Postcolonial Motherism: A Brand New Woman in the African Novel

Elvira Godono, Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, University of Naples Federico II, Division of Filologia Moderna


Abstract: In the African contemporary novel feminine characters are inscribed in a complex sphere of multiple meanings, partly derived from the ancient myth of the “Big African Mother-Earth”, and partly referred to an idea of “difference” very distant from the European notion of “Other”. An atypical feminine conception has been theorized by the movement known as “Motherism”, whose suggestions have been followed by many African writers. The creation of a new literary woman’s typology refers, therefore, to philosophical, historical, sociological and psychological perspectives, showing new routes to develop the European epistemological system.

Doris Lessing has often emphasized how the European feminist perspective still keeps watching a restricted horizon, because of focusing mainly on the western female model; she defines the European women’s movement in terms of “il movimento più autocompiaciuto che sia mai esistito” (Lilli, “Intervista a Doris Lessing”, 4). This western point of view sometimes has misunderstood, particularly, the meaning of feminine symbols in African literature. The representations of African femaleness are frequently inspired by another idea of femininity, different from the western one and, indeed, suggested by an African movement known as Motherism, that has recently developed in several British colonies (Nigeria, Sudan, Zimbabwe etc.). All the artists, writers and theorists of this group have begun to imagine a new female typology and to introduce an atypical woman’s literary image. Motherism’s representation of women sees them essentially as mothers; this precise notion influences many literary topics, related to the characterization of female protagonists in the African fiction, drama and poetry:

An Afrocentric feminist theory, therefore, must be anchored on the matrix of motherhood which is central to African metaphysics and has been the basis of the survival and unity of the black race through the ages. Whatever Africa’s role may be in the global perspective, it could never be divorced from her quintessential position as the Mother Continent of humanity, nor is it coincidental that motherhood has remained the central focus of African art, African literature (especially women's writing), African culture, African psychology, oral traditions, and empirical philosophy. Africa’s alternative to Western feminism is MOTHERISM and Motherism denotes motherhood (…). The Motherist is the man or woman committed to the survival of Mother Earth as a hologrammatic entity. The weapon of Motherism is love, tolerance, service, and mutual cooperation of the sexes (…). The motherist writer (…) is not a sexist. The motherist male writer or artist does not create his work from a patriarchal, masculinist, dominatory perspective. He does not present himself arrogant, all knowing self-righteous before his muse. (Objanu Acholonu, Motherism: The Afrocentric Alternative, 3)

The particular idea of Woman (Mother) theorized by Catherine Obianuju Acholonu emphasizes that African women are “the spiritual base of every family, community and nation”. Some of the most famous postcolonial novels, written and published in distant countries and blown by different cultural breezes, had strangely exhibited striking similar heroines:

Though the backdrops are so different, for example, in Alifa Rifaat and Ama Ata Aidoo, their stories north and south of the Sahara recount synoptically the ageless solidarity of suffering which a mother offers her daughter as she comes face to face for the first time with the threat and betrayal that will be her lot in a man’s world. (Achebe, African Short Stories, 2)

Women are represented as incarnations of “the last hope for the restoration of the natural order in life and in every sphere of life” (Achebe, African Short Stories, 2). Achebe seems to suggest that the colonized African soil, that “ has been totally dominated by men, is coloured by wars, civil strife, hunger, famine, tyranny and genocide (…) calls for a return to the mother essence, in other words women and motherist leaders” (2). In Prostitute (1968) Okello Oculi introduces a “betrayed heroine (…) recalling scenes from her rural village, going back to her peasant roots (…) of rural childhood, (…) of the daytime wind that blows houses down and carries large pillars of dust into the sky” (Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Homecoming, 72–73). George Lamming’s In The Castle of My Skin (1954) also describes houses “in which fathers are rather absent or merely peripheral to the household, mothers try to exert a ‘paternal’ authority on rebellious boys by constant threats and flogging.” (Lamming, 114).

