Flora Nwapa

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Naana Banyiwa-Horne (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4762

SOURCE: “African; Womanhood: The Contrasting Perspectives of Flora Nwapa's Efuru and Elechi Amadi's The Concubine,” in Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves, Africa World Press, 1986, pp. 119-29.

[In the following essay, Banyiwa-Horne uses Nwapa's Efuru and Elechi Amadi's The Concubine to delineate the differences between a female-authored and male-authored heroine.]

The question of African womanhood, though not given much consideration in critical evaluations of African literature until recent years, is one of the subjects that often finds its way into the writings of both male and female authors from the continent. Images of African womanhood abound in the literature, with some male authors giving as much exposure to the subject as female ones. In fact, some of the most fascinating and exotic women in fiction have been created by male writers. Cyprian Ekwensi's Jagua Nana is a novel by that name, and Wole Soyinka's Simi in The Interpreters readily come to mind.

A close look at the various images of African womanhood provided in the literature reveals that, to a considerable extent, depictions of African women in the literature by African woman writers differ from the images presented by their male counterparts. By virtue of their shared gender experiences, women writers are inclined to depict female characters in more realistic terms, with a great deal of insight, and in meaningful interaction with their environment. Also women writers tend to create a woman's world in which women characters exist in their own right, and not as mere appendages to a male world. There are exceptions, of course,1 but in the main, women authors explore alternate possibilities for self-actualization outside the sexual roles that are open to their women characters.

On the other hand, male depictions of female characters are often from a fiercely male perspective, reflecting male conceptions, or rather misconceptions, of female sexuality. Men writers tend to overplay the sexuality of their female characters, creating the impression that women have no identity outside their sexual roles. Their women are seen primarily in relation to male protagonists and in secondary roles. These characters usually serve to enhance the images of the male protagonists who occupy the central positions in the works. Furthermore, male images of African womanhood tend to be idealized and romanticized. There is little or no psychological growth in such portraitures which seems to suggest they are largely male fantasies of womanhood. The above does not suggest that every African male writer dabbles in stereotypes of African womanhood. There are brilliant exceptions. But generally, male depictions of African womanhood conform to the above stated observations.

These contentions are brought home forcefully when one examines two works that share a lot of superficial similarities—Flora Nwapa's Efuru and Elechi Amadi's The Concubine.2 The term superficial is employed here to qualify the similarities between the two novels, because they are apparent mainly in the surface structure of the two works but cannot be sustained in any in-depth analysis of the themes, particularly as they reveal Nwapa's and Amadi's perspectives of African womanhood.

The titles of both novels suggest that a female character is central to each work. Nwapa's novel revolves around Efuru, whose name provides the title for the work. In Amadi's novel too, Ihuoma, a woman, plays a central role. Efuru and Ihuoma have a lot in common; they are exceptional in many respects. Moreover, both works are set in rural Igbo villages, and in both, the supernatural plays a dominant role in the lives of the women. The similarities, however, only apply to the...

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raw materials the two authors employ in their works. Nwapa and Amadi utilize their materials in very distinct ways resulting in contrasting portrayals of their main female characters.

The following exploration of the attitudes of the two authors to the worlds they create, to their characters, and to their use of the supernatural reveals the two very different perspectives: Nwapa's Efuru provides a feminine perspective of African womanhood and gives a more complex treatment of the female character, while Amadi's The Concubine provides a perspective that is male and limiting.

In rural Ibgoland, where Efuru and The Concubine are set, close-knit family structures predominate, and everyone knows and is related to everyone else either by blood or by marriage. Each person's business is that of the entire community. No occurrence is sacrosanct. Both Amadi and Nwapa excel in creating the fabric and texture of their rural communities, bringing their characters and their worlds vividly to life for the reader. One leaves both novels with the feeling of having intimate knowledge of the fictional worlds and their inhabitants. The attitudes, beliefs, fears, loves, strengths and weaknesses of both individuals and the community at large are made apparent through the descriptions and the dialogue employed. There is very little authorial commentary in either work, though Amadi utilizes this technique a little more than Nwapa.

Nwapa depends almost exclusively on dialogue to reveal Efuru's world, and she proves very successful at it. Her novel is filled with the daily conversation mainly of women, a technique that captures most effectively the oral-aural nature of the world she unfolds. The constant banter of women reveals character as much as it paints a comprehensive, credible, social canvas against which Efuru's life can be assessed. The total world view is brought to life through dialogue. In commenting on this technique Maryse Condé observes that

… by making her heroine unique among her fellow-villagers and by reporting the unanimously hostile and adverse comments of the other women on every one of Efuru's decisions and actions, Flora Nwapa gives, in fact, a disturbing picture of narrow-mindedness, superstition, malevolence, and greed and fear in traditional Africa and might go contrary to what she has thought to defend. In depicting her minor characters, she conveys a very poor impression of her society. Her men are weak, dissolute and irrational. Her women, a formidable gallery of malicious gossipers.3

Condé, apparently disturbed by Nwapa's frankness in bringing to life her women characters with their idiosyncrasies and their entire baggage of attitudes, concludes that the result of Nwapa's technique goes contrary to her objectives. She is of the impression that Nwapa is not a conscious craftsperson. But on the contrary, what she interprets as Nwapa's weakness is one of her fortes—a conscious manipulation of dialogue in the revelation not so much of individual personality as in the creation of a tableau against which social values and attitudes can be evaluated.

The “formidable gallery of malicious gossipers” as Condé sees Nwapa's women, is definitely more than just that. They enable Nwapa to portray her world from the perspective of women. She brings out quite clearly the ways her women view the world in which they live, and their reactions not only to the other womenfolk, but to those aspects of life that touch directly on their lives as women. The thought patterns of the individual personalities as they comment on and react to Efuru are revealed. Of course, the comments of the women on Efuru's life reveal their envy, their own shortcomings, and their aspirations; but that is human nature, and Nwapa does a good job of revealing character. After all, who among the village gossips would not want to be beautiful and prosperous? Which of the married women would not bask in the attention Efuru's husband lavishes on her? Above all, which woman would not wish to be appreciated for herself rather than for her childbearing ability? Even as the women decry Efuru's beauty, her leaving her child with a maid in order to pursue her profession as a trader, or her going to the stream with her husband, their reactions reveal the restricted, limited sense of accomplishment in their own lives.

Efuru's infertility is a source of concern, yes, and the constant lamenting of her condition, more by other women than by herself, reveals the importance her society attaches to childbearing. But, at the same time, Efuru's undaunted effort to live her life as fully as possible, regardless of this shortcoming, is striking. Her misfortune does not diminish the awe in which the other women hold her, and this is equally reflected in the envious comments they pass on her. What Nwapa achieves through her setting, therefore, is a life-like recreation of the world of women in her rural Igbo community.

Elechi Amadi also employs similar tools in depicting his world and its attitudes. The world he projects, however, is a male world, and the voices heard are mainly male voices. The statements made by these voices and even by the authorial voice reflect not just a masculine attitude to women but a chauvinistic one. When friends and relatives assemble to celebrate the second burial of Ihuoma's husband, Amadi portrays his men as a dignified group while his women are bunched together as a cantankerous lot—“The old men were served. As they crunched their kola nuts slowly they talked to each other with a dignified buzz, an octave lower than the high-pitched, piping, market-chatter of the women” (p. 43).

His male characters consistently pass disparaging comments about their women. Madume dismisses his wife with the statement, “Women argue forwards and backwards” (p. 70). Wakiri confides in his friend Ekwueme, “when it comes to nagging I treat all women as children” (p. 20). Wigwe, a dignified elder, advises his son to regard his wife as “a baby needing constant correction” (p. 181). Ekwueme, the major male protagonist, sees all women as stupid and horrible and dismisses them as unworthy of him (p. 182). Even Ihuoma, who is acknowledged as being superior to other women, does not escape Ekwueme's deprecations. He perceives her as “just a simpleton with as much heart as a chicken” (p. 117). Furthermore, the exemplary behavior of Amadi's heroine is acknowledged in highly chauvinistic terms. Wigwe admits reluctantly: “True, you are only a woman but your good behaviour has placed you a little above many other women in the village” (p. 144).

What emerges from the world Amadi creates, then, is a reinforcement of stereotypical male chauvinistic impressions about African womanhood. All of his women characters are depicted as inferior and subordinate to men with even Ihuoma portrayed in subordination to the dominant male characters. The story begins, in characteristic male fashion, with a fight between two men, Emenike and Madume. Ihuoma's introduction into the story is tied to her position as Emenike's wife and as a woman on whom Madume has designs with these factors aggravating the conflict between the two men. Amadi informs the reader: “Perhaps Madume's hatred of Emenike might not have been so great if only the latter had not snatched Ihuoma from him” (p. 6).

Amadi's depiction of Ihuoma is dehumanizing. She is not portrayed as a human being with a will of her own. She is more like a piece of land, or a house, or some form of property that is there to be grabbed. Clearly, the only significance that women have in Amadi's novel is sexual. All exist in a man's world, to be used by the men as sexual vehicles. Amadi's sexism circumscribes his heroine's entire existence, and the very title of his novel, The Concubine, reveals the rigidly sexual mold in which Ihuoma is cast. Whether in the spirit world or in her life on earth, Ihuoma's relevance is thus limited by the machinations of a man: “in the spirit world she was the wife of the Sea King, the ruling spirit of the sea” (p. 253). Though reincarnated, her life on earth is still governed by her status as the wife of the Sea King. Before this information is disclosed at the end of the novel, we already know that Ihuoma is being manipulated by the author to reveal only her circumscribed role. She is always either the devoted wife and mother, the pitiable widow of highly commendable behavior, or the prospective wife to be wooed. The plot of The Concubine revolves around her successive attempts to seek fulfillment in marriage and on the attempts made by three successive men to woo and marry or bed her. After the death of her first husband, her mother continuously advises her to think of remarrying because a woman needs a man to survive. The impression one gets is that Ihuoma can have no independent life; she must always be attached to a man, as she has little or no relevance beyond her role as a sexual object.

At the same time, Amadi spares no effort in idealizing his heroine. Most of the novel concentrates on her physical and moral superiority to the other women in her world and on her relentless efforts to be an ideal wife and mother. Amadi's main preoccupation in The Concubine seems to be to portray a character who will epitomize female perfection from a sexist perspective, and he is highly successful in that respect. His heroine is all that such a man would wish a woman to be. She is endowed with the kind of physical attractiveness that makes a man proud to possess her.

She was a pretty woman: perhaps that is why she married so early. Her three children looked more like her brothers and sisters. She was young … she was just about twenty-two.

Ihuoma's complexion was that of the ant-hill. Her features were smoothly rounded and looking at her no one could doubt that she was ‘enjoying her husband's wealth.’ Nothing did a husband greater credit than the well-fed look of his wife

(p. 14).

Ihuoma's attractiveness is emphasized over and over again. She seems impressed by her own beauty, gazing at herself in the mirror every little chance she gets. Calamity, the most notorious agent of premature aging, adds only an ameliorating quality to her beauty. It gives her a “softly alluring, deeply enchanting … bewitching subtlety that only deep sorrow can give … young men and even the old gazed at her … irresistibly” (p. 45). The matured Ihuoma is even more fascinating; she is “confident without being brazen, self-respecting yet approachable, sweet but sensible” (p. 249).

Ihuoma is, above all, a model traditional wife; she shows “her great devotion to her husband in every way she could think of” (p. 9). She is always polite and never gives offense. She is submissive and very understanding. In short, she has none of those qualities that make a woman threatening to a man. She's no good at invectives and other women talk much faster than she does. She does not talk in parables; therefore, she cannot infringe on the male prerogative of verbal excellence. She is a staunch upholder of her society's values, and her high sense of morality matches her high physical endowments. She is so preoccupied with maintaining her good name as a woman that she readily sacrifices her happiness to her good name. For example, she declines to marry Ekwueme, a man she is in love with, because such behavior would be considered improper in her society. She takes it upon herself to remind him that tradition requires him to marry a young maiden who would obey him and give him the first fruits of her womb.

Elechi Amadi's portrayal of Ihuoma fits five of seven stereotypes catalogued by Roseann Bell. Ihuoma is the “Earth-mother, the concubine, the loyal doormat of a wife, the sacrificial lamb, [and] the willing mechanism in a polygamous drama.”4

Compare Flora Nwapa's approach to her heroine, Efuru. She is at the center of the world Nwapa creates. There is no event or situation in the novel that does not stem from her. The novel is Efuru's story, and her life provides the materials for plotting it. Other characters are brought in only as what they do and say leads to revealing or clarifying aspects of Efuru's life. Her presence controls the action, unlike Ihuoma whose actions are reactions to male-initiated actions. While Ihuoma becomes prominent in Amadi's novel only when her presence is required to complete the story of one of Amadi's male protagonists, Efuru is always present in Nwapa's novel in her own right. And this is significant because Amadi's work purports to deal principally with a female character.

Efuru is exceptional in many respects. She is beautiful, the daughter of one of the last survivors of a vanishing age of traditional valor and grandeur, and a highly successful businesswoman. She is prosperous; it is as though anything she touches literally transforms into riches. She is also very compassionate and unassuming, qualities that couple with her beauty to give her a striking resemblance to Ihuoma, Amadi's heroine.

However, Nwapa's Efuru is no paragon of female submissiveness. She demonstrates a marked sense of independence and a determination to lead a fulfilling life. From an early age she reveals a resolve to control her own life rather than to submit blindly to tradition. She is by no means a revolutionary because she does not completely abrogate tradition, but neither is she enslaved by it. Whenever traditional stipulations stifle her individuality, she steps out of them to adopt alternative means that best enable her to express her personality. For example, she contravenes the mores governing male-female relationships and declares herself married by moving in with her lover who is of low social status and too poor at the time to afford her dowry. But later, through her enterprising nature, she makes enough money with her husband to pay her dowry. Also when her first husband deserts her, she continues to live in his house for a considerable length of time—two years. She even goes in search of him. But after waiting long enough to avoid accusations of impropriety, she returns to her father's house, an indication that she is ready, among other things, to consider other possible suitors. She marries again, shortly after moving back to her father's house and enjoys a period of near total marital bliss with her new husband. Not only do they work together, they do everything together. She acts as his counselor, advising him on what projects are ripe for pursuit. In addition, they enjoy a closeness that is not quite usual in the rural setting within which they live. They even go to the stream together to swim and thereby attract a lot of gossip from envious women bound by unexciting lives and the values of their rural world.

Nwapa, like Amadi, highlights her heroine's physical attributes—the village gossips always comment on her beauty. Both women are exceptional in their communities. But Nwapa emphasizes Efuru's other characteristics as well, some of them not totally complimentary, and by so doing, prevents the idealization of her heroine's image. Nwapa's approach to Efuru's beauty in no way reduces the heroine to being a sex object. In fact, the manner in which her beauty is depicted often plays down its positive nature. While there is no question about Efuru's great beauty, the village gossips always juxtapose it, her wealth, and her closeness with her husband to her childlessness, thereby attempting to diminish her endowments.

Above all, Nwapa's portrayal of her heroine presents an in-depth study of womanhood. Her novel is a study of the growth of Efuru, and both her physical and psychological development are brought to light as she searches for options for self-actualization. Efuru begins by accepting the traditional sexually-oriented prescriptions for defining a woman's identity, but she moves gradually towards a new definition of a sense of self, a better option for self-definition. Initially she attempts to find fulfillment both as a wife and a mother, hence her two marriages and her striving to make them work. Also in the early years of her married life she agonizes over her childlessness and goes to some length to remedy this anomaly. She goes to see a dibia who assures her she will bear a child. After this assurance, she is still alarmed by her tardiness and becomes overjoyed when she finally bears a child. She feels fulfilled, at last, as a woman.

Efuru lay there thinking of it all, “Is this happening to me or someone I know. Is that baby mine or somebody else's? Is it really true that I have had a baby, that I am a woman after all. Perhaps I am dreaming. I shall soon wake up and discover that it is not real”

(p. 31).

Her sense of fulfillment is threatened when her only daughter falls ill. ‘“What will I do if I lose her?” she thought. “If she dies, that will mean the end of me”’ (p. 66).

The above image is that of the growing Efuru, still struggling to come to terms with her identity. The death of her child, however and the grief it brings, does not reduce her to a non-person; neither does the failure of her two marriages. She continues with her trade and proves herself a serious and successful businesswoman. Moreover she becomes a special worshipper of the woman of the lake when she is still married to her second husband. Thus even when she was still married, her other roles played down her sexual one, pointing her in alternative directions for self-realization.

Efuru's life is in some ways wryly ironic. With all her endowments, she fails miserably to find fulfillment within the sexual modes prescribed by her society. She fails both as a wife and a mother. She ends up each time, after two brief spells of marital bliss, back in her father's home. There is no question about her possessing qualities that make men proud to be her mate. Her beauty and the prosperity she brings to her husbands, in themselves, should enamor them to her. Her strong love for her mates and her unflinching devotion to them more than compensate for those qualities such as her strong will and determination that, when unrestrained, can threaten their masculinity. Still, her first husband deserts her for a woman who is Efuru's inferior physically and morally. Her second husband maintains an enviable relationship with her for two years, then becomes inattentive and mistrusting, believing a rumor about Efuru's infidelity. Appalled by her husband's lack of faith in her, Efuru leaves him to return to her home of birth.

Efuru's matrimonial failures, in a superficial way, recall those of Ihuoma, who loses two husbands and ends up a widow at a relatively early age. However, Efuru's life is a failure only within a very limited sexual framework, on which unfortunately her society places so much importance. Her life is not a failure when seen through her own eyes and from a broader perspective. That she is a remarkable human being is communicated even more strongly than the sense of failure projected mainly through the comments of the village gossips. Her generosity, her wealth, and her general sense of worth to her community at large is as much a reality as her failed marriages and childlessness. The sense of accomplishment of Nwapa's heroine is no less strong because of her unsuccessful stint as wife and mother, a point which sets her off from Amadi's Ihuoma, whose life crumbles around her once she fails to lead a fulfilling sexual life.

The supernatural element plays a vital role in both novels. However, once more, Nwapa's use of the supernatural differs markedly from the way Amadi uses it. In Efuru's case, the supernatural becomes an extension of her sense of self while in the case of Ihuoma, it assumes a masculine form and hinders her development as a successful woman. In direct opposition, Uhamiri, the woman of the lake, the supernatural element in Nwapa's novel, is a symbolic representation of Nwapa's heroine, who is chosen as a special worshipper of this deity. Uhamiri becomes the alter ego of the matured Efuru who is invested with all of Uhamiri's qualities. Both of them are rich, beautiful and worshipped by those who appreciate their worth, but they have no children. Significantly, Uhamiri lavishes on her favorites wealth and not children, and she is worshipped even though she does not have children or give her worshippers children. Efuru's acceptance of her role as a special worshipper of the woman of the lake, therefore, becomes a symbolic representation of her acceptance of herself as a person in her own right. The novel's end supports this contention.

Efuru slept soundly that night. She dreamt of the woman of the lake, her beauty, her long hair and her riches. She had lived for ages at the bottom of the lake. She was as old as the lake itself. She was happy, she was wealthy. She was beautiful. She gave women beauty and wealth but she had no child. She had never experienced the joy of motherhood. Why then did women worship her?

(p. 221).

This passage is the crux of the story of Efuru, capturing well her final acceptance of herself, her coming to terms with her life, and her determination to live happily and reject those traditional prescriptions of the identity of women, which only diminish their sense of personal worth.

Maryse Condé is right in her observation that the closing lines of Efuru provide the clue to the whole book, but her interpretation of it reflects her limited understanding of Efuru's identification with the woman of the lake. Condé's interpretation of Efuru is that:

No happiness can be achieved for a woman unless in childbearing. … Efuru, for all her qualities and gifts, considers her life as valueless since she fails to have a child. She can deliberately and willfully decide to leave her husband and therefore live by herself, but she cannot follow the logical consequences. She cannot find in herself enough resources to counterbalance her sterility and never thinks of devoting her energies to something else.5

Ms. Condé's statements present a gross misreading of Nwapa's heroine. Nwapa makes it quite clear that, far from feeling that her life is valueless, Efuru seeks new alternatives through which to realize her life. There is no question that Efuru finds in herself enough resources to counterbalance her sterility and devotes her energies to the pursuit of other things, symbolically represented by her becoming a devoted worshipper of the woman of the lake, the spiritual embodiment of her own identity.

Nwapa's use of the supernatural is not dissimilar from Amadi's in so far as it bears directly on the life and identity of her heroine. But in this regard too, there is a marked difference. While Nwapa's supernatural being is a woman and functions to promote her heroine's search for identity, Amadi's supernatural being provides another means of confining his heroine to her sexual identity. It is a further projection of his male perspective of African womanhood. Ihuoma's chain of unsuccessful marriages, like Efuru's, stem from her special relationship to the supernatural. However, in her case, the supernatural thwarts her life rather than offers her alternatives for self-actualization. Being a human reincarnation of the spirit wife of the Sea King, a highly jealous male deity, who refuses to relinquish his hold on her, Ihuoma can at best be only a concubine to human men, but can never marry in her life on earth. So Ihumoa's relevance even in the spirit world is limited to a sexual one. She is bound body and soul to the Sea King.

This study therefore supports Lloyd Brown's6 evaluations of these two works. The difference between Ihuoma's total sense of doom and despair at the end of The Concubine, and Efuru's ability to devote herself to something other than seeking fulfillment in the traditionally instituted female roles illustrates a basic difference between the perception of females from a strictly male perspective and from a female one.

While Amadi's character never becomes more than an instrument in someone else's scheme, Nwapa's Efura transcends those proscriptions, becoming an actor in her own, in woman's right.


  1. Buchi Emecheta is one of the exceptions. Her depiction of female characters, particularly in her early works, are limited to their sexual roles. Such titles as The Bride Price,The Slave Girl, and The Joys of Motherhood reflect the sexual emphasis she places on her characterization.

  2. Elechi Amadi, The Concubine (London: Heinemann 1966), Flora Nwapa, Efuru (London: Heinemann, 1966). All references to these works are to this edition and will be referred to by page numbers only.

  3. Maryse Condé, “Three Female Writers in Modern Africa: Flora Nwapa, Ama Ata Aidoo and Grace Ogot,” in Presence Africaine, No. 82, 1972, p. 136.

  4. Roseann P. Bell, “The Absence of the African Woman Writer,” CLA Journal, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1978, p. 491. The other two are “The high-life floozy and the “been-to”.”

  5. Condé, p. 134, 136.

  6. Lloyd W. Brown, Women Writers in Black Africa (Wesport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981), p. 22.

Nancy Topping Bazin (essay date Summer 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6967

SOURCE: “Feminism in the Literature of African Women,” in Black Scholar, Vol. 20, Nos. 3 and 4, Summer, 1989, p. 8-17.

[In the following essay, Bazin uses eight novels written by Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, and Mariama Bâ to trace how the lives of women are presented in African literature.]

Feminist consciousness permeates the works of four major female novelists from black Africa: Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa from Nigeria, Bessie Head from Botswana, and Mariama Bâ from Senegal. I shall explore two novels by each of these writers to determine which customs and attitudes cause the most suffering in the lives of their female characters and what signs of change suggest hope that the causes of this suffering will eventually be eliminated.

The works of all four of these writers belie the myths that feminist issues are not important to African women, that African women already have sufficient power, that women choose to support polygamy because they like it, and that whatever misery African women suffer can be blamed on the introduction of western cultures into Africa.

The eight novels I shall discuss disprove these myths by depicting the realities of women's lives. The eight novels are: Buchi Emecheta's The Bride Price (1976) and The Joys of Motherhood (1979), Flora Nwapa's Efuru (1966) and One Is Enough (1981), Bessie Head's When Rain Clouds Gather (1969) and A Question of Power (1974), and Mariama Bâ's Une si longue lettre (1980) and Un chant écarlate (1981).

All of these works depict extreme suffering on the part of their female characters, but they also portray some increase in feminist consciousness and indications that some change will occur. Certainly, the ideal of more egalitarian relationships emerges from all of these books. Furthermore, these novels suggest that until men become the kind of people with whom such an egalitarian relationship is possible, more and more African women will be saying no to marriage.

In the African communities depicted in these books, families exert a great deal of pressure upon young people in order to uphold traditional taboos, customs, and privileges in relation to marriage. Families have considerable say about whom their young people may marry. Adults recite proverbs and stories to the young, which warn them of the disasters that will ensue if they disobey the long-established customs and procedures that are designed to govern behavior.

Buchi Emecheta's The Bride Price could itself be used as a story that warns young people of what happens to disobedient girls. It is the story of a young woman, Aku-nna, who defies her family by running away to marry the man she loves. Aku-nna has fallen in love with Chike, her schoolteacher, who, because he is educated, would seemingly be an excellent choice for a husband. However, she is forbidden to marry him, because he comes from a family of ex-slaves. When Chike tries to pay the required bride price, it is refused. Traditional belief says a woman whose bride price has not been paid will die in childbirth (154).

Aku-nna does indeed die in childbirth. Scientifically speaking, she is unable to survive her pregnancy because she had for years suffered from malnourishment. However, her people will believe she died because her bride price was never paid due to her disobedience. No one will criticize her stepfather for his stubborn refusal to accept the bride price nor for his rituals to invoke her death as punishment for her rebellion. People in the community will condemn her, not him, because he is conforming to custom and she is not.

In The Bride Price, Emecheta shows how numerous indigenous African customs and superstitions oppress and degrade the female. People adhere to the belief that a female is worthless to a family except for the bride price she will bring to it (10). Custom insists upon the dissolution of a family when a father dies, because a family is simply not a family without the male in it. This belief enhances male privilege, for the mother is inherited by her husband's brother without any regard for how his wife or wives may feel about that.

Furthermore, the daughter may be dispensed with by making her a servant in a relative's home. As Aku-nna's aunt tells her, the death of her father makes her “an orphan.” Obviously, her mother does not count. Custom dictates that the uncle's family should marry off Aku-nna quickly to get enough money to pay [her brother] Nna-nndo's school fees (38).

Custom tells Aku-nna she is “unclean” when menstruating; in that condition, she will pollute a stream or, if she enters certain households, she will cause the head of the family to die (93). Custom allows boys to “play at squeezing a girl's breasts until they hurt … so long as it was done inside the hut where an adult was near” (97). Custom lets an Ibuza boy make a girl his by sneaking up and cutting her hair. Hence, “many girls cropped their hair very close; those who wanted long hair wore a headscarf most of the time” (103).

When Aku-nna is kidnapped by Okoboshi to prevent her marriage to Chike, she must give herself to him sexually; otherwise, he would call and “all those drunken men would come in and help him hold her legs apart so that he could enter her with no further trouble. The men would not be blamed at all, because it was their custom” (135). When Aku-nna succeeds in escaping from Okoboshi and running off with Chike, her stepfather feels he has been degraded and retaliates by following another Ibuza custom:

“In Ibuza, if a man divorced or no longer wanted his wife, he would expose his backside to her in public” (155). Thus, is her mother punished even though, because of her powerlessness, she had made no move to help her daughter.1

In The Bride Price, custom demanded that death be the consequence of rebellion; in Flora Nwapa's Efuru, the community believes that a woman must have a clitoridectomy before she gets pregnant or else her baby will die (14). This event is framed by rituals designed to win acceptance of it by the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law. The pain suffered by the daughter-in-law is cushioned afterwards by a one-to-three month confinement during which time she is waited on and fattened up with feasts of the best food. The mother-in-law takes the credit later when the girl goes bare-breasted to market to show her beauty and how well her mother-in-law has taken care of her during her confinement (18).

Any young married woman must get pregnant as soon as possible; otherwise she will be called a man. Her barrenness will trouble the marriage because, as Efuru is told, “two men do not live together” (24). Nwapa's novel is riddled with such sayings and, through this technique, the author conveys the strong social pressure exerted upon the couple and the mother-in-law-to ensure that the male soon has not just a baby but a male baby.

In the novel, those who exert this pressure on behalf of the patriarchy are female. Female gossips make their opinions known throughout Efuru. They say of marriage: “Of what use is it if it is not fruitful. Of what use is it if your husband licks your body, worships you and buys everything in the market for you and you are not productive?” (137). Efuru is made to understand that if she does not have children or if her husband starts running around, she is a “failure” (165). This sense of failure leads her to choose another wife for her husband.

She is also pressured by the common saying, which she repeats to herself: “It is only a bad woman who wants her husband all to herself.” She decides to search actively for his second wife so that she can maintain her privileged position as first wife (53). If the man or his mother does the choosing, she may lose power within the family (164).2 Women “choose” polygamy for these reasons.

At the end of Efuru, the protagonist has been through two bad marriages and born only one baby—a female who died. She dreams of a goddess, U'hamiri, known as the woman of the lake.3 She notes: “She was happy, she was wealthy. She was beautiful. She gave women beauty and wealth but she had no child. She had never experienced the joy of motherhood. Why then did the women worship her?” (221). Perhaps it is because of the pressure to bear male babies, the mother of many children suffers as much as the mother of none.

Nnu Ego, the protagonist in Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood, has had both experiences. She was rejected by her first husband because she could not conceive. When she finally had a son with a second husband, the baby died. Her despair led her to attempt suicide. Rescued however, she went on to bear eight more children, seven of whom lived.

When she, the model mother, dies, a shrine is built in her honor. At the end of the novel, she becomes the woman in the other world to whom young women pray for fertility. Yet “‘however many people appealed to her to make women fertile, she never did’” (224). She denies them fertility to save them from the fate she had known.

Whether the goddess is fertile but reluctant to make others so, as in Emecheta's novel, or celibate, as in Nwapa's novel, the message about the patriarchal institution of motherhood in these two endings is the same. Indeed, Nwapa's ending that mentions ironically “the joy of motherhood” may be the source of Emecheta's ironic title, The Joys of Motherhood.

For years, Emecheta's protagonist, Nnu Ego, had accepted the patriarchal attitude that sons are more valuable than daughters. When she bore twin girls, she felt ashamed. Her worst fears were realized when their father looked at them and said, “‘Nnu Ego, what are these? Could you not have done better?’” (127).

Nnu Ego had accepted, too, that boys should get more education than girls. She had told her daughters they must work to raise money to educate their brothers and “‘put them in a good position in life, so that they will be able to look after the family.’” She described the reward for the daughters thus: “‘When your husbands are nasty to you, they [your brothers] will defend you’” (176).

As Nnu Ego participates in the patriarchal system both as victim and as perpetrator of it, she is angry more and more frequently. She begins to see how motherhood is used by the patriarchy to keep women relatively powerless. When her husband Nnaife brings home new wives or when he gives his wives too little money, she is afraid to anger him by protesting too much for fear that she may lose what little money he does give her:

She was a prisoner, imprisoned by her love for her children, imprisoned in her role as the senior wife. She was not even expected to demand more money for her family; that was considered below the standard expected of a woman in her position. It was not fair, she felt, the way men cleverly used a woman's sense of responsibility to actually enslave her (137).

Finally, through her experiences with her father, husbands, and sons, she has come to understand the patriarchal nature of her culture and her own role in perpetuating it:

“The men make it look as if we must aspire for children or die. That's why when I lost my first son I wanted to die, because I failed to live up to the standard expected of me by the males in my life, my father and my husband—and now I have to include my sons. But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change all this, it is still a man's world, which women will always help to build” (187).

Nnu Ego finally realizes that women must work together to “change all this” (187). Freedom for them must begin with rejecting the patriarchal glorification of motherhood.

Unfortunately, Nnu Ego's anger and her feminist consciousness come too late in her life to do much for her, but it is reassuring to see that the impulse toward freedom from indigenous patriarchal customs is finally there.4

It is there, too, in Efuru and her relative by marriage, Ajanupu. Both of them think Efuru's mother-in-law, Ossai, was foolish to suffer by remaining faithful all her life to a man who had deserted her. Ajanupu scolds her:

“You wanted to be called a good wife, good wife when you were eating sand, good wife when you were eating nails. That was the kind of goodness that appealed to you. How could you be suffering for a person who did not appreciate your suffering, the person who despised you. It was not virtue, it was plain stupidity” (79).

Ossai had been so conditioned to be a good wife that she defied pressure from her own family to give up that role. She is able to recognize, however, that, similarly deserted, Efuru will not be willing to suffer and wait: “Life for her meant living it fully. She did not want merely to exist. She wanted to live and use the world to her advantage” (78).5

Efuru has the courage to leave her first husband when he runs off with another woman; yet when her second husband has a son with another woman and wants an additional two wives, she accepts the situation. She represses her impulse to live more fully, because, like Nnu Ego, she is constantly thwarted by the fact that the men consistently manage to maintain the power.6 She becomes one more of those females who remain silent when they would prefer to protest the behavior of their husbands.

Knowing it was not wise to nag one's husband for too long, one woman explained what she did: “‘I put my mouth in a bag and sewed it up. I don't want to be accused of being a male woman’” (104).

Any hints of feminist protest must be put down by the men and by the community gossips. Yet sometimes an outburst of female anger cannot be totally controlled. When Efuru's husband, Gilbert, dared to imply that Efuru's illness was a punishment for adultery, Ajanupu was irate. How could an unfaithful and polygamous husband falsely charge his faithful wife with this! Hence, Ajanupu protested, and for this, Gilbert slapped her. She, in turn, picked up a mortar pestle and broke it over his head. (217).

The double standard of fidelity for women and sexual promiscuity for men also angered Elizabeth, the protagonist in Bessie Head's A Question of Power. Courageously, she took her son to Botswana, leaving behind her promiscuous husband and racist homeland, South Africa. Elizabeth is even more fully aware than Aku-nna, Efuru, or Nnu Ego that it was all “a question of power”; and, unable to cope, she slips into madness.

In her frightening hallucinations, two male characters, Sello and Dan, try to dominate and kill Elizabeth's spirit. To undermine Elizabeth's sense of herself as a woman, Sello uses Medusa and Dan uses his “seventy-one nice-time girls” (173). Both Sello and Dan strive to make her jealous of these women. Dan not only parades his “nice-time girls” before her, but he even tumbles them into bed beside her (127).

Dan displays not only his attraction to these women but also his fear and hatred of them. He views women as dirty if they are more sexually potent than he. Because the pelvis of Madame Squelch Squelch was like “molten lava,” going with her made him throw up (164–65). One night he decided Miss Pelican-Beak with her long, tough vagina was “too pushy,” so he broke her legs and elbows and redesigned her pelvis to make it more passive (167–168).

Although Bessie Head does not focus upon the machinations of government officials or the acts of opposition leaders in her novels, she is certainly not, as Lewis Nkosi claims, “politically ignorant” (37). Rather, Head is keenly aware of the psychological and philosophical origins of racial and sexual oppression and of the impact both racism and sexism have, for example, on the South African woman.

Critics like Cecil Abrahams and Charles Larson were so blind to the politics of sexism when they were writing about Head in the late 70s7that they read A Question of Power without noting that her main focus is upon sexism and the connections to be made between racist and sexist attitudes. She calls both men racists and sexist power-maniacs (19). She sees the root of the problem in the predominant world view, which is based upon hierarchy and domination rather than equality.

In A Question of Power, Elizabeth is saved by discovering what Nnu Ego concluded at the end of her life—that women must work together. Elizabeth is drawn back to mental health by working in a vegetable garden with the uneducated, hardworking Kenosi who had a “knowingness and grasp of life” that made her beautiful (90). Significantly, Kenosi lets her know that she needs her: “‘You must never leave the garden. … I cannot work without you’” (142).

Elizabeth's relationship with Kenosi keeps in sight the possibility of something quite different from the patriarchal relationships she has in her nightmare world: their “work relationship had been established on the solid respect of one work partner for another” (160). Kenosi enables Elizabeth to maintain her belief that egalitarian relationships are possible. Such relationships are based upon seeing the sacredness in the other person.

Men degrade, manipulate, and abuse women in Elizabeth's hallucinations, basically because they fail to perceive the sacredness in women as in all life. Racism and ecological problems are based upon the same failure. Elizabeth concludes that humankind's fundamental error is the “relegation of all things holy to some unseen Being in the sky. Since man was not holy to man, he could be tortured for his complexion, he could be misused, degraded and killed” (205). So, too, could woman.

The couple in Mariama Bâ's Un chant écarlate [A Scarlet Song] begins their relationship on an idealistic plane, believing that they can successfully overcome barriers of race, class, and national origin.8 Can love, indeed, conquer all? Mireille de La Vallée, the daughter of a French diplomat, falls in love with her bright Senegalese classmate, Ousmane Guèye. When Mireille's father learns of their relationship, he puts his daughter on the first plane back to Paris. After several years of separation and letter-writing, Ousmane goes to Paris to get his bride-to-be. Defying their families and the mores of both their communities(which oppose interracial marriages), they secretly marry and then return to Senegal.

As students, Mireille and Ousmane had each participated in the massive 1968 revolts against the life styles and politics of those in power in their respective countries. Based on this fact and the exceptional intelligence of each, one might assume that they are liberated in their thinking. But the nature of their relationship proves that their defiance of the status quo does not extend to a firm rejection of sex roles within marriage.

When Mireille refuses to behave like Ousmane's servant, he revolts against her attempts to make the marriage at least somewhat egalitarian. When he rebels, she is helpless because, unlike Ousmane, she had already given up, upon marrying, all contact with her family, her community of supportive friends, her religion, and her homeland. By isolating herself and by accepting the Moslem religion which condones polygamy, she had undermined any basis for power within their relationship.

Ousmane refuses to accept Mireille's desire that he clean up after himself, that he not eat outside the kitchen, and that he restrict the inconsiderate and sloppy habits of his friends and mother during their visits. His revolt strengthens when, attracted by his money, his childhood friend Ouleymatou decides to seduce him. When he goes to visit Ouleymatou, he is treated like a lord:

Chez Ouleymatou, il était le maître et le seigneur. Il se déshabillait où il voulait, s'installait ou il voulait, mangeait ou il voulait, salissait ce qu'il voulait. Les degâts étaient aussitôt réparés, sans murmure. Dans ce foyer, on prévenait ses moindres désirs. (222) [At Ouleymatou's, he was the master and lord. He undressed where he pleased, sat where he pleased, ate where he pleased; he could dirty whatever he wished. The mess he created was immediately cleaned up, without a murmur. In that house, the women anticipated and fulfilled his slightest desires.]9

Ouleymatou has no expectations of being his “partner.” Unlike Mireille, she does not think “en term[s] d'égalité” (223) [in terms of equality]. The path of least resistance for Ousmane is to allow himself to be spoiled, since

un homme ne dédaigne pas d'être guide at avoir le dernier mot. Un homme ne se détourne pas des prérogatives qu'on lui accorde. (223)

[A man does not refuse to be the guide and to have the last word.

A man does not turn away from the special privileges that one accords him.]

Ironically, the root of Ousmane's inability to relate to females as a responsible adult may go back to Ouleymatou's rejection of him in his early adolescence, because he helped his mother with her chores and hence was doing “women's work.” His rejection had been announced in these words:

Ma soeur Ouleymatou ne veut pas d'un garcon qui balaie, porte des seaux d'eau et sent le poisson sec.” (17–18) [“My sister Ouleymatou does not want to have anything to do with a boy who sweeps, carries buckets of water, and smells of dried fish.”]

Fearing further ridicule, he had resolved not to trust or allow himself to be seduced by any female. He decreed that

les femmes, décrites volages et irresponsables, prêtes à mentir et à tromper, ne l'interessaient pas. (20) [women, described as fickle and irresponsible, ready to lie and betray, did not interest him.]

However, as one might expect from someone who thinks in terms of stereotypes, his view of women shifted from devil to angel: when he met Mireille, with her angelic “chevelure doree” [golden head of hair], he quickly placed her on a pedestal. Because her last name was “de La Vallée,”

le nom précédé de particule faisait de la jeune fille blanche “sa princesse.” (25) [he imagined that the “de,” signifying high station, made this white girl “his princess.”]

But once married to Mireille, Ousmane can no longer relate to her as a romantic image. It is Ouleymatou who takes over as the romantic image in his life. She is not real; she is a symbol:

“Ouleymatou, double symbol of my life!” “Symbol of the black woman” whom he must set free, “symbol of Africa” of which he was one of the “enlightened sons.”


His white wife not only undermines his privileges as a Senegalese male, but she also undermines certain privileges owed to the Senegalese mother-in-law. Here is what custom has led Ousmane's mother to expect:

The daughter-in-law installs the mother of her husband in a nest of respect and repose. Assuming privileges that are taken for granted, the mother-in-law orders, supervises, demands. She appropriates for herself the best parts of whatever her son brings home for the family. She is not indifferent to how the house is run, and she always has her word to say about how her grandchildren should be brought up.


This situation in which a man's mother rather than his wife rules his household ensures the powerlessness of the daughter-in-law within her own home. In turn, the wife's expectation of ruling within her own son's household ensures that she will perpetuate the patriarchal tradition of son-preference.

The powerlessness of the African female within her own home and within her husband's family is matched, however, by the portraits of the French mother and daughter. Mireille's mother, Mathilde de La Vallée, had never been interested in the problems of the “liberalisation de la femme” [the easing of restrictions on women]:

Dans sa vie, son mari seul comptait. Elle le choyait, lui obéissaît et allait au devant de ses moindres désirs. (119) [In her life, only her husband counted. She coddled him, obeyed him, and anticipated even his slightest desires.]

But when her husband rejects their daughter totally because of her marriage to a Senegalese, it is almost more than Mathilde can bear. Given his attitude, she realizes that she will never see her daughter again.

For 30 years, writes Mariama Bâ, Mathilde had had no thought of her own, no initiative; for 30 years “elle n'avait fait que marcher où on la poussait” [she had only walked where she had been pushed], so by habit she repeats her husband's insulting remarks about their daughter: “La traîtesse! La saleté!” [The traitress! The filthy thing!]. But then she faints; and when she awakes, she feels like “la plus solitaire des femmes” [the most isolated of women]:

All that remained for her was her husband, a man of stone, to serve, satisfy, and applaud until her heart burst.


Echoing the French proverb “Tel père, tel fils” [Like father, like son], one might say “Telle mère, telle fille” [Like mother, like daughter]; for at the end of the novel Mireille is likewise “la plus solitaire des femmes.”

Disgusted by her brother's and her mother's behavior towards Mireille, Ousmane's sister Soukeyna reveals to Mireille his marriage to a second wife. But as a daughter totally cut off from her family and as the mother now of a mulatto child whom she adores, Mireille feels she has no choice but to accept the situation and stay in Senegal. From then on, “suffering had incorporated itself into the rhythm of her life.” (243)

In a state of agony one night, she decides to look again at the love letters Ousmane had sent to her in France, promising her such happiness. Suddenly, driven mad by her emotions, she begins to paste them all over the room:

In one corner, the letter in which Ousmane swore:

All my life, I shall love only you.

Quick some glue! Quick some glue!

Below this masterpiece, another missive in which he cried:

You, my white one. My blond one, how I miss you!

Quick some glue! Quick some glue!

She laughed derisively, feverishly, as she tried to find the appropriate place to put up a sheet on which Ousmane stated: “Without you, life has no salt.

Quick some glue! Quick some glue! She pulled herself up on a stool and attached the letter to a lampshade.

Quick some glue! Quick some glue!


Mireille cries out “Gnouloule Khessoule! Gnouloule Khessoule!” which in the local language means neither black nor white. Submerged by her bitterness, she decides that “Le ‘Gnouloule Khessoule!’ n'a pas de place dans ce monde.” [He who is neither black nor white has no place in this world]; and she kills her baby. Railing against the racist world that is not ready to receive her son, she cries, “World of bastards! World of liars! You, my little one, are going to leave this world! Gnouloule Khessoule!” (244–45) She poisons the baby; then, having taken a knife from the kitchen, she collapses on the sofa.

Hours later, in the early morning, Mireille is awakened by the arrival of her unfaithful husband. Like Ajanupu whose burst of anger led her to attack Gilbert with the mortar pestle, Mireille's anger is no longer repressed, and she attacks Ousmane with a kitchen knife. Striking him repeatedly, she follows him outside. The neighbors discover her standing beside the wounded Ousmane, who has collapsed at her feet. In an extraordinary line, Mariama Bâ tells us: “From Ousmane's wounds, a deep song surged forth, scarlet with dispersed hopes.” (248)

When Ousmane's parents are informed of the tragedy—that their grandson is dead, their son in the hospital, and Mireille in the hands of the French Embassy—their response indicates that their parochial view has not been altered. Again, the popular wisdom that reinforces custom to the detriment of change is expressed in a proverb: “When you abandon your own mound, every mound you pull yourself up on crumbles under you.” (250)

Except for minority pockets in both, neither the Senegalese nor the French world is ready for international or interracial marriages. Like the story in Nwapa's The Bride Price, the story in Bâ's novel suggests to Ousmane's parents and people like them that custom should never be disobeyed or tragedy will ensue; those who are not sociologically aware place the blame on the individual rather than on the prejudices of society.

In the “In Memoriam,” which serves as a preface to Un chant écarlate, Bâ's editor clarifies Bâ's point that it is the culture not the individuals that should be forced to change. As her editor says, it is difficult for love to triumph over the “prejuges et incomprehensions qui font partie de l'heritage culturel” [prejudices and misunderstandings that are part of the cultural heritage]. Love can only thrive in an egalitarian relationship, and egalitarian relationships are rare in a context of patriarchal customs.

In the next three novels, Une si longue lettre,When Rain Clouds Gather, and One is Enough, there is a little more emphasis upon models for future behavior. Even in Un chant écarlate, there are two couples who oppose Ousmane's treatment of Mireille and the traditional attitude, expressed by Ousmane's friend, that a woman is only a woman, black or white (132). Lamine, married to a French woman Pierrette, appeals to Ousmane to change his ways. He tells him: “Tu ne veux pas d'une femme. Tu as besoin d'une esclave.” (152) [You do not want a woman; you need a slave.]

Another interracial couple, Ali and Rosalie, condemns Ousmane's total disregard for Mireille in marrying Ouleymatou. They note the influence upon him of his family and friends who see Mireille only as an outsider, the rival, for whom they have no sympathy. Ali tries to remind Ousmane of the more global vision he had had when young:

“Human beings are the same everywhere, whatever their color or language.” (204) With age, Ousmane's behavior had become racist, nationalist, and sexist.

Lamine, Pierrette, Ali and Rosalie suggest that all female/male relationships do not have to be as unequal as Ousmane's with either his French or his Senegalese wife. In Bâ's first novel, Une si longue lettre [So Long a Letter],10 two of the letter writer's daughters seem able to find men who want egalitarian relationships. For example, Daba's husband says, “Daba is my wife. She is neither my slave, nor my servant.(107)

The mother sees this couple as a model of what is possible: “I feel the tenderness between these young people maturing, transforming them into my image of the ideal couple. They are considerate of each other and discuss everything in order to find a compromise.” (107)

Yet the mother, Ramatoulaye, knows life brings changes; but Daba tells her not to worry, that a marriage is supposed to last only as long as the relationship is viable. In her view, the couple should be united only as long as both want it so. She points out that the woman should feel as free to break it off as the man (107). Ramatoulaye's other daughter marries a man who encourages her to continue her education. He and Daba's husband are new men, models for the future.

The writer's own husband, Modou, and her friend Aïssatou's husband, Mawdo, both insisted on their Moslem right to another, younger wife.11 Aïssatou's response to this was not traditional. Instead of putting up with it, she took her four sons and left the country. Because Ramatoulaye is older and the mother of 12 children, she does not choose to leave her home when Modou marries her adolescent daughter's friend. She goes through a long period of suffering, describing beautifully and accurately the feelings of a rejected wife, but by the end of the book she has risen out of her depression and is expressing optimism about the future:

I am not against starting my life over again. Despite everything—deceptions and humiliations—I continue to have hope. It is from offensive, nauseating humus that the green plant springs, and I feel coming up within me, new buds.


Ramatoulaye and her friend Aïssatou are examples of educated African women. They were among the “premières pionnières de la promotion de la femme africaine” (26) [first pioneers who raised the status of the African woman]. Their future, like Mireille's and Ousmane's, should have reflected their emancipation from “traditions, superstitions et moeurs” (27) [traditions, superstitions, and customs]. Yet even they found themselves victimized by polygamy. Silenced for 30 years, Ramatoulaye's fury concerning polygamy bursts forth when, after her husband dies, his friend Tamsir asks her to be one more in his collection of wives. She tells him:

“You forget that I have a heart and a head, that I am not just an object that one passes from one hand to the next. You are unaware of what getting married means to me: it is an act of faith and love, a total gift of oneself to someone you have chosen and who has chosen you.”


Again when Daouda Dieng asks her to marry him, she rejects the easy path and says no. She likes and respects him, but she simply does not love him. Despite her age and dependent situation, she cannot bring herself to accept less than the real thing. She wants to remain friends with Daouda Dieng, but he is not capable of being friends with a woman; it had to be all or nothing, “tout ou rien” (101).

She also refuses his offer because he already has one wife, and she does not want to hurt her. This is the kind of female solidarity that can defeat polygamy. In Un chant écarlate, Ali and Rosalie criticize Ouleymatou for not having this attitude and therefore actively seducing Mireille's husband: “Her attitude is shameful for a woman of this century. Women should unite together.” (205)

Uniting together would be so much better than being isolated like Mireille and her mother. Women should choose to be “solidaires” rather than “solitaires.”

