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Pain and the Challenge of Being an African Woman in the Twenty-first Century

Okparanta’s short story “Runs Girl” occupies a central position in her aesthetics and ethics. It is constructed around the lives of three women: Ada, her terminally ill mother, and Ada’s friend Njideka. The specific nature of Ada’s mother’s illness is unknown; the family lives in poverty and cannot afford adequate medical care. Ada is at a desperate dead end when Njideka suggests a way out: Ada can become a runs girl—a Nigerian name for a female escort. Njideka, who is a runs girl herself, can show Ada how it is done.

In describing the impasse faced by Ada’s family, Okparanta creates a synecdoche for society’s regard to women. Her attention is on the social structures that hinder women’s rights by turning them into objects in the hands of men. The family’s misfortune is that of society writ small. The poor get by only by luck or by wringing out every drop of their sweat in bone-crushing labor. They enter into Faustian bargains in order simply to exist. We do not know why Njideka became a runs girl. But the narrator suggests that she is not comfortable with the task, and she masks her pain and discomfort; she wears a shiny wig. Ada, somewhat still a conventional girl, contrasts herself with Njideka. In order to maintain her perception of Njideka’s humanity, she forces herself to imagine Njideka’s “head under all that artificial hair,” envisioning “bald patches and a thinning hairline.” It is comforting to Ada “to think that deep down, under all that perfection was a version of her that was just as imperfect as me.”27 Through Ada’s search for the real Njideka underneath the mask, Okparanta alerts the reader to differences between perception and reality. Underneath the hairpiece is a patch of pain. We assume that Njideka would not have been playing that game if she lived in better economic conditions. Perhaps she is just masking some inner agony. Thus the narrative questions whether women are in control of their destiny in that world. Why does Ada have to make herself an object of men’s carnal desire in order for her mother to survive? Why can she not relate to men on equal grounds, and in dignity?

The ethical core of the narrative is the relationship between Ada and her mother, especially in regard to how it has been shaped by the socio-cultural structures of their world. They can no longer shape their destiny. To the contrary, they are shaped by forces outside their control. It is important to consider how their family came to be poor. Ada’s father has died, and Ada was witness to the physical and psychological collapse of her mother soon after her father’s death. Ada and her mother, without a man in their lives, are left to fend for themselves “in a world where it was hard for a woman to do so honestly.”28 By acknowledging such a world, the narrator establishes a pronounced connection between Ada’s family and the larger society; she points to the patriarchal and socially dysfunctional system that militates against women’s rights. Moreover, it is Ada’s mother who most completely embodies the condition of women in that society, and in this way, her experiences become figurative of those of women. That condition is one of pain: “Mama was in pain, and the doctors did not know the cause.”29 The fact that the illness is not named is not accidental; it insinuates a more encompassing malady in society, a malady that disables women’s bodies. Is the illness in society to be understood as the system and its ideologies? The invocation of religious devotion strengthens the grip that ideology has on mother and daughter alike, and mollifies its pain: “We prayed again that night and Mama read again from Job: Despise not though the chastening of the Almighty: For He maketh sore, and bindeth up: He woundeth, and His hands make whole.”30 Like Job, mother and daughter accept their condition as a given and probably as ordained by God. In situations in which ideologies oppress people, it is always difficult for the victims to put their finger on the exact cause of their suffering.

