Spheres of Literature: Africa

I hate Things Fall Apart. If Chinua Achebe’s objective in writing the atrocious novel had been to restore the dignity stripped away by Joseph Conrad’s more atrocious book Heart of Darkness, then Achebe accomplished restoring dignity to only the African man. The women in Things Fall Apart are not merely invisible, they are belittled in an effort to appease the white patriarchy through male to male comradery. (“You abuse your women? SO DO WE! See, we aren’t so undignified after all! We’re just as civilized as you!”) Over and over, we see that gender equality is compromised by the men who strive for racial equality.

One of the novels I want to discuss is Season of Migration to the North. “Objectively” speaking, the novel is beautifully written. It captures the torment of a man who travels to Europe from Northern Africa and is expected (by Europeans) to be the “over-sexualized” African. Frustrated, he plays into their expectations, seduces women and then leaves them, resulting in these women’s suicides.

So far, this isn’t too bad. It demonstrates how poisonous these racist stereotypes are to everyone involved. Except that, out of his bitterness, Mustafa Saeed considers the suicides a form of revenge against the European imperialists. By indirectly killing their women.

The reason this works is because white men and men of color alike are supposed to be like SUPER OFFENDED when anyone “infects” any of “their” women.

I’m going to talk about this novel because the theme of this post will be the deadly consequences of colonial expectations. I’m also going to talk about it because men are assholes, and this is an example of what is wrong with men of color fighting racism. When your strategy of “overthrowing” imperialism is to “contaminate” imperialist women and destroy their lives and abuse women of color so that you can pull a Chinua Achebe and restore your dignity according to the sexist standards that white patriarchy will recognize as dignified–well, frankly I don’t care how tormented you are or what happens to you in the process.

The other two books I will discuss are Nervous Conditions and Dog Eat Dog. These novels also fall under the theme of expectations–particularly, the expectation of gratefulness; of men of color who are supposed to be “grateful” for the opportunities given to them by white settlers–opportunities they wouldn’t have needed anyway if it weren’t for the white settlers; of women who are supposed to “grateful” for the provisions from the men who are supposed to control them–provisions that would have been unneeded had patriarchy not existed to rob women of the means to provide for themselves.

I will be presenting these novels in a series of analytical reviews. Let’s start now.

Nervous Conditons by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga presents the colonialist authority of language and education in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) as a means to inhabit the mind. In order to obtain all the financial security, respect, and self-efficiency that Tambu, the main character, sees her uncle Babamakuru maneuver, she must struggle to acquire an education that is distinctly British, interacting with the missionaries in Rhodesia.

Tambu critiques the functions of colonialist influence in her own notions. From the time her brother Nhamo begins living with Babamakuru, Tambu observes in him an inclination to prefer English to Shona, and this exacerbates the barrier between them—and between Nhamo and his family. Simultaneously, Tambu feels validated later as she browses through the library of her cousin Nyasha,

“Most of it [validation] did not come from the lessons they taught at school but from Nyasha’s various and extensive library. I read everything from Enid Blyton to the Bronte sisters, and responded to them all. Plunging into these books I knew I was being educated and I was filled with gratitude to the authors for introducing me to places where reason and inclination were not at odds.” (Dangarembga, 94)

She discovers the sense of selfhood and interaction with a legacy—one that isn’t hers, but a legacy nonetheless—that helps establish her selfhood and connects to her on a sublime level through tradition and storytelling; Tambu’s education and her readership begin to substitute that which colonialism had denied her: cultural identity. With the arrival of colonialism, culture becomes a luxury, the mark of the affluent, and only the culture of the dominant is recognized as valid and possesses the power to contribute the validation that Tambu experiences.

Although mystified at Nyasha’s “ungratefulness” toward Babamakuru for providing for her, Tambu begins to recognize that one cannot be grateful upon the “restoration” of a right that was wrongfully circumvented by the very party who circumvented it. “I know I should trust and obey and all that, but really he hasn’t the right,” Nyasha sobs after a physical altercation, Babamakuru’s second violation on her bodily autonomy to policing her clothes—the right, Nyasha identifies, belongs to her. (Dangarembga, 121) She, like her mother Maiguru, is thwarted from providing for herself because Babamakuru wrongfully claims the liability for her body as he claims Maiguru’s earnings—the clothes Nyasha wears (of which he disapproves) or the food she (doesn’t) consume—and Nyasha will not be “grateful” on the occasions on which he “allows” her to practice what should have been hers anyway.

