Chinua Achebe’s debut novel, Things Fall Apart, was published in 1958 against Western anthropological themes that denigrated Africa as a dark, brooding continent of people without culture, or at best, whose cultures required the benign intervention and guidance of Western civilizing thoughts and structures. Given the literary dominance of Joseph Conrad and his characterization of Africa and Africans as primitive and savage, the publication of Things Fall Apart was, therefore, received as a post-colonial correction to the pervading discourse. In his essay, ‘Things Fall Apart and Chinua Achebe’s Postcolonial Discourse’, Professor Ali Salami argues that Things Fall Apart’s very publication date and Achebe’s use of English as his preferred language of writing (instead of Igbo or the fractured tongue of Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard, for instance) set the tone for the interpretation of the text, because the English language was not only part of a colonial legacy, it also had a cosmopolitan reach.
In addition, Things Fall Apart extends the novel’s sociological narrative. This is because the story drew a delineation between the colonizers and the colonized, and featured a lead character who was tragically disappointed by his people’s abandonment of their pre-colonial traditions when they chose to embrace and side with the colonizer. Finally, the ‘post-colonial literature’ label finds justification in Achebe’s village of Umuofia, where the colonized people provide the cultural norm that is violated while the colonizer is the outsider, whose marauding influence is the knife that severed the bonds that held the community together. Consequently, its centre could no longer hold.
Patriarchy is the ideology that governs interpersonal relationships in the society of Umuofia. It is a social construct in which men hold primary power and dominate in political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of authority; patriarchy implies patrilineal inheritance and the effectual silencing of women in society. In this sense, Things Fall Apart features an ‘alpha male’, Okonkwo, who is the poster image of the patriarchal Igbo society of Umuofia. The failure to recognize and acknowledge the agency of female characters within the patriarchal landscape of Umuofia is understandable, given the dominance of male critics in the literary review profession, coupled with largely unacknowledged feminist literary theory. However, this failure inspires and necessitates a rereading of Achebe’s texts beyond Things Fall Apart. I, for instance, have found it necessary to make an imaginative reinterpretation of selected female characters in two novels by Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah; asking what it means to read the novels through a feminist lens and against patriarchal ideology.
Reimagining Achebe’s Women
Anthills of the Savannah, though a finalist for the 1987 Booker Prize for Fiction, is yet to measure up to Things Fall Apart in literary acclaim. Published in 1987 as political fiction, it was Achebe’s last novel, and it enjoys uncommon intertextuality (a very close relationship between two texts not necessarily by the same author but whose structure, language, imagery and literary world lends meaning and deeper understanding to the other text) with Things Fall Apart, even though it is not part of the famed trilogy of Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Arrow of God. I posit that the ‘Strong Women of Achebe’, birthed in the characters of Ekwefi and Chielo in Things Fall Apart, come into full bloom in the character of Beatrice in Anthills of the Savannah.
The fact that Anthills of the Savannah is the inheritor of the world of the women of Umuofia was not lost on Achebe, nor on Beatrice, who is the embodiment of female ideals and ‘strong woman’ virtues. Whereas Achebe invests in the character of Beatrice the manifestations of the Daughter of the Almighty, Beatrice acknowledges her awareness of her spiritual otherness in the template of Chielo, the priestess of the Oracle of the Hills and Caves in Things Fall Apart. In Anthills of the Savannah, Beatrice’s recollection that ‘My friendship with the strange words began no doubt quite early when I first recognized it and welcomed it at the end of my father’s family prayers to begin or end the day…’ finds authorial concurrence in the later passage, which noted that ‘Perhaps Ikem alone came close to sensing the village priestess who will prophecy when her divinity rides her abandoning if need be, her soup-pot on the fire, but returning again when the god departs to the domesticity of the kitchen or the bargaining market stool behind her little display of peppers and dry fish and green vegetables.’
Compare these sentences to the following rendition concerning Chielo’s possession and transformation as the priestess of Agbala in Things Fall Apart: ‘It was Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, prophesying. There was nothing new in that. Once in a while, Chielo was possessed by the spirit of her god and she began to prophesy.’ And later, the dawning realization: ‘But at that very moment Chielo’s voice rose again in her possessed chanting and Ekwefi recoiled, because there was no humanity there. It was not the same Chielo who sat with her in the market and sometimes bought bean cakes for Ezinma, whom she called her daughter. It was a different woman – the priestess of Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and Caves.’
In Anthills of the Savannah, Beatrice’s admits: ‘You called me a priestess. No, a prophetess… As a matter of fact, I do sometimes feel like Chielo in the novel, the priestess and prophetess of the Hills and Caves.’ This reference seals the intertextual cross-referencing and literary inheritance between Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah. Thus, Achebe’s first and last novels establish fraternity and futurity through ancestral linkages, which are propelled by female agency and female characters who recognize, embrace, and take actions on own initiatives.
