BAMAKO — I am an avid reader and generally a fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian storyteller who has written a number of interesting fiction novels about her Igbo culture and her experiences living abroad. It seems though that when people become celebrity figures for one reason or another, in her case for a couple of fiction novels, sometimes they have a tendency to extend beyond their areas of expertise to speak on other topics–a move that often backfires in that it exposes their ignorance in the novice area.
In one grandiloquent talk and later in a bumptious essay, Chimamanda Adichie branches out on a limb to talk about feminism, a western sociological terminology, on which she aims to put an “African” spin. I find this attempt disconnected, reaching, and truly disingenuous to African culture and tradition. Why? Because although Africa shares in the problems of the world, the sociological divide in the West, along gender faults, is nowhere present in the intellectual and philosophical foundations of African culture, religion and society.
“Feminism” is a western idea and a western terminology. It has no kin in Africa. Much like cooking French Fries in Africa and calling it an African French Fries. No, it is just French Fries cooked in Africa. French Fries are not in any way part of African cuisine. In the same way that feminism is not part of African culture.
So what if there is no such thing as African feminism. And that western feminism doesn’t make sense for Africa? Adichie decides to make up her version of the word for herself. She calls herself a happy African feminist, who does not hate men, who wears lip gloss, and who wears high heels for her own pleasure. She defines her own individual place, as do people who do not want to be held to any standards of accountability for one’s community. Or better put by Adichie herself, “Nobody will come to use culture to tell me that I should do what I don’t want to do.”
According to Adichie, a feminist is a man or a woman who says, “Yes, there’s problem with gender, as there is today, and we must fix it. We must do better.” If she is speaking for western societies, I would wholeheartedly agree with her. But of African societies, I see no such problem with gender.
In any case, what has wearing lip gloss and high heels for one’s own pleasure got to do with Adichie’s gender apocalypse? Is this where her pertinacious platter about gender problems in Africa originate?
Much of what Adichie rambles about are personal memories of her life that are neither forms of oppression nor any real grievances that would warrant for the launching of some man vs. woman movement, a predator vs. prey movement, but rather statements that one might use for an icebreaker or small talk.
She questions why African culture, for example, puts pressure upon women to marry by a certain age but not men. No matter how inaccurate and unsubstantiated her claims are, still it doesn’t take a genius to understand that women have child bearing limitations with age, while men do not. Obviously it becomes thoroughly understandable that a community based culture like African culture, has thoughtful rubrics that guide inhabitants. Perhaps these heuristics should be written more profusely for those who cannot read between the lines.
So, Adichie whines against her hallucination, “You can have ambition but not too much. You can aim to be successful but not too much.” But she forgets that there have been many successful women in Africa before her. She reduces Africa’s 12,000 year history into an intransigent small talk. In English. She is oblivious of Africa’s historical ladies – Nefertari, Neithhotep, Hypatia, Dahia al-Kahina, Nzingha, Makare Hatsheput, Makeda, Tiye and this list can continue ad infinitum – more than any other culture can boast of, some of whom are unbeknownst to the West. Adichie must not know people like Yaa Asantewaa or today’s Angelique Kidjo or the thousands of market women who have ambition and are also quite successful.
It appears she still can’t get over the incident when she was nine and a teacher gave a boy the position of classroom monitor, to hold a cane and patrol the class, even though she claims she was in line for the position. As an adult, she talks about how she feels judged when she enters a bar, a club, or a hotel alone and feels snubbed by waiters and valet in Lagos who greet the man she is with, ignore her, and assume her money is given to her by some man and not earned by her work.
At this stage in her life, she feels worthy of a certain attention, when men do not give her the attention that she pleases, she feels upset, and concludes from these narrow experiences that men are deemed more important than women in African society. For the most part, her version of gender equality is largely this barrage of personal slights, none of which have any mark of a real societal problem, nor do they have any semblance of an imposing male oppression of women in Africa.
Of course her only example of a systematic oppression of women is from the West, the only place where the term “feminism” makes any sense. She mentions how the US underpays women compared to men. But even in this analysis Adichie clearly falls short of the mark.
In the US, feminism – white women’s feminism in actuality – is often slated to be about gender equality for all, but in fact it only fosters racial oppression. Western feminism at its awakening core – doesn’t take things from white men – only gives things, like equal pay, to white women and deprives African American communities, men and women, of the same equality. Adichie is proud to note the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which Barack Obama signed, that gives white women more pay, but Adiche would be remiss to find many Black women paid in equal measure for the same work as white women.
Even Black men in the U.S. do not get paid equal to the high pay white women receive, or are they hired at the same rates as white women are employed. Where is Ms. Adichie’s outspoken voice calling for equal pay for Black women who are paid less than white women? Many Africans, like Adichie, are quick to align themselves with privileged white women than avail themselves to the fact that white women’s privilege and white women’s feminism only oppresses Africans in western countries.
While Adichie was struggling to find work early in her career in America, how many white women faced that difficulty?
Perhaps most troubling, Adichie complains that gender expectations in Africa stifle the humanity of boys, disallowing them from fear, vulnerability, and weakness. She thinks it is deplorable that they have to be “hard men,” in Nigeria speak. She wants nothing more than for men to no longer have the pressure to prove their masculinity.
I must ask Ms. Adichie (who though she is married prefers Ms., not Mrs., and her own name and not her husband’s name): who should kill the lizard or the snake that enters the compound? Who should fight Boko Haram which is terrorizing entire villages and kidnapping school girls? Who should build the bridge across the river? Young women? Or soft men?
