Monday, July 23, 2007

Women of the Umuofian Society

Copyright Eden Foundation
Ugo Daniels actually inspired this post, because his yam festival contribution in the past edition of the Beautiful Africa blog carnival it immediately made me think of a quote from Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart:
“Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop.”
As you have found out by now, there are millions of things about Niger that I love and cherish. There are so many nice things to mention about this culture so totally different from the one I was born into, that it would seem that there isn’t anything in there that disturbs me. There are a few however (although I always think life is nicer living if you concentrate on the benefits rather than the disadvantages) and thinking of Achebe’s novel, reminded me of one of those issues.

When Yaronbaba asked me how come I wasn’t married, I took some time to explain the situation to him. I told him that guys in my birth country don’t want to move to Niger because it scares them – they don’t understand the culture or the language and the standard is just not adequate enough. I would be welcome to marry them and spend the rest of my life in Sweden, but what good would that do all the years and experiences I have collected in understanding that one particular area of the world? The other alternative would then be to marry a Nigerien man instead, but polygamy in my eyes bears strong resemblances to the art of dealing with cattle, and I just cannot picture myself the cow of any relationship. When I am in Niger, I walk like a man, I talk like a man and I make room for myself like a man. If a man stares at me, I meet his gaze and keep it until he is the one looks regardless of his social standing. Yaronbaba constantly laughingly reminds me that "Ishtar, you are not a woman, you are a man!" which is a way of saying that we are equals.

That is a rare privilege however for many women in my area of Africa. Back to the novel, Achebe paints a vivid picture of what it's like being a woman in the Umuofian society. I tried doing it justice in a argumentative essay, which brings no answers or solutions to the problem, but rather meant to identify the situation on a broader perspective.
“What was the Situation like for Women in the Umuofian Society and How Did They Respond to it?”

In Western Society today, women’s rights are clearly defined and it is often hard to imagine what it would have been like to live in a situation where one’s gender would decide one’s social order. However, this does not necessitate an intolerable or abusive situation. The portrayal of women’s situation in Things Fall Apart is meant to show that even though men were assumed superior to their wives, there were rules that protected women from abuse and people adhered to the social order of the clan despite some injustices because one did not question the ways of the ancestors.

Copyright Eden Foundation

Women in Umuofia were not considered equal to men and were in many ways discouraged from becoming independent individuals. They were not allowed to participate in important village decisions, but were kept in the background together with the children. When Umuofia was deeply offended by one of its neighbours for instance, all of the men, but only the men, assembled at the marketplace in order to decide what the consequences would be. If a woman had reason to address the elders – who were all men – her case was presented and argued for by her closest male relatives. This happened to Mgbafo, a woman who had run away from an abusive husband. Women in Umuofia never lived by themselves. Girls were married off very early, often around the age of sixteen, going straight from their fathers’ house to their husbands’. They never lived on their own.

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The husband would often be several years her senior, leaving the girl at a heavy intellectual disadvantage. Once married, a woman was expected to obey her husband and was not allowed to question his authority. Men and women had little interaction. Wives in Umuofia could be beaten for any trivial matter according to their husbands’ whim. Women did not possess much. Although the children were often much closer to their mothers, they lawfully belonged to their father and would be lost to their mother in case of divorce. Although Umuofia was an agricultural society, women were restricted to sowing coco-yams instead of yam – the villagers’ main livelihood – which limited their means of income. “Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop.”

Copyright Eden Foundation

Even though women were considered the weaker gender, they were generally well taken care of. Women were easily frightened. For instance, when the men disguised as ancestral spirits appeared at the town meeting the day that Mgbafo’s case was pleaded before the elders, the women gave up a great shout and ran away. Men considered women foolish and despised them for their weakness. Weakness was in fact designated as a womanly feature and a man without honour in Umuofia was referred to as a woman. Boys were pressured in their teens to believe that unless they would be able to control their wives, they would not be respected as men. “No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and children (and especially his women) he was not really a man”. Even crimes were divided into male and female; the greater crimes being male and lesser female. This did not mean however that women were not respected, for even though women were expected to submit to their husbands, physical abuse was generally despised. When Mgbafo’s case was presented at the town meeting, the elders took her side and her husband was advised to humble himself before her relatives and beg her to return to him. “It is not bravery when a man fights with a woman”. As for marriage, some women did marry out of love, which was the case of Ekwefi who ran away from her first husband to live with Okwonko, the love of her life. Though men were allowed to have several wives and their material success was often measured by the number of wives they possessed – the record in the village being nine – some men really loved their wives. This was the case of Ndulue, who was considered inseparable from his first wife Ozoemena. The two were said to have one mind. Women were also highly respected as the mother of a child and the bond was often very strong. If things ever went really wrong, a man could always flee to his motherland, which Okwonko did after he accidentally shot a young boy in the village. “A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland.”

