Women and the social construction of gender in African development

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Date: July-September 1996
From: Africa Today(Vol. 43, Issue 3)
Publisher: Africa Today Associates
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,016 words

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An analysis of African and African American feminist literature was conducted to provide insights on the development of women's identity in post-colonial Africa. Precolonial African literature tended to emphasize the role of women in society, particularly in bringing about social change. However, the introduction of Western thought during the colonial period adversely affected cultural perceptions of women. The supplantation of western thought into African feminism continues in prevailing trends in African feminist studies.

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Orthodox Marxists claim that capitalism is progressive because of its capacity to develop the world, especially for its role in transforming the ancient economies to their feudal and, eventually, capitalist economic structures. Although Marx and Engels were concerned mainly with development in England and later in Europe, the colonial struggles and underdevelopment in the inchoate regions of the world served as an anomaly in Marxist theory. Responding to this Marx, in "On Imperialism in India" and "The Future Results of British Rule in India, 1853"(1) argued that capitalism developed the world from its ancient, static cultural milieus to modern nation states and through the course of those states' political conflicts and contradictions. Specifically, Marx argued that the Third World countries lacked any dynamic social change mechanism that could transform them to modern industrialized states. Thus, deductively capitalism has two purposes - first, to destroy the primitive cultures and second, to rejuvenate them.

To be sure, Marxist theory is radical in its prescriptions for eventual transformation of capitalism to a socialist or communist mode of production. On closer examination, however, the unilinear assumption of capitalism as the only path to development in the Third World by modernization theorists - that is, the liberal internationalists like Walter Rostow, Basil Blackwell, and others - expounded views that were arguably a footnote of Marxist doctrine regarding the role of capitalism - without the ultimate realization of socialism. Essentially, the existing economic and cultural bases of social relationships in the Third World were considered irrelevant by both Marxists and liberal internationalists.

Similarly, the characterization of culture as a static phenomenon that lacks a dynamic social change mechanism is inherent in Western (read liberal feminist) paradigms that subsume African women's feminism within that of white women without first acknowledging the epistemological differences inherent in both the origin and contradictions of knowledge and knowledge bases. As an aspect of theory building, this difference becomes a significant lacuna in the discussion of African women's thought regarding the nature of development in Africa and the strategies leading to its successful implementation.

Significant to this work is the relevance of the African woman's position within African societies. Although her value and stature are recognized in all aspects of these societies, it has become difficult to reclaim the African woman within the prevailing Western-oriented discourse on the marginalization of women. This problem exists because most of the significant statements about the African woman within African communities, both on the continent and in the diaspora, are made and sustained in vernacular cultures and traditions.(2) Consequently, the Africanist researcher involved in a project based on a Western-oriented discourse on African women must know more than the language. A knowledge of the worldview is not only important, it is necessary for the reclamation of the African woman from the depths and breadths of languages we mostly speak but have neither the authority nor the opportunity to employ when we conduct "meaningful" research within a Western-oriented academy.

This article explores these contradictions and analyzes the inherent social change mechanisms within the Igbo culture with specific emphasis on the conceptual relevance of Nneka (Mother is Supreme) and Nwanyibuife (Woman is Something) as cultural mechanisms for both social change and development stunted by colonialism. It is important to note here that these concepts are not Igbo-specific. Their occurrence and application within a significant number of cultural areas in Africa will be shown here through reference to a variety of literary examples. Specifically, this article will describe the central nature of women's thought within traditional African communities from the precolonial period to the present. By traditional, I mean those aspects of African cultures that have tended to survive the rejuvenation programs embarked upon by the capitalist agenda during and through the periods of Western intervention in, and interaction with, Africa.

African Literature and Sustainable Development

Beginning with African myths, legends, and other forms of storytelling before the introduction of Western modes of education and writing in Africa, it is fairly easy to see the central and sometimes predominant roles African women played in the maintenance and advancement of reasonable conditions of living. Again, it is important to note here that development and underdevelopment need to be defined according to the African experience rather than from the Marx/Engels agenda for rejuvenation based on Western needs for dominance and an increase in revenue. One of the major problems in current research and analyses in this area lies in the equation of everything African with backwardness and the constant refusal of Western-educated scholars all over the globe to acknowledge sovereignty (cultural and social validity and relevance) in African existence, thought, and experience. This is not to say that Africa and Africans are always right or that we must be allowed to kill each other and to continue to destroy opportunities for further individual and national advancement. Rather, it insists that the beginning of thought about sustainable African development, if it is going to work, should be credited to Africa and Africans. What, then, does African literature have to do with sustainable African development and African women?

In Toni Morrison's Beloved, Sethe, after she runs away from continued enslavement in the southern United States, spends her life with the knowledge that her rape was marked on her back by the "tree" that she could feel but could not see. That tree becomes a metaphor for both the silence imposed on Sethe as a representative of raped African-American womanhood and the countless ancestors she knew she possessed but could not identify. Significant to this experience is Sethe's inability to identify her mother in the field of workers after the mother had been "pointed out to her by an eight-year-old child who watched over the young ones - pointed out as one among many backs turned away from her."(3)

The point here is that the process of Africa's subjugation and sub-sumption within Western modes of dominance in the process of the development of capitalist modes of production marks the African woman's back and makes it difficult for other African women, let alone Caucasian women, to be able to identify the nature, meanings, and magnitude of that subjugation. Here, the African woman's back is all that is indicated by her historical and ancestral origins. The fact that her mother's back is pointed out to Sethe by another child nullifies neither the knowledge of the mother's existence nor the validity of the experience itself. Morrison asserts the validity of this kind of knowledge and experience base in her discussion of "rememory."

