Printer Friendly

Towards a new feminist practice in Africa: the women writing Africa project.


This article looks at the Women Writing Africa project as both a response to prevailing assumptions about the African woman as abject and helpless, and as a positive reinforcement of women's agency in an African context. I read the two texts that represent the project thus far (Women Writing Africa: the Southern Region and Women Writing Africa West Africa and the Sahel) as indicative of a new African feminism, one that foregrounds women's writing, in all its forms, as a means whereby to re-envision African women, to invoke women's writing as evidence of women's strength and diversity, and to re-imagine the African continent as a place in which women have been active participants in its history and culture.


"History is what we say about what we have heard about what is ahead of us: what the ancestors left behind." (Mariano Pavanello 2000:36)

Two leading African intellectuals, Paul Zeleza (2) and Achille Mbembe, (3) although frequently at odds with each other, nevertheless agree that analyses and accounts of Africa should be embedded in materialist processes and meticulous research practices. Both also make efforts to respond to the prevailing imaginary construction of Africa as a place of gloom and destitution facing crises of poverty, war and disease (Zeleza 2003:3). Mbembe goes further:
 ... the African human experience constantly appears in the
 discourse of our times as an experience that can only be understood
 through a negative interpretation. (Mbembe 2001:1, emphasis in the

In the same vein, CLR James states his intention to write a book "in which Africans ... instead of constantly being the object of other people's exploitation and ferocity would themselves be taking action on a grand scale and shaping other people to their own needs" (1982:v). Zillah Eisenstein calls for a "thicker" and more complex vision of humanity than current postcolonial discourse allows for (2004:25) while Shu-mei Shih describes how "easily cross-cultural encounters misfire, oftentimes simply because the Western subject refuses to acknowledge the historical substance that constitutes the Other's supposed difference" (2005:4). Such misfiring is even more acute when it comes to the subject of women. The most consistent image of the African woman is the starving mother cradling her emaciated baby, flies clustering around its eyes, both of them staring vacantly at the camera. While it would be ridiculous to deny that some African women face problems of a magnitude hardly imaginable for the metropolitan reader or viewer, this consistently floated image belongs to a discourse of suffering and negativity which imposes a mist of cliche between the reality of the African woman and the sympathetic but ultimately detached observer. (4) Just as Western feminism opposed the reinscription of woman as sign of the irrational other, African feminists are opposing the constant play and replay of the African woman as sign of the abject other. As Rita Felski suggests:
 This [the 'Third World Woman'] is depicted as sexually repressed,
 tradition-bound, and uneducated, in contrast to the educated,
 modern, autonomous first world feminist. The third world woman thus
 becomes the ultimate proof of the universal nature of patriarchy
 and female bondage. She is depicted as same, part of a putative
 global sisterhood, yet mysteriously other, an exotic and enigmatic
 figure. (2000:125)

The Women Writing Africa project is therefore both a welcome and a timely intervention, aimed at producing what Paul Gilroy, in another context, calls "reconstructive intellectual labour" (1993:45) by giving us a more accurate picture of the African woman in all her guises, as farmer, trader, traveller, economist, intellectual, dramatist, poet, as well as wife, mother, and slave. Ama Ata Aidoo, in the second volume of Women Writing Africa, acknowledges the difficulties of speaking about the African woman. She calls her "a riddle" and proposes a "bi-focal" lens through which to make pronouncements: firstly, an "insider" view which suggests that, in relation to their men, African women are just as badly off as women everywhere; second, an external view which may reveal that "the position of the African woman has not only not been that bad, but in some of the societies ... she had been far better off than others" (2005:384).

In the main, it is the insider view (5) that focuses the reader's attention in the Women Writing Africa project which proceeds from the local and the quotidian, from the vantage point of the market-place, the marriage bed and the cooking pot, to construct a picture of the African woman that is diverse, complex and compelling.

In order to do justice to both anthologies, I will devote the major portion of this article to a discussion of each volume in turn. However, since the volumes exist in a series that has consistent aims, I will first look at these aims and the methods of production of each text. The article will conclude with a comparison of their singular achievements.

