Chimamanda Adichie 1

How will history depict the African woman? That is the question Chimamanda Adichie explored as she spoke at the Royal African Society’s first annual literary festival in London. Africa’s leading literary voice and one of Forbes’ Youngest Power Women in Africa, Adichie reflected on five momentous decades of an African literary culture, saying, “Africans must speak for themselves… especially women.” Above all, it was a heartfelt tribute to Africa’s women writers. Speaking on the legacy and “complex femaleness” of the authors, Adichie declared, “African women writers’ story-telling nurtured mine.” The lecture was also a chance to get intimate with the Purple Hibiscus author as she discussed details of her childhood. To Ike Anya, who sat next to her, Adichie was the “small girl next door” whose imagination was “shrouded in wonder.” As Anya explains, “When the Achebes moved out, the Adichies moved in,” revealing Nsukka’s prestigious line of homegrown writers.

Chimamanda Adichie 2

*All photos by Siddharth Khajuria.

An issue particularly close to the author’s heart is the role of women and marriage in African societies. Having decided to call herself a “feminist,” Adichie shared her amusement that a Nigerian reporter once told her, “Feminists are unhappy women who cannot find a husband.” Arguing, “We should not be raising our daughters to aspire to marriage,” Adichie urged her audience to “make space” in society for women who do not wish to get married. She added, “We need to teach our girls to conquer the world [instead].” Above all, Adichie hoped that history would remember that African women could love and be loved. One of the main reasons why her readers are drawn to Half of a Yellow Sun is its ability to humanise people in deeply troubling circumstances. Even amidst the horrors of the Biafran War, Adichie’s characters were allowed to be passionately in love; from Odenigbo to Ugwu, master to houseboy, there was love at every level of the story. In societies where sex is rarely discussed and in a literary culture where love and romance are reserved for the blonde-haired, blue-eyed heroine (and “tall, dark and handsome”) means something very different to what a much younger Adichie had imagined, Adichie enforced what she called “the democratisation of sex.” She insisted, “The [African] woman is more than merely an object but [an individual] with her own desires.”

Chimamanda Adichie Crowd

It was only a matter of time, however, before the language debate pervaded her speech. Having previously been accused of succumbing to “western” standards by people that Adichie jokingly describes as the “preservers of the African culture,” she defended her decision to write in English. She declared, “English is mine… it has become mine.” While Adichie grew up speaking both English and Igbo, her school system was entirely in English. She recalled how children could be punished for speaking the vernacular at school. Pointing out that many from her generation can neither read nor write in Igbo, Adichie explained, “English was the only language by which we could express ourselves philosophically.” She did, however, maintain that, “We need to find ways to give value to our language,” before adding that she finds it is “silly” that some are ashamed to speak their native language. Nonetheless, it is clear that Adichie operates beyond the confinements of the many burdens of representation faced by African, or indeed black, writers. She dismissed these burdens and their confinements, saying, “I don’t speak for all Nigerians.” She continued, “It is not something I think about. I want to write. I want to tell stories.”

Chimamanda Adichie

This discussion soon found itself wandering towards homosexuality, a taboo subject by African standards (although this is changing). “I believe in love” was Adichie’s simple answer to Africa’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights question. Boldly declaring that homophobia is “fundamentally wrong,” Adichie maintained, “Being gay is not something white people brought to us. Africans have been gay for centuries.” As for the Hollywood rendition of Half of a Yellow Sun, featuring Thandie Newton, Adichie said she was glad that even more people would be introduced to her story. However, explaining that books are, by nature, very different to movies, Adichie told her audience, “Half of a Yellow Sun matters to me in a deeply personal way… but I want nothing to do with the [directing of the] film.”

Chimamanda Adichie

As the interest in Africa grows, Mary Harper, Africa Editor at the BBC World Service, shared her excitement for the prospects for African literature. She said, “This is just part of the whole Africa rebirth, the Africa renaissance,” adding, “Africa is growing into itself, as it were”. Harper praised Adichie, saying, “She has inspired others to write. She gave them courage.” Examining the outlook for future African writers, Adichie admits, “We don’t have many stories but it is changing. The more African stories we have, the better.” Adichie urged the audience to look to the past, as well as to the future, saying, “The books that truly matter are the ones that survive the ages. The books of the African Writers’ Series have endured.”

