The Burden of Motherhood, Womanhood and Debased Sexuality in E.E. Sule’s Makwala

Perhaps it was unconscious but the politics of gender cannot be easily overlooked in the calculated narration of the text. How is it for instance that the woman’s voice is lost when it comes to her turn to defend herself from Odula’s diatribe, and the narrator speaks in her place instead but Odula gets the privilege of asking in his own voice and words if Mama Maria is a good woman? The woman’s voice is clearly not important considering that it was buried by the male narrator at a more critical point when Mama Maria needs her voice to be heard the most. But she is quietly silenced, her identity tainted with a debasing question she was never allowed to answer. This is a case of patriarchal repression where the woman is incapable of speaking for herself even in matters that are exclusively biological to her nature. But of course, again, Mama Maria only regains her voice in the instant where the male narrator requires her to debase herself.

Why, I be good mother o. See, I born de whole Nigeria for my house. Papa Uju na Igbo, Papa Halima na Eggon, Papa Kemi na Yoruba, and I first born for my tribe Iyalla. Na Papa Maria. So you see say I be correct Mama Nigeria?” She burst into a hearty laugh (229).

Perhaps if Mama Maria was to be educated, she would have realized that what she thought was funny was actually a self-mockery of her failed life, defined only by childbirth. This is the image of the African woman in a patriarchal society. To show the absence of hope for the future in their mothers, the Youngsters of Makwala form a


child’s foundation to protect the rights of children from being abused by their irresponsible mothers. A young girl even reports her own mother to the foundation and to the government’s Anti-child Abuse Organization, for forcing her to sleep with men for money. The author uses this depiction to further indict the complacency of mothers in the failure of their children and the eventual destruction of the society.

There is hardly a good woman in Makwala, everyone is bad including Nwayi the Deeper Lifer, who compelled by existential needs converts to Islam, to the chagrin of everyone in Makwala. The humanity of the women of Makwala is lost amidst their struggles to find and reinvent their battered womanhood by the ugly fate that is their life. Martha’s life is an encyclopedia of scars and sores inflicted on her by the absence of choice in a dehumanized society where the young woman is an easy prey. Martha and all Makwala women are clearly driven by the existential need to survive, but happiness is a dream beyond their reach. Martha continually mourns losing the joys of motherhood by way of her son’s rejection of her affection for him. She cries and begs that he allow her to love him like a mother.

She locked the door, took some steps towards him and stopped. In a slow motion, he stretched himself on the bed, towards the wall, creating space for her. The way he used to do as a child. When his innocent mind, uncritical, depthless, was open to her love, to the gaiety of her motherhood-together they had played, gambolled around the room, mother and son in their world of exceeding love (194).

Martha though a prostitute epitomizes the sacrifice and commitment that is motherhood. From one calamity to another she stuck to her son, unwilling to give him up for adoption. So she ends up raising him in different brothels but for all her efforts for him, Jackson is more concerned about his manly ego and reputation amongst his friends. Reminiscent of a man that he is, he does not appreciate or even acknowledge Martha’s sacrifices for him as a mother. He finally succeeds in killing his own mother so he could save his face and manliness, but all she ever wanted was to give him a better life and a true mother’s love. The text is unambiguous in its exploration of the complexities of motherhood in a society without sympathy for the woman. The love lost between Martha and her son Jackson is symbolic of the betrayal and neglect of the society of mothers and women in spite of their contributions and sacrifices for the betterment of the society, yet a mother’s love is perpetual and enduring.

In his teens, her boy had turned into an enigma. Could she ever comprehend his ways? Maybe if she woke up the next day and still found him here. What if he vanished like a ghost?! She felt like touching his body, feeling his flesh, to be sure it was not his ghost she was lying with. If he was still here when she woke up the next day, she would go on her knees before him, she would weep, she would implore him to let her treat him like a mother again. She would restate the dream she had had for him, the future she had imagined, the amens she had uttered. She would surrender herself to his biddings, even if it meant abandoning her business (195).

If only she knew that she would die by his hands, she might as well not have given birth to him. But for the joy of being a mother, of bringing forth a child of her own into the world overwhelmed all the worries associated with raising a child.

