By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
Recently, I was at a forum put together to celebrate the works of Chinua Achebe, Africa’s best known and most widely read author, universally regarded as the father and rallying point of African Literature. As the speeches flowed and the ovations sounded, I could feel the depth of admiration in the various speakers towards Achebe and his works. The whole thing was moving on well until one lady came up with elaborate praise for Achebe for the significant “improvement” his female characters achieved in Anthills Of the Savannah, unlike what obtained in Things Fall Apart, his first novel, which is globally acknowledged as a classic, and which now exists in about sixty major languages.
Now, I would easily have ignored and quickly forgotten this comment as “one of those things” one was bound to hear in a “mixed crowd” if I had not also heard similar thoughts brazenly expressed by some female scholars whom I thought should be better informed. For instance, I was at a lecture in Port Harcourt some years ago when a female professor of literature announced with the excitement of someone who had just discovered another earth: When Achebe created his earlier female characters, she said, “we complained; then he responded by giving us Clara (in No Longer At Ease) and we still complained; then he gave us Eunice (in A Man Of The People) and we still asked for more; and then he gave us Beatrice (in Anthills Of The Savannah)!” Unfortunately, I have encountered thoughts even more pedestrian than this flaunted by several scholars and readers alike.
Honestly, I had thought that this matter had long been resolved and forgotten. It should be clear (and I should think that this has been sufficiently stressed) that whatever perceived differences in the various female characters created by Achebe are a function of the prevailing realities in the different settings and periods that produced them, and Achebe’s ability to record those realities so accurately should not be construed to mean that he also “celebrates” them (as some critics have wrongly imputed) or advocates their sustenance.
In his lecture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, specially slated to precede the very memorable Eagle on Iroko Symposium, organised to mark Achebe’s sixtieth birthday in 1990, Prof Dan Izevbaye described Achebe as “history’s eyewitness,” and I easily agree with him.
Today, Achebe is being widely hailed for using his first novel, Things Fall Apart, to change the distorted images of Africa celebrated in the heaps of mostly concocted historical and literary accounts about the continent and its people by mostly Western writers. But Achebe did not see any wisdom in countering these distortions with his own distortions. He merely presented reality with both its glowing and unedifying sides with exceptional insight, penetration and grasp of the real picture which the foreigner, whose impressions were mostly coloured by many years of deep-seated prejudices, was incapable of capturing.
It is a credit to Achebe’s mastery of his art that, though his readers might be shocked, for instance, at the bloodcurdling murder of Ikemefuna (which every sane person should find overtly revolting), they would still find it nearly impossible to categorise the incident as additional evidence of savage pleasure of the native in wanton bloodletting. The reader is able to see an Okonkwo with genuine human feelings that are even more appealing than those of the white man who was attempting to “civilise” him, but who would have no qualms wiping out an entire community, as happened in Abame!
Indeed, no sane person would endorse any religious observances that prescribe human sacrifices, but the reader would most likely catch himself empathising with a highly traumatised and sorrowful Okonkwo who had killed the boy as a national duty prescribed by the deity he and his people believed in and worshipped at that time. Our dilemma is compounded when we see that the same community that sacrificed Ikemefuna would later banish Okonkwo for accidentally killing a man with his gun during the funeral ceremony of a great, titled man.
That is the reality of that era. And so, when Achebe also records reality as it pertained to gender placement in Okonkwo’s time, he is only playing effectively his role as “history’s eye-witness.” Maybe, the uninformed feminists and their naïve sympathisers would have been happier if he had recreated Okonkwo’s community to suit their notions and expectations, and in effect become guilty of the same charges of distortions that have trailed colonialist portrayals of Africa in many works. We seem to forget, at times, that Achebe was writing like someone who was part of that society and not some foreign observer desperate to ‘confirm’ some preconceived notion. Umuofia was a society in transition, and the author was able to capture the prevailing mood of the time, instead of imposing on it his own idea of how the society should be.