It is need and greed for money that often hinder this solidarity. For example, it is money that made Binetout's mother willing to “sell” her young daughter to Ramatoulaye's husband. He gave them money and built them a villa. The adolescent daughter was selfishly victimized by her own mother. Since Binetout's marriage to this man in his fifties, she had become “morte interieurement” (103) [dead inside]. Similarly, Ouleymatou had accepted that Ousmane would not even guarantee her “her turn,” but would come and go as he pleased, because he set up her whole family in an apartment much nicer than they could have afforded themselves.

Those who wish to reject the established sexism in male-female relationships must consciously struggle against it. In When Rain Clouds Gather,12 Bessie Head has a male character, Makhaya, who believes in establishing all of his relationships on the basis of equality. When his father died, for example, he made many changes in his home. He asked his sisters to “address him by his first name and associate with him as equals and friends.” When his mother objected, he said, “‘Why should men be brought up with a false sense of superiority over women? People can respect me if they wish, but only if I earn it’”(15–16).

Later he works with some women on an agricultural project. These women found him odd; they “were unaccustomed to a man speaking to them as an equal. They stood back awhile, with uneasy expressions, but once it struck them that he paid no attention to them as women, they also forgot he was a man and became absorbed in following his explanations” (106).

The woman he chooses to marry is Paulina, another African female who defies custom. With men, Paulina refused to pretend “to be inferior”; “she was the kind of woman who could not lie to men.” Some men thought her “too bossy”; the women found her “daring and different” (93). She had retained since childhood a “fresh lively curiosity and ability to enter an adventure, head first” (94).

Until Makhaya came along, she was the kind of woman who didn't have a permanent lover because she was too independent and assertive. She was totally unaccustomed to a man like Makhaya, who treated her as an equal and was even willing to share what was called “woman's work” (139). He forced “friendship and understanding on her because he needed this in a woman more than he needed anything else” (142).

Amaka, the protagonist in Flora Nwapa's One Is Enough, is the most independent female character in these eight books. Amaka was married to Obiora, but she failed to have children. Angered by Amaka's barrenness, the mother-in-law unjustly attacks how Amaka performs her wifely duties; and one day she announces to her that Obiora has two sons by another woman. She tells Amaka that the mother and children will be coming to live with them. Amaka is enraged by Obiora's not having told her about this situation before. A fight with her husband ensues, and when he breaks down a door to reach her, she defends herself by hitting him on the chest with a hammer.

Amaka is not the kind to suffer in silence, so she leaves for Lagos. There she discovers that no man will help her without sexual payment (67–68). Yet she becomes wealthy. She also has an affair with a priest, who studies customs that keep people chained to “ignorance and disease” and hold “females in bondage” (105). Eventually, she finds herself pregnant. The priest wants to leave the priesthood and marry her; but she refuses. She does not love him, so she would rather be a single parent. Furthermore, she has reached this conclusion:

I don't want to be a wife any more, 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, I am never free. I am a shadow of myself. As a wife I am almost impotent. I am in prison, unable to advance in body and soul. Something gets hold of me as a wife and destroys me. When I rid myself of Obiora, things started working for me. I don't want to go back to my “wifely” days. No, I am through with husbands.


One has been “enough” for her. Like Aïssatou in Une si longue lettre, she can get along without a husband; and like Ramatoulaye, she would certainly rather be single than marry a man she doesn't love. What is different, however, about Amaka is that she has no intention of depriving herself of sexuality simply because she will not marry.

Thus, we have in African fiction a wide spectrum of human behavior. The extent to which patriarchal customs are accepted or rejected by the female characters in these eight novels determines the extent to which these women have freedom of choice. All of these works depict moments of extreme suffering in the lives of these black African women, but their resiliency, strength, and courage is also depicted. Every novel conveys the ideal of egalitarian relationships, and in several there are signs that some couples are moving closer to this goal.


  1. For other feminist discussions of Emecheta's novels, see Nancy Topping Bazin (“Feminist Perspectives”), Lloyd W. Brown and Marie Umeh. Emecheta's own feminist perspective comes out in three accounts of conversations with her (“Buchi Emecheta,” “It's Me Who's Changed,” and Judith Wilson).

  2. Maryse Conde's article underestimates the social pressures that frequently prevent Efuru from acting upon her feminist inclinations. Juliet Okonkwo rightly explains Efuru's half-hearted revolt by noting that her “alternatives have not been clearly worked out” (46). For a defensive, masculinist discussion of Efuru, see Femi Ojo-Ade's “Female Writers, Male Critics.”

  3. Prema Nandakumar provides an excellent discussion of Nwapa's use of myth in writing this novel.

  4. For a fuller discussion of The Joys of Motherhood and Bessie Head's A Question of Power, see Bazin, “Venturing into Feminist Consciousness.”

  5. Prema Nandakumar's article rightly emphasizes Efuru's strong, generous, nurturing role in the community.

  6. Conde would have liked Efuru to behave in a manner that would be consistently feminist; Eustace Palmer would prefer to have Emecheta cut the ambivalence and contradictory attitudes from Nnu Ego's half-traditional, half-feminist personality. In fact, these tensions between old and new beliefs in both characters are what make them interesting and true-to-life. Moreover, their failure to rebel further is understandable given the strongly patriarchal environment in which they live.

  7. Cecil Abrahams discusses Head's novels well in terms of the evil of racialism but he misses the evil of sexism that pervades her finest novel, A Question of Power. Similarly, Charles Larson discusses A Question of Power in terms of guilt and ignores the destructive sexist forces that Elizabeth struggles against.

  8. A literal translation of the title Un chant écarlate would be A Scarlet Song. Figuratively, it refers to the cry of utter despair that gushes forth from the depths of one's being upon recognizing that something beautiful that might have been has been lost.

  9. All translations from the French in this article are by Nancy Topping Bazin. Thanks go to Jean-Pierre Metereau and Paulette Caram, who kindly read the translations and suggested a few changes, some of which were adopted.

  10. This novel is available in English under the title So Long a Letter.

  11. Ojo-Ade's article on Une si longue lettre claims that the issues raised by feminism are foreign to African culture; he erroneously blames the problems of African women solely on foreign influences.

  12. Charlotte Bruner and Cherry Wilhelm provide good discussions of When Rain Clouds Gather. For comments by Bessie Head on this novel, see her article “Social and Political Pressures that Shape Literature in South Africa.”

Elleke Boehmer (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6449

SOURCE: “Stories of Women and Mothers: Gender and Nationalism in the Early Fiction of Flora Nwapa,” in Motherlands: Black Women's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia, edited by Susheila Nasta, The Women's Press, 1991, pp. 3-23.

[In the following essay, Boehmer analyzes the effect of nationalist symbolism on women's identity and writing in Africa.]

She is there at the beginning of the lives of individuals and of nations. In various nationalist mythologies and, more recently, in the matriarchal yearnings of dispossessed women seeking their own place in nations and in history, mother figures cradle their children in comforting and capacious laps. (Before her recent troubles), Winnie Mandela was given the title ‘Mother of the Nation’.

The West Indian poet and historian, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, has addressed his home island of Barbados as mother, the matrix of his connection with the past, the source of meaning and identity.1 Nuruddin Farah has commented that referring to a nation as a father-(rather than as a mother-) land is to him an absurd idea.2 Many male writers from Africa—Camara Laye, Kofi Awoonor and Wole Soyinka among them—speaking from various historical and geographical perspectives, have seen the image writ larger: Africa, the continent whole and full-bellied, is both the beloved land and mother. In 1988, when making a call to Africans to stand together not on the basis of colour but on that of Africanness, Jesse Jackson adopted this grand trope, urging that African people everywhere ‘identify with Africa as … mother continent.’ His conviction was that ‘the blood that unites us is stronger than the water that divides us’,3 a metaphor knitting together images of common womb and origin, and of shared birth-ground.

Although they perhaps hold different sentiments and ideals, the figure of the common African mother is one to which African women and women of African origin have also made obeisance. Buchi Emecheta, the London-based Nigerian novelist, for example, is of the opinion that ‘the white female intellectual may still have to come to the womb of Mother Africa to re-learn how to be a woman.’4 For the Zimbabwean poet and former guerrilla fighter, Freedom Nyamubaya, to speak of the free Zimbabwean nation is to speak of the motherland. The concepts are so closely associated that Nyamubaya bestows upon the concept of freedom the same honorific title: ‘mother freedom’.5 Aneb Kgotsile, poet and activist, speaking from an Afro-American perspective, observes: ‘Mother Africa is of great importance … Through our study of African history the motherland was unearthed to us and we reclaimed Africa.’6 In her recent novel, The Temple of My Familiar, Alice Walker also sings threnodies over the destruction of the ancient matriarchal worship of Africa: history in Walker's representation achieves meaning in so far as her characters become either avatars or acolytes of the composite, omnibenevolent ‘Africa/Mother/Goddess’.7

But to what sort of mother image is it that women writers appeal when they speak in this way? Is their gaze fixed longingly on the same object as their male counterparts? Does the icon represent for them a more or less direct transposition within the forms of language of male-dominated nationalism and, if so, what does this transfer mean for their own strategies of self- retrieval? Do nationalist vocabularies not implicate women in certain paradoxes of identity and affiliation? Such questions point to the main concern of this essay, which will explore what an investment in the doctrines and symbolism of a typically ‘masculine’ nationalism entails—firstly for women's politics of identity and then also for women's writing.8

The dilemma is that where male nationalists have claimed, won and ruled the ‘motherland’, this same motherland may not signify ‘home’ and ‘source’ to women. To ‘Third World’ women and women of colour these concerns speak with particular urgency, not only because of their need to resist the triple oppression or marginalisation that the effects of colonialism, gender and a male-dominated language create, but also because their own tactics of self-representation are often usefully adopted from the older and more established nationalist politics of ‘their men’.

Mariamma Bâ once said that:

We [women] no longer accept the nostalgic praise to the African mother whom, in his anxiety, man confuses with Mother Africa.9

Though she was here keeping hold of the image of Mother Africa, Bâ shows herself to be uncomfortable about the male glorification of African women as national and continental mothers. Lauretta Ngcobo addresses this discomfort when she observes:

Africa holds two contradictory views of woman—the idealised, if not the idolised mother, and the female reality of woman as wife.10

These two quotations can be set alongside a comment made by Virginia Woolf on the subject of nationalism and women. In her anti-patriarchal pacifist manifesto Three Guineas, Woolf is moved to assert that ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country.’11

Because men have drawn up, defined and directed national boundaries and national affairs, Woolf suggests, women cannot legitimately lay claim either to a national territory or to their own national mythology and history. Thus, the lap of the Mother Nation may not be as soft and capacious for women as it is for men.

Despite professed ideals, nationalisms do not address all individuals equally: significant distinctions and discriminations are made along gendered (and also class and racial) lines. Such distinctions are not mere decoration; on the contrary, nationalism relies heavily on gendered languages to imagine itself.12Gender informs nationalism and nationalism in its turn consolidates and legitimates itself through a variety of gendered structures and shapes which, either as ideologies or as political movements, are clearly tagged: the idea of nationhood bears a masculine identity though national ideals may wear a feminine face.13

The gender specifics of nationalism are clearly illustrated in the iconographies held dear by nations. In the literature, rhetoric and pageantry of nations, as in nationalist politics and political structures, it is a male figure who is cast as the author and subject of the nation—as faithful soldier, citizen-hero or statesman. In the national family drama that has the achievement of selfhood as its denouement, it is he who is chief actor and hero; the mother figure in this drama may be his mentor, fetish or talisman, but advice and example are taken from a heritage of fathers. Typically, then, the male role in the nationalist scenario may be characterised as metonymic. Male figures are brothers and equals, or fathers and sons and thus rivals; but in both cases their roles are specific and contiguous with one another. The ‘female’, in contrast, puts in an appearance chiefly in a metaphoric or symbolic role. She is the strength or virtue of the nation incarnate, its fecund first matriarch, but it is a role which excludes her from the sphere of public national life. Figures of mothers of the nation are everywhere emblazoned but the presence of women in the nation is officially marginalised and generally ignored.14

I will attempt to ground these contentions a little more firmly. Two mutually reinforcing cases can be made for the relationship between patriarchy and nationalism. The first identifies in both a unitary, monologic vision, a tendency to authorise homogenising perceptions and social structures and to suppress plurality.15 Nationalism, like patriarchy, favours singleness—one identity, one growth pattern, one birth and blood for all. Though this interpretation relies a little uncomfortably on ideas of immanence, the claim is therefore that nationalism, like patriarchy, will promote specifically unitary or ‘one-eyed’ forms of consciousness.

The second case is based on more historical grounds. The emergence of nationalism was characterised by a co-operation between patriarchies in the nation-state and in the household, a development that coincided with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the emergence of the middle-class family unit within it.16 Nationalism, then, found in existing social patterns the models for hierarchical authority and control.

The interleaving of gender and nationalism was clearly demonstrated in the national movements which arose in Europe's former colonies, shaped by the history of intersecting patriarchies that was part of colonialism. At all points in the long process of decolonisation and national reconstitution, male power elites were operative, their authority having been already endorsed and blessed by earlier colonial and indigenous patriarchies.17 With a dominant male presence rooted in the state, it was predictable that a gender bias would persist in neo-colonial nationalisms well beyond the time of independence. Whether in literature or in law, the national subject was in most cases either implicitly or explicitly designated as male. Despite the promises of national freedom, women were therefore excluded from full national participation on an equal footing with men. Even where women, as in Algeria or Zimbabwe, fought for freedom alongside men, national consciousness was composed by male leaders. Mother Africa may have been declared free, but the mothers of Africa remained manifestly oppressed.

Little resistance to such processes of patrimonial designation could be expected from within the ranks of the newly empowered. In the Manichean allegory that typified the colonial power struggle,18 dominant, ‘true’ power—that of the coloniser—had been characterised as rational, disciplined, assertive, masculine; while inertia, weakness, the disorderly, was represented as feminine. Where nationalists were committed to rebuild their shattered self-esteem, to ‘selving’, images signifying autonomy, force, will—and, by implication, masculinity—would be avidly promoted.19 So the new rulers might portray themselves as a rising strength, as self-determining, as powerful—and also as patriarchal and/or as one another's brothers. Thus, though seeking to step out of inherited allegorical roles, they would try as far as possible to avoid ‘negative’—that is feminine—meanings. Underlying gendered values remained intact.

At the level of national symbolism, colonial images of the land or nation as invincible protectress or progenitress were assimilated to local conventions of respect for the earth or for mothers, ensuring that national leaders granted some sort of compensatory iconic recognition to the ‘mothers of the nation’ while at the same time vouching for the cultural integrity of the whole national entity. Observe once again however that it is the sons who are the authors of meaning: whether of ‘tradition’, or of present social realities; whether of their own self-image as national representatives or of the women they would presume to represent.20

So the glad achievement of nationhood presented women with a conundrum. For women such selving, with its emphasis on the male personality, only confirmed a lack of self, their difference from national wholeness. This alienation represented, and still represents, an especially serious problem for the new nationalisms of the South or ‘Third World’. For where, in nationalist rhetoric, as in the official discourse of the state, masculine identity is normative, and where the female is addressed in the main as idealised bearer of nationalist sons, woman as such, in herself, has no valuable place.

But, if nationalism does not see women as nationals, then a woman seeking to claim a place or identity in any field of national activity faces multiple perils of self-contradiction. Literature as a medium of self-expression offers a representative case. In African nationalism, especially that of the immediately pre-and post-independence periods, writing was an important source of national myth-making and dreaming. For a writer to be nationalist, was to be that much more a worthy writer, as well as that much more a loyal nationalist. It was also, by implication, to be that much more male. The circle of mutually reinforcing identities shut—and still shuts—women out.

A woman might choose to crack this ring of identity by attempting to repossess matriarchal myths. For some women the reclaimed myth of an age-old, long-suffering Afrika—Walker's Africa/Goddess/Mother, for example—might continue to hold out much promise of communion and liberation. Yet how are such myths, such apparently redemptive symbols, to be separated from those which continue to shore up patriarchal desire and a system of gendered national authority? To compound these difficulties, the idealisation and possible fetishisation of single mother figures bears an uncanny resemblance to the monolithic aspects of male-centred nationalism. Subscribing to the unitary icon threatens to defeat the women's objective of affirming their own particular mode of being. Given that men have monopolised the field of nationalist identity and self-image, women may thus have to evolve other strategies of selving—perhaps less unitary; perhaps more dispersed and multifarious. It is not only that the patriarchal sources which inform nationalist images must in some way be confronted. It is also necessary to explore forms of women's self-representation that would counterpose inherited symbolic languages of gender. Here, despite existing traditions of male authorship, writing holds out fruitful possibilities of redress.

If African literature in the past has constituted a nationalist and patriarchal preserve, then, simply by writing, women may begin directly to challenge the male prerogative. In writing, women express their own reality and so question received notions of national character and experience. But writing is also more than this. To write is not only to speak for one's place in the world. It is also to make one's own place or narrative, to tell the story of oneself, to create an identity. It is in effect to deploy what might be called a typically nationalist strategy. As Simon Gikandi has put it:

To write is to claim a text of one's own; textuality is an instrument of territorial possession; because the other confers on us an identity that alienates us from ourselves, narrative is crucial to the discovery of our selfhood.21

This idea of self-creation through narrative connects with the Kristevan concept of excess in writing. Kristeva observes, à propos of Barthes's criticism, that writing is ‘transformative’, operating through the displacement of what is already signified, bringing forth the not-yet-imagined and the transgressive.22 Through writing, then, through claiming a text—or a narrative territory—women sign into and at the same time subvert a nationalist narrative that excluded them as negativity, as corporeal and unclean.

Possibilities for the disruption and/or transformation of a patriarchal nationalist text can be seen to operate in two main ways in women's writing: the ‘textual’ and the (broadly) ‘temporal/territorial’. The first occurs through the medium of the text, in the substance of the writing, and involves, quite simply, interrupting the language of official nationalist discourse and literature with a women's vocality. Nationhood is so bound up in textuality, in ‘definitive’ histories and official languages and mythologies, that to compose a substantially different kind of text, using vernacular forms that are part of people's experience, is already to challenge normative discourses of nationhood.

Yet because national identity rests on received images of national history and topography, the second method of transformation is as important. It involves changing the subjects that dominated the nationalist text. Where women tell of their own experience, they map their own geography, scry their own history and so, necessarily, contest official representations of a nationalist reality. They implicitly challenge the nation's definition of itself through territorial claims, through the reclamation of the past and the canonisation of heroes.

Both these methods obviously correspond closely to techniques of literary subversion in which women writers have long been engaged. Yet where African literary narratives, like those of the fifties and the sixties, depend on nationalist ideas and themes—and so on gendered interpretations of social reality—such methods will have particular relevance.

The second part of this essay will demonstrate how such techniques could work in practice in a discussion of two early novels by Flora Nwapa, Efuru (1966) and Idu (1970). Published during the first decade of Nigerian independence, a time featuring robust and cocksure, if also embattled nationalisms, Nwapa's novels represent the first narrative appearance from a woman on the broader African literary stage. This in itself was a significant voicing, yet added to this was Nwapa's specific focus on women's community and colloquy in Igbo culture.


Like Elechi Amadi or Nkem Nwankwo, her male counterparts of the first post-independence decade, Flora Nwapa has written ‘after Achebe’, both chronologically and in terms of literary influence. Nwapa's narratives, like Amadi's and Achebe's, remember and recreate the Igbo village past in the colonial period. Period generalisations, however, tend to obscure the significant differences that exist between Nwapa and her male cohorts.

Her writing is situated outside of conventional male narrative history; she chooses to engage neither with the manly adventures and public displays of patriarchal authority described by male writers from her community nor with the narrative conventions of their accounts. Instead she concentrates, and at length, on what was incidental or simply contextual to male action—domestic matters, politics of intimacy.

In both Efuru and Idu, Nwapa's interest is in the routines and rituals of everyday life specifically within women's compounds. Women press into Nwapa's narrative as speakers, actors, decision-makers, brokers of opinion and market prices and unofficial jurors in their communities. But Nwapa's specific intervention as a writer goes beyond her interest in women subjects. What also distinguishes her writing from others in the ‘Igbo school’ are the ways in which she has used choric language to enable and to empower her representation, creating the effect of a women's verbal presence within her text,23 while bringing home her subject matter by evoking the vocality of women's everyday existence.

Though it may have attracted a certain amount of negative comment,24 the apparent lack of conventional novelistic complexity in Efuru and Idu, I would argue, far from being a deficiency, instead clears the space for the elaboration of another kind of narrative entirely—a highly verbalised collective women's biography—'transsubjective, anonymous’, transgressive,25 a narrative method which bears comparison with Zora Neale Hurston's recreation of porch-side comment and of gossip on the road.26

The precise contribution represented by Nwapa's writing can perhaps be more clearly demonstrated when set in contrast on the one side with a historical narrative by Elechi Amadi, and on the other with an anthropological account of a Nigerian Igbo community by a woman researcher, Ifi Amadiume. In his novel The Great Ponds, written in 1969,27 Elechi Amadi has depicted the life of an Igbo village as strongly determined by the forces of war, rumour and disease. Over war and rumour, it soon becomes clear, men hold undisputed sway; of disease, the gods decide, but they, like the village leaders, are all male. As with Achebe's writing, The Great Ponds is not uncritical of the ‘masculine’ social values which may contribute to and exacerbate community crises. Yet, unlike in Achebe, no locus of value is suggested which might form the rallying point of a new order: the male characters represent different types and degrees of manliness, but their actual position of authority is not called into question. It is thus quite within the terms laid down by the novel that the women in the community form a completely marginal and passive group. Their existence is affirmed by male subjects—they are desired, taken in marriage, captured as booty in male wars and are heard speaking when spoken to. For the rest, they are ignored.

Superficially this arrangement would seem hardly to differ from conventional gender divisions of power and cultural space. Upon closer scrutiny, however, it would appear that in Amadi the gender separation is perhaps more pronounced. The physical distance of the gender groups and their extreme social and political non-equivalence both suggest that they may well be independently reproduced and regulated. It is this view of a society radically split by gender that allows Amadi in The Great Ponds to represent the male side of Igbo life as though it were not only normative and authoritative, but self-sufficient and entire.

Yet, the writer's individual bias aside, it does not necessarily follow that this sort of exclusivity is the sign of a lack of power or self-determination on the part of women. It may just as well be the case that the distance between genders signifies and allows an autonomy and also a social validity for women. The women possess jurisdiction and authority over an area of village life which, though separate, is only apparently marginal; women conduct the business of their lives convinced of the validity of their activity.

Contrary to appearances, then, the representations of writers such as Amadi and Achebe, rather than defining the whole compass of the Igbo world, describe only one section of it. That another independent sphere of social existence exists is intimated only once, and then very briefly, in the Amadi text. It does, however, represent a significant break in the narrative when, in confrontational tones reminiscent of some of Nwapa's speakers, a senior wife, though nameless, comments on the folly of the protracted war and its goals:

Why can't men take advice? … They think they are wise but they are as foolish as a baby in arms. Look at all the suffering of the past month. What good will that pond [the site of the contention] do us? (p. 72)28

Ifi Amadiume offers a corroborative perspective on the self-reliance of Igbo women, and on one of the chief conditions of that self-reliance—what might be called the mutual exclusivity of gender groups. In her study Male Daughters, Female Husbands, she shows that women obtain a great deal of power in Igbo—and specifically Nnobi—society because of the separation of gender from sex roles.29 Amadiume does not always deal satisfactorily with the continuing predominance of de facto patriarchal authority in the community, and the status commanded by the roles of son and husband. Yet she does present evidence not simply for the existence of a clearly demarcated women's ‘sphere’ (which in itself says relatively little), but also for the independence and self-coherence of women's lives within that ‘sphere’. She indicates that in precolonial times political and economic roles, as well as compound space and village ground, were divided according to the conventional sex dualities, with family units being matricentric. She argues, however, that these socially constructed dualities were mediated by the cross-gender roles available to women. Women were thus granted a range of powers with the appeal to Idemili, the water goddess, as offering the highest sanction of their authority.

It is the autonomous women's world delineated by Amadiume which Nwapa embodies in Efuru and Idu: Nwapa thus extends the boundaries of the African novel to include the women's side of the compound, a domain of village life which writers like Amadi have neglected for reasons not only of patriarchal lack of interest but also perhaps (a fact not given sufficient attention) of ignorance. Nwapa refracts a women's presence into her text through creating the conceit of women representing themselves in voice. Dialogue dominates in both novels, especially in Idu, as numbers of partly curious, partly phatic and frequently anonymous women's voices meet, interact with and interpolate one another. This vocality, rambling and seemingly unstoppable, pulls against the confinements of the women's lives—their market rivalries, their anxieties about husbands, families and children. Therefore, if, as Nwapa portrays it, though not always overtly, male values in the society remain normative,30 women's talk can be interpreted not only as a way of life but as a mode of self-making. The impression of the fullness and autonomy of women's lives which Nwapa creates must remain partially qualified by their acquiescence in patriarchal views and values. Yet, at the same time, in their discourse, even as they speak, not only do the village women share their woes and confirm female bonds, they also transpose their lives into a medium which they control. The reader is made privy to the women representing and so, in effect, recreating their lives in speech. The narrative result is that most of the (non-discursive) action in Idu and Efuru happens off-stage and is more or less incidental to the ‘spoken’ text. Nwapa's writing is thus a decisive vindication of that congenital fault of garrulousness often attributed to ‘the sex’ (for example, in The Great Ponds pp. 23, 42 and 45). As Idu bemusedly observes: ‘You know women's conversation never ends.’ (p. 97)

How does this method of verbal self-representation work in practice? Efuru and Idu unfold as conversations; both are loosely chronological and markedly lacking in the temporal framework of conventional narrative. Efuru begins at the time that the heroine marries Adizua without parental consent: ‘one moonlit night’ they make plans; the next Nkwo (market) day she moves to his house (p. 7). With this information in hand the gossip-mongers can have their say, and, sure enough, by the second page of the novel speculations are afoot regarding Efuru's movements. These form the first soundings of that hum of conjecture that will run throughout the novel, commenting on Efuru's fortunes, her barrenness, her second marriage, her second barrenness. Against the background of this flow, trade seasons, other moonlit nights, gestation periods come and go with their accustomed regularity, but have significance in the conversational narrative largely as arbitrary starting points for new fragments of chatter. In Idu the verbal presence of the community would seem to be even more pervasive. Of the novel's 22 chapters, 14 including the first begin in mid-dialogue, and then usually à propos of events mentioned in some earlier conversation, the dialogue thus propagating itself across the pages of the novel.

The social setting Nwapa has chosen for her novels enables this self-generating orality. In each, the women occupy a self-enclosed, stable domestic domain—custom and environment are known to all the speakers and few characters are unfamiliar. Where these may be physically gestured at or taken as understood, reference to external objects or to habitual activity is elided or abbreviated. From the non-Igbo reader's point of view, this is emphasised when in both novels Igbo words and concepts are left unexplained and cannot always be elucidated by context—ganashi, obo, nsala soup. Within the community, the meanings of such words would not require elucidation. The insularity of the community is also suggested by the frequent repetitiveness of the conversation: comments are echoed, opinions reiterated, events retold, and it would appear that the point of talking is often simply the interaction, confirming contact, and not an exchange of information. Or as Uzoechi in Idu says, ‘Sometimes, after discussing something, I like to come back to it and talk it over again’ (p. 29).

So much is action a function of what is spoken that, especially in Idu, ‘plot’ developments take place off-stage as the conversation passes. At one moment in Idu, for example, Adiewere and Idu think of sending their new wife away; within a few paragraphs it is said that ‘Adiewere had already sent her away’ (pp. 43, 44). In chapter 13 of Efuru, Eneberi, Efuru's husband, expresses interest in taking a new wife; in the next chapter, during a chat between his mother and her friends, we learn that she (the mother) has a new daughter-in-law (p. 195). Thus a particular state of affairs may change into its opposite after a few pages, almost in the course of a few fragments of dialogue: here Idu observes that market is bad, there that it is good (pp. 45 and 47, 121 and 131). With dialogue constituting the main action and medium of community life, narrated or conversational time predominates over chronological time. Gossips summarise changes that have taken place over a span of years while also running through community opinion of those changes. One of the clearest examples of this occurs in Efuru when the heroine hears of her husband's desertion through overhearing gossip at market (p. 54–55).31

Though Nwapa's dialogic approach appears as the dominant feature of her narrative, its prominence should not detract from that other important aspect of her writing which in fact enables the vocality of her style—her focus on women's affairs. Nwapa's women represent themselves in voice, yet their spirit of pride and self-reliance is manifested also in the relative diversity of their quotidian activity.32

Efuru and Idu document in some detail women's customs, business preoccupations and worries: certain sections, in particular the chapter on childbirth in Efuru (chapter 2), read like extracts from an almanac of women's simples. Through recreating a sense of the fullness of Igbo women's lives during the time of colonisation, Nwapa thus begins to chart out the neglected gender dimension in the grand narrative of nationalist historical literature as told by male writers. She questions, if only implicitly, the gender-bound space-time co-ordinates of that narrative. More specifically even than this, however, she delivers her riposte to a male-dominated nationalist tradition and its iconography of womanhood by making available for her women characters roles and symbols of identity which diverge from the mother stereotype. Nwapa's women characters are concerned about bearing children and being good mothers, yet their lives are not defined solely through their maternal function. Especially in Efuru Nwapa delineates the ‘clearly expressed female principle’ in Igbo life where ‘fecundity [is] important, not entire’.33

Efuru opens with the heroine marrying without parental consent, defiant and unafraid. Later, when her husband proves unworthy, she leaves, just as defiant. Though her action is more problematic, Idu ends with the heroine willing her own death so as to join her husband: she resolves that the relationship provided by the marriage was more important to her than bearing children. Both heroines are admittedly exceptional figures, yet it is important to note that they are not unique. Characters like the older woman, Ajanupu, in Efuru and Ojiugo in Idu exemplify comparable qualities of decisiveness, outspokenness and self-sufficiency.

In Igbo society, as Amadiume shows, it is in trade as much as in marriage and childbirth that women obtain power. Accordingly, both novels focus on marketing as the chief dynamic of women's lives and the means whereby they obtain status.34 Attracted by the lure of a good business reputation, women like Idu and Efuru structure their lives around market days and keep out a vigilant eye for profit. In this way, as well as through sheer audacity and hard labour, they develop the trading prowess for which the community respects them. Two important qualifications should perhaps be made here. One, that the economic abilities shown by Nwapa's women characters are compromised in her later writing when, in a capitalist cash system, marketing heroines turn exploitative and conspicuously consumerist. And two, that, even while women command power through economic means, patriarchal law is never challenged, even in matters of trade.35

It is therefore only when women take on spiritual power, thus discarding their sex roles, that they are able to enter a sphere where male authority has little effect. Nwapa's Woman of the Lake deity in Idu and especially Efuru bears a strong resemblance to the water goddess, Idemili, described by Amadiume. In Amadiume's account, women wield considerable power as the worshippers and representatives of this water spirit: ritual elites develop from groups who worship her; successful market women are seen to be blessed by her.36 So too, in Nwapa, Uhamiri, the Woman of the Lake, is held in high regard, as are her followers. At the end of Efuru, the heroine is chosen to represent the deity in recognition of her status in the community. As infertility is a necessary condition of the goddess' chosen followers, Uhamiri's intercession gives Efuru's barrenness new meaning—in a way, makes it fruitful.

Where Amadi recognised only male deities, Nwapa thus puts the community's shrines in order, setting the female goddess back in her rightful place. This readjustment reflects on what I have argued is the more general effect of her writing—that of counterbalancing both in language and in character iconography a post-colonial literary patriarchy and a matrifocal nationalism. In the crucial decade of the sixties, Nwapa in Idu and Efuru re-angled the perspective set by male writing, showing where and in what ways women wield verbal and actual power. If nationalism has typically been embodied in patriarchal formations and fraternal bonding, and involves the exclusion of women from public political life, then Nwapa, in choosing not to engage with ‘big’ national themes, dealt with the exclusion first by reproducing it—by situating her narratives in another place entirely—and then by making of that occlusion a richness. By allowing a women's discourse apparently to articulate itself in her writing, she elaborates the text of national experience. Yet even more importantly than this perhaps, Nwapa also uncovers the practical, lived reality of motherhood—she digs into the muddy, grainy underside of nationalism's privileged icon. The mothers of Africa, Nwapa shows, also have voices, anger, rival aspirations, their own lives. Most of all, they are as much the subjects of communal history as their nationalist sons.


  1. See Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Mother Poem, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977. The other two parts of the trilogy, as their titles suggest, are also relevant: Sun Poem (1982) and X/Self (1986), also published by OUP.

  2. Nuruddin Farah, ‘A Combining of Gifts: An Interview’, Third World Quarterly 11.3, (July 1989), p. 180.

  3. West Africa 3729, (January 16–22 1989), pp. 59–60.

  4. Buchi Emecheta, New Society, 4 September 1984; quoted by Kathleen McLuskie and C L Innes in ‘Women in African Literature’, Wasafiri 8, (January 1988), p. 4.

  5. Freedom TV Nyamubaya, On the Road Again, Zimbabwe Publishing House, Harare, 1986, pp. 3–4, 10–11.

  6. West Africa 3721, December 12–18 1988, p. 2324. The Afro-American critic, Barbara Christian, has also projected an expression of nationalist sentiment on to her interpretation of images of Afro-American and African motherhood in Alice Walker and Buchi Emecheta. Stressing the importance of the institution of African motherhood for cultural regeneration, she observes: ‘Motherhood provides an insight into the preciousness, the value of life, which is the cornerstone of the value of freedom.’ Barbara Christian, Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers, Pergamon, Oxford, 1987, p. 247.

  7. Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar, The Women's Press, London, 1989. The quotation is from p. 63, but the remythologising continues throughout.

  8. As will later be more fully described, the idea is that writing involves the creation and assertion of identity.

  9. Quoted in Unheard Words, ed. Mineke Schipper, trans. Barbara Potter Fasting, Allison & Busby, London, 1985, p. 50.

  10. Lauretta Ngcobo, ‘The African Woman Writer’, A Double Colonisation: Colonial and Post-Colonial Women's Writing, eds. Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford, Dangeroo, Oxford, 1986, p. 81.

  11. Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, The Hogarth Press, London, 1986, p. 125.

  12. The concept of the imagined or invented nation is advanced by Benedict Anderson in his compact and well-known book on the subject, Imagining Nations, Verso, London, 1983.

  13. For reasons of brevity, these statements must here remain at the level of assertion. However, for a compelling argument that ‘gender is implicated in the conception and construction of power’ and so also of politics, see Joan W Scott, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, American Historical Review 91, (1986), pp. 1053–1075.

  14. In African novels and poems of the forties, fifties and sixties, especially, writers cast themselves or their heroes as sons singing in praise of the African Mother. Or, in the case of Irish nationalism, a rhetoric of martyrdom encourages son-sacrifice to the Mother who is the land and the Church. See Richard Kearney, Myth and Motherland, Field Day Theatre Company, Belfast, 1984.

  15. These assertions are influenced by Mikhail Bakhtin's theories of polyphony. Bakhtin has spoken of the coincidence of unisonance and patriarchal motifs in national ‘epic’ art forms. Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Epic and Novel’, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, University of Texas, Austin, 1986, pp. 3–40 and especially pp. 13–15.

  16. See Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer, The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution, Blackwell, Oxford, 1985, pp. 1–13, for a discussion of the familial affinities of nation-states.

  17. For evidence of the intersection of colonial and indigenous patriarchies, a wide range of work might be cited. With reference to Africa, see, for example, Marjorie Mbilinyi, ‘Runaway Wives in Colonial Tanganika: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage in Rungwe District 1919–1961’, The International Journal for the Sociology of Law 16.1 (February 1988), pp. 1–29; Christine Obbo, ‘Sexuality and Economic Domination in Uganda’, Woman—Nation-State, eds. Nira Yuval Davis and Floya Anthias, Macmillan, London, 1989, pp. 79–91; and Terence Ranger's discussion of the transference of kingly motifs in the colonial appointment and interpolation of chiefs in ‘The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa’, The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983, pp. 211–262.

  18. See Abdul R JanMohammed's reading of the Fanonist concept in his essay ‘The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature’, ‘Race’, Writing and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr, University of Chicago, Chicago, 1986, pp. 78–106.

  19. Consider, for example, the dominant characterisation of the alienated, self-hating colonised in Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. CL Markmann, Paladin, London, 1970; or Jean-Paul Sartre, Black Orpheus, trans. SW Allen, Presence Africaine, Paris, 1976.

  20. To take the words of Simone de Beauvoir somewhat out of context, replacing her term ‘world’ with that of ‘nation’:

    Representation of the [nation], like the [nation] itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.

    Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1979, p. 175.

  21. Simon Gikandi, ‘The Politics and Poetics of National Formation: Recent African Writing’, conference paper, ACLALS Conference, Canterbury, 24–31 August 1989, pp. 1–20.

  22. Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language, Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford, 1987: in particular the essay, ‘How Does One Speak to Literature?’ pp. 92–123.

  23. See Bernth Lindfors, ‘Introduction’, in Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe, eds. Bernth Lindfors and CL Innes, Heinemann, London, 1979, pp. 5–6, for further comment on the ‘School of Achebe’.

  24. For criticism of Nwapa's narrative approach see James Booth, Writers and Politics in Nigeria, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1981, pp. 80–81; Eustace Palmer, review, ‘Elechi Amadi, The Concubine and Flora Nwapa, Efuru’, ALT 1 (1969), pp. 56—58; Adiola A James, review, ‘Idu, Flora Nwapa’, ALT 5 (1971), pp. 150—153; Kirsten Holst Petersen, ‘Unpopular Opinions: Some African Woman Writers’, A Double Colonisation 112–113; Oladele Taiwo, Female Novelists of Modern Africa, Macmillan, London, 1984, p. 47.

  25. See Kristeva pp. 104–106.

  26. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Virago, London, 1987.

  27. Elechi Amadi, The Great Ponds, Heinemann, London, 1982.

  28. Similarly, Carole Boyce Davies finds in the Chielo-Ezinma episode in Things Fall Apart the traces of a ‘suppressed larger story’. Carole Boyce Davies, ‘Motherhood in the Works of Male and Female Igbo Writers: Achebe, Emecheta, Nwapa and Nzekwu’, Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, eds. Carole Boyce Davis and Anne Adams Graves, Africa World Press, New York, 1986, pp. 241–256.

  29. Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society, Zed, London, 1987.

  30. Thus we find Nwapa's central women characters submitting to the rule of callow husbands and to the circumcision knife and, in every case, taking responsibility for barrenness. See Efuru pp. 53, 55, 63; Idu p. 91.

  31. Refer also to p. 209 for a similar example.

  32. As Amadiume's account suggests, Nwapa could have gone even further in representing the range of roles and social positions open to women. In the event, we assume, inherited novelistic conventions, a colonial education, patriarchal strictures, any one or all of these, continue to set limits on her narrative.

  33. Boyce Davies pp. 243, 249; Amadiume p. 29.

  34. Idu p. 29; Efuru p. 125.

  35. The buying expedition in Efuru pp. 140–141 is a representative incident.

  36. Amadiume, pp. 42, 53–55, 102–103.

Maxine Sample (essay date Autumn 1991)

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SOURCE: “In Another Life: The Refugee Phenomenon in Two Novels of the Nigerian Civil War,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3, Autumn, 1991, pp. 445-54.

[In the following essay, Sample discusses how refugees figure into the work of Flora Nwapa and Elechi Amadi, especially Never Again and Estrangementrespectively.]

During the latter part of the 1960's as America was preoccupied with Vietnam abroad and its own social revolution at home, the West African Republic of Nigeria was engaged in a bloody civil war in which the federal government fought the secession of the Eastern Region, an area declaring itself at the moment of its revolt, the Republic of Biafra. Some of us may remember Biafra in the context of the sunken eyes and bloated bellies of the starving children whose faces haunted us from the cover of Time magazine—others from the illogical admonitions of over-zealous parents who warned us to eat everything on our plates because children were starving in Biafra. The Nigerian Civil War was one in which hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of them children, perished in the thirty months of its duration. It was a war that neighboring African nations, with their own newly-won independence, were saddened to witness. It was a war in which non-African nations, protective of their own economic interests, plied the Nigerian federal government with weaponry to exact a quick, albeit brutal and genocidal end to what they perceived as simple tribal rivalries. Surely, we know from our own nation's history that simplistic explanations for civil war are suspect, and such was the case with Nigeria.1

Nigeria, during its colonization by the British, was divided into four regions: the Northern Region, the Western Region, the Mid-West Region, and the Eastern Region. Three major ethnic groups dominated the country: the Hausas in the North, the Yorubas in the West, and the Ibos in the East. Some 200 other ethnic groups comprised the rest of the population. Colonial interests had resulted in the amalgamation of these African peoples solely for the benefit of that European power.

These geopolitical lines continued to exist on January 15, 1966, when a bloody coup d'etat ushered in a military government. It ended the young civilian government that had been plagued by an assortment of abuses and a degree of corruption bemoaned by many Nigerians and chronicled in such fictional pieces as Chinua Achebe's A Man of the People. This prophetic novel aptly portrayed the cluster of political events that created the conditions for the military coup of January 1966. Any hope following the first coup was short-lived as the call for a unified Nigeria promulgated by Major Ironsi, the head of the new Federal Military government, led to another military coup and his death. What confronted the new military leader, Lt. Colonel Gowon, were the continued civil and military disturbances that existed.

Rumors surrounding the first military coup alleged that the event had been an attempt by the Ibos of Eastern Nigeria to seize control of Nigeria. In response to the hysteria incited by such allegations, some 30,000 to 50,000 Ibos in the north were massacred, their homes looted and burned, their property confiscated.2 Even more appalling was the federal government's inability and/or its alleged unwillingness to protect the Ibos or compensate the families and dependents of the victims. In the Eastern Region, Lt. Colonel Ojukwu called Ibos home, and what proceeded was the exodus of some two million Ibos from the northern regions of the country. Gowon's intention to split the country into twelve states and the failure to assure the security of Ibo lives led to the secession of the Eastern Region on May 30, 1967, when it declared itself an independent republic. The revolt represented, according to Ojukwu, “the crystallization of the black man's search for independence and recognition” (200).

The response was a federal “police action” that lasted thirty months. With Nigeria receiving arms from Britain and Russia, one Biafran city after another fell: Enugu, its capital, Calabar, Onitsha, Port Harcourt, Aba, Umuahia, and Owerri, culminating in a blockade that threatened to starve the Biafran people into submission. The extent of the military hardware and the bombing of hundreds of civilians certainly would lead one to question the intentions of the federal government to restore peace and unity to the region. Whether the quest for sovereignty was the best means for the Biafrans to obtain the security they sought is for historians to decide. At any rate, failed attempts to initiate a mediated cease fire and nonproductive peace talks gave way to the total defeat, in January 1970, of the Biafran revolt.

The Nigerian writer has responded to the Biafran War in a variety of literary forms—documentaries, fictionalized documentaries, diaries, symbolic works, and poetry.3 In numerous fictional works, the civil war appears as a backdrop as the writer delineates the effect of the war on the Nigerian people. A number of well-known Nigerian writers at the time of the conflict embraced the cause as the issue of the writer's commitment became an issue. Speaking at a college in Kampala, Uganda, in August 1968 during the height of Biafra's battle for independence from Nigeria, Chinua Achebe stated: “The involvement of the Biafran writer today in the cause for which his people are fighting and dying is not different from the involvement of many African writers—past and present—in the big issues of Africa. The fact of war merely puts the matter in sharper focus” (“African Writer” 113).

Achebe added, “If an artist is anything, he is a human being with heightened sensibilities; he must be aware of the faintest nuances of injustice in human relations. The African writer cannot therefore be unaware of, or indifferent to, the monumental injustice which his people suffer” (9). Achebe saw himself and other Biafran writers expressing their commitment to the revolutionary struggle of their people for independence. The writers that would rally to his call included Cyprian Ekwenski, Gabrial Okara, Flora Nwapa, and Christopher Okigbo—who would die in battle for Biafra.

In his essay “Post-War Writing in Nigeria,” Ernest Emenyonu identifies several characteristics in postwar Ibo imaginative literature that are significant. One is repeated images of madness, which he theorizes “is suggestive of a world gone mad, a world in which the cruel actions of man have brought about a rebellion and turmoil in the natural elements” (82). Another is the focus on the victimization of innocents during the war. The bribery and corruption in the Biafran army and society during the war and the exploitation of the individual by his own people additionally appear in the literature. Emenyonu also suggests that the authors reflect a vision of a new kind of colonialism imposed on the conquered Biafrans: “The war has brought to the Biafrans poverty, depression, dehumanization and the destruction of traditional and cherished values” (86).

My interest in the Nigerian writer's treatment of this war centers around the refugee phenomenon, that horrible aftermath of any disaster, natural or man-made, as a focal point in the literature. By 1968, millions of Biafran refugees faced the threat of starvation as the Federal Government toyed with hunger as a weapon of war. A poem in Achebe's Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems captures the obscenity of human life subjected to such depths of suffering.

No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother's tenderness
for a son she soon would have to forget.
The air was heavy with odours
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in laboured
steps behind blown empty bellies. Most
mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother's
pride as she combed the rust-coloured
hair left on his skull and then—
singing in her eyes—began carefully
to part it. … In another life this
must have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.

“Refugee Mother and Child” (24–25)

Beyond the graphic depiction of human misery so poignantly captured in Achebe's poem lies a compelling statement about the toll that political strife exacts on our lives. Although we survive the physical violence, we bear the scars of the psychic violence that we suffer as we witness the death of our former lives and as we struggle Phoenix-like, some successfully, some futilely, for regeneration, recreation, and wholeness. The stability, the certainty, the familiarity, all become associated with another life. Herein lies the significance of the poem “Refugee Mother and Child” and the focus of this essay, which examines the war-related psychological trauma portrayed in the fiction of Nigerian writers Flora Nwapa and Elechi Amadi.

Flora Nwapa was born in the East Central State of Nigeria, and during the war she returned from Lagos, where she had been working, to her home state, as did thousands of other Ibos in 1966. This pattern of movement appears repeatedly in Nwapa's collection of short stories Wives at War and Other Stories. Her Civil War novel Never Again captures the war in progress and emphasizes the psychic trauma of refugees in the process of fleeing from one town to the next, the federal troops at their heels. The oppressiveness of the state of paranoia existing among those in the Eastern Region within the boundaries of the short-lived Republic of Biafra takes shape within the narrative that unfolds. Like Nwapa's other works that are woman-centered, the narrative is told from the point of view of a woman who has already quietly accepted the idea of defeat although she embraces the idea of an independent Biafran state. The novel captures the simultaneous hysteria and the weariness of a people fleeing for their lives, leaving behind the security and memories of past lives. The opening lines reflect the narrator's mental state as she chronicles events in the war:

After fleeing from Enugu, Onitsha, Port Harcourt and Elele, I was thoroughly tired of life. Yet how tenaciously could one hold on to life when death was around the corner. Death was too near for comfort in Biafra. And for us who had known no danger of this kind before it was hell on earth. I meant to live at all costs. I meant to see the end of the war. Dying was terrible. I wanted to live so that I could tell my friends what it meant to be at war—a civil war at that, a war that was to end all wars. I wanted to tell them that reading it in books was nothing at all; they just would not understand it.


The identification of the narrator strictly establishes her as a Biafran, but a patriot grown weary of the distorted accounts of victory, the war propaganda that no longer lifts the spirit, the rejection of religious assurances that the gods will not allow defeat. She argues to her mother, “To me God did not intervene in the affairs of Nigeria and Biafra. God had nothing at all to do with it. Not long ago in Nigeria we prayed to one God. Now we had two gods: The god of Nigeria and the god of Biafra” (9).

In addition to one's having to cope with the despair of impending defeat, the stress associated with having to keep such feelings to oneself creates its own psychological weariness. Nwapa dramatizes the heightened tension over being branded a saboteur—a traitor to the cause of true liberation for Biafra, one who has sold out his or her people to the federal troops. The narrator realizes that anyone packing in preparation for quick evacuation must surely be a saboteur; how else would one know ahead of time that he or she needed to leave? If one spoke out against the cause or criticized those ardent patriots, one was branded a saboteur. This type of pressure to commit, to stay in line, created its own set of problems for those who had misgivings or a legitimate criticism. Coupled with the anxiety of protecting one's few remaining possessions as one fled from one town to the next, the pressure to conform took its toll. The preoccupation with fleeing is not so much a physical escape as it is an escape from the fate of refugee status.

In Never Again even the protagonist Kate's relatives question her loyalty when she seems eager to evacuate while there is time. Her own husband threatens her with detention when she is too critical of the soldiers or the war effort. General intimidation to accept the status quo, to embrace the exaggerated successes of the under-equipped and outnumbered, weary Biafran army meant that Kate was basically muted. She muses:

Biafra could not win a civil war by mere words. How I longed to say that to Ojukwu [the Biafran leader]. But who was I? And besides, it was too late too damn late. We had already lost the war. We lost the war when we lost Port Harcourt. It was sheer madness fighting after Port Harcourt. All right-thinking people knew this. What we should have done was surrender. Surrender; nobody in Biafra could say that word openly and remain alive. He would be torn to pieces in the market place. Surrender! Surrender and be slaughtered by the Vandals. If we surrendered, we would all be butchered. It was strong and thoughtful propaganda.


The frustration of being unable to convince her relatives is only symbolic of the frustration of the people of Biafra to voice a contrary opinion once the forces of revolt had taken shape. The confusing and paradoxical position taken by the Nigerian government toward the eastern people—to refuse to safeguard their security yet to bludgeon them into submission once they left—creates another level of confusion in the narrator. It becomes a question that all Biafrans have had to ask during the war when, to the dismay of both sides, the war dragged out longer than anticipated. The narrator's mother asks:

They said we grabbed everything, we have said. All right, you are killing us because we grabbed everything. We are not going to grab any more. We are going home. They say. Now come back otherwise we will bring you back by force. And they are still killing us. They don't want us, yet they won't let us alone to fend for ourselves. That's why, my daughter, I am at a loss what to do in this war. Do they want us back, so that they can kill all of us, wipe out the whole race?”


Aside from the threats of detention, the taut nerves, the irritability, the lack of sleep, and the anxiety, one still must reflect on the inevitable fate: becoming a refugee. The refrain, “After all, who wants to become a refugee,” becomes more than a passing thought. Kate's comment, “I remember the refugees I saw at the beginning of the war. I never thought then that I too would be a miserable refugee in Biafra” (40), seems to place existence as a refugee next to death. For Kate and for other women, precarious existence as a refugee brings with it not only the specter of a slow physical and psychological death but the powerlessness that a parent feels when she cannot even provide basic nurturing for her children. The panic and confusion, the fear and uncertainty, when Kate and her community must run for their lives and the disruption, destruction, and loss of lives and property in the wake of the battle once the poorly equipped Biafran forces repel the Vandals, are a testament of her desperation to escape that fate.

Nwapa's Wives at War and Other Stories additionally focuses on the displacement of the Eastern Nigerian seeking refuge at the outset of the war. In the early moments of the war Ibos were “called home” in response to the massacres, the brutalization they suffered in other parts of the country. The short story “Wives at War” reflects not only the tensions between husband and wife against the backdrop of the confusion but also the personal losses, the fear and anxiety that pervaded communities and families. Bisi, a Yoruban who has violated ethnic taboos by marrying an Ibo, finds herself further alienated as the family retreats into Ibo heartland in search of security. Her response is madness, the inability to cope.

Similarly, “Daddy, Don't Strike the Match” portrays an Ibo family who escaped from Kano in Northern Nigeria and relocated to Biafra. The family lives in a village, having lost everything when Enugu fell to Federal forces. The story focuses on the psychological trauma children suffered during the war—the nightmares, the physical deprivation, the fear. Like the other women in Nwapa's war fiction, the wife is unconvinced of the success of the revolt and plagued with fear, not so much for herself, but for her children. Her witnessing the cities falling as the family flees is convincing enough. Her concerns are those of a mother whose child no longer cries when an air raid comes but laughs. Like the other women, she is absorbed by the fear and helplessness of being unable to protect her children.

The title of the story is significant because the child's dreams give way to clairvoyant warnings to the father not to light the match, thereby safeguarding him from the careless act that will cost him his life. As a member of the Biafran Research and Production Group, he has to live with the guilt of manufacturing bombs for the war effort while condemning killing. It is a contradiction that he reads in the face of his children each day. In a moment of personal triumph after a discovery in the lab, he relaxes by lighting a cigarette and consequently incinerates himself. How ironic that the creator of death and destruction becomes the agent of his own death!

“A Certain Death” deals with the secret but common practice of engaging mercenaries to serve one's time in the service when one has been drafted. But the story reveals the village's collective perspective on punishment and redemption. It focuses on the psychological trauma of a man who has lost both his wife and children in an air raid—his wife decapitated during the bombing of the marketplace and his children killed while playing in front of their home—all unnatural deaths occurring in the course of a normal everyday activity for the victims. We share the narrator's anxiety as she sacrifices the last of her resources to keep her brother, her only surviving relative, from becoming another victim of the war. The village's response is that the community must somehow be cleansed of the offending member who stands to bring ruin to the entire village. Was it not unnatural that a man should lose both wife and children at the same time; that the narrator, the man's sister, would also lose her children as they fled a falling city? The village reads in such misfortune an omen of additional suffering that is sure to come. There is no outrage expressed against the war effort on either side. Only with the brother's enlisting can the village be redeemed. The guilt associated with the youth, who for the third time becomes a mercenary soldier to help feed his family, raises any number of questions about the morality of the war.

Eleche Amadi, a Nigerian writer born near Port Harcourt in Eastern Nigeria, re-enlisted in the Nigerian Army and served during the Civil War. His Sunset in Biafra is a personal account of his experiences as a detainee during the war, having been branded a saboteur and imprisoned by the Biafran forces. Through his chronicle we are provided a portrait of the experiences of non-Ibo minorities residing in Biafra: the repression, the abuses, the dangers of being too slow and unenthusiastic to embrace the cause. Whereas Amadi's Civil War diary basically portrays the secessionist leaders as a militarily incompetent and intransient group leading young Ibos to their slaughter, his portrait certainly seems to legitimize the horror which appears as a backdrop in Nwapa's works.

The fear of voicing one's opinions about the war because of the threat of detention, of being branded a saboteur—the experience of the protagonist in Nwapa's Never Again—was only too real for Amadi. He writes in Sunset in Biafra:

Because of the daily warnings against “carless talk” and “rumor mongering” most people suffered in silence, for even an honest complaint could be given damning interpretations. And so we moved about with ghostly smiles on our faces and deep nagging apprehension in our hearts. This repression gave birth to an urge to confide in someone, but in whom?


The abuses that civilians suffered occurred on both sides of the conflict, and in the aftermath of the war, somehow lives had to be pieced together again, if at all possible. This concern is the theme of Amadi's Civil War novel Estrangement.

The backdrop for this novel is the early days after the war has ended and Nigerians are returning to the cities they had fled earlier. Although the defeat of Biafra is not mentioned, we know by reference the historical context for the novel. Estrangement is a love story played out in the ruins not only of cities and villages but of lives irreparably damaged during those thirty months. A husband returns to Port Harcourt from refuge in Biafra only to find that his wife has been involved with a soldier and has given birth to this other man's child. The permanent estrangement that occurs when the husband rejects his wife is symbolic of the gulf between the pre-and postwar lives. For although each searches for a familiar place in previously abandoned homes, picking up where they left off is virtually impossible. Too much has changed the players in the drama.

Amadi's description further into the novel seems to reflect the lengthy healing process that will be necessary. He writes:

Two years after the Civil War, Port Harcourt still bore the marks of the horrors of war. Here and there bombed buildings grinned like huge skulls. Where such buildings still offered some shelter, lunatics and vagrants could be seen, moving inside them like maggots finishing off the last chunks of flesh in the decaying skulls.


Although much of the novel reflects the efforts of ordinary people getting back to business as usual, for Ibekwe and Alekiri, their lives will not cross again. The activity of those surrounding them as well as their own efforts to salvage the rest of their lives apart from each other only heightens the gulf that wartime circumstances created, a permanent estrangement.

The titles of the two novels, Nwapa's Never Again and Amadi's Estrangement, suggest the trauma associated with the experiences of Nigerian civilians in the war-torn areas of the country. In Nwapa's work, images of flight dominate whereas in Amadi's work, images of return prevail. Together, these images reflect the dual tasks of survival and renewal each refugee must undertake. In Nwapa's novel, the refrain “never again” becomes the expressed resolve that such suffering, the dehumanization, and the fragmentation would no longer be tolerated. In Amadi's novel the greeting “happy survival” becomes the bridge for establishing contact with others as they sift through the remains of past lives. Together these refrains constitute a chorus the refugee can happily associate with another life.


  1. For a more thorough analysis of factors contributing to the war, see Joseph Okpaku. A variety of perspectives are represented in this collection of essays by African scholars.

  2. Actual figures depend on the sources consulted. Jimol Lawal notes in “Nigeria—Class Struggle and the National Question” that Nigerian figures have been low as 5,000 whereas Biafran figures have been as high as 50,000 (286).

  3. For those interested in pursuing this topic further, a helpful source is Craig W. McLuckie's “A Preliminary Checklist.”

Ify G. Achufusi (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Feminist Inclinations of Flora Nwapa,” in Critical Theory and African Literature Today, 1994, pp. 101-14.

[In the following essay, Achufusi refutes Nwapa's assertion that she is not a feminist by tracing the feminist ideas found in her three novels Efuru, Idu, and One Is Enough.]

There has been a tendency for African intellectuals to dissociate themselves from the term ‘feminism’, regarding it as one of those borrowed ‘isms’ which militate against the development of Africa, perhaps the newest form of neo-colonialism. It is often regarded as some kind of intellectual monstrosity which is geared towards the destruction of the marriage institution in Africa, by straining the ‘cordial relationship’ between man and woman.

This paper argues that such an attitude arises from a lack of proper understanding of what the term involves. A great deal of the present perception of feminism by women is also a reflection of the deep-seated fear of being rejected by the mainstream, by the privileged section of the society—an effect that has been successfully created and perpetuated through long-lasting socio-cultural intimidation. What has most strongly impacted on this affair, and has negatively affected the development of feminism in Africa generally, is the fact that African societies have not internalised the notion that the woman's self actualisation is no longer dependent on her biological role of reproduction. African societies have reached a point in their history when the most basic tenets and concepts governing the functions and the actual essence of man/woman relationships should be re-examined, so that the position of the woman within the realm of things can be re-evaluated.

Such a re-evaluation is crucial, especially considering the fact that our society is fast changing and that most of the basic assumptions which direct the said relationships have taken on entirely new shapes and therefore new values. Unfortunately most discourses, social and economic, overlook the very glaring changes in the society and base their analysis of the man/woman relationship on the pre-change situation. Thus, such analysis takes as the norm the very conditions which need to be changed; those oppressive conditions which must disappear in order that the subjugation of more than half the population, the women, may cease.

One such condition is that which bases the woman's value in her society only on her reproductive capability—both the reproduction of actual human beings and that of the labour force,1 thus recognising this biological function as the woman's only contribution towards the development of her country. Such subsumation limits her self-actualisation and stifles her talents.

In many African states, the above concept has assumed the status of a myth while, the woman herself, in order to maintain eligibility for marriage, or to avoid being isolated and regarded as woman/man, often either restrains herself from discussing the man/woman relationship. When and if she does, rather than analyse the situation from an individual perspective, giving her feeling and reaction to all the limitations imposed on her, she toes exactly those lines prescribed for her by the society. This certainly as Molara Ogundipe-Leslie posits is due to ‘the successful intimidation of the African woman by the man’.

She states that:

Women are shackled by their own negative self-image by centuries of the interiorization of the ideologies of patriarchy. Her own reactions to objective problems therefore are often self-defeating and self-crippling. She reacts with fear, dependency complexes and attitudes to please and cajole where more self-assertive actions are needed.2

The African woman urgently needs to rid herself of all the complexes cited above, for although today she is still very much involved in raising the family, she is equally actively participating in other spheres of nation building. To gain recognition in the society therefore, marriage, procreation or selflessly and sheepishly pleasing the man should be neither a pre-requisite nor an imperative. It is therefore very disappointing to note that some of our women feel uncomfortable to declare that they are feminists or to give the impression that they have any connections with feminists or feminist ideology.

Assuming however, that the African woman sees marriage and housewifery as her only source of wish fulfilment, should she shy away from discussing her role as a wife and mother and the pleasures and tribulations involved? Should she not be interested in examining how her position has been affected by the changing processes in the socio-economic life of modern Africa? It is her duty to critically evaluate her position in her society and give her reactions to issues which concern her. Doing so does not make her anti-society, rather, ignoring it portrays her as naïve, unintelligent and incapable of determining what is good for herself.

According to most literary theorists, feminism is politics, which aims to change the status of women in the society:

Feminism is a politics directed at changing existing power relations between women and men in society. These power relations structure all areas of life, the family, education and welfare, the worlds of work and politics, culture and leisure. They determine who does what and for whom, what we are and what we might become.3

The fact that a body of politics—feminism—aims at changing existing chains of relationships between men and women in the society indicates that such relationships are problematic. Why then should anybody feel apologetic for contributing towards the rectification of a problematic situation, especially when this whole affair concerns his or her well-being? Why then should African women shy away or refrain from any utterance that might suggest that they are feminists? And why should men so strongly detest women who display any feminist leanings? This position gives the impression that there is something wrong with being a feminist. At this point, one may like to ask the following questions: should being a feminist impair the woman's prospects of finding a husband; does being a feminist in any way imply inadequacy in a wife or mother; does it indicate inability to carry out the woman's duties in the home effectively? The answer of course is an emphatic ‘no’.

It is therefore amazing that our intellectuals, especially women writers among them, seem apologetic to admit that they are feminists, even when their writings constitute clear indications of their feminist inclinations. Such denial as Ogundipe-Leslie rightly puts it is a result of

… the successful intimidation of African women by men over the issues of women's liberation and feminism. Male ridicule, aggression and backlash have resulted in making women apologetic and have given the term feminist, a bad name.4

It is perhaps this ‘successful intimidation’ of women by men buttressed by the perpetuation of grossly inadequate and conservative tradition that prompted writers like Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa to state that they are not feminists. ‘Yet nothing can be more feminist than the writings of these women writers in their concern for and deep understanding of experiences and fates of women in the society’.5

Such denial gives an impression that both the African woman and the man lack a thorough understanding of the main objectives of feminism especially the African brand of it. This paper which aims principally at highlighting the feminist inclinations of Flora Nwapa starts by pinpointing the underlying ideology and the focus of this relatively new approach to the analysis of several relationships in society as they concern the woman. In the first place,

A genuine African feminism recognizes a common struggle with African men for the removal of the yokes of foreign domination and European/American exploitation. It is not antagonistic to men but challenges them to be aware of certain salient aspects of women's subjugation which differ from the generalized oppression of all African peoples.6

Thus it aims at highlighting the inequities in the male/female relationship in our society, with a view to changing institutionalised subjugation, intimidation and oppression of women. African feminism or more precisely a feminist approach to our social life, our literature, provides the opportunity of re-evaluating attitudes and misconceptions about women, which have been buttressed all along both by African culture and the misogynous traditions of the European colonial masters. Certainly, since the aims and objectives of African feminism do not hamper the woman's operation as a wife or mother, but rather seeks to bring about the establishment of more equitable conditions, better understanding and a more cordial relationship between man and woman, it is an ideology that should be supported by all, especially the women.

As de Beauvoir posits,

It is for man to establish the reign of liberty in the midst of the world of the given. To gain supreme victory, it is necessary, for one thing, that by and through their natural differentiation, men and women unequivocally affirm their brotherhood.7

If de Beauvoir's objectives should be achieved, then our intellectual male and female alike, should feel neither threatened nor embarrassed by the development of feminist critical perspectives both in our literature and in other facets of our social life.

Having stated rather briefly the main focus of feminism generally, and that of the African brand in particular, the paper will now proceed with the examination of works by Flora Nwapa while underscoring the feminist perspectives of her writing.

Although Nwapa has written on various themes including the Nigerian civil war, she has most often made the experiences of the African woman in relation to those themes the central concern of her creative works. In her three novels, Efuru,Idu and One is Enough,8 the author focuses on family life, a rather broad theme which allows her to explore the life of the African woman within her society. She discusses the woman's reactions to several issues which affect her as a woman and as a member of a specific cultural group; her interactions and role within her society; her perception of self as well as the society's perception of her.

In Efuru her first novel, focusing her narrative on Efuru the beautiful daughter of Nwashike Ogene; Adizua her husband a nonentity; Ajanupu, her mother-in-law's sister; Eneberi her second husband, and a network of friends and relations, the author explores family life in her own part of Igbo land. Discussing her people's life—their joys and tribulations, occupations and various activities—Nwapa draws attention to the position of the woman in the realm of things; her dreams, fulfilled and unfulfilled.

In the worlds of Nwapa's three books and in Igbo world-view generally, a grown up woman earns the respect of her people if she is married. She becomes fully integrated into her husband's family if she bears children. But she becomes entitled to any material inheritance only through her male children. In view of all this, the heroines of Nwapa's three books are fated to spend several sleepless nights, as they find themselves wanting in various degrees and at various points in time. The author painstakingly depicts the predicament of a childless woman represented by Efuru and Idu, heroines of her first two novels, and Amaka in her third novel One is Enough. This she does in a manner indicative of her deep concern for the suffering of such women.

Through gossip and conversations, reminiscent of women, Nwapa reverberates the problems of women generally and of the childless women in particular. As is characteristic of village life, everyone has the right to express an opinion on any issue whether or not it concerns them. Thus

Efuru's neighbours talked as they were bound to talk. They did not see the reason why Adizua should not marry another woman since, according to them, two men do not live together. To them Efuru was a man since she could not produce.9

A woman who is unable to bear children is a ‘failure’, a man rather than a woman. One is not surprised then that

Efuru was very worried in the second year of her marriage. ‘My mother had only me’ she said one night to herself. ‘My father told me so and also that she found it difficult to become pregnant. Am I going to be like my mother? But if I am going to be like her, then I too will have a daughter like her. But what if that is denied me? What will I do? oh, what will I do? she wept. Efuru did not sleep that night.10

Efuru's lamentation is full of anguish; the anguish and desperation of an unfulfilled individual who feels her self worth has become drastically reduced because she has failed to perform that function which determines her value to her community. She must face humiliation and denigration; the fate reserved for a childless woman in the traditional African society and even in the Africa of more modern setting.

However, Nwapa's feminist approach to the portraiture of her heroine has rescued the doomed Efuru. Rather than condemn or abandon her to frustration, Nwapa shows that the woman deserves credit for a great deal of other things than procreation alone. She also indicates that a woman should as of necessity take part in making decisions about issues which affect her. First of all, Efuru is introduced to the reader as a beautiful woman of honourable descent, the daughter of the well-known and respected Nwashike Ogene—‘mighty man of valour’. But Efuru elopes and marries Adizua, an inconsequential nonentity, who cannot afford to pay the traditional bride-price, because he was her own choice.

A conservative non-feminist view would see Efuru as an obstinate child, who brings shame and humiliation to her father. But from a feminist perspective, she is a strong-willed, rebellious young woman, who respects and observes the traditions of her people, but who, at the same time rejects those aspects which seek to oppress and dwarf her personality. For instance, she accepts the traditional ‘bath’ but firmly rejects the idea of an arranged marriage; nor would she succumb to long years of living apart from the man she loves while he works and saves money for the bride-price. Rather she runs away and lives with him and together they work to save the substantial amount required.

By marrying Adizua, she shatters the expectations of her society. When she finds that farm work does not suit her she is equally decisive: ‘I am not cut out for farm work. I am going to trade’ (p. 10).

She is a responsible and determined woman who orders her priorities appropriately. The same is true of most other female characters in Flora Nwapa's fiction. The author however realises the danger of alienation and has therefore created for her heroines opportunities of self-fulfilment which will not distance them from the society, from the people. She also recognises the necessity for people to view themselves as free members of their society. Such frame of mind facilitates a most conducive atmosphere for the growth of an analytical mind. It encourages the individual to reject questionable norms or oppressive policies, rather than accept them simply because the society prescribes them.

For as John Harris rightly puts it:

We must remember that to deny someone control of their own lives is to offer them a most profound insult, not to mention the injury which the frustration of their wishes and the setting at naught of their own plans for themselves will add.11

In concurrence with Harris' opinion above, Flora Nwapa creates in Efuru a character who takes control of her life, who creates a unique image for herself. Rather than place Efuru on the periphery of activities Flora Nwapa allots a decisive role to her. Efuru thus becomes a cynosure, the centre without which all other things fall apart. By juxtaposing the character of Efuru with that of Adizua, the author creates an admirable personality, respectful daughter, resourceful woman, dutiful wife and, in the end, mother. Viewed against the character of Adizua, an unsuccessful farmer who lacks even the guts to tell his wife that he is fond of her and wishes to stay close to her (p. 20), a flirt and an irresponsible husband and father, Efuru's personality towers over and dwarfs the image of Adizua—a caricature of a man.

In this same way, she excels, when compared with her second husband Eneberi. She is industrious, considerate, has a high moral standard and shows high regard for the reasonable norms of her society, while Eneberi is an egocentric liar and a thief. Nevertheless, Efuru knows when to stop and think. By turning her back eventually on marriage and dedicating herself to the services of the lake goddess, Flora Nwapa's heroine negates and thwarts certain Igbo concepts about the woman, especially that embodied in: ‘Di bu mma ogori’ (p. 97) or ‘Ugwu nwanyi bu di’ (‘A husband is a woman's beauty and respect’). Efuru confirms Flora Nwapa's own contention as well as the opinion of her mother-in-law that:

The route to (women's) liberation is economic power … all women married or single must be economically independent. ‘If it means selling oranges, then we sell oranges’ to be financially autonomous.12

Having achieved economic independence, Efuru is able to give up marriage, once her two husbands fail to live up to her expectations. Back in her father's house she takes charge of all affairs and discharges both her civic and other responsibilities honourably. These include the provision of medical treatment for some members of the community who may otherwise have suffered and died neglected.

Thus, by allotting principal roles to her heroines (which are not necessarily connected with marriage), Ms Nwapa creates female characters who have achieved a stature usually only associated with men in the Igbo communities of Efuru. Thanking Efuru, the daughter of Nnona, one of her benefactors said:

… I want to say again that we are happy that you have helped our mother. You have done what only men are capable of doing and so you have done like a man.13

Thus the author has brought a feminist angle into her narrative; an approach which implicitly condemns the peripheralisation of women in the realm of affairs.

In Idu as in Efuru, Ms Nwapa depicts family life. This time activities rotate around Idu, who is also initially childless. Like Efuru, Idu as a character dwarfs and over-shadows other characters around her, male or female. She is industrious, hardworking and a loving wife.

Obviously, Ms Nwapa's women characters are hardly ‘cut out for farm-work’. For Idu has also displayed a commendable business acumen, which even her husband and her gossiping neighbours recognise with great admiration. Idu is an amiable person and in spite of some petty jealousy among women, she is a woman ‘pleasing not only to her husband’ but one loved and respected by almost everybody.

Writing from a feminist perspective, Flora Nwapa continues to raise issues which are problematic to family life generally, and particularly to the woman who acts as a touchstone in the family. For a great deal of the man's joy as a married man and full-fledged member of his society depends on the woman.

In her treatment of unfulfilled marriage in Efuru, the author indicates the agony which is generated in Efuru's life by her secondary infertility, by the high rate of infant mortality, as well as the irresponsibility of the men she has associated with. In presenting another unfulfilled marriage in Idu the author juxtaposes two childless families, (at least at the initial stages of their growth) and through this device she indicates that the woman is not always responsible for childlessness in marriage, while through conversation between two friends—Idu and Ojiugo—she also shows how unhappy this problem has made the two women. Using as sub-plots stories about minor characters, Ms Nwapa imbues her major characters with hopes of a fulfilled future and confidence in themselves. Typical of such situations are stories about Nwakuma, Anedi, and Onyeazo—women who were once prostitutes. From their immoral lifestyles of prostitution, a lifestyle which is unacceptable both to the community and to the goddess of the lake, these women have settled down to normal family life and have been blessed with children.

Flora Nwapa indicates that all humans, male or female, under normal conditions are capable of progressive development, often as a result of self-examination. To consolidate this argument, she incorporates vivid flashbacks, which give her readers insights on the past lives of some of her characters. Their radical change from reckless irresponsible and immoral lives to those of responsible and respected members of their society is a sign of their growth. It is this kind of natural evolution, inspired from the inside, voluntary rather than imposed or used as an oppressive measure against any group as a sex, that has been effectively employed as an implement for characterisation. This approach has inspired a self-purification motivated by spiritual growth rather than the type of self-preservation in which some female characters in African literature are often involved. The self-restraint often illogical and involuntary, shown by such women is merely to ensure their marriageability. In other words they preserve themselves for the man. Typical examples of such characters are in Grace Ogot's ‘The Old White Witch’. Here, female characters gave up their financial assets in order to ensure that they find husbands. Such characters create an impression of self-worthlessness, a situation they now strive to rectify through marriage.

To remedy her women characters from moral degradation and degeneration, Ms Nwapa introduces some cultural constraints in the image of the goddess Uhamiri, popularly known by her worshippers as ‘our mother’, revered by women and men alike. The desire to please the goddess has brought many wayward women back home, entirely changed, settled and effectively fulfilling their functions as the centre, the live-wire of their families. For Uhamiri does not only forgive women who have shown remorse for their inadequacies, but as encouragement to persist, she has also rewarded them with fertility.

In the image of the goddess Uhamiri, Ms Nwapa has thus created a feminine symbol of chastity, a chastity which evolves as an indication of the natural growth of her heroines, rather than one enforced by chauvinist prescriptions. This movement towards a non-enforced self-purification accounts for the painful desertion of Amarajeme by Ojiugo. It would have been easy for Ojiugo to continue to live with her husband Amarajeme and pretend that her unborn baby belongs to him. More so because that would have implied Amarajeme's capability to father a child. He would have been spared the humiliation emanating from that notion of ‘not being a man’, the most shameful attribute to any man in his society. It is the revelation of this shortcoming in him that led him to commit suicide. However, Flora Nwapa's heroine would not conform with such an arrangement, because this would put her in a situation of self-defilement and adultery. In other words, Nwapa, like overt feminists is saying that if a man is allowed the freedom to choose his lifestyle then the woman should also be allowed a similar freedom. Anything less would imply the intellectual inferiority of the woman.

Some critics have dismissed Ms Nwapa as a non-serious writer who fills the pages of her books with ‘unnecessary detailed descriptions and conversations by a galaxy of women’. Such critics have dismissed the day to day concerns and activities of women as unimportant and therefore not worth describing. Jean Grimshaw succinctly describes the situation thus:

This implicitly derogatory attitude to women is linked both to an over-monolithic account of male power and to a failure to give much attention to the ways in which women have, in fact, often spent much of their lives, and to activities which have been particularly theirs (such as the rearing of children, for example).14

Fortunately however, some women are waking up though rather late to their responsibility to their own sex generally and to themselves as individuals by making the activities of women the central theme of their literary works. Ms Nwapa's novels and almost all her short stories put her among the foremost of these. In simple but clear language, often employing that special brand of English identifiable with writers from West Africa, Ms Nwapa recreates the life she knows best—the life of women. She portrays her women realistically as normal human beings with all their imperfections, yet imbued with a great deal of virtue and admirable sense of responsibility. The author does not set out to idealise her heroines, but illuminates the best in them as she criticises their negative qualities. But most importantly, her works indicate that the woman, her activities, her wishes fulfilled and otherwise, joys and tribulations are all worthy themes for discussion in our fiction.

In her fourth novel, One is Enough, the author investigates another situation in the life of a childless woman. At a first reading the three novels, Efuru,Idu and One is Enough, might seem merely to be describing family life in Igbo land, particularly, the riverine Igbo tribe to which the author herself belongs. But a deeper study of the three books shows that in each the author investigates various complexities relating to life. She demonstrates as she does so, the reactions of and to the heroines at the centre of the narratives. In the first two, activities are all set in the village, while the scene in One is Enough starts off in a semi-urban area and ends up in Nigeria's capital city, Lagos.

In this last book, Ms Nwapa's depiction of the relationship between Amaka and her mother-in-law evokes the usual stereotypical mother and daughter-in-law relationship. The image of the mother-in-law is of a nagging scold who lacks a proper understanding of her daughter-in-law's predicament. Through this image, which contrasts sharply with that of Efuru's mother-in-law in Efuru, Nwapa stresses the need for solidarity among women, so relevant to all feminists and women's liberation movements. This solidarity, however, cannot flourish without a good understanding on the part of women themselves that all women—mothers, mothers-in-law, daughters, or daughters-in-law are all second class citizens. True it is that Amaka herself in a conversation with a newly married woman (who has just narrated how she was beaten up by her husband) commented on the behaviour of African men thus:

… The trouble with our men is their ego. They refuse to appreciate their wives. Mind you, they do appreciate their mothers and sisters, but never their wives.15

The truth is, however, that no woman is free from the effect of this lack of appreciation by the menfolk or bluntly put, of being treated by the society as a nonentity. For a mother was once a wife, subjugated by her husband while a sister who soon becomes a wife automatically becomes her husband's slave. No woman irrespective of class is free from male dominance.

Some feminist theorists have asked the question: are women oppressed first as women or in their roles in society, as means of production? The African woman suffers oppression in both roles whether she is an aristocrat or not. She is the society's underdog, seen and not heard, obedient to the husband, her master and her lord. To save themselves from this male oppression and dominance therefore, women must realise the need for solidarity and sisterhood. But Ms Nwapa's depiction of some mother/daughter-in-law relationships show them to be lacking in this realisation. Below is an excerpt from a verbal encounter between Amaka and her mother-in-law:

Amaka: Mother forgive me. It will not happen again. I should not have replied to what you said, I am very sorry, mother. Please, don't throw me away, mother.16

This apology should have mollified even the most hard-hearted person especially when the offence was quite trivial. But the older lady's response is hostile and uncompromising:

Mother-in-law: The hold you have on my son will end today … I have waited for six years, and I cannot wait for even one day more … Tell me, you said I knew your plight. What is your plight? You are barren. That's all, barren. A year or so ago, you said you had a miscarriage. My son came to tell me. I laughed at him. I did not let him know that you were deceiving him. So, my son's wife, you were never pregnant and you never will be. Get that clear in your mind.17

The bitterness and insensitivity displayed by the older lady, the product of self-centredness, will never nurture the much-needed sisterhood. Ms Nwapa is thus through differing relationships between women re-echoing the feminist contention of the absolute necessity for cordial relationships among women.

One is Enough is dedicated to her mother-in-law whom she says attaches a great deal of importance to the economic independence of women, be they married or single. This concept is one of the underlying ideological concepts of African feminism, especially as stressed by Philomina Chioma Steady.

Ms Nwapa's heroines demonstrate her own agreement with feminists in this respect. All her heroines, Efuru, Idu and Amaka, display this striving for economic independence. The portrayals climax in Amaka who does not only earn enough money to buy herself a car, buy herself a plot of land on which she builds a personal house, but also to buy her own freedom by returning the bride-price to her ex-husband.

Ms Nwapa has devoted three novels to women and women-centred activities. She has given prominence to the discussion of the said activities in a way that indicates strongly shared ideological concepts with feminists. Most importantly, she has created characters whose quest for self-fulfillment does not alienate them from their social milieu, but rather strengthens their position in the society. It is in recognition of her achievement in connection with the presentation of the woman and the explication of women related issues, most often from a feminist perspective that one may conveniently regard her as a feminist.


  1. According to A. Eldhom, Harris and Young, who distinguished three aspects of reproduction, the reproduction of the labour force refers to the process by which the products of procreation become workers: e.g. schooling, imparting to them the skills necessary to participate in the agricultural process.

  2. Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, ‘African Women, Culture and Another Development’, Journal of African Marxists, 5 (February, 1984/89) 35–6.

  3. C. Weedon, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory (New York: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1987) 1.

  4. Ogundipe-Leslie ‘African Women, Culture and Another Development’, 11.

  5. ‘African Women’, 11.

  6. Philomina Chioma Steady, African Woman Cross-Culturally (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

  7. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley (1953). Reprint (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).

  8. Flora Nwapa, Efuru (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1966). Flora Nwapa, Idu (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1970). Flora Nwapa, One is Enough (Enugu: Tana Press, 1981).

  9. Nwapa, Efuru, 24.

  10. Nwapa, Efuru, 24.

  11. John Harris, ‘Political Status of Children’, in Contemporary Political Philosophy, ed. Keith Graham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) 35–55.

  12. Interview with Katherine Frank, Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1983.

  13. Nwapa, Efuru, 132.

  14. Jean Grimshaw, ‘Autonomy and Identity in Feminist Thinking’ in Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy, eds Morevena Griffiths and Margaret Whitford (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988).

  15. Nwapa, One is Enough, 30.

  16. Nwapa, One is Enough, 3.

  17. Nwapa, One is Enough, 15, 16.

Maggi Phillips (essay date Winter 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6290

SOURCE: “Engaging Dreams: Alternative Perspectives on Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, and Tsitsi Dangarembga's Writing,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 89-103.

[In the following essay, Phillips traces the role of dreams and dreaming in the texts of Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, and Tsitsi Dangarembga.]

In addressing the writing of Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, and Tsitsi Dangarembga, there is no need to delineate their blackness nor their womanhood: through their fictions, they themselves speak extensively on, and with unerring insight into such complex matters. Literary criticism should engage the writing itself and the fertile beds of meaning germinating in what Wole Soyinka has called “a different climate of imagination” (27), without losing sight of the sociological, anthropological, and political implications which the texts also embody. To date, criticism on these writers has concentrated on a perceived, and valid, exposition of racial and sexual issues, more or less under the assumption that a writer's task is to criticize and re-order socio-political injustice. Creative writers are indeed deeply moved by the afflictions of the human condition, but their treatment of these matters, nevertheless, involves fictional conceptual frames that infuse texts with an “ounce of shadow” and a perplexing awe of the inexplicable. If, for example, Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood details the social dead-ends constructed against women caught between the two incompatible value systems of rural Africa and urban colonialism, if the novel cries out against the constrictions on Nnu Ego's selfhood, the novel is also a font for the bitter, yet inviolable “preciousness of life” (Christian 246). Theoretical approaches tend to shy clear of imponderable qualities simply through the force of their specific commitment. Paradoxically, loyalty to ideas can turn into a form of censorship, not unlike that to which Per Wastberg refers when he talks of the “energy … devoted to prevent and destroy fragile things like fantasies, thoughts—and their creators,” because to accept that humankind is “unforeseeable” and “never [to] be defined” subverts proscribed fields of human endeavor (25). In mining the texts through dream and dreaming, I intentionally emphasize the intangible and the paradoxical as a means of re-visioning these texts in which language, like the multi-tonal grief and celebration of African women ululating, disturbs and challenges the rational stability of knowledge.

The manifold dimensions found in African dream activity are significant when considered alongside Eurocentric perspectives, where dreams are basically aberrant fragments of experience which may elucidate problems previously encountered in waking life. Throughout the ethnic diversity of Africa, dreaming is a gift passed down through a multitude of forbears and the dreaming received is full-blooded experience. Dreams predict and torture or protect; dreaming enters other realities and is the site of ritual psychic healing; dreamselves travel out of bodies, and sorcerers, gods, goddesses, spirits, and the dead physically enter the dreamer's presence; finally, dreaming transgresses chaos and contacts the highest sacred authority. This dream activity is beyond Freud and Jung, as the anthropologist Barbara Tedlock warns:

… we must remember that some cultures are much more interested in and sophisticated about alternative or altered states of consciousness. … Western analysis of altered states would seem primitive to peoples who have been living with and actively developing these types of consciousness for centuries.


Thus for African writers, dream activity is a valuable storehouse of experience with which to explore narratives and question the nature of knowing across the breadth and depth of the unending human story. Furthermore, because they write in English, Nwapa, Emecheta, Aidoo, Head, and Dangarembga have, as substance for their creativity, more than just Sissie Killjoy's squint-eyed perspective of an enslaving language in which her “mind always come[s] shackled” (Aidoo, Our Sister Killjoy 112). Their European-centered education has interfaced indigenous knowledge with (for our purposes here) notions of dream in European literature from Romanticism and Russian Formalism. The Romantics view the act of dreaming as an inspirational force, while Russian Formalists stress the significance of defamiliarization, wherein the surreal and surprising imagery of dreams highlight unusual aspects of subjects, events, or ideas. In a creative context, access to both cultures potentially gives the writers a multitude of ideas with which to generate fresh intellectual insight.1 In so arguing, I am conscious of the dangers of inverting the colonizer/colonized debate, which may violate sensitive areas and agendas, and yet the all-too- painful and inexcusable phenomenon of colonization must have regenerative, as well as degenerative, consequences. I believe with Bessie Head that Africans—and other post-colonial peoples—manifest matchless creative powers, because history has bombarded them with not one but at least two ideational worlds, enabling them to command such a spectrum of possibilities that it is impossible to say how many dreaming realms they access.

Head retrieves belief in the oppressed and ordinary people's sanctity out of the holocaust of her mind and manifests that belief in her professional life. She extends trust to the people in Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind, by encouraging the community to tell their own stories, while the latent energy of her oeuvre remains for posterity, adapting readers' concepts to contradiction and unstable reality with, as she would have it, “magical” grace. Committed to the idea that she writes to “shape the future” (A Woman Alone 64), Head projects dreaming onto inhospitable terrains, like apartheid and insanity, to deliberately alter that reality. Here Head re-enacts the ageless faith in the absolute naming power of the word: an object—or subject—is not, until it is spoken. Alternatively, the same phenomenon is discovered, though transformed, in the Hindu concept of maya, which Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty describes as encapsulated in the paradox of the dreamer dreamt. O'Flaherty explains this concept as “the mutual feedback system between finding (dreaming what is already there) and making (dreaming something into existence)”:

Indian philosophy implies that we find it because we are it, even as we are God. Since the Indian universe is made of God's body, as well as God's mind, any act of scientific or artistic creation is literally a self revelation. In this context, the correlation between making something and finding it is hardly a coincidence, it is just common sense.


Probably gleaned in part from both conceptual systems, Head's creative conviction is further complicated by the disturbing experience of her identity. To grasp, then, how Head arrives at Elizabeth's statement that “[t]here is only one God and his name is Man. And Elizabeth is his prophet” (A Question of Power 206), the reader needs to bend the parameters of thought to encompass many diverse systems of understanding, as well as accommodate intervening historical, social, and political analogies. Head may be the most complex of the chosen group of writers, yet they all challenge limits of language and thought with an inclusiveness and earthiness, in which dreaming is visceral. Grief, celebration, and horror respond to the unborn, the living and the dead in writers who speak in the interstices of polemic dialogue, where action is limited and the mind is lively with multi-directional possibility.

Specific dreams, that communicate supernatural directives to protagonists and subsequently alter their terrestrial lives, are central to Flora Nwapa's Efuru and Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood. At the same time, the realms which dreams penetrate co-exist matter-of-factly with people's material world, so that dreams are, simultaneously, unique to the individual and communal phenomena. Written in an innovative style of deceptive simplicity, where gossip, conversational dialogue, proverbs, and the daily accounts of family affairs form a communal narrative, Flora Nwapa's Efuru tells the sad and bewildering tale of Efuru, a childless woman who has been “badly treated by fate” (qtd. in Zell 439). Fate is the unknown variable for the otherwise resourceful Efuru who, confident of her status as favorite daughter in an elite household, boldly arranges her own marriage in the novel's opening paragraph. Although this decision violates customary parental privilege and bride-price laws, Efuru rationalizes that her persuasive skills will smooth over any subsequent difficulties. What she fails to appreciate are the imponderable forces in Igbo culture, notably the ethic which maintains that “nothing can stand alone, there must always be another thing standing beside it,” whether this be the individual beside the community or the individual beside the deities and supernatural beings of the Igbo pantheon (Achebe 93). Although Nwapa only refers to Efuru's chi in passing, the goddess Uhamiri assumes a role in Efuru's life that is equivalent to Chinua Achebe's description of the Igbo chi as the being who accompanies each individual as “his[/her] spirit being complementing his[/her] terrestrial human being” (93). To a large extent, these invisible companions of people in their day-to-day living simply demand due courtesies in the form of libations. If, however, a crisis occurs in a person's life, malevolent or propitious spirits of some form or another may communicate with the living through dreams, often interpreted by the dibia, the community's healer and diviner. Efuru's first crisis, which neither she nor the folk competence of her neighbors can resolve, is barrenness, a terror common to women in cultures that place high values on children and motherhood. Driven by inner fears and surrounded by voices that condemn and sympathize, she visits a trusted dibia who assures her that she will conceive within the year. Efuru's motherhood, however, is short-lived and complicated by her economic reliance on trading and by her husband, Adizua's desertion. On a practical level, hardship is offset by women's extended-family networks, while spiritual compensation is inbuilt in the culture's belief system. Without these intersecting networks, Efuru would have had no means to expunge her grief when the child “refused to stay” with her people, for as Ajanupu chides the tiny corpse:

“You are a foolish child to leave all the wealth and riches for the land of the dead. You are ungrateful for leaving your good mother. A mother who is more than all mothers. … You saw the wealth, the riches, good home and you chose the life in the other world. You have not done well, my daughter.”


The community cares for Efuru's physical, emotional, and ritual needs, and trusts in the spiritual world's supervision of the child and the complex balance-sheet of human destiny.

A second husband later and still childless, Efuru dreams of “an elegant woman, very beautiful, combing her long black hair with a golden comb” (146), and the imagery of her fate emerges. Further consultation with a dibia reveals that the dream is Uhamiri's call to welcome Efuru as one of her elect worshippers. In realizing Uhamiri's “golden handshake” of wealth and beauty for Efuru, Nwapa raises the issue of barrenness to a level of privilege and sets this privilege in tension with Efuru's desire for children. Nwapa suggests that such inconsistencies pervade traditional life as people attempt to rationalize their fate. Not all puzzles can be totally resolved, like the incompatibility of wealth and fertility explored in this novel; however, puzzles may be accepted as the efficacy of gods and goddesses who take away as they give yet again. If Efuru cannot emulate Ajanupu and her eight children, she can stand beside the young girl Ogea, help the villagers through occasional troubles, and dream with Uhamiri, the goddess of contradiction. Uhamiri “gave women beauty and wealth but she had no child. She had never experienced the joy of motherhood. Why then did women worship her?” (221). There is no decisive answer, only many possibilities, one of which Buchi Emecheta, also of Igbo descent, develops in The Joys of Motherhood. The title itself, notes Susan Andrade, constructs a discursive bridge with Nwapa's final lines, and thus traditional means of continuity, wherein women re-tell the stories passed down through their mothers, are interwoven with literary discourse (91).

Emecheta places greater emphasis than Nwapa on the relationship between a person and her chi for two central reasons: to accentuate the physical and social burdens that hamper women in transition from traditional to modern life-styles and to highlight the anomalies arising between human desires and human responsibility. Through mother Nnu Ego, Emecheta examines the “joys” of childbearing in the disturbed social environment of urban and colonial Lagos. Although bound to fate like Efuru, Nnu Ego's spiritual companion and guide, an elaborated slave woman chi, enables Emecheta to write two histories in a single character, or, presumably from an Igbo perspective, to tell the story of the complete woman which includes her revenging and yet sympathetic chi. The personal inter-connectedness between the slave woman condemned to die with her mistress, Nnu Ego's father's senior wife, and the child born of two proud, noble, and slave-owning personalities in an extra-marital relationship, supplies Emecheta with a store of symbolic irony. By enslaving Nnu Ego to the former slave in a dialogue through dream, Emecheta enchains the second generation to their predecessors. The metaphor established between a physical self and its spiritual mentor resonates across the major concerns of the novel: traditional polygamous families disintegrate under the mastering forces of colonialism; husbands serve the ruling white class in women's roles; and the mother is a prisoner of her children. Dreams of wealth, beauty, and compensation are replaced by a slave woman chi who offers “dirty, chubby babies” for the taking (77), suggesting that Nnu Ego will indeed face a “catalogue of disasters,” picking up babies from a woman whom her family had wronged.

Considering the lack of resources available in the alienating urban environment, Nnu Ego displays an obstinate dignity and an ever-increasing ability to understand the pressures and the small measure of “joy” incurred in her imprisonment to her children. Incapable of rejecting her offspring, she learns to appreciate the moral, rather than monetary, rewards of her children's social advancement, and realizes that polygamy's negative aspects are offset by the friendship and female support mechanisms which it fosters. Finally, the life shared by Nnu Ego and her chi is ironically consecrated by her children's reverence for motherhood. Unwittingly, they enshrine their mother in the same institution which drove her to loneliness and near mental failure at the time of death:

They were all sorry she had died before they were in a position to give their mother a good life. She had the noisiest and most costly second burial Ibuza had ever seen, and a shrine was made in her name, so that her grandchildren could appeal to her should they be barren.


Like Uhamiri, Nnu Ego never grants children to her worshippers, but, unlike the former goddess, Nnu Ego is a mother who neither possesses beauty nor wealth. Despite Emecheta's denunciation of the delusory nature of deification, there is a suggestion that the imagination of generations to come may transform Nnu Ego into a beautiful spirit who will stand, like Uhamiri, beside the exploited and the lonely. Emecheta advocates a future equality of choice for mothers, an end to all forms of slavery, and a general recognition of life's “preciousness,” but neither she nor her consecrated mother knows if such a life is ever possible.

By placing slavery and barrenness in a causal relationship, Ama Ata Aidoo's Anowa brings the major concerns of Efuru and The Joys of Motherhood into focus in another genre. The play's tragic force is derived from the repression of dream as a channel of genuine communication. Like Efuru, Anowa marries on her own initiative and develops, with her husband Kofi Ako, a flourishing trade business. In time, Kofi Ako, bent on acquiring limitless wealth, turns to the most profitable business of all, slave trading. Anowa strongly objects to the immorality of human exploitation, but she withholds from him the sacred source of her abhorrence. Only near the play's end, when Anowa's negation of wealth stands in stark contrast to the obscene decadence of Kofi Ako's childless home, does she reveal the haunting dream. This dream follows from imagery evoked in a childhood discussion with her grandmother, who describes white people as peeled and lobster-like black people. That night the potent imagery permeates the child's harrowing dream:

“I dreamt that I was a big, big woman. And from my insides were huge holes out of which poured men, women and children. And the sea was boiling hot and steaming. And as it boiled, it threw out many, many giant lobsters, boiled lobsters, each of whom as it fell turned into a man or woman, but keeping its lobster head and claws. And they rushed to where I sat and seized the men and women as they poured out of me, and they tore them apart, and dashed them on the ground and stamped upon them.”


When she relays her dream to the women, they beg her never to mention it again. The dream predicts wholesale slaughter of a magnitude too great to measure in the normal course of village life. As a result the warning from the ancestors is silenced and later submerged under Kofi Ako's greed and sterility. Moreover, as in the dream, the gilded hell is born from Anowa's body, therein tying ideas of dream and birth in a knot of incertitude, which, as we shall see in Head, threatens to unhinge the mind. The play's avowed reason for barrenness lies in the recurrent nexus in which woman's fertility is “consumed in acquiring wealth” (63), but, in the drama's denouement, Anowa realizes that it is Kofi Ako, not herself, who is sterile. The repression of dream warning and sexual guilt, together with Kofi Ako's amoral attitude towards slavery, severs communicative understanding between the couple. When Anowa complains that there is “nothing I can open my mouth to say which cannot be twisted around my own neck to choke me” (56), Aidoo brings two extremes that obstruct communication, silence and misinterpretation, together. Anowa's bleak tones present the breakdown of human relationships, a breakdown that may not be salvaged unless we listen, as the Old Man advises, to the cries and dreams of the embattled heart.

The nurturing of dazzling inner worlds in unlikely climates is Bessie Head's most audacious achievement. Her central characters carry cosmic dimensions within them: Makhaya bears “the sun inside him all the time”; Maria explains that in the harsh Botswanan landscape, “we keep the rivers inside us” (When Rain Clouds Gather 65, 168); Maru “never doubt[s] the voices of the gods in his heart” (Maru 8); and Elizabeth lives within a dream patterned in evil, while dream-realms of time, love, and power open in her. Obsession with inner worlds logically extends from Head's life experience, conceived as she was in an illicit liaison between a white woman and a black stablehand against the background of South Africa's apartheid politics. Separated at birth from a mother who was “certified insane,” Head lacked a stable family background, failed in her marriage and teaching profession, and subsequently suffered several mental breakdowns. Head, the visionary, emerges from such a broken life-path to embrace multitudes, perhaps because her birth fused black and white and her mother's alleged insanity influenced the daughter's receptivity to altered states of consciousness. Despite the autobiographical nature of When Rain Clouds Gather,Maru, and A Question of Power, Head remains a fiction or a dream of herself, written into the page. She reconstructs herself while she validates her mother, since a “birth such as I had links me to her in a very deep way and makes her belong to that unending wail of the human heart” (A Gesture 64). Such encounters with enigmatic and unstable identity inform the content and different techniques of Head's first three books.

In When Rain Clouds Gather, discrete characterization already shows signs of yielding to Head's sense of communal solidarity which links human, natural, and cosmic realms. The ascetic nature of the community's response to landscape incorporates both ideas:

The great stretches of arid land completely stunned the mind, and every little green shoot that you put down into the barren earth just stood there, single, frail, shuddering, and not even a knowledge of soil or the germinating ability of seeds or modern machinery could help you defeat this expansive ocean of desert. And people, mentally fled before this desert ocean, content to scrape off bits of living from its outskirts.


Head then places the idea that aridity implies a lack of life beside Mma-Millipede's notion that the “hollow feeling inside is a search for a faith because that is what a person cannot live without” (130). Consequently, Head intimates that harshness is also fertile ground for the discovery of quintessential human knowledge, which, for Head, abides in the spiritual largesse of the heart. Similarly, Mma-Millipede's synthesis of bible with the Tswana imagination, replaces the Solomon God with “a God who was greater … but he walked with no shoes, in rough cloth, wandering up and down the dusty footpaths in the hot sun” (184). Makhaya's inner sun is a variation of the same continuum between human and cosmic realities at an individual level and establishes Makhaya as a powerful personality, driven by the ambivalent potential of the sun to stimulate and destroy. Makhaya's propensity for violence is tempered by the humility of the people's shoeless God. Thus, Head humbles her protagonist in a humorous vein by concluding that the Good God

would so much entangle this stupid young man with marriage and babies and children that he would always have to think, not twice but several hundred times, before he came to knocking anyone down.