Some things you forget. Other things you never do. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place - the picture of it - stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.... I mean, even if I don't think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there.(4)

Knowledge bases are not completely destructible by mechanisms of oppression and subjugation. The nature of rememory ensures collective survival, since those who experience a particular event within any given epoch do not have to be there for its eventual transmittal. The limitless possibilities for oral cultures indicated by this concept need further exploration. For the purposes of this article, its implications for the African-descended woman vested with the responsibility for cultural survival and transfer are infinite.(5)

Sethe has to deal with the ghosts of her past on her own and in the house she "inherits" from her mother-in-law. Coupled with this image is the distancing that takes place between the African man and woman within this mode of African people's domination. In Beloved, Halle loses his mind after he inadvertently witnesses Sethe's rape. Later, when Paul D sees Halle, there can be no communication between them because Paul D has a bit in his mouth and cannot speak. It takes Paul D eighteen years to relay this situation to Sethe. By then, Baby Suggs is dead and Sethe is holding together what is left of her family - Denver and Beloved - using mostly her imagination of an almost lost heritage.

And that is the point. As women of Africa, separated from African men by the effects of various modes of domination and oppression, what is the nature of our inheritance from our mothers, our grandmothers? If, like Sethe, we cannot identify our mothers or inherit their wealth, what are the possibilities that we will be able to bear the burdens of the ghosts of aborted attempts to create new and relevant jobs, new in-law relations, children - that is, the future? To what extent is the African reality relevant to development for Africans on the continent and in the African diaspora? Can we develop without realizing, reconstructing, and validating our common heritage and essential connections and, possibly, our origins?

Precolonial and Colonial Literary Traditions and the Role of Women

Most African literature about the colonial period reflects the African struggle to control the direction of Africa's future. A cursory roll call of writers from the continent would include names like Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe, John Munonye, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Wole Soyinka, Bessie Head, Flora Nwapa, Ayi Kwei Armah, Usmane Sembene, Tayeb Salih, and Mariama Ba - the list continues to grow. Most of these writers explore, expose, and discuss the diverse and dynamic nature of the African homeland and experience within the project of contemporary Africa's renewal after the onslaught of Western interference.

In his "Social Theory and the Challenges of Africa's Future," Sangmpam argues that precolonial Africa's core relations were dynamic and that the structural nature of this dynamism waged a heroic struggle against the implantation of Western capitalism. Sangmpam goes on to say that whereas Africa cannot go back to precolonial African institutions, Africans should, however, consider the idea that "the unification of Africa as a strategy of inventing the future of Africa flows from an understanding of African precolonial societies."(6)

Given the current level of chaos in most African nations, Sangmpam's suggestion for unification makes a great deal of sense. The problem cannot be solved, however, through an arbitrary agenda for Africa's unification. On what will Africa base this unification agenda if the idea of dynamic core relations is thrown out simply because it stands in the way of the Western agenda to destroy and rebuild that which Africa already possesses? As stated earlier, Africa has a wealth of epics, myths, and legends(7) that contain evidences of successful ancestral efforts to preserve the essential nature and functions of the core relations that kept the continent vibrant despite the many hazards of Western (and Eastern) interference. I am not implying that all of these encounters have been detrimental to the African. Rather, I am saying that it seems increasingly as though Africa is the only continent on the planet whose inhabitants are destined to remain consumers of nonindigenous thought, information, and material products. Furthermore, as the Afrocentricists contend, a significant quantity of these bodies of thought, information, and natural resources is indigenous to Africa.

For centuries, African domination was justified by the continued insistence that Africans were destined to be hewers of wood and carriers of water! If viewed in African terms, however, those who know the water sources and the forests that yield the most viable firewood reserve the right to keep others hungry. Within traditional African households, the women hold the power to feed the family. Prior to Western interference, the African woman did not have the need to yearn for a room of her own. For instance, in Things Fall Apart,(8) Okonkwo eats only when his wives are there to cook, because in Igbo tradition he does not have access to their kitchens. He beats Ojiugo when she does not cook during the Week of Peace because she is out plaiting her hair. Chinua Achebe begins to explore Umuofia (Igbo) thought on Okonkwo's violent reaction against Ojiugo's claim to pay attention to herself through the presentation of this incident during the Week of Peace. How did Umuofia tradition cater to the woman within a situation in which peace could be declared but individual access to brute force could not be mandated?

The focus of current research on issues like Okonkwo's beating of Ojiugo detracts attention from a comprehensive exploration of the event within Umuofia as an African location with a valid understanding of its universe. Such a focus, although necessary and morally justifiable, inherently denies Ojiugo her rights within her culture. Traditional African methods of communal interference in issues that involve the use of physical force in such situations need further examination. Umuofia thought preferred the use of ideological coercion in situations where the new dispensation would, as did Okonkwo, use physical coercion.(9)

For the contemporary African, the tendency to relinquish the idea of the use of all forms of ideological coercion has resulted in an overwhelming number of incarcerations and early deaths of African men. Furthermore, these deaths are not limited to the physical. Of vital importance is the nature of the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual deaths to which African men have become prone since the beginning of the various efforts at African domination by the East and the West. Further research on the ways this form of social (re)construction has ensured social health will augment the development of a research program that will facilitate a better understanding of the nature of the African woman's exclusion.