Sule’s portraiture of the conditions of the Nigerian woman is such that its psychological effects cannot be lost on the reader. In many instances in the text we encounter the resilient nature of women in their struggle to survive and nurture their young ones.We also see how the society through its agency attempts to stifle the strides of the struggling woman. Habsih, the sharia law enforcement agency clamps down on Mama Maria and her alcohol business. Her house is set ablaze by the overzealous agency while she and her daughters are asleep, but she pulls through like the strong woman that she is, defiling the hypocritical system. But her joy is temporary as her beloved Makwala is eventually sold to Lebanese expatriates, signaling her total defeat by the system. The narrator reflects thus on Mama Maria’s fate:

Mama Maria suddenly became speechless, her arms across her chest, her face wrinkled with sorrow. Was this how her Makwala would end? Was she fated to be a failure? She had tried her best to ensure that Makwala lived. Makwala had longed to live. But the odds. She thought of what would be left of her life without Makwala. Hot tears dropped from her eyes (326).

Daniel Defoe in Moll Flanders provides a retrospective premise on how the society conditioned female sexuality to certain performative roles. In order to control the female sexuality, the woman has to be made vulnerable first, either by the will of nature, man or the society, using the tool of poverty, such that she becomes susceptible and submissive to the overriding force of masculinity. It is what Ellen Pollak aptly refers to as “the social domination of a woman” (Pollak, 1989, 2003:498). All that Moll Flanders ever wanted as a child was to become a gentle woman and escape being put to “trade, or to services” as was the practice and fate of all children without proper care and parenting, and who could not fend for themselves.

Martha in Sule’s Makwala, like Dafoe’s Moll Flanders, was an innocent village girl brought from Ogoja by a woman who later pushes her into prostitution. Martha like Moll had envisioned herself as becoming a ‘gentlewoman’ by using her hands, wit and then basic education. She initially refuses to go into prostitution, but after being sent out of the house by the woman, she takes refuge with her fellow Ogoja sister, Nwayi, who lived nearby. But they soon fight and fall apart. Thus, like Moll, she is swayed by the desire for material comfort, and deeper she plunges into the shackles of prostitution. Just like Moll Flanders, Martha attains the apogee of the prostitution ladder in the text. The narrator through Mama Maria’s recollection extols Martha’s exploits as a prostitute:

She said Martha, among all the girls she knew, among all the girls that descended from Cross River, was the only one who saw the highs and lows of prostitution. Bright and smart, Martha had been cajoled into coming to Makwala by a woman who claimed to be her aunt. At first Martha rejected prostitution, and then she found herself in the thick of it. She had the best of it, and then the worst. How else would one describe the life of a prostitute killed by her own son, whom she claimed to love so much. Rich men came after her, bringing riches and misfortune. She rolled from riches to poverty as a prostitute (323).

In so many ways as shown above, there is a striking similarity between Sule’s Martha and Defoe’s Moll Flanders, both female characters whose sexuality become their means of survival and escape from poverty. Although situated in different contexts and times, their exploration of the sexuality of the woman is uniquely similar.

The manner of representation of female sexuality, however, draws upon itself some critical questions and requires deeper introspection. Female sexuality in the text is debased and held in contempt by the men who seek pleasures from the sex workers. The women are treated by the men as if they were less than human beings, without dignity. Even the words “prostitute” and “prostitution” are used with demeaning connotations. Using the term “sex worker” obviously would be less offensive and more humane to the women, but clearly the text’s intent is to accentuate the enormity of the derision with which female sexuality is looked upon in the African socio-cultural milieu. Martha’s experience with Major General Musa, a pervert who drugged her and anally abused her, sums up the demeaning realities that many women face trying to survive in a dehumanizing world where women are easy prey. That first experience leaves her inexplicable pains but Martha had no idea of General Musa’s plans until he had traced her out of hiding. The second experience almost leaves her dead. Two other ladies, using whips, assault Martha with beastly instincts.

The General gave her a drink. She hesitated, he urged her on with a smile. Just two glasses and she felt instant numbness. As she grew weaker, he took her upstairs. She woke up – she didn’t know what time of day – to find long ropes binding her hands to the head of the bed and her feet to the foot of the bed. She was naked. She started shouting and crying, struggling to free herself (147).

Major General Musa was the second soldier to violate Martha in the text. The first soldier who despoiled her did so in her own house before her little son, whom the soldier equally abused physically. Martha recounts her ordeal: ‘The soldier’s eyes were bloodshot, his words harsh: “Give me nyansh to fuck!” (78). And when she protests, “even if you want to fuck me, not in the presence of my son,” is met with the soldier’s inhumane reply, ‘“Your boy? Na me put am for this room? Just open your nyansh for me.” He hurriedly brought out squeezed notes from his pockets and threw them at her. He turned to Jackson, “And you, common lie down and close your eyes” (78-79).

