Book Review: A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta

I read about this book in a Newspaper and the way in which it was described drew me in. I recall, it was said to be a book about exploring the differences in culture between the Nigerian protagonist and those she comes into contact with within her Western environment. I bought the book with an expectation of something Americanh-ish. I think part of my problem is that I have been spoilt by Chimananda, and now expect all African writers to sound like her.

Well, Atta does not sound anything like Adichie, and that in and of itself is not a criticism of Atta. I’ll start with some positives.  I like that the main character’s name is not introduced until she is addressed by another character and we learn her name is Deola. Up until that point she is only referred to as “she”.

Deola is in her late 30s, single. This information is provided to the reader, but other aspects of her character, who she really is, remained somewhat of a mystery. She works for an international charity in London, but visits “home” which is Lagos for her late father’s memorial. Some of her thoughts and dilemmas seem more typically associated with an adolescent. I can understand this is some way, because in some West African culture, a woman has not truly become a woman until she is married with children. Yet I found it hard to connect her thoughts and feeling to that of a woman of her age and stage in life. Deola clearly has dissatisfaction with her life in London, but the reason for this is not made entirely clear.

What is clear is Deola’s love hate relationship with religion, and Christianity in particular. Now this touched a nerve with me because of the sweeping generalisations made about the Faith. Again though, I have understanding as to why “African Christianity” is criticised because I know from experience how distorted it is from the Christianity of the bible. Religion is certainly a theme in this novel, but I was not expecting it to be tackled in a way that could be seen scornful and disrespectful.

In terms of some of the other themes explored, I found myself asking at one point, is this a book about HIV and Aids? A bit like the MTV series “Shuga” based in Nigeria, (where almost every character either had HIV, or was about to catch it), was the thinking that, seeing as this is going to have a mostly African audience, I’d better do my best to educate them about the importance of being tested for HIV, seeing as most Africans are dying of Aids?

Perhaps not the biggest let down, another thing I found disappointing was that I could in no way relate to Deola and her privileged background. I had waited to find a novel that was based between Nigeria and London, and having finally found it, I couldn’t connect with Deola as I shared very few of her experiences. I did not go to an expensive fee paying boarding school and I do not have any friends who were educated at Harrow, for a start.

Fatally, the book included too many scenes that did not move the story forward, and an ending that leaves the reader hanging. Not hanging from a cliff as such, as that would suggest an exciting ending. More like hanging from a set of monkey bars.  I kept returning to the blurb to remind myself of what the story was supposed to be about. A love story? Deola’s love interest, hotel owner Wale, does not feature enough for it to be described as a love story.

With no lucid understanding of where the story is going, what is driving the main character, and what message the writer is trying to give, a Bit of Difference, was a bit of a flop for me.

Cursed Culture: Don’t say the F word (feminism)

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If a survey was carried out amongst FGN and SGN Africans alike, asking whether one would class themselves as a feminist, I wonder what the results would be? Perhaps slightly more numbers amongst the SGNs I imagine, but probably still a low figure. That’s because most Africans still associate feminism with negative connotations, as observed by Chimamanda Adichie in her TEDx talk “We Should All Be Feminists”.

 

I, am one of those Africans that shudder at the word “feminist”. I believe that the determination to have a society where men and women are treated and deemed as exactly the same, is misguided and unhelpful. That’s because men and women are different. For example those who follow that line would argue that a man should not give up his seat for a woman who is pregnant, because that would mean the woman is being treated differently! I also find it irresponsible when feminists argue that women should have the right to do whatever they want AND the right not face the consequences.

 

But if we take the feminism at its most basic level and meaning, even I would be forced to admit that ideology should not be entirely frowned upon. I looked up feminism on Wikipedia and found the following definition: “Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment.”

 

Ok so that doesn’t sound so bad. In fact perhaps it a good place to start in terms of educating future generations about the way both men and women should be treated in society. The difficulty I have with African culture, is that there is often a noticeable adverse difference in how women are treated, starting with within the family, and then in society at large. To clarify, I do not think that there is a problem with society treating the woman as a “weaker vessel” (only in the sense of physical strength) if that means that the woman is treated more delicately, with respect, and in a chivalrous manner. What I do have a problem with, is society treating the woman as though she is an inferior vessel, less important, and is to be disrespected, and even treated as property.

 

Earlier this month International Women’s day was celebrated, which coincided with a long train of thought I’d been having about the inequality African women, in particular, face. It started with this picture, I saw online:

Asian Meme

 

This picture, although alluding to Asian culture, pretty much summed up my childhood. The fact that my brothers were allowed to go out and about as pleased, whereas the girls were not – that was just the start.  I was also frequently told that it’s not a boys’ job to cook or clean, and that I must learn to cook otherwise my future husband would leave me. From what I gather, it tends to be the same in many African households. How many boys who are the “only boy” in the family do you know that aren’t spoilt? Whereas if you’re the “only girl”, it’s most likely you’ve adopted the role of house girl.

 

I’ve tried to evaluate these experiences and consider whether there was any legitimate reason why male and females should be treated differently in this, starting from such a young age. I could think of none. I could however think of good reasons why both male and female children should be taught how to cook and clean. For example, until such a time as a man marries, and has a wife to do those things for him (if such arrangements still exist), then it would be useful for him to know how to boil and egg and not burn toast, and to maintain a hygienic environment. In terms of going out, as long as both male and female have safe arrangements to return home, do risks not otherwise exist in respect of both sexes?