Tambu begins to appreciate this is an assault on human dignity. As she speaks to Maiguru, Tambu begins to understand that Nyasha’s mother—whom Tambu deems worthy through (grateful) disposition and education of being Babamakuru’s wife—is not entirely satisfied with the role. Maiguru is as educated as Babamakuru and is robbed of her earnings. “ ‘What happens to your money?’ I asked. ‘The money that you earn. Does the government take it?’ […] ‘You could say that,’ my aunt laughed, forcing herself to be merry again but not succeeding.” (Dangarembga, 103)

The “government” to which Maiguru is referring is the obligatory payment to her “security”—her marriage to Babamakuru, which she explains to Tambu that she had chosen over her “self,” and the subsequent waiver of her decisions to use it as she determines is fit. Maiguru’s generosity is not recognized as such; it is only her duty as a wife, “payment” to her husband for generously securing her, a provision for which she should be grateful (regardless of the patriarchal structures situated to render her in need of it in the first place as to demand her thanks for restoring of what it had robbed her.) Babamakuru, however, constantly earns the praise of both Tambu and her (immediate and extended) family for his generosity, which comprises largely of Maiguru’s earnings. Tambu, deceived by the surface appearance of patriarchal dynamics in affluent families, affirms Nyasha’s inspection: “It is the same everywhere.” (Dangarembga, 121)

 “The victimization, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it with them everywhere.” (Dangarembga, 118)

It’s a moment of revelation Tambu reports after Nyasha is beaten for acting like Babamakuru, a reason he explicitly cites—only he can act like a man, behavior he wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else toward him—as he violently exposes the hypocrisy of patriarchy.

Tambu encounters this duplicity with—and as an extension of—that which the missionaries and their perpetuation of British standards of education to measure excellence and deservingness exemplify. Through necessitating colonial education as a means of survival, and then expecting gratefulness for facilitating the fulfillment of that artificially imposed necessity, post-colonialists in Nervous Conditions, Dog Eat Dog, and Season of Migration to the North continue a colonist legacy. Resisting that legacy characteristically requires engaging in it.

Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo

In Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo, Dingz finds himself in a similar predicament as the first scene begins with a demand from the indifferent bursary at the university of his choice. Although Dingz lives in a post-colonial (and post-apartheid) South Africa, he must continuously contest its ramified claim on his identity. Either character must seek the education established by colonialist powers in order to resist these powers and their extensions, and they are expected to be grateful for the opportunity for such resistance.

This proves difficult, not only because of the corruption Dingz experiences—he is beaten when he decides to bring justice to two officers who had attempted to bribe him—but because in order to overcome the systematic subjugation Dingz, like Tambu, must engage in the educational arrangement that facilitated its manifestation. It’s an arrangement that he cannot make easily as a black South African: although he’d been exempted prior to applying to the university, the bursary informs Dingz that he does not qualify for aid, which he supposes is due to his race.

Dingz demonstrates this frustration rendered by the expectation to show gratefulness upon receiving what should have been his: eager to combat the injustices he experiences, the systematic retributions that left him in need of the aid that is denied to him, Dingz must personify a force of confrontation. When he is introduced, he has already developed a hyperawareness of race, fostered by the small inequalities he must encounter in its name. In the classroom, Dingz supplies,

 “I was thinking about what I’d learned from some of my second-year friends, who had told me of a subtle form of racism practiced by some white lecturers. My sources had explained that these white lecturers didn’t know their black students by name, and that was why they often said ‘yes’ when asking them to respond to a question. As for the white students the white professors always addressed them politely by their full names.” (Mhlongo, 142)

Despite these microaggressions, appreciativeness is expected of Dingz. His own reckless, overly masculine behavior discernably shares the blame for his dismissal from residency at the Y, but as the residency coordinator divulges, “…remember we did you a great favor letting you stay at the res in the first place. We’re supposed to give preference for those who come from far away” (Mhlongo, 142, emphasis mine—‘code language’ for blacks [who would live far away compared to whites as prevailing colonialist patterns despite active disruption of apartheid practices]) Dingz is expected to behave suitably out of gratefulness.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

Thematically, Mustafa Saeed in Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North embodies the result of the infliction of colonial expectation—and the dynamics of gender weaponized under colonial influence. An African man who has excelled in his English studies and travelled to Oxford after earning a scholarship, Saeed becomes resentful of the impressions of his English company and their applied stereotypes of the “exotic African.”

He begins to exhibit the imagined attributes that the Europeans he meet impose on him and continuously seduces English women with tales of the supposed wilderness where he grew up and promises of marriage, until each one, deceived, commits suicide. He marries Jean Morris, who consistently is cruel to him and destroys his possessions and whom he murders in an attempt to repossess his weakened sense of control as the retaliatory conqueror.