For example, on the one hand, Buchi Emecheta's Kehinde(10) has no recourse for the mental and emotional abuse of the new polygamy and for her inability to find work when she returns to a Nigeria that is steeped in the new dispensation. Her only consistent and credible source of support is her poverty-stricken sister, Ifeyinwa. Emecheta's narrator notes, however, that circumstances within the traditional culture and between that culture and the new postcolonial enterprise had ensured Kehinde's estrangement from her sister from the day of Kehinde's birth. Emecheta's suggestion that the Igbos adopt the Yoruba tradition for twins is explored in little depth, as the suggestion remains within the realms of the adoption of the Yoruba names Kehinde and Taiwo, the making of the Taiwo doll for Kehinde, and the use of an exotic admixture of internal dialogues between the living twin and the spirit of her dead sibling. Suggestions for unification, if they are to work, must go beyond surface borrowings of traditional thought. Consequently, Emecheta's Kehinde has to return to London in self-exile, where she earns a degree in sociology and gets a job with the Division of Social Services in London.

As presented, the new, self-affirmed, self-exiled, successful but alienated African woman represented in Kehinde can depend on none but herself. This conclusion is contrary to the tradition that allows for the reaffirmation of the Kehindes and Taiwos in the Yoruba understanding of the nature of duality in existence. The problem lies not in the birth of twins or in the way precolonial Igbos, as opposed to Yorubas, dealt with the situation of twin births but in Africa's current inability to synchronize and maximize the various and useful ideas within African traditional thought through more meaningful explorations and focused discussions of research findings. Questions that need to be fully explored in a coherent Africa-centered research program include: What epistemological differences informed the different approaches in Igbo and Yoruba thought on twinary births? Who were the key players in the implementation of these ways of knowing the world within both groups? Is it possible to formulate a comprehensive set of choices within contemporary African existence and experience in situations where individuals, groups, or even entire nations envision two opposing but workable solutions for the same problem? Kehinde's choices indicate that this is not yet possible. Stranded in her conflict-initiated return to her people, she is unable to envision a solution for a viable future and consequently returns to London, England, in search of personal advancement and progress.

Our continued insistence on defining ourselves in Western feudal and capitalist terms maintains the pitfalls for Africa's underdevelopment. This viewpoint will continue to result in the implementation of development projects mandated by knowledge that alienates Africans from Africa's problems. The exploration of Africa's heritage and future development must be based on a well-organized, systematic research program for understanding precolonial African societies. Fortunately, there is no dearth of information and material for such a program. Kwesi Yankah's "Displaced Academies and the Quest for a New World Academic Order"(11) points us yet again in the direction of the elders, the griots, and the local African philosophers. But as Chinua Achebe points out in A Man of the People, as strategists, Africa's postcolonial thinkers and leaders have tended to act like Odili Samalu when he and two other boys lived with his sister's family in a home infested by rats.

The rest of us - the three boys - shared the other [room] with bags of rice, garri, beans and other foodstuff. And of course, the rats.... It was then we decided to go hunting. I, or one of the others would tiptoe in the dark and quietly plug the holes with pieces of rag while the rest waited outside with sticks ... and the massacre would begin. As a rule we did not kill the very small ones: we saved them up for the future.(12)

Most precolonial African societies functioned efficiently because the people had thought through most of the issues and problems of their existence and were prepared by traditional wisdom to take charge of their world. They did not wait for threats to their well-being to develop beyond manageable proportions because they were firmly rooted in ancestral wisdom, which worked on the presupposition that young rats do become adult rats. Such a tradition would not deliberately nurture the sources of future threats to their world.

Within Flora Nwapa's Oguta in Efuru,(13) Uhamiri (woman of the lake) exists to counter the emotional and psychological threats that would accrue to Efuru and other Oguta women with similar experiences if they were allowed to wallow in self-pity as a result of their inability to be biologically prolific. And in Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is protected from the justifiable anger of his father's people after he accidentally killed Ezeudu's son. Achebe's narrator notes, "It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land."(14)

Not only do men who commit these kinds of crimes have to flee the land; there are usually specific places in which they are allowed to seek asylum. The nature and locations of these loopholes of retreat, which traditional African thought purposefully provides, are learned from childhood in a variety of ways. Among certain groups of Igbo, for example, children learn early that they can seek asylum in the presence of older children or adults if they are playing or fighting and a situation develops in which some of their rights or those of others can be violated and the child can no longer mediate the situation as a result of lack of strength, poor judgment, lack of wisdom, or other extenuating circumstances. As the child grows, he or she learns that asylum can be granted by children who are the same age or older and by adults. Later, the idea of adult protection is more clearly demarcated as one notices that not only is adult presence considered protective but that the verbal invocation of an adult person's name will foreclose discussions involving threats to oneself.

