Anthills of the Savannah

by Chinua Achebe

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What is the importance of the role of women in the novel Anthills of the Savannah?

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Anthills of the Savannah is, at its heart, a novel that explores how men and women deal differently with conflict and power. The men of the story are in control at the start after a successful coup—but their influence is short-lived as they turn on one another. The women, on the other hand, are not about consolidating power or political privilege—instead, they see the value and potential in tradition and community.

While the men slowly destroy each other and themselves, the women are working diligently to make a new life, reform their communities, and record the traditions of their people so that they have a guide for the future.

For example, Beatrice is working to preserve the history and traditions of its people. By the time the women’s perspective is introduced halfway through the novel, Beatrice is working diligently to explore the history of their country:

For weeks and months after I had definitely taken on the challenge of bringing together as many broken pieces of this tragic history as I could lay my hands on I still could not find a way to begin. (Chapter 7)

Her work to preserve the history of their nation, the bloody coup, and the work they were doing to make a new nation is a metaphor for the solution to the issues Achebe sees in modern Africa. The women, while the men are fighting, are working to understand the past to make a better future. It is telling that at the end of the story, after all the men have been killed, Beatrice carries out a traditional ceremony for naming. The ceremony is usually taken on by men, but all the men have forgotten their traditions and history—instead of fighting for the new power and dying in the process. It is Beatrice, then, who takes on the strength of their culture, showing how the new Africa will need to be modeled on the wisdom of the past rather than the new power brought by violence.

Ultimately, women are the carriers of history and the bearers of life. They are left to pick up the pieces after the conflicts that men rage against each other and the women. Women end up being the only ones left, and so they must take on traditionally masculine roles to carry on the community that is left after the conflict. It is in renewing the tradition they have saved that they will bring new life to the people of their nation.

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Achebe's portrayal of women in this novel suggests that he believes women must play a vital role in the growth of new African societies. The women are able to maintain a connection with their heritage and culture in the midst of injustice and political strife. They also provide the moral strength needed to get through the problems their society is facing. Ikem tells Beatrice how he has found a new respect for women regarding their relevance and role in contemporary society. He feels women, historically the most oppressed people in the world, must be recognized as necessary to building the future of a nation. The lines between the genders become blurred. At the end of the novel, Beatrice presides over the naming ceremony of Elewa's baby girl. Traditionally, naming a child has been the role of men to perform. The baby is also given a boy's name. Achebe depicts the women in his novel as strong characters.

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