Flora Nwapa-Nwakuche, more famously known as Flora Nwapa, broke forth as a notable path-finding African female writer of the 20th Century. Among others, there are two significant facts about her person and works that bear restating here. One concerns the fact of her being the first internationally-recognised African female novelist. In opening the gate of imaginative narratives for fellow women, she became a major pioneer and unassuming champion of women freedom and rights.
The other noteworthy point is about her works, especially her debut eponymous novel, Efuru. Flora Nwapa not only gives women voice in the work, she equally makes a persuasive case for women as eminently capable of contributing to the development of their societies like their male counterparts. She provides an imaginative vision of what a society that privileges a complementary relationship between men and women can achieve. Umeh speaks appositely when she posits that the woman in the universe of Nwapa’s work “is something, a go-getter, […] not only for her special child-bearing and child rearing abilities, but also for her potential to benefit her community spiritually, educationally, economically, and psychologically.”
We find in this pioneering work a recreation of the complementary sex-role system that operated at Oguta, the birthplace of the author. The Oguta community was one of those pre-colonial Igbo communities where women contributed in the same way as men to efforts towards advancement. The community operated a mixed-gender age grade system, and recognition, reward, and status were not informed by gender consideration but mainly by merit. It was a community where women were celebrated for their contributions to the good of the society and so were allowed to break and share kola nut.
This of course is contrary to what obtained in many parts of Igboland; women are not permitted to break or share kola nut because it serves as a symbol of patriarchal power. However, that women in Oguta were involved in it at all proves the fact that peace, trust, friendship, and wellness – all critical to the progress of society, and which the breaking and sharing of kola nut symbolise, – are not values that only men can make possible. The consistence of peace, trust, harmony, and progress in a society requires a meaningfully strong cooperation between men and women, in the same way that the attainment of sustainable development needs the contributions of the two genders from their varied areas of strength.
Accordingly, emerging from the remarkable “tradition where women paddle canoes up, down, across, and beyond Uguta (Oguta) Lake, transporting passengers and their wares for a normal fee, where women are leaders in trade and commerce, where a democratic gender system recognizes talent regardless of one’s sex, where confidence and perfection are nurtured in both males and females,” it is hardly surprising that Nwapa produced a novel which not only celebrates women but also dramatises and emphasises the fact that women too can contribute usefully to the economic, political, social, religious, and cultural discourses at the local, national, and international strata (Umeh, 24).
It is against this backdrop that we argue in this paper that Nwapa’s Efuru makes a persuasive case for the role of women in National Discourse. The novel provides a vision of the benefit a society that allows men and women to contribute on an equal keel gains. A National Discourse enriched by the contributions of men and women is far more likely to catalyse enduring growth and development. Contrariwise, a strictly male-defined National Discourse is limiting and only half helpful in the quest for sustainable development. Most of the conflicts in the different households of the world of Efuru arise at every point when the men elect to define the course of action without involving their women. In other words, things work and progress is made when the two genders complementarily make decisions on issues affecting them and their society; but crises prevail when the men choose to shape the discourse of development alone.
In effect, the women in Nwapa’s novel prove that women can contribute to development; that men do not have the monopoly of knowledge on how to advance society. It provides reasonable grounds for the conclusion to be reached that, when it comes to National discourse and Development, men and women must, in a complementary context, give what they have.
It is pertinent to clarify the concept of ‘National Discourse’ as used in this paper. We define National Discourse as all forms of communication that occur at a national level about policies and ideas for the actualisation of developmental objectives. This form of communication also imbricates subjects and issues that make for the happiness, progress, and wellbeing of a people in a given country. It is a discourse that centres on the question of how to effectively organise and govern society, and improve the human condition at local, state, and national levels. A National Discourse, which can be in spoken and written forms – is aggregated through critical and robust exchange of views and ideas on political and socioeconomic issues among citizens of a given country.
Nwapa’s Efuru projects a positive image of women. It tells the exciting story of a woman who in many respects demonstrates the mental and physical strengths, motherly compassion, virile grittiness, compelling industry, remarkable team spirit, and practical ingenuity that women possess but are often self-servingly downplayed and unappreciated by men across many a patriarchal society. The novel chronicles the life of Efuru right from the time she takes off from her father’s house to be with the love of her life, Adizua who is financially challenged and unable to pay the bride price, through her marital experiences, trades, exploits for the good of the community, and association with others, and to the point when Uhamiri, the goddess of the lake, chooses her to be one of her worshippers. Set in the colonial context of an Igbo community (as evident in the traditional practices of Igbo people featured therein), the novel also details the undertakings of women, providing a kaleidoscopic picture of women that subverts the common one-dimensional, formulaic portrait of them featured in many male-authored texts.
In the fictive universe of Efuru, as in Idu (1970), and One is Enough (1982), and Women Are Different (1986), there is a complex, multidimensional image of women who thrive not mainly in the traditional contexts of mothers, wives, concubines, trollops, and revolutionaries. These women also demonstrate and provide visionary leadership, they initiate ideas, and they determine the course of the economy.
It is in the portraiture of the enterprising makeup of women like Efuru, Ajanupu, and Nwabata, especially how they work with men to advance their community, that the importance of women to the formulation of a national discourse as a useful framework for political and socioeconomic development becomes evident. This imaginative portrayal of women makes more than a claim that women are not mere social lubricants that drive the engine of growth and progress; they are in themselves, like men, the engine wheeling society forward in all critical areas. The ‘national discourse’ of the community seen in this novel is as much shaped and sustained by the leadership and contributions of women as it is by men. Each of them gives what they have for the progress of their community.
In that connection, gender roles and imbalance come clear as social constructs. They are not natural facts but constructs of men to debar women from playing crucial role in the formation of National Discourse and the execution of developmental objectives. Awe provides a relevant argument in this regard:
This gender imbalance in practically every field is certainly not because women are created inferior to men but rather because women have not been afforded a level playing field. Indeed it is a scientifically proven fact that the human brain is the same in both males and females. Women, however, are subjected to numerous constraints; there is a general and totally unsubstantiated belief that women are inferior to men and can only perform certain duties – mainly domestic ones of looking after the home, their children and husbands (2016).
Efuru gives a strong rebuttal to the belief that women are not naturally suitable to play critical roles in how the affairs of society are coordinated. In fact, as seen in the work, things flounder when they are excluded from the decision-making stage of how to better the lot of society, but progress is recorded when the two sexes complement each other and contribute jointly according to their respective capacities.
In engaging with the focus of this paper, it is proper to explain that the different forms of communication, actions, and events involving Efuru and her two husbands, Adizua, and Gilbert (also known as Eneberi Uberife); Nwosu and Nwabata; and Ajanupe and other characters constitute what we define in this paper as the National Discourse. Put differently, the various conversations the characters have on the course of action to take on issues bordering on dowry payment; the business to invest in; cliterodectomy (more appropriately Female Genital Mutilation); marriage; health; and the general wellbeing of the community form an instance of the National Discourse in which women play critical roles. Umeh hints at this fact when she contends that the word ‘female’ means more than the traditional meaning it is associated with. TO BE CONTINUED
• Ademola Adesola ([email protected]) is a doctoral student in the field of Literature-in-English at the Department of English Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife