On the fiftieth anniversary of Efuru’s first publication, we asked several writers to reflect on their experiences as women, readers and writers. Every week for 6 weeks, we will be publishing one essay on the novel, each based on a carefully-selected section of the book—we are using the Heinemann African Writers Series edition.
Flora Nwapa’s Efuru
By Dr Louisa Uchum Egbunike
On Flora Nwapa’s departure from this world in 1993, writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa proclaimed “No one will ever write about Nigerian Literature in English without mentioning her. She will always be the departure point for female writing in Africa. And African publishing will always be in her debt.” Saro-Wiwa captured the impact and influence Nwapa continues to have on the Nigerian and African literary landscape. Her writings staged an intervention in the articulation of Igbo, Nigerian, and African narratives, placing women’s experiences in the foreground.
In 2016, we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Efuru, a pioneering novel by an African woman writer. Efuru is a foundational text that has influenced the writing of both Nwapa’s contemporaries as well as the subsequent generations of African writers. In marking this anniversary, it should be noted that since the publication of Efuru in 1966, we have seen a steady growth in African women’s writing. As such, Efuru’s fiftieth anniversary is at the same time a celebration of fifty years of black African women novelists.
Born in 1931, Flora Nwapa grew up in a prominent Igbo family in the southeast of Nigeria. She went on to study at the University of Ibadan and the University of Edinburgh and her varied career saw her work in the field of education, administration and politics. In the early 1960s, Flora Nwapa, then a young aspiring writer, handed over her manuscript to Chinua Achebe, the commissioning editor for Heinemann’s African Writers Series. Impressed by the calibre of her work, Achebe provided the novel its title, ‘Efuru’ and in 1966 Efuru went down in history as the first novel to be published internationally by a black African woman writer. Published during a period of turmoil in Nigeria, which culminated in a 30-month civil war, it would be some years before Efuru received recognition at home.
In Nwapa’s debut novel, the protagonist Efuru is born in a time of transition, when the British colonial administration had taken root in the region. In spite of the colonial presence, the community manages to maintain many of its own social structures and beliefs. In the world of the text, women are Oguta’s heartbeat. The emotional, political and spiritual support women provide for each other forms the basis of Efuru’s strength.
Flora Nwapa’s childhood, spent in the lake town of Oguta was instrumental in the development of a womanist approach to her life and writings. She states:
“[F]rom my early childhood, I lived among very strong women: my two grandmothers and their co-wives. (…) In my native Oguta it was women who first started trading with the foreign companies. Trading was the job of the women in the riverine areas. So the women gained economic power through trade before the men, and all this influenced my writing and that is why I project women as great achievers. I did not see women as second class citizens.”
Within Oguta cosmology, an important female deity, Uhamiri is said to reside in the Oguta lake. The centrality of Uhamiri in Oguta society, particularly in the lives of women is explored in Efuru, as Flora Nwapa considers the central role of the lake goddess in the economic empowerment of women and the development of women’s power bases.
Efuru ushers its readers into a woman-centred world, providing an alternative image of Igbo village life to that depicted by Nwapa’s male contemporaries. The Concubine, a novel by Elechi Amadi was published the same year as Efuru. Set in an Igbo village and foregrounding a female protagonist with strong connections to the spirit world, there are stark similarities between Amadi’s protagonist Iheoma and Nwapa’s Efuru. The main distinction between the two novels, however, is their representation of female agency. Whilst Amadi has been accused of reflecting “not just a masculine attitude to women but a chauvinistic one”, Nwapa’s protagonist is a strong-minded women whose fate lies in her own hands.
In her first marriage, Efuru’s husband abandons her and she loses her only child. In her second marriage her husband, Eneberi, falsely accuses her of infidelity. At this point in the novel, Efuru is weak from a mystery illness and is incapable of refuting the accusation. With the little energy she has, she sends for her close friend Ajanupu, who on arrival leaps to Efuru’s defence, and begins to curse Eneberi:
Eneberi, nothing will be good for you henceforth. Eneberi, Ajanupu, the daughter of Uberife Nkemjika of Umuosume village, says that from henceforth nothing good will come your way. Our ancestors will punish you. Our Uhamiri will drown you in the lake. Our Okita will drown you in the Great River. From henceforth evil will continue to visit you. What did you say? My god, what did you say? That Efuru, the daughter of Nwashike Ogene, the good, is an adulterous woman. Ewo-o, I am afraid, my people, I am afraid. Eneberi, who are you? Who is your father, who is your mother? What have you got to be proud of? You went to school. Eh? If your own brand of education is the only brand then I am glad I did not go to school.
Within the patriarchal structures of Oguta society, women are able to exert their power and resist mistreatment through their collective efforts. It is through a kind of sisterhood that women’s positions within society are reinforced. The community of women is rooted in the spiritual realm through the influence of Uhamiri. Efuru’s Oguta is a place in which women uplift and support one another, and they form the backbone of the society.
Flora Nwapa was a pioneer, not only as a writer, but also in the realm of publishing. In 1977, she established Tana Press, launching her as one of Africa’s first women publishers. This important expansion in Nwapa’s work demonstrates that her contribution and dedication to African literature extended beyond writing to include the production of literary texts. Tana Press provided a framework through which African writers could be published on the continent, and in doing so, Nwapa’s publishing house helped launch the career of fellow woman writer, Ifeoma Okoye.
