- Juka Fatou Jabang’s The Phoenix: The path to female liberation is via total denigration of men
Juka Fatou Jabang’s poems in The Phoenix decries the ill-treatment of women by men, and the exploitation of Africa by its ex-colonial masters, Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy reviews.
Juka Fatou Jabang is a foremost Gambian poetess whose poems come with the full force of a tornado sweeping off everything that dares stand in its way. Her poems shed light on many societal issues related to the treatment of African women and the exploitation of the black continent by the western world. Her voice comes out so sharp and strong that one cannot but pay attention to her imagery laced words. She reflects on myriad themes as motherhood, female genital mutilation, divorce, rape, widowhood, mortality, and the exploitation of the African continent and dares to open our eyes to the many forms of injustice that have been melted out to African women and the African continent. However, while I enjoyed her poems, I cannot say that I am totally contented or in compliance with her portrayal of African men. Nonetheless, let’s talk about her poems.
I quite enjoy Juka’s poems with universal themes as ‘The Phoenix’ and ‘Bequest’ which focus on rejuvenation. However, those on life and death are profound. These poems include ‘Insomnia’, ‘Throughput’, ‘The Old Woman’, ‘In Stages’, ‘The Way of all Creation’ and ‘Vicious Circle’.
Other poems in the anthology with universal themes include ‘They Wear Masks’ which talks about deceit, ‘Time and Again’ is built around the theme of fate, and of course ‘Hope is a Gift’ extols hope as the backbone of existence.
Aside from the above mentioned, the anthology features poems that are linked to topics like dialectical materialism (‘Graft’), dictatorship cum political oppression (‘Metal King’), Utopianism (‘The Red Planet’), spiritual piety (‘Obsessed’) and Romanticism (‘Nature and Wonder’).
Among Juka’s poems in the collection, I find the poems on colonialism cum imperialism manifested in acts of exploitation most poignant. In ‘Africa’s Anguish’ for instance, she traces the historical relationship between the West and Africa from the pre-colonial days down to the modern era. She says:
They came from far-off
Beyond the deep wide sea
Over the horizon
To tell me who I was.
Rootless and crude,
They stole my children and
Made them slaves
To sweat for them
And make them affluent.
They exploit my gems
Lift my billions,
Appropriate my land and
Make them theirs
To deal and shift
And render me sterile. (24-5)
Today, years after colonialism, these masters are still exploiting Africa’s while masqueraded as helpers.
… they wreak on me
Myriads of projects, programs
Trust Funds, studies
And other addiction designs,
I am the dumping bazaar for
Their discarded wares,
Employer of the untested toddlers
Masquerading as experts,
Client of their inept scum
Posing as consultants,
All of them
Funded in the name of aid
‘The Habitat of Homo Noirus’ expresses the poetess’s anger over the enslavement of Africans captured from West Africa to America and seeks for revenge against the carnage of that era. She says:
The economic prostitute,
Must pay back. (34)
In ‘The Exodus’, the poetess mourns the brain-drain occurring in Africa whereby young Africans are forced to seek greener pastures in Western countries, especially the ones which colonised their own native countries and have subjected these countries to neo-imperialism.
In ‘Lamentation’, the poetess laments the fall of Africa caused by:
Because of the misguided zeal
Of your kings
And the treachery of your people (67)
Most interesting are Juka’s poems on womanhood. Her point of view is unapologetically feminist as she goes on to praise motherhood in poems like ‘Irreplaceable’ and ‘The Docile Wife’ searing the many unjust practices. Her view of mothers and wives is that they are the foundation of human life and existence, and are prepared to sacrifice their life for that of their children:
All that resonates in her soul
Is the strong will to live
For her family,
A deep longing for a better future,
A future for her children,
Bright and glowing
Is all she yearns for. (21)
Juka also advocates for the teaching of sex education and human rights to young girls by their mothers in another poem titled ‘The Repeal’.
