Nigerian Women Writers and their Contributions to Nation Building

Nigerian Women Writers and their Contributions to Nation Building



1.1 Background to the Study

Although women play very significant roles in various spheres of Nigeria’s development, their contributions to the growth of the country are, often, not acknowledged or encouraged. For instance, the role of women in the development of the Niger delta region of Nigeria, where the wealth of the country is being generated, has received little or no attention over the years even though they are actively involved in the developmental activities of the region. Certain challenges still face their efforts and make them seem insignificant to this region.

The significant place of the woman in the home and family cannot be disputed. Man may be the head of the family, but the woman is definitely its heart and lifeline. Without the woman, the family and, subsequently, the larger society, cannot function properly. Dora Chizea supports this notion with the following view of women:

[women are] the building blocks upon which the foundations of happy homes and families are built…The family, no doubt, is the unit on which communities are built. And the nation itself is built by communities. It follows, therefore, that if the building blocks, the mothers are poor, ignorant and unmotivated, the nation is likely to be poor, ignorant and unmotivated. For, how can a nation rise above the collective ignorance of its mothers? (10)
The roles of the woman in the family are diverse and as intriguing as the woman herself: wife, partner, confidant, mother, nurturer, provider, teacher, friend, counsellor, as well as the emotional and spiritual anchor. She is one who instills in her family, especially the children, moral and ethical standards, and does everything possible to ensure they are educated. She is also their number one advocate, critic and encourager. She works diligently to support her husband in ensuring and sustaining the welfare, health and stability of the family day in day out. Sometimes, she is a single parent who plays the role of man and woman, father and mother; this, however, does not hinder her efforts to give of her best to her family. She also plays numerous significant roles outside the dynamics of the nuclear family. These efforts on the home front, though sometimes invisible to the public eye, sustain the welfare, health and stability of the region and, inevitably, its progress and development. Unfortunately, due to gender inequality, the family is often a domain where many women are socially restricted, economically exploited, emotionally degraded and rendered politically passive and poor. This limits not only the woman but her entire family and community who would have benefitted from her resources. The following observation by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) places this issue in perspective: “[women’s poverty] results in deprivation in their own lives and losses for the broader society and economy, as women’s productivity is well-known as one of the greatest generators of economic dynamism” (“Women and Poverty”). Should women’s subjugation in the family and society be totally eradicated and their power to create, nurture and transform fully and effectively harnessed, there is no limit to what women can contribute to the growth and transformation of the nation.

Despite the great potentials of women, the fact remains that only few are mobilized and visible in the political arena of the nation. Surprisingly, however, women of the Niger Delta have carved a significant niche for themselves in this sector at the national and state levels, which does enhance the development of the region. Women such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Former Minister of Finance), and Arunma Oteh, former Director General of the Securities and Exchange Commission and, currently, the Vice President and Treasurer of the World Bank are key players in the political arena of the nation. Also worthy of note is Florence Ita Giwa who represented the Cross River South Constituency in the National Assembly and served on several committees including the Committee on Women Affairs and the Committee on Niger Delta. She also served as a Special Adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo on National Assembly Matters. Ita Giwa has remained an avid social activist whose commitment to the development of the Niger Delta and, especially, to the welfare of the indigenes of the Bakassi Local Government Area, has earned her several accolades.

Several others, among them Ipalibo Banigo (current Deputy Governor, Rivers State), are actively involved in various arms of government, holding vital positions in the executive, legislature, judiciary, and the civil service and making great contributions to the success of the federal and state governments. Without a doubt, their achievements, especially at the federal level, are a reflection of the potential success of the Niger Delta region. State governments of the region should, therefore, tap into women’s reservoir of talent and ensure their full participation in areas of governance such as policy-making and implementation. By encouraging and fully accommodating women in the political process of the region without intimidation, discrimination, and victimization, the political system will not only thrive, it will also be positively transformed for the betterment of all stakeholders in the nation.

