AFRICA, GENDERIZATION AND WOLE SOYINKA’S CONSTRUCTION OF MATRICENTRIC POWER
Gender intellectualization has been globally framed on war of ideas, ideologies, races and knowledge. Modern feminism is premised on the central tenet that “all women are oppressed” (Hooks, 1998: 340). This belief provides the rationale for the symbolization of “the conquered land” with “female bodies” by colonial and post-colonial Western writers and visual artists (Loomba, 1998: 152). The purpose of the feminist movement, then, is to secure the liberation of women from the artificial restraints of historical gender inequality (Baradat, 2003: 284). In the Western cultures, difference is strictly implied in the social conceptualization of gender. Since the influence that gender has been able to control in world politics of the sexes rests on its being a system of structuring social life, it can only be organized along “two socially and legally recognized gender statuses, man and woman” (Lorber, 1994: 26). Subsequently, then, by insisting that the male and the female are images of difference, modern humanity becomes polarized, therefore mis-gendered. This politicization of gender, and the consequent politicization of humanity, cuts across the corridors of world’s ebony towers and the pages of, even, the United Nations’ policy papers.
Postcolonial feminist discourse is steeped in the malady of politicization of representation and the representation of a narrow and obverse gender politics. This has thrown Africa into a patriarchal monologue in which the matricentric component of the African humanity has glaringly disappeared. Unfortunately, many African scholars of feminism have found themselves enmeshed in this intellectual dilemma as their European mentors. A gender ladder has even been constructed in post-colonial discourse in such a “carefully hierarchical manner” that “the racial other, figured as female or effeminate”, was always phallocolonized. This direction of gender reflectivism and sex differentiation has its archetypal conceptualization in the very source of the feminist orthodoxy itself, the West where “women were placed in a subordinate role in judicial, cultural and historical texts” (Quayson, 2000: 109). The obvious misgenderization of Africa by Western scholarship, and its African minions, is not unconnected with the subordination of the continent’s cultural intellect to the Euro-American scholarship war-machine. The vision of difference is yoked with the intent to polarize.
Epistemologically, social, gender and feminist frameworks have seriously intersected with the global analysis of gender. Conceptual and theoretical problems such as “relationships of intimacy; reflexivity and gender identity; relationships between sex, gender and embodiment; and masculinities and sexualities” are what Ann Brooks (2006: 211) considers crucial to this epistemological intersection problems. The traditional conceptualization of gender through class, racial, ethnic, and nationality epistemological paradigms has been deconstructed by what, according to Brooks (2006), Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995) view as “new modernity” - “a highly westernized notion of modernity (211). This position is what Brooks critiques in her essay; “gendering Knowledge”, which problematizes the relationship between modernity, reflexivity and gender as critiqued by Gole (2000) and Roces and Edwards (2000). The latter had noted that in the process of constructing a form of modernity that is conceptually non-Western, Asian women are reaffirming “the distinctiveness of a particular national subjectivity from a putative hegemonic Westernising identity” (4-5).
Chandra Mohanty (1994) is of the view that, by discursively producing a separate “third world woman”, Western feminist scholarship has parochially created a homogenized species that matches the imagined ‘Other’ of the Western cultural and material female. By critiquing Julia Kristeva’s feminist study of Chinese women for its shallow historical foundation and speculative generalization, Gayatri Spivak (1981) expresses disgust at how Western feminist discourse operates through a narrow prism and superficially brands the universal through the specific. Patrick Wilmot’s (2007) hint that “the first intellectuals were probably women” (101) is another of many statements of difference to such Eurocentric patriarchal monologism. Ifi Amadiume (1997) also notes a missing system of matriarchy in the study of African societies by European intellectuals by insisting that the matricentric production unit is “the basic material structure of African matriarchy” (29), which was pervasive in all of African traditional social systems. His observation that the matriarchal principle that upholds “the basic presence of this matricentric production unit” renders “even male-focused ancestor worship, although separate and in binary opposition to matriarchy, not monolithically masculine”, is quite correct. Both the Egungun and Sango cults in which rituality, art and socialization cannot be isolated from feminine symbols, bodies, principles and values which the Iya Agan and Iya Sango represent are strong attestations to this submission in the Yoruba world. Cultural correctness is, therefore essential in scholastic explanation of peoples, systems and experiences.
