experiences of young men caught in conflict spaces, exploring the impact of the choices they make. I thought this will require my doing a cross-generational reading. So in the context of the older generation, I choose ‘All Rivers Run to the Sea’ a memoir by Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor and a man I adore. Alongside for the younger generation, I am reviewing ‘The Terrorist’s Son, a story of Choice’ by Zak Ibrahim and ‘A Long Way Gone’ memoirs of a boy soldier by Ishmael Beah.

Moving to books from Asia, I have a recommendation by Professor Grace Chin, who I admire, to read Raden Adjeng Kartini’s ‘Letters of a Javanese Princess’ a feminist book highlighting early 20th century treatise on education and the unfair treatment of native Javanese women. Raden Kartini is hailed as Indonesia’s fervent feminist writer. I am glad to finally have this book on my shelf and review list.

heart-of-darkness-paul-gauguinThe Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad brings me back to Central Africa. This controversial Novella has been notorious for its narratives which explores European imperialism, colonialism and the dichotomy between civil society and savage ones. I will be revisiting this work to officially review it here, being mindful of criticisms expressed by my beloved late Chinua Achebe who in a public lecture “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” described Heart of Darkness as “an offensive and deplorable book” that de-humanized Africans.

Thanks to Vicky my ever faithful reader and friend, I also have Chinua Achebe on my list. ‘A Man of the People’ by the late Prof. Achebe will finally grace this blog. I find this book critical to the understanding of Africa’s perception of democracy. In a season filled with burning passion and sentiments ahead of sensitive elections in the African continents, this book will give insight to the role of young people in governance within their polity.

When a writer shares a tale, we the readers receive and understand it differently according to the lens we wear. I have continued to read books, especially fiction books with my international development goggles in place. I encourage every lover of literature to join me on an exciting ride through the pages of books listed here. In the spirit of sharing, let’s all bring to the fore our objective perspectives in a constructive way to continue driving the discussion on linkages between literary fiction and international development issues.

To you my friends, I say thank you for these gifts, they will remain for a life time.

 

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

Our Grand Mother’s Drum

I love Mark Hudson the Journalist, but I love more his semi-fiction novel ‘Our Grandmother’s drum’ which bridged the gap mark-hudsonbetween travel and fiction writing. It is the story of the lives of women of the Mandinka tribe, Keneba, West Kiang, Gambia. The Fiction name Dulaba was given to it by the award winning author. Bored with his London realities, the young Tubab Marky (as he is called by the women) is drawn to the mystery of the Gambian women and hence set out to honour his curiosity. There he worked as an amazing anthropologist, escaping the researcher’s bias by living and toiling the earth with these women through the seasons of hunger, of rain, of sunshine and abundance. He was not just a visiting tubab (white man), he was a part of them, a member of their Saniyoro kafo (women’s club).  Even though his feelings of difference as a result of his skin colour remained ever present, he stayed through the year.

The ethics of his data gathering has remained in question as it may have been unconsented that he would publish a novel about them. It implies that he stole the secret of the women of Dulaba, creating yet another impression of the European unethically taking from Africa’s natural resources including her poverty and ignorance. Having noted this, Hudson has done a fantastic job situating the IMG_3981women of Dulaba and their lives in the map of humanity. He gave a poignant story vividly describing the people, the culture and the landscape in joy and sadness, he indeed created a portrait of rural African life. As is expected of our rich Africa, 140various subject matters were covered ranging from female genital mutilation, religion and agriculture amongst others. One relevant for this column is the representation of women’s role in African agriculture.

Have you ever heard these comments about women feeding the world? Have you read that in sub-saharan african, women contribute 60-80% of labour in food production for household consumption and for sale? These are few examples of dominant narratives of women in African agriculture. Every time I see this, I have often wondered if I would still find so many women toiling the field as described and I wondered what men did. I grew up going to the farm with my parents (even though I detested it then); I remember there were men and likewise women tilling the earth in neighbouring farms. Farm work evolved around family relationships and so even men, women and children like us played a role. I guardian.co.ukalso remember that my mother and many of her friends in the rural village were in addition traders who I saw in the traditional Afor market. Hence I am startled at the power some of these claim and the figures that they carry have for conviction. Many times I wondered about the lives and stories behind the statistics quoted.  Each one of them noticeably displaced our men in the field and put them anywhere else.

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All of these claims have in the past decades unequivocally influenced the structure and design of development investments in the African agricultural sector. They make a gender case for the challenges of African agriculture and support policy debates in funding and promotion of activities for women in African agriculture.

Like Hudson, in 2012, I carried out an academic research travelling through maps of different claims. I pitched my tent on one of them, following their trajectories right on my desk to confirm the origin and character of evidence supporting it. Four decades after, the origin remained traceable to the identity constructions of women IMG_3982in agriculture by Esther Boserup. Her 1970’s much renowned work ‘Women’s Role in Economic Development’  created an identity for rural women, it put them out there but it also generalized their realities.

There certainly has been substantial changes in African Agriculture, considering the amount of investment that has gone into it from aid agencies over the years. If not for its political expediency, why are these changes not reflecting in the claims? This old data remains shaky and overstates the facts, its continued recycling speaks even more. But Hudson’s work gives me another perspective.

The narratives in Our Grandmother’s Drum gives qualitative evidence validating the claims of the hard working women and the lazy men theory, it is the story behind the claims I have been looking for. Yes, in Dulaba, women probably contribute more than 70% considering the realities that are presented by Hudson. With glimpes of brightly coloured clothes flashing in sunlight we see the African-women-farmers-300x199great mass of women milling over the land in Dulaba. The women of Dulaba spent their life time in a circle of childbearing, domestic labour and manual agriculture summing up in the rhythms created by mortar and pestle as they pound and cook. With their songs and dance, voices of different generations of women rise together, they create scenes of domestic intimacy that excludes the men. From the planting to the weeding time bindeyo when women battle with the earth to preserve their crops, all these putEthnic_Woman_Walking_with_a_Goat_100427-234387-779042 together, amounts to little more than slavery according to Hudson. But where are the men in Dulaba?

Mention is made of young men working in rotations two decades before, planting large fields of groundnuts and millet. Now, Hudson record that ‘while the men liked to sleep through the day, the women had continued their task’ as described. He validates that indeed women may actually be feeding the Gambian world.

As I think of the contrast between Dulaba and the landscape I grew up in, I realise that the world of Africa may be similar in many ways but also peculiarly different. Dulaba in Gambia may never be the same with my landscape, but the importance of agriculture inIMG_4001 (2) Africa’s development cannot be doubted. So now I ask if we may actually continue to focus on the investment on women or do we find a way of galvanising the men and the women through development project without fracturing family and other social relationships? Can the strengthening of our agricultural sector also strengthen the gender and family relationships in agriculture just like in the time I grew up?

Thank you Mark Hudson for the perspectives you bring, but I thank more, Christine Okali for blessing me with this book, she is a dear teacher who has always challenged many of my assumptions.

-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!