All the elements of Head's primary vision are assembled in the novel: love as meeting ground for communal well-being; spiritual manifestations beside, not above, humankind; the catalytic potential of harsh (or oppressive) environments; and a language to dismantle power from its definitional dependence on authority and subservience.

Within the fabulist contours of Maru, symbolic and complementary characterization develops and inner lives interact to promote external change. Fundamentally, Maru, in dialogue with his gods, manipulates the other central figures in order to emancipate the racially mistreated Masarwa and break down power relationships within his society. Each of the central quartet encodes archetypal attributes, suggesting that Head treats them as aspects of the human condition as well as unique personalities. Maru symbolically draws on moon and cloud resonances and behavioral patterns of paternal, soul-questing leaders; Moleka, in a tenuous love-hate relationship with his kinsman, has, like Makhaya, the sun in his being, and is thus prone to explosive power; Dikeledi, sharing with Margaret the “tears” meaning of their names, displays a practical intelligence and the loyalty characteristic of traditional womanhood; and Margaret embodies the transforming artist, born to a multiple maternal inheritance of racial inferiority, spiritual superiority, and an anti-racial education. She is “not that important” (30) and yet conveys extraordinary forces, perhaps best elucidated by the idea of creative powerlessness, which is the daring incongruity that acts as the kernel vision in A Question of Power.Maru's ending, placed at the novel's opening, reveals the quartet in an uneasy truce, for although Maru is devoted to Margaret, she retains two rooms for her love—one for Maru, the other for Moleka—and this threatens to disturb Maru's usual control of destructive jealousy. Dreaming of daisies planted along their pathway, Maru strives to reciprocate the beauty Margaret gave him in her paintings and, at the same time, repress dangerous power-impulses that trouble his heart. Inner worlds promise a purified future, but as yet the voices are too unpredictable.

Dream and madness are the explosive subject matter of A Question of Power and the culmination of Head's experimental fragmentation of characterization. While Joyce Johnson's observation that Elizabeth retains “her personal dignity and is at the same time transformed into a universal human type” (202) is valid from one perspective, the nightmare that Elizabeth finds and creates is also a chaos of competing fragments of time, philosophy, eroticism, prejudice, and power, which often annuls the notion of an individual altogether. Elizabeth, from this angle, is a composite of human existence on a quest to discover a spirituality which might overcome the evil patterns of domination which human societies have reproduced, over and over again throughout history. Elizabeth has to be cleansed of historical and personal insanity before she is re-born whole, as the prophet of the divine brotherhood of love.

Head risks obscurity by introducing Elizabeth through a “manifesto” that records her retrospective thoughts on the inner turmoil at the novel's end. This structural decision forces the reader into the unmarked territory of Elizabeth's experience, where characters who transgress dreamspace are confused with people in Elizabeth's waking reality. Once Sello and Dan emerge as two foci amidst the host of Elizabeth's internal selves, the reader is initiated into altered states of consciousness and so Head's audacious opening attains its objective. Nonetheless, Sello the soul-seeker, tempted with sacred hierarchical power and private sexual passion, is indistinguishable at times from Dan's blind and beautiful potency. Both are also Elizabeth herself, and they all inhabit Elizabeth's mind. Through the lunacy these figures provoke in dream reality, Elizabeth almost loses her life, but, with the help of her son and friends like Tom and Kenosi, she survives the purification ritual by keeping a tenacious grip on the idea, central to the novel, that “love isn't like that. Love is two people mutually feeding each other” (14). Lying parallel to the dream realms, Motabeng's physical environment acts as an emotional stop-gap for Elizabeth, for although the villagers resist foreign intervention, their communal temper fosters the cooperative movements she is seeking. The garden work, in counterpoint to the dissonance of dreamtime, stabilizes Elizabeth with its slow, progressive rhythms. When time and place harmonize, life in the garden re-asserts its ordinary and magical pulse.

The confusion between dream and waking reality tends to mask Head's ability to intermesh ideas and imagery from a wide variety of religious movements. Elements in each dream sequence are derived from real-life sources, whether this be Head's outline of Elizabeth's background and present environment, or history. First and foremost is the blueprint of her mother's insanity, which is determined by, and metaphorically reproduces, apartheid's lack of balance. In turn, the novel attributes apartheid's hierarchical system to the imposition of colonial and Christian values on African egalitarianism that caused man to be separated from man, and from God. At another level, Sello and Dan are village headmen—one known for his goodness, the other for his wealth—and, yet, both surrender to the unstable dreamspace. Therein, Sello changes from humble priest to masculine Elizabeth who disappears into Father Time. Something of him returns as the Hindu/Buddha apparition, is eclipsed by David and Goliath, and is then feminized and passed out as the monstrous mother. Characters are disjunctive sequences, criss-crossing biblical episodes, Asian philosophies, Greek mythology, sexuality, and politics to tell the mad story of power as the elemental cause of the human evil.

Linda Beard observes that dream, as the novel's subject, allows Head to absorb and weave limitless ideas with “paradox ad infinitum” (580). For example, the ethnic fusion of Elizabeth's birth at once gives her the right to inclusiveness and the blank space of her personal history. These two perspectives intertwine and emerge, on one level of the narrative, to authenticate the figures of the dreamscape as Elizabeth's ancestors who hand down the sacred knowledge to their protege, so that she can re-dream the communal past. Like Salman Rushdie's Saleem, Elizabeth contains multiple histories, diverse holy laws, and a bounty of alternative epistemologies, and the sum of this chaos determines, in part, the final simplicity of her vision. Another complicating factor, albeit muted in the novel's psychological texture, is Head's ambivalent feelings towards witchcraft. Despite her inclinations to dismiss sorcery, primarily vested in the chiefs and rulers, as a “force that had its source in a power structure that needed an absolute control over the people,” she afflicts Mma-Mabele in “Witchcraft” with “the things that dwelt in the dark side of life” and only explains her recovery by Mma-Mabele's ambiguous retort to the villagers: “There is no one to help the people, not even God. I could not sit down because I am too poor and there is no one else to feed my children” (The Collector of Treasures 47–56). Evil psychic presence is rampant in A Question of Power, forever tormenting Elizabeth bodily, as well as mentally. “Her head explodes into a thousand fragments of fiery darkness” (141) when dreams of Sello murdering a boy coincide with a real-life death in the bush. On another occasion, Dan forecasts her son's death and Shorty becomes ill while, elsewhere, Medusa puts her in the torture chamber where Dan grooves a track—“Dog, filth, the Africans will eat you to death” (127)—in her mind. Further dark mysteries lurk between Medusa and Sello of the brown suit, who throw a thunderbolt through Elizabeth:

She could feel wave after wave of its power spread over her body and pass out through her feet. As the last wave died down, she simply shot up into the air. There was a quick movement from the indistinct form who forever sat in the chair beside her bed. He caught hold of her in midair and began stuffing her back into something that felt like a heavy dead sack.


So, while Elizabeth's illness is treated as mental derangement on which Head projects histories and quests, God can be Satan and witchcraft can heal. This is exemplified by Dan who, though more straightforward as a dream-self, is still entangled in the webs of paradox. Elizabeth needs the depth of his evil because he “was one of the greatest teachers she'd worked with, … he taught the extremes of love through the extremes of hate” (202). Perhaps Head retains respect for witchcraft's inexplicability or, from firsthand experience in the hellish dimensions, she knows that the dark monstrosities are in us, as are the gods? Whatever the explanation, witchcraft provides Head with striking imagery of leering penises and huge vaginas and a constant uneasiness about something within or beyond us which may be out of our control.

Most importantly, A Question of Power reveals the magnitudes of the “self” and the process by which life's evil aspects are purified in psychic domains. Madness had distorted the boundaries between the different realities, but Elizabeth re-asserts a wholesome ease of passage between internal and external perspectives which is analogous to her description of Motabeng's mud hut living “with the trees and insects right indoors, because there was no sharp distinction between the circling walls of a hut and the earth outside” (60). At one with the shoeless god, Elizabeth/Head realizes her birth and returns to her African home and heritage.

She had fallen from the beginning into the warm embrace of the brotherhood of man, because when a people wanted to be ordinary it was just another way of saying man loved man. As she fell asleep, she placed one soft hand over her land. It was a gesture of belonging.


Finally, and borrowing one of Head's most luminous images, in which iconographies of diverse spiritual endeavors assemble, her art is a gift in which “the sun has directly transferred itself … and its light is flying in all directions” (30; emphasis added).

Belonging to the next generation of writers, Tsitsi Dangarembga stands apart from her colleagues in her distance from ancestral contact and writes Nervous Conditions as an initial step in the process of remembering. Like Head, Dangarembga seeks to re-discover identity and mental health through the retrieval of traditional culture, which in this instance is that of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. In an interview with Jane Wilkinson, Dangarembga emphasizes history, myth, and story-telling as the means for her people to reclaim their identity. This process of retrieving lost history is analogous to one aspect of the Australian Aboriginal concept of “dreaming,” where past and present time co-exist and ancestral spirits are near at hand to guide their people on earth. The concept is explained in Kath Walker's short story “Oodgeroo (Paperbark-tree),” in which an old woman searches for the old stories as the means of contacting her lost tribe. Biama, the Good Spirit, guides her to the materials of Aboriginal story- telling—the paperbark-tree and charcoal—and he “put into her mind a new way in which she might find those stories and her tribe” (56). She draws on the paperbark and her pictures tell the stories that transcend the powers of Time. Consequently, she is able to communicate with her lost tribe and discover the roots of her identity. Through her story-telling art, Dangarembga seeks equivalent ends.

Nervous Conditions brings change and its complex ramifications to a family group who operate from both sides of the literacy divide and at different removes from their cultural inheritance. Through the eyes of her narrator, Tambudzai, Dangarembga balances poverty, indigenous culture, and practicality against wealth, cultural illiteracy, and mental instability, for the most part by concentrating on the relationship between the two cousins, Tambudzai and Nyasha. Tambu's family, though poor, maintains a direct link with traditional subsistence farming and customs, which provides the solid ground on which Tambu makes clear, practical decisions about her feminine rebellion. Essentially, the rebellion entails her desire for the same education that is made available to her brother. Until her time arrives, Tambu works with her grandmother in the fields and absorbs her family's language and history. Although Tambu is unable to recognize it at the time, this foundation in cultural practice proves invaluable. Nyasha, on the other hand, is born into the Europeanized, wealthy, and educated side of the family and suffers, due to childhood years spent in England, from the loss of indigenous language, history, and, consequently, personal identity. Alongside Tambu's successful negotiations to achieve academic merit, Nyasha's lively intellect slides into a mental abyss where she regurgitates the wrong “self” with the wrong food, which is characteristic of the paradoxical behavior of those afflicted with anorexia nervosa.

Grandmother's history lessons demonstrate one instance of the prolific metaphors of food, its cultivation, preparation, and ingestion, with which Damgarembga permeates the novel. Significantly, through this symbolic overlay, Dangarembga offers a penetrating insight into an idiosyncratic mental illness, which is closely inter-related to both food and identity. Green mealies, cultivated and traded, enable Tambu to return to school and overcome a traditional gender categorization which advocates cooking for girls, because wives cannot “cook books and feed them to [their] husbands” (15). Tambu, however, benefits from both worlds, gaining confidence through her schooling as much as in preparing a fine sadza, which makes her feel “so wholesome and earthy, like home-baked cornbread instead of the insubstantial loaves you buy in the shops” (39). When she joins Nyasha's family at the mission, a contrastive food motif emerges:

That table, its shape and size, had a lot of say about the amount, the calorie content, the complement of vitamins and minerals, the relative proportions of fat, carbohydrate and protein of the food that would be consumed at it.


Scientifically correct and emotionally emasculated, this life-style is not going to deter Tambu, who gains nourishment from the servant's sadza. Nyasha, without staple diets to nourish her mind and body, fills her internal appetite with questions and the rejection of her father's conversion in which the lesser qualities of both cultures are merged. Dangarembga refers ironically to this cultural change and seeds the symptoms of the future derangement in the colourful humor of Tambu's father's speech welcoming Bababukuru from his sojourn abroad: “Our father and benefactor has returned appeased, having devoured English letters with a ferocious appetite! Did you think degrees were indigestible? If so, look at my brother. He has digested them!” (36).

Metaphorically, Tambu achieves her dreams of success through food, while Nyasha's frantic signals in her eating behavior, like her ache to belong, are ignored, until the skeletal girl's swallowing, retching, and cramming of knowledge reach saturation point and tip her mind off balance:

Nyasha was beside herself with fury. She rampaged, shredding her history book between her teeth (“Their history. Fucking liars. Their bloody lies.”), breaking mirrors, her clay pots, anything she could lay her hands on and jabbing the fragments viciously into her flesh. …


Her rage subsides but the lost “self” remains, curled in her mother's lap, like a five year old child. “‘Look what they've done to us,’ she said softly. ‘I'm not one of them but I'm not one of you’” (201). Whereas Head heals Elizabeth's cultural dislocation by amassing human argument on good and evil and creating a new vision of the “self” out of historical diversity, Dangarembga finds a psychiatrist to nurse Nyasha back to health and a narrator in the process of expansion. Through Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga tells the story of her genesis as an author, which is also her discovery of the importance of story-telling for the many Nyashas who have lost their dreaming.

Focusing on the dream content and form of these texts elucidates many perspectives on how people tell stories to voice their own significance and mystery, within the different realms they inhabit. My approach indicates that there remains much to unravel, because just as dreaming challenges the security of waking reality, the dream activity of these texts challenges interpretative closure. Mothers and women dream and pray “never [to] contribute to creating dead worlds, only new worlds” (Head, A Question of Power 100). Their writing evokes dreams as spiritual compensation, historical revenge, and the means of moral transmission. Dreams are the site of healing and spiritual vision, while other stories dream through the unmarked spaces of time to restore cultural identity. Each writer engages the inexplicable as both treasure and persecution in disturbing texts where humanity prevails.


  1. Craig MacKenzie, in “Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures: Modern Story-telling in a Traditional Botswanan Village,” observes that Head “straddles two cultures, and her work draws upon two traditions” due to her life history as a “coloured.” This is effectively the argument that I use for African writers generally.

Brenda F. Berrian (essay date Summer 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1536

SOURCE: “In Memoriam: Flora Nwapa (1931-1993),” in Signs, Vol. 20, No. 4, Summer, 1995, pp. 996-99.

[In the following essay, Berrian provides an overview of Nwapa's career.]

On a Saturday afternoon in early fall of 1993, the phone call came. Flora Nwapa (Nwakuche), the first Nigerian woman to publish a novel in English and to hold ministerial posts in the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, the Ministry of Lands, Survey and Urban Development, and the Ministry of Establishments between 1970 and 1975, had died from pneumonia in a hospital in Enugu, Nigeria, on October 16. After the first stunned moment I immediately recalled the first time that I had met Flora Nwapa. It was in June 1979 in Enugu in eastern Nigeria during my research for the compilation of a book-length bibliography of African women writers and journalists.

On a hot, humid June afternoon a taxi driver deposited me in front of the headquarters of Nwapa's publishing company, the Tana Press Limited, where for the first time I met the gracious and elegantly dressed author. Greeting me with warmth, Nwapa immediately put me at ease, gave me a tour of the facilities, and simultaneously recited how she became inspired to launch her own publishing house, which was primarily devoted to the publication of children's books. During the course of the tour Nwapa showed me manuscripts in progress and gave me back copies of some of her earlier publications, such as Emeka—Driver's Guard (1972) and Mammywater (1979b).

We decided to meet again the next morning to travel on the newly constructed highway to her childhood village of Oguta, the setting for two of her novels, Efuru ([1966] 1987) and Idu ([1970] 1989), where we met her parents, mother-in-law, and family friends and saw the famous Lake Uhamiri, also known as the Lady of the Lake in her fiction. As we walked beside the lake, a soft-spoken Nwapa recalled her initial reasons for infusing the folklore, culture, locale, and the myth of the Lady of the Lake into the plots of her novels. Her recurring themes have been the centrality of children within and outside of marriage; the repercussions of female sterility; the need for female self-actualization; the woman's place in Nigerian society; and the need for female economic independence.

After chatting with her mother, Nwapa decided that we needed to take another trip down memory lane in order to see well-known locales mentioned in American newspapers during the civil war in Nigeria. With a voice tinged with sadness, she spoke haltingly about the hardships, fears, hunger, deaths, and deprivations that had been endured by the Igbo people as well as herself. One memorable moment occurred during our walk along the now overgrown grassy Uli airstrip. Jointly, we could revisualize the nightfall arrival of the planes that had been loaded with food and emergency equipment. Later, we held a moment of silence in respect for the late poet, Christopher Okigbo, when we approached the spot where he had died. Nwapa's stories about the Biafran war resulted in her novel Never Again ([1975] 1992a). She had this to say to me about it in an unpublished interview: “Never Again is about my personal experiences during the war. The book is intended to depict the evils of war and demonstrate that people should not indulge in wars. During the war I encountered many difficulties when I espoused thoughts that differed from the false propaganda. My choice was to think like the majority in order to survive. Personally, I could not swallow everything without asking questions” (Nwapa 1979a).

Upon our return to her home in Enugu, the writer invited me to be her houseguest and organized a dinner party to introduce me to other Nigerian women writers, such as Helen Chukwuma, Nina Mba, and Ifeoma Okoye. Filled with tastily prepared food, the women writers and I laughed and exchanged stories about past and upcoming publications. Each of them gave me a listing of her publications and explained why she had decided to write adult novels, children's literature, poetry, or literary criticism. Our hostess officiated and discussed some of her stories found in the collection This Is Lagos and Other Stories ([1971] 1992c). The dining room rang with laughter when Nwapa and Chukwuma referred to a Nigerian woman journalist's racy, tongue-in-cheek stories about male-female relationships.

The second time I saw Flora Nwapa was during the 1980 African Literature Association (ALA) conference held at the Claremont Colleges, Claremont, California. Before this second meeting we had exchanged letters and now greeted each other like long-lost friends. In the company of another Nigerian woman writer, Buchi Emecheta, Nwapa was interviewed by Lee Nichols ([1980] 1991) for Voice of America and was eager to meet other ALA members. She spoke about her forthcoming novel, One Is Enough ([1981] 1992b), and her children's books, The Miracle Kittens (1980), My Tana Colouring Book (1981b), and My Animal Number Book (1981a). Afterward, other meetings took place at her apartment in London and the Pittsburgh International Airport.

Winner of many awards for her literary achievements, Nwapa was named Officer of the Niger (OON) by the Federal Government of Nigeria in 1982 and received from the University of Ife its Merit Award for Authorship and Publishing in 1985. She also served as president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (1989) and was both a member of PEN International (1991) and the Commonwealth Writers Awards Committee (1992).

It was her uncle who introduced Nwapa to the world of books, especially those written by George Bernard Shaw. While teaching English and geography at Queen's School in Enugu during the early 1960s, she began to write Efuru, which she mailed to Chinua Achebe. Impressed with the manuscript, Achebe sent Nwapa one guinea to post it to Heinemann in London. Four years later the novel was published. In a July 1977 African Woman interview, Nwapa described her main character as “a dignified woman who suffered silence, who was good and gentle and understanding, but was badly rewarded by fate” (Uwechue 1977, 9).

The fate of Nigerian women preoccupied Nwapa. In her role as an African woman writer, she maintained independent ideas on many issues that affected women. In This Is Lagos and Other Stories, for example, there is the urban woman who wants to decide her destiny; the woman who is torn between the ties of the past and the needs imposed by daily living in the city; the woman who is desperate to bear a child at any cost; and the woman who is considered to be her husband's property. In One Is Enough, the heroine, Amaka, decides that she wants to be economically independent in order to raise her twin sons without the benefit of marriage. In Wives at War, and Other Stories ([1980] 1992d), the major adjustments that women had to make during the civil war are exposed.

What surfaces in Nwapa's fiction is a Nigerian woman whose basic roles include being a daughter, a wife, a friend, a daughter-in-law, and especially a mother. The theme of motherhood is dominant and the thought of a woman enduring a childless state is unbearable. Nwapa's Igbo heroines pull from both the traditional and Western cultures and create a new world in which social values, attitudes, and their contradictions can be evaluated from various angles.

During the first half of the twentieth century Nigerian women were primarily raised to be wives and mothers. Some parents sent their female children to elementary and secondary school. These parents knew that a secondary education would bring a larger bride price. However, before Nigeria's independence in 1960, the percentage of female children who pursued a university degree was minimal. Nwapa was fortunate that she came from a middle-class family who saw the value of educating a female child. A famous African proverb is, “When you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” Nevertheless, there was a male bias against women who entered the male-dominated publishing world. She was spared the societal backlash because the path for her entry into publishing was paved by the internationally renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who was the editor of the African Writers series for Heinemann.

It is unfortunate that the majority of the contemporary critical response to Flora Nwapa's fiction is done in a comparative vein. It is almost impossible to find a critical essay that is devoted exclusively to her novels. Certainly, other African women writers are indebted to Flora Nwapa for having opened the door to the possibility of becoming professional writers. This is her legacy, as is her laughter—a memory that I will always cherish.


Nichols, Lee. (1980) 1991. “Interview for the VOA with Flora Nwapa.” ALA Bulletin 17(3):8–9.

Nwapa, Flora. 1972. Emeka—Driver's Guard. London: University of London Press.

———1979a. Interview by Brenda F. Berrian. Enugu, Nigeria, June 17.

———1979b. Mammywater. Enugu: F. Nwapa.

———1980. The Miracle Kittens. Enugu: Tana Press.

———1981a. My Animal Number Book. Enugu: Tana Press.

———1981b. My Tana Colouring Book. Enugu: Tana Press.

———(1966) 1987. Efuru. London: Heinemann.

———(1970) 1989. Idu. London: Heinemann Educational.

———(1975) 1992a. Never Again. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press.

———(1981) 1992b. One Is Enough. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press.

———(1971) 1992c. This Is Lagos and Other Stories. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press.

———(1980) 1992d. Wives at War, and Other Stories. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press.

Uwechue, Austua. 1977. “Flora Nwakuche, nee Nwapa, a Former Cabinet Minister and One of Africa's Leading Writers, Talks to Austua Uwechue.” Africa Woman 10:8–10.

Obioma Nnaemeka (essay date Summer 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18311

SOURCE: “Feminism, Rebellious Women, and Cultural Boundaries: Rereading Flora Nwapa and Her Compatriots,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 80-113.

[In the following essay, Nnaemeka asserts the danger of letting feminist politics distort criticism of African literature, by delineating examples of how the work of Nwapa and several of her contemporaries has been misread by feminist critics.]

In a very important essay titled “The Nature of Things: Arrested Decolonization and Critical Theory,” Biodun Jeyifo effectively highlights and responds to some of the pertinent issues in the debates among critics of African literature in the past few decades concerning the interpretation of African literature. I totally agree with Jeyifo that discourse as epistemic behavior is sustained by the unequal power relations between the two camps (Foreign “Africanists” and Local “Nationalists”) where “‘Africanists’ have come to hold sway over the discipline in an especially problematic manner, and their narrowly formulated agenda increasingly dominates perceptions of ‘what is to be done’ at the present in the field. This agenda consists primarily of winning respectability and legitimacy for the discipline of African literary study in the developed countries” (44; emphasis in the original). While recognizing the wonderful contributions of “Africanists” to the study of African literature, we must not leave unscrutinized the “critical” packaging of African literature that has won or will win this “respectability and legitimacy.” If African literature has to win anything, it has to win it on its own terms. Furthermore, the ideological preferences of Jeyifo's essay need reexamination and further elaboration: “In the deafening silence of the connection between demands for critical fidelity or rigorous analytical technics and the positions of entrenched power or privilege (or lack of them) from which any scholar or critic evaluates or theorizes, only feminist critics, and to a lesser extent, Marxists, have systematically drawn attention to the political grounding or situatedness of critical discourse” (45; emphasis in the original). Again, while I agree with Jeyifo that feminist critics have “drawn attention to the political grounding of critical discourse,” we must not leave unexamined the ways in which feminist politics is implicated in “the positions of entrenched power and privilege.” It is against this politics that my paper speaks by documenting, in part, my deep concerns about the blatant distortions of the works of African women writers by feminist critics in the name of “feminist criticism.”

Hazel Carby's article, “White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood,” examines the way in which feminist revisionist herstory has reconstituted itself by appropriating the power and privilege of historiography in order to marginalize black women in their absences and misrepresent them in their presences. In my view, it is precisely the incorporation of feminism into world systems of power and privilege that undermines or negates the “attention to the political grounding of critical discourse” that Jeyifo mentions (see above). As I read some of the feminist analyses of African literature that are, unfortunately, proliferating faster than a harmattan fire, I cannot help but ask, “What's feminism got to do with it?” The real danger in these analyses that tell us more about spurious or genuine feminist theory and less about the literary works in question is their claim to authority and legitimacy; shrouded in the mystification of intellectual authority, they arrest the proliferation of meanings and foreclose serious dialogue and engagements with the texts. The diverse and complex issues raised in the works are herded together, renamed, misnamed, and placed in the lap of feminism. In my view, there is an urgent need to rename this original renaming in order to expose and rectify the misnaming—the misnaming that, I believe, is due to laziness (the laziness to discover and know) and arrogance (the arrogance to claim authority over issues with which one is not familiar). So long as feminist critics of African literature insist on substituting highfalutin feminist verbiage for serious engagements with the cultural and material conditions that prevail in African literary texts, they will continue to produce irrelevancies and misrepresentations. Feminist theory and literary criticism should not be constituted into a wrecking ball with which to demolish and do violence to or initiate the demise of African literary texts; rather, it should be fashioned as the key or map with which to unlock or decipher meanings in their multiplicity and paradoxes; it should be put in the service of cultural productions by increasing our understanding of them. While rejecting the spurious dichotomy of the insider that brings cultural understanding and the outsider that brings the theoretical expertise to critical analysis, I argue that a serious feminist critic, or any critic for that matter, of African literature must be an “inoutsider” who pays equal attention to cultural contexts and critical theory.

I wish to state clearly that my concern is less with feminist theory and scholarship and more with their misuse and abuse. As far as I am concerned, feminist scholarship remains one of the most powerful critical and analytical tools with immense possibilities for fostering intellectual maturity and social change. Feminist scholarship has effectively challenged and equipped me to subject disciplinary assumptions, analyses, postulates, and conclusions which inform my work to strict and sustained scrutiny. More importantly, by virtue of my exposure to feminist scholarship, I have acquired the tools to engage feminism itself, particularly as it relates to my studies of African women and African literatures. Such engagements have made me see the need to redeem the creative works of African women writers from some of the distorted interpretations that emanate from the uncritical and indiscriminate impositions of culturally- specific Western feminist constructs on texts that speak to different cultural contexts and realities. I am aware that Western feminism as a tool of imperialism is aligned with Western ideologies and analytical categories that are embedded in fashionable discourses from Marxism and structuralism to deconstruction and postmodernism. I must also point out that the men-bashing and cultural imperialism and intolerance that pervade much of the so-called feminist criticism of African literature has more to do with individual idiosyncrasies and posturing than feminist theory. Feminist critical theory is a formal, legitimate, analytical tool that must be learned. Those who wish to practice it must be well informed if the integrity, validity, and legitimacy of feminist scholarship are to be maintained. My interrogation, in this instance, of the existing applications of feminist scholarship to African literary texts does not in any way mitigate my strong belief in the possibilities and potentials of feminist scholarship. My paper speaks on behalf of African literature and feminist scholarship.

A debate on feminism that occurred in Africa a few years ago illustrates some of the issues I wish to address in this essay. At the first international conference on “Women in Africa and the African Diaspora: Bridges Across Activism and the Academy” held in Nsukka, Nigeria, 13–18 July 1992, the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo presented a most stimulating keynote address titled “The African Woman Today.” During the question and answer session that immediately followed, the first question sparked an intense debate over an issue that was, at best, peripheral to Aidoo's address—feminism. The following are excerpts from a transcript of the videotaped recording:

Clenora Hudson-Weems (U.S.A.): Obviously, there is a reason for the controversy around the whole concept of feminism. … I think that the problem is that we women have begun to debate and deal with the ramifications and dynamics of the terminology “feminism.” You [Ama Ata Aidoo] made the statement that long before the advent of feminism, that your mother and grandmother were feminists. That's where I disagree. I think that to talk of the terminology, feminism, we have to deal with the inception of the term itself and what its original design was. Who designed it and what were the needs of the women who designed it? It was a term created, designed and defined by white women. … It was exclusionary. Black women were not accepted; they were not invited to be a part of it. … Therefore my whole thesis is that we have to create a more feasible, workable terminology, because when you buy the terminology, you necessarily buy the agenda. Long before the advent of feminism, black women were active. Therefore, when I think of strong black women from Africa, from the total diaspora, I never think of them as feminists, because I know what feminism means to me, I know that it means “get back.”

Rose Acholonu (Nigeria): I'm sure that even Flora Nwapa … in an interview in a newspaper … denies that she is a feminist. Still we know that most of her works are feminist oriented because they project womanhood in a positive sense.

Miss Gawanas (Namibia): In my country, substance is more important than whatever concept you use.

Flora Nwapa (Nigeria): I wasn't here when Rose made her comment. But I want to say something about feminism. Years back, when I go on my tours to America and Europe, I'm usually asked, “Are you a feminist?” I deny that I am a feminist. Please I am not a feminist, oh, please. But they say, all your works, everything is about feminism. And I say, “No, I am not a feminist.” Buchi Emecheta is another one that said; “I am a feminist with a small ‘f’” (whatever Buchi means). Having heard Obioma on Monday, having heard Ama today, I think that I will go all out and say that I am a feminist with a big ‘f’ because Obioma1 said on Monday that feminism is about possibilities; there are possibilities, there are choices. Let us not be afraid to say that we are feminists. We need one another, we really need one another. Globally, we need one another.

Kathleen Geathers (U.S.A.): I am very disturbed. We sat here and we listened to a very profound speech from someone who is very capable of delivery. What do we pick on? We pick on the terms, on semantics. She talked about education, she talked about the need for employment, she talked about a lot of basic things. And we talk about feminism, which we can not all agree on. Feminism, as far as I know, and I have always called myself a feminist, varies from person to person. And I don't know if we will ever get to an agreement. But look, don't overlook the basic, the profound things that Ama talked about. Let us take something home besides the debate on feminism. Thank you.

This debate is important not only because of Flora Nwapa's intervention but also because of its relevance to the relationship I wish to establish between feminism and the interpretation of African women's lives. Clenora Hudson-Weems, an advocate of what she calls “Africana womanism,” made her valid points forcefully and eloquently. However, while this war of terminology raged between the feminists, the womanists, and the Africana womanists, the majority of the hundreds of African women who were present maintained a respectable distance from it all. The bewildered and disinterested look on their faces seemed to plead, “Let's just be human beings and move ahead!” Furthermore, while our Western feminist and womanist participants complained about the presence of too many male (mostly African) participants, the African women demanded that the conference agenda include a serious debate on hierarchies among women and the woman-on-woman violence and abuses that result from these inequalities. Talk of clash of priorities! Apart from one brief comment that she was able to throw in, the keynote speaker, Ama Ata Aidoo, and her important address were effectively eclipsed by this querelle des femmes over feminism in Igboland. In effect, Aidoo's message was renamed and misnamed, and in the process the messenger and those whose message she was carrying were effectively silenced. We needed the wisdom of Kathleen Geathers to expose our arrogance and bring to an end our foolishness. The fate of Aidoo's speech is emblematic of the fate of works written by her and other African women as they end up, in spite of themselves, in the hands of feminist critics. The myriad of important issues that these texts raise are eclipsed in feminist debates that sometimes have little or nothing to do with the texts.

The incident in Nigeria is just one in a series of conference wars where important issues related to African women are hijacked, renamed, and “undiscussed” by feminists. Kirsten Petersen reports a similar incident in the Fall of 1981 in Mainz (First 35). Apart from noting the silencing of African women on issues that concern them, Petersen's conclusion fails to mention that feminism (Western feminism) is part and parcel of Western cultural imperialism! In that regard, the fight for “female equality” assumes a different meaning for African women—it is also the fight of equality among women! It is the unequal power relations prevalent in such meetings that makes the renaming, misnaming, and silencing possible. To return to the debate in Nsukka, Nwapa claimed that when in America and Europe, she rejected the label “feminist” but after listening to Ama and Obioma in Nsukka, she identified herself as a feminist with a big “f.” It is interesting to note the reappearance of Nwapa's disclaimer a few months later in 1993 during an interview with Marie Umeh in Scarsdale, New York:

Umeh: The critic Katherine Frank, in an article entitled “Women Without Men: The Feminist Novel in Africa,” describes you as a radical feminist. What is your opinion of this assessment?

Nwapa: I don't think that I'm a radical feminist. I don't even accept that I'm a feminist. I accept that I'm an ordinary woman who is writing about what she knows. I try to project the image of women positively.

Many, including Rose Acholonu at the Nsukka conference, have taken Flora Nwapa to task regarding this “apparent” inconsistency vis-à-vis her “feminist identity.” In fact, I do not see any inconsistency in Nwapa's position. What has been inconsistent is the way questions of “feminist identity” have been framed and posed; what is inconsistent is the location (physical and ideological) from where she is hounded for an answer. She stated clearly that she was “an ordinary woman who is writing about what she knows.” If the way we frame feminism corresponds to “what she knows,” she would definitely claim feminism; if our definition of feminism is out of step with “what she knows,” she would, of course, deny it. The radical feminist label is Katherine Frank's idea and Nwapa did not have to claim it simply because Katherine Frank said so. The problem with much of the so-called feminist analysis of Nwapa's works is that it is out of step with “what she knows.” In the interview with Marie Umeh, Nwapa had this advice for women who wish to write: “I would advise them to read and listen.” I might add that the same advice goes to the “all-knowing, all-talking, and never-listening” feminist critic of African literature. As far as Nwapa's works are concerned, the feminist critic should pay less attention to Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and écriture féminine and listen more to the rhythm and heartbeat of Igboland. Chinua Achebe is right in identifying the unequal power relations between the West and Africa, between the strong and the weak, as what produces the deaf and speaking subject:

Look at Africa as a continent of people. … And listen to them. We have done a lot of listening ourselves. This is the situation where you have a strong person and a weak person. The weak person does all the listening, and up to a point the strong person even forgets that the weak person may have something to say. Because he is there, a kind of fixture, you simply talk to him. A British governor of Southern Rhodesia once said the partnership between the whites and the blacks is the partnership of the horse and its rider. He wasn't trying to be funny, he seriously thought so. Now, that's what we want the West to get rid of—thinking of Africa as the horse rather than as the man. … Seeing the world from the position of the weak person is a great education. … So it is important that we develop the ability to listen to the weak. Not only in Africa, but even in your own society, the strong must listen to the weak.

(Moyers 343–44)


[The] privileged language that approaches us from without … is distanced, taboo, and permits no play with its framing context. It has great power over us, but only while in power; if ever dethroned, it immediately becomes a dead thing, a relic.

Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (424)

What art makes us see, and therefore gives us in the form of ‘seeing,’ ‘perceiving,’ and ‘feeling’ … is the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes.

Louis Althussser, “A Letter on Art in Reply to André Daspre” (222)

In the past few decades, there have been debates, sometimes intense and confrontational, on whether the insider (the African critic) or the outsider (the Foreign/Western critic) is better equipped to interpret African literary texts. Unfortunately, these debates have usually centered around questionable dichotomies that are based on assumptions about the nature and value of what the insider or outsider brings to an analysis—the insider brings cultural “information/native sense” while the outsider brings literary “knowledge.” Sometimes, insiders dismiss the outsiders' literary theories as irrelevant to a meaningful analysis of African literature. Often, the outsider sees the insider as an “informant” who brings the information with which knowledge is constructed, and not as a knowledge builder who is capable of producing and transforming knowledge. The French anthropologist Marcel Griaule had a humbling experience when he journeyed to the land of the Dogons in the 1920s.2

In his award-winning essay entitled “Why I Am Proud to Be a Nigerian,” sixteen-year-old Ikedigbo Nnaemeka notes: “[Nigeria] is the world's eighth largest oil-producing country, and possesses substantial reserves of tin, coal, iron ore and columbite. … How do I know this information to be correct? Most likely because I took it from an encyclopedia; but it also helps to be a Nigerian.” Nnaemeka's identification of research as a source of knowledge and the caveat that follows suggest differences in epistemic situatedness. Furthermore, the concluding sentence of Nnaemeka's essay implies that to bea Nigerian means not only birthright and geographical location but also genealogy and history: “But for me, one thing is certain about being a Nigerian: the hot blood of my ancestors still courses through my veins.” Nnaemeka's essay calls into question the insider/outsider dichotomy in knowledge production by implying that both knowledges are complementary and useful, and more importantly, can derive simultaneously from the same source. In my view, the difference between the two types of knowledge alluded to by Nnaemeka is similar to that between to be a Nigerian (to be born a Nigerian) and to become a Nigerian (not to naturalize in the legal sense of the word but to be part of Nigeria by studying and knowing it).3 In the absence of better words, I will call both knowledges birthright (to be) and empirical right (to become) respectively. In my view, a combination of birthright and empirical right or empirical right alone provides different degrees of the cognitive right to unlock cultural productions, such as African literary texts. This formula implies that while the insider can lay claim to both the birthright and empirical right, the outsider has only the empirical right available to him or her. In a way, these rights are also privileges that can be lost due to aberrant behaviors emanating from conscious or unconscious alienation. An insider can lose the birthright and in severe cases of alienation lose the empirical right as well—culturally, this is the Nigerian, Kenyan, Ghanaian, or what have you, who does not know and does not want to know. The West has always cherished and honored the embodiment of such severe cases of loss, alienation, and confusion—Africans who are well-groomed by Western universities in the magic of Western thought but who have deliberately refused to register in the university of the African village. Equally, the arrogant outsider can lose the empirical right and slumber in ignorance. Nnaemeka's essay sheds some light on what can be done to remedy these situations of loss and disconnectedness. The opening and final statement in the essay, “ … the hot blood of my ancestors still courses through my veins” (emphasis added), suggests the following: active, current, new, refreshing, renewal, (re)energize, relevant, crucial, life wire. The blood has to be there for Nnaemeka to be and the blood has to be hot for Nnaemeka to be in his becoming. Nnaemeka will survive because he knows and wants to know; his renaissance is a perpetual one. It is important that the insider as well as the outsider retool themselves, and how well they accomplish this constant renewal will determine how well they are able to decipher appropriately cultural productions.

I have noted elsewhere (“Bringing …” 306) that it is possible for outsiders to teach as inside outsiders (“inoutsiders”) but it requires a lot of hard work and a high dose of humility. The danger is that often, outsiders, who not only lay claim to but strive to monopolize the entire field, enthrone the so-called outsider knowledge (theory) as the master key that opens all doors. This explains why insiders are often referred to outsiders who are thought to hold the “theoretical” key that will unlock Africa's secrets. Free speech becomes meaningful when it is heard, but unequal power relations determine who is heard and what is heard. Not too long ago, an African (Igboman) and one of the best critics of African literature, Chimalum Nwankwo, was asked to contribute a paper to a volume on an Igbo writer. The paper was returned with recommendations for revision from the editors, one of whom is an Igbowoman. Nwankwo fired back an angry letter that read in part:

I recall that when you invited me to contribute to this worthy project you wanted specifically an Igbo perspective. That is precisely what I produced. In the context of the political turmoil back home, which consumes all my sober moments today, I find it annoying to be referred to Florence Stratton and Susan Andrade. Have those characters been made Obi or Lolo or Egwugwu or Muo in Anambra, Imo, Anioma or some other cultural precincts of Igbo country that I am unaware of? It sounds like … our legendary kleptocrats, referring me to the IMF and World Bank (both well-meaning benefactors!) for answers to Chimalum's peripatetic headaches. I will, therefore, regard that suggestion as an ill-conceived aside, as I do the questions on the margins of my paper. My African reflections have referential respect for only those who have experienced Africa, and disdain for those who renege the responsibility of cautiously pruning and grooming Africa's way. (emphasis in the original)

These are really “progressive” times when an Igbowoman sends an Igboman off to India, Europe, and North America to consult the “natives” of these places for an Igbo perspective on an Igbo novel! The race for theory is so pervasive that Africans themselves are having difficulty locating cultural maps. The editor's recommendation in the insider/insider confrontation described above (Nwankwo vs. Editor) shows a severe case of insider incorporation in the theory (whose theory?) valorization and legitimation that is most often practiced by outsiders to lock out insiders and feel more comfortable in their cultural illiteracy. In the outsider/insider debate, the information produced by the “native informant”/insider becomes legitimate when it validates and affirms the outsider's knowledge and power. The African critic's situation resonates in Trinh Minh-Ha's analysis of the non-white filmmaker's situation:

Through audience's responses and expectations of their works, non-white filmmakers are often informed and reminded of the territorial boundaries in which they are to remain. An insider can speak with authority about her own culture, and she's referred to as the source of authority in this matter not as a filmmaker necessarily, but as an insider, merely. The automatic and arbitrary endowment of an insider with legitimized knowledge about her cultural heritage and environment only exerts its power when it's a question of validating power. It is a paradoxical twist of the colonial mind. What the outsider expects from the insider is, in fact, a projection of an all-knowing subject that this outsider usually attributes to himself and to his own kind. In this unacknowledged self/other relation, however, the other would always remain the shadow of the self. Hence not really, not quite all knowing.


As Ikedigbo Nnaemeka's essay suggests, the insider/outsider dichotomy should be complementary and mutually enriching. The outsider needs the keen eye of the insider to decipher the nuanced margins of African literature in order not to fall into the trap of creating African history and anthropology out of African novels. Like all literary texts, African literary texts evolve from specific environments to which they allude. The common practice of reading African literally works as mimesis of African “reality” creates problems not only in terms of the way we interpret the works but also how we use them. I have noted elsewhere (“Bringing …” 310–11) the ways in which this assumption determines the use of African literary texts in Western universities in courses on Africa ranging from history and political science to anthropology and sociology. Creative works, as recreations of reality, have their own reality that is not strictly identical to sociological or anthropological “truth.” It is in this regard that I consider as ill-conceived Florence Stratton's comparison of Ifi Amadiume's Male Daughters, Female Husbands and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart in her recently published book entitled Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender. Apart from the disciplinary problems such a comparison poses, it raises questions about temporal specificity; reading African novels as what happens in Africa today is problematic. Amadiume's work on Nnobi society is an anthropological research on real people that was carried out in the 1980s; Achebe's work is about a fictional community in Igboland during the colonial period. Stratton is not alone in this. In Nancy Topping Bazin's article titled “Weight of Custom, Signs of Change: Feminism in the Literature of African Women,” Emecheta's novel The Bride Price is catapulted to a treatise on and a sociology of Africa as well as an indictment of Africa and its sexist, oppressive customs. Bazin's paper repackages what transpires in the novel as the “truth” not only of Ibuza customs but also that of “numerous indigenous African customs and superstitions [that] oppress and degrade the female”:

In The Bride Price, Emecheta shows how numerous indigenous African customs oppress and degrade the female. People adhere to the belief that a female is worthless to a family except for the bride price she will bring to it (p. 10). Custom insists on the dissolution of a family when a father dies, because a family is simply not a family without the male in it. This belief enhances the male privilege, for the mother is inherited by her husband's brother without any regard for how his wife or wives may feel about that. Furthermore, the daughter may be dispensed with by making her a servant in a relative's home. Custom dictates that the uncle's family should marry off Aku-nna to get enough money to pay her brother Nna-nndo's school fees (p. 38). Custom tells Aku-nna she is “unclean” when menstruating; in that condition, she will pollute a stream or, if she enters certain households, she will cause the head of the family to die (p. 93). Custom allows boys to play at squeezing a girl's breasts until they hurt … so long as it was done inside the hut where an adult was near” (p. 97). Custom lets an Ibuza boy make a girl his by sneaking up and cutting her hair.


Such an ascription of a mimetic function to African literary texts led Marie Umeh to conclude that “The Joys of Motherhood is a study of the victimization and enslavement of traditional Igbo women to the dictates of traditional Igbo culture” (Comparative 31). In my view, The Joys of Motherhood is not a “study” of Igbo women, and I will certainly not go to any of Emecheta's novels for a “study” of Igbo women, let alone their “victimization” and “enslavement.” In fact, contrary to the prevalent feminist insurgency on behalf of Nnu Ego and all the oppressed mothers of Igboland against the so-called Igbo tradition, I argue that The Joys of Motherhood basically shows different attitudes to motherhood and their consequences—Nnu Ego who sees her children as her life, and Adaku who sees her children as part of her life; Nnu Ego who wants her son to grow up and be somebody for her, and Adaku who wants her daughter to grow up and be somebody for herself; Adaku who stretches out a hand of friendship to men and women, and Nnu Ego who “never really made friends, so busy had she been building up her joys as a mother” (224). Not surprisingly, Adaku survives and Nnu Ego does not. As I will show later, The Joys of Motherhood argues against excess as do other Igbo novels. The lives of these two women show the difference between realism and illusion, between sanity and lunacy. Adaku leaves her marital home with these words to her co-wife, Nnu Ego: “As for my daughters, they will have to take their own chances in the world. I am not prepared to stay here and be turned into a mad woman, just because I have no sons” (169–70). We must not forget that Nnu Ego also contributes to Adaku's unhappiness, feeling of inadequacy, and eventual departure. For Adaku, the straw that broke the camel's back is the unfair way the men settled her dispute with Nnu Ego. Although Nnu Ego is at fault, the men absolve her from blame because she is the mother of sons. Gloating in her status of “senior wife and mother of sons,” she fails to take responsibility for the dispute, jump to Adaku's defence, and absolve her from blame while the men are there. When Nnu Ego apologizes to Adaku after the men's departure, “there [is] a short silence” and Adaku speaks: “They [the men] have told me what you [Nnu Ego] have been trying to tell me since you returned from Ibuza” (i.e., that Adaku is not a mother of sons). The ways in which women uphold patriarchal systems and use them to abuse and oppress other women should be feminist concerns. While critiquing the patriarchal system under which Nnu Ego lives, feminist critics should open up Nnu Ego's “innocence” and “altruism” for strict analysis. Within sexual politics lies feminist politics. On one hand, Adaku leaves because she does not want to “stay and be turned into a madwoman”; she maintains her sanity and survives. On the other hand, Nnu Ego simplemindedly goes in pursuit of illusion, the impossible/the moon (lunacy); she becomes lunatic and dies. Nnu Ego brings to mind the black girl, Pecola, in The Bluest Eye, who becomes lunatic in her pursuit of the impossible, the bluest eye.4 In my view, it is from the perspective of Adaku's survival, not Nnu Ego's demise, that a strong feminist argument could be made; an argument for agency and against victimhood and self-inflicted wounds. The feminist critic's preoccupation with standing Nnu Ego up (or more appropriately, sitting her down) as an indictment of her society beclouds the critic's vision and forecloses a serious engagement with the novel. I am not arguing against the indictment of her society if the novel says so. What I am arguing against is the critic's inability or refusal to use all the elements offered by the novel, thereby undermining its integrity. In view of the fact that different mothers and attitudes to motherhood exist in the so-called “traditional Igbo culture” as they do in Emecheta's novel, I do not understand Bazin's criterion for nominating Nnu Ego “the model mother” (185). Adaku's story should be a relevant piece of information in any serious analysis of motherhood in Emecheta's novel.

Furthermore, we must not forget that The Joys of Motherhood unfolds in Lagos where the real “victimization” and “enslavement” are of a colonial and imperialistic nature; where Nnu Ego loses respect for her husband, Nnaife, who, unlike “real men” in her village, Ibuza, is condemned to cooking for a white woman, washing her underwear, and eventually going off to war to defend her and her country:

“No, he [Nnaife] is not dead. He is alive, only they have forced him to join the army. …” “How can they force a person to join the army?” was Nnu Ego's incredulous question. … Adaku, shocked, began wailing and shouting. “I don't know if death isn't better than this! … There is nothing we can do. The British own us just like God does, and just like God they are free to take any of us when they wish.”


I have yet to read a feminist analysis that presents The Joys of Motherhood as a critique of imperialism. A feminist analysis that refuses to critically evaluate all the factors which create Nnaife's predicament conceals its own complicity in the oppressive system that inaugurates his “victimization” and “enslavement” as well as the eventual breakdown of his family. Instead of addressing the complex issues at stake in Emecheta's novel, most feminist critics fashion a cause célèbre out of Nnu Ego's predicament and concoct a racist image of the irresponsible black man by castigating Nnaife for his inability to provide for his family. I wonder how effectively he could have romanced and supported his wife from a trench in Burma or wherever they sent him to fight a war he and his people did not start. It is also against the politics of feminist silences that my paper speaks.