Nzegwu (2004) thus warns against the “misinterpretations of the cultural ethos of African societies”, especially by African feminists for whom “the impressive thesis of oppression offers a powerful analytical tool that provides a neat overarching explanation for women’s obvious disadvantages in societies” (565). Hasty gender politicization and representation stemming from “misrepresentations of cultural ethos” in many world societies and how it is capable of undermining the potential radicalism of feminist struggle itself is what scholars like Marie Eboh (1998), Helen Chukwuma (1990) and Bell Hooks (1998) have objectively critiqued. Getting the analytical frames right by African feminist writers and critics, then, would not only be gender correct, it would also help in tackling what Papoulias (2006: 231) observes as the “methodological impasses in the theorization of gender across disciplines”.
CULTivating gender: The Gelede paradigm
The creation and perpetuation of knowledge and order in community is at the heart of human involvement in artistic production in Africa. Gender ordering is only a branch of this supreme goal. Two major reasons could be adduced for my reliance on the Gelede cult-performance idiom as the theoretical cement for this paper. First, the Gelede is a matricentric cult of indigenous communal power construction – what Ibitokun describes as a system of “traditional African feminism” (1993). It is equally a cult, just like the theatre, of social rectification. Second, the Gelede performance tradition is a veritable satirical idiom. This is definitely relevant to Soyinka’s dramaturgy which corpus sufficiently resides in the domain of socio-political satirical tradition.
The Gelede tradition is one of the paradigms of Yoruba folk-spirituality through the masking art and mysticism. It is a major manifestation of the Western and coastal sub-groups of the Yoruba. Lawal (1996) identifies Ketu, Sabee, Ohori, Egbado, Anago and Awori as some of the most prominent sub-ethnicities that perform the Gelede masking art. The socio-cultural and spiritual cultivation of the Gelede invests it with a communally constructed power of the matriarchal type. Though it may be recalled for performance in veneration of any significant Orisa (deity) or culture hero, the original justification for the cultivation of the Gelede masking art-cult is the recognition, reification and preservation of the indubitable primacy of the maternal essence in the Yoruba cosmology:
“Its most popular function is to placate Iya Nla (the Great Mother), and her earthly disciples, the powerful mothers. Often identified as the first female in the Yoruba universe and the wife of the artist deity, Obatala (alias Baba Nla, the Great Father), Iya Nla remains an enigma. This is because she is Mother Nature. She is Yewajobi, Iyami, Iya (the Mother of All and Mother of Mothers), epitomizing the maternal principle in the Yoruba cosmos, combining in her nature the attributes of all the principal female deities…Iya Nla was the primeval sea out of which habitable land emerged at Ile-Ife, the cradle of the Yoruba civilization. As ile (the Earth), venerated by the Ogboni, she sustains life, humanity and culture…an embodiment of good and evil of the physical world” (Lawal, 1996:71-73; emphasis mine).
The relationship of Iya Nla, Gelede’s primary divinity (or deitress), with The Earth is notable. This projects Iya Nla, and women, generally her offsprings, as the store of abundance, fertility, and productivity essences - attributes that echo Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ (1992) wild woman archetype. Iya Nla’s conception as the Almighty provider reverberates in the descriptive praise name of Yemoja as Iya Oloyon oruba (the pot-breasted mother). Being the custodian of the Gelede cult-reality, the Earth is personified in her as ‘inexhaustible sea’ and ‘vibrations from the deep’ (which echoes the “mystery” associated with the female genitalia) (Lawal, 1996: 73).
