Women as story-tellers in Anthills of the Savannah and Bones

Alaka Holla, English 27, Brown University, Autumn 1997

Indigenous African societies exalt the story-teller. In Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, one of the leaders of the Abazon delegation notes the significance of story-telling and the power of the story-teller:

It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. When we are young and without experience we all imagine that the story of the land is easy, that every one of us can get up and tell it. But that is not so. . . . Agwu picks his disciple, rings his eye with white chalk and dips his tongue, willing or not, into the brew of prophecy. (114-15)

The story-teller takes the present and which has turned in upon itself and spreads it out for all to see (See Franz Fanon, "On National Culture," Post-colonial Studies Reader, 155). In Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah and Hove's Bones, two women, Beatrice and Marita, assume this role of story-teller. Both novels eventually serve to re-valorize women. In their portrayals of a strong female character, Achebe and Hove, however, render two distinct images of the woman as a story-teller.

Beatrice, the heroine of Anthills of the Savannah, inhabits the postcolonial world of Kangan, which the reader must presume is a fictitious version of Nigeria. As a Senior Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Finance and the only person in the service with a first-class honours degree in English, she represents the small minority of women in "a lopsided system in which the African men received a well-rounded education while, like their European counterparts before the mid-nineteenth century, African women received only utilitarian, cosmetic skills in Domestic Science Centers" (Rose Ure Mezu, "Women in Achebe's World") In Nigeria, legislation restricted women, and the colonial economy focused on men, thus marginalizing the position of most women (Maria Rojas, "Women in Colonial Nigeria"). Having transcended these barriers and the prevailing patriarchal European conception of a women's purely domestic life, Beatrice earns respect from her male counterparts and joins the revolutionary elite combating the oppression inflicted by a military dictatorship.

In Bones, on the other hand, Marita emblematizes the plight of the Zimbabwean peasant laborer. She dwells in a colonial world, a commercial farm of which a white man is still master. Marita's hardships make Beatrice's seem trivial. Marita does not encounter oppression in a subtle manner but rather lives it everyday. In a historical overview of women's groups in Zimbabwe, Naume M. Ziyambi explains the effects that the European notion of gender roles had on Zimbabwean society:

. . .these notions of the subservient and industrious woman found resonance within the traditional African culture. As a result, the collusion of white and black patriarchy resulted in the formulation and codification of the legal system known today as Customary Law. . . .Under Customary Law, a black woman remained a legal minor all her life under the custodianship of her father, husband, or eldest son as her life progressed from childhood, to marriage and widowhood or old age. (Ziyambi, "Historical Overview of Women's Groups in Zimbabwe")

Unlike Beatrice, Marita cannot attain a sense of empowerment by means of an education. She has no power except for her words, "words with strength [that] do not suffer the night's dew." (Bones 33)

The main difference between these two depictions of women as storytellers lies in the placement of discussion concerning women's roles. Achebe structures his narrative in such a way that shows the gradual realization of women's strength in a society which needs to re-configure its gender roles. Hove, on the other hand, reveals, throughout his novel, the already inherent dauntlessness of one woman in a community in which gender oppression remains the status quo. The text of Anthills of the Savannah explicitly contains commentary on the changing roles of women and culminates with Beatrice's emergence as a story-teller. In Bones, however, various reflections and remembrances indirectly demonstrate the power of Marita, who "tells stories as easily as she breathes" (70) from the onset of the novel.

Having once told Ikem that he has "no clear role for women in his political thinking" ( Anthills of the Savannah 83), Beatrice catalyzes his reevaluation of and so-called insight into "the world of women." (88) Ikem recognizes his error in placing a woman on a pedestal with "her feet completely off the ground [so] she will be just as irrelevant to the practical designs of running the world as she was in the bad old days." (89) Admitting that ". . .women are the biggest single group of oppressed people in the world," Ikem does not attempt to place women in the new social dynamic but rather acknowledges his impotence in defining women's new role in his society:

I can't tell you what the new role for woman will be. I donāt know. I should never have presumed to know. You have to tell us. We never asked you before. And perhaps because youāve never been asked you may not have thought about it; you may not have the answer handy. But in that case everybody had better know who is now holding up the action. (90)

Women cannot passively expect men to dismantle their long-standing gender biases. The task of altering the presently inferior female image rightfully belongs to a woman.

