“You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. Do you hear me?’ Aunty Ifeka said. ‘Your life belongs to you and you alone.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun
For much of the 20th century, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe was globally recognized as the living voice of Africa, particularly for his novel Things Fall Apart. His work, which vocalized for the first time an anti-colonialist African perspective launched contemporary African literature onto the international stage. The widespread popularity of the book was an important step for both Africa and the Western world in acknowledging the horrors of the continent’s colonial past and the injustices that characterize such a history. Achebe passed away in March 2013, leaving behind a vibrant literary scene much indebted to his work.
Today, the African literary scene plays host to a plethora of voices, an eclectic group of writers with a variety of convictions, all telling a divergent story. However, amongst them, one voice seems to have risen above the others in terms of popularity: that of the female Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Adichie’s critically acclaimed breakout novel, Purple Hibiscus, a female coming-of-age story set in Nigeria, was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book. Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, which recounts the experiences of two sisters during the Biafran War, won the prestigious Orange Prize. Her latest book, released in May 2014, tackles the precarious issue of race in the post-9/11 world. In many ways, Adichie has become the contemporary female voice of Africa.
Earlier this year, Adichi delivered a talk entitled “We Should All Be Feminists” at the TEDxEuston conference, discussing the ubiquity of gender inequality in Africa, a topic often addressed in her novels. Using personal experiences and anecdotes, she uncovers the distinctly patriarchal nature of Nigeria and its individual and collective implications.
In her TEDx Talk, Adichi spoke of the constant dismissal directed at women in Nigeria. She told of the chastisement that comes when she walks alone as a female, and the lack of acknowledgement that comes when she is accompanied by a male. She recalled young girls being taught primarily how to cook for their brothers, despite their limitless potential and brilliance. She told of women shirking success for men, of women too often making their talents clandestine in the face of the male ego. Foremost, she told of ongoing, furtive injustices that enshroud the quotidian and dramatically limit the future potential of African girls everywhere.
Despite the humorous nature of her anecdotes, most reverberate as serious signifiers of deep-seated gender inequality in Africa. She writes of the disastrous effects of such a patriarchal system – for the untapped resource of Africa lies in its female population and in the enormous pool of their combined talents.
In the creation and perpetuation of these gender expectations, Adichi argues that, “…gender as it functions today is a grave injustice… these Nigerians have been raised to think of women as inherently guilty… we teach girls shame…we make them feel as those by being born female they are already guilty of something.” The heteronormative implications of such projections of shame and guilt are huge – and the reversal of them, the establishment of an egalitarian society in which men and women are given equal opportunities, holds the potential to propel Africa into prosperity.
Without equal opportunity for its women, Africa will persist as a continent laden with struggles. However, with women as equal partners, with women as painters, writers, architects, presidents, engineers, and scientists, Africa’s prosperous future lies within reach.
– Anna Purcell
Sources: New York Times, TED
Photo: The Guardian