When Right Means Life
Shoneyin has demonstrated how the three women, who originally shared Baba Segi, have ganged up against Bolanle for fear that she would deprive them of their own share of their husband, and eventually lay bare their common secret. Subsequently, the relationship among the women becomes one of hatred rather than of solidarity. It is, indeed, revealing that the women turn against Bolanle, who came into the marriage arrangement of her own free will. She is also the one who, acting as a catalyst, threatens to expose the sordidness of their common condition as co-wives. As a catalyst, her role becomes highly symbolic. On the one hand, it exposes the weaknesses of traditional African gender relations. On the other, and this is perhaps pertinent to the women’s self-perception and solidarity, Bolanle shows the limitation of women’s love of self and of freedom within traditional patriarchal contexts. They are unable to appreciate themselves because of the strictures imposed on them by society. They perceive themselves as having no rights because they have to fight for bare survival. But Shoneyin seems to suggest that the absence of self-appreciation ultimately leads to death. Segi, the first child of the marriage, and the daughter of the matriarch, Iya Segi, accidentally bonds with Bolanle after an incident in the market place. Segi and Bolanle walk together to Bolanle’s room, where a plate of food, part of the ongoing birthday festivities, awaits Bolanle. The food is poisoned. Now relishing the comfort that comes with the new friendship with Bolanle, Segi asks Bolanle whether she could taste the food. Bolanle does not deny her request.
Segi’s death is richly symbolic, especially given the atmosphere of mutual hatred in which the women live. That hatred leads to the death of one of their own, and it is a signifier of their own death. It is also significative that the poison attacks those body parts that women take pride in: their hair and their breasts. Segi’s “breasts were flattened against her chest. What used to be firm, supple skin sagged like beaten leather. All her hair was gone; her scalp shone like a marble.”50 It is also ironic that she confides her secrets and feelings in Bolanle precisely at the time her death looms. She spends the night in Bolanle’s room, apparently relishing Bolanle’s singular, positive mindset, which flows from her decision to set herself on the path of healing. Their friendship hints at a more positive outlook for women. By bonding with Bolanle, Segi rejects the negative world of her own mother, and welcomes the positive, life-affirming spirit that Bolanle embodies. In Shoneyin’s poetics, Bolanle’s self-esteem is posited as a life force. Implicitly, to be aware of one’s rights is synonymous with being aware of one’s life. Shoneyin is concerned with the bodies that are served by that culture or tradition. She imagines individuals enjoying their freedom, making decisions, and being morally responsible for the consequences of those decisions; she imagines them being humans.
In November 2013, Shoneyin organized the Ake Arts and Book Festival (or Ake Festival) with the theme “The Shadow of Memory”51 in Abeokuta. It attracted many national and international writers and producers of culture. The idea is part of her project of engaging her culture from within. The most significant paradigm-shifting moment of the festival was the adaptation of her already mentioned novel, with emphasis on the gay sexual orientation of one of Baba Segi’s wives. Reporting on the event, Christie Watson remarks that:
the panel discussion about sex and sexuality, which focused on representations of homosexuality in African literatures, was standing room only. It felt radical. At times the discussions felt almost dangerous: the treatment of gay people in Nigeria remains appalling. But Ake gave me hope for the future. The public talking has begun.52
In exposing the inner workings of polygamy and introducing the discourse of gay sexual orientation into the minds of her fellow countrymen and women, Shoneyin opens new ways of exploring the African experience beyond the conventional postcolonial discourse that presumes a monolithic African identity and culture. This expansion of the notion of African culture is, in my judgment, part of Shoneyin’s project of enhancing human flourishing in her community. She urges us to engage people as individuals who make up the cultures identified as African. Empathy is an important step in that direction.
Gappah also employs the riches of empathy to highlight the abuse of people’s human rights in Zimbabwe. The narrative of women ex-soldiers that Yvonne Vera fruitfully explored in The Stone Virgins53 is taken to a new level by Gappah, in “The Maid from Lalapanzi.” Gappah engages the myth of the glories of the liberation struggle, which, sadly, have morphed into a state of government dysfunction. SisiBlandina had fought in Zimbabwe’s war ofliberation. As a girl, her job was to serve in the kitchen and, at night, in the beds of guerillas.