Gelede is the paradigmatic cult, which fuses the Yoruba concept of the functionality of art, religion and performance. The Gelede ritual act is an agent of dissolving social tension through satire, lampooning, invectives and social criticism. Etymologically, Gelede as a term may be an allusion “to the mythical image of Iya Nla as the plentiful, pot-breasted mother; nursing mother with the rolling buttocks”. Secondly; Gelede may connote “a phenomenon treated with indulgence”. Thirdly, Gelede “refers to something that cools and relaxes” (Lawal, 74-75). One thing that should be understood is that, semantically and onomatopoeically, the word – Gelede – by implication corresponds to the socio-functionalist goal of the masking art, which resides in the application “of poetic humour to pacify the Great Mother and the aje on the one hand, and to dissolve social tension on the other” (75).
The difference between the Gelede mask and those of the mask representations of Egungun and Epa is so striking. While the headdresses and costumes of the latter two are characterized by, sometimes, fearful charms and ritual items, the Gelede costume is more domestic and friendly. It is rather “an assemblage of women’s headwraps (gele) and baby sashes (oja) contributed by the female members of the society”. The masker in the Gelede socio-ritual performance, instead of carrying dangerous cudgels and weapons, “holds only a ceremonial horsetail whisk for dancing, acknowledging ovations, and blessing admirers”. By “reflecting gender through distinct male and female costumes”, the Gelede mask, therefore, publicly acknowledges the complementarity of the two sexes” (75). This masking tradition, by nature, is more democratic since the cult-institution that produces and manages it places high premium on male-female interaction. While it is mainly the men who don the mask and are its preferable performers, they do so under the directorial conception, philosophical guidance and spiritual blessing “of the Iyalase, the woman who holds the highest title in the society” (77-78).
As a carrier of the mask and performer of its art, masculinity symbolically becomes submissive to femininity. Through the Gelede tradition, men “humble themselves by dancing with masks specifically dedicated to the maternal principle” (79). It is equally “a public acknowledgement of the contribution of the female sex to the community: for as mothers, they embody the procreative power of ase, on which depends the survival of organized society as well as the human race” (79). The terrestriality and the femininity of the Gelede mask make it a symbolic forum for the mystical unity of both the male and the female essences. As a cult, which promotes social harmony, the philosophical pivot of the Gelede socio-performative engagement is the Yoruba concept of irepo (communal unity and harmony). Gelede, thus, presents a femino-masculine world, a society where matricentricism has been able to assert itself through its power relations with the phallic element.
Wole Soyinka’s construction of matricentric power
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, African gender epistemology became a political zone of vibrant intellectual engagement. Bifurcated between the feminine and the masculine paradigms, productive energy and knowledge circulation on the African stage witnessed de-masculinization. Feminism, the complex and dynamic ideological champion of this cause intends the ascertaining of ideo-political balancing of representational sexualities in the performative and philosophical orientations of modern African dramatic and theatrical productivity.
Socio-gender change, a radical re-genderization of the world (Baradat, 2003), is the radical vision of ideo-feminist writers, critics, theorists and performers. For them, the supposed hitherto heavily masculinized African stage’s gender order needs urgent reversing. The need to locate the sociology, politics and culture of power-construction in a believed male-occupied arts producing environment centralized both male and female sexes in literature and performance. Gender reconstruction, then, subsumes female re-invention and male de-invention – the whipping of male writers for parochial phallocentricism and the eulogization of females for breaking feminine silence. Clamouring for women-centered revisionism, new female presentational agenda, counter-stereotyping, etc., for effecting textual elevation of women in African literary drama have been Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Carole Boyce Davies, Catherine Acholonu, Marie Umeh, Okonjo-Ogunyemi, Helen Gilbert, Mabel Evwierhoma, Irene Salami, etc.
