The themes of motherhood, womanhood and debased sexuality have been explored in various fictional narratives by African writers, bringing to the fore issues confronted by women in both the imagined and actual society. Literature thus plays a critical role in providing an alternative prism through which the society reassesses and reorients itself towards the ideal. Thus, adopting a feminist premise, this essay attempts a deconstruction of E.E. Sule’s Makwala, in order to locate and appropriate the interplay of gender bias in the text. It also strives to investigate the politics of representation of the female in texts by men, underscoring the assertion that male narratives of women are usually subjective, often overridden by patriarchal instincts.
Motherhood is the fulcrum of the African woman. Motherhood in Africa is intrinsically linked to womanhood; a woman without a child is looked at as an incomplete human in many ways and in many societies in Africa. Thus, the worth of an African woman is tied to her reproductive capabilities. A woman’s humanity is still measured by her marital status, and the gender of her children. For instance, if she bears a male child, she automatically becomes “a real woman” and everyone’s favorite, especially in a polygamous family. If she bears a female child, well, she is considered to be less of a woman than the one who bears a male child. And if she is unable to bear children, she is looked at as a misfortune to the society, not minding whether her inability to conceive could have ensued from complications on the part of the man. The woman takes the blame because she is a woman and it is “a man’s world.” This precarious dilemma of the African woman has been represented in several African fictional narratives such as Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come, Zaynab Alkali’s The Stillborn, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms, Maryam Bobi’s Bongel, etc.
Patriarchy continues to provide the template for the numerous counter-narratives that now abound on the African literary continent. Several works are being published that attempt to renegotiate the role of women in African societies. Particularly, feminist narratives have evolved and are steadily questioning the grand narratives and prescriptive roles women were hitherto confined to in African fiction. Thus, new realities have also evolved with the literatures of the present which in turn are now also changing what constitutes the concerns of post-modern women in African societies. Attention is now being shifted towards restructuring the obliterated identity of the African woman as a subject, object and dependant. Motherhood no longer seems a primary concern in new African fiction, but redefining the identity and place of the “new” African woman now seems to be the major issue at stake. For instance, the women characters in Sule’s Makwala are without husbands and are self-dependent to the extent that their survival is not hinged on the shoulders of a man in the name of marriage, at least indirectly. They are better regarded as 21st century African women leading their lives however they choose. They are also single mothers.
However, the subject of female suppression is a universal phenomenon. And the counter-narratives which sought to reassert the debased identity of the woman, and debunk the repressive appellation assigned to women in traditional society gained its earliest momentum in the Western World, with its obvious consequence culminating in the promulgation of women rights movements backed by sturdy ideological grounding, which of course constitutes the body of discourse known as feminism. Mary Ellen Snodgrass in discussing feminism and Betty Friedan’s entrenchment of its values on Americans’ consciousness in the 1960s submits that,
Wreathed in raises and promotions, husbands allocate to their mates a hollow, second hand success as good wife and good mother. Basing her text on personal experience, Friedan castigates a society that allots freedom and opportunity to boys while reserving domestic drudgery and child care for girls. For her exposé of skewed values and wasted talents arose the feminist demand for choice. (Snodgrass, 2006:193)
The point of focus in the passage above is enshrined in the last sentence “the feminist demand for choice.” This brings one to the question of whether that demand for choice by women has been met over the years. Perhaps, for women in the West, the demand might have been granted; but for African women, it is only fair to say that the struggle continues. It is important to also draw attention to an intrinsic angle in that very intriguing phrase, assuming it to be the defining crux of feminist agitation. The verb “demand” shows an absence of power and recognition of weakness on the person who makes the demand. The paradox thus being that the person from whom the demand is made determines the extent to which such a demand is granted. In other words, the fact that women had to demand for choice implies that they lack an independent identity devoid of the influence of the men. This takes us to another very crucial question: do women in Africa have the right of choice, including the right of how they are represented in fiction by male authors? The matron of Northern female writers in English in Nigeria, Zaynab Alkali, had posited during a live chat at a book and arts festival in Minna that “radical feminism is against African culture. In Africa, we have respect for the marriage institution and for being mothers.” Of course, by marriage institution and culture, she means reverence for the patriarchal norms which govern marriages in Africa. This further compound the question of choice for the African woman, when her actions and choices are controlled via cultures and marriage institutions chaperoned by men.
Odula is a prominent male character in Makwala that appears to have been affected by life experiences that render him abnormal. And he cannot be really considered to be a real man given his antecedents in the text. He is not a committed husband, but an absent father who abandons his family and negates his patriarchal obligation to the society. The reality of his irresponsibility is brought to bear when he finally decides to visit his village after many years of absence. But his mother, even in death, is made to take blame for the kind of man that her son has become.