African literary texts are complex; it is our selective and one-dimensional readings that are superficial. Instead of taking into account the complex, and sometimes conflictive, issues that are apparent in the texts, some feminist critics choose to engage in questionable selectivity, much líke a prosecuting attorney who has already declared the defendant guilty even before the trial begins with the result that any evidence which disproves the defendant's guilt and points to his innocence is effectively suppressed. The perversive selectivity in feminist criticism of African literature renders the criticism suspect, and undermines its validity, authenticity, and legitimacy. For example, in Things Fall Apart, Achebe states several times that Okonkwo is very abrupt and violent with people in general. While feminist critics are silent on Okonkwo's violent behavior towards males, they bring under strict scrutiny his abuse of women. Thus, instead of exposing Okonkwo for what he is, a violent, arrogant, and intolerant man whose aberrant behavior is duly criticized and condemned by his people, feminist critics declare a sex war on behalf of Ojiugo not only against Okonkwo but also against the men of Umuofia and the author of the novel, Chinua Achebe.

Sometimes these feminist critics take themselves too seriously. Who says that reading a novel and talking or writing about it can ignite a revolutionary war in Umuofia or Igboland? Feminist bias shields abusive female characters from thorough scrutiny and reprimand. The illusion of sisterhood that glossed over the complexity of women's lives in the first decade of the second wave of feminism, and was later demystified at great cost and pain, should be a lesson to feminists in their work. As we celebrate the friendship between Aïssatou and Ramatoulaye (in Une si tongue lettre), we must not forget that most of the people Ramatoulaye complains about are women—her sisters-in-law, Binetou, and her greedy mother; Aïssatou's mother-in-law who, in her aristocratic arrogance, breaks up Aïssatou's marriage. In Mariama Bâ's second and last novel, Un chant écarlate, Mireille's thorn in the flesh is not her father-in-law, Djibril Gueye, but her mother-in-law, Yaye Khady: “Oussou marié à cette Blanche, le sommeil la fuyait. … L'amertume l'habitait” (104–05) ‘That her Oussou was married to a white woman, sleep had eluded her, she was filled with bitterness’ (68). In Nwapa's Efuru, it is a woman, Omirima, who wrongly accuses Efuru of adultery, thus precipitating the break-up of her second marriage; the list goes on and on. Throughout most of the literary texts, women slander, backstab, and cause pain to one another. In fact, it is in Achebe's works that we do not encounter pervasive woman-on-woman violence. Feminist critics of African literature have argued that women writers understand women and have, in their literary works, given women the visibility they deserve, while male writers, like Achebe, do not understand women. In a way, I agree with the feminists. If Achebe understood women, he would have infested his novels with slandering, backstabbing, conniving, abusive women! Woman-on-woman violence and abuse should also be a subject of feminist analysis. African women at the 1992 WAAD conference in Nigeria were perceptive and honest enough to demand that the issue of woman-on-woman abuse be included in the conference agenda. As critics, we lose credibility when we critique selectively. Feminist criticism of African literature has chosen to herstoricize African women by putting the so-called “African tradition” on trial. The defendants in many feminist analyses of African literature are African men and sexist “African tradition” that must be eliminated. As I have noted elsewhere (see “Contesting”), if these feminist critics are benevolent enough to seek the opinion of African women in this matter, they (African women) will probably shout with one voice, “Knock down the tradition, save the men!” Adaku in The Joys of Motherhood certainly agrees: “They [men] do have their uses” (171).


We are not opposed to criticism but we are getting a little weary of all the special types of criticism which have been designed for us by people whose knowledge of us is very limited.

Chinua Achebe, “Where Angels Fear to Tread” (61)

I think, for example, of that reviewer writing in a Connecticut paper about A Raisin in the Sun and marveling, in a rush of quite genuine enthusiasm, that the play proved again that there was a quaint loveliness in how our “dusky brethren” can come up with a song and hum their troubles away. It did not seem to disturb him one whit that there is no single allusion to that particular mythical gift in the entire play. He did not need it there; it was in his head.

Lorraine Hansberry, Les Blancs (206–07)

The insider/outsider debate between Ernest Emenyonu and Bernth Lindfors two decades ago was generated by a disagreement over what constituted the correct interpretation of Cyprian Ekwensi's works. Using the story of the blind men and the elephant, Lindfors raised very important issues regarding authenticity and perspective. In my view, authenticity (real/genuine/true) and perspective (choice) are both linked to distance; to have an authentic perspective means, in essence, the ability to maintain an appropriate distance from the object of analysis. To stand too far (as some outsiders do) or too close (as some insiders do) produces varying degrees of distortion. However, as Simone de Beauvoir notes, the real fraud is one that “provides an account of a battle without having seen one” (27)—the blind woman and no elephant! Some feminist critics of African literature are so fixated on issues in feminism, particularly the separatism of radical feminism, that they “see” what is not in the texts and refuse to see what the texts present to them. They remind me of Honor Tracy, the British woman who wrote the infamous review of Things Fall Apart in 1958. According to Achebe, “The burden of the review itself was as follows: These bright Negro barristers (how barristers came into it remains a mystery to me to this day, but I have sometimes woven a fantasy about an earnest white woman and an unscrupulous black barrister) who talk glibly about African culture, how would they like to return to wearing raffia skirts?” (Hopes and Impediments 70).

Many of the arguments made by feminist critics of African literature are rooted in the questionable tradition/modernity dichotomy, which Katherine Frank calls “the paramount question”:

The paramount question that nearly all these novels pose, in fact, is how can this conflict be resolved, how can the contemporary African woman negotiate her way between the claims of tradition and modernization, how, finally, can she be rendered whole again? This question is perhaps articulated most powerfully in Mariama Bâ's So Long A Letter and Flora Nwapa's One is Enough. Both novels involve the painful, faltering, but ultimately successful movement of a woman from a traditional African world to a very different, Westernized urban life. In both cases, the precipitating factor in the “consciousness raising” process of the books' heroines is the brutal imposition of polygamy. Polygamy, of course, is the most glaringly inequitable and sexist feature of traditional African society.


For many of these feminist insurgents, a “traditional” woman is one who is dumb enough to live with a polygamist in a remote village and speak Igbo, Wolof, Twi, Yoruba, or some other African language, while a “modern” woman is one who is able to leave her husband, move to a city, and speak/write French, English, or Spanish. Conclusions are drawn from these dubious categories whose validity is continually subverted by the literary texts themselves. If Western education is the key that unlocks the door to modernity, Ramatoulaye and Aïssatou (So Long A Letter) are both “modern.” Furthermore, in most respects, their lives charted a very similar course; the only difference being, of course, that Aïssatou leaves her husband while Ramatoulaye decides to stay in her marriage. Therefore for feminist critics, it is Aïssatou's ability to leave her husband that catapults her to the status of a “modern” woman (feminist) while Ramatoulaye's decision to stay relegates her to the level of a “traditional” woman (ordinary woman). If the ability to leave one's husband is the gauge by which modernity is measured, African women were “modern” even before colonization “modernized” them. In fact, it is Chinua Achebe who documents the first rebellious wife in African literature. In Things Fall Apart, Ekwefi “ran away from her husband and came to live with Okonkwo” (40). Ekwefi lives in a village, Umuofia, where there is no Ecole Normale d'Umuofia to give her the Western education and modernity that Aïssatou gained at the Ecole Normale de Rufisque. Feminist critics of African literature focus primarily on where rebellious women liberate themselves from, but it is equally, if not more, important to examine the politics of location that determine where they liberate themselves into. Why did Amaka (One Is Enough) move to Lagos? Why did Adaku move out of her marital home and stay in Lagos without going back to Ibuza? Why did Aïssatou move to Washington, D.C.? There is a relationship between decision and location. Women choose locations where their decisions would thrive. If that is the case, we should not, by labelling Ramatoulaye “a traditional woman,” underestimate her decision to stay because to stay means staying in her marriage and staying in Senegal. After a long reflection in which she weighs her options in the context of her situatedness, she arrives at a decision that suits her location. This is not tradition, it is realism; Ramatoulaye is a sensible, realistic, middle-aged Senegalese woman who wants to live in Senegal.

Having made the above general statements regarding the fundamental assumptions of most feminist critics of African literature, I shall focus on the feminist criticism of African literature as embodied in the works of Katherine Frank, Susan Andrade, and Florence Stratton. Katherine Frank's essay, “Women Without Men: The Feminist Novel in Africa”, makes two fundamental claims. First, Frank asserts that “[w]omen writers write first and foremost as women. From this perspective the most fundamental identity we possess is that of gender; all other determinants of self-hood—race, ethnic group, nationality—are imposed upon this primary sexual identity” (28). It sounds like black female newborns get their color “imposed” on them when they get home from the hospital! Frank's prioritization of identities is troubling, particularly in the light of the massive body of writings by women of color in the past decade or so that has compelled feminist scholarship to rethink its limitations and biases. Contrary to Frank's assertions, subjectivity is not well delineated and hierarchized for many women whose multiple identities and resultant multiple oppressions are experienced simultaneously. Furthermore, because these multiple identities/subjectivities shift constantly, thereby defying a fixed hierarchy, it is difficult for black women to determine which identity is acted upon at every given moment. A black woman does not get oppressed in the morning because of her race and summoned back in the evening to be oppressed because of her sex; she is not that lucky. The real danger in Frank's categorization of identities is that it foregrounds sex/gender issues to the detriment of serious engagements with other issues in the literary texts, some of which may even help to increase our understanding of the sex/gender issues.

Secondly, Frank posits that the oppressive situations in which African women find themselves will lead them to rebel against their oppressors (men) and create for themselves a unisex world from where men are banished, giving way to the blossoming of lesbianism: “[It] clearly demonstrates that women and men in contemporary African society are at war with one another, that women cannot hope to vanquish their oppressors in the open combat. Instead, they must cleverly exploit their exploiters and then retreat for their emotional needs to a separatist world of women” (24). Consequently, Frank goes in search of lesbian relationships in African novels. She finds it “obliquely” in Our Sister Killjoy: “Given the historically established and culturally sanctioned sexism of African society, there is no possibility of a compromise, or even truce with the enemy. Instead, women must spurn patriarchy in all its guises and create a safe, sane supportive world of women: a world of mothers and daughters, sisters and friends. This, of course, amounts to feminist separatism, though only obliquely in Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy do we find the logical outcome of this ideology: lesbianism” (15). Not satisfied with one discovery of lesbianism, Frank continued her search in So Long A Letter and before long, she concluded that Ramatoulaye's letter to Aïssatou is a “love letter.” Frank came to her conclusion because “[a]s Ramatoulaye says, ‘the essential thing is the content of our hearts which animates us; the essential thing is the quality of the sap that flows through us. You have often proved to me the superiority of friendship over love.’ In a sense then, Ramatoulaye's ‘so long a letter’ is a love letter to her dearest friend” (18). Troubled by Frank's reading, I consulted the original French text to find out exactly what Mariama Bâ wrote: “L'essentiel, c'est le contenu de nos coeurs qui nous anime; l'essentiel est la qualité de la sève qui nous innonde. Tu m'as souvent prouvé la supériorité de l'amitié sur l'amour” (104). What this passage basically means is that “what is important is the quality and intensity of what we feel in our hearts for each other. You have always shown me that friendship is superior to love.” Most probably, Frank arrived at her conclusion by taking literally Modupé Bodé-Thomas's translation of “la qualité de la sève qui nous innonde” as “the quality of the sap that flows through us”; consequently she concocts an explanation for this sap flowing through the two women. Granted that Modupé Bodé-Thomas's sometimes clumsy mot-à-mot translation of So Long a Letter, which I must admit undermines the poetry and lyricism of this superb text, creates some ambiguity, I would not have conceivably arrived at Frank's “love letter” conclusion, not when the paragraph specifically mentions “the superiority of friendship over love.” Frank's interpretation of the relationship between Ramatoulaye and Aïssatou continues a long tradition of feminist fascination with and misinterpretation of woman-to-woman bonding and relationship in Africa; sometimes guessing, sometimes stating categorically that such relationships are lesbian (Lorde 50, 121). What Bâ's novel glaringly shows is that two African women from Senegal can love each other without being lovers. My interest here is not whether African women are or are not lesbians or whether they should or should not be lesbians; as far as I am concerned they can be whatever they want to be. My concern is that critics must work with what is in the text and not impose on it the script in their heads. A literary critic should work with the text, not against it. Ama Ata Aidoo never fails to point us to where the meanings are: “Taiwo forgets—along with so many other critics—that we shall continue to learn nothing until we all begin to recognize what must be a fundamental hypothesis in the science that should be literary criticism: that any writer can be judged only on what he (or she) wrote, and against the background of what is perceived to have been his or her intentions. There are, and indeed there should be other considerations: but they can only be secondary to this” (168; emphasis in the original).

Finally, consider Frank's “compelling” argument to support the position that the access to Western education and literacy, particularly writing, has given African women the key to selfhood: “Ramatoulaye herself had finally emerged from the shadows. She closes her long letter with her name badly written, which up until now the reader has not even known. The name represents the attainment at long last of Ramatoulaye's hard-earned struggle for an independent identity. Her signature is her assertion of selfhood” (20). My poor grandmother is in big trouble; she will be condemned to “non- selfhood” because she still thumbprints and in all likelihood will be thumbprinting her way to the pearly gates! First of all, I checked my copies of Bâ's book (the original and the translation) and did not see the name “badly spelt.” Secondly, and more importantly, I would not expect Ramatoulaye to write her name in the body of her letter to someone until she gets to the end and signs her name. So Long a Letter is an apt title to a 131-page letter written by Ramatoulaye that goes uninterpreted from the first page to the last page of the book where it ends with the writer's name. Like Ramatoulaye, I was taught by colonial education to look at the end of a letter for the name of the writer. Therefore, I, as “the reader,” am not at all surprised that I only got to know her name when “she closes her long letter with her name,” particularly in view of the fact that no letters addressed to Ramatoulaye were ever read and there was no way I could have known her name. Frank's suggestion that Ramatoulaye gains “independent identity” and “selfhood” through writing (symbol of Western education, modernization, and progress) is déjà-vu and needs no further elaboration. Frank ends her paper by reminding African women and their fledgling writers that they have succeeded in manufacturing the “African New Woman” who is now poised at the “brink of autonomous, self-determining [life] without men” (32), ready, I might add, to plunge head first into the abyss of liberation and radicalism: “It is striking how many of these novels leave their heroines on the brink of autonomous, self-determining lives without men. Without [sic] a few exceptions like One Is Enough, the literary imagination in Africa has yet to delineate fully the life of the African New Woman. To date there is no African Golden Notebook or The Women's Room. Instead, the focus has been on the necessary preliminary struggle—the radical repudiation of prevailing patriarchal roles and norms—perhaps because the subsequent reality of a creative life without men has been far from easy for most of these writers” (32). When Frank informed me at the beginning of her essay that she was going to analyze “five radically feminist novels” from Africa, I never expected that they would be this radical!

The other feminist critic that I learnt from (Chimalum Nwankwo refused to come along!) is Susan Andrade. Her essay “Rewriting History, Motherhood and Rebellion: Naming an African Women's Literary Tradition” teased me but left me unsatisfied. From the title, I expected that an “African Women's Literary Tradition” would be “named” for me. The very first paragraph led me on. I knew that the title of the essay points to a rebellion. What I did not know was that it would be my own rebellion. Soon after juxtaposing Hegel's naming of Africa as an “epistemic void” with another void, the absence of “the (literary) history of African Women,” Andrade pulls out of her “critical” hat a phenomenon that she calls “African feminist criticism.” This got me interested and I wanted to know more about this novelty. The next paragraph drops names like Chandra Mohanty, Gayatri Spivak, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar. Are these the architects of the so-called “African feminist criticism”? If not, who are they? The next paragraph informs me about Julia Kristeva, and by the time the following paragraph flashes Hélène Cixous, my patience ran out. Rebellion takes hold of me as I demand that I be shown either “African feminist criticism” or its architects. More names! “Africanist Katherine Frank” (again!), etc., until I land at the feet of Mikhail Bakhtin and dialogism after listening to esoteric comments like “penetration of the harem,” “fetishize the veil as a screen,” and “reading the veil as metaphor for the frustration that the native woman can cause the imperialist camera” in connection with Malek Alloula's The Colonial Harem. Since I have lost all hope of ever finding out what this “African feminist criticism” was, I hang tenaciously onto Bakhtin and dialogism. This dialogism is used to unlock for me the door to an intertextual analysis of Efuru and The Joys of Motherhood. I learn that the latter is a sort of sequel to the former and that both are intertextually linked to a metanarrative, the Igbo Women's War of 1929. I also learn that Uhamiri is a “feminist deity.”

Andrade's critique of Hegel at the beginning of her essay provides a model for a critique of her inscription of Igbo women in history. Her use of the Igbo Women's War placed Igbo women on the threshold of colonial history, in the same way that Hegel placed Africa “on the threshold of History.” We must not forget that before the Igbo Women's War, Igbo women were. Interestingly enough, the West has invented Africa's beginnings and documented them as gifts for which Africa should be grateful. Not surprisingly, all these beginnings spring from the colonial encounter, with the result that the beginning of Africa's history coincides with colonialism, Igbo women's history dates to a colonial moment, the Igbo Women's War in 1929; and Africa's literary history begins with the publication in 1958 (yet another colonial moment) of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. The year 1958 is important not because it was the year Chinua Achebe stood before his people, with Heinemann at his heels, to wake them up from slumber and announce the birth of their imagination and creativity by presenting to them Things Fall Apart. Nineteen hundred fifty-eight is very important because for the Igbo storyteller, Chinua Achebe, it was the culmination of his apprenticeship under and initiation into an honorable lineage of great storytellers and artists. The fact that Achebe's first novel is a classic shows that he has learned well like a true son of the soil, as his people would say. Igbo imagination was not invented in 1958; Igbo imagination and creativity made the event of 1958 possible. Biodun Jeyifo's essay touches on another history/beginning, the history of the study of African literature. Unfortunately, most feminist critics lack knowledge of the long and rich history of African literary studies and criticism in Africa. It is most strange, arrogant, and ill-advised for these critics to cite Bakhtin, Jameson, Foucault, Cixous, Spivak, and other “greats” all over Igbo novels without having read Emmanuel Obiechina,5 Donatus Nwoga, Romanus Egudu, Michael Echeruo, and Juliet Okonkwo, pioneers who have published extensively in the field of Igbo literary studies. A more elaborate critique of Andrade's essay, particularly the tradition/modernity paradigm as an analytical model, has been undertaken by a fellow feminist critic, Florence Stratton (87–93). In terms of educating me about the Igbo novel, Andrade's essay teased me and left me empty-handed, as women in Ugwuta and Ibuza would say.

It is with mixed feelings that I read Florence Stratton's Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender. I commend Stratton for the extensive research in primary and secondary sources that went into the book. However, I chose this book to show the pitfalls of a radical feminist criticism in its full regalia of arrogance, prejudice, and separatism. The monotonous, belabored, one-dimensional, always predictable, men-bashing analysis undermines the potential of the book. My reading of the book will be limited to the chapters on Chinua Achebe and Flora Nwapa. Stratton's project simply put goes like this: since Chinua Achebe had the audacity to challenge the racism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, I will use Achebe's Things Fall Apart to attack him for sexism by accusing him of denying African women “dignity and self-respect”: “[I]n Achebe's view, a novel which valorizes racist ideology cannot be called ‘a work of art.’ As we have also seen, Achebe attempts to undermine the authority of such canonical western texts as Heart of Darkness. … This then, has been my project in this chapter: to challenge the authority of Achebe's most canonical novel. … Achebe does not tell African women ‘where the rain began to beat them.’ Nor does he attempt to restore ‘dignity and self-respect’ to African women” (37–38). Stratton's project sounds more like a vendetta than literary criticism. Achebe does not need to tell African women “where the rain began to beat them”; they already know. They know that the rain, called “colonialism” by the invaders (rainmakers!) that brought it, began one stormy night when they (African women) were peacefully asleep. African women also know that it is not Achebe's responsibility to restore their “dignity and self-respect” because he did not take them away in the first place.

Stratton's reaction to a passage from Things Fall Apart as well as to Eustace Palmer's commentary is emblematic of her book:

Nwakibie calls in his wives: Anasi was a middle-aged woman, tall and strongly built. There was authority in her bearing and she looked every inch the ruler of the womenfolk in a large and prosperous family. She wore the anklet of her husband's titles, which the first wife alone could wear. She walked up to her husband and accepted the horn from him. She then went down on one knee, drank a little, and handed back the horn. She rose, called him by his name and went back to her hut. The other wives drank in the same way, in their proper order, and went away.

Things Fall Apart 18–19)

Stratton comments as follows:

Eustace Palmer chooses this excerpt as one of the passages he particularly admires, stating that from it “the reader gains a sense of an alien, but nevertheless strong, self-assured, and civilized society.” But where in this passage is the gendered African reader to locate herself? For while she will immediately recognize the strength and self-assurance of the male culture of Umuofia, she will have no such experience of its female culture. Might she not wonder if the abject servitude of women is the hallmark of a “civilized society”?


I am baffled that this passage from Achebe's novel can provoke Stratton's ire so much that she has rolled up her sleeves feministically in defense of the so-called “gendered African reader” (whatever that means!), ready to teach her in one fell swoop “strength,” “self-assurance,” rebellion against “abject servitude,” and finally civilization. Stratton's selective and biased reading of this passage is symptomatic of her (mis)readings of many of the literary texts. As Anasi walks in, I do not see the “abject servitude” because the author, Achebe, describes her and her situation well enough for me to know that this is a no-nonsense woman who has authority and clout—“tall and strongly built … authority in her bearing … every inch a ruler.” Stratton ignores this information and as in all one-dimensional, obsessive, radical feminist readings, she latches on the one act that she sees as “abject servitude”—“she then went down on one knee.” Stratton would have set Umuofia on fire if Anasi had gone down on both knees! The passage informs us that Anasi's husband serves her a drink. How could she be condemned to servitude if she is being served? I have yet to be convinced that sitting down or standing up (no kneeling down allowed!) and sharing alcohol with men will bestow on Umuofia women “strength” and “self-assurance.” More importantly, what I see in Achebe's passage is “order” (which Stratton attacks in the next paragraph). Stratton and other feminist critics who are seriously engaged in all kinds of questionable intertextual analysis between African texts and foreign ones are probably not aware that this passage from Things Fall Apart can be used, with a little help from “dialogism” to elucidate Bâ's So Long a Letter, particularly Ramatoulaye's complaints and deep pain due to the erosion of her privileges as the senior wife:

Nos belles-soeurs traitent avec la même égalité trente et cinq ans de vie conjugale. Elles célèbrent avec la même aisance et les mêmes mots, douze et trois maternités. J'enregistre, courroucée, cette volonté de nivellement qui réjouit la nouvelle belle-mère de Modou.


Our sisters-in-law give equal consideration to thirty years and five years of married life. With the same ease and same words, they celebrate twelve maternities and three. I note with outrage this desire to level out in which Modou's new mother-in-law rejoices.


In addition to launching a treatise on a knee bent in “abject servitude,” Stratton could have used the passage from Achebe's novel to explain why there is peace and “order” (“proper order” ensures “order”!) in Nwakibie's home as opposed to the disorder that reigns in Modou Fall's house(s). These issues have more to do with the novels as cultural productions than does our approval or disapproval of polygamy and bended knees. It will be useful to point out that in Igboland, kneeling down, as a cultural sign of respect, is not gender-specific—men kneel down for the gendered “African subject” as well.

After reading the passage from Things Fall Apart together with comments from Eustace Palmer and Florence Stratton, I came to the conclusion that Palmer's comment has more to do with the passage than Stratton's battle call does. Stratton's arrogant outrage on behalf of her so-called “gendered African reader” needs to be addressed. I imagine that male readers in Africa are genderless since the “gendered African reader” is a “she”! Stratton's condescending, maternalistic, and offensive posturing is very typical of feminist insurgency on behalf of African women. Stratton's chapter on Achebe, from the title—“How Could Things Fall Apart for Whom They Were Not Together?”—to her analysis is very patronizing. In case Stratton does not know, her so-called “gendered African reader” experiences her society's “female culture” by living in her society, and not by reading African novels. Therefore, our feminist critic need not worry too much about the nefarious effects Achebe's “male chauvinistic” novels will have on the “gendered African reader's” “strength,” “self-assurance,” and self-esteem; she will do just fine.

After reading Ifi Amadiume's Male Daughters, Female Husbands, Stratton enthrones herself as an authority on the cultural history and sociology of Igboland and implicitly lectures Chinua Achebe on where to go and read/learn about Igbo culture because “[h]e also implies through his characterization of the novel's [Anthills of the Savannah] heroine, Beatrice Okoh, herself an unwitting avatar of Idemili, that his ascriptive failure can be attributed to his western education. … The son of Christian converts, of a father who was a catechist for the Church Missionary Society, Achebe, was himself ‘born … into a world apart,’ and he attended church schools from an early age” (27). While Chinua Achebe is off to “school,” Umuofia women will be under Stratton's protective custody as she lectures to them about the ills that have been done to them. It seems that Achebe took this feminist's advice to retool himself culturally because when Stratton brought him back for further examination, she informed us that “[i]n his most recent novel, Anthills of the Savannah (1987), Achebe himself acknowledges that he was in error in assigning the masculine gender to the deity” (27). I reread my copy of Anthills of the Savannah but still could not find either a confession or an apology from Achebe. Stratton's chapter on Achebe is one of the most uninformed, arrogant, counterproductive, and uncritical pieces of criticism on Achebe that I have ever read.

Our job as literary critics should be to open texts up to possibilities by addressing the complex issues in them, however contradictory they may be; often, those contradictions lead us to where the meanings are. Quite expectedly, Stratton brings to our attention the feminist cause célèbre in Things Fall Apart—Okonkwo's beating and shooting of Ekwefi—which she introduces as follows: “While women are excluded from the male domain of community power, men are permitted to intrude into the domestic domain. Moreover, if Okonkwo is representative, the intrusion is often violent” (27). But Okonkwo's characterization in Things Fall Apart is quite instructive. The first thirty pages of Things Fall Apart already give us a lot of useful information about Okonkwo:

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievement … when he walked … he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often … he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had no patience with his father.


… But he was struck, as most people were, by Okonkwo's brusqueness in dealing with less successful men.


… But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess.


In an interview with Bill Moyers, Chinua Achebe had this to say about Igboland and the worldview that gave birth to Things Fall Apart:

Moyers: There's a proverb in your tradition that says, “Wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it.” How do you interpret that?

Achebe: It means that there is no one way to anything. The Ibo people who made that proverb are very insistent on this—there is no absolute anything. They are against excess—their world is a world of dualities. It is good to be brave, they say, but also remember that the coward survives.


Okonkwo is indeed a complex man. He is “representative” not in the sense that Stratton implies. Okonkwo is representative of his environment where paradoxes are expected and are allowed to coexist. Okonkwo is representative of what his people admire, “personal achievement,” but he is also representative of what his people abhor, “impatience, violence and extremism.” Okonkwo is simultaneously normative and marginal (in the sense of excess/excessive). He is for excess and against “half-way”; his people are for balance and against excess. Given Achebe's characterization of Okonkwo, I knew immediately that Okonkwo would not survive; his fatal flaw is his excess. In the same way, I knew that Nnu Ego (The Joys of Motherhood) would not survive: she was excessive/obsessive in her pursuit of “the joys of motherhood.” The Igbo novel speaks against excess because the Igbo worldview is informed by balance and the spirit of live and let live: “egbe belu ugo belu” ‘let the kite perch and let the eagle perch.’

In light of what Achebe's novel reveals to us, it is erroneous to project Okonkwo's extremism as a positive attribute to which his people aspire. On the contrary, the novel informs us that extremism is frowned upon by the people of Umuofia. Okonkwo is a violent and, I would agree with Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, “insecure” (69) man from Umuofia. Okonkwo is not a model because I am not sure his world sets up models (in the sense of “absolutes”); it is a realistic world that accommodates contradictions. Furthermore, contrary to what feminists would like us to believe, the world of Umuofia does not impose silence on the women; individual men in Umuofia do. A distinction has to be made between what a society stands for and the individual abuses of community beliefs and tenets. For example, when Okonkwo shot at his wife, Ekwefi, he was reacting to speech; the woman spoke but it was a “murmur.” It was a murmur because she was well aware of the threat (Okonkwo) to speech. Ekwefi is simultaneously aware of her society's guarantees and the threat to them. The encounter between Okonkwo and his wife is a paradoxical moment where a right and its containment collide, where a guarantee and its erosion occur. The issue is not so much the silence of Umuofia women but the silencing of the women by specific aberrant behaviors in their society.

Most feminist critics focus on the relation between Okonkwo and his wives without paying any attention to the relationship between his wives—a relationship in which mutual respect, harmony, and sisterhood reign. The harmony between co-wives in Okonkwo's household is not mentioned, but the discord between co-wives in The Joys of Motherhood and So Long a Letter is always under the feminist microscope. If these feminist critics are honest enough to present the diverse and opposing views on the institution of polygamy, one can see that there are harmonious polygamous marriages and disunited ones just like some monogamous marriages are harmonious and others are acrimonious. I can imagine one of the feminist critics reading this paragraph, running her pencil through it in authentic feminist anger and saying: “Listen, you Ibo [Igbo, please!] woman, harmony or no harmony, this institution stinks!” to which I will respond: “That is your opinion, but I do not teach your opinion or mine, for that matter. As a professor of African literature, I do not withhold information from my students. My duty is to guide and facilitate my students' exploration of the possibilities, contradictions, ambiguities, and tension in African literature and equip them to make informed, defensible analyses that are based on the texts.

Let us consider the conversation between Okonkwo and his first wife while Ojiugo was away plaiting her hair:

‘Where are her children? Did she take them?’ he asked with an unusual coolness and restraint. ‘They are here,’ answered his first wife, Nwoye's mother. Okonkwo bent down and looked into her hut. Ojiugo's children were eating with the children of the first wife. ‘Did she ask you to feed them before she went?’ ‘Yes,’ lied Nwoye's mother, trying to minimise Ojiugo's thoughtlessness.


Shouldn't sisterhood and caring be feminist concerns and part of a “civilized” society? Stratton does not seem to be impressed by what Nwoye's mother does or stands for because, according to her, Nwoye's mother is anonymous and without her very own identity; Achebe did not give her a name when she first appeared in the novel and, worse still, he waited till Chapter Four to name her, not in her own right but in recognition of Nwoye: “As if to reflect their social insignificance, women are marginalized in the text. Achebe does not even bother to name Okonkwo's wives until the narrative is well under way. … It is not until Chapter Four that it is revealed that Okonkwo's first wife is called ‘Nwoye's mother’ and his third ‘Ojiugo’. His second wife is not named Ekwefi until after she has, in anonymity first been beaten and then narrowly escaped being murdered by Okonkwo” (29).6 It is interesting to note that in Achebe's Things Fall Apart, a woman (Nwoye's mother) lied to protect another woman (Ojiugo), but in Nwapa's Efuru, a woman (Omirima) lied to undermine another woman (Efuru), and in Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood, a woman (Nnu Ego) lied through her deliberate silence and got another woman (Adaku) in trouble. In actuality, in a paper titled “Chinua Achebe: Women, Language and Border(lines)lands” that I presented at the 1990 Nsukka conference in honor of Chinua Achebe's sixtieth birthday, I raised some of the issues Stratton raises but provided different contexts for analysis. A feminist analysis of Umuofia society should argue against patriarchy, but it should also argue from the side of speech and sisterhood. Secondary sources should be used to clarify and create understanding, not to obfuscate and create confusion. Research done by Igbo women such as Kamene Okonjo and Ifi Amadiume, which Stratton cites throughout her book, points to the power sharing and dual-sex political system operative in Igbo society. Stratton's reading of Amadiume shows that the Ekwe title is reserved for women who become members of the Women's Council that “appears to be answerable to no one, not even to ozo titled men” (28). This Council is certainly a domain of power from which men are excluded. Stratton gives her approval and moves to Things Fall Apart to lambaste Achebe for excluding women “from the male domain of community power” (26). If Achebe's novel is about the male domain, women would be excluded. Or does Stratton want Achebe to write about Ekwe and Women's Council instead of ozo and ndichie? We should discuss the novel Achebe wrote, not the one he should have written but didn't write. I am not sure that Achebe has or should have feminists in mind as he writes his novels.

In the evening of the day Okonkwo beats his wife, Ezeani, the priest of the earth goddess Ani (Achebe got this ascription right!) visits Okonkwo and rejects his hospitality because of Okonkwo's violence against Ojiugo, which is a serious crime against the gods and ancestors: “Take away your kola nut. I shall not eat in the house of a man who has no respect for our gods and ancestors” (21). Let us examine Stratton's assessment of this incident:

The central divinity in Achebe's Umuofia is also a female deity, the Earth Goddess, Ani. The values Ani embodies, however, do not serve women's interests. Okonkwo commits a number of crimes against Ani for which he is punished: beating his youngest wife during the Week of Peace. … But Ani does not even protect women from male brutality. For Okonkwo's first crime is not the beating of his wife, wife-beating is sanctioned by the goddess, but the perpetration of an act of violence during the Week of Peace.


Reading Stratton castigate Ani for not rushing to Ojiugo's rescue to “protect [her] from male brutality,” I wonder if this feminist critic thinks that Igbo goddesses answer calls and break up fights like policemen. Furthermore, it is still not clear to me why a distinction is made between Okonkwo's beating of his wife and an act of violence during the Week of Peace as if they are separate. One crime, not two, was committed; the beating of Okonkwo's wife is an act of violence that is a crime against Ani, the protector of Ojiugo (a crime against Ojiugo is a crime against Ani). By saying that Okonkwo “has no respect for our gods and ancestors,” Ezeani does not exclude Okonkwo's wife, Ojiugo. This is the way Okonkwo, his people, and their gods/goddesses speak. As Ernest Emenyonu notes, “Chinua Achebe once said that no man can understand another whose language he does not speak. But this statement is not as simplistic as it sounds, for Achebe adds and ‘language’ here does not mean simply words but a man's entire world-view” (29). Obviously, Stratton does not understand the language of Okonkwo, the people of Umuofia, and their gods/goddesses. The dust cover of Stratton's book reminds the reader that she “taught literature at Njala University College in Sierra Leone for nineteen years.” But what does that have to do with Umuofia or Igboland? Such claims to legitimacy by equating the part (Sierra Leone) to the whole (Africa) are marketing tools that have little or nothing to do with Achebe's works because Okonkwo and his people do not speak the language of Sierra Leone. The lack of attention to temporal and geographical specificity in the study of Africa and Africans will continue to haunt us as scholars and critics until we address it as a legitimate concern.

Like most of the other feminist critics of African literature, Stratton cites extensively Ifi Amadiume's Male Daughters, Female Husbands, which she (Stratton) calls a “revisionist study of gender relations in Igbo society” (27). I agree that this work is “revisionist,” but Amadiume informs us in the preface to the book about the impetus for writing the book:

The primary incentive determining both the subject and method of research was my reaction, as an African woman, to both the interpretation and use of data on African women in the West. At a general level, data first collected within the discipline of social anthropology are now used in wider political debates by all sectors of society in the Western world. With respect to African women, social anthropological data are, with increasing frequency, cited as resulting from the influence of various schools of feminism. … It was, of course, from my knowledge of my own people that I recognized that a great deal of what anthropologists and Western feminists were saying about African women's lack of power was incorrect.

(2, 9)

If Stratton read Amadiume's book as she claims, she should know that Amadiume's documentation of the lives of her people is to right the wrongs and clear the misrepresentations of Western imperialism as espoused by social anthropology and feminism. Fortunately, after extensive research, Amadiume was able to write a book about and for her people; unfortunately, Florence Stratton and other feminist critics like her have used Amadiume's book against her people.


Flora Nwapa herself … compelled us to take a fresh look at women in Igbo society. … [Her] commitment to create literature from the oral heritage of her foremothers has placed her in a continuum in which she, too, is a foremother.

Gay Wilentz, “Flora Nwapa, 1931–93” (8)

A word of recognition for that small and proprietary school of critics who assure us that the African novel does not exist. Reason: the novel was invented in England. For the same reason I shouldn't know how to drive a car because I am not a descendant of Henry Ford. But every visitor to Nigeria will tell you that we are the world's most creative drivers!

Chinua Achebe, “Thoughts on the African Novel” in Hopes and Impediments

A few months after the death of Flora Nwapa, The Women's Review of Books published two articles in which, according to the journal, “Gay Wilentz and Susan Gardner reflect on [Nwapa's] legacy to Nigeria and the world” (3). These two articles show starkly the use and abuse of what I had earlier called empirical right; Gay Wilentz used it intelligently, Susan Gardner abused it royally. Unfortunately, Gardner's yellow journalism takes up about three times as much space as Wilentz's article. In my opinion, Gay Wilentz is one of the finest critics of Flora Nwapa; in her criticism (positive and negative) of Nwapa's work, she writes like an “inoutsider.” In a half-page, Wilentz, author of Binding Cultures, pays tribute to the writer who died shortly before she was to begin a one-year visiting professorship in her (Wilentz's) school, East Carolina University. Wilentz's short but rich piece covers issues that range from insights into the stylistic and thematic concerns in Nwapa's works, to critical reception of her works, to an invitation to the reader to “listen” to Nwapa's “voice” in an interview she had with the writer, to the reminiscences of her encounter with the central “character” in Nwapa's work, Ugwuta Lake: “On the lake, I was struck by the blending of legend and history, the fiction I had read and the reality of this special place that Nwapa had chosen to honor in her writings” (8). In that short piece, like in Wilentz's other writings on Nwapa, I could see the elegant, majestic lake, hear strong Ugwuta women, and sense the grace and dignity of Flora Nwapa, the beautiful woman with the dimpled smile. Susan Gardner's piece is not remotely related to reflections on “[Nwapa's] legacy to Nigeria and the world” (3); she writes instead about her frustrations with a Nigerian male colleague! As the anger and insurgency of this feminist became full blown, she placed all categories of Nigerian men on trial: from Flora Nwapa's husband whose “British Colonial education had thoroughly brainwashed” (8), to Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart (Gardner got the date of publication wrong!), who praised “Flora Nwapa for writing about women's issues without being a feminist,” to her Nigerian male colleague and a host of male chauvinistic Nigerians: “I could, of course detail accounts of Nigerian male chauvinism ranging from the horrific to the banal” (9). Are these naughty men Flora Nwapa's “legacy to Nigeria and the world”? I am intrigued by the reasons Gardner gave for going to Nigeria and the ease with which she got her school to fund her Enquirer-style “interviews” about corruption in Nigeria and the problems Nigerian women are having with their men:

Unlike most of her sister Nigerian writers, [Nwapa] did not live, work and publish in Britain or the US for extended periods of time, although her audience (predominantly Western feminists) was similar to theirs. This apparent paradox—that the African woman writer addresses a largely nonAfrican audience and, indeed, owes her reputation to that audience—led me, over the past two summers to visit Nigeria. … Although the rationalizations I supplied in my requests for University research funding were couched in ringing scholarly jargon, the project in fact was sparked by a quarrel with a Nigerian male colleague which has now gone on for years. … [I]n October 1990 he gave a public lecture at our university on the past thirty years of African literature—without mentioning a woman writer.


Ernest Emenyonu (“Who Does Flora Nwapa Write For?”) will take issue with Gardner on the audience question. Gardner claims that she had a “quarrel” with her male colleague in 1990 for not acknowledging African women writers, but in her “paper” in 1994, she asserts: “As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out on their [literary works by Nigerian women writers] literary value … for there simply isn't enough work published to allow for assessment” (9). Aware of the irrelevance of her “paper,” Gardner warns the reader: “What follows may be impressionistic, but I don't think it's irrelevant,” and proceeds to give a long list of gossip and anecdotes, from “well chosen” Nigerian women, couched in spurious objectivity and presented in the genre of the infamous “African Women Speak Out” books that are nothing but Western researchers making carefully selected African women “speak out” on their (Westerners') behalf. Gardner consults her crystal ball, looks down in supreme arrogance to announce to deprived and oppressed African women that help is around the corner: “There is no doubt in my mind that, without the Western feminist academy, the situation of Nigerian academic women would be worse. Nor is there any doubt that initiatives purportedly on behalf of women … like the Better Life Program for Rural Women … will earn little other than public contempt when accompanied by the stench of corruption” (10). Although Gardner has no serious “reflections” on Nwapa and her work, she succeeded in “reflecting” on Nwapa's press and her entrepreneurship: “Tana Press (the name suggests something far more impressive than the hovel with a corrugated iron roof that housed it) was the first woman-run publishing “house” in Africa. … In the end, my admiration for Flora Nwapa is not so much for her artistry but for her entrepreneurship and commitment to women” (9–10). I have cited Gardner extensively as a classic example of an extreme case of anemic feminist “scholarship.” To think that her “research” was funded two years in a row is not at all surprising; there are many of that category of “research” on Africa. Gardner's argument against “the hostility or incomprehension from male-controlled publishing, distribution and reception networks” (9) for the marginalization of women writers in Africa can easily be made against the global unequal power relations and biases that make it possible for people like her to get funding for “research” on anger and frustration “couched in ringing scholarly jargon” and get called upon to “reflect on the legacy” of Africa's first published woman writer after admitting that “as far as [she] is concerned, there simply isn't enough work published [by Nigerian women] to allow for assessment” (9). The politics of funding and publishing determine who we read as “scholars” and what we read as “scholarship.”

Feminist politics makes the silencing, trivialization, and misrepresentation of African women possible. As Flora Nwapa often said dismissively, “It's all politics.” Wilentz is not equally dismissive; her beautifully phrased thought prods us on to action: “[Nwapa] takes her place with the ancestors, and by reading her works we perform a libation for her” (8). What is even more important is how we perform the libation. Reading Nwapa should not be a referendum on radical feminism. Nwapa's work is a biography, a collective biography of beautiful, strong Ugwuta women and their majestic lake. Nwapa's work captures the complexity, ambiguities, and contradictions of her environment as they are embodied in the force that lies at the bottom of the lake, Uhamiri, the goddess of the crossroads. Her work locates us at the crossroads, inviting us to ask questions, many questions. Efuru, for example, is location specific (location not only in terms of geography but also in terms of culture and history) and any serious study of the novel must take into account this specificity. Like Efuru, Ugwuta with its lake is a “character” in the novel, and Efuru can be understood through a thorough examination of her relation to and interaction with Ugwuta. Florence Stratton's misnaming (or confusion with the naming) of location in her analysis is a grave error in light of the importance of the specificity of location: “Like Things Fall Apart,Efuru is set in rural Igboland in a town Nwapa calls Ugwuta” (87). In note #6, Stratton explains: “In an interview Nwapa stated that both Efuru and Idu are set in her home town, Oguta” (181). Stratton implies that Oguta is the right name and Ugwuta its corrupt or fictionalized form. On the contrary, the town is named Ugwuta by the people who own it. The Europeans who came during the colonial period purposefully renamed it Oguta because they could not pronounce “gw,” in the same way that their inability to say “gb” transformed Igbo to Ibo. This linguistic adulteration is important to know not only because of the centrality of location in Efuru but also in terms of understanding the power and arrogance of imperialism. A feminist analysis must take this into account in its study of oppression in Africa. Stratton's faux pas validates my earlier observation that Sierra Leone does not speak the “language” (in the sense Achebe used it) of Ugwuta.

Much feminist writing has been inspired by Efuru's rebellion and my rereading of Nwapa will focus on the rebellion. Like other feminist critics who have written about Efuru, Stratton misdiagnoses the nature of Efuru's “rebellion”: “[Efuru's] first act is to flout patriarchal authority by marrying a poor farmer without her father's permission and without the bride price being paid to him before the marriage” (93). The issue in Efuru is not if the bride price would be paid or not, the issue is when. Everyone, including Efuru, insists that the bride price be paid. Efuru was not married to Adizua before the bride price was paid; she was just living with him—in Ugwuta there is a big difference between the two. Efuru agrees to marry Adizua on page 1 but it is not until page 23, after the payment of the bride price, that she “felt really married.” In the first 23 pages of the novel, dowry (bride price) is discussed repeatedly:

[Efuru agreed to marry Adizua.] … But the man had no money for dowry. … [S]he told him not to bother about the dowry. … They were going to proclaim themselves married and that was that. (1)

Efuru: But what about the dowry? (2)

Efuru's father: The man should come and fulfill the customs of our people and marry her. (2)

Adizua: I have no money for the dowry yet. Efuru herself understands this. (3)

Efuru: My husband is not rich. … But the dowry must be paid. I must see that this is done. (5)

Efuru: When we have enough money to pay the dowry, we shall approach elderly men who will help us beg him. (8)

Ajanupu: I heard something about the dowry … it must be done my sister. (13)

Efuru: We have not got much money, and I want to start trading. Again we have not paid the dowry yet. (15)

Efuru: [B]ut we have to go to my father now that we have money. (20)

Before it was evening, Efuru went to her father's house, and waited for her husband's people to come. (20)

As they were drinking, the dowry was fixed and Adizua's people paid everything there. … They went home and for the first time since that fateful Nkwo day the two felt really married. (23)

There is a big difference between “they were going to proclaim themselves married” (1) and “for the first time … the two felt really married” (23). In Ugwuta, people do not get married by “proclaiming themselves married.” It is significant to note that the day the bride price was paid, Efuru “went to her father's house and waited for her husband's people to come” (20). Her return rehabilitates her and renders the period she has lived with Adizua “unofficial,” “unrecognized,” and “null and void.” Adizua and his people came to Efuru's natal home to pay the bride price and fulfill all necessary customs, after which Adizua and Efuru “felt really married.” The question we should ask is why is everyone, including Efuru, insisting that the bride price be paid? For Efuru's father it has to do with honor and respect; for Efuru, it has to do with decency and security. As we are told later in the novel, when her marriage breaks up, she returns to her natal home. Efuru insists that the bride price be paid because she does not want to burn bridges; her decisions are based on realism and common sense.7 Her insistence on the payment of the bride price makes sense in the context of subsequent events in the novel. As a volunteer in shelters for battered women in the United States, I have often heard abused women say that they stayed in abusive relationships because they did not know where to go. In Ugwuta (Igboland), abused women know where to go; they go home (natal home), and that explains why shelters for battered women would be an anomaly in Ugwuta.

It is extremely important that in our feminist work, we listen more to the rhythm of unfamiliar territories; it will make us more humble, more receptive to education and, according to Chinua Achebe, “save [us] from the mortal sin of righteousness and extremism.” “There is no doubt in my mind” that Susan Gardner's “Western feminist academy” has a lot to learn from Efuru and her people. It is the unequal power relations between the West and the so-called “Third World” that make the wholesale exportation and imposition of Western institutions possible. Madhu Kishwar's experience in India is instructive:

An example of the importation of institutional forms from the West in the name of feminism is that of battered women's homes. Over the last decade innumerable western feminists have asked us: ‘Do you have battered women's homes in India?’ The assumption is that not to have such homes is to be at a lower stage of development in the struggle against violence on women, and that such homes will be one inevitable outcome of the movement's development. The psychological pressure exerted on us when the question is asked repeatedly should not be underestimated.

(Evans 26)

Imperialist arrogance initiates and nurtures the assumption that what is good for the West is equally good for Ugwuta, and that Ugwuta or India or such places need all the institutions that exist in the West. If the “Western feminist academy” and its champions like Susan Gardner can talk less and listen more, they will probably learn that the institutions they wish to export to other lands are not relevant there because the hands of humanity are laced over the spaces that make such institutions necessary elsewhere. It is conceivable that the answers we need for our immediate environment are to be found elsewhere, beyond our borders. As feminists interrogate other societies and other texts, they must be humble enough to listen to the responses that are whispered into their ears.


The Igbo believes he can negotiate anything … how to negotiate with Chukwu puzzled him and he created intermediaries … go-betweens.

E. N. Njaka, Igbo Political Culture (14)

Ife kwulu, ife akwudehie.

When something stands, something else stands beside it.

Igbo proverb

A boundary is not that at which something stops … the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.

Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought (154)

Those who have the energy and the will to survive at the crossroads become really very exceptional people.

Chinua Achebe, in Bill Moyers, A World of Ideas (342)

Feminist literary criticism of African literature is always poised to herald the emergence of the rebellious African woman and if she fails to appear, it invents her; or to rephrase Jean-Paul Sartre's thoughts on the Jew and anti-Semitism: if the rebellious African woman did not exist, feminist literary criticism would have invented her. First, from whose perspective is an act rebellious? Does the “rebellious woman” share the critics' idea of what constitutes a rebellion? Similar concerns have led me to question elsewhere the limited interpretation and use of the word “development” in development work and studies (see Contesting). The way the critic sees an act determines how he/she names it and writes about it. The critic will not err too much if he/she sees the rebellion with the eyes of the rebel. The rebellion must be understood in its situatedness; the critic must examine thoroughly why, how and where it occurs.

