Experiencing Aboulela’s The Museum

Irecently got nostalgic when author, Ayòbámi Adébáyò, put up a post on ‘Breaking The Silence’ - an anthology of short stories by female Nigerian authorsa. The post immediately took me back to teenhood and discovering Nigerian books - particularly those who with a female perspective on life, and stories of women in Nigerian societies. So, you can imagine how delighted I was when Opening Spacesb, a similar collection of short stories, came my way soon after. Even more exciting was that the stories in this anthology are filled with distinct female perspectives on cultural and contemporary issues across different African countries.

Of the fifteen short stories in Opening Spaces, Leila Aboulela’s ‘The Museum’ stuck with me. Her story is about Shadia — a Sudanese bride-to-be who is studying for her Master’s Degree in Scotland, and is engaged to Fareed back home. In the first few pages, she is floundering at school: full of anxiety about the new culture she is experiencing, and hanging out with only other ‘Third World’ students like herself. The rest of the story sees Shadia taking tentative steps out of her comfort zone, and wrestling the cultural and social implications. Aboulela fuses a number of fascinating experiences in this story.

As I read, I kept asking myself: do love and life always require us to contort? All her life in Khartoum, Sudan, Shadia has followed the path mapped for her by her mother, and, subsequently, her husband-to-be. “To make herself pleasing to people was a skill Shadia was trained in. It was not difficult to please people. Agree with them, never dominate the conversation, be economical with the truth.” The result is a mostly timid young lady who resorts to occasional deviousness to get her way; one who hides from others who are unlike her, and is surprised by her own boldness when it shows up.

 

To Be A Woman

How she became this person, the reader is not told expressly, but it is not an unfamiliar trope. In the first story of the anthology - The Girl Who Can - Ama Ata Aidoo offers a glimpse into how women are taught, from a young age, to be docile: to keep quiet, even when the conversation is about them or issues that will affect them. In that story, an inquisitive child finds it hard to communicate with her grandmother and mother because she is repeatedly told “never, never, but NEVER to repeat that.” To avoid conversations that might displease her grandmother and mother or make them laugh at her, she teaches herself silence.

For Shadia, it is obvious that mother is a dominant personality in her life. Her rationale forms the basis for some of her daughter’s most important actions including her pursuit of a degree and who/why she marries. Her mother, desperate to correct her own errors, wants her daughters to have degrees to earn their in-laws respect. Her argument being: “They have money but you will have a degree. Don’t end up like me. I left my education to marry your father, and now…” Thus, even a good thing like Shadia’s education seems less about Shadia, and more about her mother’s reconciliation with decades past.

Shadia’s life in Khartoum revolves around making others happy, and their ideas of what should make her happy. She describes the man she is engaged to as “a package that came with the 7Up franchise, the paper factory, the big house he was building, his sisters and widowed mother. Shadia was going to marry them all. She was going to be happy and make her mother happy.” 25-year-old Shadia does not learn that one can be a different way — can speak for self or think for self, until during her Master’s when she meets Bryan who listens to her opinions and acts on her wishes.

 

Cultures And Anxieties

Scotland is a culture shock for Shadia. Having come to school with a single story of how the Western world and its people are, — they hate Islam, they speak perfect ‘BBC-like’ English — she is surprised to find that Bryan was not only culturally open, but had studied Islam is school, and was keen about Mecca. After her encounter with Bryan, a British student, she begins to crawl out of her cocoon into a new space and a new freedom.

What follows is an exploration of what can happen when a woman is outside the conditions that allow certain traditional arrangements or ‘restrictions’ to thrive. These discoveries - like her anxieties about failing school - are, however, things she can neither discuss with Fareed nor tell her mother. The former considers it benevolent on his part that he has allowed her to study abroad. Her mother, on the other hand, would have a fit about Shadia potentially jeopardising her engagement to a carefully ‘selected’ spouse by hanging out with Bryan.

This picture of commonality in the selection of an African girl’s spouse is present in a number of stories in Opening Spaces. Also clear is the sense that it is considered important for her to ensure she is well rounded — the requirements for which differ across cultures — so she can find a good man. Marie, a character in Lindsey Collen’s ‘The Enigmac, is frustrated by this, and writes: “My father is waiting for someone to make a request for my hand in marriage. This is one thing I can’t stand. When I hear the two words bon garçon, I feel the anger…”

Outside the influence of her mother and her society, Shadia seems to unfurl; discovering more about her true self and speaking up about her thoughts. Unlike back home where she did not hangout with Fareed without a chaperone, she goes to coffee with Bryan, and visits a museum with him. The young woman who sat in class at the beginning, thinking about having straight hair in paradise, is different from the one who strives to prove the superiority of her country and people. She compares Scotland’s River Dee unfavourably to the Nile, and is proud that she speaks better English than Bryan does, and that her father, a doctor, has a ‘better’ profession than his.

 

The Dark Continent

She had come to this museum expecting sunlight and photographs of the Nile… But the messages were not for her, not for anyone like her.

In trying to amplify herself to Bryan, she stretches some truths; boasting that she would have been a princess in Sudan if not for colonialism. The Museum - with its exhibits that reinforced a colonial, primitive narrative of Africa - reminds her of the historical and cultural walls that exist between her and Bryan. At the museum about Africa, Shadia is fierce in her defense of Africa against the lazy exhibits she sees, insisting that: “They are telling lies in this museum... It’s all wrong. It’s not jungles and antelopes, it’s people. We have things like computers and cars.”

Her eyes skimmed over the disconnected objects out of place and time. Iron and copper, little statues. Nothing was of her, nothing belonged to her life at home, what she missed. Here was Europe’s vision, the cliches about Africa; cold and old.

Experiencing the Museum through Shadia’s eyes, the reader gets the sense that the choice of exhibits on display and of the narrative pushed in such spaces in the West, are a semi-new form of oppression. That is, one that aims to keep Africa in the dark, at least in the minds of people whose first and only encounter of the continent may be through such exhibits. Shadia is, nonetheless, reminded of how much her country and culture mean to her. The descriptions of Sudan are vivid, and her longing for her people is palpable. It is clear to the reader how much she, and perhaps Aboulela, love her home.

 

Internal War

Though she rages against the stereotypes and single-lens on Africa, she finds it impossible to shake all of her own internal conditioning about duty and love. Even her evolving sense of self is not enough to stop her from considering hanging out with Bryan and thinking about him, as mistakes follow mistakes. Shadia is torn between Fareed - who will not lose weight despite her nagging yet is a good spousal choice for her culturally - and Bryan - who pulls off his earrings immediately she says she does not like them during their second conversation.

He didn’t know it was a steep path she had no strength for. He didn’t understand. Many things, years and landscapes, gulfs. If she had been strong she would have explained, and not tired of explaining.

The end of the story leads to the question I had asked when I first started reading: Do love and life always require us to contort? As Shadia unfurls, Bryan - who is longing to get away from the monotony of his life in Scotland and please a woman he barely knows - tells her he can change; he can learn about her culture and religion, to be with her. His willingness to learn is, however, unmatched by her willingness/inability to fully unlearn. Neither Shadia’s growing sense of self nor the taste of previously unknown freedom is enough to give her the strength to pursue a new longing.


Have you read Opening Spaces? What stor(y)(ies) stuck with you?

Not read it? You can rent a copy of Opening Spaces from us in Nigeria here


Notes

a Breaking The Silence is a collection of short stories by female Nigerian writers. It was published by Women Writers of Nigeria (WRITA) in 1996, and edited by Toyin Adewale-Nduka and Omowunmi Segun.

b Opening Spaces, published in 1999, was edited by Yvonne Vera, under the African Writers Series. It is an anthopology of short stories by fifteen female African writers from eleven African countries. The fifteen stories and contributors are:

1. The Girl Who Can (Ama Ata Aidoo, Ghana)

2. Deciduous Gazettes (Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, Zimbabwe)

3. The Enigma (Lindsey Collen, Mauritius)

4. The Red Velvet Dress (Farida Karodia, South Africa)

5. Uncle Bunty (Norma Kitson, South Africa)

6. The Betrayal (Veronique Tadjo, Cote d'Ivoire)

7. The Museum (Leila Aboulela, Sudan)

8. The Power of a Plate of Rice (Ifeoma Okoye, Nigeria)

9. Stress (Lília Momplé, Mozambique)

10. A State of Outrage (Sindiwe Magona, South Africa)

11. Crocodile Tails (Chiedza Musengezi, Zimbabwe)

12. Night Thoughts (Monde Sifuniso, Zambia)

13. The Barrel of a Pen (Gugu Ndlovu, Zimbabwe)

14. A Perfect Wife (Anna Dao, Mali)

15. The Home-Coming (Milly Jafta, Namibia)

c A review of Enigma here.