Thursday, October 18, 2012

196. Women Leading Africa: Conversations with Inspirational African Women, Edited by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah

Issues of women, the world over, are peculiar for its similarities than its differences. The issues confronting women are not specific to any given culture, continent, country or even ethnic grouping. They are colour blind, nonracial, and ageless. They are ubiquitous. Even in the so-called developed countries where the fight for gender equality has been fought and achievements chalked to such an extent that it (gender equality) has become commonplace, one could easily point to certain discrimination against the fair sex; nevertheless, the intensity - depth and width - of this discrimination varies across cultures. Because these problems emanate from an established patriarchal society, they are structural in nature and, when not interrogated and challenged, are bound to be propagated from one generation to the other, even by individuals who have no intention of maltreating women or discriminating against them; for no one is explicitly tutored to hate women. They are only asked to implement what the traditions - developed by a council of men - stipulate. So that, at any point in time, the victims of such eolithic laws are themselves its ardent adherents, perpetrating it with ardour and tranquility with the belief that they are advancing some ancestral course. For instance, widowhood rites are mostly meted out to women by women; so too are some instances of clitoridectomy, or  FGM (Female Genital Mutilation).

For so long a time, women have passively subjected themselves to this maltreatment that generations of women took the abnormal to be the norm. Those who broke out and fought back were branded as witches and crones who were isolated and banished and upon their demise, were mythologised into fearful apparitions. But because 'no one takes the medicine for a sick person', women never left the fight. The struggle was waged relentlessly, regardless of the derisive and often derogatory labels slapped on these individuals. This birthed the Affirmative Action, which sought to address these rights discrimination. And Africa is no different.

In Africa, the struggle is still in its nascent stages and, though several successes have been chalked, there is more to be done to address this inherent, culture-defined practices. For instance, in movies - the woman is a dullard, unable to think herself out of problems and waiting to be saved by a more intelligent, macho man. This arc is common even in the Hollywood-produced movies. In Nollywood movies and movies from across other parts of Africa, the women are witches sabotaging the financial successes of their sons and preventing their daughters from having children; or they are prostitutes who will later be rescued by a rich and genteel male client. Or are arrogant to the point of insanity, where they are financially successful. Or are financially successful but unmarried and, by some twisted logic, desperate. All these pictures create a kind of dependency syndrome on the part of women, whilst at the same time - at the subliminal level - introducing it into her that the man is the saviour, the rescuer and solver of problems. The men are portrayed differently: they are imbeciles and under magic-spells whenever they are seen to be washing, ironing or helping at home. When they lose their jobs and the women become the breadwinners there will be trouble in the home.

Yet, successes have been chalked; awareness has been created and there is a belief - not yet backed by research, at least not that I know of - that the young husbands of today are different from their fathers in terms of the spousal relationships and respect and home-keeping and equality of rights.

But behind these successes are women who are struggling, and fighting tirelessly, sometimes sacrificing their careers to take on a new one, at other times adding onto what they are already doing. It is these women that Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah interviews in her book, Women Leading Africa: Conversations with Inspirational African Women (African Women's Development Fund, 2011; 177). Reading this book one gets a picture of women fighting for their rights - human rights, from different sectors of their lives. The picture is so vivid that sometimes it feels like they are virtually waging a war and even though sometimes they send conflicting messages regarding their personal opinions and beliefs, their vision remains the same. For instance, where are some don't believe in labels and will reluctantly call themselves feminists, even though they fight assiduously for women's right, others describe themselves as such boldly and with pride. Similarly, whereas others believe that the religion itself discriminates against women, others indulge in a feminist reading of the bible. It is this diversity in a unified purpose that brings them success for both the Christian and the Atheist, still could have a common ground to share ideas and advance a humane course without throwing blows, attacking throats, or being vituperative. Thus, the fight for women's right has moved beyond personality crashes to a level where the vision has become the mission and the means, varied. It is no longer about one single woman, it is about women. It is no longer about one person getting into a position of authority, it is about that girl in the village getting access to equal education and having equal chance of getting a job. It is no longer about pacifying women with positions or by doting on them but by changing laws so that they can make their own choices regarding where and what their future should be.

By bringing all these women together into one compendium, Nana Darkoa has clearly shown that there is comfort and safety for anyone contemplating to join the fight for women's right and gender equality. That this safety in numbers means no explanation for being a feminist just as no one explains being a lawyer. And that there are men out there who believe and fight for women rights, like the husbands of some of the interviewees. However, if there is anything that treads through all the interviews, it is that the fight against injustices against women requires a conscious and decisive participation, and not passive head-nodding and secret-support (bedroom support), if changes are to be made; for challenging the status quo, interrogating traditions and  demanding answers is not a passive exercise. If it were, it would have been achieved a long time ago, without intervention.