Story by Okayafrica Contributor Vinjeru Mkandawire.


23 Replies to "Chimamanda Adichie: ‘How Will History Depict The African Woman?’"
July 23, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Very good read. Chimamanda never ceases to amaze me every time. Dealing with fundamental issues we often take for granted or maybe overlook. The whole belittling of our native language back then was something that would eventually come back to bite us in the butt if we continue following this path. The “Africa has always been gay” statement is kinda patronising IMO. I would need proof regarding that. Well, I haven’t come across any evidence that suggests she’s right at press time.

Nguzo says:
July 23, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Better not leave it up to him ( his story). Depict yourself, so when he lies you’ve got proof…

July 23, 2012 at 5:42 pm

If you read your history books very carefully, you will see that homosexuality was in parts of Africa even before colonialism. One example is the case with Congolese Azande warriors who reportedly chose little boys as companions or “boy-wives”. Why are Africans so obsessed with making homosexuality look like a western idea?

    disgusted says:
    May 27, 2014 at 7:04 am

    because its disgusting and some of us prefer not to dry our dirty laundry in public for my sake please have some shame

alex hume says:
July 24, 2012 at 6:02 pm

please tell me this is a joke. are we really trying to claim be the first homosexuals. I am fine with leaving that dark chapter in our history to western civilization (greeks). let us start claiming being the first engineer to do this or that. What is next? we were the first to murder…yeah oh no even better we were the first to start the slave trade roaring applause. lets stay of way from thinking that just because we did something first that is something to be proud of. With the blacks of the world stagnating population growth, we need to promote families. sorry heterosexual families made up of 2 people (man and woman) gods and earths

Courtney says:
July 25, 2012 at 9:37 am

Say what??

So we can’t aspire to marriage AND conquer the world? Collective, Unity and Togetherness is the African way…Independence and lack of family is a Western way of thinking.

Courtney says:
July 25, 2012 at 9:38 am

Arguing, “We should not be raising our daughters to aspire to marriage,” Adichie urged her audience to “make space” in society for women who do not wish to get married. She added, “We need to teach our girls to conquer the world [instead].”

So we can’t aspire to marriage AND conquer the world? Collective, Unity and Togetherness is the African way…Independence and lack of family is a Western way of thinking.

Jess says:
July 28, 2012 at 4:18 am

@Courtney your argument is DRAINING to read. It is physically tiring to digest. How should I put this? I don’t think she’s saying don’t get married, conquer the world instead. She is saying that girls should aspire to MORE than just marriage. See the difference?

    Amma says:
    October 5, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Thanks Jess. I was thinking the same thing!

Zawadi says:
July 31, 2012 at 3:29 am

“I BELIEVE IN LOVE” says Chimamanda! #ThatIsAll

Peace and blessings sistren. Thank you for sharing this piece. Sending African Feminist (#AfriFem) love and light from Nairobi, Kenya!

vs sangobimoe says:
July 31, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Well done, Chimamanda – very brave

KateBomz says:
August 1, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Loved this piece!

Haschi Gulled says:
October 5, 2012 at 12:18 am

its funny how some Africans would always prefer an examples set by a westerner, even when the axample propagated is a lead to hell. hell no, homosexuality isn’t African & perhaps even not human at all. but for those advocating the devils way of life, they should maybe keep their satanic greedy desires to themselves. what a curse. & talking about history books, has even any one history book ever been compiled or retten by an African??? history is prepared to always suit those who write it don’t be fooled into believing everything you read unless it makes sense to God.

Amma says:
October 5, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Chimamanda Adichie should be an inspiration to all African women who seek to redefine themselves outside of the cultural confines. It looks like she gave a classic speech. Well done!

Ngum says:
November 27, 2012 at 3:24 pm

marriage can be overrated; i think that’s her point. Chimamanda is a truly fearless (African) voice. that mind of hers just keeps getting better.

Challow says:
December 15, 2012 at 1:20 pm

, “We should not be raising our daughters to aspire to marriage,” Adichie urged her audience to “make space” in society for women who do not wish to get married. She added, “We need to teach our girls to conquer the world [instead].”