Florence Stratton's misdiagnosis of Efuru's rebellion leads her to draw questionable conclusions regarding Efuru's “choices.” I have tried to show in the preceding section that Efuru actually marries Adizua after her bride price is paid. Because she believes that Efuru defies her father (“flouts patriarchal authority”) and marries Adizua before the bride price is paid, Stratton concludes: “But what Efuru does not yet know is that, in choosing to be Adizua's wife rather than her father's daughter, she has merely exchanged one inhibiting role for another” (93). For Efuru, it is not a question of choosing her father or her husband. She chooses her father and her husband by insisting that the bride price be paid; she marries the man she loves and is rehabilitated in her natal home. Efuru is more a reformer than a rebel; she is an agent of change in the sense that she bends the rules for her own purposes. Efuru's rebellion is not too different from Ekwefi's in Things Fall Apart: “[Ekwefi] did not marry [Okonkwo] then because he was too poor to pay her bride price. But a few years later she ran away from her husband and came to live with Okonkwo” (40). Efuru accepts to have her birth but reduces the period of confinement to one month. Again, by bending the rules to suit her needs, she attests to the elasticity of her cultural world. It is not a paradox to exercise freedom within limits as these independent women, who are reformers and catalysts for change, are doing within the context of their cultural boundaries. Their feminism is what I call feminism of negotiations—negofeminism. According to Katherine Frank, novels by African women writers are concerned with “how … the contemporary African woman [can] negotiate her way between the claims of tradition and modernization” (18). In my view, Efuru and her sisters are negotiating with realities that are not governed by the tradition/modernity paradigm. Efuru negotiates with all possibilities available to her and, like other women in her environment, she is basically saying: I want to be nurtured and sustained by the strengths of my culture but I am also prepared to make changes if and when the need arises. If a society can produce women like Ajanupu, it can surely produce women who are capable of effecting change. In my view, a bad culture is one that does not give room for negotiation. Such a culture cannot thrive in Igboland.

If feminist literary critics were not out to trivialize, demonize, and ridicule so-called African tradition, they would have used their secondary sources to elucidate and not obfuscate the literary works. Efuru's politics of negotiation is not surprising given the insistence on power sharing and parallel governance (dual-sex political system) in the frequently cited works by Ifi Amadiume and Kamene Okonjo. The essays by the Igbo sage and storyteller Chinua Achebe as well as the rich Igbo proverbs in his literary works and those of Flora Nwapa inform us about a society where extremism and a winner-take-all mentality are not the norm; where the spirit of “egbe belu ugo belu” reigns; where independence and the much bandied about feminist “self-authentication” are possible within cultural boundaries; where the Okonkwos and Nnu Egos of the world do not survive.

Thematically and stylistically, Flora Nwapa centers symbols and strategies of ambiguity, complexity, and paradox that point to the possibility of negotiation and compromise. In an essay titled “The Concept of Mammywater in Flora Nwapa's Novels,” the anthropologist and filmmaker Sabine Jell-Bahlsen, who is one of the few scholars who have extensively studied the rich culture of Ugwuta women, documents the situatedness of the goddess of the lake, Uhamiri. Although Jell-Bahlsen's conflation of Mammywater and Ogbuide is very troubling, I find useful the issue of ambiguity her paper raises. Citing Chinua Achebe's short story on Mammywater, “Uncle Ben's Choice,” as well as Chinwe Achebe's study of the Ogbanje phenomenon, Jell-Bahlsen notes that the “Igbo ‘mother water’ goddess, Nne Mmiri/Mammywater/Idemili/Uhamiri/Ogbuide/Ava, controls the entry and exit into and from this world. She is the goddess of the crossroads.” Crossroads, common ground and nodal point, is a location that allows the coexistence of and interaction between ambiguities and paradoxes and sustains the proliferation of meanings; Flora Nwapa chose the symbol of the crossroads to begin and end a productive literary career. Uhamiri is like the sphinx that is ambiguous in its interrogation and giving. Jell-Bahlsen wrestles with this ambiguity: “Does this imply that the goddess takes children away? Do women have to sacrifice the joys of motherhood in order to become followers of the goddess and achieve success and wealth? Could women without children live just as happily as mothers? Efuru begins dreaming of the goddess and becomes her worshipper after losing her only child.” In light of Jell- Bahlsen's questions, one wonders if the lake goddess's gift of wealth is a gesture of compensation or denial; in other words, did Efuru receive the gift of wealth as compensation for her child that was taken away? At the crossroads, the entrance into the world, sits the goddess who challenges akaraka, the individual's pact with destiny, by her ability to change it. According to Jell-Bahlsen, “But if the goddess helps a person to change his or her destiny, then that person must be the goddess's worshipper.” The crossroads is therefore the location for exchange, give and take, compromise, negotiation; the politics of negotiation begins at the crossroads; the feminism of negotiation (negofeminism) is first learned at the crossroads. I disagree with Katherine Frank; it's not between modernity and tradition that Nwapa's female characters negotiate; it is with life itself that they negotiate.

Susan Andrade in her paper on Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta also touches on crossroads (margins) and negotiations (choices): “African feminist criticism will rely on its historical links to white feminist and male cultural critics, but ultimately, because it speaks from the margins of both fields, it must not only ‘care to intersect’ but build beyond them.” The binaries that bedevil Andrade's analysis, as in the works of most feminist critics of African literature, are at the core of these feminists' inability to speak the language of the crossroads that pervades African literature. Why are cultural critics gender specific? Are there no female cultural critics? Where in this white feminist/male cultural critics paradigm can one locate, for example, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak or Trinh T. Minh-ha? Furthermore, from all indications, Andrade has not fully explained what “African feminist criticism” means. Until she does, it will be difficult to figure out how this “African feminist criticism is linked to and speaks from the margins of “white feminist and male cultural [criticism].” Fortunately, the wisdom of Toni Morrison clears up some of the confusion and brings relevance back to the issue on hand—African literature. Toni Morrison, the brilliant writer who through her works constantly reminds us of her ancestral home, describes, as only a Toni Morrison can, the crossroads from where the African speaks and writes. In a 1983 interview with Kay Bonetti in New York City, Toni Morrison talked about literary influences and about edges, where cross-roads leave their indelible mark:

[T]here are extraordinary books written by Black people, really powerful. But those that were published in this country seemed to be talking to somebody other than me and the closest I came to finding it was in some books written by Africans. Novels that were loose, you know that kind that people can call unstructured because it was circular and because it sounded like somebody was telling you a story, yet you knew it was nothing simple … it was intricate. … My books don't end but they close, or they don't close but they … I don't want them to be unsatisfying and some people do find them to be wholly unsatisfying. I think that's the habit, the literary habit of having a certain kind of ending. Although we don't expect a poem to end that way … or even music doesn't end that way, certain kinds of music—there's always something tasty in your mouth when you hear the blues; there's always something left over, like jazz because it's on edge; you're never satisfied; you're always a little hungry, they tease you with completion but there's always a crack in the door, something else you want to hear, something so you hear it again and again and again. (transcribed by Obioma Nnaemeka)

In this short paragraph, Toni Morrison wrote the volumes that our feminist critics of African literature should but could not write. African women writers are writing from the crossroads and, at the same, time writing the crossroads. The writing at the crossroads is “like jazz because it's on edge.” This edge has nothing to do with either “white feminists” or “male cultural critics.” The superficial, one-dimensional, sterile, feminist criticism of African literature fails to learn what Toni Morrison learned, “ … yet you knew it [African literature] was nothing simple … it was intricate” (emphasis added). To write the crossroads is not to see, speak, and write this or that; it is to see, speak, and write this and that. Flora Nwapa's project in Efuru comes full circle in her soon to be published posthumous novel, The Lake Goddess, where one circumcision (the bath) simultaneously occurs and does not occur; where traditional and non-traditional weddings share textual space. The argument for ambiguities, complexity, paradoxes, give and take, compromise, negotiation, margins, edges, and crossroads is the constant in Flora Nwapa's work.


Ezigbo onye nkuzim, dalu
Ezigbo ode akwukwo, nodu nma
Thank you, my dear teacher
Farewell, dear writer

As I write this paper, I think of Flora Nwapa. In my mind's eye I see, far back into time, fat-headed me, Grace Obidiegwu, in the second row of Flora Nwapa's geography class at Queen's School, Enugu, Nigeria. I see my fellow classmates quietly and diligently taking notes, filled with admiration and respect for our dear teacher who knew so much and gave it with a dimpled smile. Frequently, she struggled to explain away the quizzical look on our adolescent faces; most times, she succeeded and we all shared her dimpled smile; sometimes when the quizzical look stayed too long, we heard the sentence we had all come to memorize, “It is too complicated.” Yes, living and writing (at) the crossroads is too complicated. In 1992, I saw Flora Nwapa at the African Studies Association conference in Seattle, Washington. She was present at the Women's Caucus brunch when I gave a keynote address titled “This Women's Studies Business: Beyond Politics and History,” during which I was very happy to recognize her and pay tribute to her as my high school teacher. In my keynote address, speaking as an African woman from Igboland, I warned us about the consequences of feminist politics of exclusion (what I called “gatekeeping”) both in the larger feminist movement and in the “women of color” configuration. Some of the so-called feminists hijacked the keynote address, renamed and misnamed it for political reasons. Before I left Seattle, I was fortunate to share a few moments with Flora Nwapa. I told her defiantly that these feminists could hijack, rename, and misname my address, but one thing they could never do was silence me. I saw the beautiful dimpled smile again and I guessed the phrase that Auntie Flora would smile out: “Obioma, it's all politics.” I guessed right. It's all politics, feminist politics. It is against this politics that I write. Auntie Flora, this paper is for you.


  1. On the opening day of the conference, Obioma Nnaemeka, the convener of the conference, delivered a keynote address that touched on, among other issues, the possibilities of feminism and feminist scholarship. She argued that true feminists believe in possibilities; they don't just dwell on possibilities, they make possibilities happen.

  2. Marcel Griaule, a French ethnographer, did ethnographic studies in Africa from the late 1920s until his death in 1956. He initiated the Dogon studies in 1931. For 16 years, the Dogon gave information to anthropologists that was what they call “la parole de face” ‘simple knowledge.’ They held back deep knowledge from strangers they did not trust. The Dogons saw what they gave as knowledge, and more importantly, they had the power in determining its dissemination. In such a situation, it is the ethnographer who is vulnerable.

  3. In Igboland, I have often heard the Igbo refer to a foreigner who lives among them as “onye igbo” ‘he/she is an Igbo,’ meaning that the person has studied and understood Igboland very well. Igbo people do not confer such an honor on all foreigners who have visited or lived with them. Being physically present does not automatically confer empirical right because one can live blindly in a place and leave totally ignorant of the place and its people.

  4. The impossibility of Pecola's desire is superbly captured by the book title's superlative adjective, and singular-noun, The Bluest Eye. Blue eyes are a possibility for whites, not blacks; the “bluest eye” will be impossible to find.

  5. Emmanuel Obiechina is a pioneer in the study of Onitsha market literature. Some of the essays in his Language and Theme: Essays on African Literature date back to two decades ago but they are still very current and extremely relevant because they are rooted in sound scholarship, wisdom, and profound knowledge of Igboland.

  6. Stratton shows that she does not understand the language of Umuofia. If Umuofia is in Igboland, as I think it is, “Nwoye's mother” is not Chinua Achebe's sexist invention to marginalize women in his text. He calls Okonkwo's first wife what her people would ordinarily call her, i.e., “Nwoye's mother.” What I see here is realism in novel writing and not male chauvinism on the part of the author. I visited my village in Igboland in 1994 and I was called “Ike's mother” all the time and I never felt a loss of identity and I am sure that goes for other women in Igboland. We are in no way planning a war against motherhood in order to say goodbye to anonymity and welcome to identity.

  7. In Igboland, women call marriage “ije di” (literally ‘husband journey’). Igbowomen are aware that, like all journeys, marriage is unpredictable and harbors the possibility of accidents. In order to ensure that the natal home's door is open for her in the event she has to retrace her steps, a sensible Igbowoman does not go off with someone and “declare herself married” (this is what some “civilized” people call a long-range plan!); she ensures that she is properly married, and that is precisely what Efuru did. Efuru is a very strong, sensible, independent woman who would not have insisted on the bride price payment if she did not see it was to her advantage. Every culture has its strengths and weaknesses, and Igbo culture is not an exception. Despite the radical feminist trashing of the so-called African tradition, Igbo culture has many privileges and advantages for women, and the women who belong to that culture know it and have articulated it. Radical feminists, listen!

Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi (essay date Summer 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8161

SOURCE: “Introduction: The Invalid, Dea(r)th, and the Author: The Case of Flora Nwapa, aka Professor (Mrs.) Flora Nwanzuruahu Nwakuche,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 1-16.

[In the following essay, Ogunyemi analyzes the place of life, death, and the Lady of the Lake in Nwapa's work.]


In introducing this Festschrift to commemorate the crucial first anniversary of Flora Nwapa's passing to join her ancestors, I wish, first and foremost, to reiterate the Igbo adage Egbe belu, ugo belu. Indeed, “may the kite perch; may the eagle perch,” in spite of their divergent interests. This innate democratic spirit seeks to dispel injurious hierarchization, an agenda that can stultify the essence of the literary project and the critical endeavor. Roland Barthes has played games in these fields; he displays fascinating moves (no doubt complicated through translation) in “The Death of the Author.” And Michel Foucault counters him (also through translation) with “What Is an Author?” in addition to his Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel. Though I do not have the emotional facility with the English language to play the games which the French writer, theorist, and critic play with each other in their language, let us, somehow, celebrate the passing of Author Flora Nwapa. The implications of her passage might emerge in the ensuing game conveniently placing English, as usual, to referee in the spaceless babel of the African linguistic crossroads.

As Barthes indicates throughout his text and Foucault affirms in Death and the Labyrinth, death and life are intimately connected. In pinpointing the intricacies of the relationship, Foucault states the case quite succinctly: “And the nature of the labyrinth comes infinitely close to the metamorphosis resulting in the passage from life to death, and in the maintenance of life in death” (94). In his theoretical elimination of the “Author” from the text, Barthes gives birth to or resurrects a subdued entity already there. For convenience, one can refer to the instating of this replacement as the new, a notion that renders the “Author” homeless, sans text. By instituting the deadly grip of a tradition of the new, he attempts to erase the past and primary relationship between the Author and the text. In thus shaking the position of the Author in the “ordinary culture” (143), reducing her, whom he forgot, to a ghostly presence, Barthes generated, in 1968, a model which elevates the reader-theorist-critic. One can now conveniently bury this new-already-old theoretical stand, though it will remain to haunt us.

Replacing Barthes's model with another which is already there in the original is inevitable, as the frenetic scramble for the African theoretical space continues. Such a move upholds the evolutionary process and maintains the order of things, especially the link between life and death, as the absence of one masks the presence of the other. In the cult of Foucault, “The work is more than the work; the subject who is writing is part of the work” (Death 184), and, in an ever-changing sense, so is the critic/reader/teacher who talismanically brings something special to the understanding of the work. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., conceptualizes such collaborative root-working in words that strike the core of Nwapa's Nigerian spiritual and metaphysical authority: “Two Ogboni, it becomes three accounts for the curious process by which author, text, and criticism interact” (38). The serendipitous convergence of the mystical (stemming from the mysteries of the Masonic Ogboni cult) and the commonplace as essential to the literary project I posit against Barthes's clincher: “the birth of the reader must be at the death of the Author” (148). Somehow, Harold Bloom continues Barthes's project by selectively killing some writers in The Western Canon: Books and Schools of the Ages. His dismissive treatment of recent recipients of the Nobel Prize in literature and of writers who generated articles he compiled into books is part of a telling history. These intricately linked agendas engender hostile reactions. Barbara Christian had earlier cried out in dismay at the critical turn of theoretical events in her “Race for Theory.” Why do theorists of one school play the deadly, eliminating game of subtractions when we can all easily toy with the healthier, inclusionary notion of addition? Moving from the world of abstractions to “reality,” Barthes's statement killing the “Author” and Bloom's dissn' some writers cannot but boomerang. Meanwhile, their ancestral voices continue to confer authority to others echoing them.

But what do Barthes and Foucault have to do with Flora Nwapa? In spite of their deaths, the two men continue to colonize literary theory from the other world, thereby disenfranchising many writers. By practicing their craft which is osmotically transmitted through ancestral worship as their texts are read as Revelations, part of the literary community has helped to put them magisterially in control. Nwapa's lucid, profound, and spiritually charged writing, like that of her many sisters with their different ancestors, has been one attempt to free ourselves from such intellectual and literary tyranny. If their Author is dead or dying, or they no longer know who the author is, Nwapa escaped from that intense, self-absorbed, claustrophobic labyrinth. In spite of her brave attempt, she is grimly connected with them, tangentially, in a very human way. One needs to pause to consider the following uncanny coincidences. The link between Foucault and Barthes sets off what Gates would have referred to as “a chain of significations,” if life were literature. The former had seen the professorial Barthes in a jolly mood, as he interacted with his students. A few days later, however, Foucault was also to witness a contrasting and devastating moment: the accident which caused Barthes's death (Foucault, Death 185–86). The link between Foucault and Charles Ruas duplicates and refines the earlier incident. Ruas had interviewed Foucault. He recalls that he was going to mail the interview to Foucault for editing when he read of his “premature death caused by cancer” in the newspapers (Death 170). Curiously, late in 1992, Nwapa had visited relatives and friends in the United States, and I relished the camaraderie and especially her gentle spirit, as I drove with her from Tess Onwueme's at Vassar to Sarah Lawrence College. In 1993, we were anxiously looking forward to her return to the United States from Nigeria to take up a professorial position when we were stunned by her “untimely death caused by pneumonia.” These meeting points in the death of these authors provide an anecdotal dimension to our commemoration of Nwapa. Life goes on while death carries on its tireless dance, invigorated by accident and illness. Sardonically, Barthes's abstract play with death turns into a veritable danse macabre, or, as Ama Ata Aidoo declares of our postcolonial neurosis in Our Sister Killjoy, the “dance of the masquerades” is being performed with a vengeance.

Moving from the international scene to an African, gender-specific concern about Barthes's Author, what happens when there is no reader, or the writer is practically her only reader? In short, what happens when there is a dea(r)th of readers? What happens if only a few people (mis)read Nwapa's works? What happens when a writer is not recognized as an author especially by her own child? For example, Nwapa's son, Uzoma Nwakuche, considered her only as a mother rather than a woman with numerous roles, including that of writer. Her death and people's response to it brought home to him the incongruity of his assessment.1 Thus, the invalidation of the African woman as novelist, the birth of a certain type of theory, as well as the dearth of scholarship on African women's writing are chronic, petty warfare that kill her as Author.

In this commemorative volume, we will pay homage to Nwapa through the exhilarating interaction of author, text, and critic. Certain aspects of her texts validate such a collaborative effort. I will explore the movement from birth to death and the interstitial spaces occupied by health, illness, and recovery to see how they impact on her writing. Since the most chronic maladies chronicled by Nwapa are childlessness and madness, I will dwell on their figurative uses because they in/validate three vital aspects of the body politic—Law, Religion, and Medicine.


In the midst of preparing for a big move from Nigeria to the United States to take up a professorial appointment, Flora Nwapa, according to information from Nwakuche, was first struck down by arthritis, then pneumonia. Successfully retreating from the arthritic zone, she, unfortunately, succumbed to the attack by pneumococci, to employ the commonplace “military metaphor in medicine” (Sontag 65). At this twist of events, one is tempted to draw a Nigerian, juju conclusion in an attempt to grapple with trauma. Apparently, her ogbanje2 companions in the other world, with their inveterate tendency to meddle with the world of the living, did not approve of her imminent exile, however temporary. They claimed her for their own, keeping her permanently for communion in her natal Ugwuta, in Nigeria, where she lies buried. Though Nwapa died at the age of 62, her death is “untimely,” since she preceded her mother. In this final venture, she definitively affirms her precocity as an ogbanje.

She reminds me of Christopher Okigbo—the artist as an ogbanje—as constructed by Catherine Acholonu. As writers, Nwapa and Okigbo were inevitably ensnared in the “Labyrinths” of an ogbanje existence, living in and writing from an Igbo, juju imaginary. For the ogbanje, birth/life is death and death is life/birth, depending on the cycle in this world or the other. Ahead of her time and deconstructing the works of her male contemporaries, Nwapa carved a feminine space out of this cultural imaginary with her novels. She placed Uhamiri, the female water deity known as the Woman of the Lake or Mammywata, at its center. By problematizing Uhamiri's mythical and tumultuous relationship with her irascible husband, Urashi, the male river god, Nwapa introduced the controversy around gender relationships formally into the national discourse. Thus, she locates for women the site of their disenchantment which they personally feel, privately discuss, but do not openly name. Her subtext is the fate of a nation with her women absent: the result is a babel, with Nigeria mired in a chaotic crossroads. The present absence of Mammywata as an inspiriting resource to resolve these troubling issues echoes through her texts. Performing a balancing act in a pluralistic Nigeria, Nwapa uses the Mammywata figure for psychosocial ends. The call to return to a maternal source seems heartwarming in cultures that practice polygyny.

When people fail to acquiesce with her resolution in the enervating power struggles, like an ogbanje, she opts out through an early departure for a more amenable other place. Death plays that inevitable role in Nwapa's personal drama. In text after text, her writings emanate from her life, even as her life seems uncannily modeled after her writings. As an ogbanje, her displeasure with gender and other inequities that cause Nigeria to flounder is manifest in her subtle and mischievous attempts to destabilize the status quo in her texts. The quiet rebel, charmingly self-effacing, had completed her duty as a daughter.

Shifting from the mystical in celebrating Nwapa's passing, I cannot help pondering on death in literal terms, particularly those troops that attack the body to precipitate the (un)desirable outcome. This naturally arouses curiosity about the literal and figurative uses of illness and death in her texts. Whether the writer writes her life and/or lives her writing, Nwapa's relationship to her first novel, Efuru, is fascinating. Like Efuru, Nwapa, a first in so many ways,3 was an illustrious woman. It comes as no surprise that, in the majority of her writings, she harps on the fates of the successful woman and the nation in a place with little faith in its women. Nwapa, like Efuru, or Efuru, like Nwapa, learns the secret of genuine harmony by developing an intense relationship with the Lady of the Lake, the Mother who controls the destiny of Ugwuta, a microcosmic Nigeria. Nwapa empties Efuru of all concerns about marriage, so that Efuru can finally immerse herself in worshipping Uhamiri, thereby uncovering a new vista away from the debilitating warfare of the marital zone as presently constituted. Nwapa thus accommodates the childless, the husbandless, the educated, and the distinguished woman, forced to make do with the limiting spaces allotted them in society. She magically transforms these outcasts into the category of the new woman who can help to reconstruct the community. Nwapa, herself, shrouded in Uhamiri's mysteries, bequeaths us4 with yet another manuscript, The Lake Goddess,5 as if she were an ecofeminist. Its title indicates Nwapa's continued fascination with the maternal and cleansing agency emanating from the metaphysical dimension of a body of water as a holistic, ecological system. With her fierce independence and tender female caring as signs of her authority, Uhamiri furnishes the new woman with a deeply sustaining and insightfully spiritual model.

Deemed childless, Uhamiri, or Mammywata,6 as a religious construct, embodies the contradictions in our elemental biological and social realities, since she is simultaneously a deity and a body of water teeming with marine life and people incessantly using her. But she who is called Mother is also referred to as childless, shifts that are bafflingly self-negating. The unconscious undercutting of female agency speaks to the complex relationship between Nwapa, whom scholars glibly refer to as the Mother of the African novel by women, and the critic who (mis)reads her or reads her too narrowly. Nwapa's limiting and limited reception ultimately impacts on our critical lives. In spite of us, Nwapa-Uhamiri's tough strength exemplifies female authority. In affirming the female principle, Nwapa reminds us that Uhamiri never wants to and can never be Urashi, as she claims a domain for herself to escape the geopolitical dislocation7 inherent in woman's lot in attaining certain types of success.

The interplay between author and character speaks to the two most important things that we do in life—being born, that is, coming into life, a drama enacted with our mother in the lead role, since the father is inevitably absent or acts as audience in this initiative process, and dying, that is, leaving life, a drama accomplished alone. Birth and death are intricately connected with Medicine, Law, and Religion. Malady, malignancy, maladministration, malaise are crucial areas that speak to the living of a life and the leaving it. These issues intensely impact on Nwapa's life and writing. Her novels—Efuru,Idu,Never Again,One Is Enough,Women Are Different, and the unpublished manuscript, The Lake Goddess—short stories, poetry, and children's books are, in miniature, representations of Nigeria in different (post)colonial phases. They direct and enhance our reading of the African world as they help to shape and identify quality circles within it. Each of the novels diagnoses the signs and symptoms of the characters and the community/country, all suffering from maladies whose prognoses she articulates. Since the outcome of every illness is wellness or fatality (Sontag 72), Nwapa, in a precautionary or apocalyptic mood, inscribes in each novel recovery, stasis, decadence, or death, as the individual's destiny is figuratively entwined with the community's.

Illnesses, mental and physical, with or without visible pain, therefore, abound in the novels. Without gender specificity, infertility and madness (conflating with spirit possession in The Lake Goddess) recur so often that Nwapa is clearly using them figuratively to identify the communal crises. Ulcerous sores and eating disorder in both men and women in Efuru and Idu, malaria in Efuru, rabies and a doglike existence in Idu, craw-craw, leprosy, and kwashiorkor in Never Again, plus unnamed and psychosomatic illnesses are part of a discourse on societal disintegration. The sickest community is the war-torn Ugwuta in Never Again. Located between the spaces occupied by Nigeria and Biafra, Ugwuta, as a fledgling entity, degenerates into an amorphous mortuary. Since, geographically and psychologically, Ugwuta is simultaneously part of Biafra and Nigeria, its stench emanates from these countries and signals their demise as we know them. Nwapa had prepared us for this tragic turn in her two preceding novels with the general ennui in Efuru and Idu. Appearing in mid-career as a novelist, Nwapa sandwiches Never Again between the first and last two novels. In her saga of the disruptive forces in Nigerian social history, its ambience prepares us for the decadence in One Is Enough and Women Are Different. Nwapa, as well as her female characters, as “daughters-of-the-soil” (and water), put up some resistance. Her clarion call is for action among the rulers and the ruled and among men and women to heal the sick society; or, to continue the mortuary metaphor, she wants the treacherous old ways buried to make possible the rebirth of the country and its peoples.

Communities emerging from Fanonic, colonial violence suffer withdrawal symptoms, the characteristic postcolonial traumatic syndrome. Inertia, chaos, and disorientation set in, and these ephemeral, disruptive forces must run their course for healing and progress to take place. Conscious that we must tackle the disquieting syndrome in order to move on, Nwapa battles with these dispiriting phases in Nigeria in her last two published novels, resalting a sore. Many readers find her construction of the nation's excruciating dilemma so traumatizing that they protect themselves by dismissing the novels.

But all is not hopeless in Nwapa's oeuvres. The oxymoronic concept of a creative war is embedded in them. Marital war forms the core of Efuru (1966). In this context, marriage as the site for contest(e)s in the creating of life is important as her version of the marital war focuses on the issue of childlessness. Her concern is with couples who cannot fulfill their potential, with special interest on the scapegoating of women. Her procreative ambition thwarted, Efuru broadens the scope of motherhood by adopting a spiritually creative model that is beneficial to the entire community, including herself. Only a childless female like Uhamiri, who has become the mistress of a creative situation by emerging as the mother of a whole town, can heal a woman such as Efuru. Hence, Uhamiri's commandment of celibacy for her devotees, particularly Efuru, shifts the discourse on the void implicit in barrenness to the concreteness of the rituals that spiritualize a new type of parenthood in communal responsibility. Celibacy also speaks to a traditional construction of wifehood. In an Amadiumean move, Efuru worships Uhamiri not only as daughter but also as Uhamiri's wife. This marital connection addresses the problem of childlessness while upholding the ideal, Igbo, celibate marriage between two women which the British in their terror of lesbianism precipitately abolished.

Nonetheless, the most distressing and pervasive malady in Nwapa's oeuvres is childlessness. Paradoxically, it is fecund, generating text after text, even as Nwapa employs it figuratively to lament the lack of a fertile, Nigerian, female, writing tradition in English and participation in Nigerian sociopolitical reconstruction. Infertility engenders the ultimate anxiety of a void—the end of a lineage and a legacy; unfortunately, this remains unrefuted or tragically refuted, as we shall see later in Idu. In woman, infertility speaks to an unoccupied or wasted body space, while in man it conjures up wasted or unviable seeds, an intriguing farming turn to human reproduction. Not having a child seems to limit one's access to the profound secret of the future. As a metaphor, it concerns a lack of foresight.

Little Ogonim's death in Efuru can be read in this context. Her convulsion shakes Efuru's very being, disturbing her mothering to its foundation. After the collapse and her tedious journey through secondary infertility, she has to rebuild by conceiving a different form of mothering with her new spiritual role. Though death at an early age destabilizes patriarchy, childlessness is turned around for religious service to the self and the needy in the community.

The case of the suicide, Amarajeme, in Idu (1970) is not as penetrating as Efuru's. Being male, his virility is supremely important, for he never appeals to Uhamiri, though he could have. Rather, he is part of the cosmic mysteries manifested in the eclipse of the sun, a sign of the dislocation and disorientation of the entire body politic. As the bloody Nigerian civil war was coming to its end in 1970 when the novel appeared, Idu reminds us of the collapse of the ancient Bini Kingdom, referred to as Idu in Igbo folktale repertoire. Idu, the titular female protagonist, lives in an equally vertiginous community. She decides to end her life through starvation, thereby resisting the role of the disenfranchised widow who must submit to levirate. Since she is pregnant when she dies, this Uhamiri devotee, with her primary and secondary infertility crises already resolved, problematizes the issue of childlessness only to turn it on its head. Women's needs, Nwapa seems to be stating, go beyond the child-childless horizontal axis. Intersecting it is the vertical axis along which woman must be credited as a decision-making personality, not just a vessel, empty or filled. In other words, Nwapa appeals against the death sentence implicitly passed on daughters through Nigeria's misusing or failing to use their know-how. Her stance appears insurrectionary in giving woman visibility by pleading her case. She deliberately names this novel, like her first, after a woman, to make a political statement, cleverly linking it with the pidgin E do (the pronunciation of Idu) ‘cut the nonsense,’ with reference to the civil wars—gender and ethnic—and the pervasive corrupting system. The curt wordplay exemplifies her benignant power and accentuates her role as disciplinarian teacher and materfamilias, and is obviously on the warpath to inform in order to effect peace and justice. Through Idu as symbol, Nwapa addresses the man-made hazards that destabilize the society. In the event that the problems enunciated in Idu go unnoticed, Nwapa zeroes in directly on the civil war in Never Again (1975) to drive home her point.

This war novella focuses on the numerous signs of a dysfunctional society. For example, craw-craw's eternal itch, a sign of filth and a felt but unseen evil, afflicts the narrator in Never Again: “I felt some thing crawling on my hands. When I examined them closely I found swellings from almost invisible insects. I slapped promptly, killing several of them. There were swellings all over my hands. In a short time I would suffer from craw-craw. My God! Craw-craw! I, suffer from craw-craw” (67). That embarrassing, private itch of the only female narrator to write herself into Nwapa's novels indicates a pervasive communal discomfort. It not only reminds the elite of their inescapability from the human condition and mortality, it also demonstrates the difficulties experienced by woman in creating history. Little details personalize the telling to authenticate the outcome. Like ephemeral arthritis, craw-craw temporarily incapacitates the hands vital for writing the tale. Nonetheless, the tale about the horrendous civil war, the craw-craw with which Nigeria infected itself, must be told from a woman's perspective. On looking back, this female telling is the only progeny from the scabious water-landscape of Ugwuta-Nigeria, pockmarked by constant eruptions.

As we have seen, with the death of the pregnant Idu, Nwapa insists that having a child is not necessarily fulfilling, hence Idu's deadly eating disorder. The deaths of Idu's unborn child and the unnamed woman's in Never Again allude to the waste of Nigeria's human and material potential, especially the death of the newborn nation, Biafra, an extension or replica of Nigeria. In the face of the decimation of women and their children in war, it is absurd to expect pregnant women to readily provide truculent men with future cannon fodder. In peace time when woman is objectified like the widowed Idu or in war time when woman labors in the open, literally sowing her seed by the wayside, pregnancy degenerates into zero power.

Those women who do not resist by dying are virilized, the so-called “he” women like Efuru or Ojiugo, Idu's friend. When men fail or are unable to reproduce patriarchy, out of choice like the priest Father McLaid in One Is Enough or through infertility like Amarajeme, Ojiugo's husband in Idu, there are far-reaching consequences in a culture obsessed with having children. The infertile Amarajeme commits suicide in the mistaken notion that every man must reproduce patriarchy. As a husband in love with his wife, he appears feminized by the intensity of such a relationship, and, consequently, he has no place in the community.

The sex-role reversal of the feminized Amarajeme and his wife, the virilized Ojiugo, is crucial in dismantling patriarchal marriage while playing the game of stereotypicity. Ojiugo ventures to have an outside child like a man; Amarajeme sits at home like a woman, humiliated, suffering from an eating disorder which culminates in his suicide. By becoming an invalid, he invalidates himself, erroneously seeking control and legitimization by mistreating his body as women often do in anorexia nervosa. Unfortunately, by taking his life, he further devalues himself in a community where suicide is a taboo and the corpse is trash. His is the ultimate catch-22 in this cultural maze.

Nwapa returns to issues of gender to address the rabid sexism of the society and the Roman Catholic Church in One Is Enough (1981). Female resistance takes the form of a dare, knocking out the husband in a serendipitous victory in the marital zone, only to advance to profane the priestly space. Miraculously for the erstwhile childless Amaka, the protagonist, her invasive actions turn her into a mother. Turning around the idea of invasion as destructive and ironizing the notion of the childless priest as Father, Nwapa transforms the Reverend McLaid into the father of Amaka's twin sons. The virilized Amaka, a revised version of Efuru in modern day discourse, thus challenges the priest's abnormal choice and tempts him to break his vows of celibacy. Their twins are a sign of repetition, doubling, and seeing double, as Foucault puts it in a different context (Death 90); with the two boys Nwapa doubly affirms the male. Interestingly, McLaid goes on to study clitoridectomy as one of his people's backward practices that must be eradicated. It takes a fallen priest to stand up for female sexuality.

This post-war novel explores marital war to establish the need for a truce. Amaka retreats from the war zone, and, like any resourceful Uhamiri's daughter, she finds wealth and children to boot through exploiting her erotic power. The blessing of the twin sons nullifies the necessity for marriage, since the writer reserves a space for the male in the emerging schema. Amaka represents the new mother. Ex-wife (or part-time wife, as is increasingly becoming the case), single, wealthy, and independent, the new mother prominently occupies the contemporary national space which delegitimizes the notion of illegitimacy. With female independence thus instituted, one husband is not just enough. Indeed, one might be too much. This pill is difficult for male critics to swallow as birth control gives way to husband control or the death of the husband.

The next stage of Nwapa's saga plays out in Women Are Different (1986). She continues to chronicle the alarmingly anomic and decadent phenomena of contemporary urban Nigeria. As marriages teeter and men fail to live up to their self-appointed leadership role, the nation moves inevitably toward a dystopia. With the repercussions apparent within and beyond Nigeria's borders, Nwapa, again as teacher and mother, is telling a cautionary tale in the oral tradition. In Women Are Different, women's participation in formal, Western education is not wasted. However, it takes a toll on the Nigerian marriage as women become feminazified, assertively claiming equal, polygamous rights like men rather than passively accepting polygyny only to anguish privately as their mothers do or did. The failed marriages and the resultant dysfunctional families are signifiers of the disruptive conditions of a nation that can be categorized as critically ill. We will soon know whether it is terminal or whether Nigeria can miraculously recover as she has stubbornly done in the past. Since the choric protagonists named the Three Musketeers are not armed in the nuclear fashion of twentieth-century warriors, Nwapa leaves us with some hope of picking up the pieces.

As Uhamiri's daughter, Nwapa serendipitously ends her writing career, which has taken sacredly profane turns, by dutifully returning to her religious beginnings with The Lake Goddess. This almost sacred text, a voice from beyond the grave, as it were, is apocalyptic and oracular. Its insights encourage us to explore our roots for learning and healing, her objective in her poetry, children's stories, and short fiction.

Thus, central to Nwapa's works is the need to access some intercessory force for recovery. The recuperation of the invalid(ated), who, metaphorically, represents our humanity, our country, shows her far-reaching vision. Efuru recovers from burying her dead (her daughter and her father), the trauma of separation from her two husbands, the tragedy of her childless state, and her enervating, psychosomatic illness. She emerges after her deep sleep healed, to philosophize on a puzzle. Why do women worship a childless deity? Though this question is problematic since men also worship Uhamiri, Efuru worships her to gain peace of mind. However, by posing this abstruse question at the end of the novel, Nwapa offers no closure. Instead, she opens an opportunity for (wo)men to respond to her. They have generated texts, dwelling on the child(lessness) and rarely producing adult texts where children feature in their own right.8 Perhaps people worship a childless deity because they want recovery by shifting the discourse on success and childlessness to institute a dialogue on a new style of mothering or rather parenting. This will demonstrate Nigeria's primary commitment to her children's welfare rather than privileging success from a Nigerian military perspective. Childlessness emerges as a state of mind, not a condition: Idu ends cataclysmically with the suicides of an infertile man and a pregnant woman. With the cessation of war in Never Again, there are prospects for reconstruction. Childlessness, the troubled marriage, and the spiritual void experienced in Christianity as an imposed religion are revisited in One Is Enough. In Women Are Different, the deracinated elite in Nigeria continue to corrupt the body politic.

For renewal, Nwapa returns to the indigenous, religious source Uhamiri in The Lake Goddess. With the quest for spiritual strength in the return to African traditional religions in times of great stress and uncertainty, she comes full circle to the concerns that gripped her at the beginning of her writing career, when Nigeria's newborn independence was fragile. Ogbanje that she is, she leaves behind an unpublished manuscript dramatizing the battle between Christianity and indigenous religions for the souls of the people. Tellingly, she entrusts this final manuscript to the Jamaican professor, Chester Mills, to father, as she had trusted Chinua Achebe with her first. Her friend, the Ethiopian Kassahun Checole of Africa World Press, will midwife the production as her life's work continues in spite of her death. The womanist in her leads her to these gestures of goodwill with men at home and abroad, thereby paving the way for collaboration (inter)nationally across the gender divide. Since as woman her work is never done, she freely joins Mother-Husband Uhamiri, both talking to us through her texts as they play the teasing games of present-absence and absent-presence.


Sontag asserts that

Illness expands by means of two hypotheses. The first is that every form of social deviation can be considered an illness. … The second is that every illness can be considered psychologically. … The two hypotheses are complementary. As the first seems to relieve guilt, the second reinstates it. Psychological theories of illness are a powerful means of placing the blame on the ill.


This postulate helps to illuminate our reading of gender divisions in Nwapa's works. The de facto end of Efuru's first marriage is the moment when her husband fails to return home to attend the funeral of their only child Ogonim or to mourn with his wife. His abnormal response to the painful turn of events is a symptom of the chronic condition of marriage and the family. Quite tellingly also, Efuru's second marriage ends equally bizarrely in relation with another death. When her mediocre husband, Eneberi, serving time for an undisclosed crime, commits a terrible faux pas by not participating in his father-in-law's funeral and without proffering an excuse, he has coffined their marriage. He seems to have the power of self-definition by renaming himself Gilbert. However, the subordination of this superordinate male is marked by his jail term. As neo-natives, these men dwell in no man's land. In spite of the husbands' reduced status, on each deviant occasion, women readily replace Efuru to nurture the husband's bruised and guilty ego back to health. The lack of female solidarity turns Efuru into the castrating female, though she vainly waited for the first husband and stood loyally by the second in spite of his crime and imprisonment.

Yet, when Efuru is prostrate from an illness without a name, presumably patriarchal marriage, Eneberi's reaction is to read “disease as a punishment for wickedness,” as Sontag explains another aspect of her hypotheses (41). Eneberi projects his guilt about his adultery and outside child by falsely accusing Efuru of adultery in an insidious attempt to control her. Incensed by his lack of reciprocity, Ajanupu, one of Efuru's communal mothers, prostrates Enebiri by knocking him down symbolically with a pestle. Moving from the gender wars to the spiritual plane, Efuru's illness can be read psychologically. Its psychosomatic presentation is Uhamiri's divine prodding for Efuru to leave patriarchal marriage with its distractions behind her. Thus untrammeled, she can carry out her religious functions in a more committed fashion, and the community can then recognize her as Mother and mediatrix. Uhamiri's presence upholds justice and restores equilibrium.

In a contrasting development, Uhamiri's absence in Never Again precipitates madness. The chaos in war-torn Ugwuta, the narrator Kate's disorientation (an example of the mad leading the mad), and Ezekoro's dislocation are riveting case histories. Ezekoro “was a mad man. For several years, he was deaf and dumb. Then miraculously he regained his speech, and he talked and talked and talked” (62). To be afflicted with madness, deafness, dumbness, and to recover only to be plagued by garrulousness in the midst of war suggest serious self-limiting problems and challenges in interpersonal communications. This is orature gone amok. Ezekoro as a monomaniac is, in microcosm, the nation at war with itself; he represents the breakdown of communication between the author and the audience. With combatants failing to heed one another, unrelenting propaganda exacerbates the bloody war. Ezekoro mindlessly heads for his demise as he returns to the besieged Ugwuta, ostensibly to defend her. This is the death of the unheeded Author.

Another graphic scene involving madness occurs in The Lake Goddess in the marketplace. A naked, violent madman, potent with his erection, throws the market into disarray. Arrested at a moment of possibility, this madman will never find fulfillment nor will he sow his seed, for the market women prevent the madwoman who is able to communicate with him from teaching him “the art of madness.” This grotesque vignette is reminiscent of the Nietzschean madman who shatters his lantern in the marketplace only to declare, “God is dead” (Kaufmann 95). The silencing of the artist and the lack of response by his/her audience drive all involved in the literary project to a dead-end. With our giddy reception, we extinguish the artist's creative spark. In addition to these metaphorical implications, the handling of the mentally ill epitomizes the country's haphazard governmental system. The manuscript ends with the protagonist, the priestess of the Lake Goddess, the spirit-possessed Ona-Ezemiri, practicing her “mad” art in a climactic outpouring. Its lyricism renews the troubled clients before whom she performs. Homeopathically, the “madness” of traditional religious inspiration ensures homeostasis, but men need to be healers also, not disruptive elements.

The debilitating effect of their actions on the quality of life is cause for alarm about Nigeria's social condition which often appears suicidal. Sontag's comments on a different text might enhance our reading of the situation of Nigeria as pariah: “In the Middle Ages, the leper was a social text in which corruption was made visible, an exemplum, an emblem of decay. Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning—that meaning being invariably a moralistic one” (58). The social disease spreads as fast as AIDS on the pages of Women Are Different. In Efuru, Eneberi metamorphoses into Gilbert, a colonial creation marked for his cultural move toward whiteness. Paradoxically, whiteness is the sign of social advancement as well as the condition of the leper. Following his stint in jail, he becomes a pariah. For black men, imprisonment is like leprosy, a white scourge, a badge of shame. To cope with the contagion, Eneberi-Gilbert resorts to woman-bashing. He has the gall to deliberately misread Efuru as adulteress while failing to read himself. His ultimate invalidation becomes located in his meaningless English name which his wife cannot pronounce. As gibberish, he seems to be a lost cause. Of course, it is more interesting to read Nigeria as a postcolonial Frankenstein, let loose on the free-trading world. Her metier is drug trafficking in Women Are Different, which speaks to the slave trade in Efuru, and conning the first world in an exchange resembling the spread of the dreaded consumption.

With time, however, people sometimes lose their dread for certain diseases and overlook delinquents. In a calculated move, Nwapa links another disease with leprosy: “Kwashiorkor was a deadly disease of children, more deadly in Biafra than leprosy. Leprosy was not feared any more. Lepers mingled with people these days” (Never Again 25). When an infectious disease is accepted and displaced by something more deadly that attacks the future generation, the moral and spiritual harm in the society spreads. Since kwashiorkor is preventable with a balanced diet, Nwapa problematizes parental and national irresponsibility toward children. Adult delinquency in peace and wartime generates a careless attitude and unpreparedness for the future of the country.

In the political confusion, death is the most democratic factor in life, because each person dies of some malady. Rigor mortis, the rigor of life, and the rigor of the completed text are inflexible. Nwapa manages to turn the cessation of activity in the deceased into a catalyst, forcing us continuously to (re)assess the text(s) of a life bequeathed to us. While we are still alive, we foolishly flee from death, though we do not know where it is lurking at any one moment. Yet, every move we make inevitably leads us toward it since we must meet death down the road of life. Nwapa recognizes such behavior in a world gone awry. The restlessness becomes more pronounced in a war as Kate, the narrator in Never Again, so poignantly describes:

After fleeing from Enugu, Onitsha, Port Harcourt and Elele, I was thoroughly tired of life. Yet how tenaciously could one hold on to life when death was around the corner! Death was too near for comfort in Biafra. And for us who had known no danger of this kind before, it was hell on earth. I meant to live at all costs. I meant to see the end of the war. Dying was terrible. I wanted to live so that I could tell my friends on the other side what it meant to be at war—a civil war at that, a war that was to end all wars. I wanted to tell them that reading it in books was nothing at all; they just would not understand it. I understood it. I heard the deadly whine of shells. No books taught us this. And no teachers made us hear shells when they taught us about the numerous wars staged in Western Europe and America. But they couldn't have made us hear shelling. They had not heard it themselves. Their teachers had not heard it either.


But Nwapa had. For self-preservation, the civilian in a war instinctively travels like the ogbanje, always searching for safe havens that inevitably turn to warring zones. Thus is instituted the eternal longing for the other place. However, the secret for survival is to know when and how to move before a haven becomes a hell. This is the maze of life and the meaning of our constant quest and striving. Vodka, the only drink available in Biafra briefly basking under USSR support, transports the civilian through Russian waters to imaginary heights to enable him to endure the birth-death throes of a Biafra. This paradox and its oxymoronic counterpart, the stillborn state, capture the factor of life and death as coterminous states. Sudden death is, indeed, disorienting. “The woman who had spoken a few minutes ago was a corpse. Was death so quick? Was it as quick as it was cruel? What was the cause of death?” asks the distraught narrator (Never Again 58). Obviously, there are no clear boundaries between birth, life, and death. However, in spite of war and death being commonplace, the reader receives reassurance of recovery. At least, one person will survive the holocaust to tell the story—the maddened woman whose narrative in the open confessional of the autobiographical mode disseminates knowledge of the bloodiness and wastefulness of war. She heals herself magically by dissociating herself from lying propaganda and telling her war story—a female version which has hitherto gone unheard—that more women and children die or are injured in wars than male soldiers. Telling her story generates hearing voices.

On the spiritual level, God the Christian father suffers a displacement. His gender betrays him as a warlord whom the women gradually replace with the more amenable mater, Uhamiri. She delivers the town from the throes of war. In the crises of life, the Nigerian secretly seeks and finds women who lead the devotee to traditional sources. This mystical business contrasts with the open flirting with the Christian God during the good times. Geography and spiritual mysteries conjoin in the realm of metaphysics. Uhamiri's stolidity as represented by the still lake waters insures Ugwuta's defense. Thus, the connectedness of birth and death which runs through Barthes's text and Foucault's Death and the Labyrinth as the most basic link is also inherent in Nwapa's texts. Nwapa's distinctive contribution in representing the interrelatedness between life and death has an ogbanje mark that is memorably coded in the themes of childlessness, the birth of madness, and the deaths of pregnant women.

Other deaths in Nwapa's oeuvres are valid inferences of a collapsing system. The death of the genuine dibia in Efuru is equivalent to the closing of a clinic or hospital, the loss of an encyclopedia of traditional medicine, the death of a way of life geared toward recovery. When the authentic healer dies or the Western-trained doctor goes on exile leaving quacks or neophytes behind in ill-equipped hospitals, who will heal the sick? This is the African dilemma; this was Nwapa's final problem. Furthermore, the death of the aged results conveniently in communal amnesia. The death of Efuru's father has a historical resonance. The old man dies with the secret surrounding the amassing of wealth through dealing in slaves in the past, a horrendous history which Nigerians ignore. The consequences of denial haunt us. In contemporary times, the elite's continued wheeling and dealing with the West and its tragic results, as depicted in Women Are Different, date back to the sins of the fathers. The death of the aged is Nwapa's metaphor concerning the values of hindsight. The questionable basis of Western- style capitalism as manifested in the corrupt amassing of wealth by the nouveaux riches in Nigeria based on the dea(r)th endured by others continues to plague the country. The decadence captured in Nwapa's last two published novels, One Is Enough and Women Are Different, are clarion calls for Nigerians to redefine how men and women should live. If we fail to heed her, we will hear more than the deadly whine of shells.


Is this then “Apocalypse Now”? Nwapa's final vision in Women Are Different is meant to orient in spite of its disorientation. Leaving this calamitous milieu to return to the soothing influence of Uhamiri in The Lake Goddess reassures and revitalizes. The rehabilitative agenda of Uhamiri is crucial in all the texts. As a female, she speaks to woman's traditional, salvationary role. As a deity, she performs a spiritual function. As a body of water, the lake itself serves a domestic need, suffusing Nwapa's writings with a cleansing and healing aura. Without water there can be no birth or life; Uhamiri's presence affirms both. But one can drown in her waters if one is not careful. Therefore birth and death are associated with her. As she is indispensable in Ugwuta life, so she is deeply connected with our reading of Nwapa's fiction, for she provides the essentials for understanding its spiritual and national subtexts. Uhamiri's role is therefore recuperative, because water aids recovery. As her votaress, Nwapa remains as invigorating as her deity. Reading her resurrects Uhamiri even as the lake remains perpetually in place.