Ada yields to Njideka’s suggestion that she too become a runs girl: “To get the money for Mama. To get the money so that I could take her to a specialist, one that Njideka would recommend.”31 Ada does not know what she is getting herself into; she has no idea that being a runs girl means having sex with men. She is raped on the first encounter.32 In this encounter, Okparanta hints at the paradigm of male-female relationships under the conditions that have already been established as ordained by God. In focusing on the situations that Ada and her mother experience, Okparanta prevents the reader’s relation to the individuals in pain from lapsing into diffuse sympathy. Rather we empathize with Ada, and we do so because of her innocence and her helplessness. She suffers undeservingly. Could she have helped her mother in any other way? Was there no other way to survive? But then we are reminded that they live in a world where it was hard for a woman to do so honestly. Okparanta suggests that patriarchy makes it impossible for women to be honest. Mary Wollstonecraft had made the same argument. Patriarchy makes both men and women insincere. Within the contexts of the systemic constraints under which women suffer, the rape of Ada is symbolic of the condition of women in that society, one in which it is hard for them to provide for themselves. Thus the mother’s unnamed pain becomes that of the daughter, and their discomfort mirrors that of women. In its ability to call attention to the suffering of women in sexist societies, “Runs Girl” exhibits similar narrative attitudes to those found in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names.

The story of We Need New Names takes place in an unnamed African country that we assume to be Zimbabwe. It is narrated by a witty girl named Darling, and begins with a group of urchins on their way to a place called Budapest. Their former home has been razed by their government. Now they live in a makeshift settlement called Paradise. They go to Budapest, an up-scale, largely white neighborhood, for the guava growing there. One of the many crucial scenes in the novel portrays the miraculous spiritual healing at one of the many Pentecostal churches in the country. Darling and her companions come across one of these healings conducted by Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro. There are seven sinners—all women—in need of purification. The prophet goes around touching each of them “on the forehead with his stick, and then sprinkles them with holy water before they confess.”33

A closer consideration of the scene raises several issues that can help us understand Bulawayo’s ethical inquiry. Seven is an important number in religious circles. The Catholic Church has seven sacraments. Jesus cleansed Mary Magdalene of her seven demons. The Book of Revelations describes the scroll whose back was “sealed with seven seals.”34 Could the prophet’s name—Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro—have been derived from the book of Revelations? Is he himself an instrument of divine patriarchal revelation? The more disturbing question has to do with those being cleansed. Why are only women the ones in need of cleansing? Why is it only men who do the cleansing? One answer may lie in the fact that one of the women, Simangele, confesses that she has quarreled with her cousin, whom she suspects of planning to take her husband from her. In that confession, men are presented as worth fighting for. Women are therefore set against one another in their pursuit of this precious commodity. That is their sin, and that is what they have to be forgiven for. Their society has created a system in which they need men in order to be validated, and when they fight to retain the very thing that validates them, they are accused of having sinned. They are therefore trapped in a vicious circle, in a world in which they exhaust their energy trying to prove how good they are. Of course, they will never succeed in demonstrating their value because that value is thought to be extrinsic to them; the patriarch confers it. Secondly, they cannot be thought to be good because the source oftheir evil is in them: their gender. Like Okparanta, Bulawayo explores the setting against whose backdrop women’s agony can be understood. It is fair to argue that her primary concern is simply to expose the structural underpinnings ofsocieties and to have them confront our sense of common decency. Setting is a character in each of these stories, and we are urged to examine how it impacts facets of women’s selfhood. We are challenged to ask more questions about these women’s rights.

In another scene, Bulawayo sharpens her narrative to reflect the scorn of men and society for women who take pride in their bodies. A woman is brought into the scene by a group of men. She is portrayed as beautiful, as she has “smooth flawless skin like maybe she is an angel.” She is fashionconscious and she is wearing a “purple dress that’s riding up her thighs.”35 The narrative tone suggests that the woman’s crime is self-confidence, or just the simple awareness of her body as belonging to her; but this is readily interpreted as pride in those religious circles. She is therefore a perfect candidate for exorcism. The men carry her forward to be healed, that is, humiliated, and taught her position in society. She should not care for her body.

