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Solidarity as an Exercise in Empathy

The discovery of the sterility of the paterfamilias has a symbolic relevance as far as patriarchy is concerned. Patriarchy is a construct; it is not rooted in something indubitably given. Tolani could still have existed without her father. Indeed, Tolani’s world has been possible largely because of her mother’s efforts. In Tolani’s family, men are not only biologically sterile; they are also economically so. Without Arike, the Ajao family would not have been. She takes the initiative to conceive when she discovered that her husband was impotent. Arike is the breadwinner of the family, and this is because she has always perceived herself as a strong, independent- minded individual who did not need the permission of a man to be that way. She learnt to dye cloth from Iya Alaro.53 Atta suggests that given the peculiar position that women occupy in traditional patriarchal settings, they are uniquely placed to remind the rest of society of what it means to be human, which supports the saying that women’s rights are human rights.54 The attention these women call to their pain has the potential to humanize us, and it does so by inducing “imagined empathy” in us. Being well educated, and possessing a good knowledge of her society, Enitan is able to establish a parallel between the excesses of patriarchy and the abuse of power by the military; what both of them have in common is the sheer abuse of power and the tendency of the person in power to see others as means to their ends. Enitan does not succumb to these forces. Rather she gains a new inspiration to fight oppression by entering into solidarity with the other victims of these two forces. She reveals her moral trajectory in her musings about her country, but more specifically those about the city in which she was born, and in which she lives. For her, the city is a space that necessarily calls for universal solidarity because it reduces all to a common condition by exposing their vulnerability and negating any mythology of autochthony. In the city, nothing is fixed; everything is in a flux, including identity. This is so because of encounters with strangers with whom one must negotiate. Enitan tells: “My father was from a town in the middle belt of Nigeria; my mother, from the West. They lived in Lagos. I was born here, raised here.”55 She understands herself as composited. She is aware that she can neither be described as pure, nor can she afford to adopt a tribal attitude in Lagos. Her allegiance is therefore tilted toward a composite, what is merged. She is, by nature, disposed to mediate between opposites, to go beyond the one-dimensionality of the world of either/or. This is the source of her understanding of her country, which is also made up of different regions, tribes, and ethnicities. The nature of the country therefore requires nothing less than negotiations and solidarity with the downtrodden. In this regard, the city is synecdochic of the nation just as the ethical assumptions of the private sphere are for the public, especially in regard to gender relations.

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