The foundations set by Flora Nwapa paved the way for a succession of African women writers, including Buchi Emecheta who noted that reading Efuru gave her the confidence to begin her own literary career. When Efuru was published, African women writers found themselves on the margins but now fifty years later, they are at the centre of literary production on the continent⎈
Kneel Down…You are a Woman
By Irene Chidinma Nwoye, pp. 7-35
The women emerge from the house in pink laces. Their leader, a sprightly 40-year-old crowned with a big blue headscarf, meanders through the crowd, past waitpersons bearing trays of garden eggs and alligator pepper, soda and beer, plates of Jollof rice, pounded yam and soups. She is careful not to spill palm-wine from the cow-horn cup in her hands as she sways her hips and stumps her feet to highlife music. Her bridesmaids trailing behind her, the leader makes her way through each canopy ignoring calls from male guests, impostors claiming to be her beloved.
“Isn’t it me?”
“Bring it here!”
“Where are you going?”
She knows her betrothed is hiding in the crowd and she must find him. Only him can accept this offering. She dances, she sways, she sings along and walks through interspersed canopies until she spots him seated behind a group of guests. She sashays towards him and kneels when she is before him. She sips the wine before offering it. The groom downs the rest, puts money in the horn cup and hands it back to his bride.
This is the highlight of Igba-Nkwu, the traditional marriage ceremony of the Igbo people. As a young girl of 12, watching my aunt perform this rite filled me with the blissful anticipation of someday kneeling before my husband-to-be, publicly displaying my subservience and asserting the status quo for the rest of our marriage. Today, however, as a 26-year-old Igbo woman, I cringe when I read about a similar ceremony in Flora Nwapa’s classic womanist novel, Efuru. The novel’s protagonist, Efuru, and her first husband, Adizua, finally raise enough money to pay her bride price and appease her father for eloping. But just when Efuru is about to drink the glass of Schnapps Adizua offers her to conclude their nuptials, the gathered people holler: “Kneel down, kneel down, you are a woman.” And she quickly obeys.
I never got a chance to read Efuru in secondary school, but I know my ten or seventeen-year-old self would have been unfazed by that scene of the kneeling woman; by Efuru’s gender being the only justification for her assuming that position; a position her community foists on her. At the time, I was taught my place in society and I did not question it. It was not just naiveté that kept my younger self oblivious, but a desire for the male gaze and the self-affirmation it deceptively provides. This trope of the kneeling woman embodies the female condition in the traditional and colonial Igbo society where Nwapa sets Efuru’s story. In many respects, it portrays the place women still occupy in modern Igbo and Nigerian society.
Efuru is a woman ahead of her time and one of the first indications of her deviance is her insubordination to her father and family when she runs off with the man she loves. She is strong-willed, shrewd and enterprising. When her father sends “strong men” to retrieve her, she resorts to cunning to thwart their mission in a society where the woman is typically subject to the whims and values of leaders, who are primarily men. Besides the depraved practices women in Efuru’s time endured like female genital mutilation, there are more covert acts the novel describes that, till this day, continue to reinforce inequality between the sexes.
It has been 50 years since Efuru was first published and yet women wrestle with societal definitions of femininity—attracting and keeping a lifelong mate, catering to his needs and producing his offspring. Growing up, I did not question this rearing to lure and please, to effortlessly navigate fragile male egos. Whenever my mother delivered culinary lessons she’d regale me with stories of women “chased out” of their husbands’ houses because they couldn’t cook. She had hoped to inspire me to learn this basic necessity for my existence through the fear of losing my spouse. It worked. But it wasn’t just my mother; it was aunties, uncles, friends, teachers, pastors, Nollywood, Hollywood, Disney. In my adolescence, I understood my raison d’être as being smart, pretty, polite, obedient and virtuous enough to secure my spouse. I understood ‘him’ as the destination, not a fork in the road signalling me to a course with merged lanes.
We teach nearly half our population to aspire for dependence, to take self-actualization for granted, yet somehow we expect our nation and continent to ‘rise’. We acknowledge the family as a microcosm of society, but trivialize the events responsible for setting that unit in motion—deeds that persist from the colonial days that Nwapa describes till today—such as paying a bride price and other spectacles that depict marriage as a one-sided submission.
The exchange of money and gifts for another human being incessantly perpetuates the idea of women as chattel transferred from a father or community to a husband. Traditionalists often argue that “this is our culture” and that we are allowing ourselves be “westernized” by seeking to eliminate these practices. But isn’t culture the way of life of a group of people? And if the people or their way of life has changed, doesn’t that imply that culture is dynamic? Do we still kill twins or cast the sickly and handicapped into Evil Forests? Did we not embrace change when we adopted religions brought to us by foreign invaders? And who benefits from the keeping or discarding of select cultural norms?
I recognize the allure of gliding through a public gathering, organized partly in your honour, dolled up and slowly two-stepping to Flavour’s “Ada Ada”, while men deliberate how many bags of rice and bottles of Schnapps to trade for you. I understand hoping your hashtag #X&X trends widely enough to get you featured on Bella Naija, or their Instagram page at least. I recognize this, and I admit my privilege as a woman in the diaspora and member of an upper middleclass household whose patriarch has no interest in receiving a bride price for me.
But those who argue that paying a woman’s bride price is nothing more than a formality, take lightly the symbolism of exchanging goods for another human being. And what a privileged few might enjoy in the name of formality, a disadvantaged many experience more literally. What we enjoy in the name of harmless fun reinforces gender stereotypes that hinder our progress towards equality. We become complicit in the subjugation of women.
A lot has changed for women since Flora Nwapa’s time. In 2014, Nigerian women made up to 42 percent of the total labour force, an increase from 34 percent in 1990. In 2015, former President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law a ban on female genital mutilation. Women vote and hold public offices. Activists and concerned citizens—male and female—relentlessly challenged tyranny when they denounced the abduction of 276 girls, insisting that the lives and the education of girls are important.