Women Writing Africa: the Project

The project has an interesting provenance. Inaugurated under the auspices of the Feminist Press at the City University of New York, and representing a huge undertaking to map the writing and orature of the women of Africa, it proposes itself as "a project of cultural restoration" which aims "to restore African women's voices to the public sphere". So say the Project Co-Directors, Tuzyline Allan, Abena Busia and Florence Howe on the cover page of the first volume, Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region. After the success of Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present, edited by Susie Tharu and K Lalita, the Project Co-Directors decided that "Africa has to be next", but that this vast continent should be covered in stages. The first volume, therefore, includes writing from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, while the second volume, Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel, covers twelve countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Conakey, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Omissions occur in each text, the most startling being that of Mozambique in the first volume, but there is a somewhat vague promise that this will be included in subsequent volumes, presumably that covering East Africa. Togo and Guinea Bissau are excluded in the second volume for "logistical reasons", again a vague excuse. Nor, of course, is each country represented in equal depth. In the Preface to the first volume, the editors describe the "groundbreaking" (xxii) working method for sourcing the material: "For five years, working part time, seven editors from four countries in Southern Africa worked locally in different ways to produce this volume" (xxi), each taking on different roles. Using a regional coordinator and a secretary-treasurer to oversee the project, the three major centres in South Africa were managed by editors, Dorothy Driver (Cape Town), Sheila Meintjes (Johannesburg), and Margaret Daymond (Durban), each of whom had a different working method for accruing the necessary information and resources. Driver worked with Meg Samuelson and Angelo Fick in Cape Town to elicit suggestions for texts from many academics, using Sisi Maqagi to research Xhosa writing and performance. Meintjes in Johannesburg worked with Susan Maloka to form a committee to search for texts, and Daymond contacted academics in the Durban region from which a smaller committee was formed, consisting of Liz Gunner and Devarakshanam Govinden. Chiedza Musengezi took responsibility for the Zimbabwe region using writers, academics and publishers as advisers, while Margie Orford, aided by Simon le Rouz and Heike Becker, amongst other researchers, used email and the internet to locate source material. Leloba Molema and Nobantu Rasebotsa worked with Mary Lederer at the University of Botswana, assisted by student Alpheons Moroke and other colleagues and, in addition, took responsibility for Swaziland and Lesotho. This arduous preliminary work was done part-time and without stipend. Regional meetings took place at four main centres with the New York co-ordinators present. Reading between the lines, one senses some tension, between the 'local' editors and the US team, revolving around matters of "ideological positioning" (xxii) and the pressures of time available to complete the work. In addition, the imperatives governing a US publication, marketed for a largely US/European readership, would explain the differences in outlook. (6) Mainly, however, editorial decisions had to be made around achieving a fair distribution of research material, taking care not to privilege South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, which had "the richest sources" (xxiii). The solution lay in reducing the number of literary texts from South Africa and increasing the number of oral texts from other regions. In addition to this major editorial work, the volume relies on contextual information by the "head-note" writers who "interrupt the relation between ... editors and the selected texts" (xxiv) and provide the necessary historical and biographical background with which to "make sense" of the often disparate extracts from the various regions of Africa South. This then was the working method for the first volume.

For the second volume, West Africa and the Sahel, the team consisted of 150 researchers, translators and editors working across the entire region (eleven countries and 26 languages). Each country had its own national committee and co-ordinator. These remain unnamed and their methods for locating material are not described in any detail apart from the five regional meetings that were necessary to decide on overall policy and editorial decisions. Amongst these was the decision to use two bilingual editors (French and English), Esi Sutherland-Addy and Aminata Diaw, from Ghana and Senegal respectively. As with the first volume, problems relating to dating the sources were a matter of some concern, but contrary to the Southern region, the scarcity of written texts testified to the differences in the politics of production operating in the two zones. Indeed, at the Fez meeting in 1999, when the two regions came together, each learned from the other about the relative value of oral resources and archival research, a reminder of the different experiences each region had under colonisation. The West African team had the opportunity to attend the Bellagio Study and Conference Centre while the Southern region team had a month's residence at Brown University, Rhode Island. Here, again, one picks up some ideological tensions at work in the preparation of the second volume for similar reasons to those outlined previously. The Preface lists three groups of scholars who did not all necessarily "share the same vision of Africa or of the project" (xxvii). Some disagreement seems to have occurred between the West African scholars residing in the region, the diasporic scholars, some of whom were in exile, and the Euro-American scholars, who were responding to the needs of the US market. A telling point emerges:
 Working on the West Africa volume sorely tested the core principles
 of Women Writing Africa as a project: that the authority of African
 women scholars should be presumed primary in shaping the
 intellectual parameters of the project; that egalitarian
 partnerships between African and non-African scholars should be
 maintained; that collaborative feminist work should be promoted.

One is also aware of the regional differences between Southern and West Africa when we learn that Nigeria had to have three co-ordinators because of its size and poor communications infrastructure, and that such countries as Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone battled to hold onto their researchers in a sustained manner either because they were in demand elsewhere or because of armed conflict in the region. Southern Africa's relative stability is foregrounded here. Interestingly, both regions deplore the lack of material representing slavery but it is not clear why such material could not be included: the Southern editors "let slip" (xxv) the opportunity to source material of women slaves, while the Western editors "faced a number of dilemmas" (xxix) in finding texts. One would like to know more.

An important principle of The Southern Region was to aim as far a possible to anthologise unknown or lesser-known voices, extending this to including lesser-known extracts by established writers. This was not the main problem preoccupying the editors of West Africa and the Sahel, but the editors nevertheless faced an intriguing dilemma: works familiar to women living in West Africa and the Sahel such as work songs, songs of the everyday, were almost unknown to women in Europe and the US, while writers familiar to US readers, such as Buchi Emecheta and Mariama Ba, were unknown to women who lived in the same region and belonged to the same ethnic group as these writers, testimony to the vagaries of the politics of rich publishing houses, and emphasising the importance of locality and language in accessing texts.

I turn now to a review of each volume independently.

Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region

"All the same; I am thrilled to be drifting among so many female texts." (Antjie Krog: A Change of Tongue)

"I am a woman. I am writing." (Yvonne Vera: "Writing near the Bone") (7)

This is a weighty work, encyclopaedic, if not comprehensive (see Preface: xxii), in its range of reference. What makes this book so refreshing is the decision of the editors to privilege black over white writing, a rare achievement in anthologies of South African writing. Yet, despite this decision, the editors are transparent in their admission that not all women's writing is covered in this anthology. They note the omission, for example, of the voices of enslaved women (noted above). Apart from this major decision to downplay white women's writing, the other significant decision was to focus less on identity politics as a legacy of apartheid, and more on "the processes of identification, counter-identification and dis-identification through which individual and group subject-positions are formulated anew" (xxvi). This allows for a more fluid interaction and counter-reaction between writer and writer and between writers and readers, and emphasises the heterogeneity which is the informing principle of this volume.

The editors also provide a hefty 82-page introduction to the anthology, ensuring that this book exceeds the Norton anthologies in its strongly academic focus. Here, the editors are careful to announce the peculiar and particular nature of this anthology, mindful, one expects, of the numerous anthologies on offer in South Africa and intent upon explaining the unique character of Women Writing Africa. In the first part of the Introduction the editors deconstruct the three terms, "women", "writing" and "Africa" using the terms to suggest the "provisional" and "precarious" status of the term "women" (1), the problems around the status of the printed word in relation to women's history and production, and the way in which "writing Africa" turns space into place (4). The word "writing" therefore has a pivotal position in the sentence, pointing back to the agents of the writing process (women) and forward to the continent under construction, as it were (Africa). However, if one reads the sentence in its entirety, looking at its composite meaning, yet more compelling suggestions emerge, which are prompted by the analysis just described. (8) What does it mean to "write" a continent? Clearly, there is an echo here of imagining a community into being (Benedict Anderson) although the phrase is often used without remembering that Anderson uses it to indicate the importance of "print-capitalism" in creating a sense of imagined community (1983:2). This is obviously not apposite in an African context, unless one accords an equal significance to orality and orature in creating a sense of community, which the editors of this volume strive to emphasise. Secondly, the sentence conjures up the sense of calling something into being, which the editors refer to as "space becom[ing] place by being named" (5), rendering women, who are the subject of the sentence, an important sense of agency in being the ones who are doing the naming, calling Africa into being. The sentence/title is a claim, on women's behalf, of ownership and agency, naming women as the subjects of a continent, but also as its creators. Thus while obviously gender specific, this volume is also unusual in the attempt to record not only women's writing but also their "agency" (1), and in its intention to include a variety of genres. So letters, court proceedings, school and mission essays, short stories, poetry and the Women's Charter, amongst other writing, form an impressive compass with a total of over 200 entries, using the head-notes as instances of women's writing, as well as the sourced and documented pieces. A third, at least, of the pieces were originally oral, some orature, such as praise and wedding songs, some spoken stories and some interviews. Careful to avoid "speaking for" the silenced, the editors made a decision to represent only those who had been previously recorded or who had their own access to print. Finally, by including six countries under the nomenclature "the Southern Region", this volume "challenges colonial habits of mapping" by crossing borders and political boundaries (4). While I appreciate the motive for doing this, I found this made for a disjointed reading experience, depending on the reader's specific needs. For instance, I was interested in tracing local history as it is revealed in the writing by the women of, say, Zimbabwe, but found that I had to page back or forward to find comparative pieces, as the book is arranged chronologically (9) rather than regionally.

From this point on, the Introduction is divided into sections. "Women and Orality" speaks to the continuity and significance of orature in African women's lives, marking significant cultural moments and ceremonies, warning of the consequences of departing from tradition, performing acts of subversion and protest. Songs and stories provide important information about the reality of women's lives, past and present. On this basis, and because the text is underpinned by meticulous historiographic and archival research, the editors gently affirm their own authority in relation to the 'ur-mothers' of feminist postcolonialism, Spivak for example, in writing about the subaltern. This is an important moment in African feminism in departing from first-world feminist thinking. What is emphasised in this section is the communal basis for women's orature, which often involves audience participation and discussion, so that the process of narrative conveyed through the human voice is both participatory and accumulative. However, the editors are mindful of the intrusive and perhaps hegemonic nature of recording oral events and comment, particularly on court records which offer only a single perspective on the event, inevitably shaded by the perspective of the recorder/translator. So, too, many of the oral documents are mediated by white researchers, including missionaries. It is noted that in Zimbabwe during the 1960s vernacular tales were collected by Zimbabwean women "as a way of countering the linguistic and cultural domination of English" (10). Alert to the complex nature of recording and translation, the editors issue a warning to readers to be aware of the distance between the original source and what they are reading in this volume which, were it not for the head-notes, might appear strange, distorted or truncated.

The section "Women and Writing" contextualises the long colonial period in the Southern region in which women's writing is subject to missionary activity, colonial education and the inequalities in educational practices under South African apartheid, and provides commentary on writing done at mission schools and by mission wives and settler women. Here again, editorial anxiety is evident about the extent to which the volume "speaks for" rather than "to" women. Interspersed in the historical and contextual survey of women's writing is a section entitled "Textual Interactions and Hybridities", which interrupts the flow of discourse to meditate upon issues of responsibility and accountability, representation and mediation. Through the editorial practice of juxtaposing one voice with another (different) voice, what is suggested here is the possibility, once again, for a new and challenging feminist practice in Southern Africa. Collaboration and interaction through the careful 'placing' of textual material is not only a way of ensuring both that texts converse with each other and that the reader experiences these conversations as the elision of constructed racial and cultural boundaries, but also one which allows each woman represented in the anthology a discursive position.

