50 years on… Efuru in the context of national discourse and development – Part 2


With Nwapa’s picture of the community of Ugwuta women, a positive, multi-dimensional, complex, and realistic vocabulary describing women was introduced into African letters. For example, in Nwapa’s pathbreaking novel Efuru, the word “female” represents a wealthy trader, a sharp business entrepreneur, a decision-maker, an independent thinker, a powerful, respected priestess, and a deity. The idea of women as femmes fatales and ne’er-do-wells is nonexistent in Nwapa’s text. Efuru, the main character in the novel, is deliberately drawn as a character noted for business acumen, wealth, and resilience (1995b: 118).

It must be noted that the community projected in Efuru is not only essentially about women playing important roles in the formation of a National Discourse. It is equally notably about men and women working together to determine the way to develop their society. Nwapa’s novel is not about the solving of societal problems through the wisdom and contributions of women solely. It does not even cast men as enemies, neither does it embrace the solution of a world without men – ‘a separatist world of women’ – as radically proposed by Frank (1987: 24). Rather, they embrace a principle of complementarity which enables them to work with their men.

The principle, as espoused by Ogunyemi, favours collaborations between men and women as the most reasonable way of engaging with the multifaceted challenges of postcolonial Nigeria, nay Africa. As she says, ‘the Nigerian dilemma must be resolved by the collaborative efforts of men and women, rather than being treated as gender specific’ (1996: 5-6). Similarly, this principle approximates the stance of Walker’s theory of ‘womanism’ (1983), which favours the working and coming together of women on all issues, including those relating to polygamy and domesticity. At the heart of the principle of complementarity and the doctrine of womanism, both of which feature in Efuru (as in other Nwapa’s works), is collaboration, networking, and consensus between men and women for the purpose of nation building and peaceful coexistence.

So how does Nwapa novel address the role women can play alongside their male counterpart through her main other characters? We answer this pivotal question, which is the thrust of this paper, by analysing a few cases from the text in no particular order – a kind of textual justification of the central thesis of this present work.

The issue of marriage is one of the major areas where women, as represented by Efuru, participate and contribute. Efuru and Adizua are in love with each other. As they narrator notes, ‘Efuru told him that she would drown herself in the lake if he did not marry her. Adizua told her he loved her very much and that even the dust she trod on meant something to him’ (7). Their goal is to live together married but Adizua does not have what it takes to make it happen. As society expects, he alone is meant to determine how and when marriage should happen. Since he is not financially capable, he decides to keep the marriage on hold. It is at this point that Efuru takes the initiative to make their marriage happen, more so that what is at issue is not the kind of poverty that will make their living together miserable. She supplies the initiative of what has to be done to ensure their happiness.

While it is Adizua who initiates the discourse on their marriage – ‘Adizua asked her to marry him and she agreed (7) –, Efuru contributes useful ideas to it and makes the union a reality in the end (23). The point is that had the man been the be-all and end-all of that decision, the union would not have been possible in the way that it is.

As in actual human community that the novel mirrors, the discourse on marriage in the community of the novel is shaped by men and couched in patriarchal codes. But Efuru ensures that she recasts the language of marital discourse and fills up the gaps therein. She takes care of the distortion in the male-inspired discourse of marriage. This is evident in the responses she gives to inquiries concerning the disappearance of her first husband, Adizua.

On her way from the river on a particular day, a woman runs into her and inquires, of course in the male-established code of marital discourse: ‘Did I hear that you have left your husband?’ But rather than respond in the same code, Efuru reframes it and responds sportily: ‘Yes, he has left me.’ But the woman would have none of that: ‘Don’t say that, my daughter. We say that a woman has left her husband, but never say that a husband has left his wife. Wives leave husband (sic) not the other way round.’ Then follows this response from Efuru: ‘It is the same thing to me.’ (90) Her response (also found in two other cases, pages 96 and 125) to the conventional position of her interlocutor can be understood to mean that she is simply saying that a woman can and is capable of contributing to the determination of what constitutes a National Discourse, for to leave it entirely to men is to accept that they alone have the power and means to shape discourse. And by not conforming to the popular response, her position proves the point that in certain cases when women contribute to National Discourse it makes it possible for them to fill up the gaps and silences that feature in male-dominated/determined discourses. Her view of marriage also serves to show that it is wrong and limiting to think it is only men who should shape marital discourse (96-7). So also are her suggestion to Adizua to get a new wife (26) and her decision to lead the search in finding a second wife for Gilbert, the husband of her second marriage (174 and 180).

In the case involving Nwosu’s health, the necessity of men and women determining the discourse on health comes up. Having been aided by Efuru to see a doctor, Nwosu is convinced that an operation would be necessary for him. In the absence of his wife, who in any case does not want him to have an operation, he confides in his benefactor that he will go for the operation. Here, Efuru tells him to discuss the matter with his wife (101). They both must discuss it and give in to the most superior, rational argument. In other words, the two must contribute the views they have to the discourse around health matter. They must embrace the complementarity principle which will enable them to build consensus and collaboration. She herself embraces this principle in her home. When she goes with Adizua a year after to thank the dibia they consulted for a child, her husband speaks to the operation of the principle when he says ‘My wife and I have one voice, our father’ (35).