Ultimately, Nwapa's narrativity skillfully negotiates between competing worlds—life and death, health and illness, reality and fiction, the current world and the ogbanje's male and female spaces, the West and Africa, the oral and the written modes with their endless reinterpretations. In obliterating the antithesis implicit in these conflicting categories, her art catalyzes our being with its oracular and spiritually charged ambience. What difference, then, does knowing and loving an author in life make to our reading of her text, especially after her death, when that is all that remains as a sign of our connection, of her continued talking to us? Being in touch with her engenders insights and incites the shaman in us: three ogboni, it becomes multiple is my proselytizing conclusion. When numerous pneumococci are on the warpath and there are no seasoned doctors or genuine drugs to stay their course, or Uhamiri invites her daughter-wife to come to the other place, what else can one say? “Sweet” Flora Nwapa has died; long live the other, Author Flora Nwapa.


  1. Information from Marie Umeh's interview with Uzoma Nwakuche.

  2. Acholunu, in her development of the Igbo concept of ogbanje as a (w)reckless spirit, and Niyi Osundare, in the Yoruba parallel abiku, emphasize the centrality of a premature death in the struggle which is concomitant with the phenomenon. Also located in the discourse is the ogbanje's precocity. The troubling issue of his/her ambiguity Osundare epitomizes in the concept of the “living dead.” From all angles, the ogbanje/abiku as a restless, discontented traveler is a disturber of the peace. Our contradictory impulses show love and hate in the attempts to let the creature go and the desperation in wanting the beloved to stay.

  3. For example, Nwapa was the first African woman to publish a full-length novel in English in England. She was the first woman publisher, the first woman to juggle the political role of commissioner with the artistic one of writer. The first of Ugwuta women, she continues to be a model, opening the way to the production of more texts.

  4. Pursuing the ogbanje analogy, one can read Nwapa's texts as her iyi uwa. This is the buried treasure or essence of the ogbanje. The dibia (“traditional doctor”) must help to unearth this treasure during an open exorcism to keep the patient on earth and stem the longing for the other place. In carrying out our critical project on Nwapa, we continue the dibia's enigmatic function, thereby managing to keep her with us even as she dwells in the other place.

  5. The novel will be published posthumously by Africa World Press, according to its spokesperson, Kassahun Checole.

  6. The notion of Mother as Mammy or the commonly used Mummy indicates both a death wish on woman and, paradoxically, the need for her preservation by mummifying her. This tension exists in her hateful role as wife and the glorified one of the eternal mother.

  7. To be successful as wife, for example, the woman has to negotiate her space for her husband to accommodate her. This almost inevitably cramps her. Further, when women are successful in Nwapa's oeuvres, they are read politically as men, a transformative jump that oftentimes makes them inaccessible to other women and further objectifies them as they become placed on a pedestal to share in the power system.

  8. Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood and Eno Obong's Garden House are two such responses with clear umbilical ties to Efuru. However, in both, there is no space, from the children's perspectives, for the reader to view children as children as one can in a text like Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. (Though Emecheta's The Family comes later, it is hardly a response to Nwapa with its different agenda.) This gap in the cultural imaginary represents the notion that the child is to be seen silently.

Flora Nwapa with Marie Umeh (interview date Summer 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4322

SOURCE: “The Poetics of Economic Independence for Female Empowerment: An Interview with Flora Nwapa,” in Research in African Literature, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 22-9.

[In the following interview, Nwapa discusses her writing, her position on feminism, and the role of women in Igbo society.]

Flora Nwapa-Nwakuche, popularly known as Flora Nwapa, Africa's first internationally recognized female novelist and publisher, died of pneumonia on 16 October 1993, at the age of 62 in Enugu, Nigeria. She was buried at Amede's Court in Ugwuta. In what was to be my last conversation with Flora Nwapa-Nwakuche in December 1992, in Scarsdale, New York, when she was on tour in the United States, the renowned author spoke not only of the glory she received as the first African woman to be published internationally, but also unashamedly of her position as a writer globally, coming from a formerly colonized state. Very much in tune with her Ugwuta heritage, Nwapa applauded the androgynous nature of her society. Conversely, she decried the “multiple marginality” she experienced with her Western publisher who regarded her as a “minor writer.” Regarded as a Third World writer, her London publisher did not bother to print and distribute her books locally and internationally when they were in demand as they would have if she came from a so-called “first world” country. According to Nwapa, Heinemann's placing her in the literary backwaters resulted in the piracy of her books in Africa and the death of her voice globally. And as Ama Ata Aidoo once said, when the canonical establishment refuses to promote, print, distribute, read, and critique your books, they kill you creatively (38). Recognizing her status as “other,” Nwapa took it upon herself to distribute her books herself and established Tana Press Limited in 1977 for this purpose. It is my contention that Nwapa's resistance to the canonical politics of her erasure is behind her distancing herself from the term “feminist” to describe her ideological position in global letters. Certainly, Nwapa x-rayed and analyzed her own realities and concluded that sexism is a secondary problem that arises out of race, class, and the exploitation of people of color. Hence, she preferred to identify with Alice Walker's term “womanist,” which reflected the African reality of effacement based on racial difference.

The Eurocentric popular view of the position of African women is one of subordination to husbands, and the repression of talents outside the domestic realm. Despite the asymmetrical nature of some African societies, gifted African women in pre-colonial times were not deterred from playing significant roles exercised by female leaders, such as Moremi, Queen Amina of Zaria, and Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Similarly, Flora Nwapa contends that if she is considered the doyenne of African female writers, the glory goes to the oral historians and griottes who mesmerized her with stories about the mystical powers of Ogbuide, the mother of the lake, her family members of industrious women and men who served as role models, as well as her penchant for service and the pursuit of excellence. Accordingly, in opposition to the belief that women in the Igbo area of Nigeria do not break kola nut, Nwapa informs us that a woman in Ugwuta society who has achieved because of her industry and talent is indeed recognized for her accomplishments and has the privilege of breaking and sharing kola. Of course, this modus operandi points to the complexity and complementary nature of sex roles of some Igbo societies in pre-colonial Africa, which ensured kith and kin that a woman who has distinguished herself would not have her gender mitigated against her. The Ugwuta community is therefore one of those special communities in that status and recognition are not biologically based. Ugwuta society, it appears, subscribes to Victor Uchendu's view that “a child who washes his/her hands, eats with elders.” Indeed, the unit of analysis is the individual. For her courage in exploiting the complementary sex-role system in Ugwuta society, despite the obstacles pioneers must confront and overcome, Flora Nwapa is certainly a phenomenon.

By breaking the silence of women in Nigerian letters, Flora Nwapa has made a name for herself as a major twentieth-century African woman writer. Since the publication of her first novel, Efuru (1966), she had gained an impressive readership in both African and international circles, as well as critical acclaim for her novels: Idu (1970), Never Again (1975), One Is Enough (1981), and Women Are Different (1986). Her two collections of short stories are entitled This Is Lagos and Other Stories (1971) and Wives at War and Other Stories (1975). She has also published a book of prose poems, Cassava Song and Rice Song (1986). Apart from her creative works for an adult readership, Nwapa held the reputation of a fine creator of children's books: Emeka: The Driver's Guard (1972), MammyWater (1979), My Tana Colouring Book (1979), My Animal Number Book (1979), The Miracle Kittens (1980), Journey To Space (1980), and The Adventures of Deke (1980). Her manuscript, The Lake Goddess, will be published posthumously. For her achievements, she received The Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) Award in 1982 from the Federal Government of Nigeria and the University of Ife Merit Award for Authorship and Publishing in 1985, to name only two of the distinguished prizes accorded her. She was also the President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (1989) and a member of PEN International (1991) and the Commonwealth Writers Awards Committee (1992), among the many positions she held during her lifetime.

With the characterizations of her female protagonists in her adult fiction, she complicated female identity as delineated in the literature of Chinua Achebe and his brothers by critiquing both their gender conventions and power relations between men and women in the homestead. Thus, the female literary tradition she initiated was rooted in resistance, a protest against the one- dimensional images of Nigerian women either as wives, mothers, femmes fatales, or rebel girls. Although she has not been given the critical acclaim she deserves, Nwapa's work represents a monumental effort to invent an African female personality and attitude and to define an African female subject narrativistically. Indeed, her explorations of the female psyche link her works theoretically and thematically with womanist writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ifeoma Okoye, and Zaynab Alkali, to name only a few, whose aim is not only to present the female point of view but also to subvert patriarchal authority over women in world literary history. Her canonical contribution to Nigerian letters is, then, a “poetics of economic independence and self-reliance for female empowerment.” Nwapa sets the record straight by the power of the pen. She actually feminizes Nigerian letters as she realistically fictionalizes the shrewd, ubiquitous market women, energetic female farmers, sagacious wives and mothers, and astute women chiefs and priestesses as an integral part of quotidian existence. It is in her fiction that the enterprising African woman takes a stand and demands her rightful place in the halls of global literary history.

Nwapa would have agreed that African men wield a great deal of power in African society. On the other hand, her honest portrayal of Ugwuta women insists on the complementary nature of Ugwuta society beginning with a mixed-gender age grade system, a mystical Lake Goddess, who guarantees women, as well as men, power, prominence, and peace. Indeed, woman is something, an achiever, a go-getter in Ugwuta, not only for her special child-bearing and child-rearing abilities, but also for her potential to benefit her community spiritually, educationally, economically, and psychologically. As Mgbada, the diviner in Nwapa's last novel, The Lake Goddess, tells Ona's husband: “We believe that the Goddess protects us and inspires us to great heights. We believe that no invader from any part of the world can destroy us. We believe that the deity is a beautiful and ageless woman who is partial to women” (208). Coming from this rich tradition where women paddle canoes up, down, across, and beyond Ugwuta Lake, transporting passengers and their wares for a nominal fee, where women are leaders in trade and commerce, where a democratic gender system recognizes talent, regardless of one's sex, where confidence and perfection are nurtured in both females and males, is it any wonder that Flora Nwapa was able to touch the hand of the goddess?

[Marie Umeh:] Congratulations on the publishing and launching of a number of your books with Africa World Press in New Jersey. How does it feel to be so successful? How does it feel to be Africa's first internationally published female writer in the English language?

[Flora Nwapa:] Thank you very much, Marie. It feels good. It feels fulfilling.

What are the rewards and difficulties of being the first African woman writer and publisher in Nigeria?

I've had my ups and downs. In 1966, when Heinemann published Efuru, I did not receive much publicity because Nigeria was in a turmoil. There was a coup d'état in 1966 and the whole system had broken down. And in 1967, I had to go back to Eastern Nigeria, where all the Igbos returned from all over Nigeria. The war was fought for thirty months and when we came back we had to start all over again. It was at this time when I was a minister in East Central State, which is what Enugu was called in those days, that I continued to write again. But my second novel, Idu, was also published by Heinemann in 1970. These are the two books published by Heinemann. After that I thought I should have some African publishing companies distribute my books. That was when Nwamife Publishing Company came out. They were the first to publish This Is Lagos and Never Again. It's been fulfilling. I must say there's been a lot of hard work. There's been a lot of frustration all the same. But the problem in Nigeria is the problem of having a reading public, the people who will appreciate your work. In the '80s and '90s things have been accelerating. But, you discover that not many people can afford to buy books. I was lucky because for the past five years the West African Examination Council, called WAEC, had Efuru on its reading list. It was something that I should have been congratulated for. It should have brought in a lot of money. However, the problem was piracy. Heinemann Publishing Company could not bring out the books on time. Therefore, pirates took over so that writing and publishing didn't make any impact. The school system did not make an impact at all on my earnings.

What advice would you give to women who would like to write?

The advice that I would give to them is, one, they should read and read and read. You have to be a good reader. And you have to be a good listener to be able to write. I think this is the advice that I would give to them. When you hear people asking writers, “Where do you find the time to do all of this?” I tell them that time has little to do with it. If you have a story to tell, the story is there in you and it will haunt you until you tell it. So I would advise them to read and listen.

What circumstances in your life are responsible for the writing of both your adult novels and your children's books?

I read a lot of books. As a child before I went to high school, I listened to a lot of stories, moonlight stories told by the women in Ugwuta. As a child I would call on anybody who promised to tell me a story. I would sit down and listen. And when I went to high school, I had read practically everything that I could find, so that contributed again to my writing. After graduating from Ibadan University in Nigeria and Edinburgh University in London, I came home to Nigeria and I taught at a girls' secondary school. While I was teaching, I discovered I had plenty of time on my hands. I didn't know what to do with it. So, I began to write stories about my schooldays. It was in this process that I began the story of Efuru. It just happened. I started writing the story of this woman and then I went on and on and I discovered that I had a good story to write and a good story to tell. I continued to write until I finished it. There was nothing in me when I was in school that made me feel I was going to be a writer. It was one of those things that just happened. I didn't have the ambition to say, “Oh, Flora, you are going to be a writer, so work towards it.” No, it didn't happen that way. But having written Efuru and having published it, I continued to write. It is difficult to write children's books. But I remember that Christopher Okigbo, in those days when he was working for Cambridge University Press, had asked me to write a children's book. I told him, “OK, Chris, I will do something about it.” I began to write Emeka: The Driver's Guard, and I finished it. Chris had died during the war.1 So I sent my manuscript to London University Press and they published it in 1971. Now when I had my own publishing company, I decided that I needed good books for my growing children. When I went to the book stores, I didn't see anything that was good for my children. That was when I started writing more children's books. I wrote MammyWater in 1979.

Flora, what year did you start your publishing company, Tana Press?

Tana Press was opened in 1976 and business started in 1977 and I published MammyWater in 1979.

Out of all your creative works, which one has given you the most satisfaction? And why?

This is a difficult question to ask, Marie. Similar to Buchi Emecheta, I too feel that books are like your children. It's not easy for one to say that you love one and not the other. They are all good books. I cannot tell you that I like this one or that I like that or, that I prefer this one. It is difficult for me to say.

My favorite novel is One Is Enough. What was the audience's reaction to One Is Enough?

Hmmm. It is hard to say. But let me tell you what happened. One Is Enough was published in 1982. And a friend of mine who read the book came to me and told me that One Is Enough was a true story of a friend. I did not know her friend. It was three years after this, when I was at a funeral, that another friend came along and said, “Look, the lady you wrote about in that story is in this audience.” I couldn't believe it. So the lady came over, shook my hand, and said, “Mrs. Nwakuche, I heard so much about this book. People say it is my story. I haven't read it; so I don't know whether it's my story or not.” But she didn't feel bad about it. What I want to say is this: after the war in 1970, things changed a great deal in Nigeria. During the war, that is the Nigerian Civil War, women saw themselves playing roles that they never thought they would play. They saw themselves across the enemy lines, trying to trade, trying to feed their children and caring for their husbands. At the end of the war, you could not restrict them any more. They started enjoying their economic independence. So what they tolerated before the war, they could no longer tolerate. For example, if you discovered that your marriage is not giving you satisfaction or that your in-laws are worrying you because you have not produced a male child or a female child, whatever the case may be, you can just decide to leave that family and go to the big city. The big city at that time was Lagos, where you were anonymous, where nobody seemed to care what you do for a living. So I think I wouldn't presume that One Is Enough had an impact on Nigerians. I would presume that all One Is Enough is about is the story of what is happening in male/female relationships in Nigeria today.

You are indeed a prolific writer: eight adult works and seven children's books. Have your books been translated into other languages?

Yes, Efuru has been translated into French. Unfortunately, up to now, I do not have a copy. Efuru has also been translated into the Icelandic language.

Which writers do you admire? And outside of your literary foremothers who expressed themselves in the oral tradition, which literary artists have influenced your writings?2

I would say that Chinua Achebe influenced me a great deal. He influenced me in my adult life. But as a young girl in school, many writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and Charles Dickens, also influenced me a great deal.3

In addition to your enthusiasm for storytelling, do you have a sense of mission? What is your purpose in writing?

I write because I want to write. I write because I have a story to tell. There is this urge always to write and put things down. I do not presume that I have a mission. If you continue to read my books, maybe you could find the mission. But I continue to write because I feel fulfilled. I feel satisfied in what I'm doing.

Are there any autobiographical elements in your creative writing?

None! I am not like Efuru, neither am I like Idu, neither am I Amaka in any way.

What do you think of Léopold Sédar Senghor and Ali Mazrui's statements that “African women have always been liberated”? In other words, is there any truth in the statement?

For me, yes! In Ugwuta, women have certain rights that women elsewhere, in other parts of the country, do not have. For instance, in Ugwuta, a woman can break the kola nut where men are.4 If she is old, or if she has achieved much or if she has paid the bride price for a male relation and that member of the family is there, she can break the kola nut. And everybody would eat the kola nut. But in certain parts of Igboland, a woman is not even shown a kola nut, not to talk about breaking it.

Now we know why you're a first. It's because the Ugwuta tradition certainly nurtured you into being an independent thinker. It appears that you don't even wince before you perform a task.

Thank you, Marie.

The critic Katherine Frank, in an article entitled “Women Without Men: The Feminist Novel in Africa,” describes you as a radical feminist. What is your opinion of this assessment?

I don't think that I'm a radical feminist. I don't even accept that I'm a feminist. I accept that I'm an ordinary woman who is writing about what she knows.5 I try to project the image of women positively. I attempt to correct our menfolks when they started writing, when they wrote little or less about women, where their female characters are prostitutes and ne'er-do-wells. I started writing to tell them that this is not so. When I do write about women in Nigeria, in Africa, I try to paint a positive picture about women because there are many women who are very, very positive in their thinking, who are very, very independent, and very, very industrious.

What do you perceive to be the major ideological difference between male and female writing in Nigeria?

The male writers have disappointed us a great deal by not painting the female character as they should paint them. I have to say that there's been a kind of an ideological change. I think male writers are now presenting women as they are. They are not only mothers; they are not only palm collectors; they are not only traders; but they are also wealthy people. Women can stand on their own. My example is Beatrice in Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe. In that novel, Beatrice stands out. She was the one who really understood what was going on. The men were too ideological. They were not actually down to earth. It was Beatrice who was practical.

Certainly, Chinua Achebe's attitude towards women in Anthills of the Savannah, published in 1988, is a far cry from his portrayal of women in Things Fall Apart, published in 1958. What do you feel about Elechi Amadi's female character in his latest novel, Estrangement?

Estrangement is another story which I enjoyed a great deal because Elechi Amadi tried to portray this unfortunate woman in a true picture. He has sympathy for the Nigerian woman. In Estrangement you could see that the heroine was treated very, very positively by the author. All her misfortunes were clearly stated. And the way the author portrayed her showed understanding.

Africa has produced three Nobel Laureates in literature—Wole Soyinka, Naguib Mahfouz, and Nadine Gordimer. What was your immediate reaction to each writer's winning the Nobel Prize for literature?

I was very pleased. I was very excited. I was delighted.

Do you recognize Nadine Gordimer as an African writer? Who is an African writer?

Nadine Gordimer is a white South African. She has been writing for a very long time; she has sympathy for the black South African. She is an African writer.

More and more people, even those in Muslim countries, are moving away from polygamy and polygyny. But in Nigeria they are still common. What do you think about this, since they are affecting the Nigerian family as a unit?

Well, I think it is the society. It is the age that we are in. I think it's going to pass. It started in the '70s and it is going on and on. There is this stigma on a woman who elects to be single. Mothers bring up their daughters telling them that they have to marry. In my own language we say, “No matter how beautiful one is, if she doesn't get married she's nothing.” It's left for us who have received a Western education to de-emphasize this tradition. However, you discover that a woman who has gone to college, who is working, who has a profession, who is a lawyer or a doctor, who doesn't have a husband, then she will not mind being a second wife. In fact, polygamy is becoming very fashionable in Nigeria these days among Western-educated women.

Do you think it's right for people to say that every woman should have a husband and a child?

No! However, I'm telling you about the tradition.6 If you had a child out of wedlock in those days in the community that I grew up in, your child was not legitimate. Nevertheless, things are changing; people are now accepting it. In fact, when I was growing up, if a young girl became pregnant, we viewed her with horror. The child was not baptized. Now when these things happen, the baby is baptized.

Nowadays, do you think a woman would elect to have a child, if a husband is not forthcoming, rather than enter into a polygamous marriage?

Many women are doing this, Marie. Many women are saying that they don't want a husband but they want a child.

So your female character, Amaka, who has twin sons and refuses to marry the father, in One Is Enough, is prophetic?

I think she is, because she, like many women, has had experiences in her married life, with men generally, which were nothing but war.

Do you have a specific message for women? Do you have an ideology or some words of advice?

Yes, I do. I feel that every woman, married or single, must have economic independence. If you look at One Is Enough, I quote an Hausa proverb which says, “A woman who holds her husband as a father dies an orphan.”

My interpretation of the proverb is that a woman should be economically independent. One should not rely on inheritance or men for survival?


Thank you very much.


  1. The Nigerian Civil War took place 1967–70 in the southeastern part of the country.

  2. African women literary artists made their mark in oral literature. They are given prominence in the telling of moonlight stories, educating children through the medium of proverbs, riddles, folktales, song, and dance, as well as singing praise songs at traditional marriage ceremonies and burial ceremonies, to name only a few of the avenues of artistic expressivity practiced by Ugwuta women.

  3. Chinua Achebe, editor of Heinemann's African Writers' Series, read Flora Nwapa's first manuscript, Efuru, and recommended it for publication. Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, is also considered the Father of the Nigerian novel. So he has many literary followers. Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea) and Charles Dickens (The Adventures of Oliver Twist) were read by Nigerian school children when Nigeria was under British rule. So apparently Nwapa studied them.

  4. In a greater part of Igboland, women do not break the kola nut. Kola nut is a status symbol and male preserve; it symbolizes peace, good will, trust, and friendship. However, according to Flora Nwapa, prominent, influential women in the Ugwuta area of Igboland have this right. Perhaps it is because of the power and influence of the mystical Lake Goddess, Ogbuide.

  5. In a conversation with Alison Perry in London, Flora Nwapa describes herself as a womanist, thereby identifying with Alice Walker's term “womanist.” See Walker's definition of “womanist” in the preface of her book In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. Also see Chikwenye Ogunyemi's essay entitled “Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English.”

  6. Flora Nwapa, in her novels Efuru,One Is Enough,Women Are Different, and The Lake Goddess, contends that there are different ways of living one's life fully and fruitfully—marriage is not the only way.

Marie Umeh (essay date Summer 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4552

SOURCE: “Signifyin(g) The Griottes: Flora Nwapa's Legacy of (Re)Vision and Voice,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 114-23.

[In the following essay, Umeh describes how Nwapa gives African women a voice in literature by employing Ugwuta oral traditions in her work.]

Ogbuide, the Queen of Women, comes from the Moon. She is good; the woman is beautiful, an invisible leader of the group. She helps the poor. When a poor person is hungry and comes to the water side, Ogbuide will give the person food.

Mrs. Onyemuru, ferrywoman at Oguta Lake.1

In traditional African societies, women are highly visible and influential as the custodians and transmitters of the group's cultural heritage. That is why Africans say the language given to us at birth is the mother's tongue. The mores and values of the community are passed on to us through our elders, especially women. Their use of prayers, lullabies, proverbs, riddles, folksongs, and life stories has been effectively didactic and highly instrumental in molding the African personality. It is through the oral tradition that members of the group learn their place in the world.

The study of Flora Nwapa's works gives credence to Amanor Dseagu's statement that “the African novel has been influenced by the oral traditions of Africa” (589). Flora Nwapa's major literary motifs, in her novels Efuru,Idu,Never Again,Women Are Different, and The Lake Goddess (forthcoming) are linked to the creativity embedded in Ugwuta oral traditions, which are dominated by women. One finds, for example, that the mythical figure of Ogbuide (also known as Eze/Nne Mmiri and Uhamiri), the divine woman of the lake, is woven into her novels. The creativity shared by the Ugwuta griottes and Nwapa has prompted Gay Wilentz to define her oeuvre as “woman-centered oraliterature”2 (10).

There is no doubt that the predominant realism of Ogbuide, the mother of the lake, in Ugwuta lore and life is the central unifying device in the fiction of Flora Nwapa. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. puts it:

… the vernacular informs and becomes the foundation for formal black literature … black writers, both explicitly and implicitly, turn to the vernacular in written fictions.


By extension, the griotte Mrs. Onyemuru and Flora Nwapa are both cultural progeny of Ugwuta myth and lore. Their shared common oral heritage in Nwapa's last novel, The Lake Goddess, is gender specific, with both artists pointing to a female deity revered by the Ugwuta community. In Mrs. Onyemuru's oral rendition of Ogbuide, the Lake Goddess is described as “the Queen of Women” who “comes from the moon,” one who is “beautiful, an invisible leader of the group. …”

Another Ugwuta storyteller, Mrs. Nwammetu Okoroafor, extols the mythical powers of Ogbuide:

Uhamiri, the goddess of the lake, goes to the market. You will not know her. You can see her in the form of a beautiful woman. You cannot tell that she is from the water. She comes, buys and goes back. Before coming to the market, she ties her hair. After that she disappears and you don't know who she really is. …3

Both storytellers celebrate the goddess for her beauty and greatness. The supernatural and beneficial attributes of Ogbuide as examined and extended by Nwapa, especially in her novel The Lake Goddess, illustrate a conscious manipulation of these Ugwuta oral traditions. Gates calls this “double-voiced relationship,” wherein one speech act determines the internal structure of another, the second affecting the voice of the first by repetition and difference, signifyin(g) (xxv). Therefore, Nwapa's rhetorical strategy, her creation of a “speakerly text,” is a form of signification.

Ona, the protagonist in The Lake Goddess, is born into a Christian family in the town of Ugwuta, located in the southeastern part of Nigeria. From all appearances, Ona from the outset has been destined to serve Ogbuide as a priestess. As a child she is gifted and beautiful, born with supernatural powers such as the ability to prophesy. However, her parents, Mgbada and Akpe, attempt to thwart their daughter's call to serve the water goddess. They send Ona to a mission school and see to it that she marries a prosperous businessman who is a member of the church. Ona and her husband, Mr. Sylvester, have three children. Despite Ona's fellowship in the Christian community, however, Ogbuide continues to haunt her chosen disciple in dreams and visions. At the end of the novel, Ona leaves her husband and children and successfully takes up the full-time role of diviner and spiritual healer of the community. Obedience to Ogbuide confers status and power. As expressed by Sabine Jell-Bahlsen in “Female Power: Water Priestesses of the Oru-Igbo,” Ogbuide provides her devotees with a special space, with recognition, and with a freedom that is accepted within their own society, transcending ordinary constraints (15).

The song which Ona sings at the end of The Lake Goddess, when she finally embraces her natural gift, gives glory to Ogbuide for her magnificence and kindness similar to that exhibited by the griottes Onyemuru and Okoroafor. Nwapa's creative use of the Ugwuta griottes' own creations establishes the art form Gates identifies as rhetorical naming (52). Nwapa's formal revision, elaboration, and amplification represent both the group mind and her conscious artistic synthesis of her own life experiences with Ugwuta oral traditions. Ona's song demonstrates the interplay of Nwapa's art with those of Onyemuru and Okoroafor and reveals an intertextual relationship of ideas and feelings of the artists:

Supreme God
The creator of
The Lake goddess
Water goddess
You are water
Without water
We die
Without water
We are nothing
You taught me
From my mother's womb
To worship you
To use your water
To cure
All diseases
Because water is life
Without water
The fishes of the lake
Would die
Without water
The plants in the forest
Would die
Without water
We humans
Would die
Great goddess
The supreme God
Made you great
By making you
The water goddess
Ogbuide, the Lake goddess
You chose me
From my mother's womb
To serve you and
To be your priestess
I must be your priestess
Until I die.


The attribution of life to water is realistic and at the same time contains mythological implications. Ordinarily, water is essential to life, but its symbolic source of strength through the beneficial activities of Ogbuide makes it a mystical essence in the life of the Ugwuta people. In effect the Lake Goddess becomes the kind and powerful mother of the Ugwuta community, and this feminine presence is Nwapa's way of asserting and highlighting the feminine principle as a distinct cultural factor in Ugwuta life. The mystique of the Lake Goddess also asserts the centrality of the feminine essence in the society. In addition, the words of the song take on a wider meaning when the novelist writes: “Without water / we humans / would die,” thereby portraying the manner in which natural elements have become part of the human element and presence.

Nwapa's technique, as illustrated above, displays her conscious manipulation of Ugwuta oral traditions to achieve an individual creative alchemy. This technique does not falter even when she adopts the multiple character approach whereby the story is presented from the perspectives and views of several individuals. Generally, the characters who emerge from her novels are strong, individualized women who are not burdened with the baggage of patriarchal societies. These women often make decisions and act in ways that question the general assumptions and social practices that restrict womanhood. In the creation of Efuru in the novel of the same name, Amaka in One Is Enough and Ona in The Lake Goddess, for example, Nwapa presents the female characters as decisive in stepping beyond the institution of marriage. And while Nwapa may not be insisting that marriage itself is an institution that is obsolete, she gives considerable emphasis to the idea that such institutions should not be seen as insurmountable barriers to female self-actualization.

The novels of Flora Nwapa examine and revise the prevalent notions of marriage, social responsibility, self-sacrifice, and service to society and humanity. Ona's decision to serve Ogbuide, the Lake Goddess, is part of this service to society, for she no longer functions as a mother to three children but as a mother-priestess to all the men, women, and children of the community, who are all children of the water. This is obviously a higher responsibility since it signifies an ennobling duty and calls for Ona to devote her time and energies both to act as spokesperson for the Lake Goddess and to mediate between the Lake Goddess and the people.

Another factor which emerges from Nwapa's feminine perspective is that the actions of her female characters catalyze events, and furthermore, the fates of other characters depend upon those actions. This revisionist stance is deliberate, for it stresses the realism of daily interactions in the Ugwuta society where the women are easily perceived as industrious, successful, and socially important in business as well as in religious and cultural activities. The revisionist aspect of Nwapa's novels becomes even more prominent when one notes that in divine activities the Goddess of the Lake is given much respect in the Ugwuta community, which means that the women who become her priestesses have a large measure of that respect and dignified reverence attached to them. In Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Chielo, the Priestess of Ogbala is glimpsed only occasionally, but in The Lake Goddess, Ona the Priestess of Ugwuta Lake is just as much the center of consciousness as the character of Ezeulu is in Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God. Like Achebe, Wole Soyinka focuses on male figures. In his plays, especially The Strong Breed, the famous priests and particularly the “carriers” on which the society depends for survival are male, with all the attendant patriarchal implications. In Nwapa's novels, short stories, and children's books, on the other hand, the “carriers,” those characters who make sacrifices in the interest of the rest of the people, are female. Thus, the magnificence of the female essence of priesthood in Flora Nwapa's fiction subverts the literary tradition of patriarchy in Nigerian modern literature.

Nwapa gave African women an authentic identity in literature by introducing a female literary tradition at a time when little or nothing of a realistic nature had been written about African women. For the most part, Nigerian male authors such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Cyprian Ekwensi depicted women living under a rigid sex-role segregation system, with no individuality, personhood, or power. However, Nwapa's women take center stage by exerting their industry, ingenuity, and resilience. They often wield power and protect themselves from humiliation and dehumanization, unlike many of Buchi Emecheta's and Mariama Bâ's fictional heroines.

One critic, Chidi Ikonné, contends that Nwapa's womenfolk are imbued with beliefs that mirror Ugwuta society. He goes on to say that her women passively accept the idea that “woman is basically inferior to the man, a concept which underlies the folk attitude to, and treatment of women” (102). While it may be true that Nwapa records traditional practices which oppress women such as clitoridectomy, polygamy, wife inheritance, and property disinheritance, she also challenges some of the fundamental assumptions concerning Igbo women's passively accepting retrogressive cultural norms. For example, Idu, in the novel Idu, rejects the cultural ethics of wife inheritance, male dominance, and the primacy of the child. After years of yearning for an offspring, Idu finally gives birth to a son. But when her husband dies prematurely, she wills herself to die rather than permit herself to become the wife of Ishiodu, her husband's younger brother. Idu had had an ideal, loving relationship with Adiewere that another husband would have found hard to live up to. Her death shortly after her spouse's demise is therefore a protest against the traditional custom of levirate. In defense of Idu's final act, and of Nwapa's unconventional ending, Ernest Emenyonu, in “Who Does Flora Nwapa Write For?” says:

Too fantastic? Not if you have been listening to the voices in the novel. Too unrealistic? Not if you have been close enough to the Igbo culture and life-ways. Too remote? Not if you understand that even among the Igbo, the love between two individuals can be such that one cannot die without the other.


Thus Nwapa in this novel writes off the effacement, marginality, and misrepresentation of women with subtlety and grace, contending that a woman is not an inanimate object without brains, feelings, emotions, and desires. In challenging male perceptions of what women want and need, Nwapa gives the female point of view. In her “woman-centered oraliterature,” she emphatically asserts that the so-called passive, passionless, unimaginative, powerless, and irresponsible African woman is a figment of the male's imagination which she has set out to correct. It is for this reason that Susan Andrade calls Nwapa's creation of strong, intelligent protagonists an act of rebellion against a Nigerian literary tradition dominated by male writers (105).

Indeed, Nwapa unleashed a vibrant creative energy and began a female tradition in African letters that successfully confronted the one-dimensional, stereotypical portrayal of women as femmes fatales and ne'er-do-wells. The year 1966 can therefore be considered the beginning of the female “oraliterature” renaissance in African letters, with Flora Nwapa as the first Nigerian female novelist its primary exponent. With Nwapa's picture of the community of Ugwuta women, a positive, multi-dimensional, complex, and realistic vocabulary describing women was introduced into African letters. For example, in Nwapa's pathbreaking novel Efuru, the word “female” represents a wealthy trader, a sharp business entrepreneur, a decision-maker, an independent thinker, a powerful, respected priestess, and a deity, Ogbuide. The idea of women as femmes fatales and ne'er-do-wells is nonexistent in Nwapa's texts. Efuru, the main character in the novel, is deliberately drawn as a character noted for her business acumen, wealth, and resilience.

Another erroneous conception that Nwapa challenges in her oeuvre is the idea that African women are not property owners. It may be true that in some African communities women do not inherit property and are never heirs to their husband's wealth. Only sons are heirs. However, Nwapa points to the fact that in Ugwuta many of the “upstairs” (a two-three story building) in the township were erected and owned by women, whose sons inherit their wealth! One character in Efuru says, “[L]ook around this town, nearly all the story buildings you find are built by women who at one time or another have been worshippers of Uhamiri” (192). Priestess or not, having economic independence is part of an Ugwuta woman's self-esteem. Hence, Nwapa's fiction provides authentic glimpses of Ugwuta women achieving economic power and exalted positions through participation in religious, business, and political activities.4

In The Lake Goddess Nwapa gives women a voice of their own in her literary explorations of the depth and meaning of female bonding.5 Female bonding is female solidarity and woman-centered networking. Women have always depended upon the positive voices and healing powers of an extended family of sisters—women who instruct, assist, and protect other women—for understanding, compassion, empathy, and truth in order to transcend threatening situations and achieve liberation from oppressive forces in their lives. The two fish sellers in The Lake Goddess, Mgbeke and Ekecha, epitomize female friendship without eroticized bonds. They reflect the ideal in companionship: they nurture and comfort one another, and they think alike. They cohere as partners in trade and again as friends in the private space of their homes. For example, in the matter of finding husbands for their daughters, their cooperation differentiates their relationship from the largely negative picture in literature of women competing with one another for the attentions of a male. Mgbeke and Ekecha independently decide to seek the services of Mgbada, Ona's father, a diviner with mythical powers to solve their problems. When Mgbeke thinks aloud on the subject, Ekecha replies, “I have already made up my mind to see him about my daughter” (198). The next episode shows them together in consultation with the renowned dibia, Mgbada.

Almost ten years before the writing of The Lake Goddess, Nwapa presented a paper at the Second International Feminist Book Fair in Oslo, Norway, in which she said that sisterhood would survive “if we as women pay less attention to men and marriage … I am married and I have children. But I do not live for my husband alone. I live for him, for my children and for my profession” (6). The close relationship between Mgbeke and Ekecha reflects Nwapa's belief that sisterhood is very much alive in Nigeria today.

In addition to mirroring positive African traditions that still exist in Ugwuta society despite colonial intrusion, Nwapa's creative works are rich in Igbo proverbs, folkways, and linguistic syntax that gracefully flow into her narratives to strengthen her plots and add color to her characters' speech. It is Nwapa's accurate portrayal of Igbo thought patterns, imagery, humor, and philosophies that prompted Ernest Emenyonu, in his essay “Who Does Flora Nwapa Write For?,” to say that “the realism of her themes and her ever-increasing sensitive use of language are two of Flora Nwapa's most enduring qualities as a novelist” (32). Her characters' speech authentically represents Ugwuta parlance. The heroine, Amaka, in One Is Enough, is a case in point. Disappointed in her marriage to Obiora, which was one of deception, sexist domination, and exploitation, she returns the bride price. She subsequently has twin sons by Father McLaid but decides not to marry him. To make her point to her mother and sister that one husband is enough and she will stick to her initial decision not to marry the father of her twin sons, she employs an Igbo idiomatic expression:

You heard me. I didn't have water in my mouth when I spoke to you. I don't want to be a wife anymore, a mistress yes, with a lover, yes of course, but not a wife.

(127; emphasis added)

“I didn't have water in my mouth” is an idiomatic folk expression that captures Igbo figurative language. Amaka makes herself unequivocally clear when Father McLaid proposes that the single life suits her. She declares, “As a wife I am never free … I am almost impotent. I am in prison, unable to advance in body and soul” (127). Amaka's use of colloquialism here reflects the influence of a traditional art form that Nwapa consciously taps, identifying women as “carriers” of Ugwuta verbal art.

Good “oraliterature” is also distinctive for its use of proverbs. As Chinua Achebe says, “Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (6). Just as palm-oil is an essential ingredient found in most Igbo cuisine, proverbs add spice and flavor to Igbo verbal art. Igbo proverbs also reflect the Igbo community's outlook and philosophies of life. Nwapa's novels are enriched with proverbs that comment on the moral and ethical life of her characters. An exemplary use of the proverb is found in The Lake Goddess. When Ona's husband, Mr. Sylvester, learns that his wife, and the mother of his children, is called by Ogbuide, the mother of the lake, to be her priestess, he cries, “The spirit has killed me” (216). Mgbada, the diviner, replies with the proverb, “When the gods give us craw-craw, they also give us the nails with which to scratch.”6 The position of this saying toward the end of the novel when the nagging problem arises of whether or not to allow Ona to serve Eze Mmiri, the Lake Goddess, is quite appropriate and effectively demonstrates the skill of the author. Proverbs can sum up a situation, pass judgment, or recommend a course of action; they give advice as well as recall traditional wisdom to clarify a given situation. In this case, the proverb recommends a course of action and foreshadows a positive ending, the resolution of the conflict in the novel. At the family meeting that follows Ona's acceptance of her divine calling, it is decided that Ona will relinquish her role as wife and mother and serve the lake goddess, instead of thwarting the will of the deity and her destiny. The family's wise decision to find another wife for Mr. Sylvester and have Ona's parents care for her three children while she serves Ogbuide—a decision that captures the wisdom of the ancients—brings peace to every member of Ona's family after years of resistance and psychological disorientation.

Rhonda Cobham, in her “Introduction” to the special issue of Research in African Literatures (19.2, 1988) on women's writing, called for the recognition of images/traditions of female strength and transcendence from which African women writers draw (139). Certainly, Nwapa's novels address Cobham's plea for a more realistic picture of African women in literature. Her oeuvre counteracts the distorted and largely pejorative images of women in Nigerian literature depicted by her male compatriots and acknowledges female empowerment in an African community. Her “oraliterature” is a celebration of positive female archetypes, such as the water spirit Ogbuide and the earth goddess Ala, as well as the griottes who form a vibrant part of African life and culture even today (Arinze 14). In fact, Nwapa's theory of female independence is based on the female models she witnessed as an active participant in the Ugwuta age-grade network from childhood to adulthood.7 Coming from a culture where women are no strangers to self-actualization and industry, her womanist perspective is rooted in Ugwuta cultural dynamics. Additionally, her noire vision du monde supports Ester Boserup's statement that the trading women of West Africa are famous for their enterprising spirit and account for over half of the labor force in trade (87–88).

African women have a voice not only as griottes in the artistic realm and as traders in the economic structure of their respective communities but also as priestesses in the religious sector. In her essay “Female Status in the Public Domain,” Peggy Sanday asserts: “It is the existence of positive female deities who have general powers in the community that provides women with opportunities for activity outside the domestic realm” (206). Ogbuide, as the spiritual and mythical female figure to Ugwuta indigenes, is the revolutionary symbol that gives Ugwuta women autonomy and honor in the face of phallocratic imperatives that lay claim to women's bodies and beauty.

Nwapa's role in the Nigerian literary canon has been to initiate the womanization of Nigerian letters. Her originality of vision and rich “oraliterature” set the stage for her literary followers, Buchi Emecheta, 'Zulu Sofola, Mabel Segun, Tess Onwueme, Ifeoma Okoye, Zaynab Alkali, and Eno Obong, to name only a few contemporary female authors who revised and expanded her authentic characterization of African womanhood. As Kamene Okonjo points out, African women have a vital place in the scheme of things within the African world order. She goes on to say:

The African woman has not been inactive, irrelevant and silent. Rather, African tradition has seen the wisdom of a healthy social organization where all its citizens are seen to be vital channels for a healthy and harmonious society. Hence the establishment of a dual-sex power structure which is lacking in European and Arab cultures.


Most African women work both inside and outside the compound in order to take care of themselves, their children, their husbands, and their relatives. Hence, more often than not African women writers qualify the term “feminist” since it does not adequately describe their socio-cultural realities. Nwapa prefers to identify with Alice Walker's term “womanist” to show her allegiance to the struggle of black women in Africa and the diaspora against racism, sexism, and ageism (Perry 1262). Womanist poetics in general celebrates male-female relationships, family stability, and the healing of black nations torn asunder by colonialism, ethnicity, corruption, individualism, and innumerable social ills. Womanist poetics, as adapted by Nwapa, is similar to Walker's ideology, involving as it does the coming together of males and females on issues of gender asymmetry such as polygamy, wife inheritance, and son preference. Nwapa's attempt through her art to transform her society into a more humane community is recognized in the ending of The Lake Goddess. All minds, both male and female, join together in coming to the decision that Ona should follow the will of Ogbuide, the merciful and kind water spirit, who protects her children from evil. As Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi points out, “Womanism is a philosophy that celebrates black roots, the ideas of black life, while giving a balanced presentation of black womandom” (240).8

A complex figure and a private, dignified individual, Flora Nwapa labored against many odds to surmount obstacles that would have defeated a lesser person. Not content with the mere publication of adult novels, she went on to write children's books, plays, and essays. Additionally, she actively marketed her books at international conferences and book fairs to disseminate her “woman-centered” perspective to academic and grassroots communities all over the globe. In 1977, she established Tana Press Limited to ensure that her books would continue to circulate throughout Africa, as well as Europe, Asia, and the United States. In 1992, she successfully launched her publishing debut with Africa World Press in the United States, which reprinted and distributed her oeuvre. And, according to her son, Uzoma Gogo Nwakuche, he and his sisters, Ejine and Amede, are committed to seeing that their late mother's dream becomes a reality. In an interview with Mr. Nwakuche, this writer was informed that just before Nwapa was to begin a teaching appointment as a Visiting Professor at East Carolina University in North Carolina, she marked off a tract of land for a Flora Nwapa Foundation to be built in Ugwuta as a center of learning.9 The Flora Nwapa Foundation will enable scholars and students of African literature and African studies to read and study her published and unpublished manuscripts, short stories, plays, and essays as well as Ugwuta lore and culture.

Toni Morrison, the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, stated in an interview-essay, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation”: “If you kill the ancestor you kill yourself” (344). Let us continue to keep Flora Nwapa, our ancestor, alive by disseminating her ideas and her philosophy with the same energy that her own artistic life radiated. This volume of literary criticism, then, is a kind of praisesong, honoring our literary foremother, Ogbuefi (Chief) Flora Nwapa-Nwakuche, for her foresight and forthrightness, her inspiration to all of her children on earth to work for greater self-actualization.

Flora, may our libations today acknowledge our indebtedness and gratitude to you for your pioneering and creative spirit!


  1. This is how Mrs. Onyemuru, an indigene and griotte, describes the awesome water goddess Ogbuide, who dwells in Ugwuta Lake. See her oral testimony in Sabine Jell-Bahlsen's film MammyWater: In Search of the Water Spirit in Nigeria.

  2. This is Gay Wilentz's term and spelling.

  3. Mrs. Nwammetu Okoroafor's oral testimony also appears in Jell-Bahlsen's film MammyWater.

  4. In her short story “The Campaigner,” Nwapa has her female protagonist, Chief Mrs. Deide, influence the outcome of an election by means of her political prowess.

  5. Female bonding is also an important motif in Efuru,One Is Enough, and Women Are Different.

  6. Craw-craw is an itching disease similar to chicken pox.

  7. I am grateful to Amede Leslye Obiora and Uzoma Nwakuche for sharing this information with me during a telephone conversation.

  8. Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi identifies a womanist streak in Black women's writing in “Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English.”

  9. Uzoma Gogo Nwakuche, personal interview, 13 July 1994.

Susan Z. Andrade (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “The Joys of Daughterhood: Gender, Nationalism, and the Making of Literary Tradition(s),” in Cultural Institutions of the Novel, edited by Deidre Lynch and William B. Warner, Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 249-75.

[In the following essay, Andrade asserts that Buchi Emecheta's “The Joys of Motherhood establishes an explicitly intertextual relationship with [Nwapa's] Efuru, one that acknowledges Nwapa's historical status and secures the earlier novel a place in literary history—while indirectly exposing the older novelist's ambivalent representation of female independence.”]

Novel writing from Francophone and Anglophone Africa exploded in the 1950s and early 1960s, coinciding with African agitation for independence, contributing to the birth of most of the continent's nation-states, and prefiguring Benedict Anderson's thesis (1983) that the origins of nationalism are bound up with those of the novel. Colonial triumphalism had represented Africa as a sign without a history, as an absence, or, occasionally, as the fertile ground of European subject consolidation. In response, the writers whom Anthony Appiah (1992) calls “the first wave” of modern African novelists wrote anticolonial realist narratives that articulated and celebrated a communal history. Appropriating the language and symbolic systems of the colonizers, writers such as Camara Laye, Ferdinand Oyono, Chinua Achebe, and Mongo Beti reinvented themselves and their communities in narrative, partly in response to colonial silencing, and partly because it seemed an ideal means by which to consolidate racial, religious, ethnic, and class differences into a single national identity.

According to Mary Layoun, this narrative of nationalism not only “privileges its own narrative perspective” but postulates a narrative past and “constructs a telos, presumably one deriving from the structure and content of the narrative—and the nation—itself” (1992, 411). The national allegories of this first wave, however, narrated only male stories, because, in the words of Jean Franco, male authors “psychoanalyzed the nation” in terms of masculine identity (1989, 131). The results of colonial violence, both physical and epistemological, were and have continued to be signified as masculine impotence. As Abdul JanMohamed (1985) and others have argued, the relations of power between colonizer and colonized took on a Manichean form: within the implied gender dynamics, the colonizer always occupied the masculine position, the colonized always the feminine.1 Franco has suggested that “women became the territory over which the quest for (male) national identity passed, or, at best, … the space of loss of all that lies outside the male games of rivalry and revenge” (1989, 131).

From its inception, then, discourses of gender and sexuality have been imbricated in the African novel. Feminists, particularly those committed to African feminism, have been unable to ignore this logic and have begun to explore its implications in the work of male and female writers alike. My concern here is to trace a particular narration of the African literary tradition that corresponds to and underwrites the plotting of the anticolonial struggle. The two narratives in question efface female agency, featuring women primarily as forms of coinage or exchange between men. Intentionally or not, the historiographic tradition has suppressed the feminine in its writing or telling of history, much as literary history has failed to comprehend women's novels that did not explicitly inscribe themselves within the nationalist text. These (invented) traditions have been unable to account either for the female anticolonial uprisings that predated nationalism or for women's novels, because neither feminine discourse participated in the nationalist story as so named.

One means by which the erasure of women as subjects can be made visible is through an examination of Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958. Reading this most canonic of African novels and its reception through the critical lens of gender offers a view of male anxieties manifested in nationalism. Reading it along with current feminist analyses of an indigenous women's uprising, the Igbo Women's War of 1929, to which it has a complex and vexed relation, and also next to two later Igbo women's novels, illustrates nationalism's tendentious and gender-marked schemes for regulating the field of postcolonial African writing and for distributing cultural capital within it. Achebe's fellow Igbo writers Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta must, according to hegemonic understandings of African literary production, either plot themselves into a nationalist literary history whose outlines are masculinist or be consigned to the heap of marginal writers.

Nwapa is the classic example. Patently lacking the power to change the nationalist story or to enter into a dialogue with it, Nwapa, the first Nigerian woman novelist, seemingly refuses engagement with national politics. Her Efuru, published in 1966, captures Nwapa's imaginary resolution of a contradiction in the male-dominated, nationalist ideology of the writers of her generation and employs a self-consciously feminine style and domestic subject matter to do so. It is only with the 1979 publication of The Joys of Motherhood by the more assertively feminist and openly nationalist Emecheta, and with the advent of both another literary generation and the outlines of a counterdiscourse in the African literary tradition, that Nwapa's imaginary resolution of the contradictions of male-dominated nationalist ideology is made visible. The Joys of Motherhood establishes an explicitly intertextual relationship with Efuru, one that acknowledges Nwapa's historical status and secures the earlier novel a place in literary history—while indirectly exposing the older novelist's ambivalent representation of female independence.

