Gethsemane was not monster-proofed as is the perspective of the African feminist. She is the idea of the private life, the hidden life summoned up courageously in the face of insurmountable challenges. She is the futurist poet whose individual and environmental biochemistry is her moral compass. She is the writer whose brain cells tell her what to do, where to go in praise of the present, the present which radiates sacrifice. She is the feminist thinker who does not rest on her laurels, who does not follow the lead of the followers of the crowd.
Instead the African feminist is the feminine intellectual who in the final analysis is the square peg who does not fit into the round hole. She, the female of the species, is fundi on the modus operandi of the hidden life, the private life far removed from and detached from communicating only with the male gender. Instead she chooses research, teaching, writing, self-learning, study, evaluation and human observation as her preoccupation. She gives herself to the world dominated by the physical strength, the intelligence of men. Governed in the worst case scenario by the prurient, the licentious, and uninhibited, she takes from the material world around her what will make her matter in the long run and in the broadest sense in today’s proliferated Africa, it means that she has developed herself so far as to having a psychological framework within to withstand the negativity of not acquiescing to those masculine terms. To think like a man but to retain her feminine sensibilities, her female sensuality. She thinks to herself instead, ‘What will help me accomplish success extraordinarily?’ and so she becomes a catalyst, teacher, both the introverted and extroverted advocate, outspoken activist and both existential apprentice of the human condition and master of stentorian multitasking when it comes to her family who never leave the voice of domestic rules behind her. And so women will learn that men can help men, women can learn from men, and gain trustworthiness, self-esteem for themselves, loyalty and dedicated support from other women who find themselves in the same situation that the feminist finds herself in.
Every day we find new ideas from the arts, students, and their philosophies on life to the sciences. We live in a pop-culture that continually manufactures entertainment, films, fast food, friends with benefits, and what we loftily behold as art or culture one day is gone the next. We tell ourselves we aren’t perfect (nobody is but who is looking, who is checking, it has become part of our personality to see the negative which is a personal crisis in and of itself). We tell ourselves we aren’t good, pretty, thin or rich enough and we go around from buying labels to putting labels smack-dab on our foreheads as far as the eye can see which speaks more to how we view ourselves in the context of a global family experiencing recession and climate change, to global warming, to us rubbing salt on our wounds. But the feminist (and the African feminist in particular) can bypass all these inroads into what the Western hemisphere has glorified for decades. She can recognise what the rehabilitation, the recovery, the relapse, the alcoholism, the addiction, the depression, the stressful period you went through as a child, or teen-ager, young adult and grown up, psychotherapist and psychiatrist stand for or is rather a stand-in for. That person who will listen and offer up advice that you should have received from the absent parent in your life (mother or father). The feminist knows that the stand-in is the replacement, the significant key or other, the adjustment snap back into sanity and reality: the exit route out of a bad relationship, the separation or divorce of parents when you were at a young age before you became self-aware and had the knowledge of how to take care of yourself without relying on the instability of having come out of a dysfunctional home.
Perhaps in some ways the African feminist has had a more difficult, less sheltered upbringing than her Western counterparts. Let us look at what she has had to deal with as a child, a teen-ager, a young adult in her twenties and a grown up. Draw up a list.
In Africa it is difficult to conceive of the African feminist and what to make of her. Is she a poet? Is she a writer? Or a daughter, a mother or a grandmother. Is she the phenomenal matriarch of her family? Does the African feminist simply put have a private life? Or is she a citizen marked with a schizophrenic abandonment, with the ‘scarlet letter’ so to speak? And can this citizen be both political and maternal? Can this blindsided figure find poetic justice within a corrupt colonialized system leaning towards politics, an establishment that has burned its bridges with the opposite sex in order to become born again as the second sex? In communicating the bohemianism, the surprise, the charisma, the anticipatory inhibitory nostalgia and the spiritual power of privacy in the essays and poetry of Virginia Woolf is where we discover her intimately. We become mindful of her prowess, her prolificacy, her feminism and her acumen as we do of other women ahead of their time who hid behind the variety of their creative energies and impulse, marriage, children and husbands. The important things to remember about feminism is not in which hemisphere and when it started but the way it beautifully circulated across issues, the innerness of privacy and private torment, a private despair when it came to the suicidal depression of both female and male writers and poets. The African feminist as far as I am concerned built elegant foundations where there were none, and it crossed relationships via flashbacks from childhood, a childhood continued into adolescence and a very much grown up world.
