Analysis on Chimamanda Adichie’s speech on women in Pre-colonial Igbo cultureIdes Ofune 2nd August 2019 0 COMMENTS
Chimamanda Adichie was a keynote speaker at the 2018 Igbo conference where she gave a deep insight into Igbo women in precolonial Igbo culture.
I found it very enlightening and interesting. I was indeed inspired! Here is what I gleaned and my conclusion:
Culture is used as a silencing tool in Nigeria. For example, when Nigerians say it’s not African culture for women to dress indecently, she says when she looks the pictures of southern Nigerian women in precolonial and colonial Africa, they were almost naked. Ironic right? Culture is therefore contested and contentious that is why history is very important. If culture can be used as a silencing tool, it could also be used as a de-silencing tool. People make culture and can remake it. Culture changes. It shouldn’t be static.
She was surprised that when her paternal grandmother was not buried in her husband’s hometown but her own. Personally, I say that’s why it’s always enlightening to take cognizance of cultures other than yours before forming opinions or taking a stance. It’s also important for us to tell our stories for us to see the diverse in Nigeria. So that when one speaks about Nigerian or African culture, one can ask, which one of them? For example, in my home town, women are not buried in their husband’s villages but where they are originally from. For example, since I am from Ekpoma in Edo state but married to a man from Delta state, I wouldn’t be buried in Delta but originally where I am from if we were to follow culture.
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The best African archives are found in YALE University USA, and not in any African university – surprising right? If you need to do an in-depth study in African culture and collection, you might just have to travel to the United States of America. Our history is oral, colonialism was fraught with violence, education and Christianity came hand in hand and the first set of Africans who had western education were Christians. Because of this background, the first set of educated Africans were cut off from their traditions and indigenous religions. We know our culture was demonised and termed barbaric. Subsequently, most of the people documenting historical Igbo culture were not the Igbos themselves but foreigners who had of course their own agenda and could interpret it the way they perceive.
Colonialism changed the original culture. For example, when colonialists arrived in Igbo land, it was the Victorian era where British women did not have property rights in the UK and didn’t own properties themselves. In the UK, women were supposed to stay at home as housewives, were protected and not seen as autonomous beings who could make decisions about their own lives. Igbo women on the other hand were traders, could own properties and wielded power. According to Chimamanda, this was understandably alarming to many of the British colonialists and explained many of the changes that subsequently took place in Igbo land.
For example, there was the “Omu” which was translated as queen but not correct. Actually, the position had its own authority. The person was neither the wife of the King nor related to him. It was a position that was keenly contested and was open to any woman who had acquired wealth from trading. At that time, women were the exclusive traders in Onitsha market. No trading could begin until the Omu, a woman arrived in the market. Then, there was the married women associations who judged disputes between men and women. If men were found to be at fault, these women groups punished the man and used a system translated loosely as “sitting on a man”. The system involved singing and dancing in front of the man’s compound sometimes at night. They sang scurrilous songs detailing his wrongs and calling his manhood into question, banging on his hut with pestles, perhaps demolishing or plastering it with mud. When the British established warrant chiefs, this system of sitting on a man which the misogynistic British society found appalling was outlawed and became a punishable crime. Women were no longer selected in important positions.
Furthermore, the British observed that Igbo women traversed the country trading in palm oil and ivory displaying “surprising intelligence.” What we learned was that women were economic decision makers and were in the position to acquire wealth. The major economic activities were farming and also trading. Farming was gendered – men farmed the yams while women did cassavas and vegetables – we learned that from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Women grew what was actually eaten which gave them enormous power. It was the Colonial British authorities who, imitating their Victorian society, ruled that women could no longer own properties. Wealthy women had no choice but to register their properties in the name of their sons and husbands who then gained titles.
Another thing I found interesting was when she told a story of how she was greeted in the traditional Igbo men greeting by a man when she was honored in Nigeria – if you are Nigerian, you know the way Igbo men shake hands. She said she felt hallowed that she had been let into this special place. She questioned why the greeting was only for men and would have been better if it was for those who had achieved wealth. (Very elitist of Chimamanda!) My immediate response was why? Firstly, why should something that men created for themselves become a problem for women? From my experience, men don’t find any problem when they are excluded from women associations. The Omu system she talked about, Igbo men did not find problems with it neither did they seek to be included because they understood it was strictly for women.
In Nigerian religious organisations for example, we always have separate celebratory days for men and women. Women also have monthly or weekly meetings and it’s usually only for married women. In addition, there are several “women-only” cultural and religious associations with their August meetings etc. I don’t see men clamouring to be included in these associations or cry discrimination when they are excluded. Why should women complain or cry foul when men have their own special clubs or associations? In my opinion, even though these men associations are more powerful, women should aspire to elevate these associations to a level of power or prestige similar to those of men. I am not asking for a strictly gendered society but even I as a woman know that there are some associations and gatherings that can only cater to my feminine needs. I need an only women space where women could be comfortable enough to discuss our collective challenges, needs, issues and wants. I won’t begrudge men when they seek to do the same for themselves. And I am also elated to know that societies in Nigeria have always created different spaces for men and women where they could thrive.
Chimamanda Adichie concluded by saying that in precolonial Igbo society, men and women were not technically equal because men still wielded more power. Power was more diffused between men and women in the larger society. She says history can inspire and indeed, I have been inspired. It’s surprising how we reach different conclusions after learning about history. I find deep discomfort in feminism and my discomfort comes from a cultural DNA. My discomfort with the western feminism comes history and observations growing up in the Niger Delta Area of Nigeria. There, women were hardworking, and have property rights. In short, it is known all over Nigeria that women from the Niger Delta are equal in strength and handwork to men.
I sincerely believe in Africa even with all the problems. I understand that there were many parts of our culture that needed to be done away with – killing of twins etc. Unfortunately, we have also thrown away the baby with the bath water. The great aspects of our culture have been denigrated because the colonialists told us they were barbaric and inferior. Ironically, the so called inferior culture is what has been revived in other places and sold as “rights” and advanced as civilised. Actions that we historically already practiced. I believe we have so much untapped potential that can solve the world’s greatest challenges. We only need to rediscover who we truly were before we were told how to ‘act’ by colonialists. I have used my platform and my voice to champion this cause especially as women are most likely to be entrepreneurs in Africa than anywhere else in the world.
As I conclude, women shouldn’t always place the blame of imbalance squarely on the shoulders of men as if we don’t have any form of agency. For example, in Nigeria, we don’t really have the problem of gender pay gap that happens in western societies. Our challenges as African women are peculiar and unique so feminism as currently conceived and practiced would not solve them. Furthermore, as Africans, we should correct the often dominant negative narrative not by dispelling it but by putting it in proper perspective. If we don’t know who we truly are, how can we begin to even implement changes? We wouldn’t even know where to start and it’s one of the reasons why we still struggle. To move forward in a positive light, we need to have a strong sense of identity steeply rooted in both precolonial and post-colonial culture.
Ides Ofune is currently a PhD Student at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on civil society and accountability in improving the quality of education. She is the founder of Desert Bloom Initiative and editor of Desert Bloom Advisory. Ides is very passionate about education and creating an inclusive society. She speaks French and English fluently. She can be reached at email@example.com