In looking at women in the creative industry, Richard Florida aptly observes that “human creativity is the ultimate economic resource” (xiii). For this reason, the creative industry must be recognized and harnessed in the developmental process of any nation. Fortunately, Nigeria is replete with women playing active roles in the various fields of this industry. Several are writers, artists, designers, entertainers and communication experts in the mass media. The first published Nigerian female writer, Flora Nwapa, whose iconic work, Efuru (1966), is a constant reference point in literature classrooms throughout the world, is from Oguta, Imo State, an economic hub of the Niger Delta. Nwapa blazed the trail that prompted African women writers to tell their own stories in their own ways, and advocated the need for women to shake off their passivity and speak against female oppression and represent the African woman in a new and positive light. For her, female writers must embrace the reality of the woman’s experience, project her power and affirm her being and becoming by making society aware of her “inherent vitality, independence of views, courage, self-confidence, and, of course, her desire for gain and high social status” (Nwapa 532). As Ernest N. Emenyonu significantly observes, one of the most appealing and enduring qualities of Nwapa as a writer and novelist is the realism of her themes (18).

In her works, therefore, Nwapa presents female characters that are resourceful, industrious and resilient – strong, independent and assertive women who strive to become highly successful and respected individuals; female protagonists such as Efuru (Efuru, 1966); Idu (Idu,1970); Amaka (One is Enough,1981) and Rose, Agnes and Dora (Women are Different, 1986) who recognize their self-worth and contribute in several ways to their personal, as well as the growth of their families, communities and societies.

Several other women writers in Nigeria have risen in Nwapa’s wake, prominent among them, Buchi Emecheta, an indigene of Ibuza, Delta State. Regarded as one the most prolific African women writers, Emecheta is credited with critically acclaimed works such as Second Class Citizen (1974); The Bride Price (1976) and The Joys of Motherhood (1979). Oike Machiko avers that Emecheta is a writer who is conscious of her role as an African woman writer and a representative of the African woman. Oike also identifies The Joys of Motherhood as a masterpiece which “brought Emecheta international fame as a writer who spoke to the world for African women oppressed by what was called ‘third world tradition” (61). Central to Emecheta’s works “is her depiction of the impact of sexism on the lives of women and the roles they play in society, and the challenges they face in the performance of these roles while struggling to defend their basic rights as human beings with equal dignity as men and…to develop positively and contribute their quota to the development of society” (Nutsukpo, “Marking Her Mark” 150).

Like Nwapa, Emecheta extols the virtues of the African woman, focusing on her character, strength, resilience, industry and her capacity to love unconditionally as is evident in Nnu Ego, the protagonist in The Joys of Motherhood. Emecheta recognizes the patriarchal system as being replete with repressive structures that stand in the way of women’s actualization, and urges women need to be conscious of these obstacles in order to overcome them. Evidently, Nwapa and Emecheta recognize education as necessary precursors to women’s positive development. They decry the economic exploitation of women and the denial of opportunities that would equip them to compete favourably with men in different spheres of society and to contribute more to the growth of society. They, therefore, advocate sisterhood as an avenue through which women can achieve consciousness-raising, self-awareness and assertiveness by supporting, encouraging and challenging each other for personal and societal development.

Currently building on the successes of the older generation of women writers of Nigeria are contemporary writers, among them, Sophia Obi-Apoko, author of two collections of poetry titled Tears in a Basket (2005) and Floating Snags (2009), and novelist, Kaine Agary, author of Yellow-Yellow (2006). These are women writers “…whose works are informed by an awareness of gender issues … [and who] are establishing clearer definitions of, not only their identities, but those of their fellow women” in the region (Nutsukpo, “Literary Traditions” 136). Like Nwapa and Emecheta, Obi-Apoko and Agary recognize the woman’s role in the development of, not only the Niger Delta, but Africa as a whole as “crucial for the survival of the race” (Nwapa 527). To enable women play this role effectively, all, writers especially, must create awareness of what the woman can do and, is capable of doing, and provide role models that inspire and empower women to contribute their quota to the development of society. Through their literary works, women writers of the region promote the Niger Delta, its peoples, rich traditions and cultures, arts, as well as its inexhaustible potentials; this attracts tourists to the region, thus aiding its growth. Also, many of their voices are strident in drawing attention to the plight of the region and its people, and soliciting social change. Their efforts are, therefore, an important component of the collective contributions of women to the development of the nation.

