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The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in the Developing World: Elechi Amadi and Buchi Emecheta’s Occluded Vision

  • Jane Elizabeth Fisher

Abstract

Vision in Munro’s narrative becomes objectifying or unreliable; vision in Kyrie both illuminates and delineates our limited understanding of the 1918 influenza pandemic; and Emecheta’s sense of women’s vision in The Slave Girl is also increasingly frustrated and limited. By writing The Slave Girl, she fills historical silences surrounding the representation of female African slaves while constructing her own identity as a Nigerian woman writer. One source of Emecheta’s authorial strength, the Nigerian oral tradition of storytelling, also underpins Elechi Amadi’s 1969 novel The Great Ponds. Both The Slave Girl and The Great Ponds represent the 1918 influenza pandemic in relation to indigenous aspects of African culture (kinship slavery, tribal warfare) rather than World War I. The Afro-centric focus of these narratives emphasizes the extent to which representations of the influenza pandemic destabilize subjectivity in culturally specific ways. Amadi’s novel questions not only the construction of masculinity and femininity but also the tribal belief in native religions. Similarly, Emecheta’s novel draws on the folk magic ogbaange or spirit child to stress the social “otherness” of female slaves.

Keywords

Influenza Pandemic Male Character African Woman Female Character Oral Tradition 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    For a discussion of different approaches to gathering and presenting data concerning the mortality of the 1918 influenza pandemic in Africa, see Matthew M. Heaton and Toyin Falola, “Global Explanations Versus Local Interpretations: The Historiography of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–19 in Africa,” History in Africa 33 (2006): 205–208. Their sobering conclusion “[n]o real, accurate statistics will ever be compiled” should be borne in mind. For a definitive discussion of influenza mortality and morbidity in Asia and Africa, see Howard Phillips and David Killingray, The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918–19: New Perspectives (New York and London: Routledge, 2005), 9–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 4.
    Elizabeth Isichei, A History of the Igbo People (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan Press: 1976), 224. Isichei also records the severity of the pandemic among the Igbos, with 80–90 percent of the population affected in some areas. She dates the pandemic as 1920, which is relatively late, compared to worldwide mortality figures.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  4. 7.
    Emecheta makes a parallel point in an interview where she describes how the writer Flora Nwapa’s grandmother wanted “improvement” for her daughter, so she sent her to a mission school. Afterward she married a man who wanted only one wife; yet “[w]hen they had to go to Lagos and Port Harcourt to work, she became more of a slave, because she gave everything to the man.” See Adeola James, ed., In Their Own Voices: African Women Writers Talk (London and Nairobi: Heinemann and James Currey, 1990), 44.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Although a male writer, Amadi has been praised for his sensitive portrayal of female characters. Ezeigbo puts Amadi in the same category as Emecheta as a feminist writer “because of the way they explore a kind of feminism that is revolutionary in its challenge to a system of domination that incorporates both patriarchal and sexist oppression… We are given in their recent works accounts of women… responding to a society that would deny them a place, a voice, value and at times even visibility.” See Theodora A. Ezeigbo, “Reflecting the Times: Radicalism in recent Female-Oriented Fiction in Nigeria,” in Calabar Studies in African Literature 5: Literature and Black Aesthetics, ed. Dele Orisawayi, Ebele Eko, Julius Ogu, Emilia Oko, and Agantiem Abang (Ibadan, Nigeria: Heinemann, 1990), 145.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
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    During this period, African colonial administrators were dedicated to abolishing slavery but only as part of a gradual process; slavery “lost its legal status but was not officially illegal.” See Suzanne Miers and Martin A. Klein, eds., Slavery and Colonial Rule in Africa (London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999), 4. Some freed slaves found themselves as unpaid apprentices to their former owners; many slaves took initiatives “in their own liberation” and simply fled. See ibid., 6–7.Google Scholar
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    Drawing on Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic, Florence Stratton argues that the recurring character of the slave woman buried alive, which appears in three of Emecheta’s novels (The Slave Girl, The Bride Price, and The Joys of Motherhood), acts as an archetype for female characters in African women’s narratives: “The shallow grave… in itself provides a paradigmatic image of the novelists’ reflection of female experience. Their female characters are enclosed in the restricted spheres of behavior of the stereotypes of a male tradition, their human potential buried in shallow definitions of their sex.” Stratton interprets the ogbaanje’s status negatively, arguing in both The Slave Girl and The Bride Price Emecheta “uses the ambiguous status of [ogbaanje] to represent the state of her sex in a society that denies the female any measure of self-determination.” See Florence Stratton, “The Shallow Grave: Archetypes of Female Experience in African Fiction,” in Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta, Marie Umeh (ed. and intro.) and Margaret Busby (foreword) (Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1996), 147–8. See also Frank, “Death,” 480.Google Scholar
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    Female slaves were in higher demand, brought higher prices, and did many different jobs; their primary duties were not focused on human reproduction. See Claire C. Robertson and Martin A. Klein, eds., Women and Slavery in Africa (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997), 5–6.Google Scholar
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    Ma Palagado fits the paradigms of female slave owner discussed in Robertson and Klein, Women and Slavery, 12–13. For an enlightening discussion of the economic role women played as slave owners in Igbo culture, see Don C. Ohadike, “‘When Slaves Left, Owners Wept’: Entrepreneurs and Emancipation among the Igbo People,” in Slavery and Colonial Rule in Africa, ed. Suzanne Miers and Martin A. Klein (London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1999), 189–93.Google Scholar
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  24. 86.
    Tom Spencer-Walters, “Orality and Patriarchal Dominance in Buchi Emecheta’s The Slave Girl,” in Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta, Marie Umeh (ed.) Margaret Busby (foreword) (Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1996), 127.Google Scholar
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  26. 99.
    For an extensive discussion of World War I engagements in Africa, see Hew Strachan, The First World War: Volume I: To Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).Google Scholar

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© Jane Elizabeth Fisher 2012

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  • Jane Elizabeth Fisher

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