That early April afternoon at the University of Helsinki started auspiciously. The place was packed. The audience, composed mainly of university students, was such an intriguing mixture – by gender, race and home continent – that I knew I was guaranteed a lively discussion period after my main presentation. I was not disappointed.
The next 45 minutes were animated. The young black women wanted me to give them a foolproof road map for life. I was sympathetic, but could not oblige. I told them that judging by my own life they were knocking on the wrong door. They refused to take me at my word. So, I finally had to serve them some platitudes about ‘the need to pursue interests that could give us a sense of fulfilment as individuals, as long as we remember to leave a little time and attention for the collective’, etc, etc.
From experience, I sensed that the African men had come with the most complicated agenda of all. On such occasions they would normally want to show off but then they were also nervous and wanted to watch me carefully and listen closely. They were anxious that I might unwittingly undermine their credibility by contradicting whatever they had told ‘the natives’ about life ‘back home’ and about African women in particular. I suspected that their knowledge about ‘women back home’ was at best based on memories that are rather dim after many years away. At worst that knowledge had become a lethal brew of their own nostalgic yearnings and the Western media’s relentlessly cruel (mis-)representations of Africa.
In the dreams of most African men resident in Europe, African women are ‘nice’, soft-spoken creatures who would not and could not contradict or challenge any male on anything. The men are certain that ‘back home’ women are still being socialized to ‘make a man feel like a man’. The tragedy is that much of this is still true of the majority of African women.
Gender relationships anywhere in Africa are indisputably different from the status quo anywhere in Europe. By all accounts, the Nordic countries are currently the most advanced in the whole world in such matters. Although older gender campaigners insist that these places are not paradises for women yet, even they agree that they are definitely getting somewhere, and faster than most.
The last time I spoke to an audience in Europe, the white women tried to shut me up. They had a problem with me and the other writer with whom I shared the stage. They thought that we ‘privileged’ African women had no right to speak for ‘rural and urban poor’ African women. Their stance implied that, since the ‘rural and urban poor’ African women could not represent themselves in such fora, they – the equally, if not more ‘privileged’ European women – should speak for them. They were convinced that they knew better about the struggles for women’s growth and development, notwithstanding the colonialism, imperialism, neo-colonialism, racial profiling and all the other vile factors that have messed up communication between Africa and Europe.
At the beginning of this session, I was operating from a mindset: that, like the black men, the white women had just come to shut me up. However, on this occasion, students or not, people asked reasonable questions, or made shy but intelligent comments. At one point, the exchanges among members of the audience became rather animated and involved, leaving me to rest. So there I was, thinking that communication between Africans and Europeans had changed dramatically for the better since I was last in Europe. I let down my guard. I should have waited until the entire meeting was over.
A kind of press conference followed the main event. After the television reporter and crew had been appropriately dealt with, the floor was opened for the print press and women’s groups. The first question threw me. The speaker wanted my comment on the current notion that Western feminists had abandoned African women. I was not prepared for it, and still cannot believe, days after the event, that anyone could have framed such a question. First I thought I was drowning. Then in the same instant, I felt elated, and nearly stepped off the podium to hug whoever had asked the question. I must have pulled myself together though, because I could hear myself saying that in fact, it was okay for Western feminists to abandon African women.
It is pathetically clear that our Western sisters themselves could do with a little help
‘Why?’ The interrogator wanted an explanation.
‘Because as far as I’m concerned, Western feminists have nothing to offer African women.’ I replied. At that, I could actually hear a few of the others groan softly. I knew I could not let that statement hang. So I added that Western feminists seem to have scared themselves off the next more radical phases of the gender struggle. I concluded my remarks with the observation that if out here in Europe and North America, women were already talking of ‘post-feminism’, then African women could and should get to the present phase of gender enlightenment all by themselves. Thank you very much. In any case, I thought aloud, it is pathetically clear that our Western feminist sisters themselves could do with a little help.
The look on their faces said loudly that it would take my interviewers some time to recover from shock and disbelief at my apostasy.