Will Ms. Adichie and her band of “African feminists” go and fight the terrorists or will she suddenly pray for the “hard men” to dispel the evil and raw violence, the threat that other living beings thrust upon her very existence? Though it might come as a surprise to the modern enlightened woman who prefers school books to a needle and thread, the “hard men” brand of masculinity is employed by every civilization for the very protection of that civilization. Fail to produce hard men and the society will inevitably be conquered by societies where manhood is also valued along with womanhood.
Perhaps what Adichie conflates is womanhood and feminism. The former is deeply within the African embrace, the latter is a foreign ideological machination that has been ambidextrously formulated to weaken Africa’s two hands: womanhood and manhood. When Adichie suggests that Lagos and Africa deprive women of their “full humanity,” she is characteristically and categorically wrong in the face of mitigating evidence.
We must learn to unlearn such detrimental western philosophies. African women are nowhere in Africa oppressed, chained and forced to labor for the capitalistic upkeep of African governments. African women do not need to be pitted against African men to incite some gender civil war that only benefits the west whose motive is staunchly equipped with sociopolitical tools to divide and conquer Africa.
In fact, African cultures are everywhere unique in their matrilineal heritage and Queen Mothers. In African philosophy, the very tenets of Ma’at emphasize this particular balance of life and spirt, of man and woman, for eternal harmony. Even the conceptions of God in Africa embrace both female and male identities. Any issues in Africa are African issues – not gendered issues. The family as the basic unit of African culture underscores this sacred foundation, and from there the extended family, the local community, and the nation derives her strength.
If, hypothetically, there is a gripe between an African female writer and a man of her choosing, or that she feels the men in her life mistreat her, then that is a problem – not a gender issue! Why should the excesses of our community be interpreted from a western ideological dictionary? Feminism? There are plenty of vocabulary in the rich Igbo tongue, as there are many ideas in Igbo culture, to describe one’s feelings on the African continent and to address issues in society. There is no need for a foreign feminist ideology.
Students of western education speak for Africa?
The appetite for certain individuals, who have no traditional African upbringing – no acculturation in African religion and philosophy – but who feel they are entitled to speak for all of Africa, because they have obtained a western diploma, must also be examined in the rightful perspective. To this point, Adichie is not alone.
Leaving the top-ranked University of Nigeria and the lesser known Drexel University in the United States to finally complete her bachelor’s degree at some Eastern Connecticut State University, Adichie is certainly not the ideal of African intellectualism.
Besides, there is no reason why such students from the west should descend on our villages to tell us what to think about the Africa we never left. There is no reason to take political and social advice from graduates of unknown schools in the U.S. especially when people in the U.S. most certainly do not take their political and social advice from such people. U.S. presidents, top professors, and government advisers do not come from Drexel or Eastern Connecticut State University.
Why do we need to listen or take seriously what Chimamanda Adichie has to say about African culture?
Like any child of colonial privilege, the daughter of colonial university professionals, Adichie wants to say whatever she wants to whomever she wants about whomever she wants. And that is her right. Africa accords her this much and more. But as a custodian of African tradition and religion, I cannot emphasize enough that Africa doesn’t need an opinionated Adichie in discussions about the future of an authentic African culture.
No matter this reality, Adichie has taken it upon herself to be the unsolicited spokesperson for Nigeria and for Africa. On the coat tails of western money, she has taken her liberties to speak to the western world and to some in Africa as well, about Africans.
Unwittingly, she is bait, spreading an ideological message that the western elite hope would emasculate African men to make it easy to dominate African women first and ultimately enslave African manhood. The men of the western world who will unleash their unsuppressed manhood on vulnerable African men are not taught to become “liberated” by this directed feminism.
It is saddening to hear Adichie say that her great grandmother would have identified with feminist ideology. Her attempt to impose a foreign culture on her grandmother’s heritage is downright blasphemous. How unruly it is for a child to imagine her ancestors’ stories from the perspectives of foreigners?
Sure, Africa can evolve and assert new definitions of manhood and womanhood in her own timing, of femininity and masculinity at her own whim, but the evolution must be organic. They must come from African literature, scholarship and culture, not from some western feminist propaganda. But of course the unspoken goal of western dilettantes of African culture is to pretend that Africa never developed the literature and the extensive debate needed to enlighten our deliberations on modern issues.
Since Ms. Adichie must be an avid reader, she surely must know that Africa established the most extensive libraries in antiquity – in Ancient Africa’s Alexandria and in Mali’s Timbuktu. The libraries in Timbuktu alone housed more than ten centuries of scholarship. Adichie must surely be aware of this extensive scholarship on infinite topics ranging from the study of civilizations to the science of erectile dysfunction.
What Adichie should eschew is the history of long-time African despisers like Napoleon Bonaparte and more recently French-led rebels who led book burning militias across West Africa to destroy sacred libraries and revered historical texts to further their myths about the primacy of knowledge from the west.
Adichie needs a grounding in African ways of thought in order to save herself from a debilitating western propaganda.
This so-called African feminism is an unreality, a fiction that is the product of western educated Africans trying their best to be relevant on a continent about which they know relatively little. Instead of admitting this and settling down to learn and relearn, western educated Africans return to the continent on a mission to carve a culture that makes them the focus, when what they need to do is embrace the ways of thought that have kept Africa’s heart beating for the past 12,000 years.
While I most certainly will read Chimamanda Adichie’s next fiction book and likely praise it widely, I will not be taking any of her advice about issues on manhood and womanhood in African culture. And I suggest we all do the same, unless of course we would like our societies, cultures and traditions formed thousands of years ago to suddenly mirror the thinking of dwarfs.
A tree with no roots can surely end up in any soil. So long as that tree doesn’t intend to uproot all of the trees with roots and tell them why their soil should be replaced.
Adichie can say what she wants. It is her right. It is her privilege. But she shouldn’t (re)-brand African culture for what it is not. The soil here is just fine.