Kola Boof (Naima Alu Kolbookek, born in 1969 – Omdurman, Sudan) is surely a strong supporter of the motherist cause, but she has modified some of Motherism’s themes and metaphors, creating in her novels a contamination of “the spiritual philosophies of ancient Nilotic African women from the Nile River with modern Black American womanism” (AAVV, Kola Boof: Biography, 12). In Boof’s short stories we read about female heroines living in rootlessness, suffering the alienation from a mother-country and the loss of their cultural identity. But African writers can invent new signs to cross over the desert of meanings; another perspective of Motherism, that Kola Boof renames “Womanism”, looks for a possible centre in the periphery of female imagination:

‘My place’ Zorina thought as tears ran down her dark cheek and she thought of her devoted mother, her dead father. Mines! One day, she prayed, all the whites would be gone from South Africa. So that the black people could take the time necessary to get over all the cruel and inhumane evils that the Europeans had so lavishly carried out. Even in the name of God, they had carried out unspeakable evils that could never really be forgotten. It seemed so unfair, their being here (…) living high and mighty off the back and the land of Africa’s true children (…). There was music coming from the dressing room that led to the bathroom. It was Diana Ross singing, It’s My House and I Live here (…). Zorina’s eyes filled with tears, because for a moment, she felt human again. She thought of how some whites had often called black women mules. A mule is a small brown donkey that stinks and is considered ugly and used exclusively for servitude. A mule’s stinking baby is c alled a mulatto (…). From an irrevocable soul, Zora promised Jesus Christ: The black woman is the meteor that is coming to this earth (Boof, 5).

Ayako Mizuo’s “(Post)Feminism, Transnationalism, The Maternal Body” examines the particular link of body and mother as it appears in Motherism’s perspective; the female body is represented as the prison of a Freudian Repressed: “Mizuo urges that the issue of the tangibility of the body acquires a particular relevance within this context and that thus the ultimate question is how the site of the maternal body may be negotiated” (4). Ayi Kwei Armah (1939, Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana) describes female figures suffering because of the colonization of their houses, conquered by their husbands. Women seem only to be wives, enslaved by a chain of many unwanted pregnancies. Motherhood is depicted as an unnatural condition, for which women are allowed to work, because “to be a mother” is the best possible job for them or, more often, it’s just the only way to exist. This condition marks women with an identity that they try to refuse, looking for another female stat us and a different social role.

In Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1969), for example, the protagonist “is a symbol of a patient suffering. She represents the millions of Ghanaian women betrayed by husbands who have failed them and politicians who have exploited and then destroyed them” (Palmer, “An Introduction to the African Novel”, 140). As Sage Wilson’s “Home, Sweet Home” seems to suggest, we can find the same topics in the fictional universe created by Buchi Emecheta (1944, Lagos – Nigeria). Wilson’s analysis is particularly concerned with Emecheta’s The Slave Girl (1977):

I have suggested elsewhere that (...) the smirklessness of Slave Girl represents the lack of this complex of emotions, because of the lack of home. But of course home is not a simple place (…). “home is home” signifies specific feelings of the returning narrator, (…) the fond memories, the painful present, the deep rootedness. From another angle, the saying that “home is home” suggests the idea of external definition (…). For Ojebeta, home was home, a beautiful, perfect place that made her who she was going to be. Home even lay at the root of Ojebeta’s identity in a material sense, as her bells, cowries, and spinach-leaf tattoos marked her simultaneously as someone from Ibuza and as Ojebeta specifically. Thus the loss of Ibuza to slavery and marriage meant a loss of self (…).Slave Girl serves to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the theme (Wilson, 6).

Christina Ama Ata Aidoo (1940, Abeadze Kyiakor – Ghana) has represented the saddest face of another country where women are very far away from the western female model. Aidoo “depicts primarily female characters who live in poorer urban and rural sectors of Ghana” (Behrent, “Independence and Disillusionment in Postcolonial Ghana”, 10). Aidoo’s Certain Winds from the South is focused on the female condition in rural areas of Ghana: “We hear such women usually go to their homes to die. (…) I had told myself when you were born that it did not matter you were a girl. All gifts from Allah are good and anyway he was coming back and we were going to have many more children, lots of sons” (13–15). These homeless women very similar to the mothers of Bones (1988), the first English novel published by Chenjerai Hove (born in 1956, in a rural area of Zimbabwe):

Stated briefly, the novel is about Marita as a wife in a peasant community, as a labourer on a vast commercial farm, as a mother whose only son opts to fight for freedom, and, finally, as a woman whose experiences symbolize those human aspirations which revolve around the need for freedom and self-fulfilment (…). Marita survives at the bottom of a harsh pyramidal social scale under the tyranny of male oppression: her husband, then the “boss-boy”, and the cook; all of whom are in turn subject to the autocracy and prejudices of the white farmer. Marita’s grief, her wisdom, her quiet resilience all of which amount to a profound courage, the courage of those little nameless acts in a harsh unyielding world (…) smeared by blood (…).Shadows, published in 1991, raised many issues: (…) rape, senior officers in the camps forcing themselves upon the young female combatants; black and white soldiers inflicting themselves on their victim (Zhuwarara, “Gender and Colonialism in Chenjerai Hove’s Bones”, 9).