Following this episode which reveals Ikem's new perspective on women, a mythical passage, in which "the Almighty . . . decided to send his daughter, Idemili, to bear witness to the moral nature of authority by wrapping around Power's rude waist a loin cloth of peace and modesty," beautifully foreshadows Beatrice's role as a storyteller:

Beatrice Nwanyibuife did not know these traditions and legends of her people because they played but little part in her upbringing. She was born as we have seen into a world apart; was baptized and sent to schools which made much about the English and the Jews and the Hindu and practically everybody else but hardly put in a word for her forbears and the divinities with whom they had evolved. So she came to barely knowing who she was. . . .Perhaps Ikem alone came close to sensing the village priestess who will prophesy when her divinity rides her . . . He knew it better than Beatrice herself. But knowing or not knowing does not save us from being known and even recruited and put to work. For, as a newly-minted proverb among her people has it, baptism (translated in their language as Water of God) is no antidote against possession by Agwu the capricious god of diviners and artists. ( 96)

Beatrice, however, assumes this role rather late in the novel, in the absence of men, when she alone escapes death during the military coup. The extent to which she functions as a story-teller remains ambiguous since her assumption of this role only at the novel's conclusion. Considering the wide class-range of the participants of the naming ceremony, the reader must assume that Beatrice's audience will be society in general. As a story-teller, she will try to reconfigure the role of women in her male-dominated world.

Hove portrays his story-teller differently. Marita, although presently dead, functions as a story-teller throughout the novel. As the lone voice of strength amongst rampant oppression, she alleviates the pain of her people shackled by both the restrictions of colonialism and their own passivity.

Marita, "once fire itself, pure fire that ate into the heart of those who thought they were made of stone" (Bones 14), manages to stand up to the white baas, Manyepo, despite the fact that the men around her are powerless, silently hiding behind masks of cowardice. Even her husband Mureme acknowledges that "she is a strong woman who thinks her own way . . ."(21) when he asks her in frustration, "Woman, since when have you become a man? . . .You must learn to shut your mouth if you still want to continue filling your belly with Manyepo's beans" (15). Chisaga, Manyepo's cook, shares these sentiments. Cognizant of his fear-based reticence, he tries to justify his silence by saying that survival is most important: " I keep my mouth closed. Nothing beats a closed mouth, nothing. A closed mouth is a cave on which to hide. So I hide myself there so that Manyepo does not see too much in my mouth. Many people have killed themselves because they are too loud-mouthed" (Bones 29). Marita defies this notion of base gutlessness. As a mother of one of the freedom-fighters, young men demonized and rumored to roast their parents, she remains steadfast in her search for her son, which ultimately leads to her death.

Marita affects all whom she encounters. The women on the farm undoubtedly gain strength from her outright defiance of Manyepo's oppression from which even the emasculated men shirk away. She has so much influence on an unknown woman on a bus that the woman wishes to claim Marita's tattered, dead body for the burial rites which usually only family members perform.

Because of the impact that she has on those around her and because of her adamant struggle to have her voice heard, Marita jeopardizes the fixity of gender oppression in her world. In Anthills of the Savannah during his speech at the university, Ikem succinctly defines the danger of being a story-teller: "Story-tellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit." ( 141) "Killed like an ox at the slaughter," (Bones 100) Marita faces the typical fatal consequences of her role.

Mourning her death, Janifa wonders who will fill the void left by Marita: "But Marita, now that you are dead, who will show me where there are the dark holes and stumps on the path to the well? Who will tell me the songs that made my heart sit in one place? Can you think of the hard hearts that are many here and tell me one which can lead me to a place of comfort?" ( 28) By the end of the novel, however, Janifa comforts herself when she realizes the hope which Marita's story will continue to instill: "Then the sun rises and sets, flowers bloom and die, birds sing and feed their little ones, wives give birth and listen to the voices of the new children crying on their breasts before they name them Tapiwa, Marita, Tatenda, Mudiwa. They will give a name that tells many stories, many paths that have been walked with bare feet." ( 89)

Although Achebe presents the reader with an educated and sophisticated heroine and Hove shows the struggle of an oppressed farm worker, both Anthills of the Savannah and Bones express the urgent need for strong female voices in African societies. Moreover, both novels aggrandize the role of women as story-tellers at the expense of the enervation of men. It is interesting to note that Beatrice and Marita are story-tellers only in the absence of men worthy to fill that role. Perhaps both novelist truly believe that "as the world crashes around Man's ears, Woman in her supremacy will descend and sweep the shards together." (Anthills of the Savannah 89)


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