Wole Soyinka - Africa’s first Literary Nobel Laureate – is a favourite scapegoat of most feminist critics on accusation of male-centricism and gender hubris displayed through subversive performance of the feminine identity and gender insensitivity. Two recent feminist criticisms of the drama of Wole Soyinka that feature in After the Nobel Prize: Reflections on African Literature, Governance and Development (2006) - a book of essays dedicated to the celebration of two decades of the Literary Nobel Prize in Africa - shall be apt investigative references on this topic. The two essays - Irene Salami’s “Women Writing and the Landscape of Social Advocacy: Women Literature since Wole Soyinka’s Nobel Prize” and Mabel Evwierhoma’s “Soyinka after the Nobel Prize: Towards An Agenda Setting, Women-Centred Revisionist Stance” - put Soyinka on a “women-centered” surgical slab and attempt to re-position him on the familiar subject of female character depiction.
An interesting cliché that seems to dominate most of the femino-critical positions on the ‘male-dominated’ Nigerian pre-Nobel written literature (Brown, 1981: 3 and Salami, 2006: 124) is the alleged masculine creative “bias against strong female characterization” (Evwierhoma, 2002: 78). While I agree with the feminist critics that the manner of depicting women in the drama of the Nigerian expression may have been influenced by traditional values and culture, they may want to agree with me too on the point that ordinarily dichotomizing between “weak” and “strong” female characters from a mere sexist fringe cannot be a recommendable paradigm for literary critical engagement. Façade reading of texts such as this is derogatory to the feminist cause itself that has gained such profound theorization and philosophization in scholarship. Tasking their scholarly patience a bit more, especially in sub-textually interrogating the writer’s exploitation of the theatrical art’s truthful lie potential would have, indeed, aided our feminist critic’s discovery of African drama as a site of philosophizing the real and deeper essence of womanhood. Since it is more deeply entrenched in the ideology of gender activism, matricentric power-construction, therefore, gender balance, Soyinka’s gender philosophy appropriately proffers, then, an exemplary channel for adventuring into the directly opposite and yet harmonious femino-masculine poles.
Two diagnostic dimensions could explain such superficial feminocratic reading of drama. Firstly, our antinomically ordered universe has locked females in gender struggle against an imagined patriarchal colonialist universe. Psychologically, then, female manifestation of a developed phobia for male - a pathology conditioning most feminists’ dilemma about their unavoidable male correspondents – is a potent reason. The second reason is the intellectual vogue-effect of the metaphysics of gender - which, in Nzegwu’s (2004) words, “generates distortions” – on the part of “many African women scholars” who “employ it without considering its cultural nuances”, especially, its “impressive thesis of oppression” and thematic of social roles. But it is instructive to note that social roles must be essentially and interpretively socio-culturally contextualized in both literary creativity and criticism.
Since the creation of the female character, Iyaloja, in Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), Mabel Evrwhieroma believes that Soyinka has not accorded women any role of significance in any other play of his until the creation of Mama Put in The Beatification of Area Boy (1999) and that, rather, women have merely been assigned secondary functions. According to her, masculinocratic criticism of the playwright’s works has tended to worsen the matter. In her own words, a critic like Robert July who has done an “in-depth patriarchal analysis of Wole Soyinka’s works, especially his poetry, drama and prose” (149), obviously excludes the mentioning of women. Therefore, the justification for recognizing characters describable as counterstereotypes – echoing Nellie Mckay (1997) – a perfect example of which is Mama Put, resides in the fact that critics “sometimes excavate Soyinka’s works without coming across any female tradition or evidence” (149). Resting her case on the definition of patriarchy through the lenses of Isaac Ssetuba (2005, 37) as a “social system where much of the power rests in the hands of men, who also dominate private and public spheres of life”, Evwhieroma goes prescriptive:
“Some people may exonerate Soyinka from this patriarchal position and claim he has done well for humanity, because he chronicled the world as he met or saw it. One however wagers here that it is often expected of the writer to give an account of the universe as it ought to be” (149).