Saeed’s description of his bedroom in itself is that of the dominion of a conqueror who has weaponized sexual gender relations, “a graveyard that looked on to a garden,” an “operating theatre in a hospital.” To seduce European women he plays to “Oriental” expectations so that they were dazzled and moved, and his bedroom exemplifies this; the room was “heavy with the smell of burning sandalwood and incense, and in the bathroom were pungent Eastern perfumes, lotions, unguents, powders, and pills.” (Salih, 27) Although Saeed’s professor, defending him on trial, insists that it was not Saeed who was the cause of the suicides, but that the women were killed by “the germ of a deadly disease that assailed them a thousand years ago,” (Salih, 29) Mustafa Saeed, knowing how encounters with a people who directly objectify him has led to his devastation, is convinced he is the cause.

In response to the colonial objectification of himself, he seduces the women in an attempt to invert the consuming desire of the West to possess the East, and a futile one to reclaim his autonomic power and identity. Ironically the image of Saeed which his professor employs to defend Saeed and free him from the allegations are also that which destroy him, and he wants to stand before the court and say, “This is untrue, a fabrication. It was I who killed them. I am the desert of thirst. I am no Othello. I am no lie. Why don’t you sentence me to be hanged and so kill the lie?’ (Salih, 29.)

The reference is significant: Othello, a caricature of the African man whom the English apply to their perspective of the East, is the type who pursues women seducing them with stories, perceived as silly, a de-masculinized figure as to feminize the conquered East by the functioning Western patriarchy, of which racism is a facet—Mustafa Saeed, however, demonstrated that he had driven the women mad to their own end, a weapon in himself, as powerful as Britain’s patriarchal force and the white privilege it entails, and that Othello is a lie. Saeed, seemingly ambivalent on his own colonization, employed a system of patriarchy against his lovers’ racism in this process—consequently, he inadvertently allied himself with an oppression, that of male privilege, to rid of another.

In his marriage to his second wife, Hosna bint Mahmoud, Saeed appears to have instilled ‘Western’ values. Bint Mahmoud is consequently denied her agency through the attribution of her behavior to the West, even though the narrator himself believes that the decision not to marry a second time is rightfully her own; Wad Rayyes, the man who is hellbent on forcing her to marry him, is the one who argues that circumcision is not a condition of Islam (Salih, 68), citing the practices of other Arabs themselves, revealing that he acknowledges that the ‘Sudanese’ have a right to their own cultural and religious interpretation, but employing this with a prohibitive degree of male privilege so as to corrupt interpretation and approach, as by the same Islamic—not Western—laws, Hosna bint Mahmoud has the right to refuse him in marriage. Although patriarchal inclinations are already prevalent in Arab-African culture, the encounter with the West exacerbates them, as the West renders the agency of Arab women to itself rather than to the women’s own culture, and Arab men affirm the attribution (so long as it validates their privilege) by accusing women who enforce their agency, like bint Mahmoud, has having been ‘poisoned’ by Western ideals.

Thus original gender dynamics are skewed and morphed under the impressions of colonialism to continuously benefit the privileged conqueror, whether they are whites, males, or both, by undermining the agency of the oppressed party and weaponizing them against one another. The women must now advance under the pressures of an external patriarchal system that is unlike the one in which they had lived, and this is what necessitates female independence: not the Western enforcement of patriarchy, nor an African one, but the pressures of these systems interactively.

3 thoughts on “Spheres of Literature: Africa

  1. Jan

    In middle school, I began to read books (i.e. Our Bodies, Ourselves) which caused my earlier belief—that nothing in the social portion of my culture was wrong—to collapse, quickly. In high school, I aligned myself with the ‘hippies’ and attended anti-war events (nowt but a few, truly) and figuratively tore through as many books on feminism and ‘radical’ politics as I could find. I felt as though my mind became a blossoming flower. This has happened in other times in my life, so I recognize it. “The Fatal Feminist” causes me to feel the same way. Do please carry on …:-)

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  2. Narjis

    Nahida, I also took issue with Things Fall Apart. It’s been over 10 years since I read it, but do I remember right that the women’s names were not even mentioned? And what happened at the end, between the boy and the main character (asshat.) I know that writers do this for artistic whatever, but I can’t stand it when something terrible happens and the writer just ends things there, with no follow-up or discussion. I watched a Bollywood movie recently where a couple was “honor killed” and the other characters just kinda shrugged and that was the end of the discussion. I mean, WTF?!?!? The same movie featured a transgendered person winning a mayoral election, surviving death threats and social pressures galore, so we know the community is changing to be more inclusive, but they were totally nonchalant about a couple murdered because the woman was a widow and the man wanted to marry her anyway. Yes, the audience is smart enough to deal with reality, but it’s just cruel to kill your characters and say nothing more about it! OK, rant over. Love ya, Nahida :)

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