Womanism in African Literature - The example of Flora Nwapa's Women are Different

Womanism in African Literature: The example of Flora Nwapa’s Women are Different

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This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Reviews season one

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy writes that Flora Nwapa’s Women are Different shows that African feminists, even in their campaign for gender equality, understand the need for a complete family setting rather than one of single parenthood.

Introduction

How do you begin speaking of African female writers without mentioning Flora Nwapa? That woman led the way for other African female writers whose bloom came after hers. I mean writers as Buchi Emecheta, Tess Onwueme, Zulu Sofala, Mabel Segun, Nawal El Sadawi, Aminata Sow Fall, Mariama Ba, Zaynab Alkali, Akachi Ezeigbo, Ifeoma Okoye, Tsi Tsi Dangaremba, Alifa Rifaat, Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer, and of course Ama Ata Aidoo (in no particular order). These women are the doyen of African female writings yet Flora Nwapa is a pioneer figure amongst them. These writers kickstarted the depiction of the feminist ideology in African literature, an ideology which younger ones as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Amma Darko, Grace Akpan, Ehigiator Dumebi Ezar, and Maryam Bongel have kept its fire burning bright.

In an essay titled “A House Divided: feminism in African literature,” Charles Nnolim, a revered critic of African literature, identifies five various camps of African female writers: womanists, accomodationists, reactionaries and middle-of-the-roaders, gyandrists and feminists.

I shall provide brief explanations on the five groups.

Womanism is a black centered ideology whose link to feminism is the freedom and independence of black women but differs from radical feminism in its search for reasonable unification between black women, men, and children. Its focus is to ensure that men change their sexist stand. Its practitioners (womanists) do not end the plots of their novels with feminist victories. Flora Nwapa, Mariama Ba, Ifeoma Okoye, and Zaynab Alkali belong to this school of writers.

Accomodationists do not advocate total equality with men for even while asking for some measures of equality, they concede leadership roles to men and do not struggle to lead the home. Accomodationists stress reconciliation, convergence, affection, and love. Accomodationists have similar ideas as the womanists hence its writers overlap. Mariama Ba belongs to this group.

The Reactionaries and middle-of-the-roaders do not join the feminist trend or declaim it even though they are often found praising their husbands for nurturing and raising them with tender loving care, a perspective which core feminists regard as an embarrassing self abasement. Zulu Sofala belongs to this camp.

Gyandrists refer to those male writers who either promote the feminist ideology or are praised by feminist critics for belonging to the feminist camp. Here you have Sembene Ousmane, Isidore Okpewho, Daniel Mengara and of course Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Nnolim says the African feminist writers are Janus faced because even though they claim not to be of feminists in public, their works exhibit heavy influence of the feminist ideology. Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa are examples of writers in this group.

It is however the first camp (womanism) which Flora Nwapa belongs that we wish to examine here using her novel Women are Different.

The story

So, Flora Nwapa’s novel, Women are Different, tells the story of four women from their teenage years at a girls’ high school down to their adult lives as married women and mothers. These four friends, Agnes, Rose, Dora, and Comfort, had set out to make a difference in the world which they perceive as largely paternalistic and are determined to make that difference. The privilege and exposure of an education under the tutelage of female European missionaries helped to boost self esteem and their need to become important people in the society. So, after school they set out on different paths.

Agnes got married immediately after school to a man old enough to be her father, with her stepmother mounting pressure on the father to approve the marriage. This man had wanted to marry Agnes at a much younger age but Agnes’ father insisted on following his late wife’s wish that Agnes be educated in high school. Her suitor took care of her school fees from primary to secondary school, visits her at school with gifts and patiently waited for her to be through with her education before he would finally claim her for himself.

Agnes was clearly not for this plan, being a bright student, she had lofty dreams and she was determined that nothing would stop her from attaining her dreams, not even marriage. She passed her exams in flying colours and after four children, she decides to pursue her education against her husband’s wish. She won the battle when her father intervened and talked sense to the husband who then gave his consent.

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Agnes enrolled at the university for evening classes where she met and fell in love with her lecturer, Mr Ayo Dele. The result was that her marriage fell apart and she moved in with Ayo Dele who is old enough to be her grandfather. Ayo Dele being a gentle man takes care of her kids while she attends classes and he encourages her to further her education to the master’s level. On receiving the news of what Agnes did to her husband, Agnes’ father felt heartbroken and died as a result of the shame.

Although Ayo Dele later dies, Agnes would go on to become a highly placed civil servant, after the departure of the British in the days immediately after independence, she would also become an executive of a private firm and live a comfortable life.

After school, Dora, another of the young women, trained to become a nurse and later married Chris, her boyfriend from the boys’ grammar school. Chris worked as a court clerk after school and was fond of corrupt practices such as taking bribes.

Dora worked as a nurse till she had her fifth child and decided to branch out into bakery business. She made much success that she was able to fund her husband’s extravagant and ostentatious lifestyle and assist him to build a house in his hometown.

However, Chris began having problems at work because of his brusque attitude towards his colleagues and he was forced to apply for a leave of absence without pay. He told his wife that his intention was to travel abroad to further his education. He secretly sold off the house his wife helped to build and travelled overseas.

Chris would abandon his family for many years, even as the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War came and went by. Luckily, Dora is a shrewd woman and her business acumen would make her survive through the period of the war with her kids. She would also make a lot of money from her business, acquire property, and emerge from the civil war unscathed, and a richer woman. She goes seeking her husband abroad but finds out he has forgotten his family and now lives under the care of a woman in Germany.

Rose, the third young lady, acquires a Diploma in Education from the University of London and becomes a Woman Education Officer in Queens College, where she taught Mathematics. She would be jilted by Mark, would tighten her girdle and decide to forge ahead irrespective of the disappointment and challenges she had to live through. She later gets a job with a public relations firm and she lives comfortably. Rose becomes wealthy but she yearns for things she was never lucky to get; a stable relationship, children, or marriage; and she felt unfortunate that none of these things ever happened to her. She remains a spinster while her friends already had grownup kids of 20 years.

Comfort also trained as a nurse and ended up marrying a rich man who took good care of her.

Now, while these four women toiled to attain the position they arrived at in life, they failed to pass a good legacy to their children. Dora’s first daughter, Chinwe would not want to be educated as her mother; she wanted to be part of the business world as her mother. Albeit she was a successful business woman and married a well-to-do man, she abandoned her husband when he chooses to bring into their home a younger lady as a second wife. Chinwe would later become the paramour to a rich old man with wife and children in his house. The man buys her a house and she is happy. Comfort, her mother’s friend, would even say that she has the right to be different, that the younger generation of women are bold and should be allowed to make their own decisions and mistakes, rather than being tied up and having to depend on the men in their lives.

If Dora’s daughter became a wayward woman, Agnes’ daughter, Zizi, did not turn out any better. At eighteen she runs away from home to live in a brothel where she ends up as a lady of the night. Her mother’s attempt at forcing her back home was rebuffed as she accuses her mother of not being a better woman for she abandoned their father to live with her lover while her children were yet young. This would cause Agnes to go seeking her now very old husband and bring him out of his poverty to live with her. She takes care of him and provides for his needs. Yet Zizi had become too wild to be tamed, she would get involved in narcotics and be arrested at the airport in London. After she has been freed due largely to her mother’s effort, she marries within one week and gets divorced the following week.

Chris, Dora’s husband, returns to Nigeria and she welcomes him as if nothing happened. She is happy to have her husband and marriage back because she fears living the life of a single woman without a father for her children. She introduces Rose, who had never been lucky in her past relationship with men, to Olu, who had been her lover while her husband was away, and she hopes Rose and Olu will be a perfect match for each other.

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My views

First, I must say that I love the style employed in narrating the story even though it is set down in a chronological order. The writer brought the girls together as friends in high school, then after high school, we delved into the lives of the ladies, who had become young women, individually, a chapter each was sacrificed to narrating what transpired in the lives of these women after their secondary school days; except Comfort who did not get much coverage. Then towards the end, the novelist links their stories together and creates some sort of unification.

Now, in line with the womanist perspective, this novel clearly does not end with feminist victory. The novel emphasizes the completeness of the family whereas a family is not made of just the mother and children alone, a father has to be in the picture for the man’s position in the household cannot be obliterated. This is why Dora would gladly have her husband back without having to quarrel, even though he had longed abandoned his family, why Agnes would go bring back a man she abandoned years back in pursuit of her dreams, and why Rose feels unfulfilled without a man in her life, even though she is wealthy and quite comfortable. Flora Nwapa seems to advocate for the unity of the family and sees it as non-negotiable. Nonetheless, the novel has proved to us that women also have needs that seek gratification and the society must work towards providing avenues for them to satiate their needs. The female child education must therefore be taken seriously, early marriage should be abolished, women are partners in a relationship and not subordinate, and should be taken seriously and consulted before decisions are taken. Flora Nwapa, using this novel, makes a loud statement on issues facing African women and we are glad to be enlightened. Yet, I do have my objections on her novel, especially with its characterisation and her love for scandalous heroines.

I strongly believe that literature is about life and when people read books, they are influenced by what they read, either consciously or subconsciously. This is what most feminist writers fail to comprehend; or are they just pretending not to know this? For if they claim to be unaware of the powerful influence of literature on a reader’s perception of life and reasoning, the purpose of writing feminist stories, in the first instance, would have been defeated.

I seem to remember that one of the bashful comments by feminists’ critics on Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana is that he projects women in a bad light, showing them as prostitutes and rogues. If Cyprian Ekwensi is being put down for such depiction, why should feminist writers continue to project such image of women? Is it only wrong when a male writer depicts female characters in this light but accepted if the writer is a woman?

In Nwapa’s Women are Different, the manner in which the female characters attained their ‘dignified’ status is wrong! To use the right word, it is immoral and I wonder what these writers teach their female readers. Women empowerment can be attained, yes, but it should not be through prostitution and immoral acts. In the novel, Agnes abandons her husband in a bid to get higher education and she ends up with an older man old enough to be her grandfather even though she claims to find some difficultly in accepting her husband after four children. Her brazen act resulted in her father’s untimely death! Are we still wondering why her daughter ran away from home at the age of 18 to become a lady of the night?

What about Rose? She bumbles from one relationship to the other and would befriend a man even though she knows quite well that the man is married with children.

Comfort is so saintly that she advises Chinwe to abandon her husband and go ahead to enjoy her life with a man capable of providing for her needs. What I would never understand is that Chinwe left her husband because he chooses to take a second wife only to become the paramour of a much older man who is already married. It is the same scenario with Agnes who abandons her husband and moves into the apartment of her old lecturer with five kids. She complains that her husband is old yet she chooses a lover older than her father and old enough to be a grandfather to her. While I am not in support of child marriage, we should not fail to also consider the fact that the man Agnes deserted sponsored her through primary and secondary school and was responsible for her upkeep. He loves her and never maltreated her; yet she could just decide to abandon a man she had four children for to go stay with a much older lover.

Agnes is particularly inconsiderate and selfish because she abandons her husband and the father of her four children while the children were still young without considering the psychological effect of her attitude on the children and this is definitely the reason why Zizi takes to prostitution and becomes bitter with her mother. Agnes also did not think that her actions would lead to her father’s demise and she remains unrepentant even after his death. Clearly, she was determined to pursue her own happiness irrespective of whose ox is gored. Such an existential existence is dangerous for the human society.

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If the generation of the four women lived well, their children, Chinwe and Zizi in particular, are wild and are hardly any example to go by and it is a great failure on their part as parents.

Women can attain greatness in the society but I do not think the only route towards such greatness should be one strewn with scandals and disregard for cultural and societal norms. Feminist writers should write us stories of women who attained greatness but with less immorality and respect for society. We would not want our mothers, sisters, and wives who read these works to assume that women can only make impact in the society by living an amorous lifestyle.

However, I think the character of Dora stands out amongst the others in the novel for her entrepreneurial skills, her ability to forgive her husband and accept him back to her life after years of being deserted, and her knack for survival; as well as that of her family; during a horrendous civil war that ravaged the country for almost three years, even though she could not stand her ground and insist that her daughter should never compromise her moral principles.

Another issue I have with the novel is the portrayal of men in the story; the men were just never good enough! As if the feminist agenda is to demonize men in their works! Agnes’ husband is a doting husband who loves his wife so much but the writer found a blemish for him; he is having an amorous relationship with Agnes’ stepmother and Agnes had to catch them red-handed to give her an excuse for deserting the man. Chris, Dora’s husband, grows up to become a bribe eater and an irresponsible fellow; he lives an ostentatious lifestyle at the expense of his wife and would abandon his family for a European lady in Germany. Ernest, who was formerly Rose’s lover, also grows up to become a criminal and hard drug peddler who is always having problems with law officials. Mark, Rose’s husband, jilts her, and the next man she meets again happens to be a married man running after unmarried young ladies. Olu, might be a better man from the rest but he seems to be having psychological problems too! Then, Chinwe’s husband had to go get a second wife to save face in the society; he did not want to be that big man chief in his community who could not get a second wife. I cannot be angry with him because he also, like most women, is a victim of society. He wanted to live up to the status society arrogated to him. And maybe in the actual sense, we all are victims of society.

Lastly, I must say that the womanist writers have me confused in no little way. Well, I can understand the core feminist whose wish is to debunk patriarchy in all ramifications while striving for equality but I have never been able to ferret these womanist writers who seek to make men change their sexist stance yet encourage patriarchy. In Women are Different, the role of the man as the leader and father in the home is still emphasized, and also, the fact that a woman is unfulfilled without a husband is still fore grounded as exemplified in Rose’ continual search for a man to marry, and also evident in the reunification of Agnes and Dora with their husbands. So I am left wondering where this brand of feminism is headed if it cannot divorce itself from the same things it preaches against.

Conclusion

For me, I think a world without women would be unlivable as a world without men would mostly likely be the same. I have never believed in the equality of the sexes and still do not till date. But I think that men and women are not equal because they were they never meant to compete. They are meant to complement each other, a man completes a woman as a woman completes a man for what a man does not have should be found with the woman so both must work together to create a better society.

Flora Nwapa is classified as a womanist by Charles Nnolim, a critic of African literature, and we have tested this ideology on her novel, Women are Different, to see how it aids our understanding of the work. Above all, I am glad that the African feminists, even in their campaign for gender equality, understand the need for a complete family setting rather than one of single parenthood. I am glad that they understand forgiveness, and preach unification instead of separation or divorce. I only hope that the younger generations of African feminists would study and take a leaf out of the books of old female writers as Flora Nwapa.

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2017

Works Cited

Ekwensi, Cyprian. Jagua Nana. London: Panther, 1963. Print.
Flora, Nwapa. Women are Different. Enugu: Tana Press, 1990. Print.
Nnolim, Charles E. Issues in African Literature. Lagos: Malthouse, 2010. Print.

Read Eazy’s reviews on Memorila.com every Saturday!

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2 comments

  1. “But I think that men and women are not equal because they were they never meant to compete. They are meant to complement each other, a man completes a woman as a woman completes a man for what a man does not have should be found with the woman so both must work together to create a better society.”

    Great work you did here. I love it.

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