Efuru’s experiences are, indeed, different from the experiences of the modern Igbo or Nigerian woman, but in a lot ways the conditions under which women live have stayed the same. There are still gains to be made to ensure gender equality in Nigeria: gains in, to name a few, the ratification of the 2010 Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill that the Nigerian Senate rejected in March 2016 for religious reasons (a ‘reworked’ version scaled through the Senate’s second reading later in September); the abolition of the bride price practice; and the criminalization of female genital mutilation. These campaigns can exist on the street and the page; like Nwapa, we can continue to document what it means to be female in Nigeria and bring normalized elements of oppression to the fore.
The necessity of deliberately seeking gender equality has never been more urgent, with our country experiencing its worst economic crisis in 25 years. In her essay, “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving,” the African-American poet, Audre Lorde, writes on the benefits of uplifting African-American women to the African-American community as a whole. For “it is through the coming together of self-actualized individuals, female and male, that any real advances can be made…The old sexual power relationships based on a dominant/subordinate model between un-equals has not served us a people, nor as individuals.”
Efuru was only made possible because Nwapa was a woman ahead of her time. She has passed on the baton and it is up to us, contemporary Nigerian women, to build on her legacy by fighting for and insisting on our equality and economic independence. In her 1981 novel, One is Enough, Nwapa makes a more poignant appeal for women’s empowerment with a Hausa proverb: “A woman who holds her husband as a father dies an orphan”⎈
What Can a Woman Do?
By Adebola Rayo, pp. 36-49
It wasn’t until I turned 7 and my sister got into secondary school that I started reading a lot of African writing. Before then, I’d had a fondness for the Ladybird and Enid Blyton books my father would buy us from Stop Centre in Ikeja, and the worlds and foods I felt like I knew but had never seen. I had only read the few odd books by African writers when I received them as prizes in my Primary School. My sister opened up a new world to me, one that grew larger with my father allowing me access to his own books, many of which were African novels now out of print.
When I gained admission into Queen’s College in 1998, one of the first things I looked out for was the school library. What had fascinated me most about my sister being in secondary school were the books set in Nigeria and Africa—books set in cities I’d been to or seen on the local news.
I was 9 when I walked into the biggest library I had ever seen. I don’t know if it’ll hold against the light of memory, but the library held scores of shelves lined on the sides of a long hallway that had many French doors that were never open. In the QC Library, there was a small flight of stairs that led to a room-sized section. That part—tucked away from the light of the French doors—was always darker than the rest. And that’s where it was easy to hide, and read books, long after whatever break or free period took me there was over. It was in that place that I first picked up Efuru.
I spent a considerable amount of time in the library; it would have been worrisome to my parents and teachers if they’d known. I wasn’t a huge fan of school or life—but that’s not what this essay is about—so I spent years hiding in worlds that weren’t mine. I’d read a book, then hide it in the wrong section, so that I could find it the next day. I would have taken it on loan but there was the pesky issue of a copy of The Old Man and the Medal by Ferdinand Oyono, which I failed to return in JSS2, and which would come up if I tried to use my library card to check out a book. I’d end up paying for that upon graduation but, again, I digress.
I was 13 when I first picked up Efuru. I loved this novel because, at a time when I often found myself tongue tied and unsure of myself, she was what I wanted to be—self-assured and stubborn enough to stand her ground when it came to making decisions that were not necessarily understood by others but for which she was ready to die, literally. I was fascinated by this woman in love who, when I first met her, declared that she would drown herself in the stream if Adizua did not marry her.
I was 16 the first time I thought myself in love. The boy and I had lived, for years, on the same street, but I had been closer to his only sister. That year, in the space between finishing my final exams in secondary school and resuming university, we bonded over books, first of which was the latest Harry Potter release—his sister, who had gone on to university in the UK, had sent it to him—and shared earphones snaking from his Discman as we listened to Kelly Clarkson’s new album till “Breakaway” was a song we both knew by heart and sang in our horrible voices long after the CD had scratched. This love, like another even now, remained unspoken, and the boy who was the object of it soon left for university in the UK himself. But I had Kelly Clarkson, and I had the memory of shared books. Four years later, in my hostel at the University of Lagos and Skyping, his voice would crawl through my ears and sit in my belly as we asked each other why we had never given it a shot, both finally admitting that there had been something.
That was not Efuru. Her declarations of love were immediate and complete. Not hidden or half-hearted. After the boy had left for the UK, I could pretend to be the things I wished I was. I could be Efuru and declare, “If you don’t marry me, I will drown myself in the lake.” I imagine Efuru, in the first place I find her, standing tall and saying this, and if she felt bold to me at 13, and again at 16, she feels bolder to me now, unable still as I am, to speak love when I truly feel it. Where she throws herself full-bodied into love yet is calm, not losing herself to anyone, father or husband, I am quiet and let it fly away.
Quieter still when I want to study English but my parents think that with my grades, ‘Law’ is the right course and profession. Even though I see Efuru in the pages deciding that she will not farm with her husband, and will instead trade, that confidence does not seep into me, and I swallow my desires and, instead, study Law.
She had a confidence I did not have as a young girl. One I’m still finding my way around, I realize, as I revisit the book 15 years later. Often I whisper to myself, “What can a woman do?” Yet, as I laugh at the cunning with which Efuru makes this seemingly humble statement—and then goes right ahead to handle her business when her father sends family members to “bring her back”—I am struck by the familiarity of these sentences and sentiments, variations of which continue to dog my life from relatives and even random strangers on Twitter.