It may not be altogether fair to call these instances of 'editorial anxiety', a phrase suggesting a defensive position. Closer to the truth is the intention of the editors to alternate historical specificity with theoretical digression, a process of interruption that is intentional and deliberate. This has a decided effect on the reader whose first reaction, as mine was, may be irritation. However, upon reflection, the methodology is effective in undermining historical chronology/teleology and creating spaces for reflection by both editor and reader. Indeed, the introduction mimes, as it were, the conversations in the collected pieces with a dialogue between editors. One is very conscious that more than one voice is speaking here. This may be an attempt to negotiate identities relationally (as James Clifford says: 1997:810) in order to constitute both the subjects and objects of ethnography. Indeed, this anthology and its companion might be seen as works of anthropology making use of 'inside' and 'outside' ethnographers. Whatever the case, the Introduction is a composite discourse composed of different registers, some of them historical, some interrogative and theoretical.

The section on women and writing continues with a discussion on the effect of missionary and other education in empowering or disempowering women (depending on the kind of education provided). It also provides a context for the letters, pamphlets, diaries, speeches and political essays imbricated in the discourses of Christianity, class and gender, yet reacting to these discourses ("a skilfully orchestrated resistance to colonialism" (29)) and shows how much of the writing produced in the time of colonisation and after is largely a reaction to a world dominated by the ideology of domesticity as women's domain. A similar tendency occurs in fiction and poetry written in the time of missionary education and here too writers have been chosen to show how often women challenged the status quo or hierarchies of social conformity. One of these is Victoria Swaartbooi, whose novel, UMandisa, published in 1934, chronicles the development of a new kind of woman, one who does not intend to submit to marriage and domesticity but who intends to pursue her career as a teacher. This section also includes discussion of the Drum decade, exile, Black Consciousness writing and life stories. Nor do the editors avoid talking about the tragedy of HIV/AIDS ("[t]he toll that HIV/ AIDS will take of the southern region defies comprehension" (53)). Indeed, in the tone of a lament, the introduction concludes with a reminder of the work that needs to be done by the younger generation of women in "civic responsibility" (54) and gestures towards the strength of women in Southern Africa in taking "their rightful place in the world" (54).

Turning now to the anthologised pieces, the reader is struck by the diversity and richness of the collection which begins with the earliest writing of the nineteenth century, an anonymous song recorded in 1842 in Lesotho of a widow's lament:
 O fool that I am!
 When evening comes, I open my window a little,
 I listen in the silence, I look:
 I imagine that he is coming back! (86)

This compares in eloquence and expressive depth with a later piece from the same country, "I am a wailing fool", recorded in 1967:
 I am a wailing fool who remains among ruins.
 When the sun has sunk low,
 To the door I go,
 On tip-toe advancing slowly,
 Supposing him coming alone,
 Supposing him returning from the hunt. (309)

Amongst the early pieces, the reader is moved by the buoyancy of Emma Sandile, writing to her former schoolmistress in 1864, and obviously torn between her girlish desires for nice clothes and her missionary upbringing which warns against foolishness:
 I have got so smart since you saw me. I have golden earrings in my
 ears, crochet lace round my petticoats, high heelboots, a net and
 ribbons on my head, but I hope I shall never be proud although they
 like to see me dressed nicely yet they always tell me that dress
 must not make me vain. (95)

From the period 1900-1919 is recorded the historically significant Indian Women's Association petition about Domestic Unhappiness, published in 1908 without the women's names attached, but which speaks to the depression of Indian men after the strict enforcement of Act 17 of 1895 which demanded an annual payment of three pounds from all indentured Indians for a residence licence. The act was repealed in 1913 after the pressures of passive resistance, amongst which we can number this appeal by the Indian women of Durban.

A section rich in historical and political importance is the period 1920 1950 recording the voice of the 'new African woman', independent women leaders facing problems of the clash of cultural tradition versus modernity. Take, for instance, the authoritative prose of Queen Regent Labotsibeni in her address to the Resident Commissioner in 1921 on the occasion of the transference of her power as regent to her grandson Sobhusa II:
 My duties toward him and the Nation will never cease until death.
 There is no truth in the fiction that the old Swazi Queens are
 always killed or done away with. Look at our history. They all
 lived their natural life out except one who was killed through her
 own open rebellion. (172)

Of similar interest are Nontsizi Mgqwetho, "the first and only female poet to write in Xhosa" (176), Oratile Sekgoma, Seretse Khama's older sister, who attempts to gain redress in inheritance issues, and Florence Thandiswa Jabavu who began the zenzele (do it yourself) movement in the Eastern Cape in 1927, and whose fierce criticism of both Westernisation and indigenous patriarchy is captured in "Bantu Home Life":
 This life is quite ample for its state, but it lacks idealism. It
 has no motive for morality beyond slavish obedience to custom and
 law. Its roots are embedded in conservatism, which means doing
 exactly as what one's predecessors did, on pain of being smelt out
 as an enemy of society with ostracism as a consequence. The aim is
 that of maintaining one dreary level of equality of status among
 all men. (191)

