Monday, October 20, 2014

Reading by Candlelight - African Women Writers

In 1989, while lecturing at the University of Sierra Leone, one of my students lent me Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.”   I was struck by the resemblance between the Nigerian village he described and the village outside Freetown where I lived.  Later I found out that Achebe was from the Nigerian Igbo ethnic group.  The villages in the hills around Freetown were settled, in the early 19th century, by different ethnic groups, including Igbo and Yoruba people from modern-day Nigeria. Achebe and my Sierra Leonean neighbours shared common ancestors.

Before I’d lived in Africa,  I’d read the Zimbabwean novelist Doris Lessing, South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer and a variety of novels set in Africa including Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” – a novel which came under fire from Achebe for its portrayal of Africa -  and Donegal-born Joyce Cary’s “Mister Johnston.”  Before I’d actually stood on a hill looking down on Freetown, I’d been there with Scobie in Graham Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter.”  

“Things fall apart” was different.  This was the man who had grown up as part of the village telling the story, rather than a European or the descendant of a European writing about Africa.    The book describes the impact of the arrival of white missionaries on a traditional Nigerian society, a topic Achebe was no stranger to.  His great-uncle had allowed the first Christian missionaries to his home village to stay in his compound. 

I didn't have a generator in my home, so read Achebe and other books by candlelight, hence the title of this piece.

 I returned “Things fall apart”, and set out in search of more African novels.  I was particularly keen to identify women writers, wondering if they would deal with similar topics to Achebe or if their work would reflect different concerns. 

In the British Council Library in Freetown I discovered the Heinemann African Writers Series.  Established in 1962, with the aim of publishing literature written by Africans about Africa, Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” was the first book published in the series.  The early writers in the series belonged to a generation to whom “this thing of talking with paper”was new.  Like my students most of them came from families where they, or their parents, were the first generation to go to school.  Most of the writers were male, reflecting the greater value that is put on the education of boys.  

Themes of African Women Writers
The Senegalese Mariama Ba was on the curriculum in the English Department.  Her book “So Long a Letter,” takes the form of a letter from the recently widowed Ramatoulaye to her friend Aissatou.  After 25 years of marriage and twelve children, her husband decided to take a second wife, a schoolfriend of one of their daughters. Through the letter she tells her story and in doing so explores the position of women in African Islamic society.   Some of my female students on the Librarianship course were second wives.  Despite their family responsibilities they were keen to get an education and this is a common theme in novels by African women.
 In “Women are Different”, published in 1966, by Nigerian Flora Nwapa – the first West African women to publish a novel – pupils from two schools meet to debate the topic “that the education of girls is a waste of money.” Further south on the continent  Zimbabwean  Tsitsi Dangarembga portrays a girl called Tambu who sells mealies (corn) to raise the money to attend a local school. Her book “Nervous Conditions” was the first novel to be published in English by a black Zimbabwean woman. Tambu's father and her uncle, a teacher,  believe that their limited money must be spent on the education of her brother.  Marriage laws govern their thinking to some extent.  Any money Tambu earns will go to the family she marries into -  and this is a society where a woman must marry to be valued - not her birth family.   In her autobiography “Head Above Water,” Nigerian Buchi Emecheta relates how she had to fight to be allowed to attend school with her brother.  Eventually her parents agreed in the hope it would increase the bride price she would fetch.   “In the Ditch” describes her efforts to get a university education, when, aged 22,  she is separated and living in poverty in London with five children  At the same age her fellow Nigerian Chinua Achebe graduated from the newly established University of Ibadan, later going to study broadcasting with the BBC in London.

Some of my female students at the University were single parents.  They hoped to marry and were happy to give birth in order to prove to their perspective partners that they could have children.  In Sierra Leone, as in other African countries, for a woman to lack reproductive power is to lack all power.  Not surprisingly, the importance of family and children and the torment childless women endure figure prominently in women’s writing.  Flora Nwapa’s first novel “Efuru”, set in rural Igboland (Nigeria), tells of  Efuru, a beautiful and prosperous young woman whose only child dies in infancy.  She is cast aside by her husband.   Emecheteta also deals with the agony of childlessness in “The Joys of Motherhood.”  Nnu Ego, from an Igbo village, returns to her family home in shame when she fails to become pregant as a new bride.  Her father sends her to Lagos to marry another man.   Nnu Ego believes that if she can have a child fulfillment and security in old age will be hers.   She becomes the mother of eight children.  When her husband inherits his brother’s three wives after his brother’s death he brings one of them to share the house in Lagos with Nnu Ego.  While polygamy can work in rural societies where each wife can have their own household, it does not sit well in this new urban environment.  Nnu Ego strives to educate her sons who, once well educated, emigrate.  Nnu Ego dies by the roadside “with no child to hold her hand no friend to talk to her.”

