Atekit is glued to the sofa reading a novel entitled “The Lion and the Jewel” by Wole Soyinka. She is preparing to sit for her final UCE exams at the end of the year. ‘The Concubine’, by Elechi Amadi; ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe are part of the set of books examinable by the Uganda National Examinations Board for the Uganda Certificate of Education. These books were authored in the 1960’s. Atekit acknowledges that the stories she reads have influenced and biased her perception of female character. She says that women are always portrayed negatively; and thus questions and even disagrees with the way the female character is presented.
Many of us have at least read one African novel or play and will agree with me that the stories are about what goes on in our surroundings; culture, experiences, attitudes; whether fiction or not. Literature experts assert that literature is an instrument for the creation of awareness and the propagation of culture among people and the literary artist is the mouthpiece of society.
This is reality. My days growing up as a child in the traditional rural settings of Soroti district in Uganda remind me of the satirical songs of praise and enchantment of personalities in the village. Local music was composed to expose character and actions of the great, good, bad and ugly actions. Even a chicken thief, adulterous wife, hero, and witch where not left out. The praise songs of the brave hunters, boldness and potency were the hits in the village. The village belle, calico…was praised. Broadly speaking, the writing that reflects these experiences has also helped us understand a lot of events and has shaped our present; such as the crisis for independence and slave trade in Africa.
It is worth noting that literature is a mirror which reflects society’s feelings and thoughts. Literature has also had an impact on defining gender in the novels and poems we read. The roles assigned to female characters of the novels and plays have a message being communicated to the readers. The concern is what the readers learn from these characters as they strive to pass exams or derive pleasure. What implications does this have on them?
There is no doubt that the picture painted of a woman in the novels and plays we read, and the movies we watch is a reflection of what our society takes women and men to be. Naturally, there is nothing wrong with forming impressions of each other. However, most of the impressions formed are offensive. What a woman truly is contrasts sharply with what the world thinks of her. Often when I watch a Nollywood movie, I can predict how it will end.
One literature professor once analyzed some writers such as Ama Ata Aidoo, one of Ghana’s prominent female voices. He said, “To the man, the bride is: a sexual aid, a wet nurse and a cook steward and a general housekeeper, a listening- post, an economic and general consultant, a field hand, a punch ball. This is the typical house wife”.
Unfortunately, this is the picture of the characters we meet in most novels, movies and lyrics to songs. The wife/mother is presented as a helpless victim who is expected to take anything and perform the magic of keeping a perfect home.
Elaine Showalter (literary critic and feminist) hits the nail on the head when she says that “…….womanhood….is a fact of life….” If all a female character does in novels is grow, obtain a minimum qualification, get married, and give birth, then what do we expect our children to dream of? No wonder the average girl in Uganda does not aspire to be anything better than a good house wife and a mother. Catherine Biira argues that girls need role models to look up to. She gave an example of her sub-county where for the last 20 years no girl has passed UCE in division one. In 2011, when she promised the best girl a scholarship, indeed 3 girls passed excellently. Marriage has become a position of convenience when the UCE does not produce good results. It’s not uncommon to find the period of agony taking over almost immediately for the remaining period of these marriages.
Chinua Achebe (literary artist) opines that the role of the writer is to “tell his people where the rain begun to beat them”. He considers “a man who does not know where the rain begun to beat him will not know where to dry his clothes”. Literature then is a reflection of the society that produces it. And as we know, every generation produces its own artist that will reflect the root of that society. Analyzing how literary writers, movie makers and musicians have portrayed female characters in their works, and how this might help in positive development or otherwise, of the readers and listeners is critical.
About the Writer
Ikirimat Grace Odeke (Ms) is currently the Senior National Programme Officer of Policy and Planning at the Population Secretariat in Uganda. She has extensive experience working with communities and national institutions in sectoral and local government planning; advocacy and policy dialogue, training, data analysis and management and is the founding member and coordinator of the Sexual Health Improvement Project (SHIP) where she is self-motivated, passionate and enthusiastic about sharing, transferring and imparting the knowledge and skills acquired to others as a way of making a contribution to improving the quality of life of young people. She has a Masters Degree in Demography and a Postgraduate Diploma in Demography from the Cairo Demographic Centre in Egypt and a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences (Sociology and Social Administration) from Makerere University, Kampala. She believes in being positive and keen to succeed as a principle. Grace is a mother to five (two are teens) and a friend.