African Women Writing Resistance
Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Pauline Dongala, Omotayo Jolaosho and Anne Serafin
2010-09-23, Issue 497
African women are too often presented in scholarly and media accounts as passive, pathetic victims of harsh circumstances, rather than as autonomous creative agents making positive changes in their lives. Confronting entrenched social inequality and inadequate access to resources, women across the continent are working with grit, determination, and imagination to improve their own material conditions and to blaze a strong, clear path for their daughters and granddaughters. The contributors to African Women Writing Resistance are at the forward edge of the tide of women’s empowerment that is moving across the African continent at the start of the twenty-first century. They look unblinkingly at the challenges they confront while also creating visions of a more positive future, using writing to bear witness to oppression, to document opposition struggles, and to share successful strategies of resistance. African women writers such as those included in this collection are moving beyond the linked dichotomies of victim/oppressor and victim/heroine to present their experiences in full complexity.
In many ways the twenty-first century is a good time to be a woman in Africa. African women, energized by the path-breaking 2005 victory of Liberian Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman president of any African nation, are educating themselves and entering politics and the professions in record numbers. 1 Another trailblazing African woman, Wangari Maathai of Kenya, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her ambitious woman-based reforestation project, the Green Belt Movement.2 Gender mainstreaming are the new watchwords at the United Nations and other international development agencies, which are finally beginning to give women their due as the pillars of any society, particularly in periods of crisis or rapid development.3
Though still trailing in numbers and recognition behind older, more established male counterparts,4 African women writers have begun to appear on the world’s bestseller lists, with debut novels by women writers such as Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga and Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie building on the successes of previous generations of African woman writers,5 including Buchi Emecheta (Nigeria), Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana), and Mariama Bâ (Senegal). 6 Africana studies is growing as an interdisciplinary academic field spanning Africa and the African diaspora and is increasingly taking women’s experiences and voices into account,7 as evidenced by the recent publication of collections such as the multivolume Women Writing Africa series, produced by a collective of editors and writers at the Feminist Press; African Gender Studies, edited by Oyeronke Oyewumi; and African Feminism: The Politics of Survival in Sub-Saharan Africa, edited by Gwendolyn Mikell.
Still, there are many challenges for African women to confront. The scourge of HIV/AIDS has hit African women hard; their own rates of infection and death are high, and those who survive are left to care for the sick as well as for an ever-growing tide of orphaned children.8 Other health-related burdens exist as well: maternal mortality remains high throughout much of Africa, due to a lack of access to modern health care facilities,9 and other preventable diseases take their toll, including malaria, tuberculosis, and lesser-known but equally deadly and prevalent parasitical diseases, such as schistosomiasis, trachoma, river blindness, and elephantiasis.10 Though some women are beginning to gain social recognition and political power, the vast majority of African women remain undereducated11 and subject to patriarchal norms, both indigenous and imported, that keep them from reaching their full potential.12 Domestic violence remains a significant problem, along with marital rape and child marriage—all issues explored by contributors to this volume.
Conflicts in African countries, such as Rwanda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have too often relied on brutal tactics of ethnic warfare, with the raping of girls and women of all ages commonplace and devastating.13 Conflict has also led to the displacement of millions of African women, who languish in refugee camps all over the continent,14 where they are often subject to sexual predation, in some cases by the very aid workers and peacekeepers who are supposedly there to help them.15 Sex work and sex trafficking are also increasingly important issues for African women, as several alarming recent reports make clear by detailing the growing numbers of women and children lured into unsafe and exploitative sexual activity.16 Luckier are those women refugees who have managed to flee to exile in the West, but this escape, too, brings its own forms of alienation and struggle. These are among the issues of concern to African women today that are thoughtfully explored by contributors to this volume.
Certain common themes of African women’s resistance quickly emerge in the writings collected here. Early twenty-first-century African women from all over the continent write about their struggles to balance the demands of cultural traditions with the pull of modernity and their own desires for autonomy and independence. They write about their sexuality, which is often a fraught site of struggle and resistance for women of all ages, from young women exploring first sexual relationships, to women confronting societal intolerance as a result of their desires for and relationships with other women, to women entering into marriage for the first time. We also hear about mature women grappling with unhappy marriages, in some cases making the difficult decision to leave their spouses and children in search of their own happiness. We hear too about the inherent tensions of polygynous marriages and about the suffering of older women dealing with the cultural exploitation of widowhood.
Contributors to the anthology also focus on women’s health concerns, such as the highly contested issue of female genital cutting; environmental degradation and lack of access to clean water; and the destructive impact of interethnic conflict and corrupt government. The writers included here aim to raise awareness about the issues rather than to promote any one answer or solution to the problems they describe. They are reaching out to join hands with a wider audience to prompt an open-ended discussion about conditions for women in different regions of Africa, in the hope that a gendered and localized analysis will lead to an appropriately focused response—or at least a broader, more inclusive conversation.