I agree with Ian Watts in his book, The Rise of the Novel, that there must be “a correspondence between the literary work and the reality which it imitates.” I wonder what kind of novel Achebe would have produced if he had made a couple of women sit with the elders of Umuofia to deliberate on the banishment of Okonkwo, or even the killing of Ikemefuna. Granted, that would have earned him the boundless admiration of certain feminists, but the novel would have been unrecognisable to anyone familiar with the subsisting features in the Igbo traditional environment in the periods that Things Fall Apart or Arrow of God was set.
But, despite the acclaimed “emancipation” and “empowerment”, Chinua Achebe’s later female characters were even said to have achieved, some murmurs of dissatisfaction could still be heard in some feminised critical circles. In a review of Anthills of the Savannah in the journal, OKIKE (No 30: 1990), for instance , Prof Ifi Amadiume blames Achebe and his novel for failing or refusing to give “women power” insisting that the female characters in the book are still existing to “service” the men. But she appears to overstate her case when she alleges that Ikem, one of the principal characters in the novel, despite being a “great poet, great journalist and nationalist” could “at a personal level” still stoop so low to “sexually exploit a grassroots girl.”
Now, what my reading of the novel showed, however (that is, if we read the same book – Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah), is that Ikem was very proud of Elewa and his relationship with her, taking her to social meetings with his highly placed and educated friends, including an expatriate administrator of the nation’s General Hospital and a visiting British editor of a poetry journal. In fact, during a lecture he gave at the University of Bassa, Ikem proudly announced Elewa’s mother as his future mother-in-law. He also did not forget to inform his audience that his fiancée’s mother was a market woman, a petty trader at Gelegele Market.
Now, while not endorsing Ikem’s lifestyle (since I strongly disapprove of pre-marital sex, which I would like to call by its proper name, sexual immorality), I fail to see a case of sexual exploitation here. Ikem was genuinely in a flourishing relationship with a lady he wanted to settle down with. How they eventually choose to spend the night — in the same or in different rooms — should not be the concern of any nosey feminist. From all indications, Elewa and Ikem were happy in that relationship, and that was all that mattered. There is never ever a perfect union, but people have been able, by sacrifices, forbearance and accommodations of each other’s faults and weaknesses, where love is alive and well, to make the best of many relationships and live happily ever after. So, the little matter of Ikem insisting that they would not spend the night together (which, by the way, was the only point of conflict) is something that can be resolved in the life of the relationship, and I wonder why that should be the headache of any third party?
And what is all this noise about “servicing the men” in actions that are purely consensual and mutually pleasurable to both parties who are also adults? Now, even if His Excellency were removed from office and replaced with a Beatrice (BB) as President of the Republic of Kangan, would that have automatically excused her from or elevated her above whatever obligations she had discharged to Chris (and vice-versa) before her status changed? Can it be said in all honesty that BB was subjugated in the novel? Is her character not real? Assuming the nation was not under military rule, which was an aberration, were there any impediments before BB barring her from aspiring to very high political offices?
Again, wasn’t a strong point also made by the fact that Elewa, despite her poor background and almost no education, had no complexes whatsoever socialising with the society’s elite, whether she was able to follow in the discussions or not? No doubt, Achebe could have just changed his story and made Elewa possess a doctorate degree, but can anyone say that the status the author gave her in the novel made her less than real? Are there no uneducated men in the book, like Briamoh and the taxi drivers? Certainly, the creative enterprise would yield only boring works if all novels and plays are stampeded into adopting one predictable, feminised pattern.
Now, it is all this insistence by feminists on prescribing strict codes of conducts to govern couples in the privacy of their homes that most people find very unacceptable. Many women who had uncritically swallowed those “great rules and regulations”, and had attempted to implement them in their homes, mainly to underline the fact that they have now been “liberated and empowered,” even when there were no situations in their homes that called for such brazen show of “girl-power,” are today without even any stable homes from where to flaunt their wonderful empowerment. Their marriages have since crashed, leaving them out in the cold, sad and lonely.
To be continued next edition