African and especially Nigerian women writers are committed to issues that endanger their very existence whether it is political, religious or gender bias. The commitment of writers to only those issues that undermine them or their society is an indication that literature is political. Gender political discourse in literature is open to various debates as male chauvinist writers portray the idea of a submissive woman to the social-traditional structures, feminist writers project women that rise above the status quo and demand equity from their male counterpart. Others project the image of a rebellious woman who stand tall against the challenges and barriers created by social structures.

Until the conscious intervention of women writers and feminist critics, representations of the African woman in African literature were generally and patently infelicitous. This is seen in such works as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Wole Soyinkas’s The Interpreters, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Meja Mwangi’s Going Down River Road. Whether this was willful or inadvertent should be a good object of another scholarly inquiry. Early African women writers such as Flora Nwapa, Mariama Ba, Aminata Sow Fall, Ama Ata Aidoo and critics such as Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Chikwenye Ogunyemi and Mary Kolawole were some of the interventionists in this regard. Whether consciously or inadvertently, a number of early African men writers, to be sure, also offered felicitous representations of women in their writings. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Nuruddin Farah and Sembene Ousmane readily come to mind. From the 1980s upward, there has however been what comes across as a conscious and steady mutation in the characterization of women in African literature from the balanced and objective to the partial and patronizing, and further to the radical and revolutionary by both men and women writers. Yet, in most of the attempts at correcting the negative portrayal of the African woman in African writings, women writers have, unsurprisingly, been the ones at pains to do so. More importantly, since the emergence of new creative interventions to challenge or redress the apparent imbalance in gender politics on the African literary landscape, attention has been understandably focused on the areas of immediate discomfort for the African woman, which are the domestic, the cultural, and the economic; to the neglect of the political. While the domestic, the cultural and the economic suggested here are, indisputably imbricated by politics, the political is conceptualized in this essay in terms of governance or political leadership. Notwithstanding many attempts at relocating women from the margin to the centre, they have hardly enjoyed real “centredness” in African literature, politically speaking.

In an essay originally published in 1998 but re-published in a 2007 anthology of criticism and theory on African Literature, Flora Nwapa, a pioneer African woman writer, raises critics’ concern about African women writers’ obsession with patriarchal issues in their works. According to her, one of the concerned critics at a conference where the paper in question was first presented had challenged women writers to “project into the future the figure of a female president” since “fiction may lead to fact” (2007, p. 531). Nwapa not only agrees to the idea, she notes that it is lofty and possible, especially given the fact that “various African governments are using women as resources in nation building” (2007, p. 531). Interestingly, she also observes that this noble task should be a charge of both female and male writers. The nameless critic’s remark, apparently made before 1998, appears unheeded by Nigerian women writers. From early writers like Nwapa herself and Buchi Emecheta to contemporary ones such as Chimamanda Adichie, Sefi Atta, Abimbola Adelakun, Chika Unigwe and so on, excessive preoccupation with gender issues is still pervasive. These contemporary writers, especially those in the diaspora or those shuttling between the natal and diasporic homes are, however, taking on larger issues beyond gender. Perhaps it is more important to note that the remark by the critic Nwapa alluded to was clearly a call for a more intense imaginative power and prophetic vision on the part of African female writers, a need extendable to contemporary African male writers as well.

Politics of interest affects the behaviour of the writer and the characters projected in any literary piece in the sense that the writer’s emotions are upset by the ills going on in the society he lives which he tries to react to using his narratives. These narratives are, thus a product of the author’s emotions which are expressed in appraising or criticizing society in fictional works. The characters, similarly, are portrayed to convey the emotional stance of the author as they are reflective of how societal events affect members of society in real life. Just as in the real world, a person may react positively to societal ills, another may feel indifferent; while others may be emotionally demoralized as seen in the characters of Danbudzo’s Black Sunlight; fictional characters portray the different shades of human behaviours in society. Thus, writers write to express their emotions.

Emotions, therefore, become the backbone that guides the author to recreate societal events which negatively affect the sanity of its citizens in a bid to reconstruct such an ailing society. The writer becomes committed to societal happenings due to his emotional connections to these events as he cannot stand aside and watch society being destroyed by human errors and excesses. Thus, emotion is implicitly the basis for literary narrations involving any societal issues like, for instance, gender discriminations. Issues of gender discriminations are tied to gender politics in literature where only adherents of the female course see the need to project issues that affect the female gender.