Bringing women from West, East and Southern Africa, Women Leading Africa is divided into three sections - Politics, The Arts, and Feminist Spaces - depending on the primary occupation of the interviewees. The Politics section has names like Hon. Winnie Byanyima, Hon. Margaret Dongo, Verbah Gayflor, Hon. Pregaluxmi Govender, Hon. Catherine Mabobori and Wendy Pekeur. What some of these women did, have done and are doing will amaze the reader. For instance, Hon. Margaret Dongo, at fifteen, participated fully in Zimbabwe's Liberation War. She became a Member of Parliament for the Zanu-PF party, but is now president of the Zimbabwe Union of Democrats, an opposition party. Anyone who has read Fiona Leonard's Chicken Thief and Shimmer Chinodya's Harvest of Thorns will relate to this, except that this is no fiction.

The Arts section features publishers, authors and writers. Here one will find Ama Ata Aidoo, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Rudo Chigudu, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ayesha Harruna Attah and Wanuri Kahiu. It was interesting reading Tsitsi Dangarembga's thoughts and how they influenced her books - Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not. Ama Ata Aidoo's work with her Mbaasem Foundation, created to provide writing space for women but which grew to become something bigger, was also highlighted. Ayesha Haruna Attah talked about the women in her novel Harmattan Rain. She came across as not very glued to the feminist agenda but anyone who had read her book will know it is the opposite. Bibi's interview showed how one can use her primary occupation to fight against stereotyping, especially in books. Bibi owns Cassava Republic and through her publishing activities have fought against prosaic prejudices since they feed into the conscience.

Florence Butegwa, Leyman Gbowee, Jessica Horn, Dr Musimbi Kanyoro, Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Mary Wandia were grouped under the Feminist Spaces section. Leyman Gbowee shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with her president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, though this interview was conducted prior to this. Gbowee worked to end the civil war that plagued Liberia by organisation non-violent demonstrations. Her struggle has been made into a film titled Pray the Devil Back to Hell. She also worked to get Ellen elected for a second term. Mercy Oduyoye's interview is very fascinating. It was nice to know how a feminist reads the bible, especially when most have castigated the book for been oppressive against women. However, Mercy says questions must be asked; who are those writing the book? who are those telling the story? She has views that could easily have been described as blasphemous but which answers most of the questions usually raised and she is unapologetic about them.

From the interview one could see some sort of distinction between men, as individuals, and men as used when referring to a patriarchal society. (I may be wrong with this distinction). Hence, interrogating the structures and that idea (which makes men think they have authority over all) should be the focus, some think. Breaking down and rebuilding the structures and the consciences, cannot be done by women alone - after all there are some women who themselves want to keep the status quo. It can be done when we all decide enough is enough; that we want to see change and that this change has enormous developmental consequences, for which society ever developed when a large part of its people are discriminated against? Therefore the fight against patriarchy is not only women's fight but everybody's fight. But since he who feels it, knows it more, they have to take the lead just as they have done. That is demonisation of men is not the solution to women's problem and I don't think the plan of women's right activist is to create a matriarchal society instead of an egalitarian one. At least Dr Musimbi Kanyoro believes so:
Change-makers strive to bring everyone to the conversation and not just their allies. My aim in life is to get as many people as possible to recognise the humanity of women. Men are the other sex of humanity. They are family members, neighbours, friends, colleagues, and we ant to enhance the good in these relationships. 
However, she also recognised that there are certain things men should be personally held responsible for. She continues
Yet with much regret, men are also our oppressors and we organise to protect ourselves from men when they discriminate against us, act with violence and dehumanise us all.
This shows the complexity of the challenge faced by these feminist activist. Each interviewee is an achiever; each knows the importance of what they want for their gender and, with the precise and incisive questioning from Nana Darkoa, stated their goals and wishes for women devoid of  circumlocution, which could have easily ensued due to the several dimensions the interviewees have. My only problem is that one or two of the interviews were short and seemed to have ended abruptly. For instance, I really wanted to know more about Margaret Dongo and what made her form her own political party.

My observations from this reading could have been influenced by my gender. Perhaps like Oduyoye, I did a masculine reading of the book or perhaps I was afraid to confront myself or that I think I belong to the new generation of men who believe in equality of the genders and therefore think all men of my generation do. Whatever the case may be, this book took me on a journey and it is a journey worth taking. I recommend it unreservedly to all.
__________________
About the Editor: Nana Sekyiamah serves as a trustee for the Korle Bu Family Fund (KBFF) as Director of Europe and is currently inspiring others to become trustees through the national Get on Board campaign. Nana is a personal coach and trainer who specialises in working with individuals looking to achieve success in their lives. Nana's experience includes delivering work based coaching programmes and organising specialised coaching and personal/professional development events.

Nana is a trained facilitator, accomplished public speaker and a member of London Communicator's (a toastmaster's) club. She also works as Programme Officer, Fundraising and Communication, for the African Women's Development Fund. (Source)

4 comments:

  1. Thank you so much Fredua. A really insightful reading of the publication. I hope you can make it to the official launch next Thursday, Branche Lounge, Golden Tulip at 7.30pm as part of AiD

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  2. Indepth review, as usual, Nana. I attended a worskhop once with Bibi and I must say she is quite professional in her approach to issues on gender and feminism. I worked with Mbaasem once and I am glad to know that it is now BIG. I would like to read this book, if nothing for its inpspirational contents.

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    Replies
    1. Yep,'for its inspirational contents'. It has a lot to offer.

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