Even in the west, marriage is encouraged. Singles in most developed countries are taxed higher than married people (Man and Woman). It is not only in Africa where marriage/family is sacred and is given a special place in the society. Sure,to gain fame,some Africans need to embrace some western phylosophy and turn around to spew out things they do not believe in. Just to be at the center. Polygamy existed in the days of Jacob,Isaac and Abraham. The world should create space for those who want to practice polygamy. This lady is not bold enough to tell the world this fact,that polygamy is a human right too. If she dares,then she would loss the focus she has struggled over the years to attract .

    busie says:
    May 27, 2014 at 6:56 am

    your comments are arrogant and lack reasoning she is only saying to the girls that dont make marriage the centre of your life she has not struggled to get attention she has just been bold enough to say the truth to your face and some of us have been attracted to that .she has said what she has to say and if your not interested then dont listen.and if you have no value to add to what she has said ,shut up orwrite your own book with your own polygamist views. read your bible and you will find that polygamist views changed when jesus came to earth is there anyone after the coming of god who was a polygamist ,i dont think so yet when he came he made to change that women be seen only and not heard they were with him to his death and the first people to see him after his ressurection mary is constantly present throughout his life but tell me how many times do you read about joseph. she hints at polygamy but because it is not something she is passionate about she does not go to town about it . i however am bold enough to tell you right now to shut up about your polygamist views or create your own website and write about that and rest assured i will not visit your website nor comment on it this is not the place for them here she talks about feminism so if you dont like that you can lump it .

Challow says:
December 16, 2012 at 9:16 am

As a self proclaimed Ambassador for African women,this “Very Learned writer” should know that marriage was ordained by God. When God created Adam,he created Eve to be his partner. This talkative woman fails to recognize this FACT and insinuates that marriage is an African way of recognizing womanhood. When she says women should conquer the world, what does she really mean? I am sure she and her mom have conquered her father.

    Feminist16 says:
    September 21, 2013 at 10:42 am

    You statement is both arrogant and ignorant and quite frankly, repulsive. You cannot claim that you are an ambassador for African women whereas you claim that the only purpose or reason for existence of women, and African women is to be with a man…Don’t you view that as oppressive and degrading to the woman? Such notions only result in further oppression and objectification of the woman. You accuse Adichie of holding Westernized ideologies and beliefs whereas the basis for your arguments is the christianity- introduced to the African by the colonizer. I don’t know about you but I find your claims extremely hypocritical and contradictory. A human being’s abilities and interests should not be dictated by their gender is what she means when she states that “we need to teach our girls to conquer the world” And, polygamy is an outdated practice, if you were well read, then you would understand why polygamy was practised and justifiable then, but we are in the twenty first century, several women simply cannot belong to one man! Especially not to symbolize his wealth!

    Good day!

    busie says:
    May 27, 2014 at 6:36 am

    she is only trying to encourage some girl child out there who has the brains to get out there and try to build a better africa and not to resign herself to the role of mother only for example winnie mandela.she is saying ladies get out there and make a difference have a voice and do something with your life because you only live once and God wants us to live our lives well be humble but make a difference whereever you are as he and his disciples did in their community they made a difference

Hazell says:
December 17, 2012 at 10:27 am

It seems that people in this discussion are failing to understand that this is a matter of opinion that states a reality that is plaguing our African communities and this is the first hurdle that we as African on this continent need to overcome. We have had our history written for us and yes we have to take control. But we must also realise that it is a reality negative and sad as it is that we had cases of homosexuality on the continent before the West infiltrated. We also had cases of canibalism that have not been eraditcated. We have had negativity on the continent. It is not a religeous issue, it is not even a race issue, it is a reality and we need to address it. In terms of marriage she has not said women should not be married but girls with the potential to change Africa have found themselves in the marriage institution. Some willingly and some out of sheer poverty desperation and fear. We need to educate the girl child to realise that her potential in the world and in her African community goes over and beyond the institution of marriage. African girls must realise that they are more than wombs, overies and breasts. They are potential to change the world. Women everywhere in fact have to realise that they are not merely vaginas and we have as much potential as our African male counterparts and to realise that we are more than mothers. The fact that we can be mothers and leaders makes us a breed that is a force to be reckoned with.

Chinenye ofokansi says:
March 28, 2013 at 3:10 pm

I believe in feminism. Feminism is my life, my hope, my ego. My model is quite right. African women need to discover themselves.

Chinenye H.G ofokansi says:
March 28, 2013 at 3:14 pm

I believe in feminism. Feminism is my life, my hope, my ego. My model is quite right. African women need to discover themselves.

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