In Sierra Leone, as in many other African societies, if a man dies, his widow is  inherited by his brother, whose duty it is to provide for her and her children.   One of my students Isaac, who already had a big family, inherited his older brother’s wife and children after his brother died suddenly.  

Just as there is no place for independent widowed women, there is often no place for the single or divorced woman.  In “Changes”, Ghanaian  Ama Ata Aidoo portrays Esi, a divorced middle class woman who opts to  become a second, or junior wife to Ali,  rather than live life as a single women in a society which does not acknowledge the existence of single women.   The story is told from a number of viewpoints.  Fusena, Ali’s educated Muslim wife, has given up the hope of getting a university degree to bring up their children and support her husband’s career.  “And now here was Ali telling her that he was thinking of making a woman with a university degree his second wife.  So Allah, what was she supposed to say?  What was she supposed to do?”  She goes to the older women in Ali’s family, some of whom are second, third and fourth wives.  They ask themselves why so little has changed for their daughters “school and all.”

Emigration and the search for a better life, also featured in the books I read.  Ghanain writer Amma Darko lived in Germany for some years.  “Beyond the horizon” tells the story of Mara, a young Ghanain village woman, who joins her husband in Germany and enters a dark world of prostitution, subterfuge and intrigue that threatens to destroy her.  Sudanese Leila Aboulela  came to Scotland shortly after the Gulf War began.  She describes herself as being caught in an in-between place, a Muslim woman in a country where anti-Islamic feeling was quite high and in a culture vastly different from her own.  Many of the stories in her collection “Coloured Lights,” are about people who are in this in-between space and illuminate Muslim immigrant experience in Britain.  Her novel “The Translator,” looks at faith and love against a background of secular Scotland and Muslim Sudan.  

Leaving Sierra Leone
While I read books that depicted women who were resourceful, determined and resilient and determined to break through barriers imposed by tradition on their sex,  Sierra Leone continued to decline until, tired of the corruption, the empty promises, the unpaid salaries and the bitter taste of disappointment, there was a coup in 1991. I left in August; at that point there was a curfew after 6  in the evening in Freetown and there were rumours of rebels getting nearer.  The events that took the country from a diamond-rice state brimming with optimism at independence in 1961 to a brutal and loody civil war, are eloquently described in Sierra Leonean Aminatta Forna’s lyrical and evocative memoir “The Devil that Danced on the water.”   In 2000 Forna, now a London-based journalist returned to the much loved country of her birth.  She found a Freetown that was “full of living ghosts, amputees, deranged rebels.”  I’ve sent copies of “The Devil that danced on the water,” back to Sierra Leone, so that friends can read the writings of their fellow countrywoman.  Even if the book were available in Freetown few could afford to buy it.  The paperback version costs more than the average monthly salary. 

Back in Ireland I continued to read African women writers and wrote a series for "Africa" and broadcast a series on five writers on "The Quiet Quarter" on Lyric FM. I was thrilled when the series for "Africa" was shortlished for the 2006 RTE Media and Multicultural Awards (MAMA),

Below are links to various articles I wrote about the writers  I read writers in Sierra Leone and back in Ireland
Leila Aboulela
Chinua Achebe
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ama Ata Aidoo
Neshani Andreas
Mariama Ba
Ishmael Beah
Doreen Baingana 
Tsitsi Dangarembga
Amma Darko 
Unity Dow
Buchi Emecheta
Nurrudin Farah
Aminatta Forna 
Abdulrazak Gurnah
Bessie Head 
Sindiwe Magona
Juliana Makuchi 
Dinaw Mengestu
Lilia Momple

Flora Nwapa
Grace Ogot 
Ngugi wa Thiong'o  

Helen Fallon, Deputy Librarian, Maynooth University

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