Vanessa Obioha writes that at Fela Debates, a segment of the annual Felabration that celebrates the life and times of the Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, renowned Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie didn’t shy away from discussing feminism
For a moment, it seemed the occasion was all about the renowned writer Chimamanda Adichie. Fans of her works surrounded her, stealing opportunities for a selfie, a handshake or a slice of her charming smile. There were the mentors and intellectuals who also had a word or two to say about her outstanding success. This was somehow expected. As a celebrated daughter of the soil, her appearance at the event was not going to be without fanfare.
Not until the symposium began did she had a moment to herself. Any observer at the Fela Debates, a segment of the annual Felabration that celebrates the life and times of the Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would have mistaken that the debate was focused on Adichie.
Far from it. By the time each of the panelists that included Ugandan musician and politician, Bobi Wine, professor of international law, Akin Oyebode, and celebrated Nigerian author, Sefi Atta, who moderated the panel, gave prodigious speeches on the topic of the debate, ‘Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’, it was clear that the focus was on the legend.
Yet, Adichie somehow stole the spotlight. Unlike other panellists who spoke about the artiste and his contribution to society from their point of view, Adichie chose instead to have an interactive session. Though Atta was supposed to host the discussion, a late notification made it impossible. Thus, the matriarch of the Ransome-Kuti family, Yemisi, engaged the writer.
Arguably, Adichie is one of the celebrated authors on the African continent, if not globally. From writing stories that explore her African roots, interviewing former first ladies of America, Hilary Clinton and Michelle Obama; fetching honorary awards from prestigious institutions to being a strong advocate of feminism, Adichie assumed almost a larger-than-life status in that gathering. Yet, she modestly tried to fit into the crowd, a bit too carefully.
When asked about her view on Fela and if it influenced her anyway, she chose rather dwell on the larger family Ransome-Kuti, particularly Fela’s mother Funmilayo.
“When I was much younger, I remember reading about Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti – the first woman who drove a car in Nigeria,” she told the rapt audience. “I remember thinking at the time ‘why didn’t they let women drive cars, anyway? Why did it have to… but that stayed in my head because I thought she was the first woman to drive a car until of course later, I learnt much more about her activism in her life, and then Fela.”
Her introduction to Fela’s music she revealed was from her older brother Chuks whom she described as a very cool and kind person.
“I think I was in grade 2, and one Saturday morning, we heard very loud music from Chuks’ room downstairs, and it was ‘Zombie o, Zombie!’ I remember those very distinctive lyrics because it was nothing like I was used to. My parents had sort of genteel records of the people of their time, but my brother suddenly was blasting ‘Fela’ in the house. And my brother went to affect a sort of cosmopolitan manner, and he then said, ‘ah, Abami Eda,’ because we, of course, did not know how these Yoruba words were pronounced, nobody knew if you were pronouncing it wrong or right. The point was ‘we be like Abami Eda’. Because we looked up to my brother, we all sort of then gravitated towards this ‘unusual’ music and this idea about Abami Eda, I kind of know most of the songs because of my brother, Chuks.”
Her understanding of Fela deepened as she grew older and she identified him as “a kind of unapologetic courage, and a kind of authenticity. Even then as a child, I knew this was rare in Nigeria. And knowing, I think what we might call pedigree, that he chose to live the life that he wanted to live, I find deeply inspirational”.
That would be the last time she would pointedly talk about the artiste. His mother, however, came up later in the discussion, when she narrated how she asked an intern to research on the deceased.
“A month later, it had changed her because she had no idea that any of this organizing had happened, that there was feminist activism in Nigeria that was very grassroots-based. She had no idea. And I remember thinking this kind of knowledge can empower this young woman to go and do things in the world.”
Every other discussion was centred on the role women play and the need for a better Nigeria where everything works. She lamented the ways Africa is continuously disregarded by the West because of the growing issues rocking the continent.
“In the global imagination, we don’t really matter. I think that is the reality. For now, it is up to us to make that change because if you look at the foreign policy of hosting nations, by their actions you can tell not only do they not think we matter, they don’t think we will matter. They think China will matter; India will matter, not us. And I think that also affects how we are treated as people who visit or live there.
