By Anote Ajeluorou (from Port Harcourt)
For many, literature has very little role, if any, to play in enhancing or contributing to national development. So much so that those who argue or think in this vein do not see the necessity of devoting time and resources to the study of literature or even reading literary works for the sheer pleasure and delight they offer the reader.
It’s also partly the reason why a ready dichotomy has been created between the arts and the sciences, with those inclined towards the sciences being denied both the humanising and liberating resourcefulness in language mastery, cultural education and re-education, and value-orientation that novels, plays, short stories and poems offer readers.
Consequently, Nigerian society has become very philistinic or anti-intellectual in tenor, with poor results being recorded yearly in national examinations as rewards for the anti-reading malaise. Indeed, it is why a vast majority of young Nigerians are on a steady march on the path of illiteracy even when they are still in school.
These were some of the issues that came to the fore on Tuesday at the on-going Garden City Literary Festival organised by the Mrs. Koko Kalango-led Rainbow Book Club at Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt, Rivers State. It was Day Two at the festival that brought writers from Nigeria and all over the world to celebrate literary ingenuity. The festival comes to a close tomorrow.
The event was a seminar session held in conjunction with the Association of Nigerian Authors, Rivers State chapter, with the topic ‘Literature and Women in National development’; it was moderated by the association’s chairman, Mr. Obinna Nwodim. The three-woman panel included a lecturer at University of Education, Port Harcourt, Dr. Chinyere Agabi, ANA Rivers treasurer, Mrs. Ekaete George and Mrs. Nneka Joyce Duru. They took time to both restate the crucial role literature plays in national development and how a robust, rounded portrayal of women in literature plus women actively writing to correct negative portrayal of women, can make for a society that is able to reshape the values of its young ones so as to impact society positively.
Duru’s argument captured the essence of the seminar debate when she opined that “women are the culture-bearers of the nation”, with Agabi also noting that society’s humanising values are best imparted to the young through Africa’s age-old folk narratives in which are embedded values and virtues that have long nurtured the African soul, but which are currently in danger of being lost due to modernisation that has no space for such once-cherished pastimes.
She, however, foresaw a challenge for city women in this regard, saying they might be handicapped in not being able to tell their young ones a good folktale as was also her case. To overcome such challenge, Agabi said she had to formulate tales to tell her daughter, who constantly upbraided her for not be able to retell the same story right a second time.
What could be done, Agabi further argued, was for parents, particularly women or mothers, to try as much as possible to record or write down these folktales, as she was to learn from her own daughter who would rather listen to a folk narrative than be read to from a written text. For the three women, the closeness of women or mothers to their children is key to facilitating a re-orientation of social values through narratives that morally edify and reknit the fabric of society away from the corrupting tendency so prevalent today.
So, Agabi argued that through fiction such as her recent work, The Survival and other ones, “Women are able to tell children about things that are valuable in society; women can talk about values that shape children’s lives. In female writing, you find forced marriages, peer influence, female circumcision, laziness and also things that can change wayward behaviours. It’s important to highlight the things that impede social growth of children and amplify those that enhance it”.
One way to do this, the university don stated, was to give the girl-child a ready access to education, even compulsory education, up to secondary school level, so she could discharge her role better in society by imparting better values to her young ones. She noted that women were badly challenged by the scourge of illiteracy, which a free education could easily mitigate.
For Duru, literature offers a bridge between women and power. For her literature is not only beautiful and a breath of fresh air, but that it gives the woman the all-important “notion of self-awareness, self-realisation, awareness of her constitutional rights and how to contribute socially, economically, culturally and politically to her society. Literature can spur a woman into going onto higher ground; help a woman to break down social shackles that hold her down. Literature helps her know her rights and for her to be confident to shape her life and to live her life the way she wants it to be”.
She further argued that women writers should write positive things that should help the girl-child to grow up morally and strong, with awareness of who she really is as a human being that has relevance in her society.
