Dreams as an Expression of Human Rights
In her macro argument for universal human rights, Unigwe allows us to look at the socio-economic realities that enhance the objectification of humans, and how patriarchy condemns women’s bodies to the status of mere objects that are meant to serve society, that is, men. Unigwe exposes some of the remote causes of the dysfunctional system that ultimately encourages the dehumanization of women. Some of them have to do in part with the history of colonialism, which caused the loss of fundamental human solidarity in Africa. Colonialism, which forced different ethnicities (nations) into one state, indirectly sowed the seed of mutual distrust among these peoples. Of course, as Fanon states, there is also a failure on the part of the colonized to adopt ethnicity-transcendent moral visions that would allow people to see individuals, even from other ethnicities, as having rights and dignities. For Fanon, the nationalist consciousness in postcolonial states morphed into various forms of “race feeling.”17 In Fanon’s thinking, and in line with Unigwe’s narrative, post-independence African states have yet to become exemplary spaces where individuals, regardless of ethnicities, can achieve their dreams of true freedom and human rights. In such African states as Nigeria, many people have abandoned the honest search for true freedom and solidarity; they fight for survival, even if it means enslaving one another
Ethnic thinking and patriarchy are ideological; both of them diminish the humanity of the other. Unigwe draws on the pitfalls of ethnic thinking to demonstrate the effects of abstraction on people in general and women in particular. Her ultimate goal is to expose the contexts in which dehumanization and human rights abuses take place. Sisi has dreams, and she eventually dies without realizing them. Dreams are the expressions of that intangible thing she has in common with the rest of humanity, her wish to relate to the men and women of her society in more meaningful ways. These dreams could also be seen as the expression of her human rights, which are universal. Her dreams also link her with other characters in the novel. We get to know this especially because through the shock of her death, the others—Joyce, Efe, and Ama—reveal their own dreams to one another. They realize that they share a common destiny that demands their solidarity with each other, if only to keep their dreams alive. Their dreams are also Unigwe’s way of demonstrating the universality of human rights. When we encounter Sisi (born Chisom) at Efe’s birthday party, she seems to be at an emotional crossroads, having by now experienced the indignity of her new profession. Yet, having come from a dysfunctional society, one that, in Fanon’s thinking, has failed to expand its nationalist aspirations to embrace universal moral paradigms, Sisi knows she has no better alternatives. In Nigeria she would have ended up in a worse situation than where she is now. Before embarking on her passage to Belgium, she lived in squalor in Lagos, having shared an apartment with her parents in Ogba:
Chisom dreamed of leaving Lagos. This place has no future. She tried to imagine another year in the flat her father rented in Ogba. She tried not to breathe too deeply because doing so would be inhaling the stench of mildewed dreams. (15-18)
Like most postcolonial fathers who believed in the promises of modernity that independence would usher in, her father’s dream of a university education was tied to his belief in his daughter’s destined future: “Yet, two years after leaving university, Chisom was still mainly unemployed.”18 Jobs are not offered on the basis of merit, but of ethnic or tribal connec- tions.19 Things get worse when her father loses his job of 24 years because, as he observed, “I am not from Lagos State.”20
If we understand Sisi’s dreams as expressions of human rights, then the society that keeps those dreams from being realized also actively obstructs her human rights. But it is also noteworthy that some dreams are dreamed without regard for the human person as an end, but only as a means to an end. When Chisom (Sisi) was born:
a gap-toothed soothsaying neighbor... raised the new baby up to the skies, looked deep into her future and declared to the waiting parents, “This girl here has a bright future ahead of her ooo. You are very lucky parents oooo”.21
The soothsayer saw in the child’s future her utilitarian value to her parents, a promise of good luck for them. Their luck was not based on the life of the child in the here and now, or on the child as an end in herself, but on the future of the child, on what the child will achieve. To be sure, every parent wishes the best for their children, but in this instance it is clear that the hopes and joys of Sisi’s parents are rooted in her future only on the basis of the expectation that she will take care of them. The fulfillment of the soothsayer’s prophecy comes in the nature of Sisi’s utility, in the glitzy lights of brothels.22 Unigwe has taken seriously Terry Eagleton’s idea about feminism examining the texture of human existence, and in Sisi’s story she proves that one cannot judge humans in the abstract. Feminism is not about abstract formulations or ideological stances towards people; it is about taking individual lives seriously.
The ideologies of patriarchy and capitalism also turn the former victims into victimizers. A Nigerian sex worker has yet to pay off her “indenture,” after which she can purchase her own girls. She plans to buy African girls from Brussels because it is more convenient to get girls who are already in the country.23
It is ironic and unsettling that Efe, a former sex slave, plans to buy other women in order to set up her own business. She appears to have learned nothing from her own experience of pain. We understand that through her own history of objectification, she has lost esteem for herself and those who look like her. One would think that a victim of violence would be in a better position to understand others who go through what they have experienced. We know, however, that that is not always the case. A lot has to do with the system in which the victims find themselves. They internalize the oppression that has subjected them to pain and humiliation. It is therefore not surprising that Efe has failed to exhibit empathy toward others in a situation like hers. Efe has been hailed by the ideology that has kept her a slave; she is willing to serve the machinery of oppression because through that she gains power and becomes a subject. The problem is therefore not just the dysfunctional state in which the people live, but also the people’s willingness to make profit from that state even if it means violating others. In this way, Unigwe highlights the importance of attention to personal moral responsibility, that is, people’s duty to break the cycle that turns the oppressed into oppressors. This cycle could be broken if people raise questions about the degree to which they may be complicit in the inhumanity of their system.