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Cynicism Against Women Writers in Kenya is a ‘Single Story Catastrophe’


(This is a shorter version of a conference paper presented by the writer at Makerere University, Uganda)

There is one book written by Chinua Achebe that interests me greatly; a collection of essays under the title The Education of a British Protected Child. What interests me most about the book is the idea that the British protected the education of the African boys and girls from all types of social and cultural interactions that don’t go in tune with the British colonial preference. This thinning and culling of the British protected child from liberalized learning was carefully done to an extent that nothing else  was  education to a Nigerian, Ghanaian or any child in the colonial era unless it came from the British educator. The selfish intention underlying all these exclusive efforts was that an African child under the British intellectual and cultural protectorate was safely cushioned from interaction with other alternative cultural forces that were contemporary to the British pro-colonial scholarships. Technically any British protected child would not easily get an opportunity to read Goethe’s Faust, Hugo’s Les Miserables, and Cervantes’s Don Quixote; and more dumbfounding was the British misunderstanding of the native folk education from African parents as nothing other than savage stories from the heart of darkness. This was the same virgin soil of cultural Darwinism as perpetrated by colonial trickery into which was planted a seed which germinated the budding Western literary attitude towards the African intellectual struggle, echoing skeptical overtones that no African can write a good novel, poem, drama and so forth. It was the deliberate fallacy that aimed at intellectual exclusion.

So, through these deliberate cultural exclusions of the African world by colonial civilization, the British protected child had been nurtured on the single story for more than a century of active colonialism and for another century of active neo-colonialism. This cultural phenomenon in which European protected children were forced to literary zero-grazing on the stale fodder of European stories has been decried by several voices from Africa and the Diaspora. The voices that came out to refuse in stern measure Africa’s slavery  to a single story culture range from Langston Hughes to James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon to Paul Freire, Angelou Maya to Micere Mugo.  Recently, the voice that has boldly pointed out single story tyranny in the neo-colonial socialization is that of a Nigerian writer known as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She has condemned the single story phenomenon as a ‘single story catastrophe.’

Thus, going by the logic of analogy, deduction, induction and extension, it is possible to conclude a similar social vice is palpably looming in the eastern African literary sphere in form of persistent debates that are cynical and skeptical in nature about women, gays, lesbians, albinos and half literates. The germ and gist of these debates has been that women cannot successfully pursue a career in literature, art and social textualities.Or in case they do they cannot do it to the measure of a man. In a nutshell they argue that women cannot write the way men do. These debates are rife by the time of writing this paper and they have been made popular by the local press, especially the weekend newspapers in their respective literary and cultural discourse pages. What this means is that women in eastern Africa are supposed to be excluded from the mainstream literary socialization.

It is on record in The Saturday Nation in Nairobi that Dr. Tom Odhiambo, currently at the University of Nairobi, dismissed an anti rape poem (by a poet at the Amka workshop which works towards promoting women writers in Kenya) as being un-necessarily feminist as it only over-echoed the value of virginity. This is the public perception the eastern African society has towards Binyavanga Wainaina and Tonni Mochama. Professor Kabaji has often dismissed both Binyavanga and Mochama as the bolekaja of literature. Whereas, Professor Evan Mwangi went beyond the boundaries of literary criticism when critiquing the writings of Toni Mochama, only to go personal and declare Mochama and his editors stooges. The root cause of this intellectual perversity is arguably the fact that Binyavanga, a self-declared gay writer, is the founder of Kwani? literary journal, to which Toni Mochama is a key contributor.

Fortunately, historical facts dictate that this is not a new form of public thinking; In fact it is in human or animal nature to exclude minorities and the weak. Going by the example from European literature, we come by some historical cases where even current famous British women writers like Wollstonecraft, Bronte and others have been pictured in the Longman Anthology of British Literature as the struggling women with unbreakable spirit that only came to the world stage after fighting gender harassment and exclusion. This was in form of denied access to education and other institutional privileges. However, the postmodern approach to literature, culture and political socialization readily affirms that not only men can write, but others can also; ex-slaves like Richard Wright; migrants like Vladimir Nabokov and Svetlana Alliluyeva; lesbians like ones I don’t want to mention but they reign in the lyrical world; gays like James Baldwin; women like Chimamanda Adichie; the handicapped like Cervantes; children like Frantz Fanon at the time of writing Black Skin, White Masks; and any other humble human being who has a story to share. History shows that given equal institutional opportunities, no man has ever written excellently like a woman, across all generations.