On the question of the economy, Efuru shows that women can make meaningful contributions. But what is important here is that the capacity of women must be well developed and improved to enable them contribute to the discourse on economy and, in practical terms, economic matters. The empowerment of women, as Section 13 of the Beijing Declaration clarifies, is central in achieving development. As the document states, ‘women empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace’ (Quoted in Aina, 2012:10).

Also, the reasonable focus of the fifth goal of the Sustainable Development Goals is gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls. It outlines six ways through which this can be done, one of which is to ‘[e]nsure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic, and public life’ (JDPC, 2016:16). To ensure that women contribute to economic discourse locally, nationally and engender economic development, countries with low or zero women participation in economic matters must initiate ‘reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance, and natural resources in accordance with national laws’ (Ibid.: 16). This becomes important in view of the verifiable fact that sustainable development becomes impossible in environments rife with discrimination and exclusion of women from processes of policy making and governance (Aina, 2012:15). The vast resources of women must complement those of men if the objectives of development are to be attained. In other words, ‘[i]f development is not engendered, it is endangered’ (UNDP, 1996:7). The gender variable, therefore, is crucial to policy initiation and implementation.

The development of Efuru’s capacity and her self-knowledge aid her in knowing what to do and how she can contribute to the economic wellbeing of her domain. Her love for Adizua does not blind her mind; she is clear-headed (60). She uses her head, not her heart when it comes to economic issue. This is why she is able to stick to trade while her husband takes to farming: ‘I am not cut out for farm work. I am going to trade’ (10). In choosing to trade rather than follow her husband to the farm, she demonstrates the importance of diversification in economic matters as a key component of sustainable income generations. This decision works as it helps the family when it becomes clear that her husband is no longer capable of continuing with the farm business.

As the brain behind the trade (21 and 36), Efuru shows that it is not only men who can engender economic prosperity. When accorded the same opportunity and access as men, women too can contribute significantly to the initiation and accomplishment of economic goals. And there is an important lesson for men in Adizua’s recognition and acceptance of his wife’s entrepreneurial competence. He reckons that the bigger goal of development requires that each of the two genders must give what s/he has and must contribute in accordance with his/her capacity. The understanding of this fact explains why he discusses with his wife and suggests to her the need to get a maid to take care of their child so that she can give more attention to their trade. In reporting to him that she has reflected on his suggestion, it becomes even clearer that Efuru is involved in the decision-making process in her terrain. It is in this regard that we consider the submission of Parpart et al on the question of what constitute development and how it can be attained as apposite:

We realize that development requires more than just the creation of opportunities for people to earn sustainable livelihoods – it also requires the creation of a conducive environment for men and women to seize those opportunities. Development implies not only more and better schools but also equal access to education for boys and girls. Development requires good governments that give men and women equal voices in decision-making, and policy implementation’ (2000: vi).

Moreover, consensus building between men and women (in and outside marriage) as a necessary tool for development is present in the decision of Efuru to not have her bath, euphemism for circumcision, without the knowledge of her husband – ‘All right, mother. But my husband must be told and he will come from the farm before it is done’ (11). This also serves to substantiate the point made earlier that the doctrine of womanism, which does not make the women to view their men as enemies or crave for a world where men are absent, runs through the novel.

The roles the feisty Ajanupu plays in her home and community also exemplify the ability of women to contribute to societal progress. In the face of daunting challenges, she reaches into herself for solutions. She is concerned about the wellness of her family and the good of the society. She is greatly instrumental to the progress of her society. She is said to possess a fighting spirit (79). The indomitable spirit she manifests in her contributions to the discourses of her society earns her the respect of a majority of the people.

Her position against the decision of her sister, Ossai, to remain in her husband’s house in spite of being unfeelingly neglected by him can be interpreted as an expression of her understanding of the need for women to initiate ideas and not depend entirely on men. This conclusion becomes more tenable in view of her conclusion that there is no virtue in enduring the suffering occasioned by a man’s efforts to solely determine the narrative and nature of marital happiness. ‘You merely wanted to suffer for the fun of it, as if there was any virtue in suffering for a worthless man’, she says (79). This explains why she salutes and approves of Efuru’s decision to quit the house and later remarry. Efuru’s action shows that women are well capable of birthing effective solutions to social challenges.

There is a significant point observable about the conflicts that transpire in Efuru’s relationship with her husbands, and other couples like Nwosu and Nwabata. Things go wrong at every point when the men decide to, to the exclusion of the women, determine the discourse of progress and development. The Nwosu family vividly dramatize the problem that results when women are excluded from the decision-making process. Thinking, contrary to what objective fact states, that they have enough money to indulge in extra spending, Nwosu goes ahead to take a traditional title that takes away the family savings. Not only does he not side-line his wife in reaching that decision, he equally dismisses her perspective when she gets to know, invoking the famous, discriminating patriarchal catechism, as she reports, that “ ‘What can a woman do?’” She adds another reality that when women demonstrate their capacity and get things done, they are hardly recognised: “ ‘In the end, a woman does something and even then you still look down on women’” (166).