It is inescapable, the sense of collective ownership that society seems to have on young women, whether in Efuru’s father who sends men to “bring her back” or in my aunt who, only recently, called to ask when I’d bring home a husband or, at least, a baby. Efuru’s skill of disagreeing without being overtly confrontational is one I’m still learning. Where she leaves the men to say, “We don’t know why your father has sent us to bring you back”, I, on the other hand, stutter a goodbye to my aunt, tweet about the phone call, and determine to avoid her.
I’m not sure where girlhood ends and womanhood begins. Efuru making and standing by her decisions, seems like the beginning of her womanhood. Many things are assumed when you are young, among which is that you will allow your parents to make decisions for you. Of course, it is important that they do, when you’re young and, perhaps, need guidance. But as you grow, and should be eased into becoming an individual, a girl often finds herself in a tightening leash. And it is almost assumed that when your parents are done making the decisions for you, you will go on to marriage and continue to run your biggest decisions by another person, as though you are incapable of making the right ones on your own.
In matters like what to study at university and, subsequently, your career choice, where you live after young adulthood, and the person you marry, or even spiritual matters, it is expected that your parents (and then husband) will have such a huge stake in your decisions that, in the end, you will do what pleases them. Failure to do so, just by making your own choices, would mean that you have somehow brought shame on the family.
I think of taking a job at 234NEXT and not returning to live with my parents after Law School as the beginning of my womanhood. I think of owning the consequences of many decisions—needing neither validation nor absolution—as the beginning of my womanhood. When I re-read Efuru this year, I did so in new light, with compassion and the understanding that to his thinking, her father was protecting her. This is the same compassion through which I have learnt to understand my parents and, in doing so, myself. Knowing that, even if, in hindsight, some decisions bring about the end parents or society predicted, I am content because before that end, there was good and satisfaction. And oftentimes, that is worth it. If it weren’t, the first few years of adulthood would have made me crawl back home and cede control of my life to my mother.
This is where Efuru finds herself in these chapters. This is where I’ve found myself many times over the years. When I was younger I used to think, “I’ll be confident and self-assured when I’m X age”. Then, when that age came, I’d shift it forward. Now, I know that sometimes I am and sometimes I’m not, and that’s ok. Sometimes, on the outside, I dip knees and think to myself, “What can a woman do?” but, on the inside, I am Efuru—cunning, charming, and standing my ground through life, reminding myself not to lose self in love, familial or romantic⎈
A Woman among Women
Saratu Abiola, pp. 50-104
In these three chapters, we see Efuru negotiating the boundaries of her freedom. Efuru is a privileged daughter of a wealthy man, and, as such, is insulated from a lot of the challenges others have to face. She goes after debtors, for example, but never owes anyone herself, and her generosity means no one ever confronted her tauntingly on the question of her fertility. She is still bound by customs and expectations, of course, but ‘freedoms’ are often highly contextual things. The negotiation of our freedoms and restrictions dictate the span of our moral and creative imagination.
Women across income groups in colonial-era south-eastern Nigeria as well as other parts of the country faced enormous challenges, but Efuru, unlike the women of her era, took her chances as they came. It was a unique sense of freedom that allowed her move in with a man that had not fulfilled cultural obligations and marry him. When the marriage she had impetuously entered had failed, it was another kind of freedom that her father offered when he asked if she would like help in reaching her husband, rather than give her no choice in the matter. It was, also, freedom that allowed her to hear the story of Adizua’s long-suffering mother who endured a husband that left her without remarrying, and deciding that she did not want that for herself. She also chose to tell the truth, that her husband left her; we learn in the book that women do not often admit to being abandoned, rather each woman prefers to say that she walked away. The steps Efuru took in the realization of her freedom she took with sadness and much self-flagellation; but she took them all the same.
In addition to making use of what freedoms she has available to her, at this point in the novel, Efuru negotiates several identities—she is married but not quite; young, but not as young as she was when she married Adizua; wealthy, but not wholly independent of societal obligations. Flora Nwapa does not allow us to forget her protagonist’s unusualness. For context, it is worth noting that Efuru is set in Oguta, Imo State, where the writer, Flora Nwapa, is from and one of the few parts of Igboland where the main deity worshipped by the locals is a female one, Ogbuide, a local manifestation of the generic Igbo water goddess Nne Mmiri, also often regarded as Mammy Water. In Mammy Water in Igbo Culture by Sabine Jell-Bahlsen, a study of Igbo cosmology and more specifically the river goddess Nne Mmiri among riverine Oru-Igbo communities such as the ones by the Oguta Lake, we learn of the sexual politics that undergirds the society in which Efuru takes such active part:
“Oru-Igbo custom clearly defines sexual roles and appropriate sexual behaviour in human society and civilization. Yet, worshippers of the water deities do not always conform to society’s reproductive norms; they may be barren, bear twins, give birth every year, or otherwise transgress traditional reproductive norms or gender roles. A female worshipper may have more than one spouse, marry other women, refuse intercourse with or cooking for her husband, declare herself “married to a river god”, or “cook late at night.” All of these types of behaviour contradict what custom defines as female roles.” (pg. 79)
A reading of Igbo cosmology shows interesting parallels between Efuru and Ogbuide. Efuru, like the Woman of the Lake as Ogbuide is referred to in the novel, is wealthy and regarded for her generosity by those who know her. Ogbuide, the mythical tales tell us, married two husbands of her own, Urashi and Njaba, both of whom have rivers named after them that serve as tributaries to the lake. Although polyandry was not permitted for women, women of Efuru’s time could marry wives for their husbands—while the men travelled or engaged in trade—or marry other men once they return dowry to their husband’s family, much like what Efuru did, albeit without planning to. It makes sense, then, that women who did not conform to a particular societal ideal—not giving birth to multiple children in Efuru’s case—often found comfort in the water goddess. Efuru’s negotiation of her own freedom, then, foreshadows the revelation later in the book of her relationship with the spirit world and gives a sense of dramatic irony to the tragedy of her story.
Nwapa’s story, however, portrays a grim view of female freedom. Efuru has wealth and is raised in some ways as a mortal parallel to the goddess who is often prayed to for abundance and fertility. Yet, she is deprived of children—a child being the one thing that her society considers real wealth. Efuru is hardworking and succeeds at business, but her husband leaves her with a child who, soon, will die after a brief illness. The novel lends to asking, Is it safer for women to choose either to have children or to thrive in their chosen endeavours, never having both? If the parallels between Efuru and the goddess, Ogbuide, were deliberate, then, perhaps, Nwapa means for the novel to be a broader critique of her society’s values. Efuru, in that case, is held up as a woman of value, her example exalted in firm rebuke to a society that will take what she offers but still consider her not quite good enough.
Towards the end of the fifth chapter, after Efuru tells her aunt-in-law, Ajanupu, that she is going to Agbor to trade, Ajanupu smiles to herself and thinks of Efuru:
“She is a woman among women. I like the way she is carrying her burden. She still loves that imbecile husband of hers and she is going in search for him.” (pg. 87)
After searching for her husband in Agbor and in neighbouring towns, Efuru returns to Oguta and decides against Ajanupu’s advice to wait a year for her husband, opting to move back to her father’s house and end her marriage to Adizua. On that day, Efuru moves closer to the goddess, Ogbuide, but further away from the woman she wants to be⎈
Saying “No More”—What Efuru Taught Me
‘Pemi Aguda, pp. 105-142
In the mid-1960s, while Efuru was being published, my grandmother was taking a stand of her own. She had decided ‘no more’ when she found out my grandfather was planning to take another wife. Her bags on her head, my grandmother pulled my mother to her side and walked away. How is Efuru’s story not one that I have heard before? Efuru, the protagonist of Flora Nwapa’s first novel, and my grandmother, said no to the Senegalese proverb that claims, “a woman’s true name is Yes.”
“My daughter, doesn’t your body tell you anything?” Efuru’s mother-in-law asked her after she had been married to Gilbert for over a year without children.
“No, my body doesn’t tell me anything, mother,” Efuru replied.
And although this conversation was about pregnancy, it is one I have had too many times: with my mother, with male and other female relatives, with strangers. “What’s happening?” the conversation continues. “Isn’t it time yet?” For a husband, for marriage. But I often wonder, isn’t marriage just a portal to the next level of harassment? First comes marriage, next come the questions about babies, How many? Male or female?
In Chapter 7 of the novel, Eneke, a popular storyteller in Oguta, tells the villagers a story under moonlight. It is a story about a woman whose daughter disobeyed her and, as a result, was married to a spirit. A cautionary tale about obedience, Eneke’s story is also about outsmarting a spirit—a story Efuru, her neighbours and friends have heard before, and are familiar with.
In The God of Small Things, Arhundati Roy’s writes, “the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen… In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic.” In this way, Efuru is one of the Great Stories to me. I didn’t read the novel until I was 25, and before I began, I knew who died, who lived, who lost love. Still, I let Flora Nwapa tell me this story under my own moonlight of a woman character that seemed familiar to me.
Between chapters 7 and 8 of the novel, Efuru entertains her husband, Gilbert. She decides that he “pleases her” and marries him. An ominous line in the book reads, “the first year of Efuru’s second marriage was a good one,” and in these chapters we watch with a sense of foreboding how this marriage, like her first, begins to fall apart. And before Chapter 9, we see Efuru deciding to visit a doctor because, Gilbert’s mother says, “if you are not pregnant by now, there is something wrong.”
Reading Efuru for the first time as an adult means I encountered the novel when I had started to form strong opinions about everything—life, womanhood, etc.—and when I had begun to wonder whether these things I had opinions about had a predetermined ‘place’ or not. So it should come as no surprise that my first reading of Efuru was done with plenty eye-squinting, head-cocking, and commenting, no way! Chances are that if I had read it at a younger age, the story would have rolled right along. But I was 25, reading the novel in a time when women had started to voice their dissatisfaction with the metal roles tradition had placed around their necks. So when one of Gilbert’s bachelor friends said, “I shall send her back to her mother,” of a woman who didn’t know how to cook, I winced. And when Gilbert’s mother was worrying about Efuru’s “productivity” despite Efuru’s economic prowess—I slapped hand to head.
But Flora Nwapa told Efuru’s story in such a matter-of-fact way that I learned to put aside my reactions and experience what was simply the way things were. It was what it was: women were circumcised; women walked breasts-bare through the market after a period of feasting. If I were Flora Nwapa—an educated woman writer, former assistant registrar, education officer and teacher—I cannot swear that I wouldn’t have written a different Efuru: an Efuru about a woman who was even more defiant—who refused to be circumcised, who would have paddled the canoe back home immediately Gilbert left—a woman that would have scratched and bit at the prevailing culture.
