Africa, as the Women Tell It

 

Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel
Eds. Esi Sutherland-Addy and Aminata Diaw
New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York,, 2005, 460 pp., $29.95, paperback

An Old Man
Give me an old man, I'll surely sit on a tomb and cry:
Find me a young man, I'll dance on a train with joy.

Papa gave me the old man, I'll surely sit on a tomb and cry,

Find me a young man, I'll dance on a train with joy.

Find me an old man, I'll surely sit on a tomb and cry

Find me a young man, I'll dance on a train with joy.

 

This "maiden song" from Burkina Faso represents a theme that runs through Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel: the pain of coerced marriage for women. The song is an improvised tune recorded in 1974. One can just imagine young girls in a circle singing this recreational tune with its message of doom. Like many other entries in this volume, it is part of a rich cultural tradition of resistance that West African women have transmitted through song, poetry, fiction, and collective action.

This book is the second in a projected four-volume series produced by the Women Writing Africa Project. The seeds for this feminist project were sown in 1990, when Tuzyline Jita Allan approached Florence Howe, whose Feminist Press was about to publish Women Writing India: 600 BC to the Present, with the idea. The project began to take shape when Alison Bernstein of the Ford Foundation called together Abena P.A. Busia, Chikwenye Ogunyemi, Peter Hitchock, Allan, and Howe to discuss launching the project at the African Literature Association meeting in Accra, Ghana, in April 1994. The meeting included feminists from Africa, such as Esi Sutherland-Addy and Aminata Diaw, and from the U.S., such as Howe, Busia, Judith Miller, and Johnnetta B. Cole.

The editors of this volume, Sunderland-Addy and Diaw, suggest that the project grew out of a successful enactment of global sisterhood. Feminists at the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations saw to it that substantial funding was available for international meetings. Support from libraries, universities, and, especially, The Feminist Press was also vital. So far, over 200 women (and some men) in nearly two dozen countries and on two continents have contributed to the larger project.

But working in such a coalition was not easy. As the frank preface by editors Sunderland-Addy and Diaw suggests,

Working on the West Africa volume sorely tested the core principles
of Women Writing Africa as a project: that the authority of African
Women scholars should be presumed primary in shaping the intellectual
parameters of the project; that egalitarian partnerships between African
and non-African scholars should be maintained; that collaborative feminist
work should be promoted.

Thankfully, this effort to build a productive global sisterhood succeeded. The dazzling range of songs, fiction, and nonfiction included in this volume advances the project's efforts to reach its most ambitious goal: "to foster new readings of African history."

 

 But what does it mean to say women are "writing Africa"? The women in this project employ the word "writing" to mean something more than using literacy to convey ideas. Writing here is a political and cultural act of claiming subjectivity, and the book is an act of defining and redefining Africa--shaking off Euro-American-centric and male-dominated visions of Africa. Orature, the oral tradition, which the editors see as an exercise in establishing subjectivity, gains status by being blended with literary works and presented to the literate world.

 

Read as a whole, the volume forces readers to confront the centrality of motherhood and women's work in African history. It is a history of women moved from one family to another--often unwillingly as wives and/or slaves. As the "Old Man" song suggests, many young girls have been and still are forced to marry much older men, and a large corpus of oral songs and poems comments on the doom that young girls feel as they anticipate marriage.

 

At the other end of the age spectrum are stories that detail the harsh realities of West African widowhood, a state that often comes tragically early for those married to much older men. One poignant piece, "We Shall Overcome," by Kate Abbam of Ghana, the publisher and editor of a feminist magazine, rails against her own experience of having her recently deceased husband's family dispossess her and her children of all their possessions. Not all West African and Sahelian cultures mistreat widows, but it is prevalent enough to deserve the prominent space it gets in Women Writing Africa.

The volume also exposes the horrors of colonial rule. For example, included are the notes on the testimony of Nwanyeruwa, a woman farmer and palm-oil trader, before the 1930 Aba Commission of Inquiry into disturbances in the Calabar and Oweri Provinces of Nigeria. Nwanyeruwa sparked a massive protest that used traditional female networks to mobilize over 10,000 women to resist taxation and British-appointed chiefs. At one point, the British panicked and massacred scores of unarmed women. But the protest and subsequent inquiry lead to change in British colonial governance.

The ironies of colonial rule also emerge. Included is a fascinating short story by a youthful P.A. Itayemi Ogundipe, who would later become a distinguished Nigerian educator and civil servant. She wrote it as her entry into a competition sponsored by the British Council. In this story, a young girl escapes marriage to a much older man by using knowledge she has gained at missionary schools and by appealing to the missionaries. Clearly, women were sometimes able to exploit the disruptions of colonialism to their own advantage. These kinds of stories paint a rich picture of life in postcolonial West Africa.

As a whole, the narrative that emerges from this text mutes class divisions. This absence is in contrast to the first volume of the Women Writing Africa project,Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region. Perhaps because of the greater penetration of industrial capitalism in southern Africa, the women in that region are more attuned to the class differences among women. In their introduction, they note, for example, that writing represents both empowerment and entrapment. To illustrate: women who learned how to read at mission schools during colonial rule gained a powerful tool for expressing subjectivity. At the same time, however, they got trapped by a bourgeois worldview that often distanced them from their nonliterate sisters.

This kind of complexity is sometimes missing from the West African volume. The introductory note on Adelaide Casely-Hayford (1868-1960) illustrates this point. Casely-Hayford was born into an elite West African family, reared and educated in England and Germany, and exposed to early pan-African ideas. She spent time in the United States, where she was affected by the racism she faced and influenced by African American attacks on racial segregation. She had long-standing ties to black feminists, such as educator Nannie Burroughs, who influenced the kind of school for girls Casely-Hayford started in Sierra Leone. In many ways, Casely-Hayford was a fascinating model of an early anticolonial, African feminist. But she was not without her contradictions. On the one hand, she was known for designating days during the school year when the girls were to wear African clothes, as a symbol of African pride, rather than their traditional, Western-style uniforms. On the other, she shared many of the prejudices of her ethnic group, the Krios--an intermarried group of slaves returned from the New World and freed from the slave trade by the British--toward indigenous Africans in Sierra Leone. Because of her access to literacy, she was able to join the growing elite from Africa and its diaspora who were working to undermine racism and colonialism. But writing also trapped her in the class and ethnic biases typical of the early black intelligentsia around the world. The notes on Casely-Hayford lack these details. Instead, we get an "all praises due" biography that doesn't do justice to the complex issues that women like Casely-Hayford faced during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite such oversights, the most significant heroes in this book are the scores of African feminist scholars who worked for over a decade to produce their reading of African history. Their contributions go beyond the simple issue of representation. They themselves have had to struggle to make their voices heard among scholars of Africa and beyond. With this volume, they have successfully used the "dailiness of women's lives" and women's contributions to culture and politics to reshape our understanding of African history. Women's production and reproduction of African societies now anchors that history. We are lucky to have Women Writing Africa.

E. Frances White is vice provost for faculty affairs at New York University. She is author of Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability and, with Iris Berger, Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: Restoring Women to History.

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