an appraisal of the significance of Nigerian Women Writers to Nation Building
1.1 Background to the Study
Although women play very significant roles in various spheres of Nigeria’s development, their contributions to the growth of the country are, often, not acknowledged or encouraged. For instance, the role of women in the development of the Niger delta region of Nigeria, where the wealth of the country is being generated, has received little or no attention over the years even though they are actively involved in the developmental activities of the region. Certain challenges still face their efforts and make them seem insignificant to this region.
The significant place of the woman in the home and family cannot be disputed. Man may be the head of the family, but the woman is definitely its heart and lifeline. Without the woman, the family and, subsequently, the larger society, cannot function properly. Dora Chizea supports this notion with the following view of women:[women are] the building blocks upon which the foundations of happy homes and families are built…The family, no doubt, is the unit on which communities are built. And the nation itself is built by communities. It follows, therefore, that if the building blocks, the mothers are poor, ignorant and unmotivated, the nation is likely to be poor, ignorant and unmotivated. For, how can a nation rise above the collective ignorance of its mothers? (10)
The roles of the woman in the family are diverse and as intriguing as the woman herself: wife, partner, confidant, mother, nurturer, provider, teacher, friend, counsellor, as well as the emotional and spiritual anchor. She is one who instills in her family, especially the children, moral and ethical standards, and does everything possible to ensure they are educated. She is also their number one advocate, critic and encourager. She works diligently to support her husband in ensuring and sustaining the welfare, health and stability of the family day in day out. Sometimes, she is a single parent who plays the role of man and woman, father and mother; this, however, does not hinder her efforts to give of her best to her family. She also plays numerous significant roles outside the dynamics of the nuclear family. These efforts on the home front, though sometimes invisible to the public eye, sustain the welfare, health and stability of the region and, inevitably, its progress and development. Unfortunately, due to gender inequality, the family is often a domain where many women are socially restricted, economically exploited, emotionally degraded and rendered politically passive and poor. This limits not only the woman but her entire family and community who would have benefitted from her resources. The following observation by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) places this issue in perspective: “[women’s poverty] results in deprivation in their own lives and losses for the broader society and economy, as women’s productivity is well-known as one of the greatest generators of economic dynamism” (“Women and Poverty”). Should women’s subjugation in the family and society be totally eradicated and their power to create, nurture and transform fully and effectively harnessed, there is no limit to what women can contribute to the growth and transformation of the nation.
Despite the great potentials of women, the fact remains that only few are mobilized and visible in the political arena of the nation. Surprisingly, however, women of the Niger Delta have carved a significant niche for themselves in this sector at the national and state levels, which does enhance the development of the region. Women such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Former Minister of Finance), and Arunma Oteh, former Director General of the Securities and Exchange Commission and, currently, the Vice President and Treasurer of the World Bank are key players in the political arena of the nation. Also worthy of note is Florence Ita Giwa who represented the Cross River South Constituency in the National Assembly and served on several committees including the Committee on Women Affairs and the Committee on Niger Delta. She also served as a Special Adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo on National Assembly Matters. Ita Giwa has remained an avid social activist whose commitment to the development of the Niger Delta and, especially, to the welfare of the indigenes of the Bakassi Local Government Area, has earned her several accolades.
Several others, among them Ipalibo Banigo (current Deputy Governor, Rivers State), are actively involved in various arms of government, holding vital positions in the executive, legislature, judiciary, and the civil service and making great contributions to the success of the federal and state governments. Without a doubt, their achievements, especially at the federal level, are a reflection of the potential success of the Niger Delta region. State governments of the region should, therefore, tap into women’s reservoir of talent and ensure their full participation in areas of governance such as policy-making and implementation. By encouraging and fully accommodating women in the political process of the region without intimidation, discrimination, and victimization, the political system will not only thrive, it will also be positively transformed for the betterment of all stakeholders in the nation.
In looking at women in the creative industry, Richard Florida aptly observes that “human creativity is the ultimate economic resource” (xiii). For this reason, the creative industry must be recognized and harnessed in the developmental process of any nation. Fortunately, Nigeria is replete with women playing active roles in the various fields of this industry. Several are writers, artists, designers, entertainers and communication experts in the mass media. The first published Nigerian female writer, Flora Nwapa, whose iconic work, Efuru (1966), is a constant reference point in literature classrooms throughout the world, is from Oguta, Imo State, an economic hub of the Niger Delta. Nwapa blazed the trail that prompted African women writers to tell their own stories in their own ways, and advocated the need for women to shake off their passivity and speak against female oppression and represent the African woman in a new and positive light. For her, female writers must embrace the reality of the woman’s experience, project her power and affirm her being and becoming by making society aware of her “inherent vitality, independence of views, courage, self-confidence, and, of course, her desire for gain and high social status” (Nwapa 532). As Ernest N. Emenyonu significantly observes, one of the most appealing and enduring qualities of Nwapa as a writer and novelist is the realism of her themes (18).
In her works, therefore, Nwapa presents female characters that are resourceful, industrious and resilient – strong, independent and assertive women who strive to become highly successful and respected individuals; female protagonists such as Efuru (Efuru, 1966); Idu (Idu,1970); Amaka (One is Enough,1981) and Rose, Agnes and Dora (Women are Different, 1986) who recognize their self-worth and contribute in several ways to their personal, as well as the growth of their families, communities and societies.
Several other women writers in Nigeria have risen in Nwapa’s wake, prominent among them, Buchi Emecheta, an indigene of Ibuza, Delta State. Regarded as one the most prolific African women writers, Emecheta is credited with critically acclaimed works such as Second Class Citizen (1974); The Bride Price (1976) and The Joys of Motherhood (1979). Oike Machiko avers that Emecheta is a writer who is conscious of her role as an African woman writer and a representative of the African woman. Oike also identifies The Joys of Motherhood as a masterpiece which “brought Emecheta international fame as a writer who spoke to the world for African women oppressed by what was called ‘third world tradition” (61). Central to Emecheta’s works “is her depiction of the impact of sexism on the lives of women and the roles they play in society, and the challenges they face in the performance of these roles while struggling to defend their basic rights as human beings with equal dignity as men and…to develop positively and contribute their quota to the development of society” (Nutsukpo, “Marking Her Mark” 150).
Like Nwapa, Emecheta extols the virtues of the African woman, focusing on her character, strength, resilience, industry and her capacity to love unconditionally as is evident in Nnu Ego, the protagonist in The Joys of Motherhood. Emecheta recognizes the patriarchal system as being replete with repressive structures that stand in the way of women’s actualization, and urges women need to be conscious of these obstacles in order to overcome them. Evidently, Nwapa and Emecheta recognize education as necessary precursors to women’s positive development. They decry the economic exploitation of women and the denial of opportunities that would equip them to compete favourably with men in different spheres of society and to contribute more to the growth of society. They, therefore, advocate sisterhood as an avenue through which women can achieve consciousness-raising, self-awareness and assertiveness by supporting, encouraging and challenging each other for personal and societal development.