10 Tedtalks by authors of Nigerian heritage.
A review of Purple Hibiscus by the 2007 Orange Prize (now the Bailey's Women's Prize) winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Purple Hibiscus was first published in 2003 by Algonquin Books and most recently by Narrative Landscape Press. Winner of the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize, Purple Hibiscus is available in 28 languages.
Cover images via Narrative Landscape Press and Chimamanda.
I first read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus, when it was published 14 years ago, and I recall being in awe of her storytelling. As I reread it this year, that same feeling resurfaced. Purple Hibiscus tells a story about a seemingly normal Nigerian family unraveling as a military regime comes to power in Nigeria. The story captures the struggles of a politically troubled Nigeria as well as the disintegrating Achike family, both in a fight to bud and bloom in the face of abuse.
Power Must Change Hands
There are people, she once wrote, who think that we cannot rule ourselves because the few times we tried, we failed, as if all the others who rule themselves today got it right the first time."
Purple Hibiscus is set against the backdrop of a recent coup, and as the lives of the Achikes unravel at home, so does the country. Their aunt, Ifeoma, wrote the above to Kambili after moving to America because of unrest at her job in the University of Nigeria following the coup. Her words, presumably said about Americans, echo the sentiment of military leaders of the time. Pre-1999, military interventions in Nigeria were always under the guise of taking over to instill discipline, end corruption, and ensure order, correcting all the perceived mistakes of the democratic leadership.
The first time the coup is mentioned, it is as the priest holds up Kambili’s father, Eugene Achike, as a shining example of how to act right in the face of one. To hear the priest tell it, Kambili's Papa is a shining example of a person who "reflects the Triumphant Entry". He uses his newspaper to speak out for freedom, makes the biggest donations to the church, and he watches to see who does not take communion so they can be restored to the fold. Eugene, venerated by the priest during Sunday Mass, upheld by the village folk and generally praised by all who know him, seems like the perfect man.
In office, successive military governments failed to deliver all they promised and, in the course of holding on to power by means of force, eroded justice in the country. The coup and military government in Purple Hibiscus are no different. The rule of force leaves no room for dissent, and where any citizens or institutions tried to speak truth, they were met with punishment designed to ensure they fell in line quietly. In spite of Kambili’s father Eugene’s ‘goodness’, it is easy to draw parallels between the Achike home and the country, between him and the military leaders.
Eugene’s children and wife are proud of what a good man he is. Kambili holds herself together to prevent her pride from showing because her father emphasises the importance of modesty. Everything is because ‘Papa said.’ Their practiced responses and reactions, all in the way and measure Papa said. His word is law. They are proud, yet terrified of what a punishing man he is. To them. At home. Where no one sees. Where he pours hot water on his teenage daughter's feet, as tears stream down his face, supposedly out of love because "...you saw the sin clearly and you walked right into it." Kambili’s mother, Beatrice, is a meek woman who does everything to try to please her husband. When she fails, she is battered to the point of hospitalisation.
In spite of the prison-like conditions of her life, Beatrice is incredibly grateful to have Eugene. She tells her daughter about how he has stayed with her, despite the fact that she’s only given him two children, grateful he has not left her despite the comments by relatives. When her husband’s sister tries to persuade her to leave because of his abuse, Beatrice waves the advice aside, chalking it up to Ifeoma’s “university ideas”. The children are raised in a near-militaristic way that leaves them without a name for the abuse their father perpetuates or a voice even when outside the home. Out in the world—in school or even among their cousins—Kambili walks around tongue tied, longing to speak but finding herself unable to. Abuse, emotional and/or physical, takes a toll on the victims, one that sometimes leads to long-term effects, including physical illness.
Fight Or Flee
Everyone has a breaking point—the question is if it leads them to fight or flee. In Purple Hibiscus, citizens protest the military rule at first, but as the days turn on their sides and bring more awareness of the times in which they lived, they shrink back. It starts with driving with leaves on one’s car to signify peace, to people doing nothing as soldiers whip wantonly in the marketplace, then institutional issues like installing sole administrators in universities. The press mirrors this position, learning silence.
Aunty Ifeoma, who tries, in her own little environment in the University, to take a stand, finds that it is hard to fight the power. Like many others who left Nigeria in those years, she packs her bags and her children and leaves for America. A few people try on the national scale. Eugene provides the platform, and his Editor, Ade Coker, continues to speak and take a stand against the military, yet, even they are quieted in the end.
Everyone has a breaking point—the question is if it leads them to fight or flee. For Beatrice, it is when her husband beats another foetus out of her, so hard she insists as she recounts, “it has never happened like this before.” For Kambili and her brother Jaja, it is their first time away from their parents. Seeing how their cousins live with their aunt shakes something loose in them. The order Eugene instilled for almost two decades falls apart after all this, leaving one dead, another jailed, and the remaining two of the four Achikes going against all the morality Eugene had tried to enforce in order to keep what’s left of their family.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus is a brilliant tracing of family and national faults, the things that build us into who we are, and the ways we can happen to life and vice versa. "Immensely powerful" as The Times describes, it is one of those timeless books that deserve revisiting.
a Page 301 referenced from 4th Estate Books Edition of Purple Hibiscus.
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.
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 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 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.
So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ
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.
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.
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?