Ifeoma Okoye (1937–)
Ifeoma Okoye is Nigeria’s preeminent socialist-feminist novelist. Neo-colonialist Nigeria under “flag independence” has been a theater of conflict where women’s rights have been suppressed as part of an imperialist ideological crusade. Okoye’s oeuvre presents us with examples of how individual women, as well as radical collectives, can find agency even as exploitative structures tighten their grip on the country.
Ifeoma Okoye, Nigeria’s preeminent Marxist, socialist-feminist novelist is 82 years old this year (2019). Three years ago she published a grammar compendium aimed at ESL learners. In 2013, she came out with her masterpiece, The Fourth World, a novel that dealt with Enugu’s eponymous shanty and the avenues for reclaiming human agency there. Her long literary career started in the 1970s and has continued up to this day, with children’s books, young readers’s tomes, novels, and short stories all aimed at the liberation of the private sphere in neo-colonial Nigeria. In this article, her novel Behind the Clouds, written as an intervention against the mistreatment of childless women, is examined in detail.
Imperialism and the Private Life of the “Native”
From the times of the Spanish Reconquista and the subsequent Iberian assault on the life-worlds of “natives” on three continents (Grosfoguel 2011), Euro-colonials saw themselves as harbingers of proper conduct. The British Empire positioned itself as the civilizing force that outlawed the sati in India and the killing of twins in Nigeria’s South-East, Igboland (Imbua 2013). The rising bourgeoisie of the UK, despite advances in science, found it elevating to “bring Christianity to the heathens,” and most especially to end the practice of cannibalism that it saw as diametrically opposed to every Christian value. It would have shocked Edwardian gentlemen that non-Christian commentators had long deciphered the Christian Eucharist as will-to-cannibalism (from the point of view of Jewish Ultra-Orthodoxy, an uncompromising view is put forward regarding this by Rabbi Tovia Singer today) (Singer 2018) but also that in the case of a radical Nigerian practitioner of the Western visual medium of oil painting, a masterful statement in the early 1960s also brought forward the same proposition from the point of view of the self-decolonizing radical African artist: Erhabor Emokpae in his The Last Supper (Okeke-Agulu 2015, pp. 248–252). “Christendom” may have had a fixation with cannibalism precisely because of the cannibalistic impulses of its most sacred ritual.
In truth, British colonizers had brutally altered the private lives of “native” populations under their rule, tore the texture of the societies that they held captive, and in the case of Nigeria’s South, they created newly mint, disruptive patriarchies in a region that had hitherto been either governed by matriarchies (Amadiume 1987a) or by a delicately balanced two-track parallel structure whereby men and women had separate political authority structures (women governed the marketplace, had their own leadership, deities, and market shrines) (Matera et al. 2013). Flag independence (copyright Bade Onimode) and neo-colonialism arguably made things worse in this department. In Nigeria where forms of gender fluidity had existed (Amadiume 1987b) before and under the British, today we see the worst aspects of heteronormative machismo, complete with a legal ban on homosexuality and the wide spread financialization of sexual relationships.
Ifeoma Okoye’s Marxist-Feminist Anti-Imperialism
In Nigeria, socialist-feminist voices were among the most vocal against imperialism since at least the year 1946, when Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti transformed the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club to the Abeokuta Women’s Union by also admitting market women beyond the socialites who had used it primarily as a venue for high tea. The new women’s union battled traditional rulers and the colonial authorities, and catapulted its leader to international fame. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who was also the musician Fela’s mother and who would later die as a result of her defenestration by Obasanjo’s soldiers from his son’s Kalakuta Republic compound, was so radical that in 1953, she became one of the vice presidents of the Women’s International Democratic Federation, a Soviet sponsored umbrella organization headquartered in East Berlin; and in 1970, she received the Lenin Peace Prize. FRK started an avalanche in Nigerian radical feminism. Gambo Sawaba, Bene Madunagu, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, and Amina Mama all followed in her wake, each representing new sensibilities that enriched Nigeria’s socialist feminisms (Sawaba came from the Muslim North, Madunagu participated in a commune and is a Trotskyite, Ogundipe-Leslie’s poetry and theoretical work are of global renown, and Amina Mama fights US securitization in Africa under AFRICOM today) (Mayer 2016a). Nigeria’s trade union conglomerate, the Nigeria Labour Congress, adheres to a very progressive women’s policy since the early 2000s and a 30% quota system (Nigeria Labour Congress 2003). It helps Nigerian radical feminists considerably that in the country, patriarchal oppression in the “traditional” form does not hark back to precolonial times (except in urban Kano and similar Northern bastions of Islam), or to premodern times, or the fog of prehistory. On the contrary, the “traditional status quo” is obviously a product of the early twentieth century when Britain (tried to) put an end to women’s political power. The assertive qualities one finds among women in Nigeria, is factually and historically rooted in the real socio-political traditions of the country, as opposed to the imagined community and invented traditions of colonial sanction. The brutality of neo-colonial arrangements is partly due to the strength of those traditions that obviously negate the imperialists’ ideological ballast by their very survival. In the cultural sphere, this manifests in the suppression of everything to do with pre-Christian traditions as “idolatry” in the Southern regions of the country, from traditional art to other components of habitus. The unrelenting onslaught of televangelism and charismatic fundamentalist Christianity on Nigeria’s South is among other things the cultural expression of this violent, neo-colonial form of collective imaginary that erases the region’s authentic past from the collective consciousness.