In the case of women as protectors, the presence of any woman of childbearing age in the immediate location of the dispute or the verbal invocation of her name is enough to protect the child, and the person (child or adult) who continues to maintain an adversarial position after the fact is prejudged as at fault. Noticing Okonkwo's grief, Uchendu (whose name means the thought for continued life and/or existence) calls his family together on the second day of Okonkwo's seven-year exile. Uchendu recognizes that the major source of Okonkwo's grief is his lack of understanding of the system of thought that has resulted in this particular form of justice against him, a great man of Umuofia.

Can you tell me, Okonkwo, why it is that one of the commonest names we give to our children is Nneka, or 'Mother is Supreme?' We all know that a man is the head of the family and his wives do his bidding. A child belongs to its father and his family and not to its mother and her family. A man belongs to his fatherland and not to his motherland. And yet we say Nneka - 'Mother is Supreme.' Why is that?... A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you.(15)

The Use of Nneka and the Elevation of African Women

Although the meaning of Nneka is evident and important, the focus here is Uchendu's elaboration of traditional Igbo thought as it is mapped on the geographical and cultural landscape. Okonkwo's movement from his fatherland to his mother's home of birth maps the direction of Igbo thought about conflict resolution. Significant to this work is the fact that traditional thought not only anticipated situations such as that in which Okonkwo finds himself but had also developed strategies that could be implemented when such situations arose. Moreover, certain aspects of these strategies were nonnegotiable, and Okonkwo went back to his father's people after seven years. What is important here is not Okonkwo's physical relocation to his motherland but the process for reunification that becomes effective the moment he kills Ezeudu's son. Also significant is the fact that, within the story, the emergence of Nneka within this cultural landscape is tied to the resolution of conflict between males who are usually designated as decisionmaking agents. Uchendu's presentation allows for an understanding of conflict resolution at the personal, family, community, and intra-community levels.

Most of the discussion within African feminist thought about ideas like Nneka revolves around the use of those ideas to elevate the oppressed African woman. Additionally, the most discussed aspect of her oppression is the amount and kind of work assigned to her within African spaces. Why did the African woman work? Is it possible that the African woman had to work hard because without her hard work change was difficult?

One has only to look at the impact of Western women's presence in the workplace in the last century for this idea to make sense. The inclusion of the contemporary African woman within this group of women who work is cited as a privilege for which the African woman working in Western-type jobs should be thankful. Paradoxically, it is usually from these positions of privilege that she can speak about the oppressive nature of the traditional African socioeconomic structure and women's work. The understanding is that outside African frames of reference, she has access to more decent work! If the African woman fetches African water or firewood, she is in the wrong job. On the other hand, if she has access to pipe-borne water and an electric stove and remains creditworthy in the Western sense, then she is developed and civilized.

Clearly, there is a need for an in-depth exploration of why development for Africa must mean only the shift from an African natural resource and technological base to Western bases. Before I get that far into the discussion, however, it is necessary first to explore the nature of that resource base and the ideas that were employed in its use to advance the community and ensure its resilience in times of stress and transition.

In Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures, she presents "an entirely romanticized and fictionalized version of the history of the Botalaote tribe" within which she reconstructs some of the historical data given her by the "old men of the tribe."(16) In her version of this reconstructed, fictionalized history, Head's focus is more on the romanticization of that history. Head portrays a precolonial African society in which "the people lived without faces, except for their chief, whose face was the face of all the people; that is, if the chief's name was Monamapee, then they were all the people of Monamapee."(17) Inserting and highlighting an imagined impact of Western notions of love within this precolonial African tale, Head succeeds in presenting this African society as lacking the essential assumptions for the development of individual thought and action.

This approach to the presentation of African life and experience delineates the beginnings of prevailing African feminist thought in its early stages of incorporating Western feminist thought and attitudes toward traditional African thought. For example, Head's footnote to "The Deep River" asserts that she discounts the memory of the "old men of the tribe" as unreliable but accepts the London Missionary Society's "Livingstone Tswana Readers," Padiso III textbook account for "those graphic paragraphs on the harvest thanksgiving ceremony which appear in the story."(18)

The issue here is not about whose account of history or which aspects thereof were more reliable at the time of writing. Rather, the focus of this article is the way in which the African presence, whose story the fictionalized and romanticized account purports to tell, is dismissed through a simultaneous affirmation and repudiation of African men's inability to recall their own history. Note that it is the "old men of the tribe" who are presented as unreliable, "as their memories tended to fail them." One of the main problems with this manner of reworking the pre-colonial African experience lies in the claim to civilize and, therefore, to humanize Africans. In "The Deep River," it is Sebembele's ability to stand up to his people in his declaration of his romantic love for Rankwana that makes him an individual, distinct from the faceless group and "a good man." It is also this love, however, that breaks up the apparently smooth lives of the people of Monemapee. Of the resulting two camps, one stays with the old ways, whereas the other leaves with Sebembele to form the new Botalaote group.

The fact of Sebembele's choice is problematized, constructing personal choice as a foreign principle in African experience. This construction is facilitated by the assumption of an ideological base that is considered more civilized than that of the Botalaote. Significant to the shift in Head's reconstruction of the story is the narrative structure, which involves merging the precolonial geographical and political spaces of the Botalaote with Western romantic notions of love but not with the Western geographical or cultural landscape. The result is a narrative plot that appears to explore the elevation of the woman's social status.