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Though women were at a social disadvantage, they accepted their situation because like all villagers, they submitted to the ways of their ancestors and did not question the structure of their society. Fatalism had a strong grip on the Umuofian society. “A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true – that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed”. Society was structured according to a strict hierarchy, even amongst the wives themselves, and society depended on it. Women actually played an important part in keeping the Umuofian society intact, because it was they who passed on the religious and cultural heritage to the children. No one went against the Law of the Land, nor questioned the village Oracle who was in direct contact with the gods. Even if the villagers did not always agree with the ways of the society, they adhered to them nevertheless. One example was when ObierikaOkwonko’s home after the latter had been banished from the village, even though the killing was unintentional and Okwonko was Obierika’s best friend.

Copyright Eden Foundation

By today’s standards, life in Umuofia may seem to have been very hard, but for those growing up in a fatalistic society – whether male or female, rich or poor – challenging the ways of the ancestors or one’s chi, as they called it, would have been unthinkable. The Umuofian Society depended on all of its citizens respecting the hierarchy in place and it undeniably worked, until the Europeans arrived. Women were unquestionable unequal to men but were also generally well taken care of. One cannot but admire them, women and men alike, for their bravery in accepting any hardships they encountered and to take each day as it came.

Copyright Eden Foundation

Works Cited

Achebe, China. Things Fall Apart. New York, Anchor Books, 1994
Hope you enjoyed it!


pamelastitch said...

I loved it. Are you submitting it for the competition?? (hopeful smile here)


PS: do you think status and power has significantly changed for the Nigerian woman? Is she still expected to follow the role of the peaceful, ever submissive and obedient wife??

Izz said...

I like the pics a lot. Is there an artist for the Foundation who does such pieces specifically for you guys?

Mark Base said...

Hej Ishtar,

Quite a moving piece!

Hey listen:

I've tagged you as a "friend" from MyBlogLog. It's one of those "things about myself" things.

But I've added a bit of a twist to it; you've gotta find other bloggers you're "friends" with, but haven't really had much contact with.

Here's the link:

Good luck.

Ishtar said...

@Pam: I'm glad you loved it! Have submitted it for the competition. Will be nice reading the contributions!

I do think that status and power has changed for the Nigerian woman today, although I still see traces of it. You ask if she is still expected to follow the role of the peaceful, submissive and obedient wife. I cannot answer for Nigeria, but I know that in my part of Hausaland, she is. That is why they call me a man, as I do not fit the female description very well.

@Izz: I'm glad you like the pictures! I do the art work myself - together with my computer, that is. It's quite a lot of fun, actually!

@Mark: I'm glad you found your way back here after your long blogging absence (shame on you!) but did you really read the entire piece? Anyway, thanks for the tag - as if five weird things (already posted) wasn't enough. Now I have to come up with eight new? Oh well, give me a little time and I'll see what I can do about it!


loomnie said...

Nicely written. I think you generally captured how Achebe presented women in Things Fall Apart, I think women were disadvantaged - and in many places they still are. But one should think about this: this is a man telling a story, in a 'male-dominated' society. What would be interesting - now I am talking as an anthropologist - is how the woman of the time presented in the novel would represent herself. I think we would be surprised by the amount of agency she possesed. Having said that, I should add that there are a lot of things that ought to be condemned about the man-woman relationship of that time. Things are generally changing these days, but very slowly.... If anybody wants to read some scholarly stuffs on gender in Africa check

Ugo Daniels said...

Sorry i've not been here for a minute. been on vacation-much needed, i might add. Cheers!