In this article, I focus on the Igbo socialist-feminist writer Ifeoma Okoye, the foremost radical woman novelist of Nigeria, by way of examining her take on the plight of childless women under Nigeria’s pervasive neocolonial social and political system. It would be tempting to see the plight of childless women as a problem that was uniformly rooted in inadequate knowledge structures and insufficient health care before and during colonialism (although in the latter case, the responsibility of the ruling Euro-colonials would of course already be proven). As Ifeoma Okoye shows us, there is much more to this problem than first meets the eye. It is indeed the traditional lack of awareness as to the biology of conceiving a child that had once formed an important part of the oppressive weight of societal expectations on women of child bearing age and quite often child bearing “responsibility” in Igbo contexts. On the other hand, the colonial destruction of the politico-economic power in the hands of women and with it all the creative solutions that women had found in such situations before the arrival of the European norms of the nuclear family, actually also provided the sociopolitical background to the survival of those selfsame, inadequate knowledge structures as they manifest in the early neo-colonialist era that Okoye describes in her novel. In the 1970s as well as today, these social and epistemological ills together form the most suffocating status quo in Nigeria, complete with hair raising double standards for women and for men in many communities. The confluence of inadequate schooling/insufficient health care and social “conservatism” (in fact: neophyte neo-colonial patriarchy that conserves nothing authentic of its context, history and provenance) make sure that women are abused and bear the worst consequences of the patriarchal/neo-colonial system, the Southern Nigerian subsystem of imperialism.
Chimamanda Adichie’s mainstream liberal Igbo (Nigerian) feminism is world famous today. According to the critic Oyekan Owomoyela, Enugu’s own Ifeoma Okoye is, however, “the most important female novelist from Nigeria after Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta,” (Owomoyela 2008, p. 142) signaling how Igbo feminist women have continued to shape and define Nigerian women’s writing since the early 1960s, and also Ifeoma Okoye’s special status among radical feminist authors in the country.
There are around 12 peer reviewed journal articles that deal with Ifeoma Okoye’s oeuvre that appeared in the last decade. Beyond Owomoyela’s sympathetic exposition, Onyemachi looks at gender issues especially in Ifeoma Okoye’s 2013 magnum opus, The Fourth World (2013) (the novel according to her “oscillates between ecofeminism and environmental psychology”) (Onyemachi 2016, p. 348). For Onyemachi, “The Forth World represents the maternal bond shared between the female gender and nature, which are two great sources of reproduction” (Onyemachi 2016, p. 348). Onyemachi, as well as, no doubt, Okoye, link environmental decay and poor governance with Nigerian versions of patriarchy. Ifeyinwa J. Ogbazi offers a sensitive structuralist reading of Okoye, especially Behind the Clouds (Ogbazi 2011). Chikwenye Ogonjo Ogunyemi, a refugee academic who fled Nigeria because of Abacha’s dictatorship, is a masterful African feminist voice that still influences how we think about African women writers. Ogunyemi’s analysis (in true 1990s fashion) still euphemistically refers to Ifeoma Okoye’s political views as “pan-Africanist”: this is true in itself but it does not do justice to Okoye’s unified socialist-feminist theory as I shall demonstrate here.
