Women in Emecheta, Hove, and Vera: Passivity and Assertion, Ideology and Imagery

Jennifer Ellingson

Women play important roles in The Slave Girl, by Buchi Emecheta of Nigeria, Bones, by Chenjerai Hove, and Nehanda, by Yvonne Vera, both of Zimbabwe. All three of these novels speak to the roles of women through very different means in terms of theme, technique, and context: The heroine of The Slave Girl is passive in contrast to the women of Bones and Nehanda, who are active parties to their fate. The realism of Emecheta's prose presents its ideology lucidly, whereas the surrealism of Hove's and Vera's poetry offers powerful imagery to their works. These different stylistic techniques interact with the novels' different political-historical contexts to express the authors' particular visions of past and future.

Bones and Nehanda portray their heroines as moving forces in their own lives, though their independence ultimately leads them to death and ruin. Ojebeta, on the other hand, in The Slave Girl, who is sold at age seven by her brother, grows up in an enforced state of passivity. Her slavery sufficiently stunts her aspirations so that she finds only a weak joy in her eventual marriage to Jacob, who dominates and abuses her. Emecheta makes very clear her protest against the universal slavery of women: the enslavement of their labor and bodies to men, and the enslavement of the mind which causes Ojebeta to choose perpetual slavery in the form of marriage.

In contrast, Nehanda, portrays a woman afflicted from childhood with visions. Her community at first perceives her as mad, yet she becomes the great spiritual leader of her people and her visions drive the violent resistance against English colonizers. Despite the ultimate futility of her stand, she never succumbs to the colonizers (who are themselves convinced of her madness). The defiance of expected African women's roles also brand as mad the two central women in Bones, Marita and Janifa. They are ostracized for their failure to reproduce, provide the farm with more labor, and be subordinate to the men who are their husbands and bosses. Like Nehanda, both women meet bitter destinies: Marita is tortured for information (which she does not know) about her grown rebel son and dies seeking him in the city after abandoning her husband on the farm. Janifa is imprisoned in an insane asylum after sexual abuse by so-called healers and family friends. In keeping with the spirit of the woman Nehanda, neither woman succumbs. Marita dies seeking her son, and Janifa defiantly rejects her mother who allowed her abuse, rebuffing as well Marita's son, her childhood sweetheart who (if only in a vision) comes to take her from the asylum.

These comparisons present two images of women: Those who assert control over their lives, though they may pay with them, and those who are literal and figurative slaves, yet at least survive, resigning themselves to an inevitable bleakness of their existence. During her infancy, Ojebeta's parents devoted themselves to her survival. Since her mother had lost so many female infants they believed her to be in grave danger of "joining her friends" in the other world. Her parents cherished her and taught her self-worth until she became orphaned and enslaved. Ironically, it was her adaptation to the demeaning life of slavery, not the loving precautions of her parents that ultimately allowed her to survive. "Life is more important than anything." (150) according to Ojebeta's aunt, attempting to find something redeeming to say about Okolie, Ojebeta's morally bankrupt brother, who was responsible for her enslavement.

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