In similar vein, Charlotte Manye Maxeke's "Social Conditions Among Bantu Women and Girls" is testimony to her status as "arguably the greatest black South African apostle of modernity" (195) as South Africa's first black woman graduate, first president of the Bantu Women's League and the founder of various schools. More impressive, even, than these accomplishments is her attempt to bridge the divide between European and African womanhood and to make connections between Africa and the West:
 I would suggest that there might be a conference of Native and
 European women, where we could get to understand each other's point
 of view, each other's difficulties and problems, and where,
 actuated by the real spirit of love, we might find some basis on
 which we could work for the common good of European and Bantu
 womanhood. (198)

On a similar topic and within the same period is the account of the Herero women at a meeting in 1939 in which old cultural custom is set alongside modernity in their address to Sylvia Bowker, the wife of the location superintendent on the issue of compulsory examination of unmarried black women for venereal disease. The women present speak for the rest of the

Herero in their adamant refusal to allow such medical examinations:
 The Almighty God has created nations differently. For instance, madam
 sits here without a head-dress but we are wearing it. Another thing
 madam is wearing a dress and it is shorter than our dresses. If madam
 even now requested us to take off our head-dresses no one would do
 it. (223)

(On an interesting cross-cultural historical note, similar declarations were being made in England many years earlier in the 'new woman's' protest against the enforcement of the Purity Laws under which any so-called street woman could be medically examined and retained in special hospitals in an official attempt to control the spread of venereal disease by the troops stationed in various ports around the country.)

In the section from the 1970s and 1980s is Noni Jabavu's "Bus Journey to Tsolo", a beautifully told local history of a bus ride from East London to Umtata by the author of The Ochre People. Jabavu is told by her father that this will be a good opportunity to improve her isiXhosa since she visits South Africa only rarely from her home in England. Acutely conscious of her position as an outsider, she listens carefully to the nuances of the language she is hearing and cannot help comparing this ride favourably with those she has taken on British transport:
 In any case the chatter was different from some I had heard on
 country buses in England, my other homeland. Here people were not
 steering clear of religion, sex. They discussed history, politics,
 land reform, property, sociology--analphabetic though most of the
 speakers were. These seemed to be the topics they considered
 important, which superseded 'small talk' about the weather, wages,
 or whites. Not that those three were not pressing. One saw that
 they were, but did not seem to occupy the whole of the bus-load's
 frontal lobes. (276)

Another account from this period is from the exile, Bessie Head, whose "For 'Napoleon Bonaparte', Jenny, and Kate" was first published in 1990, although it was written in 1965, and describes the loneliness of the situation of the exile ("I am contained in a wall of silence").

Several well-known writers are recorded in the section pertaining to the 1980s, including Lauretta Ngcobo, Miriam Tlali, Nise Malange, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ingrid de Kok, Agnes Sam and Gcina Mhlophe. Special mention needs to be made of Agnes Sam's "Jesus is Indian", recording with delightful humour the experience of people of colour, particularly school children who are exposed to different cultural values and issues of language at an age when these are inexplicable.

The section from the most recent period is understandably occupied with war, HIV/AIDS, survival and endurance. Here we have Zoe Wicomb, Karen Press, Sindiwe Magona, Nadine Gordimer, Yvonne Vera, Ellen Kuzwayo, Antjie Krog and Unity Dow, an abundance of talent interspersed with lesser known but vibrant writing, such as the shocking account by Elizabeth Dube who experienced five family murders in Mugabe's war of terror against the Ndebele; a similar account by Marevasei Kachere of the Liberation War in Zimbabwe; and the initiation songs of the Tswana, the Xhosa and the Nyemba. Mpho 'M'atsepo Nthunya's "Before the Beginning" is a telling description of the impoverished capacity of the English language to convey the profound intensity of memory and emotion and speaks, of course, to the perennial problem of translation from a less understood language into the world language that is English:
 I tell these stories in English to my motsoalle so she can write
 them in the computer. I can tell these stories better in Sesotho.
 When I tell stories in Sesotho, the words roll like a music I am
 singing with my heart. When I speak Sekhooa, the white people's
 language, I start and stop. I stare at my motsoalle, at the
 ceiling, looking, looking. I say, "What can I say: What is the word
 for this?" (471)

This is a book to browse in, a book for learning about the vibrant, sometimes tragic, heritage of our country's people, an historical record, an anthology of important political and social documents, a reference work and above all, a book about the resilience of women. It is a special collection which marks a founding moment in Africa's literary history.

Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel

The introduction to this volume, the second in the series, begins with a discussion of the erasure of women from historical discourse and the need to engage in a revised historiography of African women:
 This volume of Women Writing Africa represents a significant
 attempt to reappraise the coinage of history to include ... women
 as producers of knowledge and catalysts for cultural renewal. Our
 archive of oral and written narratives debunks the notion of
 African women's unsuitability to make history. (2005:4)

In similar vein to Volume 1, the editors adopt a dialogic approach to the writing of the introduction, what they call a "complicated pas de deux between the writings ... and the history of women in West Africa and the Sahel" (5). Thus, in the first part of the introduction, the discussion focuses on orature while in the second part women's writing is situated within an historical context which ranges from the eighth to the twenty-first century. Like the first volume, several voices are speaking here, making the reading of the substantial introduction a somewhat confusing experience, with subtitles signalling the shift of voice and change of topic but following no particularly clear logic. Despite this, the content of the introduction is cogent if less metacritical than the first volume, supplying the reader with as much history of the region as is needed to situate the collected examples of women's writing.

The editors begin by placing their volume in an historical and ideological context, pointing to the exotic mythology attached to Africa and, in particular, the African woman, which became a stereotype forbidding the historical and experiential reality of women's lives from taking shape in the discourse of Africa. Until relatively recently, say the editors, "established Africanist historians have been reluctant to engage the idea of women as subject of history" (3). There are, however, gratifying exceptions to this trend and here the editors refer to Stephanie Newell's important work in this regard. (10) The announcement of intent at the beginning of the introduction is instructive:
 The book's repertoire of individual and collective identities
 evokes both experiences determined by a specific course of events
 and artistic quests for self-reflection. Simultaneously
 representing the self-histories of women and the achievement of
 community, the volume evokes a stream of artistry ranging across
 the ritual spaces of orality through various stages of negotiations
 with colonial and patriarchal power to literary reflections of the
 social order. The enveloping presence of orature attests to the
 dynamic authority of women's verbal art to act at once as a
 reservoir of history, a mode of cultural validation, and an arena
 of protest. (4)

The production, and more particularly, the transmission of knowledge in Africa, as in other parts of the world, depends on the mechanisms of power implicit in the social order (see Foucault, 1972). Edward Said calls this form of hegemonic control a mental conquest of Africans (1978:3). Such knowledge forms can be used by the powerful to occlude, ignore and erase other forms of knowledge by the less powerful. Such has been the case on the African continent, especially in regard to women's knowledge, transmitted, traditionally, by oral forms. Zegeye and Vambe (2006:2) speak about the knowledge of ordinary people that operates "as counter memories to the sensibilities of the ruling elites". They also emphasise that in Africa, "the primary carrier of knowledge ... is not the published book. In these communities [African communities], knowledge is generated and expressed through unwritten songs, folktales, proverbs, masks, carvings and other modes of expressing knowledge" (2006:8). This volume, then, is part of the paradigm shift, urged by Zegeye and Vambe, to use oral knowledge as an interrogation of "the political and intellectual assumptions contained in books" (2006:9). Similarly, the editors of Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel quote Furniss and Gunner (1995:1) in claiming for orality a new role of articulation and knowledge production in society. Indeed, this volume shows most compellingly the many ways in which songs and chants create opportunities for forms of oral rebellion in undermining social relations. Further, such coded messages are also conveyed by means of "textile rhetoric" (7) in which textile prints and beads can 'talk' in subtle ways. These means of subterfuge are entirely necessary, given the history of male power structures which imposed impediments on women's verbal expression, leaving the transmission of history in men's hands. The rise, therefore, of the female oral historian or griotte, in Senegal and Mali, has a singular importance in the way in which history is conveyed in modern form, since these griottes not only sing of history but also comment on contemporary events (9).

However, because women are most often found in domestic spaces, songs about their daily lives are also included in this volume. These are important in marking the various rites of passage in women's lives, particularly marriage and the birth of a child. While these songs mark the significance of daily ritual, they also often engage in social criticism. For example, West African lullabies are not only soothing songs intended to relax a child, but also express "profound anxieties" (13) or melancholy. The rich texture of oral forms conveyed in this volume speaks to the subtle transmission between the private and the public domains in African women's lives. The editors provide a fascinating account of the various forms of orality in West Africa including songs for funerals and marriage rites, songs for circumcision rituals, greetings and subversive messages, often conveyed by dance, drumming or clapping.

The introduction also includes an account of women's place in the long history of West Africa from the eighth to the nineteenth century, that is, from the early Empire of Ghana to the fall of the Asante Empire in 1900. There is also a nuanced account of the different meanings attached to slavery and serfdom as well as a description of the way in which slavery has been conveyed in fiction and memory. Under the subtitle Kingship, Kinship, and Gender the editors discuss exceptional women who include queen-mothers, martyrs, ruling women and fighting women. (11)

As is to be expected, a considerable portion of the introduction is devoted to a discussion of the colonial situation in West Africa in terms of women's education, writing, journalism and early literary production, and how these were affected by colonialism, by independence and in post-independence times.

The final section covers the late twentieth century showing the shift in women's writing and oral literature towards "reconstructing a history in which women played a glorious part" (59) but also towards a more consciously political stance in which those traditional practices such as forced child marriages, genital mutilation and widowhood rites, which grossly undermined women's status and power, are subjected to scrutiny. With the rise of the West African female poet, the voice of the African woman is being heard beyond Africa's borders, yet she retains the connections with the past, particularly with the griotte, in redefining masculinity and "mocking unacceptable behaviour" (63). This last section also points to a new dimension of women's writing and orature offered by the travelling, migrant or hybrid woman, often educated in countries outside of Africa, but retaining links with women living on the continent and with those from the past.

