A Forest of Flowers and Postcolonial Gender Questions

Margaret Hander '00, English 27, Brown University, Autumn 1997

In the first page of his book, Saro-Wiwa juxtaposes the life of a traditional village woman with that a woman who hails from the same village of Dukana yet has a Western education. His narrator tells us,

I always looked forward too seeing my childhood friend Sira, who, though our paths had diverged, was still my best friend. We had attended school together and we loved each other, even as sisters. Like most Dukana girls, her education had been terminated abruptly; she now had four children and was again pregnant when last I had seen her. Sira was always the one who regaled me with tales... I had, as usual, brought sweets for her children (1-2).

The narrator has subtly expressed her pity for women living Sira's lifestyle. She goes on to describe village life, which is Sira's life, in less than complimentary terms, and it becomes apparent that the narrator does not glorify or envy the life of a traditional, subservient village woman. Nevertheless, this traveled and educated daughter of Dukana makes it clear that her connection to her salt-of-the-earth townspeople gives meaning and purpose to her life, "I cherished the idea that I was going to give something back to my home and I was glad that I was going to live in Dukana and be part of the community"(2).

The narrator's implicit view of women's roles in Dukana is that women, represented by Sira's case, live a difficult life plagued by early multiple pregnancies and no opportunity for self-development, yet because they contribute to the continuation of community and culture, they have a spiritually and socially important function. The narrator acknowledges this spiritual importance in describing how much Sira's friendship, that of a tradional woman, means to her. The narrator believes that women such as Sira should be helped, that she can help them with what she can "give back."What she envisions "giving"is a dose of the Western knowledge she has acquired.

This window into the thought process of a sincere, native philanthropist prompts the reader to question how her attitudes toward her people will affect the work she does. How well does she really understand them, having been away, having a university education behind her? Looking at colonial history, we find grounds to worry, if , indeed, the answer is that she does not understand them as well as she thinks.

British colonial missionaries arrived in Yoruba-land with similar desires to help women. They did not consider their valuations as Western-biased ones that might disrupt the order of traditional African societies. "Missionaries introduced a new vocabulary of class and gender relations (Matory, 35) . . . it was the church's unprogrammatic and nearly accidental defense of women's freedom of movement that provoked the ire of the entire royalist establishment" (36). More specifically,

The British "civilizing mission"sponsored forms of exchange that progressively clarified the notion of ownership. Colonial money more easily concealed the trail of social and sacred relationships it had financed . . . the owner was increasingly defined by opposition to the owned, rather than being enmeshed in the shared. It is in this sense that monetization unintentionally structured new forms of personhood, as well as the new conceptions of servitude and "freedom"that came along with them. (Matory, 48)

Like this it became newly possible to view the custom of the bride-price as degrading to women, as pushing them into the inferior role of the owned. Like countless others, this example demonstrates what can happen when people "give"without considering all the issues and possible repercussions wrapped up with their gift.

The Western-educated Dukana native needs to weigh such issues while giving back to her community. It is not clear whether she will choose as her priority (or if she has even considered the necessity of such a choice) progress, through Western methods and values, or the preservation of traditional beliefs and support structures which she herself holds dear. In introducing this dilemma through the voice of a well-meaning, knowledgeable individual, Saro-Wiwa frames an essential question of post-coloniality. Is the educated Dukana woman purely aiding her community with her Western feminist ideals, or is she furthering a destructive, imperialistic agenda?