The Depiction of Women in Selected Prose by African Women Authors In Relation to Culture Education and Power

The Depiction of Women in Selected Prose by African Women Authors In Relation to Culture Education and Power
The Depiction of Women in Selected Prose by African Women Authors In Relation to Culture Education and Power

ABSTRACT: This study examined the Depiction of Women in Selected Prose by African Women Authors in Relation to Culture Education and Power. In this study it is revealed that although African women writers depict female protagonists in their prose, it is not always the protagonist who is depicted as having absolute control of her life but another female character who remains in the category of primary characters.  For example, in So Long a Letter, the protagonist, Ramatoulaye, is a strong woman who is rather acquiescent in nature; however, her alter ego, Aissatou, is the character depicted as not only strong but actively resisting the cultural status quo. 


The Depiction of Women in Selected Prose by African Women Authors In Relation to Culture Education and Power



 1.1 Background to the Study

The portrayal of characters in the works of African writers of prose reveals a preference for male characters as protagonists while female characters are often depicted as supporting characters.  Male heroism is more dominant in the writings of African male authors and Kumah (2000: 6) attributes this to male dominance of the literary world.  The author states that:

As a consequence of the male-dominated literary tradition, many of the depictions of African women are reductive – perpetuating popular myths of female subordination.  Female characters in male-authored works are rarely granted primary status – their roles often trivialized to varying degrees – and they are depicted as silent and submissive in nature.

One example of male heroism is reflected in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, where Okonkwo, the protagonist, is male (Achebe: 1958).  Stratton (1994) states that female characters in this novel are mentioned alongside property, as if to say their male counterparts own them.  For example, Okonkwo and another male character, Nwakibie, are said to have barns of yams and wives (Achebe: 1958).  Stratton (1994: 25) states that the status of women in Umuofia is very low and argues that this gives the picture that “they are mere objects, willed, for example, by a father to a son as part of an estate or traded for a bag full of cowries.”  The author argues that with the exception of Chielo the priestess, the women are depicted as “down on one knee before their menfolk.”  Kumah (2000: 7) quotes Buchi Emecheta, a female writer from West Africa, as saying that “the good woman in Achebe’s portrayal is one who drinks the dregs after her husband.”

In Eddie Iroh’s Without a Silver Spoon, the main character, Ure Chokwe, is a young man who possesses good traits that, although inherited from both parents, are said to stem especially from his father (Mokgosi and Seboni 1998, 22).  This presents the picture that Ure Chokwe’s goodness is attributed more to his father’s influence than to his mother’s.  This depiction of positive traits attributed to a father’s influence downplays the importance of the role played by female characters.  Although fathers play a role in their children’s lives, mothers have initial influence over their children as they are the ones who often provide early childcare.  Both parents play a dual role in their children’s behavioural traits and should thus be accorded equal recognition.

A few exceptions of female protagonists in prose by African male authors can be cited.  One such example is depicted in the novel Jagua Nana by Cyprian Ekwensi, in which the main character, Jagua, is portrayed as an ageing, yet very beautiful prostitute (Ekwensi:1961).  Kumah (2000: 7) argues that this is a “prostitution trope that is exemplary of the debasement African women suffer at the hands of male authors.”  Although Jagua is the main character, she does not exhibit the traits of a conventional heroine.  Ekwensi paints a picture of a woman whose beauty is admired by all; however, he depicts her as no better than a common prostitute who depends on male customers to provide for her.

A significant number of African women writers follow the convention of the male character as protagonist.  For example, Mokgosi and Seboni (1998: 25) state that the main character in Bessie Head’s novel When Rain Clouds Gather is a man called Makhaya.  However, more 20th and 21st century African women writers have tended to portray women as protagonists.  For example, in Buchi Emecheta’s novel The Joys of Motherhood, Nnu Ego, the protagonist, is female.  Another novel, Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer, also depicts a female protagonist, Rosa Burger. 