Turning now to the selected texts, we observe that while the second volume is constructed along more or less chronological lines, several fascinating themes emerge from a reading of the different sections, themes that draw the extracts together and perform a coherent pattern. Moreover, these are distinctive to West Africa and the Sahel although they are of course also apparent in the Southern region. For instance, an important and perhaps obvious theme is the wife's position as chattel or foreigner in her husband's family and the anger, grief or fear attached to this position. Since many of the extracts provide testimony to polygamous marriages, these emotions are a two-way thoroughfare as is evident in the following extract from a wife who dreads the intrusion of the next co-wife:
 He did not know I had plans.
 If I am the one in charge of this house,
 There is no way I will allow some bitch
 To come in as my co-wife. (Hadjia Barmani Coge: 309)

Similarly, Nawa Kulibali finds herself working as a virtual slave in the cotton fields in Cote d'Ivoire and sings this lament:
 Mother, thank you for bringing me to life but it is now without any
 purpose. Mama, thank you for bringing me to life but it is now
 pointless. I am being trapped among vultures. I am being insulted
 by those good-for-nothings. (318)

A second theme is the use of the body as sign and as weapon. This is at times wonderfully evocative and amusing, given the power of words to undermine enemies. The first instance of this is the concept of "sitting on a man", what the head-note writers Abena Busia and Diedre Badejo call "a very specific form of women's protest":
 To 'sit on a man' involves women congregating in front of his
 compound, dressed in war apparel and carrying the pestles and palm
 fronds that symbolize women's power and discontent, to bare their
 breasts as a ritual signal of war and to sing sometimes scurrilous
 songs making clear exactly the offense that the man needs to
 redress. (170)

Nakedness or the threat of undressing is often used in West Africa to indicate the onset of aggression by women. This use of the body as sign of rebellion or war often replaces the use of words to insult or undermine the enemy or it may be used as an accompaniment to verbal abuse as in "Seybata, or My Backside--Insult her" (265) where the young woman, usually powerless within the polygamous family structure, pounds the millet, with her back turned to the people being insulted, while the rhythm of the pounding coincides with the second syllable of "insult":
 Insult her for me, Seybata!
 Insult her!
 Insult her for me, my bottom,
 Insult her!

As before, my selection of examples cannot do justice to the expansive variety of texts offered in this volume. A brief look at the contents page will show the range of orality and writing collected here which encompasses ritual and ceremony, marriage song cycles, celebrations of birth, lamentations, lullabies, work songs, songs of social negotiation, extracts from novels, name poems, interviews and speeches. Of particular interest are the interviews including one with Werewere Liking, who was born in the Cameroon and who now has an arts school in Cote d'Ivoire. Described as "one of the great African artists of her generation", she has written innovative novels and theatrical texts using puppetry, dance and mime. In the interview, Liking demonstrates her indebtedness to her Bassa culture which holds to the belief that "one can arrange and rearrange the universe through words" (364). This power of naming the universe is a trope running through the collection, whether it be Anna Dao, who was not born in Africa, but whose grandmother told her the same stories repeatedly "so that I would know and remember who I am and where I came from" (430), or Toelo from Burkina Faso:
 You see, my griot,
 I only have my words
 To console me!
 My stomach is heavy with words
 And my heart is filled with suffering! (314)

The theme repeats itself in the folk tale by Nyano Bamana (335-8) from Senegal in which a wife gets her revenge on her husband who, in a time of famine, gives her a test which she must pass before she is allowed to eat. She must decide which yam the husband picked first. When she fails the test, he eats all the yams, leaving her hungry. She leaves home to visit her mother who has cassava to eat. When she returns home, she asks her husband to name this new grain. Just as Rumplestiltskin in western traditional fairy tales demands that the girl guess his name, so this wife demands a process of naming from her husband. He fails the test, but his wife gives him some cassava to eat, saying that in a time of famine we must look after each other. The tale is thus, like all fairy tales, a moral lesson. The use of words whether in oral or written form is not merely a means of entertainment or an excuse to impart ethical norms to listeners or readers; it is a way of remembering the past so as to negotiate the future. While this is not always an accurate representation, it is a dynamic process in which history is both created and re-created in each rendition of the narrative. And, as Zillah Eisenstein so rightly comments, in what could be a motif of the Women Writing Africa series:
 The very idea of history itself is destabilized as a process of
 storytelling with different storytellers.... I therefore need to
 know whose story I am reading, who is telling the story, and from
 what timebound lens it is being told. (2004:24)


The Women Writing Africa series is a contribution to the present and the future in the way it articulates the past. Watching history unfold into the future is most tellingly captured in the two speeches by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, now Africa's first woman president (of Liberia), but inaugurated after the publication of this volume. As one of Africa's most powerful 'new' women, Johnson-Sirleaf has announced her intention to institute a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to investigate the injustices of the past.