The reactions to feminist issues across the world resulted from the emotional feelings of gender critics to the plights of women. There had been some level of inactivity and disconnect of women in society for long which necessitated a resurgence in feminist movement in the 1960s. Yetunde Akorede, a literary critic in an interview gave a clue for the resurgence of this movement thus:

The agitation was prompted by the reality of women’s continued oppression, and the realization that women needed to evolve a theory and a strategy that would hasten the desired freedom from socio-political and economic oppression. This resurgence laid firm foundation for modern feminist movements and activities. The aim and objectives of propounders, adherents, critics, activists, radicals of feminist discourse is summed up in the following terms: Feminist ideology rests firmly on the proposition that women should be given equal rights and opportunities as men (17-18).

Yetunde’s explanations give vent to the emotional reasons why creative artists ventured into narratives that explore feminist ideologists. These artists are emotionally concerned with the plights of the woman and they recreate narratives that try to alleviate these inhuman conditions. They articulate the politics of gender discrimination, expectation and liberation. It is this ideology that articulates the yearnings of most women who become conscious of the negative impositions being a woman have brought upon them in their different cultural environments. The educated ones in particular, have reacted genuinely to the above challenges arising from emotional feelings. They have shown their commitment to tackling the challenges through literature, paper presentations, seminars and workshops within and outside Africa. Although different nomenclatures have emanated from such academic engagements, the fact remains that all the active players are tenaciously and doggedly working towards actualizing the emancipation of women from all forms of oppression. In view of the role of women in reconstructing society, this research examines the role of contemporary Nigerian female writers who through their poetic renditions have commented on the socio-political issues affecting society especially as they affect the female gender.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

Contemporary Nigerian female writers have tried to fill up the vacuum created by the older generation of female writers who projected the traditional role of women as a challenge to their self-actualisation. Today, even though the situation has not changed much, modern female writers have recorded giant strides in educating society on the need to give the female gender equal opportunities as the male. In their various literary corpus, they present some of the challenges militating against women and project the modern as amazons who overcome the huddles placed before them by a chauvinist society.

Apart from female novelists who use their prose fictions to x-ray society, female poets have been in the background for years with their voices not fully heard. However, contemporary female poets are taking up the challenges to make their voice count by recreating social ills that bedevil the nation. This research considers the works of two prominent Nigerian female poets who have been making giant strides in the literary world. Their poems touch on socio-political issues that affect women and the society and they try to proffer lasting solutions to these problems as their own contribution to nationhood. In this light, the study will carry out a thematic analysis of Adimora Ezeigbo’s Heat Songs and Evwierhoma’s Out of Hiding respectively.

1.3 Aim and Objectives of the Study

The aim of this study is to project the role of women in the socio-economic development of Nigeria. The objectives are:

i. to examine the contributions of women in the socio-economic development of the Nigeria.

ii. to discuss the thematic pre-occupations in Adimora Ezeigbo’s Heat Songs.

iii. to examine the thematic concerns in Evwierhoma’s Out of Hiding

1.4 Scope of Study

This study is an examination of the role of women in the socio-economic development of Nigeria. Specifically, the research discusses the role of women in Nigeria using Adimora Ezeigbo’s Heat Songs and Evwierhoma’s Out of Hiding respectively. The study is limited to the thematic explorations of the texts and how the writers are able to contribute to the development of their society.

1.5 Justification of Study

The study is justified because of the following reasons:

i. It will examine the role of women in socio-economic development thereby projecting a positive image of women in society.

ii. It will contribute to past literatures on gender studies or feminist literature.

iii. It will be useful as secondary source materials to future researchers in feminist literature.

iv. It will be useful to students and teachers who may consult it for further research.

v. It will be useful for its contributions to knowledge.

1.6 Conclusion

The need for women to underscore their importance in society cannot be over emphasized. Women writers have taken to their pen to pour out their emotions on some of the socio-political issues off their time especially as they pertain to the female gender. Adimora Ezeigbo’s Heat Songs and Evwierhoma’s Out of Hiding are poetic works that project the feelings of these great Nigerian writers. In their thematic projections, they are able to express the situations of the country in contemporary times and proffer perspectives as to how some of these issues may be curbed.

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