Feminist furore

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.

This is Ghanaian writer *Ama Ata Aidoo*’s last column for the *NI*. We thank her for her passion and commitment.

And all the jokes are cruel

From way back I have been friends with a world-famous crop scientist. He is wonderful. An academic who, according to his colleagues, is very good at both the theoretical and practical aspects of his work, he is also self-assured to a fault and wickedly witty. However, like the rest of us lucky enough to have such opportunities, he is busy globetrotting to sell his competence in other lands. They probably do not need him as much as Africa does, but the elusive dollar-pound-mark-yen helps ease the rough edges of living at home in Africa. He is hardly ever home but then, as our people say often with a shrug and a trace of bitterness: ‘What for do?’ Another long African story.

The elusive dollar-pound-mark-yen helps ease the rough edges of living at home in Africa

Ours is one of those long-distance friendships kept alive with every-now-and-then meetings, chance or planned. It is relaxed and, I hope, mutually supportive. And mercifully ‘low maintenance’. We shall call him Peter Obamakuyi. Peter and I had not met since my last year of living in Harare, Zimbabwe, when he had come through for a conference. So it was a pleasant shock when the phone rang recently at my home in Ghana, just before our last combined parliamentary and presidential elections, and his low, broad voice came through the wires. I later learned that he was in Accra in connection with one of his international consultancies, something to do with rice or sorghum.

As soon as he had confirmed that it was me at the other end of the line, his greeting was: ‘Ama, God loves you people.’ ‘Which people?’ wondered a startled me. ‘You Ghanaians,’ was Peter’s very quick response. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked again, rather lamely. He replied: ‘This is the year 2000, in Africa, and this country has been stable for nearly 20 years. Ghana is actually getting ready to run its third successive democratic elections in eight years, Westminster style [hm!]. Oh, yes, God loves you Ghanaians…’

A long time ago, I had thought that I was used to Peter and his surprise declarations, observations and gifts. But this package was big, even coming from him. ‘But…but…but…’ I could only stammer at that stage. ‘Ama, no buts,’ Peter cut in confidently and smoothly. ‘So please, first accept my humble compliments on behalf of your country, and then let’s move on to the question of when we can meet. Depending on when you’ll be free we could have either lunch or supper. I think supper would be more…’

I was not yet ready for that old charm of his. ‘Peter, how can you say we are doing well in Ghana? You have just been driven from the airport to your hotel. Where else have you been? What have you seen? Whom have you talked to?’ I was feeling irritated. ‘How long have you been in town anyway?’ I exploded.

Peter chuckled and asked if I knew how many times he had visited my country all those years I was away. That was below the belt but I had asked for it. Not that I was in a mood to quit. So with a self-righteousness acquired from two years of living again in Ghana I reminded him of the fuel crisis; of the rock-bottom state of our currency, the _cedi_; of the minimum wage that could not buy two cubes of sugar.

‘Please calm down and listen.’ This was an order from the avuncular Peter. ‘I mean it when I say that God loves you Ghanaians and that you are doing very well.’ He paused for effect. ‘But, when I say that I don’t mean that Ghana is in a league with Japan or Sweden or Switzerland. I think Ghana is doing very well compared to Burundi, the Congo or Sierra Leone!’

We laughed the laugh perfected by Africans and people of African descent everywhere over the last 500 years. The kind we do to stop ourselves from crying.

I burst out laughing, Peter joined me, and we have not stopped laughing since. We laughed from relief, from grief, from fear and from anxiety. We laughed the laugh perfected by Africans and people of African descent everywhere over the last 500 years. The kind we do to stop ourselves from crying.

The fact is that somewhere deep in me, and like any other good Ghanaian, I probably agree with Professor Obamakuyi that God loves us. We had proof of this during our recent combined elections.

For several weeks before, every Ghanaian, including my seven-year-old niece, went into a nervous sweat and our collective stomach knotted up with anxiety. So, scared as we were, what did Ghanaians do? We just prayed. We prayed everywhere, morning, noon and night. Our request to God was humble and short: help us have free, fair and peaceful elections with no violence either before or after. ‘And please, God,’ we always concluded, ‘let whoever loses accept defeat gracefully.’ Our prayers were answered, not once, but twice. When none of the presidential candidates had the constitutionally mandated 51 per cent from the first voting to win the presidency outright, a run-off was scheduled later for the two top candidates. Apart from some early-morning hiccups, this went off ‘textbook smooth’.

Now that it is all over we are settling down to enjoy the jokes. One local comedian insists that in Ghana ‘free and fair elections’ clearly means that ‘all the parties are free to cheat fairly’! Then there is the one about a young hawker of used socks. After the announcement of the presidential winner he was seen dumping his wares in the middle of the road while screaming joyfully: ‘Positive change! Ah, all our troubles are over!’ Nobody even bothered to look at the expression on his face as a crowd rushed and began scrambling for his goods.

*Ama Ata Aidoo* is a writer based in Accra, Ghana. Her latest publication is _The Girl Who Can and Other Stories_.