Nwosu plunges his family into financial crisis on account of his selfish disposition. He neglects the complementarity principle which has thus far ensured some measurable progress for them. When he tries to deny his abandonment of the principle, Nwabata submits thus: “ ‘You did not consult me. You are lying. […] You had made up your mind before you told me about it, and I could not stop you.’” After a heated argument, the man cools down and reverts to the operating principle: “ ‘My wife, this is not the way to solve the problem. Let’s put our heads together and decide on what to do […]”’ (167). Before Nwabata supplies the solution to the financial mess her husband creates, she volunteers some sarcasm that derides the folly of men choosing to shape the discourse all alone: “ ‘You make me blame you. You think that you know everything when you know nothing. So there is nothing I can do. What can a woman do after all […].’”

Thereafter, she comes up with a plan that appears to lift them out of the morass of that avoidable ache. It should be noted that the woman does not initiate an action that excludes her man. This further reinforces our view that the creed of womanism is the foundation on which Nwapa’s novel is based. Nwabata’s solution also requires the input of her husband. In the end, each of them gives what they have for the progress of their common cause. This drives home Aina’s conclusion that ‘partnerships and equality between men and women are found to be the basis of strong families and viable societies in a rapidly changing world’ (2012: 5).

Similarly, Adizua’s action of disregarding the complementarity norm in operation from the beginning in his relationship with Efuru constitutes the straw that breaks, irremediably, the back of the camel of their marriage. In trade as in other social issues, they flourish because they both contribute what they have to their affairs. But the moment he chooses to behave differently, to wit, to shape the discourse of familial wellbeing alone, problem begins. Some of the women at the river discussing the issue aptly summarise it: “ ‘They were very happy together until Adizua went to Ndoni more than a year ago and refused to return’” (89).

Likewise, Gilbert destroys the harmony and success in his relationship with Efuru. Things assume a bad hue when he also jettisons the system that makes it possible for him and his wife to intermesh their gender concerns and integrate effectively. He singularly spawns a discourse of innocence and deceitfully persuades Efuru to accept it and even broadcasts it. The truth comes to the fore and things go bad. He also spurns the logic of their integration and flies a male-sustained narrative of adultery against his wife. And as his discussion on girl-child education with his friend, Sunday, reveals, Gilbert subscribes to the view that National Discourse should be men’s exclusive preserve. Women’s capacity should not be empowered through education so as to contribute to the discourse on development.

Gilbert’s unsupportable and backward view that developing girls and women capacity is a ‘waste’ (191) still thrives in many places around the world. The men who sustain this discriminatory system and the women who give either active or passive support to it demonstrate grave ignorance of the fact that gender inequality is one of the main factors responsible for poverty and stunted economic growth. They are oblivious of the World Bank provable claim that ‘societies with large, persistent gender inequalities pay the price of more poverty, malnutrition, illness, and other deprivations’ (2000).

Nwapa’s novel reminds us that there are voices which will persist in strongly expressing disagreement with the principle of complementarity in gender relations as a necessity for the development of a society. Those voices, as the author recreates (139, 162, 166), can be men’s or women’s. These voices prefer competition to complementarity in gender social relations.

What this calls for on the part of groups and organisations convinced about gender equality is more commitment to the advocacy for the creation of social systems that encourages women empowerment and inclusion in National Discourse. The pertinence of Aina’s conclusion must be appreciated and minded genuinely seriously: ‘[P]artnerships and equality between men and women are found to be the basis of strong families and viable societies in a rapidly changing world’ (2012: 5). As seen in a situation involving Efuru and Gilbert (140), the debate component in the formation of a National Discourse must also be encouraged. And men and women must contribute robustly to it to the fullest extent of their abilities – each must give what they have.

The thrust of this paper is that Nwapa’s Efuru makes a strong case for the participation of women in the creation of National Discourse for development. Through her characters, the author demonstrates that initiative to develop society does not reside in men alone – women too are active agents and agencies of development. They can robustly function in critical sectors of society, including the religious. The novel calls attention to the historical fact that “the African woman has not been inactive, irrelevant, and silent. Rather, African tradition has seen the wisdom of a healthy social organization where all its citizens are seen to be vital channels for a healthy and harmonious society.” (Okonjo, 1976:46). The paper argues that a National Discourse enriched by the contributions of men and women is far more likely to catalyse enduring growth and development. To this end, the capacities of girls and women to play their roles must be enhanced through education and institutions of non-discriminatory systems.

• Ademola Adesola (toludemola1@gmail.com) is a doctoral student in the field of Literature-in-English at the Department of English Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife

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