How less inhuman can anyone be, depriving another human of their dignity; the essence of their existence? Sule exceptionally excels in showing us the apex of inhumanity in its raw form, unpretentious and genuinely affective. For this is the fate of many a woman who find themselves down the ladder of life, and yet must survive their destinies. But Martha’s debasement is even the least of the gory images in the text. The Weird One, according to the text, is a mentally disturbed woman who lives in an incomplete building, who is lured and sexually taken advantage of by a supposedly sane man, Odula, in spite of her mental illness. However, the height of her pitiable condition is that she becomes pregnant and dies while delivering the child, Ende, in Odula’s room. The labour scene provides a graphically horrible picture of the shame that has become of the woman in the text.

All that the Weird One’s life costs Odula were just some loaves of bread and a few bottles of Fanta, which he offered with the pretense of taking care of her. He recounts the encounter quite graphically too:

And my flashlight caught her hips, with the legs apart, and I saw her yawning womanhood, the thick hair unable to totally obscure. Not even the thought of her pouncing on me could have stopped it. Her resistance was insignificant because I hurriedly slid into her. Her sudden, startling movement easily relaxed with welcoming moans. I dissolved in wonderment (23).

Odula’s self-confession indicates that his acts of violation were pre-planned and not a mere coincidence. One might ask what right or choice does a mad woman have over her sexuality wantonly debased by a man who feels entitled to it, even against her resistance? This representation is symbolic of the hopelessness and vulnerability of the African woman in the actual society.

In conclusion, it suffices to say that women in many societies especially in Africa, even in the postmodern times, exist in a predatory sex market where they are first made vulnerable, dependent and then purchased by self-aggrandizing men. Limited by unequal economic opportunities for some women, sex becomes their means of exchange and escape from poverty. Their sexuality becomes a tool for negotiating their own survival with the society. Most often than not, the sense of limitation is a direct result of the ground rules of patriarchy.  In Makwala therefore, one encounters what Mary Ellen Snodgrass perceptibly describes as “sexual politics.” The men control the structures that put the women in disadvantageous positions so the women in return have to negotiate with them for a fair space of passage. This assertion is more accentuated by the fact that economically deprived women trade sex to men who have the instrument of material gratification: money.

And the tragic end of the women in the text is an indication that many African women have not yet attained their utopia, unlike their Western counterparts who have fully extricated themselves from the web of patriarchy. However, all hope is not lost as Mama Maria’s daughter, Kemi, signifies a conscious new beginning for the African woman. Her strategic role in the text and introduction of the anti-child abuse foundation suggests that the children will one day correct the mistakes of their mother nay parents and the society shall be a better place for everyone.


Works Cited

Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders (1722), (ed) Albert J. Rivero, A Norton Critical Edition. W.W. Norton & Company Inc. United States of America, 2004.

Pollak, Ellen. “Moll Flanders, Incest, and the Structure of Exchange” in Moll Flanders (ed) Albert J. Rivero, A Norton Critical Edition. W.W. Norton & Company Inc. United States of America, 2004.

Sule, E.E. Makwala, Parresia Publishers Ltd. Lagos, 2018.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Feminist Literature, Facts on File, Inc. New York, 2006.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the subaltern speak?’’ Basingstoke: Macmillan.1988, Pdf.

Alkali, Zaynab. On Feminism, form an oral book chat with Professor Asabe Kabir, at the Minna Book and Arts Festival, Minna, Nigeria, 2018.

About the author

Paul Liam

Paul Liam is a poet, author, book reviewer, critical literary essayist, editor, literary columnist, polemist, creative writing mentor. He is the co-editor of Ebedi Review (Journal of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency, Iseyin, Oyo State, Nigeria). A former Assistant Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors, (ANA), Niger Chapter, his published works include, Indefinite Cravings (2012), Saint Sha’ade and Other Poems (2014), and his numerous critical essays and interviews have been published in highly reputable Nigerian Newspapers including: The Nation, The Sun, Nigerian Tribune, Daily Independence, Daily Trust, Blue Print, Nigerian Pilot, etc., and online @ africanwriter.com, dugwe.com among others.


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  • From the readings of Makwala the psychological, mental and physical derision of women as purported by this critism is absolutely constructive.
    More Post structural reviews should exhume the content of Makwala as it exhibits several other contemporary themes.

    A great review of the critic, welldone Liam.

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