There is also something innocent about the world that both the African feminist and Virginia Woolf inhabited and the philosophy that both of them engender which is this: there is a class system that has stood the test of time. That’s as ancient as dust, the Sphinx and the pyramids. Behold the class system that finds its routes amongst the genders, between those that live in the divide, the passage-of-Gethsemane of poverty and the idyll of extreme wealth. I believe that the African feminist doesn’t believe she is a feminist. She has very little self-worth but then again the other extreme is the brilliant young female whose life experience and background overshadows the female not given enough will and stamina to succeed and to raise herself above the sets of circumstances that she finds herself in. Which is why there is so much promiscuous behaviour that colours the livelihood amongst young African women. They see it as their only way out of the inroads of poverty that has marked them for life. They unfortunately will be rooted forever in the mind-set that they are not gifted if they are not educated like their counterparts who live in self-imposed exile in other parts of the world. We have much to learn from visionaries like Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Ingrid Jonker, Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, Sylvia Plath and Simone de Beauvoir. That we have to see ourselves as visionaries first instead of mothers, daughters, educationalists, role models and so forth and that we all have a part to play in savouring and questioning the unknown. What is the unknown in this case? The significant and all-important masterpiece ‘of the wretched of this earth’ will always be how we transfigure our personal curiosity, our shock, and our trauma of dealing with (and how we treasure) the infinite radiance of learning to understand that as feminists we too have a role to play in a modern African society.
Firstly by embracing that word ‘feminist’ which has myriads of connotations. We have to learn from each other, our Western counterparts, those that live in a self-imposed exile or not and understand our perceived preciousness as being part of our giftedness, our genius. It is not only female writers and poets from this continent who can be creative but women who find themselves working in every field. What of the insight of women in the urban and rural atmospheres? Don’t they share the same complexities when it comes to motherhood, raising children, having the maternal instinct? Why don’t we recognise our exquisiteness as women with the prying eyes of the world upon us? Why don’t we recognise that word feminist, and by embracing it let that word consume us instead of the other way around. Instead of breaking the negative world’s thought patterns as we know it into the spiritual poverty of the mind, and sensing a pitfall, breeding nothingness where there is no empirical sum of parts to speak of. For so long as we break up contrary notions of discriminating agents against what makes us whole and what is supposed to mean the death of feminism, how on earth are we supposed to put it back together again? Being resolute either encourages two things. The vanity of visibility or the cloak of invisibility. We are a traumatic nation (of children, men and women) and within our fractured identity, our African identity lies the tethered ego where disorder ensues pleasurably to exposure with a loose rhythm in a guarded continuum’s timeline or quite sometimes violently erratic vestibule giving way to an interloper’s solicitude. And for the most part in history we as African feminists have not been a part of the world’s intelligentsia. Slowly coming into our own it is a mysterious female selfhood. There are brick walls, and glass ceilings but in the end do they really matter? And are they made of millions of charismatic benefits, substance or just the façade of something that makes us lose touch with reality?
Women on the whole are thought to be ethereal, romantic, otherworldly, emotionally overwhelmed creatures for the most part endowed with empathy (that unique and authentic virtue that we wear as a tiara or crown, saved for special occasions) but we seem to lose that solidly constructed veneer once we are named ‘feminist’. We must be coupled off in early adult life. We must carry and raise progeny. We must cook and clean. We must smile in the face of adversity, rise wisely above our giftedness, and always show up with humility. We must not cuckold our husbands. Instead we must ignore and forgive them of their indiscretions. Look the other way with a steely-eyed reserve. It is the man in Africa who is the intellectual. The man who is ahead of his time. The thinker, the dreamer, the perfect giant who builds empire after empire, and who is often the introverted leader amongst his peers. Whereas wherever the African feminist shines, she is illuminated amongst her contemporaries’ envious flesh. And this is what is so profound and found in Africa. The woman who lives and writes and works in her self-imposed exile. She finds herself in the written word, the information age. It is her compensation. And this compensation becomes her materialism, her ‘moneyed’ world at large, and it manifests itself further as her truth, her essence, her sense of being reflects itself back at her as her sensitivity towards the trauma of the African humanity, and what the unspecified feminist must endure in Africa. It becomes her education. And everything else is drowned out by it. This is why many young people, young women feel both the yearning to be part of society and yet they want to be left alone too. In other words they want to do their own thing. But they cannot make any sense of that word ‘alone’. To them it means loneliness, acute depression, and suicidal illness and so the question remains how can we revolutionise their negative thought patterns? The feminist writer, the feminist poet has to remain unguarded because she will always be given assignments to test her. In modern-day Africa we are being tested all the time from the state of the nation to the state of our mind-set.
Becoming, or rather claiming feminism as your own, regarding that word ‘feminist’ as yours, well, there’s a radiance that comes with it and suddenly you’re transformed into your mother or your grandmother. That woman that you said you would never become. Each and every woman on this ‘wretched part of the world’, who has experienced ‘wretched poverty’, ‘who has ever been wretchedly ridiculed or humiliated by misanthropes or tribalists’ has had their own Gethsemane, meaning a religious experience tantamount to Noah’s ark or Jonah and the whale. And when I say religious I mean everything that is part of the proverbial unseen. And when we come to issues of religion aren’t we are all reduced to distillates of minutiae? In order to not debate the collective standing of feminists in Africa but rather to understand, we must search within ourselves, discover for ourselves, become more accepting of the unquiet phenomena of the female identity and psyche that exists across the fabric of this continent.