But I am glad that Flora Nwapa did not overcompensate in writing Efuru. I remember what British novelist, Zadie Smith, on the American author, Zora Neale Hurston, in a 2007 essay, “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?” It went, “She makes ‘culture’—that slow and artificial accretion of habit and circumstance—seem as natural and organic and beautiful as the sunrise.” And while I wouldn’t immediately call the culture in the Oguta society as portrayed in Efuru ‘beautiful’ (especially not the parts that I felt were oppressive to women) Flora Nwapa must be praised. In writing Efuru, Flora Nwapa engaged with a culture that, she says, “destroys gifted women” in a way untainted by her displeasure with it. For in withholding her censure, Flora Nwapa was able to show the way of life in Oguta as natural and organic.
In Efuru, I saw a new level of strength belonging to a woman born in a time when her womb was the measure of her productivity. I discovered a negotiation, a compromise, with power—a calculated defiance—is indeed possible. Efuru decided she would marry a man that society didn’t consider to be in her class—because she wanted to. And when she married Adizua, she still made him take a dowry to her father, money she was instrumental in making. She knew what battles to fight, could say: I acknowledge my rich and complex culture but I will find a place of strength for myself within it.
In her 2016 , “The Khanga is Present”, Kenyan writer, Ndinda Kioko wrote, “…in the absence of the archives of women, patriarchal imaginations continue to populate the way we remember, to embed themselves in our conceptions of the past.” There is so much about Igbo culture that I know so little about; but Efuru showed me that there is plenty more that is comfortably shrouded. And, here, Efuru becomes a cultural necessity: the novel informs us that there is a different collective memory we need to confront, one in which, historically, women were deeply involved in the economic matters of the Igbo community.
In Chapter 8, Efuru takes Nnona, an older relative, to the hospital. This was an example of Efuru’s continuous kindness to society; a society, nonetheless, that would later query hers and Eneberi’s stream sojourns, their togetherness, insisting that a man and his wife aren’t companions: she should be walking behind. Despite her reputation for industriousness and kindness, Efuru fell short of society’s standards. But if Naomi Shihab Nye’s , “Kindness”, is to be believed, perhaps we can assert that Efuru (and women everywhere), would understand it more than anyone else:
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
But kind or not, it never ends, the false definitions of womanhood, the constant measurement of women against impossible standards. The Nigerian public says, “Is she successful if she has no man to share it with?” or “Who is she working for if she has no children to leave it behind for?” In this definition, womanhood cannot exist without a family to ground it, to give it context.
Perhaps, ultimately, victory or freedom will come when Nigerian women are allowed choice. Choices of ‘if’, ‘when’, ‘how’; choices like “…nothing will make me go further than this.” And I understand that ‘allow’ is a dangerous word. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s , “allow is about power”. What I mean to say then is freedom will come for Nigerian women when their choices are acknowledged. Not necessarily supported, because that is a bigger and, maybe, distracting battle at the moment; a battle that betrays asking for permission. Whether or not men support them, the choices of women must be acknowledged as legitimate.
I now realize that there are always alternatives to whatever has been advertised to women as being the sole path to a fulfilled womanhood. Efuru as novel and character, and my grandmother have taught me. These, too:
Corn when groundnut is out of reach.
Uhamiri priestess when marriages aren’t working out.
Leaving when staying no longer works.
Like Efuru, women have to “stake a claim” to our way of life and say, “No—my body doesn’t tell me anything.” Recall the poet, Nayyirah Waheed, once wrote:
might make them angry
it will make you free⎈
Flora Nwapa: Defying Reality
C. S. Lozie, pp. 176-197
By the time I was in JSS2, I had written four songs. They were not award-winning, but they were my four songs about love, death, the colour red and wanting to escape boarding school. In a class of 30 students, there were about 15 of us who were fascinated with building our own fiction. We spilled our imagination all over tables, locker doors and, of course, the back of our notebooks.
Some of my friends, armoured with a yellow and black pencil and that ever-forgiving Tikki 20, glazed their BIG notebooks with quirky cartoons that so oddly, but so aptly, resembled our classroom life. There was a curious energy in the creations we hid inside our lockers or stuffed under our desks. Sure, we were bored. But, also, we were curious about our ability to reproduce or resist the world within which we had found ourselves; exploring how to do what society had told us only God could do. There was the life we lived and there was the life we owned, in our creations.
Being able to carve worlds is the power and privilege of creation: the ability to escape an unscripted reality for one that follows your rule of law on paper is the high that keeps many of us broke, yet, still writing. As a writer, you choose who wins or who loses in the life you have breathed into characters. You decide if characters will subscribe to current ideology or if they will prevail as heroes who present themselves as the antidote to ideological slavery. To have nothing but the experience of life, and the ability to create worlds with words is to have power.
The second-hand omnipotence that comes with creation is a writer’s gift but it would seem the benefactor of this gift does not deliver to every writer’s door, at least not with the same assurance. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that those raised with the sense that they could be anything they wanted could pick up a pen and believe their worlds were important enough to write about. Those who, in being male, believed more strongly in a right to replicate and reproduce new worlds like their Father in Heaven had done in just 6 days. But I did not grow up to be that kind of writer. Yes, I was told I could be who I wanted to be, but there were strong encouragements to be certain, specific things. On the other hand, I never learned that I was male, like the God who created the real world in 6 days.
If you ask most Igbo people, the Christian-Catholic God is the only being that can be both omniscient and omnipotent. In fact, that is the basis of His supremacy. Similarly, male writers and creators are often the ones allowed and able to achieve the power of the panoptic gaze. Yet, in Efuru, Flora Nwapa strikes her page with a pen, angled from a bird’s eye view that allows her see everything yet escape detection. She can see everybody but no one can see her. She is not just the silent observer, listening outside the room; she is in all rooms at all times. She is both omniscient and omnipotent. Her panoramic view, as a writer, is antithetical to the limitations typically placed on women’s eyes and ears.
