Mainstream feminist writings on African women are a site within which the inability to understand even while observing and listening intently becomes clear. These works tend to portray African women as confused, powerless and unable to determine for themselves both the changes needed in their lives and the means to construct these changes. Thus, Western feminists, acting like superiors who hand down valuable knowledge, define the relevant issues for African women, how these issues ought to be promoted and pursued and what the end result should be. In this sense, Western feminist discourse on African women, which is characterized by what I call reformist feminist evangelism, replicates the missionary evangelism exhibited by the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century colonialists, missionaries, anthropologists, and sundry adventurers when they explored, brutally "pacified", Christianized, and colonized Africa.
By Mojubaolu Olufunke Okome
Based on the concept of Western Feminist Evangelism, developed earlier by the author in a paper titled: “What Women, Whose Development?...." in Oyerónké Oyewùmí, ed. African Women and feminism. NJ: Africa World Press.
I begin this paper by drawing on two definitive experiences. I am a mother of two boys, five and sixteen years old, and from 1989 until very recently, I was a freelance interpreter/translator of Yoruba. Listening and interpreting are central to both experiences. I turn first to the relationship between me and my children. If I cannot listen to them, if I cannot interpret the deeper meanings of the thoughts/feelings/emotions that they convey, if I cannot listen to the world and interpret it to them, I would have failed woefully. Listening, understanding and interpreting are central to this relationship because, come hell or high water, my children are bent on communicating with me. Over the years, they do communicate regardless of time, place and circumstance. As a mother, I must confess that while being committed to listening to my children, my capacity to do so is often sorely tested by what for them may be irrelevant pursuits - thinking, brooding, reading, studying, writing papers, grading papers, attending conferences, delivering papers, sleeping.
My five year old has not given up on me. He’s bent on making me live up to the higher standards that he expects. He’s quite adept at expressing himself. I constantly hear from him: “Mommy, are you listening to me?, Did you see this?, What do you think?" “You’re not really looking at my work..... You didn’t look long enough". I am always quick to apologize and to demonstrate intense, focused attention. At this point, my teenager has given up on me. He understands by now that he is the only intelligent being in a universe of fools. Guess who fools number one and two are? Yet I listen. When my young genius permits, I even make my feeble attempts to interpret the world to him. Is this the kind of listening and interpreting relationship that scholars of Africa engage in when they interact with the continent? Is this the skill that is brought to, or even needed in scholarship? A parent-child relationship is one that ought to be loving, but as I see it, it cannot be a relationship of equals. I have even disabused my teenager of the notion that we can be friends. As I explained it to him, a mother is superior to a friend, in dedication, love, commitment to the child’s success. A friend may shy away from telling the truth for fear of losing a friendship, but a good mother owes it to her child to be frank, while loving, particularly in a child’s formative years. A mother owes it to her child to be firm while remaining committed to listening, interpreting, and understanding. It is one of the most serious jobs any human can have. Done well, it produces a compassionate, strong, balanced child who is an asset to the whole of humanity. The point here is that the relationship between mother and child may be loving, a mother may be totally committed to listening to a child, nevertheless, the mother is the superior party.
I move quickly to the other aspect of my experiences that I choose to focus upon. As an interpreter/translator, my most exciting and challenging jobs were those that involved simultaneous interpreting from Yoruba to English and vice versa for criminal proceedings in US Federal Courts. Here, in order to do my job well, I have to become almost invisible. Regardless of the profundity and power of my thoughts, I dare not let them interfere with a clear and impeccably accurate back and forth interpretation of the communication between the principals. My job is only well done when I suspend my assessments, judgements, and moralization on the merits of the case. My job is to interpret without prejudice or favor. I even swear a solemn oath to this effect. If I decide that I am more intelligent than the principals, and thus, editorialize, or put glosses on their communication, I am criminally liable. Is this what scholars do when they study Africa? Are they capable of genuinely listening and interpreting? Listening to others does not occur in a vacuum where the listener and those listened to are equal in all respects. The rules of the game in any such interaction may actually privilege one party over the others. Such rules may prevent one or some of the parties from exercising full participation in the discussions, and thus, deprive such a party from equality with those with whom they hold conversations. To the extent that one party has to become a non-entity in order to listen, understand and translate, true communication is retarded, or even prevented.
There are various other life experiences that I can draw on to give an idea of the eternally shifting meaning of interpreting and listening. As a sister, daughter, teacher, friend, spouse, colleague, different listening and interpreting skills are brought to bear. Is one to be literal or metaphoric? Is one to be nuanced or otherwise? Is one an equal, a superior or a subordinate? Does one have power or not? These issues are all relevant to the listening, understanding and interpreting project. Negotiating the experience skillfully and adroitly, and intelligently is crucial to being a good person. I daresay, it is imperative for a scholar to negotiate the experience impeccably. However, I call on all scholars who study Africa to ask of themselves, How does one listen? What does one listen to? When does one listen? These are all questions related to the larger question, Who is a good listener? A related question is How to interpret? How much of the culture, language, preconceived notions, socialization of the interpreter ought to be taken into consideration? Should an interpreter assume that the interpreted plays no role whatsoever in whatever interpretation they choose to give? What is the responsibility of a good interpreter? A last question that I raise is one on understanding. What constitutes understanding? Ought one to assume that once you have your Ph.D. and a little bit of experience in Africa, you can say just about anything on the continent and its peoples? It is clear that most right-thinking people would answer, NO!. Why then does what I call Reformist Western Feminist Evangelism on African women thrive? I argue that it thrives because even the most well-intentioned listener and interpreter may be hobbled by the inability/unwillingness to understand. It thrives because being committed to listening does preclude the exercise of power. Listening and interpreting may very well be instances of relational power. I hasten now to discuss the concept and a few of the ramifications that emerge from its effects on listening to Africa, effects that contribute in no small measure to the misunderstanding and misinterpreting of Africa in the Western academy.
Reformist Western Feminist Evangelism
Mainstream feminist writings on African women are a site within which the inability to understand even while observing and listening intently becomes clear. These works tend to portray African women as confused, powerless and unable to determine for themselves both the changes needed in their lives and the means to construct these changes. Thus, Western feminists, acting like superiors who hand down valuable knowledge, define the relevant issues for African women, how these issues ought to be promoted and pursued and what the end result should be. In this sense, Western feminist discourse on African women, which is characterized by what I call reformist feminist evangelism, replicates the missionary evangelism exhibited by the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century colonialists, missionaries, anthropologists, and sundry adventurers when they explored, brutally "pacified", Christianized, and colonized Africa. It was these Europeans who invented the notion of Africa as the dark continent, and the African as the exotic antithesis of the enlightened, progressive Westerner. This invention continues to permeate religious and secular thought alike and remains pervasive in contemporary Western thought. It will be interrogated and problematized in the following paper. The critique is both ontological and epistemological.