Tell Our Stories Too
In March, while I was working on an article on female deities for ArtxJuJu, it occurred to me that female narratives are often submerged in an ocean of male stories. Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of love, had once saved earth from Eledumare’s wrath with her sensual aura. Sensual, not sexual. Ala, the female Alusi of fertility is the ground that we walk on but somehow these important stories are not as mainstream as their male counterparts. Growing up, I was told thrilling stories about Sango and his Igbo equal, Amadioha.
Queen Amina of Zazzau’s story should be more than a comeback example for men when women say that the world is unfair to them. She led more than twenty thousand men in war and expanded her kingdom’s acres as well as its treasury – it became the center house for trade in all of Hausa land during her reign. The walls she built to protect her kingdom stand till this day. Yet her story is not common knowledge. In Ms. Adichie’s first TEDtalk, she stressed the dangers of a single story. It is dangerous that the mainstream narratives of women require men for validation. It tells little girls that the world is for men alone and it strips off the desire to dream and aspire. Girls deserve to be baked with that confidence boys are.
To quote Mona Elthawaay, it’s not about being better or in this context louder than men, it’s about throwing out men as the metric. It’s about reveling and celebrating womanhood in all its complexities. It is why Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti stood out in her time. The first thing you know about Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti is that she is the mother of the great Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the one who has death in his pouch. If you are lucky, you may have heard that she was the first Nigerian woman to drive a car. Narratives that exist only within the narratives of men.
After World War 1, the Nigerian economy started to decline. Revenue that came in from trading of palm oil and Adire internationally – two industries dominated by women dwindled. To generate more local revenue in these trying times, the colonial officers imposed all sorts of taxes on the people. One of which were sanitation taxes. These taxes were fined from women for the flimsy reasons like not sweeping the compounds they lived in – they could fine more than one woman per compound. Women were also taxed in the marketplace for sheds under which they sold their wares. Through this combination of direct and indirect taxes, women contributed significantly to the state’s pocket. The protest that ended the taxation was not significant because of its mere existence but also because it gathered a diverse number of women – elite women from the Abeokuta Ladies Club, market women, women from rural and urban parts. It also combined modern and traditional protest modes – they gathered at the traditional palaces to state their concerns as well as wrote petitions to public offices. It is such a significant point in Nigeria’s history, it’s a real shame that there is no detailed depiction of this event.
Another story that should be echoed is Princess Elizabeth Oluwo’s. Her father, Oba Akenzua II of Bini Kingdom is fondly remembered by his subjects as one of the most progressive rulers they ever had. He abolished the rule that required kings to not see their newborns until they were three months old. He believed in spending time with his children so he refused to marry his daughters off early instead he sent them to school. When Princess Oluwo told her father that she wanted to learn to sculpt bronze, he said why not even though it was palace taboo. She became the first female sculptor in Nigeria. After her secondary school education, she organized art shows for young girls. It became so successful the University of Benin invited her to join their Fine Arts program. She was the first Nigerian woman to receive a masters degree in fine arts. Because of this many more women in Benin City went on to be sculptors.
Audre Lorde wrote extensively in her work about the diversity of sisterhood and its importance in the clamour for equal rights. We all stand differently on the spectrum but this does not affect our duties to ourselves and in turn the women around us. I must applaud women are working to rewrite the narrative of weak, one-dimensional African women – Kemi Adetiba for the fire breathing King of Boys and Genevive Nnaji for subtle yet fierce Lionheart. Audre Lorde said “Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually we must do battle where we are standing.” and this is where I stand and I am saying, we should tell more women’s stories, not only to inspire but to acknowledge them. Even when uninspiring, they are important.