By Ahmad Ghashmari
221pp. Heinemann. $12. ISBN: 0-435-90026-9. 1966
Flora Nwapa is the first Nigerian female novelist to be published. Her first novel, Efuru, was published by Heinemann in London in 1966. Although it came out to be a well written book with a profound message, the novel did not receive the attention it deserves; unlike novels written at that time by African male writers like Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who both were also published by Heinemann. Efuru is a portrayal of life in the Igbo culture, especially women's life. Set in the village of Oguta, where Nwapa herself lived, the novel tells the story of an independent-minded woman named Efuru. She is a woman who becomes a role model and a catalyst for change in her own society. Despite her success, brightness and wealth, she is unable to have a lasting marriage or give birth to children like other women in her village. She marries twice, but both marriages failed. She gives birth to one daughter who died. But even though, Efuru remains firm and strong, maintaining very successful and prosperous business and standing as a perfect example of generosity, intelligence, and care among her peers.
The novel has at its core fundamental feminist concepts like women's agency, women's empowerment, sisterhood and gender equality. However, in an interview by Marie Umeh in 1993, Flora Nwapa refused to be called a feminist; she said, "I don't even accept that I'm a feminist. I accept that I'm an ordinary woman who is writing about what she knows. I try to project the image of women positively." (Umeh 27). By looking at her novels which include in addition to Efuru, Idu (1970), Never Again (1975), One is Enough (1981), and Women are Different (1986), one can see that Nwapa is a writer who dedicated her efforts to discuss women's issues of struggle, quest for independence and success in their native patriarchal Igbo culture. However, she did not call herself a feminist writer because, in my viewpoint, her writings do not qualify in the Western criteria of feminism to be called feminist. The concept of feminism as a movement and a school of thought seemed to exclude the black woman from its agenda. Thus, in order for a work of art to be considered feminist, it must, according to the Western criteria, abide by a set of rules, and to mention some, these can be like showing the rebellion of women towards their own cultures and traditions and showing how they refuse to succumb to patriarchal practices and attempt to overthrow the whole hierarchy. Efuru, the heroine, is a different woman. She is different in the sense that she stands out as being very generous, caring, loving, brave, and successful at the same time. She strives for change and prosperity in her community, but she is not rebellious against her culture. On the contrary, she shows reverence to the traditions of her people, and she never wishes to overlook or discredit them. For example, although she believes in romantic love and rejects to have an arranged marriage, she, on the other hand, insists that her marriage with Adizua, her first husband, will not be complete until he pays the dowry and fulfills her people's marriage customs; only then that Efuru and Adizua "felt really married." (24) She also never resists going through the painful circumcision, and she acknowledges man's right to polygamy, saying, "Only a bad woman would like to be married alone by her husband" (57).
When reading Efuru as a feminist text, one important thing we must bear in mind is the sense of location and cultural centrality. We need to consider the culture difference and the importance of traditions in shaping the identity of the individual, and we need to admit that what applies to the women of Paris and Boston does not necessarily apply to the women of Oguta. The cultural context is crucial to understanding the message of the novel. Nwapa does not consider herself a feminist because she felt that the feminist movement at her time is by and for white women only and it does not include the black, the Caribbean, the Arab, or the Indian women. The problem is that texts written by women from these regions (The Third World) are usually misread, rejected, or neglected (In rare cases, they might be canopied with white "imperialist" feminism). As Barbara Smith points out in her 1977 essay "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism": "The mishandling of Black women writers by Whites is paralleled more often by not being handled at all, particularly by feminist criticism." (2305)
In her quest for success and change, Efuru believes in the idea of compromise and negotiation as a way of getting ahead in life in her culture. She believes in freedom but she also believes that freedom has limits, and that every culture is different and to be able to live you need to adapt. What helps women succeed in the Igbo culture is the elasticity of the rules. You do not have to break the rules to be a reformer, all you have to do is to bend, expand, or reshape them. One critic of Nwapa, Obioma Nnaemeka, argues that Efuru is an example of what she calls "negofeminism" or the feminism of negotiation which is that the African woman can adapt herself by means of negotiation and compromise between tradition and modernity. If we return to the example of Efuru's first nuptials in the novel, Efuru knows the traditions of her culture and she never trespasses against them but in the meantime she marries the man she wants even without her father's consent. So Efuru is a feminist manifestation as it talks about the ability of a woman to be a leader and a reformist in her community. Efuru appears superior even to men, especially her two husbands Adizua and Eneberi, with respect to her intelligence, success in business, social life. Her failure in her first marriage does not shatter her as in the case of her mother-in-law Ossai who lives in endless pain and loneliness since being abandoned by Adizua's father (I think Nwapa uses Ossai's story as a contrastive case to Efuru's). On the contrary, Efuru was able to pull through and resume her life and success. Ossai does not admit her weakness first and she tells Efuru, "I can only solicit patience…I am proud that I was and still am true to the only man I loved," (61) but she later faces reality and admits that "Efuru's patience couldn't be tried…Life for her meant living it fully. She did not want merely to exist. She wanted to live and use the world to her advantage." (78) This shows how different Efuru is from other women in her society. Whereas Adizua who runs away with another woman and never comes back to Efuru is fickle and weak and after being deserted by the woman he elopes with he exiles himself and his life seems shattered. Eneberi is also not that different from Adizua and has even wronged Efuru in a way that she could not forgive him when he accuses her of adultery.