Like most Zimbabweans who have witnessed the struggles of liberation, SisiBlandina still nurses a triumphant frame of mind. When Munya, one of the toddlers she is looking after, complains to her that his sister, Chenai, has jumped over him with her fingers crossed in order to stop him from growing, SisiBlandina corrects him, telling him that the idea of crossing one’s fingers while jumping over someone was the invention of white people. “Why must you always believe what those white children tell you? Did their parents not lose the war?”54 What is important in SisiBlandina’s response is not the sense of the children’s superstition or lack thereof; it is the tenor of her argument. Whites have lost the war; consequently they have lost every argument, and all moral claims to reality. This does not escape the attention of Chenai, the narrator: “We won the war, we had conquered the conquerors. Our parents said it all the time. The television said it, the radio too. We had won the war.”55 She thus replicates the nationalist ideology of the freedom fighters who are now in power. Yet her story raises questions not only about the nature of chimurenga, but also about whether the war was actually won. Did women, for whom SisiBlandina occupies a figurative role, win? Did the people win the war? What about their individual rights and dignities, which have been subjected to the putative glories of the post-Independence world? As a maid, SisiBlandina had already lost out in the new dispensation. Chenai makes a critical observation about how maids are treated in her parents’ family. “They came and went, dismissed for various flaws as my mother searched for the perfect housemaid, leaving behind the uniform dress and matching hat that they all wore which seemed to stretch and shrink to fit each one.”56
Gappah allows Chenai to be a judge of her own mother when she paints her as a tyrant in her own way, lacking empathy for those not in her class. Like other maids, SisiBlandina is seen as having no individuality; she has to fit into the model designed for her by her rich host family, for whom she has sacrificed herself. She is pliant, already humbled by the harsh experience of the war, which, ironically has given her pride of identity, but this will be her undoing. It is revealing, as Chenai tells us, that SisiBlandina now suffers at the hands of women. The maids have no individuality; they are presented in the abstract and are therefore thought not to possess dignity.
The family in which SisiBlandina serves as a maid is figurative of a country that, blindsided by the abstraction of nationalism, has little or no concern for the pains of its members, the less privileged women. While serving the guerillas, SisiBlandina took a revolutionary name, like other boys and girls:
I wanted to call myself Freedom, but there were already seven with that
name, and even one called Freedom-now, and four other people called
Liberty. Then one of the commanders told us that we were fighting for
autonomy and for self-rule and for self-determination, and so that became
The listing of synonyms for independence exposes the absurdity of Zimbabwe’s national autonomy and the condition of individual Zimbabweans. But this is also what prevents her and her people from thinking about their rights. It not only makes the idea redundant; it makes us wonder whether the freedom fighters ever understood what they fought for. After many years, and when it begins to seem as if SisiBlandina will never experience the true love of a man or a family, she falls in love with MukomaGeorge. She is pregnant, and hopes that MukomaGeorge will marry her. But he denies responsibility for the pregnancy, accusing her of sleeping around with men. That was, after all, what she had done during the war, he alleges. In rejecting SisiBlandina, MukomaGeorge exhibits the moral attitude of the pure/ impure binary, which undergirds the patriarchal sexual imagination. He fails to go beyond the fact that SisiBlandina was no longer a virgin when he met her. Not being a virgin, for the patriarchal imagination, has moral implications; the woman is impure and undesirable.
SisiBlandina is trapped by her past; despite her chimurenga name, she has not been liberated. She has been used by the guerillas in the forest of
Mozambique, and she has been used by MukomaGeorge. She begs Chenai’s mother to take her back, but is refused because of her (SisiBlandina’s) pregnancy. Rejected by everyone, she drowns herself in the Mukuvisi River. SisiBlandina shares the same fate as that of the first wife of Esther’s husband. They are the victims not only of political dysfunction, but also of gender relations, in which women are at a disadvantage.