The symbolic relevance of exorcism, a ritual carried out by men in most religions, helps Bulawayo to frame the moral argument of her story. Why do many religions see women’s bodies as defiled and as a source of evil? This is as true for the three Abrahamic religions as it is for most African indigenous religions. Just as the illness that afflicts Ada’s mother in “Runs Girl” is not named, so the woman being exorcised is nameless. She is identified only as “the woman,” and in that respect stands for all women in that patriarchal society. This explains why Darling promptly identifies with her. The woman resists the men’s assault on her, crying, “Leave me alone, leave me alone, you sons of bitches. You don’t know me!”36 Darling repeats the woman’s words: “Leave her alone, leave her alone, you sons of bitches! You don’t know her!”37 The repetition is a mirror image of the woman’s words, and it is portrayed as an instance of empathy. Darling has put herself in the position of the woman and says to her: “I feel what you feel. I feel your pain.”38 The scene provides a clear instance of characters displaying empathy towards one another. Of relevance here is that Bulawayo exposes the experience of particular women by recreating what we have already identified as Adam Smith’s like situation. These situations are products of socio-cultural structure. Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi has advocated focusing on women’s subjectivities via the category of gender in order to truly understand the condition of African women.39 Her suggestion proves useful in appreciating why Bulawayo sheds light on a woman who has taken interest in her body, and men who despise her for doing so. Following the patriarchal logic, men would like to see women as disembodied beings, as those who do not (and should not) take pleasure in their bodies. This explains the exorcism in the narrative. Indeed, Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro is symbolic of the systemic oppression against which women define themselves. The moment the woman begins to resist and to assert ownership of her body, he feels personally affronted; he perceives her defiance as his personal failure and as a rejection of his authority as the leading patriarch. The woman’s resistance prompts an immediate reaction (a backlash), one which reminds her in a unique way that she is a woman, and that she has a defined place in society. He leaps on the woman and:

prays for the woman like that, pinning her down and calling to Jesus and screaming Bible verses. He places his hands on her stomach, on her thighs, then he puts his hands on her thing and starts rubbing and praying hard for it, like there’s something wrong with it.40

Prayer is an ideological tool that helps the prophet trick people into accepting the violence of his act. Patriarchal societies generally see women’s “thing” as the source of evil in society.41 The narrator contrasts the Prophet’s orgasmic state (“his face is alight, glowing”) with the woman’s agony: “the pretty woman just looks like a rag now, the prettiness gone, her strength gone.”42 Is rape an act of exorcism? The ethical thrust of the narrative asserts itself the moment we begin to question the men’s actions, the moment we interrogate the Prophet’s authority. Equally important is what is additionally revealed in this rape scene. The narrator describes the fate of one of the urchins: “Chipo is just waking up and she is looking around like she was lost but has found herself.”43 Chipo is traumatized by what she has seen. But the true source of her trauma lies elsewhere: her own experience of rape by her grandfather, who had forced her down and pinned her like the pretty woman in the story had been: “he clamped a hand over my mouth and was heavy like a mountain, Chipo says, words coming out all at once like she is Mother ofBones. I watch her and she has this look I have never seen before, this look of pain.”44 This incident establishes a parallel between the woman’s experience and that of the girl. It serves an important narrative purpose, for it reveals the precarious conditions under which women live.

I noted in the introductory part of this chapter that Bulawayo and Okparanta are interested in the pain that women experience in societies whose systems do not allow them to flourish as responsible human beings. The authors’ motives are an ethical choice, and they make it evident in their characters. The scene described above is an example. One thing that troubles Darling is the look of pain on Chipo’s face. Her pain, we recall, was provoked by that of the beautiful woman being exorcised of her demons. So, here we have three women connected by pain that does not arise from their bodies as women, but from the attitude of society to those bodies. The women suffer because society subjects them to suffering simply on account of their gender. I referred to Sylvia Tamale’s argument that the majority of those who are against feminism in Africa are precisely those who “have never directly experienced gender discrimination.”45 This is true in Africa and in the West. Those who never experience any form of discrimination are more likely to remain passive in the face of discrimination against others. This is largely because they have difficulty relating to the victims’ experiences. Empathy seeks to bring the pain of the victims closer to the awareness of the privileged, and dispose the latter to respond.

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