By Jane Ciabattari
Friday, November 25, 2005
African women are taking over artistic territory once controlled by men and are now telling the continent's new stories in books and movies. The final article in our eight-part series on emerging female leaders in Africa.
PRINCETON, N.J. (WOMENSENEWS)--Who will tell the stories of contemporary Africa?
A new generation has emerged since Nigeria's Chinua Achebe in 1958 wrote the first "African" novel, "Things Fall Apart," detailing the destruction of the Igbo culture by British colonialism.
Three new African narrators--Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of Nigeria, Leila Aboulela of Sudan and Tsitsi Dangarembga of Zimbabwe--have taken the lead in telling eloquent and stirring stories of women's lives as part of the region's narrative.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Hodder Fellow in the Humanities at Princeton University this year, where she is working on a novel about the 1960s Biafran war in Nigeria.
But on a sunny, cloudless fall day at Princeton University her mind was on the underlying gender inequalities in Nigeria.
"The structures for dealing with domestic abuse in Nigeria are almost nonexistent; there is nothing like a hotline," said Adichie, whose accomplished 2003 first novel, "Purple Hibiscus," brought the issue of family violence to the fore in her homeland, where studies indicate as many as 1 in 3 women report being physically abused by a male partner.
"Purple Hibiscus" is told from the point of view of a 15-year-old girl whose father, a strict Catholic and community leader, beats his wife and children in secret.
"What we need is to make a change in the way we raise and think about women," she said. "For many women there is no sense of consequences when a man hits a woman. There is tacit approval. No one talks about it. But we need to talk about it and raise our daughters to think it's a no-no."
Adichie was born in Enugu the fifth of six children and grew up in the university town of Nsukka. She wrote "Purple Hibiscus" while a student at Eastern Connecticut State University. The novel was a finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction, which put Adichie, then 25, in the same league as Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood.
"My being a woman means I am equal in all respects to a man," she said. "This doesn't mean that I don't respect my culture. African feminism is a belief in African women."
Sudanese-born Leila Aboulela, who now lives in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, writes about Muslim expatriates and about growing up in Khartoum before the repressive regime that took power in the 1980s.
In 2000 she won the first Caine Prize for African literature and her first novel, "The Translator," was long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction, awarded to a woman for the best novel in English. The prize is issued by the London-based Booktrust and was created to counter the male dominance of literary prizes.
Today "The Translator" is taught in universities in Sudan as a more modern, female partner to Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih's "Season of Migration to the North," the 1966 Arabic classic about a young Sudanese man's destructive obsession with the West.
Aboulela's second novel, the partly autobiographical "Minaret," published this fall in the United States, describes the descent of a young Muslim woman from a privileged secular life in Khartoum to poverty as a political exile in London, where she turns to her Muslim religion for comfort.
"I wanted to write about the kind of faith my mother and grandmother passed on to me, and to show that a woman's need for spiritual fulfillment is as urgent and as valid as her need for love, family and a career," she said in an e-mail interview.
Aboulela studied statistics at the University of Khartoum and was engaged at 17 to a classmate she later married. In 1987 the family left for London where Aboulela studied statistics at the London School of Economics. In 1990 her husband took a job in Aberdeen. "With two children and an economic crisis in Sudan, we decided to make Britain our home," she said.
Exile led her to start writing in 1992. "I was homesick for Khartoum. People around me did not know much about Sudan or about Islam, the two things that made up my identity," she said.
Partly in reaction to anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiment expressed after the first Gulf War, she set out to write fiction showing the "state of mind and the emotions of a person who had faith," she said "I wanted to write fiction that reflected Islamic logic."
Tsitsi Dangarembga is the first black woman to publish a novel in Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, and also the first black Zimbabwean woman to direct a feature film, "Everybody's Child," about four African AIDS orphans in 1986.
She is best known for her 1988 first novel, "Nervous Conditions," about a young Shona girl in 1960s Rhodesia who is allowed to go to school only when her brother dies. After being rejected by local publishers it was championed by Rhodesian-born novelist Doris Lessing and was published in England, then Zimbabwe.
The novel won the African Commonwealth Writers' Prize and has become a staple of postcolonial literature and women's studies courses, bringing the Cambridge and Zimbabwe University-educated Dangarembga to worldwide attention.
In film, fiction and drama, Dangarembga's work confronts women's inequalities head on.
In her 1987 play, "She No Longer Weeps," a young woman takes revenge upon the man who impregnated her.
The protagonist of "Nervous Conditions" is outraged by injustices against the girls and women. Her story for the 1993 film "Neria" was about a widow whose female friends help her when her late husband's brother takes advantage of her. At the time, it was Zimbabwe's highest-grossing film, earning $100,000 with tickets bringing $1 each.
Her latest film, "Kare Kare Zvako" or "Mother's Day," shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2005, is based on a folk tale about a man who eats his wife in a time of famine. When he has finished consuming her, she bursts out of him.
"I take it as a cautionary tale against greed of any kind, whether for power, or oil or whatever," she said. She chose to make it a musical to make the gruesome tale more engaging and because Zimbabwean folk tales have a sung chorus.
"Kare Kare Zvako" was a co-production with Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe, an organization based in Harare that Dangarembga chairs. The group helps women learn the skills to narrate women's stories from women's perspectives.
Daily life in the economically devastated capital city of Harare is difficult, says Dangarembga. Targeted sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union against President Robert Mugabe's regime after the disputed 2002 elections have, she said, created horrible suffering among ordinary Zimbabweans. The sanctions include an arms embargo and feezes on Mugabe's assets, but critics say they have increased the economic distress of the nation.
"I don't have a car that runs," Dangarembga said. "I have to worry on a daily basis whether I will be able to feed my three children, clothe them, buy shoes for them and pay school fees."
Nevertheless, Dangarembga continues to work on a second novel and hopes to film "Nervous Conditions."
"Since I went to Sundance this year," she said, "people might begin to believe that although I am black and female and middle-aged, I may just know what I am doing."
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the 2002 short-story collection "Stealing the Fire." She is a long-time contributing editor to Parade magazine and reviews books for the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and other publications. She is also a member of the Women's eNews board of directors.