Even in death, a child’s failure is attributed to the mother. Ada Umoru admonishes Odula thus,
You are the heir and you failed to come bury your father. You must have taken after your stupid mother who didn’t get a burial from you, either. We didn’t expect you now to come bury your wife! Now that you are here, do us a favour of burying the entire village (277).
Sule’s Makwala is a kaleidoscope of the slum lives of the poor. It is set in the early 2000s in Makwala, Kano State, Nigeria. The novel is also in particular about the struggles of women battered and shattered by the circumstances of their birth, sex, socio-economic status, education and fate. The women of Makwala are reminiscent of a dystopia; a society hinged on capitalist schemes and neo-colonialist constriction of the poor by the political class, elites and government to strip the common man whose only prayer is to see another dawn. It is most significantly a calisthenic of beauty and ugliness, but above all it is a metaphorical representation of Nigeria, in fact, it is Nigeria in fiction. Sule has written a genuinely human story. This paper, however, concerns itself only with the representation of women in the novel and the implications of such representation for the larger society.
Just as it has been established above, in a typical African society, the responsibility of raising a child is considered a fundamental obligation of the woman. The mother thus becomes the lifeline of the development of a child, usually within an absent father ambience. The African woman thus mothers and fathers a child at the same time. The man claims that his primary role is to fend for the family by meeting their material needs. The larger implications of this practice are that the overall growth process is vested on the shoulders of a single mother and as such a child’s behaviour whether positive or negative is attributable to their mother. Motherhood in this context becomes a burden for the woman. While a mother receives repudiation for the misbehavior of a child, a father in turn receives praises for a child’s positive behaviour. We must return at this juncture to the text so as to concretize the reality of the above premise with the reality of the text as we shall soon see.
Are you a good mother? Odula had asked her (229).
Odula’s judgmental question is intended to mock Mama Maria’s motherhood, seeing that about all her daughters are into prostitution. She is indirectly regarded as a failed mother because of the failure of her daughters, thus the question: are you a good mother? Odula’s question reechoes the contempt with which the African society holds women especially mothers. And its import cannot be lost as it is a realistic representation of the supposition that the failure of a child is a result of the failure of motherhood. In any case, the child who is a young adult and who interacts with the larger society and chooses his or her lifestyle is exonerated from his/her actions. But Mama Maria is just one of the many examples of the bad mothers and women of the society, in Makwala, who are equally portrayed as incapable of raising morally upright children as a result of their own moral deficiency. Mama Maria is worst hit by the debasing attacks because she has four daughters from four different men of different ethnicities. Her daughter Maria is a prostitute and a single mother too, thus continuing a generation of irresponsible women in the society.
The position of women in the society has been compromised by even supposedly biological and religious accounts of creation, where it is said that God made man first and then created the woman as an afterthought, to complement the man. This is the myth of the history of man, thus women have always been looked upon as subjects by men. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in her eclectic discussion of the politics of class relation and gender representation in works of literature, particularly with regard to “the subaltern as female” postulates on the complexity of the female as an element of subdued narratives, trapped in a patriarchal order. She asserts that,
…the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant. If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow(Spivak, 1988:83-84).
Mama China on the other hand is allegedly a lesbian, something the society frowns upon. Even Makwala itself frowns at Mama China’s supposedly “abominable act.” Nelly’s mother is another single mother who despises her child’s absent father. And even Nelly who sees herself as the damsel of Makwala lives in the delusion of having a father abroad who would come and take her away someday. All she lives and dreams of are fat lies. Ende’s mother, even with her mental disability; Odula deceives her with food and takes advantage of her sexually, an act which results in pregnancy and her eventual death. Before her death, she gives birth to Ende. Odula secretly buries her without ever knowing any member of her family. This text renders as worthless the lives of women. Martha, one of the protagonists in the text is a prostitute, and mother of a bastard son, Jackson, who ends up killing her for being a source of shame and embarrassment to him. The unequivocal implication of this type of portrayal is that the text suggests that the society is bad because its mothers and women are bad. This assertion is evident in aspects of the text. For example, Jackson’s depression and unbalanced psychological state is attributable to Martha’s prostitution business, because he constantly alludes to her as his source of humiliation in Makwala. And his killing her is supposed to heal him and take away his shame. Ende too shows serious signs of mental retardation because of the absence of his mother and he also probably inherited his mental instability from his dead mother who was also mentally disturbed. Mama Maria’s children are prostitutes and irresponsible because they were raised by an irresponsible mother. One can deduce from the forgoing that the text presupposes that a functional society depends on the quality and moral credibility of the women nay mothers in that society. To counter Odula’s rhetoric of condescension whether Maria is a good mother, she responds through the voice of the narrator via Odula’s own recollection that “He also recalled his chat with Mama Maria who vehemently insisted that good mothers were made by the society; they didn’t just come clean from wombs.” (229)