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Home arrow Sociology arrow Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature: Feminist Empathy
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Pain, Solidarity, and Search for Community

Narration is a search for solidarity with our fellow humans, and when the narrative is a diary of intense pain, it is all the more incumbent on us to respond to the person suffering. As Elaine Scarry argues, pain destroys the basis ofcommunity; it kills language and forces humans back to prelinguistic stages of development, to stages in which we express ourselves with only cries or laughter. She states that physical pain is difficult to express. This difficulty has political consequences “by making overt precisely what is at stake in ‘inexpressibility’ [and it] begin(s) to expose by inversion the essential character of ‘expressibility’ whether verbal or material.”74 In “Wahala,” Ezinne’s inability to bear the pain that her world has inflicted on her causes her to regress to a prelinguistic stage of human development. I understand her cry to be the author’s plea for us to acknowledge her humanity and to ask relevant questions about the source of her suffering. If it is true that pain takes away language, could it be argued that needless pain takes away women’s rights, one of which is the freedom to speak freely? Asking questions in this regard implies a willingness to negotiate with systems that inflict undeserved pain. Above all, it implies the readiness to listen.

The call for the reassessment of such systems as a way to enter into solidarity with people also undergirds the narrative of We Need New Names. Chipo is pregnant by her grandfather. Her fellow pre-teenagers are concerned that her belly does not allow her to play with them. They want to help her and they massage her stomach. When they bend a wire clothes hanger to insert into her body, a woman, MotherLove, walks up on them. Forgiveness explains their intention: “we were trying to remove Chipo’s stomach.”75 MotherLove’s reaction is a shock to the children, who had feared she would beat them. The narrator relays her surprise, and just like the narrator in the scene in “Fairness,” this narrator underscores the pain that shows on the face of a woman other than the sufferer:

I look at her face and see the terrible face of someone I have never seen before, and on the stranger’s face is the look of pain, this look that adults have when somebody dies. There are tears in the eyes and she is clutching her chest like there’s a fire inside it. The MotherLove reaches out and holds Chipo.76

MotherLove and the children have one thing in common: they have seen themselves in Chipo; they know that Chipo’s fate could be theirs. The scene is a strong display of solidarity arising from feminist empathy. This solidarity prefigures the author’s anticipated response to the like situations she portrays. In another instance of such solidarity, while Darling and her companions are in Budapest stealing guava from a white couple’s compound, a gang of freedom fighters arrives, chanting:

Kill the Boer, the farmer, the khiwa!

Strike fear in the heart of the white man!

White man, you have no place here, go back, go home!

Africa for Africans, Africa for Africans!

Kill the Boer, the farmer, the khiwa!77

The slogan “Africa for Africans” leads to violence because its fundamental premise is the exclusion of the other. Solidarity is defined by blood and soil. The gang implements Robert Mugabe’s vision of the Third Chimurenga,78 in which white farmers are harassed, evicted from their property, or murdered. The thugs refer to themselves as the “Sons of the soil.”79 Their nativist conception of identity blocks out any feeling for the pain of the white couple. It is at this point that one of the kids, still in the guava tree, asks: “What is exactly an African?”80 It is relevant in this context that the question was asked by one displaced person about another in the same condition. That question, asked at this point, is an important moral interjection in the narrative; it challenges the nationalist’s definition of identity and moral trajectory. We realize that the question is not gratuitous when Sbho, unable to contain the humiliation meted out to the white couple by the Sons of the Soil, begins to cry. Bastard challenges her: “What, are you crying for the white people? Are they your relatives?” The question assumes that empathy and solidarity belong only within one’s family. However, Sbho’s answer undercuts Bastard’s assumption simply and abruptly: “They are people, you asshole.”81 Her answer is rooted in the principle of ubuntu and also in the Kantian moral imperative: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that ofanother, always as an end and never as means only.”82 It is informed by the conviction that we cannot exist as humans by excluding others because of their race, ancestry, or gender. Sbho’s recognition of the humanity of the white couple is designed as a reminder of her own humanity as a female. In her answer are the roots of solidarity based on empathy. She has attained her solidarity through what Martha Nussbaum has identified as the “community of human beings.”83 Her answer is cosmopolitan because she sees in the white couple not color, but human beings who deserve her empathy.

Through Darling and her companions, the dispossessed members of that society highlight not only their miserable human rights conditions; they also speak in a clear moral language which takes the dignities of others seriously. So, while NoViolet Bulawayo sheds light on Budapest as a visible reminder of the past injustices, she also underlines the ugly side of violence and nativism as a means to achieve fairness in the characters’ society. In the pain these women suffer, Bulawayo and Okparanta ask us to question the nature of the communities we wish for in African societies. This is perhaps the most profound political aspect of their narratives.

 
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