Her utter dislike and condemnation for female genital mutilation which she labels a bad tradition and ‘an unholy surgery’ is captured in three of her poems; ‘The Injunction’, ‘Raw Demise’ and ‘Culpable Cutter’. She believes the tradition turns women into ‘a cold wooden mortar’ that will ‘passively endure/The sordid pounding/Of the virile pestle’ (11). With a tone of finality, Juka Jabang declares in her poem ‘Culpable Cutter’ that:
… a tradition which harms,
Maims and traumatizes,
A tradition which kills
Is not fit to be a tradition. (16)
The poetess’s thought on divorce as expressed in two of her poems (‘I am Leaving for Good’ and ‘The Fold is Muddle’) is that it is the man who loses out, not the woman. In ‘I am Leaving for Good’, the female persona mocks the man and the woman he intends to marry next. She says she took his better days and what remains now is but a wasted version of his former self:
All that remains
Of you are shadows,
Remnants of a fallen vanquisher,
Now a brittle dark horse
Whose resilience is recharged in
My private sanctuary (9)
In ‘Billy Goat’ and ‘Borrowed Existence’, Juka lampoons randy old men who have eyes only for little young girls they could manipulate into becoming their wives. She does not spare these men as she sees them as perverts and ‘lecherous street goats’ who try in vain to mask their old age in order to trick young girls into becoming their bed fellows.
In ‘She is Nothing’, Juka captures the level of irrelevance and worthlessness with which African women are treated. A female child is born at a time when everyone expects a male child and there is no jubilation. She is already condemned to a life of servitude and illiteracy:
She owns no knowledge,
No land, no time, no love she knows,
Dispossessed of power,
Bereft of control,
She is nothing. (32)
This theme of the value attached to African women is also carried on in ‘The Beggar’ where the poetess calls us to witness a man who collects money contributed by well wishers on the birth of his baby boy only to expend it in acquiring a new wife. The poetess thinks such a man is no better than a beggar.
‘In his Eyes I am Weak’ draws upon the great aspects of womanhood to show its greatness as against the masculine value of womanhood. The poem persona points at the ability to create a new being, being the bastion of man’s continuity as well as being man’s first teacher as aspects which make women superior beings.
‘Death of a Man’ captures what it is like to be a widow in an African society, we see that while the wife and children of the late man are still in a state of mourning, his kinsmen are already sharing and distributing the dead man’s property among themselves without taking the widow and her offspring into consideration:
Out, in the courtyard, his clique
Flocked and scoffed quietly, soon
With their fee, eyes, and tongues,
Swiftly carved up the pillage,
Like covetous vultures they devoured
All the acres, stocks, coffers and
Everything he owned. (63)
‘Teenage Housemaid’ shows what young girls who work as maids are subjected to all because they chose to make a livelihood ‘Away from home.’ (71)
Lastly is the poem ‘Disclosure of a Rape Victim’ where we find a mature persona disclosing to a younger listener how she was raped by a man. The disclosure is to help the younger persona become circumspect in her dealings with men. For the persona, the experience left her with an ineffaceable scar and she is still traumatised by it:
From then to today I am eternally
Visited by sensations of terror,
Guilt, shame and indignity
As the world looks on
I have not forgiven
I cannot forget. (73)
We must appreciate Juka Jabang’s effort in exposing issues related to the treatment of African women in African societies and for standing firm in support of African women. However, I need warn that we must be wary of creating a gender war where there exists none afore. True, as with every other part of the world, women are mistreated and maltreated, but let’s not create a one sided story. I see no need to heap all the blame upon men without tackling the culture that permits such in the first place. I find attempts to link all women woes to men as unpalatable.
Even when the poetess attacked female genital mutilation, she would not spare patriarchy. I think Juka would have done well to give men a little bit of good representation in her collection. Her totally bad representation of men in this collection would make one assume that all African men are monsters or blood sucking ogre.
I hate to believe that she harbours a deep seated feeling bothering on misandry for men. After perusing the collection, I was forced to ask myself this question: ‘Where are the good African men in this collection?’ My belief is that family and society cannot be without the cooperation and understanding of both genders, hence do we need to seek that point where things can work to the equal benefit of both sexes rather than disparaging one while deifying the other.
On Juka’s artistic prowess, this is her second published collection and I would say that she has made a good job of it. Her diction is superb and her style shows that she has benefited a lot from the oral tradition of African poetry, but I think her use of images are on the average. I must also say that the arrangement of the poems in the collection is done in a haphazard manner and this may water down readers’ interest as they run through the poems.
Finally, to reiterate that which I have mentioned before, Juka Fatou Jabang’s poetry in The Phoenix comes out with a strong voice and lashes out at societal failings without restraint. Her message is straight forward; it is a message of change. Her voice is calling upon society to change its ways especially as regards the treatment of women and the exploitation of the African continent by so-called ‘ex-colonial masters’; and we, Africans, must not pay deaf ears to her crying call.
© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2020