Femi Osofisan was another important critic in terms of categorizing Okoye. He did this through an act of self-conscious group-self-denial, wherein he demonstratively included Okoye in what he called a cohort of “warriors of a failed utopia” (along with himself), in the mid-1990s (Osofisan 1996). What he meant was that she was a socialist and socialism was of course done for, with the then alleged end of history... Nonetheless, Osofisan’s placing Okoye in this (for him, misguided) crème of Nigerian literature is in itself telling.
Finally, Mayer in 2018, after uncovering the history of Nigerian Marxisms in his Naija Marxisms (2016a), wrote a celebratory essay where Okoye’s role in that movement and the role of Marxism in her oeuvre were finally addressed in an adequate way (Mayer 2018). Naturally, as relevant as Marxism has been for Okoye as a writer, there have been less politically radical, and perhaps even somewhat ethno-centric, frameworks employed in unlocking Okoye’s message. The feminist critic Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi calls Okoye “Omunwa” (Igbo for “the mother without,” the “daughter of the soil”) (Ogunyemi 1996, pp. 45; 303), the mother in the public domain (Ogunyemi 1996, p. 45). Omunwas for Ogunyemi represent the nurturing side of Nigerian womanhood under incredible duress. Traditionally in Igbo areas, the marketplace had been a public place under the power of the women of the given community. It had had its own rules and its own shrine and deity, until the warrant chiefs of the British unsettled and later ended this parallel system (Matera et al. 2013; Amadiume 1987a) along with all vestiges of outright matriarchy (Ogunyemi 1996, p. 49). Women of stature had had a very important role in Igboland before colonization, so much so that the famed Women’s War/Ogu Umunwaanyi/Aba Riots gave concrete political expression to their dissatisfaction with the shifting grounds and the loss of agency under colonial rule (Matera, Bastian and Kent 2013). Of course, it is also possible for us to understand Ogunyemi’s insight in terms of historical materialism and posit that when intellectuals such as Ifeoma Okoye stand up for the vulnerable (from young children generally to the adolescents of shanties and women of all walks of life) in their works, they perform a function that is not “natural” in the biological sense but that is rooted in specifically Nigerian forms of social resistance and historical social formations that had been matriarchal.
The Okoyes: Radical Lives
Ifeoma Okoye was born on December 21, 1937, in Anambra State, in the then Eastern Region, in Igboland. She studied in Ogbunike, in Anambra’s Oyi local government area, where she received a teaching certificate in 1959. She worked at an international school in Enugu for 4 years in the late 60s. In 1974, she started university at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. She gained her BA in English in 1977 there. In 1986–1987, she studied at Aston University in Birmingham. She earned a post graduate degree (MSc in Teaching English for Specific Purposes). She went on to lecture first at Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu (1978–1992) and then at Nnamdi Azikiwe University at Awka, Anambra State (1992–2000). They had four daughters and a son with her husband Mokwugo Okoye, the revolutionary independence hero of Nigeria that the British had jailed for sedition in 1950, and who subsequently became the best-known Nigerian Marxist essayist, belletrist, and public intellectual from the 1950s to almost the turn of the millennium (died 1998). Mokwugo Okoye did not define Ifeoma Okoye: their relationship, however, resulted in the mutual cross-pollination of ideas, foci, and commitment. Although Mokwugo Okoye’s political career ended early, when future president Nnamdi Azikiwe broke with incarcerated radicals to please his British patrons (Zik’s volte face stretched from 1949 to 1954). Okoye embarrassed a number of Nigerian administrations, military, and “democratic” with his Promethean bravado that baffled Nigeria’s comprador class. Mokwugo Okoye was as incorruptible as Robespierre, and he chose to drive a dilapidated Peugeot 403 even in the 1990s (Mayer 2016a, p. 126), and even as he sat on the Board of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. The shocking fact about the Okoyes always was that they lived on their legitimate income and nothing else. Mokwugo was a prolific writer, an autodidact and a light hearted, open-minded essayist in the vein of Lin Yutang, the Chinese belletrist he admired. Mokwugo’s Marxism was open, non-sectarian, and critical of the USSR, where he was treated as guest of honor during his visits. His numerous volumes include A Letter to Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, African Responses: A Revaluation of History and Culture (a panoramic work in the vein of Basil Davidson’s African Genius), The Beard of Prometheus, Points of Discord, and another about 15 volumes (See more: Mayer 2016a, pp. 126–133). Ifeoma Okoye, although she touched on matters of political economy and party politics in works such as Man Without Ears (sic) and The Fourth World, examines the political of the personal in her other works.