 

I sometimes observe inequality when I come across African women in the line of work I do. There was once an Egyptian woman who could speak no English and had to have everything she said interpreted to me by a male interpreter. The Egyptian male interpreter was domineering, and at times tried to advise me as to how to do my job in between interpreting. The Egyptian woman had an abusive husband, and she was seeking protective help. She was trying to communicate her frustrations to me, and the interpreter told her to “shut up” in Arabic instead of interpreting what she said. She stood up for herself, but the interpreter deemed this as disrespectful and threatened to walk out. The woman started crying tears of frustration and helplessness. It was hard not to feel bad for this woman who seemed like another victim of a culture that oppresses its women.

 

Then there are the stories I hear of African women in oppressive marriages where the husband has fallen on hard times, leaving the woman to work and provide for the family, and do all of the cooking and cleaning, and once home, do all of the child care too! I hear of men treating their wives as property, though should this be surprising in a culture where a man has often paid a bridal price in exchange for the woman?

 

I have to be thankful that I’ve been exposed to certain opportunities in Britain. I’ve heard about how difficult things can be for the average non-connected female living in Nigeria to try and make a living. That female if not married, is therefore not being taken care of by a husband, and is put in a vulnerable position, because she does not have the power or status to take care of herself. When it comes to inheritance, her brothers will inherit everything and she will be entitled to nothing.

 

All these matters are concerning. Do we want to see a perpetuation of this aspect of the culture that demeans and sometimes even dehumanizes women? Is feminism the answer? Certainly not the traditional, white middle class type feminism that ignores the perspectives of other ethnicities. Maybe a repackaged, re-branded feminism that simply presents the woman as an equally intelligent, and autonomous being who like any other citizen, deserves basic respect and recognition.

 

 

If the fact is that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we must make it our culture

Chimamanda Adichie

 

Follow me on twitter @adressrehearsal

Cursed Culture? A View from the Second Generation Nigerian

This is the first in what I hope to be a series of posts about African culture. Of course I know that culture differs from country to country within the continent, but there are common themes that I have identified through my meetings and experiences with various people.

My attempt to analyse and critique what I perceive to be typical Nigerian, and in particular, Igbo customs and traditions, will be done through my Second Generation Nigerian (SGN) eyes. I anticipate I may be prone to bias, as I have dual cultures and therefore part of me – and I have to say, a larger part of me – does not relate to certain Nigerian/Igbo customs. I describe myself as SGN because my parents were born and raised in Nigeria, but they chose to settle and have children in Britain. In my opinion you do not have to have been born in Britain to be an SGN, but you would have spent the majority of your life living here, including during your formative years. Similarly, if you were born in Britain (you can also read America here, or any other Western country), but grew up in Nigeria, you probably will not identify as an SGN.

The SGN experience will of course differ from person to person. In sharing my personal experiences, I do not purport that they are shared by all SGNs but I feel there may be some commonalities. I’ll come to language first. If I had a pound for every First Generation Nigerian (FGN) that, with a face twisted with disgust, spat out the words “you don’t speak Igbo?” I would be a very rich woman. The moment created thereafter is always painful, awkward, and embarrassing for me, yet I don’t judge the speaker too harshly. After all, the heart of any people is their language. It is what unites them. It is often how they can seek each other out in a crowd. However where does that leave the SGN who was not taught the language by their parents? As an outsider, a foreigner, and a fraud. Notice how the SGN is the one castigated, even though it is the PARENT of the SGN that has failed in their duty to pass on the vital element of belonging. I am tempted to say so much more on this point alone, but I may save it for another post dedicated to the (decline of the) Igbo language.

On a separate note, what happens when Nigerian culture clashes with the other culture experienced by the SGN in the land of their habitation? I am speaking of when the FGN feels that things should be done in a certain Nigerian way,  as though Nigerian culture is superior to all else. The SGN may have experienced something different, and might have a different view on things, but the FGN, (usually the parent) will rarely question whether the Nigerian way actually is the best way. For example, my experience of the Igbo culture is that parents see themselves as demigods who are to be obeyed by their children in all things no questions asked. This continues even when said children are actually grown adults. From a British perspective, parents guide their children as best they can, but when they are adult, they acknowledge that they can no longer tell them what to do. In my opinion, on this particular point, what is typically British, is a better way. But an SGO expressing a desire to do things another way, can lead to a lot of friction and uproar.

Another problem an SGN is likely to face is, where do they belong? For an SGO that has known a Western environment for all of, or most of their life, living in Nigeria is not an option. This is simply lost on a lot of FGNs. When I am on holiday in Nigeria I’m often asked by my relatives “when are you coming back home (to Nigeria)?” This question presupposes two things: 1) that I left Nigeria, when I actually I did not start out there, and 2) that Nigeria is my home. If Nigeria is just a foreign place to the SGN, why is it expected that they will decide to live there, especially when all they’ve known is a life of relative comforts. It also begs the question, why do the parents of the SGN invest in so much land in Nigeria, under the assumption that their SGN offspring will want to leave everything that they are accustomed to go and inhabit the land, in order to ensure it remains in the family?

It is so tempted to go on and on at this point as I find these topics very interesting, and would like to see more discussion about them. However I will stop here, and leave certain other topics for other posts. It will be revealing to see how many traditions and customs survive into the Third Generation, and whether the dominant Nigerian culture will finally begin to adapt and synchronize.