Feminist Characters in African Literature

Feminist.
A person who believes in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in ‘We Should All Be Feminists’

After a few years of having it hold a place on my shelf, I picked Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions as one of the books I would read in the first quarter of 2017. I was immediately met by a fierce feminism developing in the 8-year-old Tambudzai. All she wanted was to be; To be a person whose ambitions were considered with the same seriousness ascribed to that of her brother; To be equal - neither hindered nor boosted by the coincidental fact of her gender.

The more pages I read, the more I thought of what it has meant, over decades, to be a woman in an African setting that is largely patriarchal, and further still, to be a feminist woman in such a setting. I was reminded of an Ama Ata Aidoo interview from a few years ago, where she said: “When a woman has been socialised into - I don’t want to use the word oppressed - a certain space, and she is being that woman in that space, that does not mean that’s all there is to her. … A feminist is just somebody, not necessarily a woman, who believes in the potential of women to get to the highest possible level of development.”

Like Ama Ata Aidoo and Chimamanda Adichie, there are quite a number of feminist African writers who are vocal - in and outside of their writing - about feminism. Encountering Tambudzai, a young female character exploring and developing her notions of feminism, I started to think about other feminist characters I had come across in African literature. In picking my favourite four feminist characters across three books, I ascribe the ‘feminist’ descriptor to them in the context of their cultures and/or the setting of the stories. So that while, for example, Efuru’s actions might not seem like a huge deal in today’s society, when held up against the realities of her time and society - with her first mother-in-law as contrast - one cannot deny that Efuru is a feminist.

Tambudzai

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

As a child in the early 1960s, Tambudzai is aware of the difference in the treatment she gets compared to that which her brother enjoys. “The needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority, or even legitimate” she says. Instead of quietly accepting it like her mother and the other women have, Tambudzai chooses to do something about it. Her first real act of defiance is cultivating maize so that she can pay her own fees after her father pulls her out of school because he cannot afford to pay her fees. She decides to be unhindered by the barriers of what her father says women can or cannot do.

Tambudzai’s awakening is poignant because, for the most part, she is without allies; not even finding one in her mother about whom she says, “…for most of her life my mother’s mind, belonging first to her father and then to her husband, had not been hers to make up…” As she deals with the intersectionality of blackness, poverty and being female, the circumstances of her life are often decided by all three, making it harder for her to pull a thread and decide which is which. Whereas, for her brother, it is simpler - he deals with being poor and black, but the fact of being male is enough to give him an opportunity at an education and future wealth. For Tambudzai, this is unfortunately not the case.

Throughout Nervous Conditions, Tambudzai seems to be furiously unlearning the patriarchy that her family is steeped in. Through her grit and a twist of fate, she seems to be winning, finally getting a chance at a proper education when her brother dies. However, once she is living in the Mission House with her educated uncle, aunt and cousin, Tambudzai, who finds herself more docile, begins to understand that neither wealth nor education protect her aunt (who has a Master’s degree but is compelled to give her salary to her husband monthly) and cousin from unfair treatment they receive as a result of their gender.

The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education, or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them.
— Tambudzai, Nervous Conditions

The men in Nervous Conditions take victimisation with them everywhere, but some of the women, like Tambudzai, have their victories over a patriarchy that tries to take away their agency, and sometimes threatens their lives.

Efuru

Efuru by Flora Nwapa

Efuru is a young woman growing up in Oguta but she is no ordinary Oguta woman. On the first page of Efuru, the beloved daughter of the most respected man in Oguta chooses her own husband, a man considered a nobody, who does not even have money to pay her dowry. One can immediately tell that Efuru will not allow the terms of her life to be dictated by traditions. Her take-charge attitude continues throughout the book. In a village where women often went to the farm with their husbands, she tells her first husband that she has no such interest, and goes in the direction of her strength instead - trading. She convinces her husband to join her as he had been unsuccessful in farming.

In a village where women often went to the farm with their husbands, she tells her first husband that she has no such interest, and goes in the direction of her strength instead - trading. I find Efuru’s feminism particularly interesting because she, like Tambudzai, is a young girl growing up in mid-1900s in Africa. Efuru, however, displays a greater measure of independence and self-assertion in comparison to Tambudzai. 

In quiet rebellion against the cultural norms of the time, she asserts her agency by picking her own spouses, career and deciding how best to react to the challenges that come her way. From early stages, it is clear that Efuru wants to be Efuru - full in herself and not Nwashike Ogene’s daughter toeing expectations; nor Adizua’s wife or Gilbert’s wife meekly kowtowing to them as a wife was expected to do even when it would be smarter not to. Efuru decides that she will be just as successful as any man can be in Oguta at the time, and this earns her respect and influence which she uses to uplift other people.

Repeatedly, Efuru sifts and decides which traditions she will submit to. Early on in her marriage, she gets circumcised. After over a year trying to have a baby, she has a daughter who dies around the time her first husband Adizua disappears, and is rumoured to have gone to another town and married another woman. His mother tells her that Adizua’s father did the same to her, but she chose to remain in her husband’s house. Efuru gives patience a try, then moves back to her father’s house, subsequently marrying Gilbert. When she fails to have a child for him after 4 years, she advises him to marry another woman, whom she embraces and takes care of.

