Pushing the Womanist Agenda to the Frontiers: A Cultural Backflip in Nollywood Films
Christine ODI, PhD
Department of Theatre Arts
Faculty of Arts, Niger Delta University
Wilberforce Island, Bayelsa State
The Womanist Agenda, an African construct which is a sharp parallel from some of the more extremist western feminist movements, is a movement that preaches the inclusion of both the male and female genders to build a harmonious and equitable African society. It is however an agenda that is still being denigrated and rebuffed by die-hard advocates of patriarchy, to the detriment of societal development. That notwithstanding, the movement is gaining momentum, attention and even acceptance in parts of the Nigerian society. The Nigerian movie industry which mirrors mainly the Nigerian society has been contributing its quota to the Womanist discourse through its numerous filmic productions on the theme. This essay culturally examines Womanist issues x-rayed in a specific Nollywood movie that turn culture on its head, in its bid to push the Womanist agenda to the frontiers of feminist discourse. To achieve that purpose, the genre adopted, issues raised, and the film’s success in its intent, will constitute the essay’s discourse and findings.
The level of a society’s development is to a large extent dependent on the people’s level of education and the inclusion of every stakeholder in the decision making process of that society. When a significant portion of that society is consciously excluded from the affairs of state, result, amongst other things will be a society in crisis. It is made worse when even in the face of change, that society stubbornly holds on to its position of bias. The woman issue in Nigeria is no longer new. It has been ongoing and gaining followers even as there are those who refuse to see the need to include women in the affairs of the Nigerian state. This essay is yet another contribution to the growing body of literature on the advocacy for equity and equality of the sexes.
The instrument used to advance our study is the Nigerian home video industry. As an established entertainment industry, Nollywood is strategically positioned to advance the cause of women empowerment not only in Nigeria, but across the continent and globally. In all its years of existence Nollywood has churned out movies that deal with the gamut of the human enterprise. The light in which these endeavours are portrayed is as varied as there are the different films. This essay intends to examine how a particular home video – Family Man is used to pursue the womanist agenda in Nigeria. Research materials are sourced from existing literature on women issues, literature on Nigerian Movie Industry and Family Man. The success or otherwise of the film as another medium appropriated to push the womanist agenda in Nigeria forms the crux of the paper’s discourse.
The concept of Womanism is an African construct in the ongoing feminist discourse. Feminism as a movement has over the ages has given birth to various strands of the same ideology. Some of these strands of feminism include but are not limited to: Radical Feminism, Bourgeois Feminism, Marxist Feminism, Black Feminism, Conservative Feminism, Liberal Feminism, Lesbian Feminism and Humanist Feminism (Evwierhoma 43; Awuawuer 125).
Nigeria, as indeed the African continent being a society whose population is significantly female joined the rest of the global society to advocate for gender equality and equity. Being Africa, with her unique cultural heritage and disposition, it did not take too long for the adherents of feminism on the continent to discover that the umbrella movement – feminism has various strands suited to different groups of activists.
The above listed strands of feminism as most African feminists discovered were suited to the western cultures where individualism superseded collectivism. Radical Feminism, Bourgeois Feminism, Marxist Feminism, Black Feminism, Conservative Feminism, Liberal Feminism, Lesbian Feminism and Humanist were acceptable in western climes. But in Africa where the collective of the family and society supersedes the individual, the cultural dimension to the issue was brought to the fore. Of the above mentioned strands of feminism, conservative and humanist are closest to the cultural worldview of the African society. Even those did not really fit. The need then arose to chart a brand of feminism that would cater to the specific demands of the African continent, hence the African constructs of Womanism and Motherism.
The coinage of the term, ‘Womanism,’ is attributed to the author Alice Walker in 1979. After Walker, several other scholars have keyed into the womanist movement albeit with significant degrees of divergent views. Some of these scholars include: Clenora Hudson-Weems, Chikwenye Okonjo-Ogunyemi and Carole Boyce Davies, (Wikipedia 1 of 15). Alice Walker’s definition of womanism has an element that is alien to and unacceptable to the African wamanist. According to Walker a womanist is: A woman who loves another woman, sexually and/or non sexually. She appreciates and prefers women’s cultures, women’s emotional flexibility is committed to the survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female… (Wikipedia 4).
