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

Marriage isn’t for Men

That’s right Seth, I thought whilst reading his now famous blog post about his (eventual) self sacrificial marriage. That’s right, Seth, it’s not all about you. Why do so many men make that same mistake?

What for me, is perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Marriage isn’t for you”, is that the rate people are sharing it, you would think it was wholly groundbreaking. I mean, is this really news? That marriage should be about putting your spouse first, ensuring their needs are met, being loving and kind, and unselfish? Sadly in our increasingly shallow and self-centred world, where men and women are celebrated for “selfies” and other self indulgent practices, this IS shocking news to most. You mean, being married isn’t all about me? I can imagine some people have been walking around in a confused daze since reading Seth’s post, similar to when they first discovered that Santa, or the Tooth Fairy are not real.

Suffice to say, that no wonder divorce rates are ever on the up. When a man (for the purposes of this post, I am focusing on the men) realises that he’s not getting everything he wants from a relationship, he walks, in the hope that some other woman will better pander to his ego, stomach, sexual needs etc. I want to focus on men, because it’s interesting isn’t, that a man wrote the enlightened piece. He’d clearly had an epiphany. But in my experience, (most) women have had this, doing what pleases the other, attitude for centuries. Maybe I am more exposed to it because of my cultural background. You see it often in West African cultures, and in Asian and middle-eastern cultures too. Even historically speaking, in English culture; women who put aside their own wants and needs to satisfy the wants and needs of their husbands.

Men are the ones, in my opinion, who really need the wake up call. It is hardly a contentious point, that women are objectified by men. More so than ever these days, with it not being possible to go a day without casting your eye over a half naked woman, either on a billboard, TV commercial, or over the shoulder of someone reading The Sun. Men are often referred to as having “trophy wives”, denoting a wife that serves no other purpose than to serve the man’s need to exude power and status. Or sometimes the man just wants a woman to bear him healthy and good looking heirs. (Recent case in point: did you hear about the Chinese man that sued his wife for being ugly? http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2223718/Chinese-man-sues-wife-ugly-court-AGREES–awarding-120-000.html).

marriage nagging wife

Oh how much more marriages would survive, if men stopped seeing their wives as mere babysitters, cooks, cleaners, punching bags, sexual slaves, doormats, property. It’s amazing how far treating a woman with dignity and respect will get you. It’s disheartening that such simple principles are so seldom seen these days. Is “feminism” (I use the word loosely) to blame? Feminists want women to be treated equally, or in other words the same as men. Well guess what ladies, we are not the same as men. We are designed differently, we are physically not as strong, we have a different hormonal make up, different ways of thinking and so on. Of course women should not be discriminated against, and should have the same rights afforded to men, but the insistence that women should be treated the same as men in every respect, has had the knock on effect that chivalry is now dead. Ladies, if a guy holds a door open for you, do you honestly believe that it’s because he thinks you do not have the strength or intelligence to open the door yourself?

Back to you men as I round up this semi-rant. I know that women can be selfish too, don’t get me wrong (click here for proof http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAXSgssptc0), but, if I’m still allowed to say such things in society that is seeking to throw away the concept of gender, man up, and be a man. Take responsibility for the relationship you’re in. Ask yourself the difficult questions, how do you see your wife? Have you become, or have you always been selfish? Why not take a leaf out of Seth’s book, turn the page and begin a new chapter.