The Deceptively Dubious Quality of Metaphor

Zandra Kambysellis '01, English 27, Autumn 1997

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

Both authors capture this ambivalence of women's roles most thoroughly through their uses of symbolism in depicting different things. Emechetta and Hove both scatter their writing with lyrical images, but consistently repeat one motif. With each use of the motif, they explore a different side, creating many meanings and thereby illustrating the many differing meanings of the theme.

In Bones, Hove creates "children" -- children as the colonizer, colonized and resisters of the colonization. In some passages, children are the freedom fighters, the ones resisting the colonial forces:

"The children have come, and they have been killed." "What children, are you mad?" "The children. They have been killed. But it has not been said what they wanted. They were killed." "Madness is eating into your thinking...Whose children, if I might ask?" "The children of the soil." (51 )

At other times, "children" clearly refers to the colonizer, himself: "The things white people do are very strange. They are like children in many ways." (70) Here, with the symbolism barely stretched, simile serves the clear-cut purpose of comparison.

Lastly, the image of "children" stands for the African people as a general body, without distinction to male or female: "The white man thinks we are children, that is why his tongue is loose. The day he learns that we are also grown-ups, he will learn to tighten his tongue." (63)

Can one motif represent three different things? The connection here is to the ambiguity of the theme, and the word "context" again floats out at us. Like children, women have a great complexity of sides to them. Depending upon their situation, children can be short-tempered and generally lacking in great amounts of self-control. They can be stubborn, demanding, insolent, rude and deluded. At a different time, and under different circumstances, children can appear optimistic, hopeful, honest, and genuine, with quite a unique perspective on world. It all depends upon what context they are in -- whether they are hungry or tired or how much freedom they are given. Indisputably however, children alone possess youth, promise and a future. The same is true for African women in their societies. They alone possesses certain childbearing virtues. But given the situation in which women might be placed, there exist numerous ways of carrying on, of being perceived, and for the post-colonial author, of portraying her. Weak or strong? Free or enslaved? Oppressed or liberated? Depending on context, comes the answer. Indeed, differences arise not only within which context women are being represented, but also in who is using the symbol to represent them. Within Hove's writing the ambiguous or equivocal use of symbolism denotes a conflicting opinion about the subject or theme. Emechetta's use of Ojebeta's cowries and tattoos similarly represents a vast number of different things. As interesting and relevant background:

The body, which sustains the life force and the soul, is an aspect of the individual person....The body is the first object to be embellished, and there are tribes whose artistic ability is used in virtually no other way. Aspects of the body are altered to give it complete meaning, to integrate it into society, and to protect it from dangers and disorders that threaten it. (Dictionary of Black African Civilization, Georges Balandier and Jacques Maquet, 65)

But are Ojebeta's charms oppressive? Do they put a woman into an objectified role? Or are they a source of empowerment? Do they help Ojebeta hold on to her heritage and memories of her family (her father who walked all the way to the nest town, a dangerous mission, therefore an expression not only of his love, but of her importance) and give her strength through her abandoned heritage? The answer, again, differs according to who is viewing her charms and face markings -- again, perspective and context -- and in what context she is in. At home, they commanded respect almost to the extreme of awe. Their meaning was unmistakable: "She was cherished and marked with special tattoos, and she thrived and grew." (21) and "Those watching her as she went knew that she was a loved child, over-decorated with trinkets and expensive tattoos." (25) Yet, by those within the Eke marketplace, she was looked down upon, and seen as a child enslaved by her poverty (as well as servitude). "Among her own people, they were not such a strange affair, but they were out of place in one of the largest markets in West Africa. They were supposed to be for domestic purposes."(45)

When Ojebeta enters the world of servitude, her charms are removed from her. Indeed, it is at this point that they seem to be a favorable symbol of independence. When they are gone, Emechetta stresses their significance by stating: "she did not remember how very alone she had felt when she had had her identity charms brutally cut away from her." (166) And later, after her hair is cut off: "Now she had lost it all. Like her obganje charms, her hair seemed to symbolize her freedom. Would she ever be free?" ( 168)

Emechetta measures up to Hove in every sense of ambiguity of metaphor. The symbolism seems clearly enough stated, until we remember that her charms were actually made of a copper that the Portuguese had introduced to Nigeria by means of the slave trade. Thus, what Ojebeta claims to wear as a symbol of "her freedom" is really a manifestation of slavery -- shackles of oppression, if you will. (Ben's idea from class, October 2, 1997)

See also Only the Shadows of Freedom and Power

Postcolonial Web Zimbabwe OV Chenjerai Hove Overview Bones Overview Buchi Emecheta