In this essay I examine the differing ways in which these novels, Things Fall Apart,Efuru, and The Joys of Motherhood, participate in the genealogy of an (Igbo) African literature, as well as in its putative “master” discourse, nationalism. The manner in which feminist anthropologists, historians, and now literary critics have reread the 1929 Igbo Women's War, rescuing it from semiobscurity and reinscribing it as an indigenous feminist challenge to colonialism, serves as a metaphor for my readings of these two women-authored novels. For if the act of writing is one of the most powerful means by which women can inscribe themselves into history, then the acts of African women writers inscribing themselves and (re)inscribing their precursors into literary history function as a powerful response to Hegel's infamous dictum on the exclusion of Africans from history. Moreover, when juxtaposed against the canonical Things Fall Apart, the popular rebellion of the Women's War invites an alternative reading of African literary historiography, by pointing to the convergence of gendered and nationalist politics, and by offering a lens through which to view both male anxieties about gender and female silences about nationalism.

Historians and anthropologists generally agree that the decentralized polities that constituted nineteenth-and twentieth-century Igboland in Nigeria afforded significant economic and social mobility to their people, particularly to their women. Two Igbo social institutions that helped protect women from patriarchal excesses were the inyemedi (wives of the clan) and the more influential umuaada (daughters of the clan) (Van Allen 1976; Amadiume 1987). Although most women could not own land, they could and were expected to make money in trade and, moreover, could exert economic and political pressure if they had prospered.

The 1929 Igbo Women's War, called in Igbo Ogu Umunwanyi, constitutes one such instance of pressure. Archivally recorded by the British as the “Aba Riots,” this uprising may be read as the violent culmination of traditional manifestations of Igbo women's power.2 In her essay on the Women's War, Judith Van Allen explains some of the mechanisms of precolonial Igbo women's power:

To “sit on” or “make war on” a man involved gathering at his compound at a previously agreed-upon time, dancing, singing scurrilous songs detailing the women's grievances against him (and often insulting him along the way by calling his manhood into question), banging on his hut with the pestles used for pounding yams, and, in extreme cases, tearing up his hut (which usually meant pulling the roof off). This might be done to a man who particularly mistreated his wife, who violated the women's market rules, or who persistently let his cows eat the women's crops.

(1976, 61)

This raucous and destructive behavior on the part of women was usually directed at men who were perceived to threaten their personal or economic security.

Contrary to what the name implies, the British system of Indirect Rule under which these women lived did not retain traditional forms of government. The British established a system of Native Courts and designated Africans to serve on them. Called Warrant Chiefs, these men rarely held traditional positions of respect, were ultimately beholden only to the British, and were, because of their linguistic abilities, powerful intermediaries between colonizer and colonized. British reliance on these intermediaries was compounded by the fact that the British rarely spoke the Igbo language. Under these conditions, the colonial juridical system soon became hopelessly corrupt.

With the onset of world economic depression in 1929, and the resulting fall in the price of palm oil, a crucial resource in the women's economy, the political scenery was complete. When the British indicated that they would extend direct taxation to the eastern provinces, the women took collective action. In November-December of 1929, tens of thousands of Igbo and Ibibio women from the Calabar and Owerri provinces “made war on” the Warrant Chiefs as well as on the British overlords. They originally mobilized around the issue of women's taxation, but their demands soon included abolition of the Native Courts (or the inclusion of women on them) and the return of all white men to their own country. Information and money for the uprising had been conveyed through an elaborate system of women's market networks.

These uprisings were conducted in a manner consonant with women's traditional exercise of power in the village setting. Van Allen describes the Women's War in the following manner:

Traditional dress, rituals and “weapons” for “sitting on” were used: the women wreathed their heads with young ferns symbolizing war, and sticks, bound with ferns or young palms, were used to invoke the powers of the female ancestors. The women's behavior also followed traditional patterns: much noise, stamping, preposterous threats and a general raucous atmosphere, all part of the institution of “sitting on” a man.

(1972, 175)

The war ended violently, however; approximately fifty women were killed and another fifty were wounded by the gunfire of police and soldiers. According to Van Allen, “the lives taken were those of women only—no men, Igbo or British, were even seriously injured” (174). Significantly, the women did not believe that they would be hurt, so culturally appropriate were their actions.

Of the archival (mis)representations of the Women's War as the “Aba Riots,” a name that limits the scope of the action and depoliticizes its feminist impetus, Van Allen notes that the control of language means the control of history, saying that

the British “won,” and they have imposed their terminology on history. Only a very few scholars have recorded that the Igbo called this the “Women's War.” And in most histories of Nigeria today one looks in vain for any mention that women were even involved. “Riots,” the term used by the British, conveys a picture of uncontrolled irrational action. … “Aba Riots,” in addition, neatly removes women from the picture. What we are left with is “some riots at Aba”—not by women, not involving complex organization, and not ranging over most of southeastern Nigeria.

(1972, 60–61)

These uprisings can more usefully be read as one of the many blows dealt the colonial state by the natives than as a devastating political reverse. The women succeeded in toppling the corrupt system of the Warrant Chiefs, though none of their other demands were met. As a result of the women's efforts, the British attempted to emulate the precolonial Igbo model through a new system of administration.

Though other Africans had published novels before Things Fall Apart, it is generally accepted that, as C. L. Innes puts it, Achebe “may be deemed the father of the African novel in English” (1992, 19). Simon Gikandi suggests that Achebe was unique in his ability to recognize the function of the novel both as a depiction of reality and as a vehicle of limitless possibility for constructing and representing a new national identity:

Achebe's seminal status in the history of African literature lies precisely in his ability to have realized that the novel provided new ways of reorganizing African cultures, especially in the crucial juncture of transition from colonialism to national independence, and his fundamental belief that narrative can indeed propose an alternative world beyond the realities imprisoned in colonial and post-colonial relations of power.

(1991, 3)

Gikandi insightfully reads Achebe's contradictions as inherent to the anxieties of an early anticolonial nationalist. Nevertheless, like Achebe, he too accepts unchallenged the idea that nationalism consolidates itself through gendered formations. I would like first to read the gendered inflection of those relations and then to reexamine some of the relations of production—relations in which the Women's War plays a crucial role—that constitute the cultural history of Things Fall Apart.

Feminist readers of the novel have long noted that female characters are generally absent from—and when they do appear, silent in—this novel.3 Okonkwo's mother, whose lineage affords the novel's hero seven years of protection, is unnamed, as are his senior wife and almost all of his daughters.4 This is more than a simple inattention to women, for the absent presence of women is necessary to the construction of the novel's nationalist ideology. While women are not represented in any significant numbers, anticolonial nationalist subjectivity operates in a gendered social space defined by male bodies.

Igbo women's social organizations and their “war-making” are effaced in official anticolonial history, in order that masculine anticolonial rebellion might avoid occupying the role of female to the colonizing male. Achebe's novel is structured by erasures in a roughly analogous manner and attempts to avoid the representation of colonial relations in gendered terms by inscribing an excessively masculine Igbo man. Moreover, the category of the masculine, namely Okonkwo's hypermasculinity, is outlined not against the femininity of women but against that of other men, particularly against his own father and son, Unoka and Nwoye. Both Unoka and Nwoye prefer the “womanish” activities of storytelling and/or playing the flute. Neither is particularly interested in the warlike exploits that move Okonkwo. It is generally recognized that Okonkwo, the “tragic hero,” is tragic precisely because his life is driven by the obsessive fear of becoming his feminine father. The irony of Okonkwo's anxious reaction to his paternal inheritance is that the violent masculinity of Okonkwo's life path leads to a death equally as shameful as that of the lazy and effeminate Unoka. Neither can be given a proper burial, and instead both father and son are cast into the Evil Forest. Moreover, Okonkwo's tendency toward violence and rigidity is juxtaposed against the more “gender-balanced” characteristics of his best friend, Obierika. Though a great warrior like Okonkwo, Obierika also resembles the inexorably feminized Nwoye in his pity for the sacrifice victim Ikemefuna and in his critique of some violent Igbo customs, particularly that of the infanticide of twins.

In the Manichean allegory of anticolonial struggle that I outlined earlier, the colonial/European side is characterized as masculine, while the weak and disorderly native/African side is necessarily feminine. Achebe thus confronts a dilemma: how to narrate the brutality of imperialism without reifying the model that inscribes African men as submissive or “feminine.” The result is his hypermasculine protagonist Okonkwo, a character who is violent and inflexible in his relations with others. In diametrical opposition, son Nwoye, who, as Biodun Jeyifo points out, has the most affinity for the “feminine” arts of storytelling, is also the one who “goes over to the colonizers and more or less embraces the colonialist ideology of the ‘civilizing mission’” (1993, 855). Paradoxically, Achebe's preoccupation with the implicitly gendered pattern of colonial relations means that he can only imagine a negative masculinity; he has no room for a celebratory femininity.

Gender is represented exclusively through the relations of exchange between men, thus providing an African example of Eve Sedgwick's paradigm of homosocial relations (1985). With the exception of the priestess Chielo, all the women in Things Fall Apart function as objects of exchange in this homosocial yet rigorously heterosexual system. While women serve to maintain the institution of heterosexuality, gendered identity, spanning the excessively masculine to the excessively feminine, is embodied only by men.

While, as I have noted, the Igbo Women's War might have significance as a metaphor for a hidden Igbo women's literary tradition, I would like to suggest at this point that the uprising has a more direct—and problematic—significance for a masculine genealogy. Although the war ended violently, its scope and radical potential nevertheless posed a sweeping challenge to British authority and might well have been etched in the memory of the Igbo still living during the period when Achebe authored his first novel. Testifying to the link between colonial power and knowledge, Igbo historian S. N. Nwabara declares that “the revolt was therefore a major factor that led the government to encourage the study of Ibo indigenous society” (1978, 201).5 In fact, anthropologist Sylvia Leith-Ross, who in the 1930s formed part of the British group sent down to study Igbo culture in the service of the colonial state, indicates that she was particularly interested in “how much the Riots were still remembered and what shape they took”: “I believe that as palm-oil dominates the economic-social situation, so do the Aba riots still dominate the psychological situation” (1939, 174).

In a reading of the impact of Westernization on Things Fall Apart, Rhonda Cobham (1991) suggests that Achebe's investment in a type of Victorian ideal of feminine decorum makes it possible for him to elide not only the Women's War but feminine Igbo institutional structures such as the umuaada that helped give rise to it. Because in his nonfiction prose Achebe has named Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary as significant (negative) literary influences, much has been made of his response to the racism of European realism and modernism. Extending the work done by Cobham, I suggest that a literary influence on Things Fall Apart at least as telling as that of the English novelists can be found in the anthropological texts generated by Leith-Ross and others—which, themselves constitute a discursive action to the Igbo Women's War.6Nowhere is the response to colonial self-consolidation in Things Fall Apart more trenchant than in Achebe's description of the District Commissioner, whose projected book, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, reduces Okonkwo's tragic story to “a reasonable paragraph” (Achebe 1969, 191). The novel's closure, then, in this way overtly sets itself against the discourse of Leith-Ross and other anthropologists.

Things Fall Apart offers a history, a subjectivity, and a narrative voice that have been excluded from or misprized in imperial history. This male voice speaks, however, albeit unwittingly, over the silenced voices of the raucous Igbo women who came before. Within the reframed literary history I suggest here, the absence of a novelistic trace either of the Women's War or even of the women's organizations that facilitated it becomes glaring.7

Sociologist Ifi Amadiume, who comes from and did her field work in Nnobi, Achebe's home town, points out, for instance, how Achebe rewrites gendered behavior as he transposes it from history to literature, always obscuring the “feminine.” One example involves his making a local water goddess—the same divinity that Efuru worships and that, in turn, gives her license to remain unmarried and childless—into a water god in Things Fall Apart (Amadiume 1987, 121). By investigating the local history that Achebe used as a source for the novel, Amadiume illustrates other elisions of the feminine. In the course of representing the Umuofian response to the imported religion that threatens to envelop them, the novel recounts the story of a fanatical Christian who kills a python, a sacred Igbo totem, then narrates the community's violent response to the incident. According to the village annals Amadiume consults, that particular historical event was very specifically gendered as feminine. It was the women who had been affronted by the killing of the python: their response was to “sit on” the man.8 In Things Fall Apart, by contrast, the transgression is answered violently by the entire village (147–50).

Despite its paradigmatic status as the first Nigerian women's novel and as one of the first African women's novels, relatively little critical attention has been paid to Efuru.9 Critics, most of them male, have dismissed Nwapa's writing as trivial, useful only for an understanding of domestic village life. Conversely, defenders of Nwapa, most of them female or feminist, argue that it is precisely because she offers a narrative of Igbo domesticity that she deserves her place in the African canon.10 My interest here lies less in the authenticity of Nwapa's representation of village life than in the tensions that a woman-authored novel—in this case the first one—must confront when written in a colonial or neocolonial situation. Nwapa manipulates the language and narrative form of the colonizer while narrating the story of an “authentic” and independent female character against the backdrop of frequently pejorative representations of female characters by male authors.

Efuru tells the story of a woman notable for her noble birth, beauty, and poise as well as her remarkable skill in trading and making money. The novel's eponymous protagonist is also distinguished for her inability to bear children. (Though she does in fact give birth to a daughter who dies in infancy, Efuru is consistently characterized as barren.) Moreover, each of the men she marries lets her down at some crucial moment in her life, and it is the female village community that sustains her. Efuru's marriage to Adizua, with which the novel opens, is not initially sanctioned, so she helps her new husband earn the bride-price that will satisfy her father and tradition. While she becomes increasingly more successful at trading, then gives birth to their daughter, he spends increasingly less time at home, then disappears altogether. Shortly afterward, their daughter dies; Adizua does not return for the burial. Nor does he return later for the more important burial of Efuru's father. Later, Efuru takes up with and marries Gilbert. Though this marriage initially appears more promising and is accorded more space within the narrative, Gilbert also reveals himself to be an irresponsible husband by staying away from home, fathering a child without informing Efuru, even believing the unsubstantiated rumors of Efuru's adultery. For her part, Efuru devotes increasingly more time to the worship of the female/feminist water goddess Uhamiri, as she continues to prosper. Instead of celebrating her apotheosis, however, the novel ends ambivalently, juxtaposing her economic and social success to her failure at motherhood.

Efuru's entry into the male-dominated canon of African texts marks the beginning of an Igbo dialogue on gender, one in which Emecheta will later participate. The male-authored text that Nwapa appears most obviously to interrogate is Cyprian Ekwensi's extremely popular Onitsha market novel of a middle-aged prostitute, Jagua Nana, published in 1961. Lloyd Brown called Jagua “one of the most frequently discussed heroines of African fiction.”11 Ekwensi depicts a deracinated and narcissistic—if personable—woman, whose economic independence derives from her physical desirability and her constant search for sexual gratification. Despite her unorthodox success, Jagua yearns for a conventional married life. She attempts to bribe Freddie, her young lover, into marrying her by financing his college education abroad. Moreover, Jagua's economic independence is explicitly interwoven with her rejection of ethnic identity and her embrace of the vices of urban living: she and Freddie“always used pidgin English, because living in Lagos City they did not want too many embarrassing reminders of clan or custom” (Ekwensi 1961, 5).12 Efuru and Jagua both become quite wealthy, but there the comparison ends. Efuru stays in the village, acquiring economic and social success through the traditional—and sanctioned—method of trading. She is untainted by employment or location and so is of commanding moral stature. And unlike Jagua, who uses her male partners for economic gain, Efuru is deserted by hers, though she accepts this abuse with dignity.13

In that it is a historical novel set in a rural rather than urban environment, and in that it is published after Things Fall Apart,Efuru does conform to the “Achebe school.”14 Unlike most of its male counterparts, however, it does not openly address what C. L. Innes and Bernth Lindfors consider a defining characteristic of that school, “the conflict between old and new values in Iboland” (1978, 5–6). The dialectic of tradition and modernity and its relation to both the new state and European colonialism is emblematic of nationalist discourse. But because nationalism is such a problematic terrain for women writers, neither it nor any of its avatars (the tradition-modernity opposition) are openly engaged in Efuru. The patriarchal narrative of nationalist literary history has ignored altogether the gendered logic according to which it operates. As Franco notes, much less was it able to acknowledge differently emplotted women's narratives:

Without the power to change the story or to enter into dialogue, [early women writers] have resorted to subterfuge, digression, disguise, or deathly interruption. [These situations are prefeminist] insofar as feminism presupposes that women are already participants in the public sphere of debate. This makes it all the more important to trace the hidden connections and continuities, the apparently isolated challenges and disruptions of the social narrative which testify to a history of struggle and disruption, though not necessarily of defeat.

(1989, xxiii)

Franco exposes the gendered logic that undergirds much nationalism and perceptively points out that though masculinism merely “invents” traditions, masculinist discourse nevertheless functions to circumscribe much of women's literary response. By rereading Efuru as Nwapa's initial and imaginary resolution of contradictions in the masculine nationalist ideology, we may put in perspective the ambivalent representation of her protagonist's subjectivity.

While Nwapa's primary object of implied critique is masculinist nationalism, her novel also indirectly implicates Eurocentric feminism. At the moment of Efuru's publication, Europe and the United States were witnessing the birth of the second wave of European feminism: Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, originally published in 1949, appeared in English translation in 1952, and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique appeared in 1963. That Efuru's life appears to have no contact with Europe, certainly none with European-style feminism, means that the narrative's prototype of female power is Igbo—a notable statement in the face of a post-Second World War feminism which implied that the global liberation of women would begin in the West. Indeed, as the example of the Woman's War of 1929 suggests, Igbo culture contains sanctioned opportunities for women's gendered social expression, opportunities which permitted critiques of male power. Understanding this obviates locating Europe “as the primary referent in theory and praxis,” to use Chandra Mohanty's phrase (1991b, 52), and it illustrates a recent historical example of just the localized feminist modes of analysis Mohanty advocates.

Nwapa's novel operates in a feminine register depicting a world of domestic activity where dialogue is privileged over action and where, in the words of Carole Boyce Davies, “men are shown to be intruders” (1986, 249). Cooking, fashion, proverbs, rumors, child-rearing, and marketing stratagems, the defining discourses of rural Igbo femininity, occupy narrative center stage. Elleke Boehmer celebrates Nwapa's expression of “a self-generating orality” and declares that this author uses “choric language” to enable and empower, to evoke “the vocality of women's everyday experience” (1991, 12, 16). Masculine tales of adventure and male social space itself are relegated to the peripheries of the novel. Men are portrayed as desirable and occasionally admirable but are often seen as completely incomprehensible, as in the examples of the three unreliable husbands, Adizua, Adizua's father, and Gilbert.

A folktale Efuru tells some of the village children on a moonlit night serves as a metaphor for the larger novel's investment in a women's community—and reveals that community's anger toward men. The tale's only male character is the villain. The (unnamed) protagonist is “so beautiful that she was tired of being beautiful”; Nkwo, the protagonist's youngest sister, is also very beautiful and “the kindest of them all” (Nwapa 1966, 106). When the protagonist is pursued for marriage by a maggot-eating blue spirit so strong that her mother cannot protect her, she turns for help to her sisters, whose names correspond to the names for the days of the Igbo week. Eke, Afo, and Orie refuse her request for help, but Nkwo takes in both her sister and her sister's new husband, helping the girl negotiate around a dinner of maggots. At night the two sisters trick the sleeping spirit, run out of the house, and burn it down with the spirit inside. At the tale's end, Efuru tells Gilbert (and the readers) that women spend Nkwo day buying and selling then collecting their debts (116).

Efuru recounts the tale directly before her upcoming marriage to her second husband and soon after she formally leaves the house of the first. Positioned liminally, the tale foreshadows the end of her marriage to Gilbert. It claims unambiguously that women's relationships with each other are the most secure and that, like the days set aside for them, these relationships are imbricated in an economy of exchange, particularly in the trading of commodities. It is in trade (and thus through relations with each other) as much as in marriage and childbirth that women obtain power in Igbo society.

While Efuru's outer frame of narration offers a more subdued challenge to the institution of marriage, it nevertheless substantiates the embedded tale's claims about gender solidarity through its presentation of the friendship of Efuru and Ajanupu, and it binds the feminine exchange of gossip and advice with the (equally feminine) exchange of goods and money. Ajanupu, a character who frequently advises Efuru on domestic matters, early on in the novel offers to collect some of Efuru's debts, since the younger woman is not as practiced at this art. Ajanupu is intransigent with Efuru's debtor however, and, upon her return home, finds on her doorstep one of her own debtors, who, rather fittingly, is equally intransigent with her. This episode illustrates the novel's circulation of the overlapping discourses of domestic economy (and power) and market economy (and power).

It is only at the novel's end, however, that the power of a feminine community is made manifest—and then only in response to masculine perfidy. Efuru's unknown illness is rumored to be the result of her adultery, although no sexual partner is ever named. Gilbert believes the rumors, and Ajanupu vigorously comes to Efuru's defense, questioning his judgment, education, and even his family history for believing such a scandalous thing of his wife. Angered, he slaps her so hard that she falls down. Her response evokes the traditional power of Igbo women: “She got up quickly for she was a strong woman, got hold of a mortar pestle and broke it on Gilbert's head. Blood filled Gilbert's eyes” (Nwapa 1966, 217). The pestle, an important domestic tool, is also the instrument brandished by angry Igbo women when they “sit on” a man. In its position at the end of the novel's penultimate chapter, this incident underscores Efuru's move toward a women's community, which culminates in the eventual worship of Uhamiri.

Only with a great deal of ambivalence can the novel bring itself to represent an economically and socially powerful woman who is desirable to men, at the same time as it represents many of those men as lacking. Precisely because Efuru has no strong female-authored precursors (as Efuru, the character, herself had no strong female role models while growing up), Nwapa can only inscribe such a strong woman if she inscribes her tragically—and the logic of the text, which strongly validates femininity, appears to lead Efuru to the quintessential marker of femininity, (biological) motherhood. Unlike Achebe's Okonkwo, whose “tragic flaw” was psychological, Efuru's “tragic flaw”—her barrenness— is utterly biological. Given the flexible construction of sex and gender in Igbo societies, this gender mark is ironic indeed.

Nwapa's (feminist) critique is launched not upon the institution of motherhood as much as upon that of marriage (or of heterosexual relations in general); more accurately, it confronts all obstacles to female strength and self-sufficiency. What is most incomprehensible within the narrative is why Efuru's two ex-husbands should spurn such an extraordinary, desirable, and accommodating woman. This unanswered/unanswerable psychological question about marital relations gets displaced onto the biological problematic of childlessness. In fact, marriage as such is a narrative casualty, while child rearing is not. Not only do Efuru's two marriages end in failure, but so does that of her first husband Adizua's parents; in fact, few successful marriages are visible. Neither marital relations nor the presence of husbands keeps Ajanupu or other significant female characters from their trading, socializing, or child rearing. The novel's doubts about male-female relations are displaced onto their fundamental biological consequence, that of reproduction—with the result, ironically, that biology appears to determine destiny for the first Nigerian woman's novel. Because the text cannot bring itself to reject the normative discourse of marriage, it posits failed or absent versions of the married couple and endows its protagonist with the “tragic flaw” of barrenness, which removes her from marital circulation. Yet the novel also challenges marriage as women's only avenue to power by staging a confrontation between married life and participation in an independent female community (represented here by the different women of the village and culminating in Uhamiri worship), and it couples Efuru's failing within marriage (her infertility) with her exercise of another traditional, female-gendered virtue, that of making money.

Although Efuru moves toward a celebration of the protagonist's independence, economic success, and goodness, the novel displays a constant undercurrent of doubt, ending on a note of profound ambivalence about the ability of any woman without children to be completely happy. In the Bakhtinian sense, Efuru's dialogism comprises the competing discourses of economic independence and maternal satisfaction, the latter of which, I have argued, is a result of displaced concern regarding male-female marital relations. Repeatedly, the text offers advice on what a woman should do in order to conceive, on how she should conduct herself during pregnancy, childbirth, and the upbringing of the child. In fact, Oladele Taiwo calls the narrative, “almost a manual of mothercare” (1984, 54).15But motherhood is the one condition that the otherwise perfect Efuru cannot satisfy.

The ambivalence over motherhood resonates most audibly in the novel's closing lines, which have been read by several critics (e.g., Condé 1972; Brown 1981; Holloway 1992) as key to an understanding of the text. Although Uhamiri appears to have everything she needs, the narrative suggests that motherhood is necessary to completely fulfill her—and, by extension, her disciple Efuru:

Efuru slept soundly that night. She dreamt of the woman of the lake [Uhamiri], her beauty, her long hair and her riches. She had lived for ages at the bottom of the lake. She was as old as the lake itself. She was happy, she was wealthy. She was beautiful. She gave women beauty and wealth but she had no child. She had never experienced the joy of motherhood. Why then did the women worship her?

(Nwapa 1966, 221)

Though published only thirteen years after Nwapa's novel, The Joys of Motherhood (1979) emerges into an already existing women's literary community and does not exhibit the same hesitancy or ambivalence as its forebear.16 While acknowledging her debt to Efuru through the similarity of the protagonist's stories, Emecheta revises and extends that novel and launches a biting critique of both indigenous patriarchy and colonialism. Henry Louis Gates (1984) might say that the later writer was engaged in an act of signifyin(g), of renaming and revisioning the earlier text, for it is from the paragraph above that Emecheta derives her title. Of greater importance is The Joys of Motherhood's recognition of its precursor's ambivalence about the childless woman's possibilities for happiness. The later narrative revises its forebear by giving its protagonist, Nnu Ego, Efuru's primary unfulfilled wish—many times over, to the point of misery. By arranging the phenomenon of Nnu Ego's “barrenness/fecundity” to coincide with her change of husbands, Emecheta interrogates Efuru's “tragic flaw” by shifting responsibility for conception onto the man. This textual move is especially noteworthy in African literature, where the theme of motherhood is extremely important, and infertility routinely assumed to be the “fault” of the woman. Moreover, by the very act of writing this novel, Emecheta draws attention to the irony of Efuru, named after its “barren” protagonist, as the “mother” text of (Anglophone) African women's literature.17 In so doing, she deftly appropriates the(male) domain of the production of texts by conflating it with the (female) production of children—and comments on the exclusion/absence of women from the tradition of African letters. She also rescues Nwapa from domestic oblivion and reintroduces her as a political actor.

The protagonists of Efuru and The Joys of Motherhood have generally similar personal and family histories. Both Efuru and Nnu Ego come from Igbo villages. Both are very attractive women, the cosseted only daughters of their fathers. The fathers, Nwashike Ogene and Nwokocha Agbadi respectively, are wealthy warrior-athletes, important men who are highly respected in the community. Each daughter is also her father's favorite, in part because she is the only child of his favorite woman. The determining narrative similarity appears to be that the mothers of both protagonists are dead at the time the narratives open, leaving their daughters with no strong female models on which to pattern their search for independence. Indeed, both daughters are particularly attached to their fathers. Perhaps because they are brought up by conservative fathers, Efuru and Nnu Ego begin as somewhat docile young women. They are invested in attaining the respect that deferral to authority offers.18 Perhaps because of their privileged backgrounds, neither is particularly rebellious. Both marry twice; in each case, the husband terminates the first marriage. And for at least a short time, both women are stigmatized by an inability to bear children. Lastly, both are skilled market women who achieve (some measure of) economic independence through successful trading.

Emecheta's depiction of a female character who shares so much of Efuru's background must inevitably call attention to the difference between the two. Through the character of Nnu Ego, Emecheta interrogates Nwapa's idealistic portrayal of female struggle, and of Efuru as the perfect (Igbo) woman. Rachel Blau Du Plessis suggests that celebrating a female character because she is exceptional only reinforces the norm of prescribed behavior for other women, setting “in motion not only conventional notions of womanhood but also conventional romantic notions of the genius, the person apart, who, because unique and gifted, could be released from social ties and expectations” (1985, 84–85). Apparently adhering to this logic, Emecheta questions the case of Efuru's success by presenting a much less exceptional female character. In contrast to the noble, talented, and indomitable Efuru, who overcomes her problems and eventually determines her own destiny, Nnu Ego is substantially weaker, more petty in her dealings with others. Also in contrast to Efuru, Nnu Ego leaves the village (and any protection it might offer) for Lagos. It is there that she experiences the brunt of indigenous patriarchy and the brutal effects of poverty under imperialism. Ultimately, she dies an ignoble death, alone.

Emecheta also responds to Nwapa's more subtle treatment of the effects of imperialism on the Igbo people by representing two less idealized feminine figures in The Joys of Motherhood: first Ona, a woman of the precolonial period, and then her colonial daughter, Nnu Ego. The historical specificity of the later text indicates that Efuru's contemporary is not Nnu Ego but her mother, Ona. Emecheta thus comments both chronologically and tropologically on her predecessor's protagonist, for while the events of Efuru's life parallel those of Nnu Ego's, it is with Ona that Efuru shares a certain precolonial, culturally sanctioned independence in village life.19The Joys of Motherhood affirms Efuru's claim that precolonial Igbo women enjoyed more freedom than did their colonized descendants. Of the difference between the two generations, the later narrator says: “To regard a woman who is quiet and timid as desirable was something that came after his [Ona's lover Agbadi's] time, with Christianity and other changes” (Emecheta 1979, 10). However, acknowledging that Igbo women enjoyed far less freedom under colonialism, does not blind Emecheta to their subjection under indigenous patriarchy. Ona's struggles with her lover, Agbadi, occasionally result in her public humiliation. Moreover, being a “male daughter” accords her status and permits her to contribute sons to her father's diminishing line but prevents her from marrying.

Reading The Joys of Motherhood from the perspective of Efuru offers a different vantage point on the effects of European imperialism than does reading the text solely on its own terms. Though the later narrative vividly depicts the misery of colonialism, it represents it as an act perpetrated on Africans, declining to comment on African complicity with or resistance to the phenomenon. And while The Joys of Motherhood does not depict the precolonial period as paradisiacal, it barely examines colonial relations of power within the Igbo village hierarchy. Efuru, by contrast, offers a perceptive, albeit narratively marginal, account of the events that preceded colonialism and aided in its acceleration; in so doing, it manages a subtle critique of the protagonist's family history. Efuru's family is secure in the village hierarchy, as it has historically had both stature and wealth: “her family was not among the newly rich, the wealth had been in it for years” (Nwapa 1966, 19). Toward the end, however, the novel undermines that stature by revealing at her father's death the manner in which he obtained his riches:

It was the death of a great man. No poor man could afford to fire seven rounds of a cannon in a day. …

The cannons were owned by very distinguished families who themselves took part actively in slave dealing. … Now the shooting of the cannon did not only announce the death of a great man, but also announced that the great man's ancestors had dealings with the white men, who dealt in slaves.


Not only is Efuru's family prestige put into question, but the novel suggests that the construction of Igbo history—indeed of Igbo patriarchy—is determined by the interests of hegemony. Because of both Nwashike Ogene's stature and the chronological remove of their ancestors' histories, Nwosu and the fishermen do not connect the death of this great man with the cannon that celebrates his greatness. His role in the slave trade will probably slip through the cracks of historical discourse; only his wealth and stature will be remembered. Thus Efuru rejects the nostalgic approach to Ogwuta's past, pointing instead to traces of colonial violence evident in the structures of the current hierarchy. In the more active narrative style of Things Fall Apart, imperialism signifies a sudden cultural collision. Nwapa, by contrast, intimates the gradual ways in which European violence permeated and transformed Igbo culture. In dialogue with this male predecessor, then, Efuru illustrates the complicity of some Africans with the European colonialist enterprise, the commodification of Africans that developed from the slave trade, and the resulting colonial conquest of the continent.

Though the precolonial period is not idealized, Efuru is idealistic in its representation of a supportive women's community. Buchi Emecheta interrogates that idealism by representing both the great desire for—and continual frustration of—such a community. She also engages Nwapa's idyllic depiction of rural Igbo life by conjoining it to a depiction of urban life as it develops under the conditions of colonialism. For Nnu Ego, the lack of a female community partly results from the absence of other, older women. The cross-generational protection from male power that Ajanupu, Efuru's mother-in-law's sister, offers Nwapa's heroine is rewritten as the unsuccessful attempt of Nnu Ego's mother, Ona, to secure a greater degree of freedom for Nnu Ego than she herself had enjoyed. On her deathbed Ona asks Agbadi “to allow [their daughter] to have a life of her own, a husband if she wants one” (Emecheta 1979, 28). Agbadi agrees but soon begins arranging one marriage after another for their pliant daughter. Later on Nnu Ego moves to Lagos; there her friendship with Cordelia is cut short when the latter's husband finds work far away. Since Cordelia had helped Nnu Ego survive the loss of her first baby and had explained gender and racial power relations in Lagos, the loss of this friendship is especially painful. Nnu Ego's friendship with the Yoruba woman Iyawo, who saves Nnu Ego and her son from starvation, is always tenuous because of the economic inequality of their situations.

It is through the figure of Adaku, Nnu Ego's co-wife in Lagos, that The Joys of Motherhood explores most thoroughly the possibility of a neocolonial urban Igbo women's community; and it is also through her that the text illustrates such a community's failure. The tension between the co-wives is due partly to their competition for limited resources in the urban colonial context. The cramped single room in which the Owulum family lives in poverty contrasts with the clearly delineated women's living space that is part of the rural life described in Efuru, and with the greater control that Efuru's rural women claim over their economic resources and sexual activity.20 Through its depiction of the failed cooking strike mounted by the co-wives, The Joys of Motherhood challenges the patience with which Efuru waits for her husbands to behave responsibly. In an attempt to force Nnaife to give over all of his money to his hungry family instead of spending much of it on alcohol, Adaku instigates a cooking strike and convinces Nnu Ego to join her.21 Within a village economy, men would have no recourse other than to capitulate or do their own cooking. In the city, however, Nnaife's male coworkers share their lunches with him. The women's strike is soon abandoned.

The quiet acceptance and waiting characteristic of Efuru are proven ineffective in the new urban context, and The Joys of Motherhood suggests that in new contexts different modes of women's resistance have to be adopted. Adaku's departure from the Owulum family and her brief period of prostitution may be read as just such a strategy of resistance. By becoming a prostitute, Adaku is able to accumulate enough capital to begin a more prosperous cloth-vending business and move out of the room, leaving little doubt that she is happier in her new living arrangement. Moreover, her new economic security represents a significant measure of success in the context of the Igbo valorization of women as good traders, and it contrasts sharply with Nnu Ego's continued poverty. Through Adaku, The Joys of Motherhood responds to and subverts the authority of Jagua, the “naughty” Igbo prostitute of Ekwensi's earlier novel. Through his titillating representation of Jagua as a violator of traditional taboos, Ekwensi upholds the patriarchal discourse his character is supposed to subvert. Emecheta's text, by contrast, does not linger over the details of Adaku's prostitution. It depicts only her decision to engage in the practice and the subsequent horror of the Ibuza community in Lagos.22 By emptying prostitution of glamour, and by foregrounding it as a variant of commodity exchange, the feminist narrative thus refigures the topos of the prostitute. Most important, unlike Jagua (or Efuru or Nnu Ego), Adaku is not interested in (re)marriage, choosing to live outside the boundaries of patriarchal protection: “‘I want to be a dignified single woman. I shall work to educate my daughters, though I shall not do so without male companionship.’ She laughed again.‘They do have their uses’” (Emecheta 1979, 170–71).

The Joys of Motherhood interrogates Efuru's easy success and her adherence to one version of indigenous tradition by separating passive acceptance of tradition from the active pursuit of power and locating them in rival characters. The former is represented by Nnu Ego (who bears the children Efuru desires), the latter by Adaku (who controls her destiny and matches Efuru's economic independence and her status as a successful trader). This strategy permits Emecheta to privilege the latter over the former, thus valorizing Efuru's independence without undercutting her success, as does Efuru's creator, Nwapa. In this light, the final passages of The Joys of Motherhood constitute a response to the infamous last paragraph of Efuru. If one of the most important moments of ideological negotiation in any work resides in the choice of a resolution, then Nwapa's resolution of her novel deserves special consideration. The ambivalence characteristic of the later part of Efuru becomes so acute, and the discourse of motherhood so elevated by the time one reads the concluding paragraph that the success of the divinity Uhamiri, and by extension that of Efuru, is subverted. In response, Emecheta blatantly criticizes her precursor's privileging of motherhood through her last lines. The poignant depiction of Nnu Ego's death represents the final undermining of Efuru's maternal discourse. Devastated by her sons' silence, Nnu Ego begins wandering about Ibuza:

After such wandering on one night, Nnu Ego lay down by the roadside, thinking that she had arrived home. She died quietly there, with no child to hold her hand and no friend to talk to her. She had never made many friends, so busy had she been building up her joys as a mother. …

Stories afterwards, however, said that Nnu Ego was a wicked woman even in death because, however many people appealed to her to make women fertile, she never did. …

Nnu Ego had it all, yet still did not answer prayers for children.


By highlighting Nnu Ego's abnegation of self in favor of children, The Joys of Motherhood responds to its precursor's last line, “Why then did the women worship her?” Emecheta thereby signals a return to the discourse of economic independence that the childless Uhamiri represents in Efuru.

A closer look reveals, however, that Emecheta is most invested in critiquing women who passively accept oppressive institutional structures under the guise of adherence to “tradition.” It is adherence to “tradition,” for example, that informs Efuru's self-doubt about marriage and motherhood. Moreover, The Joys of Motherhood argues that while it might have been possible to be compliant during precolonial (and even colonial) times, imperialism and neocolonialism demand a vigorous (and different) response. Though passive in reacting to her husbands' indifferent treatment of her, Efuru is protected by the larger women's community. In The Joys of Motherhood, the lack of such a community, the result of the ravages of colonialism, modernization, and the constant uprooting the two factors together engender, is named as a cause of Nnu Ego's suffering. And what might appear to be “modern” in Adaku, her entrepreneurial spirit, independence, and stamina, are in fact traits intimately associated with the audacious market women who rose up in the Women's War.

If Emecheta divides Efuru's discourse between Nnu Ego and Adaku, she also favors the latter character.23 By foregrounding the passivity and misery of Nnu Ego, the narrative suggests that Adaku's rebellion contributes to her greater happiness. Adaku's break with the conventions of Ibuza society also means her exclusion from it, however, and, ultimately, from the narrative itself. Although independent and well-to-do, she and her daughters nevertheless live apart from the community of Ibuza emigrants, which disapproves of her. Once she leaves the Owulum family, she virtually disappears from the narrative. The last times she reappears are special occasions for Nnu Ego's children, and on both occasions Adaku gives them expensive presents. Adaku's subsequent behavior suggests that had Nnu Ego been willing, a friendship free from the strain of close quarters and food shortages might have developed between the two women. Despite her curiosity about Adaku's new lifestyle, Nnu Ego is too proud and worried about her standing within the community to maintain a friendship with her former co-wife. As a result of the break, no news of Adaku's personal life or business dealings is offered. It is as if the text cannot contain so radical a choice as becoming a prostitute. Consigning such rebellious acts to the margins allows Emecheta to articulate their potential and also prevent them from dominating the rest of the narrative.

The topos of rebellion links Efuru and The Joys of Motherhood. Nwapa's creation of a heroine who is both an independent and an authentically Igbo feminist is an act of rebellion against an Igbo literary tradition dominated by male writers and female absences. Yet this assertive depiction of Efuru marginalizes the day-to-day struggles that such a character must confront. Moreover, Efuru's desire to be traditional (to uphold the institution of motherhood) threatens to subvert the text's manifest assertion of female independence. Thirteen years after the publication of Efuru, Emecheta interrogates Nwapa's elision of indigenous patriarchy and the colonial oppression of Igbo women, an oppression that her precursor's insistence on the valorization of tradition reinforces. Despite the critique of Efuru made by The Joys of Motherhood, the relation of the second text to the first does not entail a violent rewriting. Rather, it ultimately emphasizes the affinities that marginalized women writing in a shared tradition must acknowledge. In its rebellion against the “mother text,” The Joys of Motherhood inscribes the conservatism of its precursor into the text through Nnu Ego and escorts its rebelliousness out of it through Adaku. The silencing of Adaku's radicalism need not be equated with its failure, however. Instead that radicalism can be read as eluding textual compromise. The near silent presence of Adaku, like that of the historical phenomenon of the Women's War, resists narrative closure, and thereby marks a rebellious potential that has not yet run its course.

Although gender should constitute a primary category of analysis, it is (still) too often conceived of as a marginal and private discourse within African letters. Both African historiography and African literary history have pretended to be gender-neutral, when, in fact, their genealogies reveal an implicit ideology of gender. As a result, the “feminine” has been elided, and until now nationalism has lacked the means by which to integrate either the 1929 Women's War or the first Nigerian woman's novel into its narrative. The “real” Women's War, which serves as a historical link between Things Fall Apart on the one hand and Efuru and The Joys of Motherhood on the other, also serves as a reminder to the male-dominated nationalist tradition of the rebellious potential of the feminine. The Women's War erupts, challenging conventional, patriarchal, and top-down historiographies. Similarly, the notion that there is no African women's literary history is undermined by the ways in which (Igbo) African women novelists have self-consciously inscribed themselves and their predecessors into a literary history; for before there is an official women's literary history, there is often an intertextual one.


  1. JanMohamed outlines this model uncritically in his landmark book Manichean Aesthetics (1983) and in “The Economy of Manichean Allegory” (1985). Fanon, in Black Skin, White Masks (1967), his first engagement with anti-racist politics, explicitly links gender to political power and implicitly objects to the demasculinization of black and brown men that underpins white male masculinity. Even Said, in Orientalism (1978), objects to being the bottom (i.e., disempowered and feminized) half of the binary.

  2. According to Isichei (1973) the 1929 uprising was not isolated; other documented women's rebellions took place in 1925 and in 1919. See Van Allen's two essays (1972, 1976) as well as the rather different interpretation of the Women's War given in Ifeka-Moller 1985. For British records of the events, see Leith-Ross (1939). And for a native feminist and more recent anticolonial reading of women's organizations and female access to power in Igbo societies, see Amadiume 1987.

  3. One reading here is Davies 1986, which suggests that there are traces of a larger feminine narrative in the Chielo-Ezinma story. I would add that the contradiction that this narrative line in Things Fall Apart engenders (e.g., by developing a female subjectivity that does not depend on the male) must be relegated to the margins of the text in order for the novel to produce the illusion of coherence. For other feminist readings, see Cobham (1991) and Jeyifo (1993).

  4. Okonkwo's third wife, Ojiugo, is named primarily so that a discrete identity may be attributed to the woman whom he beats during the sacred Week of Peace, thereby proving his violent masculinity. Okonkwo's second wife, Ekwefi, who leaves her first husband for him, has a distinct identity; she may be read as a cipher for a Western-style romance (Cobham 1991). And Okonkwo's favorite daughter, Ezinma, is so smart and spirited that he often wishes that she were a boy.

  5. Nwabara offers some details: “Dr C. K. Meek was temporarily transferred from the anthropological department in the northern provinces to help with the study. Margaret Green and Sylvia Leith-Ross were also members of the study group, while Ida Ward concentrated on the Ibo language. These studies were published as books. In addition administrative officers were busy gathering information about the people (known as intelligence reports) which, by the end of 1934, had amounted to about two hundred” (1978, 201).

  6. Achebe responds to Conrad in “An Image of Africa” and responds more directly to anthropological discourse in “Colonialist Criticism,” his essay on a scathing (and racist) critique of Things Fall Apart by a British woman; here, Achebe indicates that he is well aware of the conflation of colonial anthropology and state hegemony, observing that the critic's literary style “recalls so faithfully the sedate prose of the district-officer-government-anthropologist of sixty or seventy years ago” (1975, 5). C. L. Innes's book (1992) examines Achebe's oeuvre as a rejoinder to Cary.

  7. Having been taken to task for his gender politics in writing, Achebe has taken pains to depict women as active political agents and as protagonists in his most recent novel Anthills of the Savannah (1987), written after a gap of almost twenty years; this novel even includes references to the Women's War.

  8. Amadiume recounts the story as follows: “When news reached the women, they demonstrated their anger by bypassing the local court, controlled by equally fanatical Christians, and marching half-naked to the provincial headquarters, Onitsha, to besiege the resident's office. He pleaded for calm and patience and asked the women to go home, saying that he would look into the case. The women considered this a feeble response, so they returned to Nnobi, went straight to the man's house and razed it to the ground. This was the indigenous Igbo female custom of dealing with offending men. … Two weeks after the incident, the man is said to have died” (1987, 122).

  9. This statement is less true in 1996 than when the first version of this chapter was published (Andrade 1990). Since then, see the chapters on Nwapa in Wilentz 1992, Holloway 1992, and Stratton 1994. Nevertheless, in contrast to the attention given to the novelists Mariama Bâ, Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, or Emecheta, Nwapa is usually addressed only in broad comparative studies of African women's literature.

  10. For critics see Ojo-Ade 1983 and Gordimer 1973; for defenders see Emenyonu 1970 and Taiwo 1984. Feminist readings include those by Davies 1986, Banyiwa-Horne 1986, Condé 1972, Brown 1981, and Nnaemeka 1989.

  11. See Brown's introductory chapter to his classic text Women Writers in Black Africa (1981). Even Emmanuel Obiechina argues that “Jagua's personality shines through the vicissitudes and corruption of the city” (1975, 104).

  12. That Brown reads Jagua's “redemption” at the end of the narrative as corresponding to her pregnancy and new interest in “rural living” only supports my point here (1981, 7).

  13. In a comparative reading of Efuru and Jagua Nana, both of which address “the woman question,” Uzoma Esonwanne in a letter to me addresses the dilemma of the “united front” stance adopted by cultural nationalists. “The problem was: how to articulate the specificity of women's oppression at precisely the moment when the dominant ideology eschewed internal critique? Those of us who grew up in Nigeria in the late '60s and '70s remember so well how this problem was resolved: Ekwensi's Jagua was the literary symptom of a pervasive attempt by men to displace this problem from the realm of the political economy dominated by men to that of an abstracted sexual probity of women themselves. Read against Jagua, then, Efuru emerges as a far more serious, but ultimately unsatisfactory, attempt through literary art to resolve this contradiction in the ideology of nationalism.”

  14. The “Achebe school” comprises Igbo writers Nwapa, Nkem Nkwankwo, John Munyone, E. C. C. Uzodinma, and Clemen Agunwa, all influenced by Things Fall Apart. See Innes and Lindfors 1978, 5–6.

  15. Taiwo illustrates, citing from the novel: “For example, a pregnant woman should ‘not go out alone at night. If she must go out, then somebody must go with her and she must carry a small knife. When she is sitting down, nobody must cross her leg.’ … If at birth the child does not cry at once, you ‘took hold of its two legs, lifted it in the air and shook it until it cried.’ … The mother should put her legs together or else she will not be able to walk properly in the future. Breast-feeding should go on for a year or more” (1984, 54).

  16. In addition to Efuru, Nwapa had published Idu; Bessie Head had published all three of her novels; and Emecheta herself had already published The Slave Girl, which contains specific references to the Women's War. 1979 is also the year in which Mariama Bâ published Une si longue lettre, for which she would win the first Noma award.

  17. Florence Stratton (1994) correctly points out that Nwapa shares the honor of being the first black African woman novelist with Kenyan Grace Ogot; both published their first novels in 1966.

  18. Efuru does run away with first husband, Adiuza, without first obtaining approval or going through the formality of bride-price. However, she, her husband, and mother-in-law work hard to earn the necessary money, and her father, Nwashike Ogeue, immediately sanctions the marriage.

  19. While Efuru is not set in the precolonial period, it also refuses to date its narrative. What colonial presence it implies has not yet begun to wear at the fabric of Igbo social life.

  20. Amadiume relates how separate gender space in the village could encourage autonomy for women and hinder marital rape: “Sex was not forced upon a woman; she was constantly surrounded by children and other people. Men did not enter the women's quarters freely or casually. Avenues were open for ‘politicking.’ … Indigenous architecture and male/female polygyny made these choices possible” (1987, 114).

  21. Amadiume points out that according to tradition women could refuse to give their husbands food if they “did not contribute meat or yam for the meal” (1987, 114). Van Allen explains the manner in which cooking strikes were traditionally utilized by women: “all the women refused to cook for their husbands until the request was carried out. For this boycott to be effective, all women had to cooperate so that men could not go and eat with their brothers” (1972, 1970).

  22. So understated is the text's treatment of prostitution that some critics refuse to acknowledge it. Eustace Palmer (1983) denies that Adaku becomes a prostitute—without offering any textual evidence to the contrary. Palmer's attempt to read sympathetically feminist texts coupled with a certain morality make his approach similar to Emenyonu's.

  23. Since Adaku has two children, Emecheta's text clearly does not argue against motherhood as such, merely against adhering to a notion of it as essential no matter what the context.

My thanks to Uzoma Esonwanne, Nancy Glazener, Greg Diamond, and especially Deidre Lynch for their conversations and comments. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Research in African Literatures 20, no. 1 (1990): 91–110, and is reprinted here in altered form by permission of Indiana University Press.


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Further Reading