Ifeoma Okoye is a household name across Africa for her young readers’ series. She also writes highly successful and award winning adult books and short stories: Behind the Clouds (novel, 1982; received Spectrum Books Award); Men Without Ears (1984; Best Novelist of the Year Award by Association of Nigerian Authors; translated also into Russian), Chimere (novel, 1992); Nowhere to Hide (novel, 2000); The Fourth World (novel, 2013/2016, shortlisted for NLNG Literature Prize); “The Pay Packet in Touch Stone” (short story, 1993); “The Power of a Plate of Rice” (short story, 1999), “Waiting for a Son” (short story, 1999, 2000); The Trial and Other Stories (a collection of powerful short stories, 2005). “Waiting for a Son” won the Commonwealth Short Story Competition (in the African Region) for the year 1999.
Behind the Clouds: The Childless Woman as Outcast and as Rebel
After a series of extremely successful children’s books and young reader’s books where Ifeoma Okoye taught her target audience the virtues of community, sharing, play, thrift, and the love of learning, she decided to start writing adult literature, inspired by the example of countless contemporary African writers, especially within Longman’s Drumbeat Series that gave a venue to the new generation of writers who started publishing after independence (Ifeoma Okoye’s personal communication). Behind the Clouds also appeared in Longman’s Drumbeat series in 1982. The novel’s plotline is not complicated: Ije Apia, the protagonist, a representative of the comfortably well-off professional class (the lower rungs of the bourgeoisie, really) cannot conceive of a child. Her shy, kind, and decent architect husband Dozie Apia, whom she had helped to graduate in the UK, years prior to the novel’s timeframe, is now subject to grueling pressure from his mother and the wider family to take another wife, in order to secure that an heir is born to the clan. Virginia, Dozie’s one-time paramour (and turned such only under the influence of alcohol, we are assured) suddenly shows up, claiming to carry Dozie’s child, and is allowed to stay in the family’s house as a “second wife,” until Dozie finds out that the child is in fact not his. At that juncture, he decides to finally consider the possibility that it is him who is the real cause of the Apias’ childlessness. A small operation ensues in the UK, after which Ije (who had, in the meanwhile, taken up residence elsewhere and found an office job) forgives him and the Apia family reunites in happiness. All this is told in a matter-of-fact tone, with an economy of language that revels not in flourish. I claim that this novel is an example of realism in the Lukacsian sense, including the notion that it presents a typical situation (Lukacs 1980). A number of twists in the plot make the plotline sound unrealistic or even contrived to an average Western reader. When the “second wife” shows up to claim that she has a child from the “man of the house,” she is allowed to stay on, given a car and a driver, and is in fact eulogized by the man’s mother, while the “first wife” suffers emotional trauma in sunken disbelief – while the husband actually loves her (!). Subplots of the novel are similarly reflective of West African social realities: “herbalists” (juju men) are employed by the educated and Westernized protagonist; a women’s social club forces its members to participate in every ceremony it throws and charges fines in cases of skipping (as well as applies subtle pressure to ensure that members wear a new dress for each occasion); a Pentecostal faith healer (Apostle Joseph) “cures” infertility by sleeping with the affected women of his congregation (and fathers a number of children even in the case of the protagonist’s friend Beatrice); the husband finances the construction of an entire village church; the “second wife” maltreats domestics to such an extent that they run away; Ije is accused of sprinkling poison on her husband’s food by the “second wife.” Is it possible to treat such scientific ignorance, social carelessness, and vile attitude to life as “regular,” and is it reasonable to call this a realist novel? If one considers the testimony of Marxian analyses of how Nigeria, its political economy, and its knowledge economy functions (from Mokwugo Okoye to Bade Onimode, from Bene Madunagu to Claude Ake, notably including radical feminist thinkers), and if we consider the history of cultural movements in the country from the Pentecostal revolution to Nollywood home videos and their most important themes, including the testimony of daily papers, then we must answer this question in the affirmative, with a resounding “yes”: indeed, Ifeoma Okoye’s novel is a prime example of realism in literature despite or even because of the outlandish injustices that occur throughout their narratives. It is also useful that we rid ourselves of comforting platitudes on “traditional culture” and the exotic pull of juju, if we aim at understanding the writer. Ifeoma Okoye makes us realize that these phenomena today serve obscurantist, socially retrograde