The problem with these attempts at merging African female experiences with Western thought, however, is the resulting serious rifts that occur within the African community in question. When Sebembele's camp is "completely won over with his extravagant, romantic gesture ... he lost everything else and his rulership of the kingdom of Monamapee. [emphasis added]"(19) Unlike the classic Western Romeo and Juliet situation, which, in addition to exploring other themes, presents a vision that seeks reconciliation of prominent and ancient local families, the new African borrowing of Western notions of idealism and romance produces cosmic destruction by portraying personal and national shame about communal heritage.

The African researcher's dilemma is evident: The reader's acceptance of Sebembele's total loss is already facilitated by Head's footnote referred to earlier. The African reader's dilemma occurs on a variety of levels. The most relevant for this article is the level at which the African knowledge base mediates the linkages between the traditional storyteller/modern writer as visionary and the audience/reader as community. Having taken over the role of the traditional storyteller, the modern African writer cannot afford to make choices within traditional African thought and between that thought and the new dispensation that has the potential of misdirecting Africa's future. The point is that the search for workable paradigms, although well-intentioned, has sometimes been misdirected, resulting in contradictory consequences for relevant communities. It is not accidental that most traditional and contemporary Western tales end on the "and they lived happily ever after" note - and this even in the face of rising divorce rates, teenage pregnancy, violence by and among youth, and national unrest.

The other significant problem is the Western-inherited value placed on the written word, which makes it possible (and necessary?) for most Western-educated African women to begin to listen only to each other. Within this situation, the reading of texts is taking over the values embedded in the spoken word our foremothers lived by and valued. Moreover, this reading is done mostly in ways approved within Western centers of knowledge. Consequently, if the West has no way of analyzing or interpreting a given text, it cannot or must not be analyzed or interpreted. This is one of the reasons for the creation of the new dualities that disregard African spaces and ways of knowing, which in turn leaves African women in the margins of hostile communities of knowledge.

I am not discounting any of the works that have been done. They have been successful in pointing us in the direction of the various issues and problems that mark our existence. Rather, I am indicating the need to focus research in directions that do not jeopardize that which Africa and Africans already possess.

In the chapter "Listening for the African Past," Joseph Miller asserts:

The echoes of the past reverberate; sometimes faintly, in the oral narratives of societies without writing, but historians must listen very carefully if they hope to discern the significance of what is said for reconstructing former times according to literate historical standards. Their difficulties in understanding arise from the contrast between modes of communication in cultures based on the written word (in which history as most of us know it acquired its distinctive characteristics) and in cultures where reading and writing were absent, like most of those in Africa.(20)

Although working definitively within a new school of thought that sees possibilities in the use of African oral narratives as plausible repositories of African historical information, Miller's implicit assumption of the African narrator and his or her narrative as needing to be brought up to "literate historical standards" is problematic for the African researcher whose knowledge of history includes both the African oral and the Western literate mode. The prevailing assumption in Miller's discussion is that working toward a standardization of African historical thought is the best a historian can do given the African kind of knowledge base, which is laden with pitfalls of uncertainty and the lack of credibility created by oral cultures. Although critical to a certain extent of the earlier schools of thought, "including most British social anthropologists,"(21) Miller does not leave inviolate the evidence he contends can be used to reconstruct African history.

Most important for this kind of research is the implicit call to the African historian trained in the West to participate in the covert refusal to grant validity to African ways of knowing history. Jan Vansina takes a different stand, however, in "Memory and Oral Tradition." Using an argument of "memory [as] a representation by interiorized action of an event or situation ('remembrance image'),"(22) he constructs a cultural comparativist view of the nature and uses of memory, insisting that if the Western mind can sometimes be forgiven for forgetting even when reconstructing Western histories, then African historical reconstructions from their predominantly oral cultural base must be seen as a workable alternative. Vansina's final example, based on the limitations of the Roman adage testis unus, testis nullus (one witness is no witness), is worth quoting in detail here.

The reliability of memory is little more remarkable for oral tradition than it is for the written source. At the same time, its limitations show us the truth of the old adage: testis unus, testis nullus. The Romans who developed this criterion of relying on multiply confirmed facts thought only about willful deformation of an account presented in a court of law. The realization that all memory is creative action makes the rule all the wiser, especially as it becomes more difficult to find with certainty which kinds of subconscious, unintended deformation may have occurred. For instance, we have a large number of statements about the invasions of the Northmen [sic] in ninth and tenth century Western Europe, independent in the sense that they come from witnesses who did not know one another. But these were all written by clerics, usually monks. Not only did these people share a single status as choice targets for the Vikings, but the whole outlook on life of these witnesses was essentially identical. It follows that for large sources of history the degree of reliability of such sources as these is somewhat less than was formerly believed. But no practicing historian would eliminate such information either on the grounds of "contamination" or by the testis unus rule.... To a large extent the oral tradition is a collective thought because the mnemonic code it reveals is a collective enterprise.(23)

What is revealing in Vansina's exploration is the nature of the construction of the mnemonic code. Within Western traditions with a longer literary history, this code has been written for so long that it no longer appears to be a part of memory construction on the oral level. The code seems part and parcel of a technological (and therefore more reliable) form of transfer of information and knowledge base. Particularly challenging is the fact that it no longer even looks like a mnemonic code. Furthermore, in the discussion between Africa and the West, people from writing cultures are assumed to no longer rely on memory because everything is written. Yet the study of writing continues to emphasize the nature of creativity within the "remembrance image."