Walker’s womanism is aimed at all black women. Walker is entitled to her personal ideology. But, an ideology of women empowerment whatever its guise that includes acts of lesbianism is not African and is not acceptable within the confines of the African continent. While that is not say that lesbianism does not exist in Africa, it does but, it is a clandestine activity that is a cultural taboo. Clenora Hudson-Weems’ Africana Womanism rejects the western construct of feminism with her assertion that “it is impossible to incorporate the cultural perspectives of African women into the feminism ideal due to the history of slavery and racism in America”. For Chikwenye Okonjo-Ogundipe the womanist vision is to answer the ultimate question of how to equitably share power among the races and between the sexes. She, like Hudson Weems also jettisons the possibility of reconciliation of white feminists and black feminists on the grounds of the intractability of racism (Wikipedia 3-5 of 15). Carole Boyce Davies’ construct of Womanism is also tailored to suit women of African descent. It is African in nature and supports the sensibilities of the African woman. It is a strand of feminism that is not antagonistic of the woman’s male counterpart rather it challenges men to be aware of women’s subjugation and to seek ways to alleviate the plight of women (Odi 44).
In spite of the differences gleaned in the above female scholars’ concepts of womanism, at its core “womanism represents the expectations and experiences of the woman [of African descent] as one filled with the quest for knowledge, competence and authority that surpasses the individual but encompasses the group” (Wikipedia 3). The development of the womanist debate gave birth to another feminist concept known as motherism. Very like womanism, motherism is firmly anchored on the African cultural matrix of motherhood. According to Elvira Godondo, “Motherism is an Afrocentric feminist theory that must be anchored on the matrix of motherhood which is central to African metaphysics and has been the basis of the survival and unity of the black race through the ages”. Continuing, she adds that “the African motherist is the man or woman committed to the survival of mother earth as a hologrammatic entity.” The weapon of motherism, Godono concludes, “is love, tolerance service, and mutual cooperation of the sexes” (2 of 14).
In Nigeria, Catherine Obianuju Acholonu champions the concept of Motherism. With her motherism, Acholonu captures the African cultural spirit of community as opposed to the spirit of individuality of western societies. Acholonu’s concept of motherism is a “multi-dimensional theory that involves the dynamics of ordering, creating structures, building and rebuilding in cooperation with ‘mother nature’ at all levels of human endeavour” (Odi 43). She goes further to add that “for anyone, regardless of sex, age or race, to qualify to be called a motherist, that person must be a defender and protector of family values, seeker of truth and true knowledge, courageous yet humble, loving tolerant, powerful yet down-to-earth. The motherist must be one regardless of sex, to whom the whole of humanity and planet earth is his/her constituency. That is to say, the motherist must be willing to protect the natural cohesive essence of the family, the child, the society and the environment (Odi 44).
Catherine Acholonu’s motherism captures the essence of what can be termed Nigerian Womanism. Regardless of what western feminist scholars advocate the state of motherhood is sacrosanct to the Nigerian cultural heritage. Sherifat in Tess Onwueme’s Tell it to Women,exhorts her daughter-in-law: women are endowed with a natural power that is priceless and unique-motherhood, hence no man can become pregnant. The continuity of life can only be ensured by the woman in all cultures of the world (39). Motherhood is the core of the African woman’s strength; the cord that links her to her family, society and mother earth because ultimately, the continuation of the human race is dependent on the woman’s ability to reproduce humankind. In the African context of womanism and motherism, the man is equally as important as the woman in the regeneration of a just equitable and harmonious society. The relationship of the man and woman is complementary. The role of the man is distinct and the role of the woman is also distinct. The above assertions steers the African society away from the hegemonic stranglehold of patriarchy thus leading towards a more gender sensitive society.
Scholars across disciplines have been pushing the motherist agenda in their writings and the followership is growing. The Nigerian movie industry like the other arts has been a major culprit in the denigration of the worth of the person of the woman. Countless Nollywood films have been projecting the Nigerian woman as evil, diabolical, wicked, a docile housewife, witch, adulteress, prostitute, murderer and the like, quite contrary to the advocacy of the womanist and motherist movements in Nigeria (Odi 80).
It is worthy to note at this point that for purposes of this essay womanism, womanist, motherism and motherist are used interchangeably from the perspective that both concepts are African constructs advocating the complementarities of both genders in their collective quest for a better society. The Nigerian movie industry has grown in name and production ranking one of the biggest three movie industries in the world, its size, volume of productivity and spread of viewership has turned the industry into a popular culture. Popular culture as defined by Lowenthal in Epskamp is simply a “standardised culture which from the point of view of the entertainment industry meets needs of the leisure activities of broad layers of the population in a commercial and consumptive way” (Epskamp 39).