Many of the contributors to African Women Writing Resistance are relatively young and just emerging on the literary scene,17 but we have also included a few of the activist “mothers” of the current generation of younger women, such as Nawal El Saadawi, Wangari Maathai, and Abena P. A. Busia, whose ongoing, path-breaking contributions to the empowerment of women in their home countries and on the broader world stage cannot be over-emphasized. In going through the many submissions we received for the anthology, we looked above all for women writing their resistance to contemporary social issues eloquently, forcefully, and with style. We made the choice to limit our pool to contemporary women writers who were born in Africa, in order to amplify the voices of African women who might not otherwise be heard in classrooms and other literary circles in the West. We did, however, include African-born women writers who are now living abroad, since so many African writers do leave their homelands in search of better educational or career opportunities or to escape political unrest or persecution.
We also looked for contemporary women writers who could represent a wide range of genres and cultural contexts. While not encyclopedic in approach, African Women Writing Resistance opens a series of windows into the lives of women from thirteen countries across the continent, from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds and many different walks of life, writing in genres ranging from poetry and fiction to memoir, essay, epistle, and interview. Most of the pieces included here were written specifically for this anthology, either in French or English; we also included a few excerpts from longer works published elsewhere that provide an important and unique contribution to our theme of women writing resistance.
How do these African women writers understand resistance? Generally speaking, resistance for these women is not a matter of armed political resistance movements, which are more often the province of men. For women across the African continent, resistance frequently takes more subtle forms. “Tome, resistance means challenging beliefs, traditions, and values that place women below men in terms of being heard, making decisions and choices,” says Zambian contributor Ellen Banda-Aaku.18 Kenyan Ann Kithaka agrees, saying that “resistance means saying ‘no’ to the patriarchal system and values that continue to disempower, subjugate, and undermine my personal dignity. In all stages of my life, my thoughts and actions have been subject to societal dictates, where ‘society’ denotes the male figure—my father, my husband, my boss, my brothers, my pastor.”Marame Gueye of Senegal defines resistance simply as “the political, moral, intellectual, and spiritual refusal to succumb to any form of violence or oppression.”
Many contributors to this volume note that their personal struggles for dignity and empowerment benefit the larger society as well as themselves. Ellen Banda-Aaku works to enable women to “come out of the shadows and use their full potential to contribute to economic and social development and change in their communities, be it locally or internationally, formally or informally.”Susan Akono of Cameroon highlights her resistance to the separation and segregation of human beings into arbitrary “races”: “One is not always one. Inmy case, one is, at least, five. For while I am a pure black woman, I can silence neither the white part within me, nor the yellow, nor the brown, nor the red. In other words, I cannot silence my humanity.”
For the contributors to this anthology, writing is essential to effective resistance. “Writing exposes the many challenges African women are resisting in the world today, and speaking out brings issues to the forefront so we are forced to question or address them,” says Ellen Banda-Aaku. “By writing we become more aware of the values and beliefs holding us back, as well as those that can move us forward. Only by writing can we tell the story of the African woman. If we don’t tell our story, who will?”
For poet Ann Kithaka, “Writing resistance is a process of discovery, emancipation, and reclaiming. It is about reclaiming my dignity, privacy, and freedom as an African woman and human being. It is about emancipating myself from historical, structural, and systematic abuse, oppression, and discrimination. And finally, it is about discovering my inner strength, my uniqueness, and my interdependence on other people.” She continues, “Writing resistance is a reawakening of my consciousness through intercultural and intergenerational dialogue with other women writers around Africa and the diaspora, so that we can stoke the dying embers of feminism for the benefit of future generations.” Resistance is not only a struggle against but also a struggle for, and many of the writers represented here present their positive visions for the future of African women—a future where resistance and struggle might give way to peaceful, productive, and equal coexistence with their men.
Writing provides opportunities for resistance that may be largely unavailable to women in their day-to-day lives. Thus writing can become a safe space for resistance—which does not make it any less powerful, as contributor Diana Adesola Mafe observes in the following anecdote:
“Resistance” has generally meant “non-compliance” to me. In speaking about my resistance as an African woman, I know that my non-compliance is not always immediate, not always self-evident, and not always strong enough. Sometimes my non-compliance is all too introspective, all too silent. Audre Lorde warns us in Sister Outsider that, “Your silence will not protect you.” I remember crossing the border from Canada into the United States by car a couple of years ago. Since I was not Canadian, I was required to go through passport control, fill out forms, and be fingerprinted and photographed as part of the US-VISIT security program. The officer who “processed” me, a white man, was patronizing and insulting. He spoke with exaggerated slowness, despite my Canadian accent, Western clothing, and obvious ability to speak English. When I filled out the two-sided green form, he inquired condescendingly about “how I had done that so fast,” ostensibly marveling at my literacy. Inside, I was fuming—ready to whip out degrees and a résumé, thus proving my worth as an articulate, educated woman of color—ready to stoop to insults, mock his accent and sneer at his levels of education and literacy. Instead, I remained silent and, yes, compliant, because I knew he had all the power in that situation—the power to turn me back, the power to detain me. Insulting him would have been juvenile and probably disastrous but if, as I believe, the purpose of resistance is to counter oppression, then I failed in that moment. I could at least have commented on his behavior and the fact that it was unnecessary. In doing so, I might have made things easier for the next woman of color he processed. Or worse.
Thankfully, that is where writing comes in. Writing is resistance, an opportunity to voice my non-compliance. Here I can make up for all those moments where I wish I had said something. Here I can anchor those past (and future) experiences, deconstruct them, learn from them, and perhaps most importantly, share them.
THE POWER OF COLLECTIVE STRUGGLE
African Women Writing Resistance locates itself within the transnational, intergenerational, cross-cultural efforts of African women to voice their needs and desires, their sorrows and their joys, to each other and to the wider world. As education is a necessary precursor to writing, the call to African women to educate themselves and each other is frequently heard in this collection. Elisabeth Bouanga of Congo-Brazzaville, a grandmother in her seventies and the mother of anthology coeditor Pauline Dongala, recounts how, when she was young, “Women were not allowed to go to school; they were supposed to learn from their mothers how to work in the fields, how to cook and how to be good wives. It surely was a kind of education but it was too limited,” she says. “Girls must go to school to be educated,” Bouanga declares. “A woman, be she single, married, or widowed, must free herself and be capable to take on any profession.”
This is a rallying cry heard all over Africa in these early years of the twentyfirst century, as women organize themselves to join fully in the contemporary social, economic, and political life of their countries. Resistance is undoubtedly more powerful when it is collective, and women throughout Africa and the diaspora are joining together to improve the quality of lives for themselves and their sisters through many organizations, such as the African Women’s Development Fund, Tostan, and FEMNET, to name just a few.19
What do the contributors to African Women Writing need and want from us, their readers? It is our belief that African women writers seek a broad-based audience with which to engage in the healing exchange of compassionate witnessing and empowering dialogue.20 We present this anthology in the hope that the strong voices of African women represented in these pages will arouse the spirit of activist solidarity in women and men all over the world, encouraging us to work together to build a better future for us all.
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1. A biography and set of speeches by President Johnson-Sirleaf can be found at the Liberian government site http://www.emansion.gov.lr/content.php?sub=President’s%20Biography&related=The%20President
2. For information on the current work of Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement, see the Web site http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/
3. For a good description of the theory and practice of gender mainstreaming, see the 2007 report by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “UNESCO’s Gender Mainstreaming Implementation Framework,” available at http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001318/131854e.pdf or the WomenWatch site, produced by the United Nations Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality, at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/
4. A few of the male African writers who have achieved international fame and recognition are Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya), Chinua Achebe (Nigeria), Nuruddin Farah (Somalia), and the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature Wole Soyinka (Nigeria, 1986), Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt, 1988), and J. M. Coetzee (South Africa, 2003). The only African women writers to win the Nobel Prize for Literature thus far are Africans of European descent: Nadine Gordimer (South Africa, 1991) and Doris Lessing (2007), who was raised by British colonials in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
5. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s first novel, Nervous Conditions, was published in 1988, won the African Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989, and is widely taught in colleges and high schools worldwide. Dangarembga has gone on to work in film as well, becoming the first black Zimbabwean woman to direct a feature film, Everybody’s Child, about four African AIDS orphans in 1986. A second novel, The Book of Not, was published in 2006. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus, a finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction, was written while she was a student at Eastern Connecticut State University. A good survey of emerging African writers, both male and female, is available on the African Writing Online Web site, http://www.african-writing.com/aug/profiles2.htm
6. Other groundbreaking African women writers include Bessie Head (Botswana, 1937–86), Flora Nwapa (Nigeria, 1931–93), Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt, 1931–), Zoe Wicomb (South Africa, 1948 –), and Werewere Liking (Cameroon, 1950–). See the suggestions for further reading at the end of this volume for more specifics on these and other important African women writers.
7. The African Studies Association provides an excellent resource list of Web sites affiliated with Africana studies: http://www.africanstudies.org/?page=links_page
8. Current information about African women and HIV/AIDS can be found, among many other sources, on the World Health Organization Web site, http://www.who.int/gender/hiv_aids/en/index.html; the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS Web site, http://womenandaids.unaids.org/default.html; and the IRIN news agency focus site on HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, http://www.plusnews.org/
9. See an excellent analysis of African maternal mortality and related issues in the article “Reproductive Health in the African Region: What Has Been Done to Improve the Situation?” by Tigrest Ketsela, a pediatrician with postgraduate training in public health and the director of the Division of Family and Reproductive Health in the WHO Regional Office for Africa (WHO/ AFRO), which is based in Brazzaville, Congo. The article is available at http://www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/2007/issue4/0407p71.html
10. A good hub resource for information on African diseases of poverty is maintained by the United Nations Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, at http://www.who.int/tdr/index.html
11. See the UNESCO reports on progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals for educating girls, at http://portal.unesco.org/education/en/ev.php-URL_ID=34813&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html, as well as reports on the ways in which increased technological access can improve educational opportunities for African women and girls, available at http://www.elearning-africa.com/newsportal/english/news35.php
12. Female genital cutting, a touchstone issue for many African women’s rights activists, is an indigenous tradition in some African regions and is also practiced in tribes that have adopted Islam. Other patriarchal norms that continue to create conflict include the strict relegation of women to the private sphere (reinforced in earlier eras by the Victorian mores of the European colonizers) and the practice of polygamy. For information on female genital cutting, see the Tostan Web site, http://www.tostan.org/web/page/586/sectionid/547/pagelevel/3/interior.asp
13. Rape was first acknowledged to be a war crime in the aftermath of the Bosnian conflict in the late 1990s, and UN Security Council Resolution 1325 was passed in 2000, officially recognizing the impact of armed conflict on women and calling on governments to include women in the peacemaking process and to provide the means for healing and reconciliation for sexually traumatized women. The full text of Resolution 1325, as well as analysis and useful links, can be found at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Web site, http://www.peacewomen.org/un/sc/1325.html A series of articles, analyses, and multimedia resources on the use of rape as a weapon of war in Africa is available on the IRIN Web site, http://www.irinnews.org/InDepthMain.aspx?InDepthId=20&ReportId=62817 See also the useful 2006 report by Jeanne Ward and Mendy Marsh, “Sexual Violence against Women and Girls in War and Its Aftermath: Realities, Responses, and Required Resources,” at http://www.unfpa.org/emergencies/symposium06/docs/finalbrusselsbriefingpaper.pdf, which gives a worldwide view of a problem acutely faced by African women. The Web site of Women for Women International, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on improving the lives of women in postconflict regions, also provides much useful information on this topic: http://www.womenforwomen.org/programs.htm
14. Excellent regional and country-by-country analysis of the situation of refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) is provided by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre at http://www.internal-displacement.org/8025708F004CE90B/(httpRegionPages)/BBA6119B705C145802570A600546F85?OpenDocument Additionally, a series of recommendations on improving conditions for women and children who have been internally displaced by conflict is available on the Brookings Institute Web site at http://www.brookings.edu/speeches/2004/~/media/Files/rc/speeches/2004/0526humanrights_mooney/20040526_mooney.pdf
15. See the BBC Special Report “Peacekeepers Abusing Children” at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/ in_depth/7420798.stm or the Human Rights Watch report at http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2008/04/03/darfur18424.htm to get a sense of the scope of the problem.
16. See the UN High Commission for Refugees report “South Africa: How Heavy Is Human Trafficking,” at http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/48ced5e1e.html, for a window into this problem just in South Africa. Human trafficking is occurring all over the continent on an unprecedented scale, as is evident in the following 2003 expert testimony before the House International Relations Committee by a doctor representing Doctors Without Borders: http://physiciansforhuman rights.org/library/2003-06-25.html.
17. A number of online Web sites provide a great window into the leading edge of the African literary scene. See, for example, African Writing Online at http://african-writing.com/hol/profiles .htm; Words Without Borders at http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?sec=Africa; African Writer at http://www.africanwriter.com/; Farafina magazine at http://farafinamagazine.com/f14/index .php.
18. Contributor quotations in this section are from personal letters sent to the editors in response to a query, What does resistance mean to you?
19. Information about the African Women’s Development Fund is available at http://awdf.org/ web/index.php/about-awdf. Information about Tostan is available at http://www.tostan.org/web/ page/556/sectionid/556/pagelevel/1/parentid/556/interior.asp. Information about FEMNET is available at http://www.femnet.or.ke/default.asp
20. We borrow the term compassionate witnessing fromDr. KaetheWeingarten of Harvard University, whose groundbreakingwork on the value of a compassionate listener to heal post-traumatic stress is detailed in her book Common Shock (Penguin, 2003). A condensed version of her argument is available online at http://www.humiliationstudies.org/documents/WeingartenCompassionate Witnessing.pdf.
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