In light of the foregoing, it becomes possible to see the mnemonic code carried by the phrase "and they lived happily ever after" in the Western tale. Ultimately, this code is a carrier of images not of romantic love but of a cultural yearning and vision for individual advancement and peaceful coexistence and continuation within the community.

The positive and powerful consequences of this particular mnemonic code for Western development strategies within Western spaces in all areas of existence, participation, and action require no further explanation here. It is significant to note, however, that in the final analysis it is this code that becomes part of the promise that informs Emecheta Kehinde's decision to return to London in search of personal peace and advancement. According to the story, Kehinde understands the applications of Western thought in London better than she does Igbo or Yoruba thought in Nigeria or abroad. Having grown up in a colonialist-invented environment in Lagos, Kehinde, who has no university degree, obtains work and rises in rank at the London Barclays Bank. She therefore strongly believes London offers more chances for advancement and growth. She does not have the opportunity to learn that in her birth culture it is also true that a child washes his hands, he can eat with kings."(24)

Here, then, is the problem of the contemporary Africanist in search of a viable research program. The reality is that we live in a certain time and that our projects must indeed reflect that certain currency that will validate our vision. Michel Foucault insists, however, that the archive itself contains and is made up of signs, statements that are clarified through analyses of the inherent enunciative logic within the language itself. Further, this description should conform to the language itself, "reveal[ing] a possibility, outlin[ing] the domain of which it is capable, defin[ing] its limits and its autonomy. This descriptive possibility is articulated upon others; [but] it does not derive from them. [emphasis added]"(25)

Eventually, the dilemma of the contemporary Africanist researcher remains: How does one design a program that analyzes the contents of an African experience (read development) that provides contemporary solutions without completely deriving the program from a contemporary locus? Foucault asserts that the statement "is not an elementary unity that can be added to the unities described by grammar or logic.... To describe a statement [is to define] the conditions in which the function that gave rise to a series of signs (a series that is not necessarily grammatical or logically structured) an existence, and a specific existence can operate."(26) Such an existence, he contends, would reveal a relation to a domain of objects that would define a set of possible positions for a subject. The purpose is not to find the hidden meanings of any given statement or of the unsaid within and around such a statement but simply to articulate the position of the statement within the map of discursive formations that provide an understanding of the archive itself.

Significant to this work is the problem posed by history as history and historical methods and analyses as presented through Western centers of knowledge. For the Africanist, the problem looms large in the methodological areas of "resemblance and ... of procession."(27) In the discussion about origins and, therefore, ownership of ideas, the idea of African enlightenment mostly precludes issues of resemblance, and procession becomes impossible as a consequence of the dismissal of resemblances. Thus, one needs to go back to the discursive formation within the archive to establish autonomy to reduce or eliminate the disorientation the dismissal facilitates.

Consequently, an in-depth exploration of African discursive formations becomes the single most valid facilitator for the announcement of the contemporary research agenda. This is not to say that such formations will become the points of origin of particular discourses. The nature of the African discursive imperative precludes such claims to "great and only" beginnings. The nature of the interconnections between the contemporary and the so-called traditional is that these imperatives refer us to the "principal themes"(28) contained in the archive. Important to this referential mode is that the statement itself remains alive even when not in use. The problem this position poses is, how does one determine when the statement came into existence? I believe that if we take a given statement and find that its structure and organizational utility (and contradictions) within a discursive formation are recognizable, it probably has as long a life-span as other members within that formation. The aim here is not to provide a schema for historical procession; rather, it is to direct the researcher toward a clearer articulation of the "already said" within the limits of its meanings for the present.

In the discussion of African womanhood within feminist discourses, most of the claims refer the Africanists to women's displacement and marginalization. These claims are based on research methods that use the procession method. Explored as separate and probably different expressions within different languages and language codes, a number of elements can be revealed that inform African and Western logical formations in their discussions of woman. For example, in the Judeo-Christian creation myth, the (original?) discourse places woman at the periphery from the moment of creation. Ostensibly, man is created in the image and likeness of the Creator, whereas woman is created from a little piece of man.

Most African myths and legends place woman at the center of, or at least as essential to, the existence of things. Within Igbo ways of knowing the world, the earth, Ala (ana or ali), is female. This way of knowing, which is dependent on a discursive formation that insists on the harmonizing principle inherent in existence, asserts that the female exists not as a complement to the male but as a complementary opposite of the male. I refer to this tendency of things to exist in pairs as the duality discourse. Initially articulated in written and contemporary African literature by Chinua Achebe, this presents itself as Wherever Something Stands, Something Else Will Stand Beside It. Ignored, it brings no further knowledge to the fore in the various efforts to articulate African thought regarding African development and progress. An exploration of the meaning of this enunciated field of Igbo discourse reveals that on the woman question, the Igbo were progressive in their creation and analyses of the limits and boundaries for women in their operation and negotiations as Igbo.

Again, borrowing from Achebe's recent exploration in Anthills of the Savannah,(29) next (assuming not chronology or rank but complementary positioning) to the Igbo man the woman is Something - Nwany-ibuife. If explored only in the single domain of woman-as-human, a problem of procession will exist, especially given the reordering that takes place during colonial intervention in which the woman loses her place within African definitions of order, existence, and experience.

