By Ikeogu Oke
The German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, notably declared: “Unhappy the land in need of heroes.” And too much emphasis cannot be laid on the role of heroes in shaping the destiny of nations. Like Aeneas whom Virgil credits with founding the Roman nation The Aeneid, and Christopher Columbus credited with the discovery of America, and José Marti regarded as a founding father of the Cuban nation, and Kemal Ataturk recognised as the father of modern Turkey, heroes, in history and legend, have been known to play critical roles in establishing, shaping and reshaping nations, and infusing their peoples with pride as the offspring or descendants of remarkable ancestors or living men – and women. And any land without them should truly feel improvised, as Brecht suggests.
Heroes, incidentally, are not only those who impact nations and history in the political sphere and as founders of nations. Their impact can be felt in virtually all facets of life, generally as courageous pacesetters who produce ground-breaking work or lead in the radical modification or improvement of already existing work.
Copernicus’s risky declaration that the earth was round against the position of the inquisitorial church that it was flat was an act of heroism, demonstrating the courage of the liberal, scientific mind. It was also heroic that Chinua Achebe, then a man in his twenties, dared to write Things Fall Apart, a novel which essentially challenges the ill-motivated characterisation of Africa by European writers as a dark and chaotic continent and which, to both quote and paraphrase Achebe in Home and Exile, seeks to champion the establishment of “a balance of stories between Africa and the West.”
The authors of the Nigerian national anthem obviously had the importance of celebrating heroes and preserving their legacy in mind when they wrote: “The labours of our heroes past shall never be in vain.” Though the facts of today, emerging especially from the political sphere, would make some of us wonder if that lofty declaration was not mere wishful thinking.
That said, the literary labours of our heroes past and present still offer hope for perpetual fruitfulness, proving sometimes to be a quarry for inspiration when deservingly celebrated like Efuru in this fiftieth year of its publication.
Incidentally, it is reductionist to confine Efuru to the description of a feminist novel. Undoubtedly, there are strands of feminism in its thematic fabric, woven quite recognisably into the character of its heroine – a self-possessed, independent-minded, yet marriage- and family-oriented woman who finds meaning in complementing her husband.
Yet the liberalism that forms the foundation of her marriage and actuates her actions is a human value and not a feminist value. The feminism in the novel is subsumed in this liberalism, its leitmotif, for which it recommends itself not just as a feminist work and transcends the gender barrier.
Feminism, if we think critically of it, is a franchise of humanism devoted to the empowerment of women for the improvement of the human race. Efuru is a self-driven symbol of this empowerment who first seeks to free herself from such restrictions as social and cultural expectations that make the payment of bride price a condition for marriage.
A beautiful woman, she steps beyond the confines of such expectations to marry a man below her family status in a transaction dictated by affection, in which the non-payment of her pride price does not matter to her; and she respects and supports her husband with a sacrificial love.
Efuru is a metaphor of the strong lioness. As the narrative voice remarks in the novel: “Adizua” (her husband) “was not good at trading. It was Efuru who was the brain behind the business.” Though the sustenance of the pride depends more on her exertions compared to the lion – with her having to bring in the most kill – yet she willingly submits herself to him and does not engage in a struggle for equality, let alone dominance, with him in the name of “feminism”. She is proof that one can be feminist and yet humble in a way that does not undermine one’s dignity or offend good sense.
Whereas her contributions to the family could have triggered pride and recalcitrance in some women, she makes herself a model of conjugal cooperation through her sacrificial support of her husband. “What bothers me now is a maid. I want a maid to help me look after Ogonim while I trade with my husband. …I want to help my husband. We have been losing much money,” she reveals to a confidant, underscoring her understanding of the need to balance two necessities: care for her child with Adizua and the growth of the family fortune through her contribution. And though her sacrifice can be said not to have paid the expected dividend, given that Adizua turns out to behave badly towards her, it does not detract from the fact that she had various positive character traits that are worthy of our independent reckoning.
In celebrating Efuru at 50 we identify with such positive values it obliquely canvasses: independence, liberality, love, the cultivation of family, etc. We also hold them up as behavioural beacons to our younger generation in the dark, in desperate need of a reliable compass of positive values in a nation rather adrift in tempestuous waters.
The celebration is therefore a mission of remembrance and inspiration – remembrance of the remarkable labour of one of our female heroes past as a springboard of inspiration for the living, especially the young. And I feel immensely privileged to have been inducted as a member of the National Organising Committee of the historic event by its chairman, Dr. Wale Okediran, and Mr. Uzoma Nwakuche, Flora Nwapa’s son, whose train will traverse five major Nigerian cities – Lagos, Maiduguri, Abuja, Enugu and Owerri – from November 29 t0 December 9, 2016, drawing a glittering coach filled with literary events.
Also, Nwapa’s publication of Efuru in 1966 as the first novel by a female black African writer has historical significance, a notable venture in pacesetting. We hope this fact, for us also a cause for celebration besides the fact of the novel having become critically acclaimed and influential, will inspire others, especially the younger generation, to set the ploughs of their creativity to new fields, breaking new grounds like Nwapa, producing work that would equally be deserving of celebration by theirs or future generations, extending the chain of human productivity with strong new links.
Oke, an Abuja-based public affairs analyst, is a member of the National Organising Committee of the Efuru @ 50 Celebration. Email: [email protected]