Thompson corroborates Lowenthal’s definition by adding that, “popular culture which we are systematically provided with on a large scale by the media, by those who write, design, and compose with large number of consumers in mind… refers to the pastimes of the masses” (40). Popular culture therefore is any form of human activity or endeavour that has wide appeal to a vast majority of people, in this case, the film medium. Opubor in Ukuma sums the global popular appeal of the film medium with: Of all the media of mass communication, the motion picture has perhaps the most universal appeal and impact. Properly conceived and executed, a film can rise above the limitations of language and cultural barriers by the power of its visual images, its use of music and sound effects and can succeed in conveying messages to audiences of heterogeneous backgrounds (194).
With specific regard to the Nigerian home video industry, Maureen Eke avers that the Nigerian video film industry has grown since its emergence as a commercial project in the 1990s. Quoting Jonathan Haynes in her essay, titled, “Nollywood and the Woman Palaver: Desperate Women, Bad Women, Witches and Saints,” she continues that, “on the basis of sheer commercial vitality these films can claim to be the major Nigerian art form today.” She adds that the Nigerian video film industry has also become currently the fastest growing cultural and artistic project in the nation, on the continent and globally (1).
Foluke Ogundele in Doki also asserts that: The [Nigerian] video film has become the most accessible form of entertainment to the people in many parts of Africa. This phenomenal development is experienced in several distinct forms: as cheap but valuable entertainment on small screens, in big theatres, on video tapes, purchased at affordable price from registered video shops, and also boot-legged cheap rented films from the unregistered video clubs for a small fee (76).
Maureen Eke attests to the global impact of Nollywood which she asserts “has a growing presence in Ghana, in communities with large African Diaspora particularly Nigerian population from Washington DC, New York, London, Jamaica, Toronto, Durban and Johannesburg to mention but a few destinations of the Nollywood films. Nigerian video films, by their very nature, she continues, “are engaged in a conversation with Hollywood, Bollywood and other Cinemas in the light of which serious consideration of African or world cinema today can be made without recourse to the Nollywood video phenomenon” (4).
Nigerian video films are deeply rooted in Nigerian cultural traditions and social texts that focus on Nigerian community life. The stories are told using African idioms, proverbs, costumes, artefacts and imagery of Africa and cultural displays (Onuzulike 1 of 12). Lancelot Imasuen in Eke asserts that Nollywood video films tell stories that the people can relate to themselves because they are stories about our [Nigerian] people, for the people (6).
Nollywood films draw their inspiration from the unfolding events in the society hence the issues raised are thematically relevant to the Nigerian and African society. Wikipedia lends credence by asserting that many Nollywood films have themes that deal with the moral dilemmas facing modern Africans. Nollywood has the capacity to project the Nigerian culture positively to its very large followership. According to Med Hondo in Aondowase Boh, …most important is the role of cinema in the construction of people’s consciousness. Cinema is the mechanism par excellence for penetrating the minds of people, influencing their everyday social behaviour, directing them… (135). Boh supports Hondo’s assertion by adding that “Nollywood can really influence the social behaviour of people and home videos can shape people’s characters in positive or negative ways (135). If Nollywood has that capacity to influence people’s behaviour positively or negatively why is it then that most of the time, it is the negative aspects of the Nigerian culture and lifestyles of the Nigerian people that find their way into Nollywood films? The answer is not far-fetched. “Box Office!” Films are not produced to sermonize but to titillate the sensibilities of the audience and attract box office sales. The negative in any society is the red herring for conflict in movies which drives chains of events in the films to their logical conclusions. These stories are told realistically drawing on the cultural and social norms of the times.
The ‘Woman Palaver’ is central to most Nollywood offerings and these unfortunately project the character of the Nigerian woman in negative light. But as the womanist discourse has begun yielding positive portraiture of women in the dramatic and other disciplines Nollywood, being a product of society has to begin to reinvent its portraiture of its female characters to promote a gender sensitive environment. Many Nollywood films in recent times have been dedicated to pushing the womanist agenda.
This essay analyses the film, Family Man, a nouvelle contribution in the advocacy for the womanist agenda. The film family Man was shot on location in 2013, produced by Kingsley Okereke and directed by Theodore Anyanji. The genre of Family Man is comedy. The movie revolves around Jekwu (Mike Ezuruonye) and his three sisters Adanna (Uche Elendu,)Adaku (Tessy Orangwan) and Anwuri the youngest sibling.
The four siblings were orphaned early in life by the untimely demise of both their parents. Being the eldest and only male child of the four siblings, Jekwu is saddled with the responsibility of taking care of his three younger sisters. He dropped out of school and took up petty trading to meet the family’s needs. Jekwu puts in his best to ensure that his sisters, within his abilities are properly brought up. Over and above his brotherly responsibilities, Jekwu took on a role that is not characteristically associated with a man, a role which not many men, especially the Nigerian man could shoulder.