purposes in the country. The “law of the land,” feudal customary law, is a source of law along with common law and sharia in Nigeria; and juju has legal sanction in the case of the country’s federal land law. Okoye does not allow us to imagine that the (mostly) invented traditions of the primeval forest would solve today’s problems in Nigeria or elsewhere. Solidarity, genuine affection, and human emotion are the real living forces in Africa’s emotional life for Okoye, while the conservatism and ignorance of the mother-in-law is in fact a useless ballast that impedes the light, while the unnecessary luxuries of Nigeria’s neo-colonialist consumer culture (from bleaching creams to lace materials and related ostentation) only result in further loss of direction. The most important message of the novel, however, is a positive one: Ije gives generously (to her husband in London) but can withdraw her generosity (she leaves the house at a certain point); and she has real agency as a woman: she can take up employment, she can rent an apartment on her own, she is not defined by her husband. Dozie, her husband, is not a strong man but neither is he evil: Okoye treats his infidelity with quite a bit of understanding and allows him to reunite with his wife who gently manages his life for the sake of both of them. As Behind the Clouds appeared in the early 1980s, the landlord in the novel only asks for 6 months’ rent in advance (today an entire year’s rent is charged as caution money by landlords in the country). The novel’s main aim is, of course, to draw readers’ attention to the plight of childless women in Nigeria but also to present the social forces that provide the causal explanation for such plight. Finally, it also offers solutions as to how a woman may reclaim agency even as those social forces are at play.
Ifeoma Okoye belongs to the generation of Nigerian writers who would scoff at ideas of English as lingua franca. In fact, Okoye believes in standard English to such an extent that she published a grammar book for EFL learners just 3 years ago and where British grammar is de rigeur (Okoye 2016). The same goes for her attitude towards science and education in general. Okoye believes in the redemptive qualities of science, study, personal effort, and rigor. She despises escapism and especially the kind that focuses on the primeval forest and juju, forces that had lost their socially progressive characteristics and that had long degenerated and became useful for reactionary forces in the country. She equally detests crooked Christian pastors who destroy extant traditions. She wants to keep every useful facet that international exposure has brought to Nigeria: from English (in what she views as its correct form) to standards in public education. In this her attitude differs sharply from the similarly Marxist Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o who maintains that local vernaculars should be used for writing progressive literature and who criticizes English for “‘colonizing the mind.” Despite this difference in opinion over the redemptive possibilities that vernaculars offer, Ifeoma Okoye still fights against the forces that underpin the economic, social, and political alliance of Nigeria to imperialist powers. In Men Without Ears, she points to Tanzania as an example (this was in 1983), in The Fourth World, she explicitly highlights the role of radical organizers in keeping alive her protagonist, and she makes ample references to her Marxist commitment (Okoye 2013). In Behind the Clouds, the consequences of the new “status quo” are laid bare as they really define family life in a neo-colonial country: with inadequate public health structures, on the one hand, and repressive, “double standard” spousal relations, on the other (only the woman is blamed for infertility, the traditional method of co-wives in separate houses in the same compound is not even discussed as an option, help from co-wives and shared labor is unthinkable, individualistic considerations seep in to dominate, there is no adjudication by women’s groups as would have happened prior to the arrival of British sanctioned warrant chiefs, etc.). Thus have neo-colonial family units become loci of treachery, and extramarital affairs avenues for con women, says Okoye. Thus did alienation from one’s own emotional labor appear in Igboland. In Ifeoma Okoye’s novel, the protagonist solves these contradictions through immense personal effort while she grows and finds true agency. In her subsequent novels and short stories, though the personal effort remains, agency will be found with the help of the new, socialist collective. Does this make Beyond the Clouds less of a radical novel than subsequent ones? It does not: Beyond the Clouds is a radical novel already. In it Okoye shows us how a radical woman in a private setting may tackle the forces that are sustained by neo-colonialism and imperialism all by herself, and this is at least as important as any other sociopolitical fight in the Nigerian arena.
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