The African statement about existence, however, insists on the use of the discursive formation in all of its analyses of meaning within the process of defining that which ensures full participation. The female discursive formation of which woman-as-human is one statement includes the earth, creativity, harmony, transcendence, life, healing, and so on. It is this domain in the Igbo (African) archive that made possible the existence of expressions like "male daughters," "female husbands," the Iyaloja of Yoruba market ordinances, the notion of Ala as female, the notion of certain powerful oracles as female, and so on. It is also within this discourse that statements like the Igbo Nneka make sense; there is no male equivalence. As a member of the discursive formation on the structure and nature of maleness and femaleness, woman is ubiquitous. Making, crossing, and restructuring limits and boundaries, the African female statement seeks the ultimate manifestation of existence.

Note that within the Western and especially the Judeo-Christian tradition (the tradition most of contemporary Africa inherits through the colonialist discourse, especially in the sociopolitical mode), the woman is relegated and restricted to the idea of "virgin mother." Within this way of knowing, the woman remains on the margin of social and political participation and action unless she can give birth to the redeeming male text while retaining her virginity. This means she should show no physical proof of the birth in terms of her participation in it unless, of course, there is male sanction. The appearance of Joseph (the male complement), after the fact of Mary's pregnancy, as a validation mechanism to the institution of the Christian family, although significant, is not stated or manifested as a total or universal frame in Igbo cultural expressions about family.

Flora Nwapa's presentation of Efuru in Efuru presents this latitude in interpretation and expression as she portrays Efuru's given name and the name she acquires among her age-mates. On the surface, Efuru (the lost one) refers to the apparent loss of the African woman's place and status within the new dispensation. Within her age group, however, Efuru is Nwaonoanaku (the child, the one who dwells in wealth). Efuru's story delineates the boundaries of the Igbo discourse on wealth and loss. Although her initial understanding is that a woman must have children to be fully considered woman, the ancestors of Oguta have ensured Efuru's wealth in their establishment of Uhamiri (the Woman of the Lake). In addition to the fact of Efuru's worship of Uhamiri to ensure her emotional health and economic progress, the value of the lake in connection with the female discourse within Oguta is evident on the night Gilbert goes to fish. He has just proposed to Efuru, asking her to give him an answer in four days. As they sit, watching the children playing in the moonlight, Gilbert comments, "If you go near the lake, you will think that a big festival is going on. There are many people there beating their drums and dancing. On the lake itself, you see fishermen throwing their nets in the deep and catching fish. I just wonder why we cannot have the moon always. It makes people so happy."(30)

Facilitated by the moonlight, the people's celebration of life on the lake, using artistic production and action and economic endeavors, is a summary of Oguta life and relationships. Nwapa's narrator also provides a full description of the relationship the lake bears to other bodies of water in Oguta, showing that the lake is central to most aspects of Oguta life. What is notable is that the lake is described through the filter of Gilbert's attempts to remain focused while he awaits Efuru's response. Through this filter, fishing is presented as an important skill most Oguta people possess, but they do not all make it central to their existence or means of survival - "There were not many professional fishermen in the town." In telling Efuru's story, Nwapa facilitates understanding of the female discursive statement. The moonlit activities on the lake evoke the presence of the female statement the people make about the lake: Uhamiri's presence underlies all others. Gilbert's gift of fish to Efuru makes more sense in this regard.

It is during her marriage to Gilbert that Efuru begins to express her affiliations with Uhamiri, even though Gilbert has some Western educational background - his name was changed from Eneberi to Gilbert when he attended the mission school as a boy. This change in his name remains effective, and everybody, including Efuru, works on pronouncing it right. Gilbert's loss of name denotes the overshadowing and subsequent cooptation of the male complement of this discursive formation. Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol explores this phenomenon more openly and aggressively.(31) In contrast to but also complementing Gilbert's loss are Efuru's many names and attributes that are highlighted within the culture, especially those regarding her wealth as expressed in Nwaonoanaku.

Many works that deal with the African woman's experience focus on Efuru's childlessness. The point of the Igbo story, however, is that she embodies the creative element - she does become pregnant and has a child, Ogonim (that which I am given through mercy/grace). She has neither to accept nor to continue to express this gift through abundant biological reproduction. Understanding her many roles as woman-as-human, woman-as-complement-to-the-creative-element, woman-as-the-preserver-of-already-blazed-trails, woman-as-negotiator-of-new-boundaries, woman-as-subject-and-object, Efuru and Efuru are able to provide a paradigm for the restoration of the African woman's place on African terms. When Achebe's Okonkwo returns to Umuofia from Mbanta without an enhanced knowledge base, his death is inevitable within the Igbo schema of the duality discourse. Okonkwo's Umuofia (and this is only as Okonkwo sees it) does not see the need for the manifestation of the life-giving, life-restoring female statement within this particular Igbo discursive formation. Efuru's various returns to her father's compound have the reverse result from Okonkwo's. Each return increases Efuru's knowledge base, thus ensuring more meaningful and powerful expressions of her wealth in her people.

Furthermore, Nwapa's narrator does not provide a biological mother's presence for Efuru.(32) Although she is socialized by the collective wisdom of the women she meets - her mother-in-law, her mother-in-law's sister, and others - she must go to her home of birth for the knowledge that liberates her consciousness of what it means to be an Oguta woman. Her father-as-elder interprets Uhamiri for her while the women facilitate her practice. The meaning of this return for Efuru should not be conflated with the fact of her father's male voice or male authority. Efuru's return to her father's home is a return to her home of birth. This is the one space where everyone is invested with securing her well-being. In this space she is part of the Umuada (the caucus of first daughters among most Igbo).

Toni Morrison's Sethe recreates this relationship with the past through the exploration of the already said in the meaning of the relationships she forms with the past, the present, and the future. For Sethe, this meaning is found in the relationships she strives for and bears with her biological mother, her mother-in-law, and her children - specifically her daughters.


For the African development agenda to be redefined, it must ensure that no individual or group, living or dead, is left at the periphery of existence or analysis or remains at risk. The major problem lies not in the coming of the white man and the subsequent destructive agenda but in the African's acceptance, without question, of the nature of the new irrelevance attributed to African female discourses that result from the ultimate repudiation of the woman as essential to African existence. Okonkwo's death represents the marker for the inception of the untenable new duality within which the West is male and Africa is feminized. This is not the same as the engagement of Africa by the West in a discussion of the nature and structure of African discursive formations.

A feminized Africa is not the same as the Africa within the duality discourse explored here. Instead, it is an Africa that has been brought to her knees and is seeking a place within Western thought. Such a place does not yet exist. Given the flexibility that already exists within African ways of knowing, however, a reconstruction of the male complement in this particular duality discourse will result from a rearticulation of the male complement within traditional African thought. Ultimately, the goal is a systematic rearticulation of the female principle whose agenda for continued advancement and progress is unequivocally mapped on Africa's cultural landscape.


1. See Robert Tucker, ed., The Marx and Engels Reader. 2d ed. (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1978), pp. 653-664.

2. Vernacular here does not refer only to African languages: included is the worldview embedded in the black English vernacular. For example, in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), she gives the following example, based on language use, about the different worlds in which she and her black associates live and the different knowledge bases and learning strategies evoked by the worldview that underlies each one. "At school in a given situation, we might respond with 'That's not unusual.' But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily said, 'It be's that way sometimes'" (191). The point here is not in the dialectical differences between the standard English and the black English vernaculars. Rather, it is in the centuries-old blues notes carried in and by the vernacular phrase, which do need explanations as to what is connoted or denoted within the African-American community when this vernacular statement is used. Further, within the African-American community itself, gender constructions manifested by this phrase are also illuminating.

3. Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Penguin Signet Books, 1987), p. 38.

4. Ibid., pp. 44-45.

5. The implications referred to here would be indicated by the second meaning of Nwanyibuife (Woman is carrying Something), which was presented as part of the theme of the African Literature Association Conference held in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1992. From my exploration of Igbo thought, I understand this to mean that the "something" she carries has more positive than negative connotations. In that sense, the inferred load is not burdensome: rather, it authorizes her participation and action within the culture.

6. Sangmpam, "Social Theory and the Challenges of Africa's Future," Africa Today, vol. 42, no. 3 (Third Quarter, 1995), pp. 62-63.

7. For examples of epics, myths, and legends, see for instance, Daniel P. Biebuyck and Mateene Kahombo, trans. and eds., The Mwindo Epic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969): D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, translated by G. D. Pickett (London: Longman, 1965): Elizabeth Isichei. Igbo Worlds (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1979): R. N. Henderson, The King in Every Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972): Daniel Biebuyck, Hero and Chief: Epic Literature of the Banyanga (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978): Ulli Beier, The Origin of Life and Death: African Creation Myths (London: Heinemann, 1966): and J. Knappert, Myths and Legends of the Swahili (London: Heinemann, 1970).

8. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1959).

9. Sangmpam, "Social Theory and the Challenges of Africa's Future," p. 44.

10. Buchi Emecheta, Kehinde (Oxford: Heinemann, 1994).

11. Kwesi Yankah, "Displaced Academies and the Quest for a New World Academic Order," Africa Today, vol. 42, no. 3 (1995), pp. 7-25.

12. Chinua Achebe, A Man of the People (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 39.

13. Flora Nwapa, Efuru (London: Heinemann, 1966).

14. Achebe, Things Fall Apart, p. 117.

15. Ibid., pp. 123-124.

16. Bessie Head, The Collector of Treasures (London: Heinemann, 1977), p. 6.

17. Ibid., p. 1.

18. Ibid., p. 6.

19. Ibid.

20. Joseph C. Miller, ed., The African Past Speaks: Essays on Oral Tradition and History (Folkestone, England: Dawson, 1980), p. 1 [emphasis added].

21. Ibid., p. 3.

22. Jan Vansina, "Memory and Oral Tradition," in ibid., p. 262.

23. Ibid., pp. 275-277 [italics in the original].

24. Achebe, Things Fall Apart, p. 12.

25. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), p. 108.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid., p. 142.

28. Ibid., p. 147.

29. Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (New York: Anchor, 1987).

30. Nwapa, Efuru, pp. 118-119.

31. Okot p'Bitek, Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol (London: Heinemann, 1966).

32. Note the difference inferred here in comparison to the Christian/Western idea of family construction discussed earlier. Ultimately, what becomes important and necessary is the concept of family embedded within the community.

Anthonia C. Kalu is associate professor of black studies and chair of the Africana Studies Department, University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. She is currently working on a manuscript entitled Re-inventing the African Woman: African Literature and Culture as Tools for Development.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A18919544