Only the Shadows of Freedom and Power

Zandra Kambysellis '01, English 27, Autumn 1997

from "Free Women in Handcuffs, Equivocal Metaphors, and History Through Shaded Eyes: Bones and The Slave Girl"

Spanning both time and place, two contemporary African novels use mixed metaphors to discuss gender oppression in a time of clouded political views. Buchi Emechetta's The Slave Girl (1977) takes place in Nigeria (Western Africa) between the years of 1920 to 1944, while Chenjerai Hove's "prose poem" Bones (1988) comes to pass in Zimbabwe (Eastern Africa) in the more recent 1970s, when the war of liberation racked the country. Both novels, despite great jumps in setting and subject matter, illustrate the complexity of women's oppression in African societies, using quasi-ambivalent metaphors. Just as all issues (political or otherwise) call forth an infinite number of sides, the same act or action can be viewed through infinite pairs of eyes. Traditional African women were assigned specific roles, and at the same time, were not permitted to penetrate certain male-only realms. Georges Balandier and Jacques Maquet put this fact simply in an excerpt from an entry entitled "family" in their Dictionary of Black African Civilization:

No one ever forgets that a wife represents fecundity. It is this quality that determines the status of the woman in the African family. A sterile woman is a disaster....Matrilineal systems are not matriarchies nor gyn- archies. Even though the family's wealth, duties and possessions are transmitted through the female line, power lies in the hands of men; the position of the maternal uncle is proof of this. (134)

Both authors of the post-colonial novels mentioned (Hove male, and Emechetta female) depict the woman in African societies -- societies that feel the constant presence of colonialism -- in an indirect, shadowy and conflicting light. As if the reader were seeing an image of an African woman standing upon an obscurely lit stage, some parts on her person would surely be lit brightly -- more brightly perhaps than if a man in the same society were upon the same stage -- while other areas on her remain in shadow. We might catch a glimpse of a head held high and believe we see the epitome of strength, freedom, fertility, and a natural power to reproduce that no male can claim. Despite the shadows on her hands, legs and the other areas where no light hits, we are led to believe in the woman in African societies as powerful, strong, controlling, and liberated. And from some angles and against some backdrops, indeed she is such. But then, after we, the reader, have allowed ourselves to see her as we desire -- perhaps as a reflection of how we would like to see the Western woman -- we walk away, and with a slight tilt of the head, everything suddenly changes. Her position entirely reverses, and though she still sits upon a pedestal, we now see her wrists and ankles in shackles. Despite her erect posture, we see her as beaten, degraded, kicked, manipulated, used, torn, and powerless.

Both The Slave Girl and Bones mirror this ambivalent depiction of women in African societies. Within one context, the woman holds complete power in her hands, serving as the one to pass on stories and emotions, manipulating males with promises of sex (Marita in Bones, 27), and possessing the powerfully unique female-only role of bearing children, as being the only sex able to bring forth new additions to the workforce from her own body. Then suddenly, within a different context, Hove and Emechetta show all of these attributes and inborn abilities powered by the male hands of society, thus rendering them practically useless in granting power to their female possessors.

Bones centers around the tale of three central women, all of them at times powerful and powerless, depending upon context. The eldest figure, Marita, mother of a revolutionary son, can be seen as quietly powerful, remaining strong despite the haldships she endures. ("Manyepo calls it hard work, but to think that Marita only gets a cup of beans for her food because she does not have children, it pains me inside." 41) Her life touches two others so penetratingly that, after her death, one individual -- an unknown woman who shared a single conversation on a bus -- begs authorities for possession of Marita's dead body in order to give it a proper burial. The other (Janifa, the girl Marita's son was to marry) spends the rest of her life crying: "Marita, she is like that, a gentle fire which burns all the time. I do not know what I will do without her on this farm."(41).

The audience allows itself to be teased into thinking a woman holds power and influence -- that one woman has the ability to alter the lives of others around her -- until we are faced with a grimmer reality. The two lives Marita has touched belong only to mere women, and in a male-dominated society, the reality of that accomplishment does not count for very much. Essentially, Marita's influence rings void. Because she has not influenced a male, she has influenced no one.

Again, Hove comes close to tricking us into believing in Marita's power, as we allow ourselves to be moved by a scene in which Marita manipulates Chisaga in order to get money to go to the city to find her missing son. "He expects to sleep with me when he is not working, one of these days," Marita tells Janifa. "But he will have nobody to sleep with because I knew what I was doing."(27) Silently we cheer for her and applaud her efforts at using a situation to her advantage. "Cunning Marita, innovative Marita....," we think -- until we awake to a reality that tells us Marita has moved herself into a position where she shall surely be severely punished. Her brash move does not empower her, but weakens her by its potential consequences. With the threat of rape or murder looming as a repercussion ion for her tricky ways, we can barely allow ourselves to see her as brave or strong or liberated. Instead, she now appears to us as she has seemed to the men all along -- plainly foolish.

We want to cry out, "But a woman's ability to pass on -- to continue the human race -- empowers her. She possesses this role alone. Surely no one can forsake that!'' And indeed, Marita passes on stories to Janifa as she passes on genes into offspring. But somehow, in the course of the social hierarchy, ownership and responsibility gets shifted around. Hove presents the interesting idea that infertility must sometimes be overcome by shifting the responsibility of procreation to an outsider of the marriage. Sometimes the responsibility falls upon the man ("The woman should give the man a chance, let him have another woman, then we will sec if the nest continues to be empty...Shame." 22), and sometimes upon the woman ("They say even Manyepo asked your husband to ask another man to sleep with you if he can't give you children himself. Do your ears not die when you hear such things about me? It is bad, Marita." 25). In either case, (even when her husband is infertile), the female is to blame, and suffers intense shame. The double-sidedness of the theme becomes even further elucidated, as we see a woman's innate, inborn ability and power commodified by men in her society.

The Slave Girl plays out a very similar theme as does Bones. Here however, the hints that a women can posses power are suggested much more subtly. In contrast to Hove, Emechetta practically throws the message of women's oppression into the audiences' consciousness, scattering lines throughout the text like: "No woman is ever free. To be owned by a man is a great honor." (158) and "Was the glory of a woman not a man?" (179) scattered throughout the text. Women are commodities; they can easily be sold by their brothers. The glimmer of opposition to this credo comes to us, however subtly, in the character of Ma Palagada, the rich aunt who essentially buys her niece, Ojebeta. Ma Palagada, as represented by her bulky stature, is strong, respected, powerful, and wealthy. She is the first woman we see in such an independent position, and indeed, we are tempted to think that perhaps Ojebeta will grow to be like her. The dour realization comes to us, however, when we take a step back, and as we did with Bones, introduce perspective into the argument. Ma Palagada is respected and seen as strong only within the context of the marketplace. When we see that only other women hold the image of her power and independence in their minds, Ma loses much of her stature. Within her home, the case remains the same. "It was a known fact that although Ma Palagada was the one who bought them [the slaves], they ultimately belonged to Pa Palagada, and whatever he said or ordered would hold." (112)

Ojebeta's situation closely parallels her aunt's. Emechetta continuously introduces the possibility of Ojebeta choosing her own husband, and indeed Ojebeta does in the end. But even then, when Ojebeta does make a choice, she still remains powerless within that marriage. We must question, is there any true freedom or power in being able to choose one's own oppressor? Only the shadows of freedom and power...

See also The Deceptively Dubious Quality of Metaphor

Postcolonial Web Zimbabwe OV Chenjerai Hove Overview Bones Overview Buchi Emecheta