Let me beg you, my dear reader, for leeway to complement the Kenyan literary society for recently celebrating the first jubilee of their first and native novel, Weep Not Child, written by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Kudos to the people of Kenya and Africa in general. I complement this experience out of gender connotations: first, the title, Weep not Child, is borrowed from a poem by an American gay poet by the name Walt Whitman in his collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, a title that allegorically hints at despair, loneliness, anger, exclusion, anxiety, emotional challenges and general concern for gender rights of the homosexual. However, most of the people in east Africa don’t understand such perspectives of this title; a weakness we can attribute to poor reading culture, but it is good that it was a moment for literature, gender and social transformation in Kenya. I also complement Kenyans for this moment, as they also hosted for a fortnight a gender conscious scholar, Micere Githae Mugo. Mostly I am interested in the gender sensitive public lecture delivered by Micere Mugo at Riara University. It was brief and sensitively vogue on a global literary stage, especially her outright call for Africans to appreciate the public debates about the rights of women to education, gay culture and gay literature. This contrasts with the many public lectures and social fora that Ngugi had.

Coming back to the center-piece of the story, those who say that women are culturally insensitive and incapable of mustering the intellectual rigour to write literature must learn from the above preamble. But they can also learn from the writings of Emily Martin in The Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose (2009) in which she argues that man is wasteful in everything and a woman is contrastingly very fastidious in whatever she does. Man gambles but a woman always has a goal. Man releases more than one million sperm cells, only to use one sperm-cell to fertilize a single egg carefully produced by a woman. A man releases two trillion sperm cells in a lifetime of sixty years, but a woman releases five hundred ova in a reproductive lifespan that lasts up to age fifty. These biological contrasts between man and woman also extend to culture and literature. The writing behavior of man is wasteful, but that of a woman is an outcome of characteristic soigné. Neither can we forget to mention at this juncture that the love stories of lesbians can only be properly told by lesbians; and if straight folks – out of axiomatic sentimentality or selfish anxiety – want to usurp that chance and tell the story of the gays and lesbians, then we shall not miss a diagnosis of Dr. Kenneth Leewes that we are only having out psychologies weakened by the syndrome of polymorphous perversity.

Let us support this position by taking a brief survey of women writers versus men writers in Africa and across the world, living and dead. From where do we start? Let us start from Kenya as we move outwards. My random selection gives me Dr. Margaret Ogola, the author of The River and the Source. She only wrote two books. Another one is I Swear by Apollo. In spite of her short literary life, her name is a household literary sound in Africa and even beyond, courtesy of education in medicine, resilience in spirit when dealing with the masculine world and the quality of her writing. Let us contrast her to other male Kenyan writers who have published more than ten books, but are not mentioned the way the Australian Newspaper, Mercatonet, praised her as a writer of the century. It could be bad manners to mention these Kenyan men here, but I can extend my contrast by mentioning two women writers who have struggled against the world of man; Yvonne Odhiambo and Okwiri Oduor. They are crystal clear winners of western literary prizes; the prizes no Kenyan man has recently won. The positive lessons in this context are that in Africa, women are not fully into writing not because they are incompetent, but because of the unfavorable and crude culture, social climate, attitude and economic environment suffocating any opportunity for self-discovery as a writer.