In African narrative rape and escape appear to be the focal themes to express the peculiar perspective of Motherism, through which authors can introduce different thematic issues, often linked to the trope of exile (rape is seen an exile from the body) and related to the character of the nomad (women travel to find a feminine identity: their departures are interior migrations). In a colonized land, where the individual freedom is so limited, it seems very frequent to dream about another life in a foreign country (See Rao, Heart of a Stranger); in doing so, many writers represent an imaginary space opposite to a real one. Some authors choose to narrate, indeed, historical events (often described using a realistic mode) or to deal with political issues:

The historical events of the 1970s revealed even more clearly the transition from colonialism to neocolonialism that had begun during the 1960s (…). Some works representative of this period include Ngugi’s The Devil on the Cross, Pepetela’s Mayombe, and Sahle Sellasie’s Firebrands. (…) The writer saw his or her role as that of instigating the people into a revolutionary struggle. There is also the realization that women are the most exploited in an aggressive society (Omoregie, “Rodney, Cabral and Ngugi as Guides to African Postcolonial Literature”, 7).

In Snapshots of a Wedding Bessie Head describes the loss of identity suffered by the entire African female world, which tries to imitate European models (144–149). In Beautiful Feathers Cyprian Ekwensi tells a story of a man “who is trying to unite the whole of Africa, whereas at home he has no control over his wife; his home in which the unity should begin is uneven; he is not a leader in his own home. This is a very interesting theme” (81). In Odun Balogun’s The Apprentice, for example, the protagonist refuses to escape from his country. He doesn’t choose the exile, but struggles to preserve a bond with the Story of his motherland, researching his roots in the family stories his mother told him. On one hand, the mother-country is identified with a female character and, on the other hand, the story of an entire nation is told by a woman, by an African mother that has discovered a link between the Past and the Present.

In “Minutes of Glory” Ngugi Wa Thiongo introduces, indeed, the character of Wanjiru, a young woman that wants to forget the Story of her country and to escape from that African soil: she tries only to become an European girl. Wanjiru changes her African name choosing to be baptized Beatrice; the fragmentation of Wanjiru/Beatrice and the loss of her cultural identity is recognizable in her eternal seeking for the European centre (or sign): “She was like a wounded bird in flight (…) wobbling from place to place so that she would variously be found in Alaska, Paradise, The Modern, Thome and other beer-halls all over Limuru” (Wa Thiong’o, “Minutes of Glory”, in Homecoming, 71). In “You Name it” Nadine Gordimer focuses on the same topic: “Our names were no guide to our place of habitation. They were the names of different origins all over Europe, cross-pollinated in the sports and games and parties in colonies and islands to which none wa s native” (Gordimer, “You Name it”, in A Soldier’s Embrace, 107). The loss of her old home transforms Wanjiru into a migrant who looks for a new imaginary home, a place that can define (and rename) herself:

She wept late at nights and remembered home. At such moments, her mother’s village in Nyeri seemed the sweetest place on God’s earth (…). She longed to go back home (…). But how could she go back with empty hands? In any case the place was now a distant landscape in the memory. Her life was here in the bar among this crowd of strangers (…). She was part of a generation which would never again be one with the soil, the crops, the wind and the moon (wa Thiong’o, Homecoming, 75).

In “For Dear Life” Nadine Gordimer depicts an unreal farm very close to this trope. A passage of the story appears particularly relevant:

It is summer round the empty house in the fields the family left two generations ago (…). I lean in the solid shadow of the mother’s body, against her flanks. To those who have already lived, an empty house is unimaginable (…). When I vacate this first place I’ll leave behind the place that was all the places. I’ll leave behind nothing. There will be nothing ? for I am taking all with me, I’m taking it on all, all, everything (Gordimer, “For Dear Life”, in A Soldier’s Embrace, 72).

In “The Termitary”, indeed, we find a realistic domestic space, that is defined by the protagonist’s mother. It’s a house that we can call mother-home:

The mother is alone in the house (…). She takes off her apron, combs her hair and puts on a bit of lipstick to make herself decent for the doctor, setting ready a tea-tray for two in the quiet privacy of the deserted living-room as for a secret morning visit from the lover she does not have. (Gordimer, “The Termitary”, in A Soldier’s Embrace, 114)

Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine (1966) describes a similar mother-home, in which Ekwueme’s mother influences the Bildung that metamorphoses the protagonist:

Ekwueme grew to be good in many things. But all his efforts were directed towards pleasing his mother, to justify her confidence in him. He valued her praise more than anything else. (…) he preferred his mother’s company to his father’s. He would sit in the kitchen with her after his trapping and watch her cook. He would chat with her for hours in the evening while his father dozed off by his lonely fire in the reception hall (172).

We can ask ourselves, eventually, “could Camara Laye’s childhood have been as happy in Kourousa, (…) with such a stern mother, rigidly insisting on table manners, and searching her son’s hut at night to see whether he is sleeping with girls? ” (Amadi, The Concubine, 172). The description of an ancient Nigerian rural society is filtered through the eye of Ihuoma, who narrates some domestic rituals still practiced in a lot of small Nigerian villages. The cult of motherhood has influenced the representation of domestic spaces; African houses are often compared to fertile wombs, even if they belong to a raped mother country, the African land spoiled by white men.

In Amos Tutuola’s Yoruba Folktales (1986) the theme of rape is represented as a tragic epilogue of the African Story, an unhappy ending imposed by the European alien presence: colonization seems to be a mortal disease. In “Ajantala, the Noxious Guest, Is Born” the devil has the face of Ajantala, who enters in Adedoja’s body and born to destroy an entire village:

Adedoja had hardly walked heavily to the door-way of her house when her talking pregnancy shouted to the people of the house: ‘Eh, you people of the house, come and help my mother put her wares down!’ (…) ‘Ah, what a strange child is this? He has teeth in his mouth, bushy hair on his chin, and his moustache is full of bushy long hair. His eyes are as sharp and big as those of an old man, his head is full of plenty and strong hair and his chest is hairy! (…) Everyone began to shout: “Ah, no doubt, this is not a human being. He must be an evil spirit! (Tutuola, “Ajantala, the Noxious Guest, Is Born”, in Yoruba Folktales, 4–5)

In Things Fall Apart (1962) Chinua Achebe (1930, Ogidi – Nigeria) describes good gods and spirits who are believed to have power over houses. Achebe’s women not only pray to Igbo gods for an end to European dominion, but because the ancient Igbo tradition appears to them the only one ‘land’ that Britain is not allowed to conquer:

Anasi was a middle-aged woman, tall and strongly built. There was authority in her bearing and she looked every inch the ruler of the womenfolk in a large and prosperous family. She wore the anklet of her husband’s titles, which the first wife alone could wear. She walked up to her husband and accepted the horn from him. (51)

We have also to stress that several African authors prefer to emphasize, indeed, how difficult it is to believe in the real possibilities of a female realization. Mothers of the Revolution: Oral Testimony of Zimbabwean Women (1998) collects a series of interviews registered in Zimbabwe; we can discover the true stories of

6.5 million blacks (…) into 160 areas of much poorer land with little rainfall and over-populated by both people and cattle. The seizure and unequal distribution of land, the discrimination in education, employment, pay, and the right to vote, and the intransigence of the Rhodesian government which led to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1965, were the main reasons why the black population resorted to arms and Zimbabwe underwent a civil war which lasted from 1963-1980 (…). My father sometimes took me out into the rural areas with him, and my mother worked closely with many rural women. (…) visiting these women in their own homes felt very much like a homecoming (…). I had been out of the country for most of the war - safe in England, but also in a no-man's land: you appear English but you are not. (…) I travelled with an interpreter — Elizabeth Ndebele in Matabeleland and the Midlands and Margaret Zingani in the Midlands and Mashonaland (…). We visited all the women in their own homes (…). The majority of the interviews were conducted in either Shona or Ndebele and then translated into English by Margaret Zingani. (Staunton, “An Introduction”, in Mothers of the Revolution, 2-4)

