Gender Issues in Africa Expressed Through Literature

Length: 1197 words

Post-colonial literature has been instrumental in bringing awareness and understanding of indigenous culture to outsiders. This could be said of post-colonial African Literature too. Gender issues are one important aspect of indigenous African culture. And African women writers of recent decades have investigated and evaluated these issues from both historical and sociological viewpoints. The two novels in discussion – So Long a Letter and Everything Good Will Come – delve deeply into women’s issues in their respective countries. The rest of this essay will highlight, compare and contrast the gender issues discussed in these novels. In particular it will argue that the two books in question bring key insight, understanding and a message of hope to women’s issues in their respective countries.

So Long a Letter (originally published in French as ‘Une si longue lettre’), gives voice to women of Senegal in particular and Western Africa in general. It is written by Mariama Ba and is semi-autobiographical in content. Ramatoulaye Fall is the protagonist and first-person narrator of this epistolary novel. Addressed to her close friend Aissatou Ba, the letter was prompted by the narrator’s recent and unexpected widowhood. Ramatoulaye recounts to

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Aissatou the circumstances and the shock accompanying her husband’s death due to heart-attack. But having adopted the novel form, the letter touches upon topics far and beyond that of her immediate grief. And through her forays into all aspects of women’s social rules and restrictions the feminist voice of the author comes alive. (Ba-Curry, 2008, p.112) Especially astute are Ba’s grasp of interpersonal equations and balance of power between the two genders:

“A woman is like a ball; once a ball is thrown, no one can predict where it will bounce. You have no control over where it rolls, and even less over who gets it. Often it is grabbed by an unexpected hand…Whereas a woman draws from the passing years the force of her devotion, despite the ageing of her companion, a man, on the other hand, restricts his field of tenderness. His egoistic eye looks over his partner’s shoulder. He compares what he had with what he no long has, what he has with what he could have. (Ba, 1980, p.42)

The novel Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta has thematic similarities in that its protagonist also is a girl living in postcolonial Nigeria and England. But compared to Miriama Ba’s work, Atta’s novel is created in a much broader canvas, covering political developments, ethnic conflict, crime as well as interpersonal relationships. The chief character in the novel is that of Enitan, who is confronting in her life various issues that have engulfed postcolonial Nigeria. Some of the most realistic and poignant passages in the novel pertain to the ethnic strife between groups such as Youruba, Igbo (Biafrans) and Housas, which has stifled progress and development in sovereign Nigeria. (Olowonmi, 2008, p.55) Sefi Atta emphasizes ‘bonding’ as a mechanism for achieving communal bliss. Via bonding, key characters in the story are able to share their burden and fight bravely to resist their oppressors and seek freedom for their loved ones. Dismantling this cloak of disillusionment then becomes a text-type for the survival of democratic governance in her country. According to the United Nations’ Global Human Development Report (2002) governance in action includes institutions, rules and political processes. And these factors determine if economies grow, children go to school, and whether human development moves forward or backward. Thus, this perspective

“is in consonance with the writer’s vision when he/she moves through enormous materials to organize and orchestrate in order to open a window to prospective horizons as his/her art reflects reality. And conclusively, the writer caves for the deepening of democratic governance in Nigeria to ensure that the use of power in public affairs gives premium to human development and political accountability to argue for good governance as essentially, democratic governance.” (Olowonmi, 2008, p.56)

Coming back to So Long a Letter, having been born into a household that follows the Muslim faith, Ramatoulaye’s life as a widow is rather bleak. The irony lies in the fact that although Ramatoulaye was technically still married to her husband Modow, she was abandoned by him (along with their 12 children) in favor of the younger woman Binetou. The life of the addressee of the letter, Aissatou, is not too different. She divorced her ex-husband Mawdo because she couldn’t stand the idea of his polygamy. But she boldly faces up to the challenge of single-parenthood and brings up her four children on her own. The other key character in the novel is the other Aissatou, the daughter of Ramatoulaye, named after her best friend. The life of this young girl takes a precarious route as she becomes pregnant as a teenager. There are other minor characters in the book who support the basic narrative surrounding the lives of these three women. (Ba-Curry, 2008, p.112)

It is evident that Mariama Ba highlights key issues facing Senegalese women. These include patriarchal oppression, fundamentalist religious beliefs, lack of options like abortion, teenage pregnancy, single parenthood, etc. But amid all these negative conditions, there’s a beacon of hope as well. For example, both Ramatoulaye and Aissatou are well educated and able to support their children through their own industry. Thus Ba is implying that through education and exposure to the broader world, women of Africa can emancipate themselves. This assessment is borne out by facts and statistics as well:

“Conditions have worsened for most women in Africa, and indeed, in the entire Third World. At the same time, women have begun to receive specific attention from policy-makers and researchers, national and international. Women’s bureau and women’s organizations have been created in nearly every African independent nation. One or two women have been appointed Cabinet-level Ministers and others have made it to top positions in the civil service and in professions. For these women, conditions have definitely improved.” (Mbilinyi, 1985, p.72)

Everything Good Will Come differs from So Long a Letter in the way it brings forth the transforming psychology of Enitan. The mental and social adjustments that Enitan makes as she blooms from adolescence into adulthood can also be interpreted allegorically. In other words, in many ways the coming of age of Enitan is symbolic of Nigeria’s independence from colonial masters. But as the state of independence was misused and abused in the civil and political realms, so does the life of Enitan reflect these disappointments. For example, Enitan was brought up in a dysfunctional family environment, under the shadow of religious superstition and parental irresponsibility. Even as she tries to rebel her way out of this stifling environment, the will of her parents prove too powerful to her own. Thus she eventually conforms to their aspirations for her, leading her to go overseas for higher studies. Enitan believes that by becoming a lawyer, she could contribute to the uplift of her society. Talking in a mature voice, she notes “When I died I would be called to give account of my time here on earth. What a pity if I said I cooked and cleaned.” (Atta, 2004, p.301)

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