To give his utmost to the raising of his sisters, Jekwu took on the role of their mother. Thus the Jekwu the Family Man became Jekwu the family (wo)man. Jekwu became the mother hen ready to give her life to protect her chicks. Jekwu literally did everything a natural mother would do to ensure the safety and security of her children in the typical African cultural setting. Mother Jekwu protects his sisters from bullying, assault, harassment and prowling young men. Mother Jekwu teaches Anwuri how to use “environment sanitation pad” (sanitary pad) when she came of age.
Mother Jekwu literally blew hot and cold when he discovered that Adaku had been impregnated by Nnana. He descended on Adaku like the typical African mother would vent her pain and frustration on discovering that the daughter she had been doing her best to bring up properly had gone on to allow herself get impregnated out of wedlock, an act that is a cultural taboo. But as any mother would, after the initial pain, shock and every other emotion in between had died down Adaku was made to marry the young man responsible for her pregnancy. A man she loved anyway, so it all worked out well for Adaku who found happiness in her husband’s house.
The marriage of Adaku to Nnana took the film to a whole new cultural level. Adaku gave birth to a bouncing baby boy and her ‘mother’ according to the dictates of tradition ought to go and take post-natal care (omugwo) of the new mother and son. During an omugwo experience, the mother is expected to (i) wash the clothes of the new mother and child; (ii) prepare the food that the new mother and child would eat; (iii) bathe the two of them; (iv) hold the baby when the mother needs to sleep and generally do everything that will make and child comfortable and happy the first few months after giving birth.
As with every other facet associated with his new status of being a mother, Jekwu put his best into ensuring that he fulfils his obligation as ‘mother’ to Adaku. Jekwu bought all the necessary items he needed for a successful omugwo and set out to the city to take care of Adaku and her son. However, the experience was a disaster for as they would say in local Pidgin English parlance “to be mama no be beans!” being nouvelle territory, Jekwu did everything wrong. He went back to the village angry and frustrated. But he did not give up in his efforts with the realization that a mother never gives up on her children. He prepared even harder for Adanna and Anwuri knowing full well that they too would eventually marry and have children for whom he would of necessity, go for the omugwo.
When eventually Adanna got married and put to bed, omugwo was a breeze for Jekwu. That is the African mother, always wanting the best for her children, putting the children’s needs above her own, hanging on in the face of failure, and rebuff. The African mother is always there waiting for every opportunity to do the best by her children. Brother Jekwu in Family Man became Mother Jekwu and even though he faltered initially, he rose up to the challenge of being a mother to his three younger sisters and succeeded in being a fairly good mother to them. Jekwu’s struggle to live up to his unnatural role of a man having to take on the responsibilities of a mother gives an insight to the task of being a mother. And if you ask Jekwu he would tell you “it is not an easy something.” Motherhood is a lot of work, one not to be taken lightly.
Nollywood employing the comic mode transcended male patriarchy in Family Man. The life of a mother without any embellishments was lived out by Jekwu. To be able to take care of his sisters, Jekwu was transformed into a single mother without the natural support of a ‘husband’ or relatives, left all alone to cater for three growing children. Most of Jekwu’s life as a mother was lived out in simple traditional times unlike in contemporary times when the challenges of being a mother is in addition to being a wife and paid worker contributing to the economic solvency of the family.
Nollywood has over the years aided and abetted patriarchy by projecting most female characters in pathetic male dependent roles, when in actual fact the female character is supposed to be a strong self-assertive woman capable of surmounting any challenge as successfully as her male counterpart. Nigerian women who still kow-tow to the cultural indoctrination of the patriarchal construct of womanhood have to wake up from the hypnotic trance that culture has woven around them.
Nollywood can contribute to the awakening of the women folk through its portraiture of women in the films produced. Aidan Prinsloo states that “Nollywood remains situated in a unique position where it is able to challenge patriarchal stereotypes (Prinsloo 2 of 16). It should begin to redefine women’s role if Nigeria as a nation must move to the next level (Boh 135). Nollywood should empower women and facilitate their ability to undertake social actions that will help to eliminate destructive traditional practices aimed at limiting them (Boh 135). Lastly, Prinsloo advices that: Perhaps if Nigerian directors, producers and scriptwriters choose to produce acurate and challenging narratives about African women, it will contribute to change in discourse and support feminist issues in africa…” (Prinsloo 16).
The call of Prinsloo, Boh and a host of other pro-womanist scholars for positive portraitures of women in Nollywood films was heeded in a dramatically unusual way in Family Man. If Jekwu had been the actual mother of the four children struggling to raise them all on her own the impact may not have been as profound as when Jekwu a boy child from an early age was forced to wear the shoes of his dead mother and raise his sister the way their mother would have done.