“The burden is on us to somehow create a certain kind of psychological barrier. And I think it comes from just having self-confidence. Self-confidence comes from… and I don’t just mean the kind of empty self-confidence, it comes from knowing where you are from and who you are. This is why I feel very strongly that in this country we need to know our history. The curriculum that people are being taught is just…,” she noted.
“We are talking about ‘Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’. It is complete nonsense. We need to remake our curriculum. We should start teaching our children civics, and history, but we need to change the curriculum. Teach them civics in a way that they have a sense of self; they know that their past is not just one dark thing. They know that despite the flaws that we have, every nation has flaws, right?
“But also, every nation has greatness, and to think of our past as one that was worth taking pride in. We can even teach then pre-colonial history, just teach them that western Nigeria, eastern Nigeria, northern Nigeria in 1850, was actually an interesting, vibrant place where people traded, where they had a very complex political system. We don’t know our history.”
That lack of knowledge she noted is responsible for the flooding in Lagos state and other infamous situations the country has found itself in.
“The way that we think generally in this country is connected to our not being particularly adept at history; we are not long-term thinkers. There is something very short-term about the ways things are arranged in this country. I drink a lot of this bottled water but lately, I feel very guilty because in my estate I saw that the pile of rubbish is loosely this, and then the takeaway pack that you get from KFC or whatever, are those things which clog the drains, which is why this flooding is happening. And it just made me think, ‘What does it take to clean this up?’ It takes nothing, but we are not doing it. If you have been on Awolowo road, which is the center of elitist Lagos, and there is trash on the side of the road and it is shameful. It is almost as though we have forgotten how to be ashamed. My brother, Bobi said something earlier which I find very inspiring. He said Nigerians for him and for many Ugandans and many east-Africans was the blueprint for African confidence, and I love that. I think all of us have that kind of confidence.
“But that kind of confidence that we have is also a strange thing because we don’t seem to apply it when we should. We are very good in Nigeria at gragra. You know, you are boarding a flight, you can tell a flight going to Lagos. Somebody is telling you, ‘it is not your time to board’, and the person is like, ‘why can I not board?’ On the plane, they are fighting, and then when your government is stealing your money you don’t do anything with that confidence.
“There is a revolutionary spirit in Bobi that thrives in southern and eastern Africa that doesn’t happen with us – a politically revolutionary spirit. We can talk about it happening 70 years ago, not anymore. And I worry that it has a lot to do with the way our education system is. We have educated young people to be complicit in their own oppression. I remember having a conversation when the Shiites were murdered in northern Nigeria, having a conversation with young people and they were trying to justify it. And you will see it happening all the time when young people try to justify things that should not be justified. And you start to say, ‘What is happening to us?’ There is something dead in us, and I am sorry to say, but there is.”
Women empowerment has always been at the core of Adichie’s feminism message and at the symposium, she resounded that message. With the varying definitions of feminism in the world today, she deemed it necessary to clarify her kind of feminism.
“I think my feminism is not so much one that is interested in thinking about how women can influence men. I think I am interested in how women can be the best that they can possibly be. And yes, women do have a role to play but actually, my vision is one in which women have choices and women can choose not to become domestic people. My vision is one in a world in which women can choose to be a mother or not and not have any consequences. One in which women can choose to be married or not married and also not have somebody questioning you or somehow attributing your marital status to some kind of moral deficiency because in our society when marriages go bad, it is always the woman’s fault.”
She dismissed the lofty thought of a ‘superwoman’, calling it a dangerous idea for women to fantasize about.
“It is dangerous for women, this idea that we have to be everything and be everywhere,” she warned but pointed out that it was “the awareness of femaleness as a type of deprivation, that the reason for something is not something you did or didn’t do, it’s just that you were born a girl” that confounded her the most. She regaled the audience about childhood memories where she was denied access to see the big masquerade or participate in the kinsmen meeting.
“But again, I had this strong sense of not just injustice but also just ‘no sense’ because I remember thinking, ‘how many Umunna (kinsmen) meetings have been deprived of innovative ideas and ways that progress could have happened’ because they exclude intelligent people because those intelligent people were born women. We need to think about feminism; Nigerians get very uptight when they hear feminism, they get hostile. We need to think about feminism in terms of justice and progress. Who knows if in 1954 women had equal access politically, and a woman had become prime minister, who knows where Nigeria would have been today, we don’t know.”