In Igbo culture, there are numerous traditions that a woman cannot see or hear based on the mere fact that she is a woman. While it is true that women have their separate spaces to perform female rites, those spaces are usually hidden and restricted while the male rites are performed in public, with the expectation that women will hide themselves appropriately. Such is the culture of Igbo masquerading. My earliest memories of masquerades take me back to the day we were driving into my village when, all of a sudden, I felt afraid. Before I could recognize the masked creatures approaching our car, my mother pushed my head away from the window. The pressure of her palm on my face made me want to free myself from her grip even more: I wanted to see the thing I was not supposed to see. She turned her head away, too, because she was a woman.
Eventually, I got to see the masquerades when my parents were not home. “Ndi Mmanwu! Ndi Mmanwu!” people screamed, to warn any children or women on the street. Though I didn’t want to, I knew I had to I run inside as well. I was terrified, yet, electrified, as I hid behind the curtain in my father’s room, and watched the spirits dance the dance my mother told me I wasn’t supposed to see. My 8-year-old self had concluded that Mmwanu were not humans covered, but spirit born; born of straw skin that could be red, yellow, blue or white.
Mmanwu, an Igbo word that translates to spirit, is what we call the complete masquerade: masked in both face and body. I looked down on the colourful spirits who used their dancing feet to raise red dust into the sky so that the day was crimson. Some Mmwanu had branches where there should have been lips. Others sprouted those branches from their heads as if they had soil where their brains should have been. Their hips were full of brown noisy raffia. Some did cartwheels and landed with the branches unmoved and unshaken, which convinced me the branches were not just attachments but rooted within their bodies. Scared yet thrilled, I narrowed the curtain even more and left just enough space for one of my eyes to keep watch.
I left the window feeling both amazed and dissatisfied. Amazed, because I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, How is this happening? How was it possible that a creature that stood 10 feet tall would dance to the drums with a lightness that could only belong to someone who was about 5 feet shorter and several kilograms lighter?
But, at the same time, I was dissatisfied with the distance between the magic I had just witnessed and me. It was unfair that my brother could stand outside and experience the whirl of energy that ignited amongst spirits and humans. And when I asked him to describe the Mmwanu, all he said was, “It was big.” His answer was terribly inadequate for my curiosity: I wanted to know how many cowries the Mmanwu tied to its ankles, what the straw material looked like up close. I even wanted to know if the Mmanwu had a smell. My brother was not interested in knowing any of these things and yet, between the two of us, he was the only one allowed to know what he wished.
Those old feelings of awe and dissatisfaction still ignite a deep fire within me about the distance between women and the cultures we are supposedly part of, but not in control of. Although I’m in awe of my Igbo heritage, I only feel instructed to preserve it and not empowered to transform it. It took me a while, but I’ve realized that I have always been asked to stand behind the curtain while a culture that affects me is being created without me, outside my access. The consequences for defying cultural rites and rituals are drastic and many. Which means, not only are the punishments for defiance harsh, but the number of things women could be punished for are many. And, with time, most of these ‘abominations’ have become arbitrary and absurd. So, it is not strange that in Efuru, Flora Nwapa, an Igbo woman, had to create a new world where she would have her own rules to break; her own sins to condemn and her own righteousness to reward.
In a new play of mine, the protagonist speaks to his female friend, F, about his life as a filmmaker in Nigeria. “I’m so into the world of my new film, it’s like I have no time to live in the real world,” says The Man. In a measured but ill-tempered response, F lays her medication out on The Man’s wide palms while explaining just how lucky he is to be able to choose to opt out from the real world. “For some of us,” she says, “even when we have the time, there is no place in the real world that accepts the truth of our lives. At all times, we seem like science fiction—unbelievably real, not supposed to be, and thus, unfit to be counted as part of life.” With pills in her hand and her head tilted back, F shuts her eyes and thinks silently about others who seem unfit for—and so easily dismissed by—life.
In the world of literature, readers are ever so willing to accept a woman’s non-feminine narrative as speculative (i.e. highly unreal, untrue) or inaccurate (i.e. hyperbolic and overdone). On the other hand, because men are believed to be closer to omnipotence than women, men’s worlds (even if they are about women) are more actively accepted for Truth. In other words, young girls are still being raised to believe what men speak about women, more than what women speak about themselves. These standards bleed into the way women’s words are dismissed as unstable things that are not scientific, but mythical, rumours, and never facts.
Based on my experience as a Nigerian woman, women’s issues are seen primarily as issues fabricated or fawned over by women. Meanwhile, men’s issues are raised as serious, important or national issues. The clear distinction between women’s spaces as shallow and domestic and men’s spaces as profound and national, is an asymmetrical reality that has come to stand in for the truth of human existence. And this asymmetry is a significant factor in the endurance of the myth that male genetics are made for more leadership, innovation, and imagination, while the female genes are formed to invoke a hunger for stability, secrecy and docility.
By the time I was in SS1, the boys were still drawing comics and playing dorm soccer. But us girls had stopped writing our songs. Recognizing woman as who we had to become and not who we were, meant that we had to delete those things that were not ‘womanly’. In her 2014 essay, “Not like a Native Speaker”, the Chinese cultural critic, Rey Chow, calls that kind of behaviour Self-recognition through Self-deletion.