Efuru's insisting to "Live life fully" resonates with Nwapa's goal of "Projecting positive image of women." Efuru does not live for herself only; she commits herself to the mission of helping others live right. This is the real meaning of sisterhood and woman empowerment which Western scholars fail to see in the Third World womanhood. She excels in saving other people's lives and having an influence on their personalities. She changes Ogea from a useless girl into a good useful and obedient woman. She keeps helping and lending money to Ogea's parents, Nwosu and Nwabata, despite their repeated misfortunes and inability to pay back. Through her connections with doctor Uzaru, she arranges to help sick people who cannot otherwise afford being treated like Nnona, the old woman who has a bad leg and Nwosu who has a genital disease.
The character of Efuru is very familiar in the Igbo culture which worships Mammy Water deities. Efuru, and actually all of Nwapa's oeuvre, appropriates the myth of the water goddesses and the strong rootedness of this tradition in the Igbo culture. Efuru's personal traits resemble the goddess of the lake, Uhamiri. Uhamiri chooses her followers (the majority are female followers) and favors them with success in trade, bestow on them wealth and prosperity and shower them with her blessings. But Uhamiri denies her followers one thing, children. The myth, and the novel itself, say that Uhamiri "had never experienced the joys of motherhood." (221) Efuru starts to have dreams about the woman of the lake right after she loses her first and only child as if the death of her child was an early sign that she is chosen to be a disciple by Uhamiri. When she narrates her dream to her father, he assures her that she "has been chosen to be one of [Uhamiri's] worshippers." (147) It seems that the dream is kind of a religious calling. But there is a sign in the story that one becomes a follower only if s/he responds to the call because Efuru's father, Nwashike Ogene, also says that Efuru's mother had similar dreams, but obviously she was not a follower since she has a daughter. The idea of Uhamiri is very crucial to the concept of the feminism of negotiation and compromise that I have referred to before. Nwapa leaves the novel open-ended and concludes it with a question which is that since Uhamiri had never experienced the joys of motherhood "Why then did the women worship her?" (221) I think at least part of the answer lies in the policy of give-and-take that the women in Igbo culture live by. It says that to be successful you must compromise and sacrifice something, and this is true if we apply it to any other culture, not only the Igbo culture. Being a follower of Uhamiri is not obligatory as it appears through the example of Efuru's mother, so if a woman chooses, she can still experience the joys of motherhood and live her life like any other ordinary woman and not follow the call of the woman of the lake. And that does not mean that if she is not a follower she also cannot be successful and wealthy. If we look at the example of Aajanupu, Efuru's aunt-in-law, we will find that she was successful, fairly wealthy, has a strong leading personality and has a lot of children.
Nnaemeka, Obioma. Feminism, Rebellious Women, and Cultural Boundaries: Rereading Flora Nwapa and Her Compatriots. From Research in African Literatures, Vol. 26, No. 2. (summer, 1995), pp. 80- 113. Indiana University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3820273. Accessed: 25/10/2009 15:56
Nwapa, Flora. Efuru. London: Heinemann, 1966
Smith, Barbara. Towards a Black Feminist Criticism. From The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.
Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2001. Pp. 2299-2315
Umeh, Marie and Flora Nwapa. The Poetics of Economic Independence for Female Empowerment: An Interview with Flora Nwapa. Research in African Literatures, Vol. 26, No. 2, Flora Nwapa (Summer, 1995), pp. 22-29. Indiana University Press. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3820268 Accessed: 01/12/2009 18:46
Ahmad Ghashmari is a Jordanian human rights activist, leading an initiative for women's rights and against honor killings in the Middle East. In 2007, he started a campaign called LAHA to mobilize grassroots action against honor killings in Jordan. He also worked as a fellow with various international organizations such as Amnesty International, Freedom House, and the American Islamic Congress. Ahmad was a winner of the 2007 Dream Deferred Essay Contest and also won the Naji Namaan Creativity Prize for Literature in 2008. He is a columnist for AltMuslimah.com and Mideastyouth.com. Ghashmari is a Ph.D student of English Literature at Kent State University, Ohio.