The overall impression gained by reading both these volumes of Women Writing Africa is that they provide a "thick" description (the phrase is attributed to Clifford Geertz), conveyed particularly by the painstaking and detailed head-notes, of women and their agency in Africa. (12) While distinguishing between different women in different cultures, the project also stresses notions of affiliation rather than differentiation (Felski 2000:127), giving us a complex vision of women's role and place in Africa, and moving seamlessly, despite the chronology of the texts, between past and future. More tellingly, one finishes reading the volumes with an overwhelming sense of the strength and power of the African woman, of her resilience in times of poverty, sickness, war and famine. She is a shape-shifter, coalescing her force from the voices of the past, using her body, her words, her beads, her songs to articulate her present circumstances, gesturing towards the future and beyond Africa's borders, to the next generation of women. In the words of Yvette Abrahams:
 An African woman who is loyal to herself is possibly the greatest
 threat to racism, sexism and economic exploitation in the century
 to come for all these modes of oppressions are built on her back
 and based on the repression of her self. Beyond this movement
 against the powers that be, the act of self-naming provides
 strength to look forward to a self-defined world. Womanism provides
 this power ... by building a theoretical structure which is
 self-centred, rather than other-defined. (2000:70)


Abrahams, Yvette. 2003. Colonialism, Dysfunction and Disjuncture: The Historiography of Sarah Baartman. PhD Thesis, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections of the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Clifford, James. 1997. Routes: Travel and Translation in the late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press.

Eisenstein, Zillah. 2004. Against Empire: Feminisms, Racism, and the West. London, Melbourne and New York: Spinifex Books and Zed Books.

Felski, Rita. 2000. Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture. New York and London: New York University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Furniss, Graham and Liz Gunner. 1995. Power, Marginality and African Oral Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London and New York: Verso.

James, CLR. 1982 (1963). The Black Jacobins: Touissant L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. London: Allison & Busby.

Krog, Antjie. 2003. A Change of Tongue. Johannesburg: Random House.

Mbembe, Achille. 2001. On the Postcolony. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Pavanello, Mariano. 2000. "Le concept d'histoire dans les traditions orales nzema". Le Griot 8:17-40.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage.

Shih, Shu-mei, S Marcos, O Nnaemeka and Marguerite Waller. 2005. "Conversation on 'feminist imperialism and the politics of difference'". In: Waller, Marguerite and Sylvia Marcos (eds). Dialogue and Difference: Feminisms Challenge Globalization. New York: Palgrave.

Zegeye, Abebe and M Vambe. 2006. "Knowledge Production and Publishing in Africa". Development Southern Africa 23(2): 1-17.

Zeleza, Paul. 2003. Rethinking Africa's "Globalization". Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press.


(1.) Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region. Edited by MJ Daymond, Dorothy Driver, Sheila Meintjes, Leloba Molema, Chiedza Musengezi, Margie Orford and Nobantu Rasebotsa. Wits University Press. 2003. Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel. Edited by Esi Sutherland-Addy and Aminata Diaw. Wits University Press. 2005.

(2.) "The case for concrete and specific analyses of Africa cannot be overstated" (Zeleza 2003:vii).

(3.) Mbembe talks at length about the need for "patient, careful, in-depth research" and decries the "off-the-cuff representations" that pass for knowledge on Africa (2001:7-8).

(4.) See here Ama Ata Aidoo's comment: "In fact, it has become a cliche of Western photojournalism that the African woman is old beyond her years; she is half-naked; her dropped and withered breasts are well exposed; there are flies buzzing around the faces of her children; and she has a permanent begging bowl in her hand" (Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel 2005:376-7).

(5.) However, it is also important to note the insider/outsider mix in this project which originates in the USA and is funded from Western (outsider) sources. It would be more accurate to describe the focus in the Women Writing Africa project as dual, as a conversation between the metropolitan and the rural.

(6.) All references are to the two editions published by Wits University Press for an African readership.

(7.) See pages 488-91, Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region.

(8.) It is interesting that the volumes on Africa are called Women Writing Africa, (deliberately?) omitting the preposition that occurs in the title of the text that preceded the African project, Women Writing in India (my emphasis).

(9.) The editors seem to be aware of this problem. They explain that the introduction "strives to work against the rigorously chronological order of the anthology, for chronologies must always be reminiscent of the masculinist imperial history from which women have been occluded" (xxv), but they do not explain why they made a decision to order the volume's contents chronologically.

(10.) Particularly her book Literary Culture in Colonial Ghana: "How to Play the Game of Life". 2002. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

(11.) The term "gender" used in the subtitle, and throughout the introduction, is somewhat disingenuous, since it refers only to women, nor is the term "gender" ever explained as having the specific meaning "women" in this volume.

(12.) Both volumes would have benefited from the addition of a map. The second volume in particular would be hugely enriched by the addition of a CD-Rom or DVD. The editors, somewhat wistfully, allude to this gap but suggest that a lack of funding prevented the making of such an additional component.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Program of English Studies, University of Natal
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Ryan, Pamela
Publication:Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Previous Article:Orality and the power of silence in Yvonne Vera's Under the Tongue.
Next Article:Springbok, farmers, places and shards: reading and writing the Bleek-Lloyd Archive.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters