The Road to Mecca

by Athol Fugard

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How do Elsa, Miss Helen, and Katrina encounter and combat oppression in The Road to Mecca?

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In Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca, the three female characters experience oppression from those living in New Bethesada and in Cape Town, South Africa. This oppression is religious, social, marital, and racial.

  • Miss Helen Martins

--Religious oppression

The main character, a woman who is nearly seventy named Miss Helen Martins, has lost her husband and now lives alone. She suffers first from religious oppression after leaving her church. The townspeople object to her sculptures that she sets out in her yard, so they send the pastor of their church to convince Miss Helen to rid her yard of pagan idolatry (she has created sculptures of camels, pyramids, dozens of Wise Men who face Mecca, as well as owls with headlights for eyes and wild-colored birds). But Helen objects to his coercion; she contends that the darkness of her life can be dispelled by the light of her candles, her freedom, and her art. "Light is a miracle," Helen says. 

--Social oppression

Pastor Byleveld later visits Miss Helen and places her under further duress with the necessary papers for commitment to the Sunshine Home for the Aged. Having previously told her friend Elsa,

"The only reason I've got for being alive is my Mecca. Without it that I'm...nothing...a useless old woman getting on everybody's nerves...."

Helen rejects the idea of going to such an institution. However, under duress later on, Miss Helen almost signs the papers. Ironically, when she refuses, the pastor confides, "There's more light in you than in all your candles put together."

  • Elsa Marlow

--Social oppression

An English teacher from Cape Town who has developed a friendship with Miss Helen because she can trust this woman, Elsa suffers from social oppression herself. Because she is opposed to apartheid, Elsa has assigned her students a writing assignment, and she has encouraged her black students to rebel against the system under which they live. Elsa tells Helen that when she returns home, she must face the Board of Enquiry of the Cape Town Schools, and she may be fired for her convictions.

Elsa later confides that she has had an affair with a married man, whom she believed would leave his wife and child for her. However, her trust in this man was betrayed and he returned to his wife. Afterwards, Elsa learned that she was pregnant, and she had an abortion because of her fears of the social repercussions of having the baby out of wedlock as a teacher, as well as the complications that would result with the man's family. Now she is filled with guilt over her decision to not oppose an oppressive social system.

Elsa also suffers some social oppression as Pastor Byleveld attempts to pressure her to convince Helen to sign the papers for admission to the Sunshine Home.

  • Katrina

--Marital oppression and physical abuse

Not only is the seventeen-year-old Katrina, who is a maid for Helen, victimized by apartheid, she is oppressed by a drunkard for a husband. Koos, her husband, accuses her of conceiving their baby with another man, he beats her, and he threatens her.

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Miss Helen encounters oppression in two ways.  The first way is not overt oppression.  After her husband's death, Miss Helen no longer attended church.  Consequently, many members of the community no longer made efforts to interact with Miss Helen.  They didn't do anything to expressly oppress her, but the loneliness had to be tough.  The second way that Miss Helen feels oppression is by her own creation.  She believes that darkness represents spiritually dark forces.  Her answer to that is to attempt to light every last corner of her house.  I'm not sure if that's exactly possible, but just the thought of any darkness being "evil" oppresses her daily life.  

Elsa is oppressed by guilt.  She fears commitment in general, so being pregnant was too much to handle.  Elsa had an abortion in order to get out of the commitment of being a mother, and now she feels guilty about the decision.  She wonders if it was the correct decision, and visits her role model -- Miss Helen. 

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