Even though Family Man is a comedy, a genre known for making light, serious issues, the efforts of Jekwu to live up to the billing of a single mother draws attention to the Nigerian concept of womanism/motherism as propagated by Acholonu. The Nigerian mother would always look out for her children; putting their needs above hers while ensuring that she gives them the care, love and attention she can provide to the best of her ability. As a point to note, so engrossed was Jekwu in being a mother to his younger siblings he completely forgot that he too needs love in his own life until love hit him smack in the face.
The motherist/womanist according to Acholonu must be that man, woman, child, boy or girl who deliberately chooses to defend and protect family values, seeks out true knowledge, is courageous, humble, loving tolerant, powerful yet down-to-earth. The motherist must be willing at all times to protect the natural cohesive essence of the family, the child, the society and the environment. And while Jekwu would say “it is not an easy something”, the positive character portrayal of women one Nollywood film at a time will greatly contribute to changing the mindset of the people and that of women especially in making them realize that women can contribute meaningfully to the development of their societies if they are given the opportunity. And as an addendum, women on their part should not always wait on the men folk to hand them opportunities on a platter of gold, if they keep waiting, it will be longer in coming. Women, as they have already begun, should keep making inroads on their own, drawing up their agenda and striving to actualize their goals. Such efforts will be recognized on their own merit.
Aondowase, Boh. “Nollywood and National Development: Redefining Women’s Role.” Makurdi Journal of Arts and Culture (MAJAC). A Publication of the Department of Theatre Arts, Benue State University, 10(1), Aug. 2012: 128-141.
Awuawuer, Tijime Justin. “Feminist Aesthetics and Nigerian Home Videos.” Ayingba Journal of Theatre, Film and Communication Arts. A publication of the Department of Theatre Arts, Kogi State University, Ayingba, Kogi State, 1(1), 2012: 122-132.
Doki, Gowon Ama. “Reality Versus Identity in Nollywood Movies: Reminiscences of a ‘Womanist.’” Makurdi Journal of Arts and Culture (MAJAC). A Publication of the Department of Theatre Arts, Benue State University, 10(1), Aug. 2012: 74-84.
Eke, Maureen. “Nollywood and the Woman Palaver: Desperate Women, Bad Women, Witches and Saints.” Makurdi Journal of Arts and Culture (MAJAC). A Publication of the Department of Theatre Arts, Benue State University, 10(1), Aug. 2012: 1-24.
Epskamp, Kees. Theatre in Search of Social Change: The Relative Significance of Different Theatrical Approaches. The Hague: CESO, 1989.
Evwierhoma, Mabel. Female Empowerment and Dramatic Creativity in Nigeria. Ibadan: Caltop Publications Nigeria Ltd, 2002.
“Ezuruonye in Fury of a Lifetime.” Retrieved 18 June 2015. http://starconnectmedia.com/2013/12/13/ezuruonye-in-fury-of-a-life-time/
Godono, Elvira. “Postcolonial Motherism: A Brand New Woman in the African Novel.” Retrieved 24 June 2015. http://www.postcolonialweb.org/ africa/godona1.html
Odi, Christine. “Gender and Power Relations in Nigerian Drama: A Study of Irene Salami’s Emotan and Akinwumi Ishola’s Madam Tinubu.” Ayingba Journal of Theatre, Film and Communication Arts. A Publication of the Department of Theatre Arts, Kogi State University, Ayingba, Kogi State, 1(1), 2012: 79-91.
-----------------. “Wedlock of Nightmares: Narrating Motherhood in Sofola’s Wedlock of the Gods and Binebai’s Beyond Nightmare.” Journal of the Literary Society of Nigeria (JLSN). A Publication of the Literary Society of Nigeria, 4, June 2012: 42-53.
Onuzulike, Uchenna. “Nollywood Nigerian Video Films as a Cultural and Technical Hybridity.” Intercultural Communication Studies, XVIII(1), 2009.
Onwueme, Tess. Tell It To Women. Ibadan: Heinemann 1995.
Ukuma, Teryila Shadrach. “Stereotypic Femininity and Gender Balance Ideals in Nigerian Home Videos: A Focus on the Female Character Craftsmanship.” Makurdi Journal of Arts and Culture (MAJAC). A Publication of the Department of Theatre Arts, Benue State University, Makurdi, 10(1), Aug. 2012: 193-206.
Anyanji, Theodore (Director). Family Man. Prod.: Kingsley Okereke. Perf.: Mike Ezuruonye, Uche Elendu,Tessy Orangwan. 2013.