These war stories seem to suggest a discussion about women’s literary (imaginary) representations as exiles; as Mushore seems to suggest, it’s also interesting to examine how war stories have influenced realistic and mimetic narration:

The night after [the guerrillas] finally came to stay in this area. (…) They started to interrogate my husband. (…) one of them opened fire on my husband who was seated cross-legged by the fireplace. (…) ‘Why do you want to kill me? What have I done?’ The comrade did not answer but aimed his fifth shot (…). My husband collapsed and I saw blood begin to flow. I could not believe what was happening. The children were then told to move out of the yard and the comrades set all our rooms alight. (…) I did not go back to my home, although the fire was dying down. I collected my children and I went to a friend’s house. I only had on my dress without a petticoat, headcloth or shoes. I felt terribly confused (Mushore, “The Loss of Husbands”, in Mothers of the Revolution, 8).

We need to consider, for example, how narrative modes had often chosen a realistic representation to narrate, first of all, historical events. But we can also comprehend the real colonization (and displacement) from a female point of view:

We carried our belongings and our food on our heads as there were no trucks. If you had many things you went back and forth (…). We spent the whole day moving our property from our home into the keep (…). We carried our belongings and our food on our heads as there were no trucks. If you had many things you went back and forth (…). We spent the whole day moving our property from our home into the keep (…). We left our homes as they stood (…). After that some of the houses fell down because of rains. (Girori, “The Shattering of Home”, in Mothers of the Revolution, 10)

These women’s stories seem to show “that women play (directly or indirectly) powerful roles” (Ellingson, Chinua Achebe’s Biography and Style, 12), so African women are not merely playing the role of mothers (from the motherist point of view). As also Achebe seems to point out, the African feminine is different from the western female model for a lot of other reasons:

Achebe seeks to link (…) the question of African women’s roles to the larger problems of the post-colonial nation (…). The women, who have simultaneously broken the rules of race and gender, (…) embody hope for the future of the nation. This assertion that women are integral in the building of the new African society emphasizes the damaging effect of oppression outside the colonized-colonizer relationship (…). Achebe goes beyond the notion of conflict to propose that hope lies not in separating women’s issues from society’s issues, but in integrating them, and in looking to women continually in the process of social change. (Hander, “Chinua Achebe’s Biography and Style”, 4)

Nadine Gordimer’s A World of Strangers (1958) emphasizes how, after the Second World War, “Africa was for active and not contemplative natures” (221). This assertion also suggests a refusal of the critical premises that had hypothesized a local or global dimension of postcolonialism; the critics would have to deal, indeed, with the analysis of the concept of nation (a western notion that has to be renamed) and with a discussion about the Eurocentric idea of a Thirld World. (See Bhabha, Nation and Narration, 291–322)

Gordimer’s The House Gun (1998) describes a little universe of violence, in which two worlds hurt each other. The ‘nature of the beast” reveals itself referring to a lot of western topics; at the end of the novel, an image seems to be particularly significant:

Duncan had granted permission to work in the prison library (…). When you kill the other you are trying to kill the self that plagues your existence (…). There’s a translation of the Odyssey (…). Violence is a repetition we don’t seem able to break (…). I don’t know how Odysseus reconstructed what he did (…). I’ve to find a way to bring death and life together. (292?294)

The colonizer is a new Ulysses, a nomad that has also been a murderer and a destroyer to find his Ithaca, his home, his centre. Sometimes, the postcolonial Ulysses has stopped in Africa; then he has often returned to Europe, and doing so he has abandoned a bleak and desolate landscape, where Penelope’s songs are still echoing. But this is another Penelope, not defined by that masculine centre, as was Joyce’s Molly Bloom (Ulysses, 1922). The postcolonial Penelope is not a Greek but a mètis woman, is not at home but migrant. This Penelope is indifferent to Ulysses’ return: a mood of melancholy doesn’t touch her. This Penelope is strangely not worried about the thought of sewing or teasing out stitches from an unfinished embroidery. She’s just determined to talk, to tell with her words of another feminine, so close and far away from the western one, surely heterogeneous and charming.


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Last modified 23 September 2005