Away from the seemingly negative and docile manner some first generation writers portrayed women, today’s women writers have begun to give equal credibility and roundedness to female characters in fiction to counter such negativity. One of the panellists, Mrs. George sued for continuing positive portrayal of women in fiction so that a balanced view of women could be presented like Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa and others did in their works as counterpoint to what Chinua Achebe and other male writers did in their early works that relegated women to positions of servitude in society.
George stated, “In Nigerian female writing, we began to see how women impacted society positively to emerge from the position they found themselves and became productive members of society. Women should be presented in positive light, in a position of strength as co-creators and social engineers. Nigerian male writers didn’t portray women right, but the women eventually came to tell women’s stories the way it is; men talked about the way they perceived women, but women talked about strong, aggressive women, who are socially and economically strong. Such stories helped to reshape women’s psyche and make them feel they are part of the social and economic development agents of society”.
George also stated that early female writers like Akachi Ezeigbo, Sefi Atta and Kaine Agary and such platform as Garden City Literary Festival, the brain-child of a woman, with its 2012 women-centred theme, ‘Women in Literature’, offered women writers a solid platform for self-expression so that feminine issues could be brought to the fore for discussion and evaluation.
Also for Agabi, the pervasive use of social media by youths could be another avenue for female writers to explore to reach a large number of young ones through seizing the internet instrument of social media and bombarding such traffic with value-oriented materials so that youths consume wholesome content and not some of the trash currently on offer. She suggested the possibility of a section in social media devoted entirely to healthy literary content for young people.
A participant, Ozoma Amara faulted claims that Achebe presented only docile women in Things Fall Apart. He argued instead that strong female characters like the priestess of agbala exist in the novel, stating that presentation of female characters is only situational and not necessarily deliberately to denigrate. Another sued for closer ties between child-mother relationships as a way of entrenching strong cultural values in children, saying also that “women should mentor other women to help in the continuing enhancement of women’s power”.
In her own intervention, Prof. Molara Ogundipe (now teaching at the University of Port Harcourt after a few years’ sojourn in Ghana) stated that African societies were not only known for negative practices such as human sacrifices, female genital mutilation and maltreatment of women but that positive values also abounded. She stated that in spite of eroded values, Nigerian students still performed excellently in schools abroad as a result of the strong values they had imbibed at home.
For women who keep whining about balancing office work with managing the home front, Ogundipe said the African woman had always worked in traditional societies, especially in farming, trading or fishing and contributing to the economic, cultural and even political wellbeing of societies, which she effectively combined with managing the home. She added that there was a need to examine women’s contributions back then in the farms and now in the offices.
A strong campaigner for women’s rights, Ogundipe tasked women to think of themselves first as human beings, who have certain rights and privileges before seeing themselves as women. “What makes women not think of themselves as human beings?” she asked. It’s because they live in patriarchy! And women are trained, conditioned to support patriarchy”, even when patriarchy degraded women.
Ogundipe charged men to shed the notion of patriarchy and regard women as co-partners in society. She also noted that morality needed not be viewed only in the prism of sex, with women always being seen as the offenders, but that morality should be seen in more encompassing context of ethics, hard work, excellence and absence of corruption that African males have so perfected to stunt the continent’s growth. She also noted that a new reading of Things Fall Apart sees it as a novel about manhood and womanhood, especially with Okonkwo going into exile in his mother’s place because he beats his wife during the week of peace that eventually culminates in the tragic event that sent him into exile.
The iconic gender, author and literary critic reiterated her call for a more generational dialogue to be held between the older and younger generation of Africans as a means of bridging whatever gap Western civilization has wrought to disrupt Africa’s moral tenor that has caused disruption in the socio-cultural fabric of society. She also re-emphasised her call for the teaching of indigenous, African languages to the young ones so that African values could be better transmitted down the line for a continuum of African wholesome cultural values.