Naana Banyiwa-Horne （essay date 1986）
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 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,...
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