Nigeria one of the nations in West Africa is at present in the global news for violent clashes among religious groups. Like the other African states, it too is basically a multi-ethnic nation. The Igbos are one of the four major Nigerian tribes along with the Hausas, the Fulanis along with the Yorubas. (1) The Igbos consist of seventeen percent of the Nigerians living in the South-eastern region. Keeping a historical record of the Igbos of the past, have been done in the traditional oral songs and proverbs. This is perhaps the very ancient literary practice. The written African records are the pictograph forms. Egypt is considered the oldest African example of pictographs. If the pictographs echoed the ‘indigenity’ (2) of the ethnic tribes of Africa, so did the oral tradition of Nigeria. The Igbos showed its ‘indigenity’ via its songs and proverbs. These songs which have been transmitted from generation to generation were mostly sung by the women. And they mostly consisted about the lives of the male heroes. The oral traditions remain forever. A Ghanaian proverb says,
Ancient things remain in the ear. (3)
The oral practice still remains in speech and writing. And the first writing script in Nigeria along with the many North and Western African states was Arabic. The Christian missionaries, who arrived later, have been most successful with the Igbos in making them change to Roman script. (4) Male writers have been dominant before and at the eve of the Independence in 1960. These writers penned books with men as the protagonists. It is stunning and ironical that they found nothing to write about women although women form half of the humanity in any nation. Women’s presences in the making of the collective whole were left behind by the shortsighted writers. For example, there was the presence of domestic slavery of women within Nigeria before trans-Atlantic slave trade or before the entry of the British colonizers. Later, women were sold under ‘legitimate’ items along with other products in the Bights of Benin and Biafra as part of the same slave trade. This was most possible in the Southeastern Nigeria. Half of those slaves were young African girls and children. The male writers rarely confessed about these historic trades. Eras of Igbo domination arrived and disappeared. Their leader Ojukwu agitated to secede as Biafra. In this post-Independence movement the Igbo women paid tremendous role. But such female participation remained unexposed by male writers. Leaving aside these slave trades and war-deeds by the women, there are deeper roles of Igbo women in the society. Igbo women have been forever webbed in the economic, family and religious world of the Igbo ethnic society. But these too have not been completely covered by any writer until Flora Nwapa with her debut novel Efuru, in the sixth year after Independence. Nwapa was born in 1931 in Oguta in Nigeria. She started her career as a writer with the publication of Efuru. Idu, Never Again and Women are Important are her later other chief novels. Nwapa remained as an educator teaching at colleges and universities around the globe, throughout her life. She died in 1993.
Efuru was written when the world has already finished facing the Great Wars of mass destruction and history of genocide. Then followed the 1940s and the 60s of the emergence of post-colonial nations most of which were liberated from the British including Nigeria. The new cultural colonizer that is, the United States of America in another continent was going through the impacts of the Harlem to gather the pride of being blacks. The cry of Pan-Africanism was echoing to emotionally and culturally unite the dispersed blacks of the world. There were also the making of their presences felt by the Diasporic blacks in various write-ups. All these topics and the famous Middle Passage or the Biafran Civil War has also nothing to do in Nwapa’s Efuru. Oils and petroleum revenues were the latest economic knowledge available to young Nigerian men. Nwapa seeped into core issues related to ever dominant episteme of the social life of an ordinary Igbo peasant woman. The book is named after the protagonist Efuru. Efuru is shown as an independent woman who fails in both her marriages due to childlessness. In a country where Igbos were fast getting introduced to a world religion named Christianity, Efuru finds relief in her ancient Igbo religion. She finds space in being a selected worshipper of one of the Igbo Goddesses or Mami Wata.
The Igbo Earning Woman
Despite her economic independence Efuru failed to linger her social position in relation to marriage and family. Being an earner as female is as old as the ethnics. African women have been involved beyond cooking, household chores or decking up home premises. Economy connected Efuru to her marriages and family. Family lies at the center of social and economic fabric of society. It is for the making of these families that led the majority Igbo people from ancient times to become farmers, cattle herders and hunters. Igbo women have always been contributing at par with their men in the economic progress of their respective families. Actually, there have been not much rigid and clear divisions of profession between men and women. Women took part in farming along with the men. There is the instance of the Tonga plateau in Southern Zambia. Hoe is usually taken to be the weapon of the female worker in the field. (5)
The traits of farming continue even today in African societies. And Efuru is one of these African peasant women whose life is shown in the novel. Flora Nwapa has taken up the most common Igbo woman. The condition of the peasant woman was declining during the colonial rule. The introduction of the new cash crops by the British regime like, peanuts, cotton, cocoa and coffee were changing the economic organizations of the rural world. Men became interested in these as this brought faster money. The women kept on struggling with the old types of cultivation. Colonization brought another wrap of gender-divided tasks. Trades were always gendered over the globe, including Nigeria. This example of the cassava and the yam is one. After experience with the whites, Yam and cassava now remained exclusively to the Igbo women. Before the advent of the whites, cassava was cultivated by the Igbo female and yams by the males. Nigerian agriculture has always been based on yam. And it is still part of all basic rituals and festivals of the Igbos. The Igbo women took more control over its production now. There is a very unique thing to notice here. It is that women have always been able to accept and pass all tests given to her, including this switch over in cultivation. She could show more flexibility. It coincides with Julia Kristeva’s description of the flexible and the ‘unifying’ nature of the female language, which she calls ‘semiotic.’ (6) Efuru too could do so. When she married Adizua, the success with income depended more upon her hard work. Adizua was laughed at by his fellow farmers for being unable to make profit. But his wife consoled and encouraged him to wait and work for the better. She directed him to first try trade in yams, dry fish and crayfish. Crayfish brought full fortune to them. Adizua’s mother was so delighted with her daughter-in-law that she openly confessed to Efuru’s father Nwashike Ogene,