The study focused on the notion that the portrayal of females in the work of African women authors could depict women in terms of reality, such that if depicted in this era, for example, then they should also reflect African women who are dignified, grounded, successful and powerful.  The study recognised that women have faced and continue to face obstacles to self-fulfilment as a result of cultural restraint, lack of education and barriers to power.  In reality, however, more and more African women have successfully overcome these barriers.  For example, Mmushi (2005: 24) cites a powerful woman in Sindi Zilwa, and describes her as a “real dynamo”.  The author characterises Zilwa as a prime example of woman power.  Zilwa is the Chief Executive of a professional services company called Nkonki.  Mmushi further states that she was awarded the Top Women Business Award “for demonstrating the greatest commitment to and achievement in the promotion of workplace equality for women.”

Another example of a woman who is educated and powerful is Attaliah Molokomme, who has been appointed Botswana’s first female Attorney General. Piet (2005) states that Molokomme is the first woman to be appointed Attorney General in Botswana and in the same article, interviews held with colleagues and friends consistently describe Molokomme as a hard worker who is well known as a legal activist and scholar.

A further example of an educated woman who has overcome gender barriers to power is Judge Unity Dow, the first female judge appointed to the High Court of Botswana.  She is an African female writer of fiction herself and has had two novels, Far and Beyon’ (2000) and The Screaming of the Innocent (2002) published; the main characters in these novels are female.   Far and Beyon’ is a novel depicting a 19 year old young woman Mosa Selato, whose intelligence and determination give her the courage to question tradition and challenge abuse.  The researcher of this study observes that the positive portrayal of Mosa Selato in Far and Beyon’ exemplifies a heroine to be admired and emulated by readers.

The premise of this study was that literary work reflects what happens in real life.  Kumah (2000: 1) quotes Ogundipe-Leslie as having stated that “although literature may be imaginative, it can be used for a systematic study of society.”  A further premise was that beyond the obstacles faced by female characters in the plots of African women authors, they should, as evident in reality, also be shown to experience wholesome levels of personal achievement. 

The tendency for African women authors has been, for example, to portray the woman character as educated yet lacking self-empowerment.  For example, in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, the protagonist Tambudzai aspires to become like her educated aunt, Maiguru; however, she eventually discovers that although educated, Maiguru is a subservient wife who leaves most of the household decision-making to her husband, Babamukuru.  If depicted as powerful, the female character may lack substantial education.  In Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, the female protagonist, Firdaus, holds a secondary school leavers’ certificate but she is a prostitute who realises her power only after she has killed a pimp, and is sentenced to death.  

Studies such as done by Kumah (2000) and McEldowney (1999), attribute the subservient role of female characters in prose, to adverse literary biases.  McEldowney (1999:1) states that women writers face hardship in regard to their portrayal of female characters due to expectations of critics who are often male, and publishing houses which are often male-dominated.  Kumah (2000: 2) quotes Boyce-Davies, who observes that African literature was initially critiqued by European academicians who used Western, male-orientated modes of creating and evaluating literature.  The author further mentions that the critics of the West were then succeeded by African male writers who “perpetuated the phallocentric criticisms that were previously ascribed.”   As a result, Kumah (ibid) concludes that critiques of African literature are founded on the marginalisation of African women’s issues such that the characterisation of females and the political significance of their portrayal remain unacknowledged.

African women authors write on themes that effectively relay their message on gender disparities: for example, contemporary women writers, as exemplified by the five primary texts used in this study, write on women’s concerns.  The study assumes that contemporary African women writers would depict female protagonists such that, within these recurrent gender themes, they reflect the changing status of women in current political, economic and social spheres.

The Depiction of Women in Selected Prose by African Women Authors In Relation to Culture Education and Power

1.2 Statement of the Problem

The portrayal of women as powerful, grounded and dignified in the works of African women authors is subverted by issues of culture, education and power.  McEldowney (1999) examined the cause of under-representation of female characters in literature and attributes this to the fact that critics and publishing houses, often male-dominated, are harsh when dealing with the writings of women. 

The author further cites Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions, as having been rejected by four African publishers because they believed it depicted the lives of black women too negatively and states that several African male authors and critics disowned Buchi Emecheta for being too bold in her portrayal of women characters in her novels.  The researcher presumed that in the writings of more contemporary female authors, although the protagonist is often female, she is held back from a wholesome and more positive portrayal by aspects of culture, education and power.

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