Very quickly, I found girls like me who dropped “those childish things” so that we could present ourselves as worthy of seriousness. Maturity was so important for us because we wanted to be above “girl stuff.” Girl stuff was always small stuff. Besides, there was a much greater reward waiting for girls who were ‘maturing’ both physically and emotionally. Physically, you could transform from a scrawny scarecrow into a fuller Salma Hayek. Emotionally, you could grow out of childish selfishness and start taking care of others; become more forgiving, more catering—basically, a ‘mother’. And so, we had to decide on making this sexual metamorphosis (or shedding girlhood) in attempting to claim maternal instincts even before some of us had our first period.
At the same time that we were trying to juggle these newfound bodies and minds, girls were also asked to stay silent about the female biology that was seen as trivial, unnecessary, complicated and disgusting. My male friends spent hours imagining what breasts looked and felt like, but any mention of period sent them into a spastic shock. The dismissal of female realities as unserious, petty and disgusting is largely responsible for silencing those other worlds we created in JSS2 but dumped before SS1. I suffered from the fear that my imagination would almost always embarrass me rather than inspire anyone. Everything I had to say seemed small, cliché. My complaints about the world seemed like nagging; my appreciation of beauty rang with an alarm of overdone sentimentality. Still I wondered, was that not what William Wordsworth was praised for? Was it not his appreciation of beauty that put him on the WAEC curriculum?
At that age, everything that came to my mind about my femininity was attached to an abiding sense of inadequacy that I wanted to transcend desperately. I thought it was my personality but what I did not understand was that the tones of my personality had been drowned out by the loudness of my gender. And because femininity had been paraded as an inferior and one-dimensional chromosomal characteristic, this inferiority was something from which my hard work could not deliver me.
Femininity was a shape that my life had fallen into. I didn’t take the shape; instead, the shape took me, and it smothered me in its notions of what all women are and can be. The only way I could transcend that fall was to denounce a sexuality that I wanted to keep, or to be so attractive to men that they always wanted me in their company. I had, as a result, a lot of female friends who would have given anything to be “one of the guys”. Like a king’s knighting, acknowledgement from a man was a ticket into the world of power.
Carelessly, Nollywood scriptwriters have had a hand in the trivialization of the female presence, by reinforcing the following trope: a lone girl sitting with the band of armed robbers, plotting to carry out their next ‘operation’. With a cigarette in hand, blonde Darling Yaki weave on head, and red pulp plastered on lips, that girl was always the corporeal representation of femininity in the presence of men. As “one of the guys”, hers was a status desired in real life but disrespected culturally because society does not appreciate anyone trying to escape the shape of his or her assigned gender.
Nollywood writers made her character the bad girl who gets what she wants and ends up in trouble as the consequence of trying to be a guy’s girl. Now, this does not mean that the band of robbers ever go scot-free, it is only that the visual arrangement of everything that happens before they get caught works to replicate the exclusivity and, even, the notoriety of a woman in such a position i.e. a woman surrounded by the plurality of male bodies that she neither birthed nor married. And for this particular reason, Flora Nwapa’s invisible presence in the conversation between Gilbert and Sunday is a complex transcendence not commonly available in real life.
Without making any deletions to the self, Flora Nwapa is able to enter a space where only two men are present. Through her persona as creator, she is in a position to validate or invalidate truth. Even though most of the confirmation moves through space like rumour, Flora Nwapa has the power to add an authority to the story or the voice by pointing out when such a voice is false or affirming that what was said is true. An example is when she calls out the rumour in the story that Sunday and Gilbert tell each other about their old teacher:
“The wicked soul! He is heading a school in a bush place. I heard from an unreliable source though that he flogged a boy so mercilessly that the boy’s parents poisoned him and now his bottom is as big as a barrel.” The two men laughed. Obviously, the story was not true…”
Firstly, by invalidating their story, Flora Nwapa has reversed the seriousness and weight often bestowed on male speech. With one sentence, she has written off the belief that a man can claim knowledge just because his voice has a grain of masculinity in its bass and in its body. The reverse myth, that women are rumour-mongers, carries into the capacity (or lack thereof) of men to invite women’s voices into spaces where important decisions are being made. The colouring of rumour-mongering into the tongues of every woman finds its way into the cultural requirements for women to always move in packs, or stay inside, away from ‘trouble’. Often, women fear they will not be believed if they speak their truth without witnesses. The fear is that by themselves, women cannot get themselves out of trouble because the tongues of women are seen to be lovers of venomous and playful untruths.
Secondly, by writing that conversation between Gilbert and Sunday, Flora Nwapa escapes the corporeality of the women in those Nollywood movies. In real life, being the only woman in the presence of two men would raise questions. How did she get in? Is she sleeping with one of them? Is she sleeping with both of them? But as the author of this book, it is not out of place to find Nwapa in spaces that seem private. In fact, for all the private female spaces she occupies, it seems believable that Nwapa had been there before herself, in real life.
Reading Flora Nwapa’s witnessing of the private space between Gilbert and Sunday, I became much more willing to settle into the fictional world of the book. Nwapa’s invisibility in that room was so unbelievable to me that I was more willing to distance her person from Efuru’s persona. Every other thing could be attached to her lived reality as a woman, except that gaze into men’s private lives.
And because I cannot bring myself to believe she is truly both there and invisible, I find myself inclined to call that scene a combination of what she knows, what she has heard, and what she hopes. I recall that moment in the novel when Sunday advises Gilbert to tell his wife that he has a baby boy. Sunday assures Gilbert that it will be better for his wife to hear the truth from him rather than as a rumour, floating around. A question I find myself asking is, Is Flora Nwapa writing what men really say, or is she writing what she hopes men would say? Though, in fact, what I should, perhaps, be asking is: Isn’t Efuru her book to do with as she pleases?⎈