The old generations that were intellectually active towards the end of the last century are aware of literary explosions in West Africa, both in Francophone and Anglophone West Africa. They read Achebe, Soyinka, and Sedar Senghor, but they also read Mariama Ba, the author of So Long a Letter and Scarlet Song. She was read as a public literary consumption and as a high school and college set book. Mariama Ba wrote only two books before she succumbed to cancer in 1981, but if I can borrow Achebe’s words to describe her literary reputation, it “wrestled on solid personal achievement, her literary fire wildly spreading across the world like the bush fire in the harmattan wind.” This happened in contrast of West African Male writers like Nkem Nwankwo and Timothy Aluko who wrote more than seven books but still enjoyed a small or negligible acclaim. Modern West Africa is still a literary domain of the girl-writer. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: show me a man that will write the equivalence of Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah and I will show you the joke of the day, a joke so heavy that it can only remind you of the three other literary daughters of Africa; NoViolet Bulawayo, Zukisiwa Wanner and Dambisa Moyo. I don’t know their male literary contemporaries in their respective countries.

The three Nobel Prizes in literature that came to South Africa were dominantly won by women writers; Doris May Lessing and Nadine Gordimer. But one came to a man, J.M. Coetzee. This choice by the Swedish Academy is flawless. It has its decency eked in the works of Lessing; The Golden Notebook, Dan and Mara and The Grass is Singing. On a similar note, the authenticity of the Swedish academy still derives its grace from Nadine Gordimer’s oeuvre; July’s People, alongside other admirable literary efforts like A Soldier’s Embrace and the spectacular The House Gun. The lesson is that there were men writers in South Africa. Like Wilbur Smith. Have you ever read him? He wrote more than thirty books of fiction. Voluminous and spellbinding. The Angels Weep is one of them. But he is not at the same literary height as Lessing and Gordimer.

The western societies are no exception to the reality that women can write, given the right environment. The Western societies shelter in the shadows of the literary matriarchs like Ayn Rand, Toni Morison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Maya Angelou, Jacqueline Susann, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and Agatha Christie. Above all, let me introduce you to Tea Obreht. She is the author of The Tiger’s Wife, a page turner. It has remained among the top ten best books on the New York Times list.

In the process of social transformation of the society, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie introduced the reading world to three peculiar cultural challenges; Jumping Monkey Hill, her online story published by Granta Magazine; We Should all be Feminists, her fifty page talk now published as a book; and lastly, her  categorical exploration of Western psychology as an African writer, and the way Western culture has counter-invaded her psyche as an African in a post-colonial struggle to prove her worth in cultural representation of the broad African society.

A conscious concern about Adichie derives from the themes she addresses in the discourses cited above. The books are overtly for the voices of African girl child and African Lesbian. She has presented them as some of the most endangered, oppressed and un-privileged members of the African society. Her incisive portrait of the troubles facing an African girl-child and African lesbian, according to Rainbow-online, provoked the Swedish Women’s Lobby organization to translate We Should all be Feminists into the Swedish language as Alla Borde Vara Feminister and it is now to be distributed free of charge to Swedish teenagers.

However, there are risks we have to be wary of in our struggle to engender cultural transformation through forces of literature. The most likely risk is that literary opportunists can take advantage of the gender crisis in the world, only to derive literary popularity from an opportunity in cultural controversy between the North and the South, where the southern cultures are anti-homosexual while the Northern cultures are pro-homosexual, but with the ulterior motives of achieving subversion of the status quo of good family values inherent in the South. Such experiences are historically available in the likes of Alexander Szolzsenyicin and Ayn Rand, who chose to be intellectual capitalists against the socialist cultural forces of the native Russian society for the sake of being recognized easily by the West; or like Charlie Chaplin whose music was redolent of Soviet ideology against the trends in his American society for easy recognition in the soviet world and its satellites.



Alexander K. Opicho
Alexander K. Opicho
Alexander Ernesto Khamala Namugugu Opicho was born in Bokoli village, Bungoma District, in the former Western provice of Kenya. He went to primary and secondary schools in Western Kenya. He studied Accountancy, then governance and leadership at the University. He is currently pursuing a Phd course in management. He has two wives; Literature is the first. He has published poetry with Ghana poetry foundation, the East African Standard and on He has published online more than two hundred essays, several literary criticisms and over six hundred poems. His five books are with the publisher. He believes that the praxis of literature is the practice of freedom.

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