All through, Efuru is a woman who recognises her agency and chooses to assert her equality without seeking permission of anyone. Whenever she is confronted with a challenge, like being wrongly accused of adultery by her second husband, she weighs what others expect of her against what she wants for herself, and the latter always wins. Which is why, instead of confessing to adultery as her husband would have liked - despite insisting that she will continue to be his wife - Efuru chooses to leave him, and face her life and business.

You do not have to break the rules to be a reformer, all you have to do is to bend, expand, or reshape them” writes Ahmad Ghashmari in his review of Efuru. This is an apt description of the feminism displayed by Efuru. She chooses which cultural expectations she will fulfil, bends others to suit her purposes,  reshapes and in other cases, discards them.

Aissatou

So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ

Others’ bend their heads and, in silence, accept a destiny that oppresses them. That, briefly put, is the internal ordering of our society, with its absurd divisions. I will not yield to it.
…I am stripping myself of your love, your name. Clothed in my dignity, the only worthy garment, I go my way.
— Aissatou, So Long A Letter

This is Aissatou, the protagonist’s best friend, when her husband marries a second wife and expects her to ‘forgive’ and understand, as the women in their Senegalese culture do. So Long a Letter is set sometime between 1960 and 1980, and Aissatou’s choice to leave is a bold one, not just for that time period but even now when divorce is still frowned upon in most African cultures. At the time (and to some extent now), polygamy was considered acceptable - culturally and in the Islamic religion Aissatou and her ex-husband practice. Aissatou walks away from her marriage, but more importantly away from in-laws who have never considered her ‘worthy’ because she is the daughter of a goldsmith. To them, it is her marriage to Mawdo that gave her dignity.

Once she decides that she will neither be held back by classism or notions of the role a woman is to play, Aissatou goes on to establish her economic and social freedom by returning to school and getting an appointment in the Senegalese Embassy in the United States. She does not conform to a society that attempts to subsume women in the desires of their husbands, yet she recognises and supports the choices of other women even when they do not align with hers. When her best friend Ramatoulaye’s husband goes down the same route as her ex-husband, Aissatou is respectful of her friend’s choice to remain in her marriage. Rather than condemn her friend, Aissatou extends a helping hand to Ramatoulaye by buying her a car, in order to ease her burdens.

Ramatoulaye

So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ

Though a decade and half have passed since I first read Ramatoulaye’s heart-rending letter that forms the text of this book, time and repeated readings have not lessened the ache I feel for her when her 25-year-old marriage is abruptly ended by her husband who marries her daughter’s friend, Binetou, without giving her prior notice.

Before she married him, Ramatoulaye had been, as she describes, one of the “...first pioneers of the promotion of African women, there were very few of us. Men would call us scatter-brained. Others labelled us devils. But many wanted to possess us.” Possess her, Modou Fall did. After her marriage, Ramatoulaye bears little resemblance to the woman described. Her life and identity almost completely revolve around her husband, and this is perhaps why she asks: “How many dreams did we nourish hopelessly that could have been fulfilled as lasting happiness and that we abandoned to embrace others, those that have burst miserably like soap bubbles, leaving us empty-handed?

Despite her husband’s betrayal and abandonment of their 12 children, Ramatoulaye refuses to divorce him even at the prompting of her children. In Ramatoulaye, I am reminded that the criterion for being a ‘feminist’ is being someone who believes in the equality of men and women. Ramatoulaye is a feminist, regardless of how anyone feels about her choices in her marriage. She chooses not to wallow, and instead, picks up the responsibilities that had hitherto been left to her husband.

Upon his death 5 years later, she says: “This is the moment dreaded by every Senegalese woman, the moment when she sacrifices her possessions as gifts to her family-in-law; and, worse still, beyond her possessions she gives up her personality, her dignity, becoming a thing in the service of the man who has married her, his grandfather, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his brother, his sister, his uncle, his aunt, his male and female cousins, his friends.”

This is the moment that reminds me she is a feminist. While she does give up material possessions, she refuses to give up her dignity or self. She also goes on to deliver a monologue about the need for gender equality in government and education, allowing the reader to see that though her choices differ from Aissatou’s, she remains a feminist.

We have a right, just as you have, to education, which we ought to be able to pursue to the furthest limits of our intellectual capacities. We have a right to equal well-paid employment, to equal opportunities. The right to vote is an important weapon.
… But Daouda, the constraints remain; but Daouda, old beliefs are revived;
but Daouda, egoism emerges, scepticism rears its head in the political field.
You want to make it a closed shop and you huff and puff about it.
— Ramatoulaye, So Long A Letter

All four women are different in their approaches to navigating oppression and inequality, but it is their shared push for equality, respectively, and their advocacy for equality in the lives of other women in each novel, that make Tambubzai, Efuru, Aissatou and Ramatoulaye my favourite feminist characters in African literature. Who's your favourite feminist character?