The Master and the Mistress: Ojebeta and Marita Coping with the Effects of Colonialism on Gender Roles

Dave Washburn '98 (English 27, Postcolonial Studies, Brown University, 1997)

When cultures interact over an extended period of time, shifts and breaks in their traditions evolve, especially when one society retains its values from a position of superiority. The British considered it their duty to change what they saw as the primitive and uncivilized ways of the Africans in order to make African society conform to British perceptions of advanced culture. However, culture develops over generations and sometimes, thousands of years. The implantation of British ideals in societies that did not share with Britain the same geography, history, economy, family traditions, or religions led to certain rifts in ethnic solidarities in Africa. For example, the British norm of subservient Christian homemakers fractured relations between African men and women as people were forced to choose between their traditional and new-found colonial gender roles. Although their authors' characterizations of their protagonists differ, both Marita in Chenjerai Hove's Bones and Ojebeta in Emecheta's The Slave Girl display this theme in the different historical and national contexts of Rhodesia and Nigeria.

Marita, the heroine of Bones seems to have a great deal of contempt for men, whom she believes will kill their own mothers if they stop them from satisfying the desires of their things...

Men are like children, my mother used to say. They rule everything, like children. Do they not say children are like kings? You let them play with fire, but you always keep looking... This is what we do all the time. Look and watch over them... [Men] look at their things erect in front of them and think they are kings. They do not know that it is just desire shooting out of them, nothing else. So child, you do what you can with the weaknesses of men, but do not let them play around with your body. It is your last property, you will die with it (Hove 37-8).

I do not believe that either African or European women have always seen men in such a dark light, yet something changed in Rhodesian society upon the advent of colonialism. Fed by a desire for power in their efforts to survive in a rapidly changing society, men became susceptible to the assimilation of the new European ideals. As a result, some of the strongest binds between men and women, namely, marriages, cracked under the pressure of conflicting norms. Marume, Marita's husband, exemplifies one who relinquished his pride in his culture. "What can we do, Marita? We are chiefs sons in a strange land" (Hove 23). When his master scolds him for Marita's strength in her own identity, Marume, a slave to the will of the whites, returns home only to spit in the eyes of his own wife.

Even though her husband is not portrayed in a positive light, the reader may question Marita's morals when she proposes an adulterous affair with another man, Chisaga. Fed by a need to find her son, she tells Chisaga that she would like to sleep with him, but first she needs money to go find her child. "Yes, Marita, I have been wanting to sleep with you for a long time... it makes me feel the place where my heart is stored" (Hove 31). Marita, a keen and vigilant observer, knows that his lustful desires will make Chisaga steal for her. He claims it is new-found love, but it seems to be "just desire shooting out" of him. Yet Marita will not allow the misguided desires of others to control her or her feelings and she does not sleep with Chisaga. Instead, she uses the "weaknesses of men," for example, Chisaga's sexual desires, against him and takes the money he steals.

Marita used deceit with Chisaga to further her own cause, a somewhat unheroic act, which led to his rape of Janifa. Yet through her characterization, we see Marita as a survivalist, forced to act differently depending on the scenario. A superb actress who stands for many different things to different people, Marita toils for herself and those she cares about. She may not be motivated by greed or lust, but she will use other people who are to further her own causes. Neither the reader, nor Janifa blames Marita for the rape since Marita, although manipulative, cannot entirely control Chisaga's actions, especially when she is absent.

The majority of characters in Bones, including Janifa and Chisaga, act as narrators for different chapters, but not Marita, the protagonist, who Hove characterizes almost entirely through the thoughts, words, and remembrances of others. Marita's actions and words, filtered through the perceptions of others, characterize her as an individualistic heroine, a liar, a mother, a mentor, a strong woman, and finally, a martyr. For Janifa, Marita serves as a friend and protector who helps her with her own tasks in the fields. Despite all she does for her, Marita is unafraid of appearing emotional or humble before Janifa. Marita requires only one thing of Janifa, and that is frequently to read the love letter which Marita's lost son wrote to Janifa years before. She is not only a strong heroine, but Hove shows that Marita, too, has emotions and desires which, on occasion, allow her to be humble. Janifa, however, worries "Do not beg me like that, do not make me feel so big, giving me so much respect that it can kill me with pride" (Hove 5). Yet Marita, in her position as mentor and heroine, recognizes that her own needs are also important. Unlike others, Marita continues to speak and act on her own will.To the anonymous unknown woman, Marita has retained her sense of self and like any mother, is concerned over her child. For this, and because of Marita's good intentions, the unknown woman puts herself at risk for the return of Marita's dead body to her home.