Of Patriarchy and Personal Agency
The cultural contestation of patriarchy as a social power dynamic succeeds because it denies women recognition and a platform for expression and agency within the shared communal space. As ideology, patriarchy strictly constrains the role of the woman as the diametrical opposite of the male. Consequently, while the male is deemed superior, visible, and given to action and leadership, women are projected as inferior, passive, submissive, and weak, merely to be seen not heard. Hence, in Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo’s tragic flaw is his dread of being thought weak, a weakling, a woman. His obsession with being exceptionally masculine does not leave room for vulnerability.
In his 2010 essay, ‘Patriarchy in Things Fall Apart: A Study of Gender Discrimination’, Datta Sawant evaluated whether or not Chinua Achebe was a sexist writer with limited gendered vision. In his evaluation, Sawant noted that not only were women in Things Fall Apart generally nameless and therefore lacking all claims to individuality, but also even the crimes that were perpetrated in the story were gender-coded by the Umuofia society. Whereas crimes committed with deliberate, malicious intent such as Okonkwo’s killing of the white man’s head messenger and his eventual suicide were considered male, inadvertent crimes such as Okonkwo’s killing of Ezeudu’s son, were deemed female. Sexual relations in a patriarchal society were marked by male domination as the hunter and initiator, while the female characters were the hunted, passive, and receiving party. Put blandly, the female was acculturated and orientated to denial of her agency in sexual pleasures as was cryptically conveyed in the nuptial song at Obierika’s daughter’s marriage:
‘If I hold her hand
She says “Don’t touch!”
If i hold her foot
She says, “Don’t touch!”
But when i hold her waist-beads
She pretends not to know.’
According to psychologist, Albert Brandura, personal agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own choices, especially where such choices run against factors of influence determined by class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc.; factors, which combine to limit or sustain and determine an agent and their decisions. Be it individual, collective or by proxy, agency is marked by intentionality, signifying a decisive break from the norm. Hence, agency helps an individual achieve self-discovery, purpose and it is a veritable tool in gender progression as I observed in a previous essay on agency and vulnerability in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s love stories.
What does the character of Ekwefi have to do with it? In the patriarchal society of Umuofia, Ekwefi’s deployment of her personal agency makes her stand out; it individuates her in the motley collection of nameless female characters, and distinguishes her personality. If gender consciousness is activated by the ability to act on one’s choices, Ekwefi blazes the trail not only by marrying Okonkwo, but also by the manner in which she chooses to marry him! The text reads,
‘She had married Anene because Okonkwo was too poor then to marry. Two years after her marriage to Anene she would bear it no longer and she ran away to Okonkwo. It had been early in the morning. The moon was shining. She was going to the stream to fetch water. Okonkwo’s house was on the way to the stream. She went in and knocked at his door and he came out. Even in those days he was not a man of many words. He just carried her into his bed and in the darkness, began to feel around her waist for the loose end of her cloth.’ Her expression of her agency suffers no status anxieties as, in pursuit of her desires and dreams, it subverts the limitations and restrictions of patriarchal morality codes.
From the above-cited text, Ekwefi broke out of submission to parental authority when she walked out of her marriage to Anene. Further, by becoming Okonkwo’s live-in-lover without the niceties of her dowry being first returned to Anene, she upturned the traditional protocol. For this forerunner of gendered choices, it was not just a cry of ‘I will marry when I want’, but a distinct voice in deciding ‘I will marry whom I want’.
Marriage to the love of her life and by her choice did not smother Ekwefi’s agency, even when she was not spared the fierce and fiery temper of Okonkwo’s volatile personality. A circumstance that often led to her being badly beaten up and nearly shot to death by Okonkwo in a fit of anger (pp. 30-31). Rather, it earned her Okonkwo’s respect:
Okonkwo turned on his side and went to sleep. He was roused in the morning by someone banging on his door.
‘Who is that?’ He growled. He knew it must be Ekwefi. Of his three wives Ekwefi was the only one who would have the audacity to bang on his door.
Motherhood did not weaken her agency, either. Instead, it transformed her into a tigress in defense of her only surviving child, Ezinma. Beloved not only by her dour-faced and harsh-spirited father but also by Agbala the goddess, Ekwefi dared the gods by following Chielo the priestess through the gruelling march in the dead of the night to ensure her daughter’s safety:
But Ekwefi did not hear these consolations. She stood for a while, and then, all of a sudden, made up her mind. She hurried through Okonkwo’s hut and went outside.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked.
‘I’m following Chielo,’ she replied and disappeared in the darkness. Okonkwo cleared his throat and brought out his snuff bottle from the goatskin bag by his side.
Okonkwo, bested by this extraordinary determination by a woman and his own wife, and wishing not to be seen as a coward that stays back while a woman dared the darkness and the wrath of Agbala, went after Ekwefi in search of their daughter.
Discussing Chielo’s agency is contentious because hers is an imposition thrust upon her from the spirit realm in the form of possession. Without her volition and conscious intentionality, once the purpose of the goddess she served is achieved, she is thrust aside, spent, exhausted and allowed to revert to her human role as a woman. Is there a place for priestesses and prophetesses in contemporary gender equations? Can the insight gained from the spiritual realm account for power negotiations in enhancing contemporary communal well-being? Is there even a place for priestesses in modern space sharing in the national contestation of interests? Importantly, must the carrier of the spirit of the gods and goddesses be in the know and willing to partner with them to achieve purpose especially the emancipation of women?
Achebe seems to answer these questions in the affirmative, as he writes in Anthills of the Savannah, ‘But knowing or not knowing does not save us from being known and even recruited and put to work.’ By this submission, it is the work (action/agency) that outweighs an individual’s disposition and intentionality. Thus, in spite of Beatrice’s lifelong desire to be left alone in the background, Achebe positions her in the centre of the vortex not only as one of the three narrators of the tragedy of Kangan, but also by her full acceptance and identification with the spirit of the mythical Chielo. Her willing incarnation and her already heightened consciousness of the social and political role of women in the emerging Kangan nation is significant to rising feminist consciousness in Africa.
By reimagining Chielo as Nwanyibuife (meaning ‘A Woman is also Something’) Achebe places Beatrice Okoh firmly within the mythical cultural landscape of Umuofia, the hitherto archetypal Igbo patriarchal society. Her task is to oversee social morality, leadership responsibilities, and guide interpersonal relationships within the community with compassion and wisdom that respects other people’s experiences and contributions to communal memory—a contrast to Umuofia under the masculine hard handedness of Okonkwo.
While employed in a senior position in Kangan Civil Service, Beatrice is well-educated, sophisticated, urbane, independent-minded, outspoken, intuitive and not afraid to speak truth to power. Therefore, it is most fitting that the harrowing tragedy of the novel ends on the fresh hopes of a child’s naming ceremony conducted by all the characters in the novel under the guidance of Beatrice, the ancient and modern carrier of traditions and the pathfinder of new courses, all at once. The child is herself given a masculine name, Amaechina (meaning ‘May the Path Never Close’) which is not only a bold statement but all the more significant for the fact that the convener and chief celebrant is a woman comfortable in carrying out the responsibility that traditionally belongs to a man.
Finally, Beatrice’s agency evolves and is accommodating of disparate opinions irrespective of creed, class, and poise. It embraces Elewa, the uncouth, coarse mouthed, bawdy, street-wise girl. It also encloses Beatrice’s lover, Ikem, the intellectual poet- editor-militant as well as Captain Abdul Mandani, the Military investigator spy turned collaborator; Braimah the taxi driver and covert general; and Aina, his free-spirited Muslim wife. Her agency has room for Emmanuel, the student union activist, Agatha the mean-spirited lover of Jehovah with no Christian love for another, and it even embraces Elewa’s uncle of grand disrepute. It is to Beatrice’s leadership credit that she does not shut down ideas and concepts that contradict hers but bows to superior argument even from younger voices:
‘But living ideas…’ Emmanuel began haltingly
‘Ideas cannot live outside people,’ said Beatrice rather peremptorily, stopping him mid-stride. He obeyed for a second, scratched his head and came right back, blurting defiantly:
I don’t accept that. The ideas in one lecture by Ikem changed my entire life from parrot to a man…
‘Ok’, said Beatrice bowing to this superior, unstoppable passion, I have also felt what you are saying… You win! People and Ideas, then. We shall drink to both of them.’
Reimagining Achebe’s Women
To read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah as a woman is, firstly, to explore the patriarchal world view to which Things Fall Apart in particular, has been archetypical. Such a reading affords us to go beyond the fundamentals of the domineering image of Okonkwo as the only major character in the novel to analyse other principal characters, especially the female characters of the novel. Hence, this feminist reading moves away from Sawant’s detailing of the patriarchal purview on Things Fall Apart to validate the existence of a woman’s world that authenticates the motivations, and contributions of women to their society and shared space with men in the literary world of the text. Beyond correcting patriarchal distortions of the image of women, a feminist reading engenders positive role identification, which raises the consciousness of the reader beyond the critical assessment of the text as script in gender discrimination.
Consequently, a feminist reading of Anthills of the Savannah is a restoration of the visions of women in not only Africa’s past but also the continent’s present and the future. As the major female character, Beatrice signifies the potentials for women’s progress in multiple role-play that ensures the continuity of a healthier society that recognizes and accords respect to women. Further, it encourages a re-reading of the surface presentation of patriarchy to unearth the strength of character in the male-dominated literary society’s often ignored and glossed over female characters⎈
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