Marita refuses to adapt or assimilate into the new colonial ideal of subservient woman and perhaps, because her society is changing, is destined to die living by ideals no longer held by the new Rhodesia. On the other hand, Ojebeta in The Slave Girl accepts certain aspects of her new Westernized culture and loses her old identity along the way. Christian marriage, like slavery had done to her before, attempts to squash the remaining bits of Ojebeta's individuality.

There was certainly a kind of eternal bond between husband and wife, a bond produced maybe by centuries of traditions, taboos and, latterly, Christian dogma. Slave, obey your master. Wife, honour your husband, who is your father, your head, your heart, your soul. So there was little room for [Ojebeta] to exercise her own individuality, her own feelings, for these were entwined in Jacob's... In her own way, Ojebeta was content and did not want more of life; she was happy in her husband, happy to be submissive, even to accept an occasional beating, because that was what she had been brought up to believe a wife should expect (Emecheta 173-4).

After years of toil, training, and slavery, Ojebeta has developed into an ideal subservient Christian housewife, and she freely chooses a new life of subordination by means of her marriage to the Westernized Jacob.

She knelt down in front of him. "Thank you, my new owner. Now I am free in your house. I could not wish for a better master" (Emecheta 179). She reads, writes, attends church and works hard for her husband, but she has grown distant from her native origins and individuality. Her life has not changed much although she, now educated in the Western tradition, has learned to adapt to a new set of rules put forth by both the British and the Nigerians who have adopted the foreign ways. In contrast to Marita, Ojebeta will not fight for her individuality. The two women respond differently to the new social and gender norms of their societies. Ojebeta is still a slave, yet unlike Marita, she survives.

Although they responded differently to similar situations, Marita is not always presented as heroic, nor is Ojebeta characterized as entirely weak willed. Ojebeta goes where she is told and, has never been given a chance to explore her own heritage. Sold into slavery by her brother at a young age, she was too young to have already developed into her own person. When sold by her brother, she makes one "abortive attempt at freedom" and runs for her life, "a little girl festooned with bells and cowrie shells, just like a slave prepared for sacrifice" (Emecheta 57, 59). The last remnants of her individuality are held within these charms her mother gave to her, but even these are little more than symbolic. Through writing in the third person Emecheta characterizes Ojebeta as a lost victim of circumstance, but one strong enough to adapt and survive. Upon return to her home, an older woman tells her, "[your mother] would have been glad to see her daughter back from olu oyibo, from working with the white people. You would have been her pride and joy, with such smooth skin and such modest and polished manners" (Emecheta 149). Strangely, the techniques Ojebeta learns through slavery allow her to be a successful new woman, but only through the loss of her sense of self. She, like Marita, did what she considered necessary to survive, but as a poor woman, had little choice but to put aside her own desires and will.

In Nigeria, where some women were historically respected as merchants as well as mothers, Western economics allowed women to continue to be in positions of power as long as they were wealthy. Yet the pre-existing practice of slavery was already busy at work in the destruction of individualism, and lower-class Ojebeta fell prey to slavery at an early age. Rhodesia, perhaps because of its geographic location on the eastern coast of Africa, did not share the ties to the institution of slavery which Nigeria did. Marita, for example, was not faced with the previous loss of identity upon colonization. Yet in the historical setting of Bones, lower-class women were not revered as merchants either. In addition,

notions of the subservient and industrious woman found resonance within traditional African culture... [yet] "rules which might have evolved [gradually]... harden and are subject to manipulation rather than evolution..." Under [British] Customary Law, a black woman remained a legal minor all her life (Naume Ziyambi, "Historical Overview of Women's Groups in Zimbabwe," Postcolonial Web).

Though similar gender roles might have evolved without British colonization, they would have done so differently and in a manner fitting with traditional African culture.

At the turn of the twentieth century, changes in gender roles occurred throughout colonialized African nations and Ojebeta, a slave since childhood, had little individual will to fight the new image of the selfless Christian mother. On the other hand, Marita, her will intact, strove to fight for the survival of her spirit. Ojebeta survived physically, but Marita lived on spiritually through the thoughts and prayers of Janifa and unknown women everywhere.


Emecheta, Buchi. (1977) The Slave Girl, New York: George Braziller.

Hove, Chenjerai. (1990) Bones, Oxford: Heinemann.

Ziyambi, Naume. "Historical Overview of Women's Groups in Zimbabwe," Postcolonial Web.

Postcolonial Web Zimbabwe OV Chenjerai Hove Overview [Buchi Emecheta] [Gender Matters]