A lacuna is therefore observable in Evwhierhoma’s (2006) argument. Insisting that writers must prescribe “the universe as it ought to be” before or without chronicling it as they “met or saw it” (149) is asking them to revise reality and suspend the actual truth. This judgmental gap becomes even more disturbing in the concluding section of the article where the feminist critic “attempts to (re)position Soyinka to generate more central women in his future dramatic plot” by magnanimously offering an “agenda for plays becoming” (151). She refers to a previous article of hers to provide a conceptual rationale for this display of generosity:
“Soyinka’s stance where woman beings are concerned, fall short of some textual expectations. I make reference to the poem “Gulliver” for here, I see him as the giant tied down and obstructed by his own belittling of the stature of women in society through his plays. A run through most of his plays reveals this failure; whether deliberate or unconscious, to depict the passageway of all life with forte” (2005: 36).
She, then, goes ahead to recommend some “centring options” necessary for Soyinka’s dramatic foregrounding of women for the writer to be seen as being ”sensitive to the depth of humanity’s greater half” (151 – 152). Those prescriptions range from creation of more lowly placed, but strong women like Mama Put; to women of the future like Miseyi who are activists; employing symbols and satire to sheath his newly created militant female characters and assigning women a fifty-fifty position of dominance wielded by men and women in his forthcoming plays; among others (152).
Being a bit more complimentary, Irene Salami observes that while Soyinka’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 “exposed the fact that women are invisible as writers, readers and subjects in literature”, it also facilitated their incursion “into Nigerian literary space, especially drama” (123). Declaring that Soyinka’s 1960 Masks and later Orisun Theatre “established the female character on the Nigerian stage” (127), she explores the influence of Wole Soyinka’s dramatic works on Nigerian women’s literary theatre by proceeding to thematically categorize this trajectory of impact along the lines of what she identifies as “strong female character”, “messianic figure/redeemer”, “political activism/revolutionary struggle”, “re-enacting past heroines”, “women perpetuating traditional practices”, and “greedy leaders who usurp power”. She then goes ahead to discuss Nigerian female writers such as Tess Onwueme, Tracy Utoh, Julie Okoh, Stella Oyedepo and herself in terms of how Soyinka’s dramaturgy has been influential as a worthy exploitable archetypal model especially in female characterization. Though this position may have sharply conflicted with that of Evwierhoma on the surface, their prescriptive conclusions are the same:
“The literary theatre of Wole Soyinka no doubt is a great asset to women writers. His legacy will continue for a long time to give direction and help to sustain the dramas by women. However, a more sustained attention to the issues of women in his works, and an in-depth treatment of his female characters will further enhance his creativity…Although Soyinka has clearly stated that his use of women in his works is for symbolism and essence, there is the need to craft more worthy characters who engage in careers as the male characters” (emphasis mine;140-141).
Aside from the intellectually trivial appearance of the recommendations, this mode of prescription is capable of projecting the feminist critics as authoritarian agenda setters with robust lack of respect for the freedom of artistic creativity or the license of the artist. Their critical vision seems a bit distant from the reality that art, unlike law or science, is not an automatic venture that can be tailored according to a priori rules, principles, regulations and pre-existing knowledge deliberately constructed for its straitjacketing. Their mode of femino-centric criticism is as weighty and offensive, when contextualized in relation to artistic freedom, as gender indifference, domination and contempt, which feminist critics have alleged most African male writers and their critics of.
Actually, a fundamental contention arising from their critical and theoretical positions is the question: which comes first, the creative art or the theory applied in critiquing it? Must art be forced on theory or must theory be forced on art? I think that it is the art work that should be allowed to yield its own critical perception and not vice versa. Why then castigate a critic for his, so called, patriarchal analysis, if, for instance, that is his perception of a literary work? Forcing theory on art, such as Evwhieroma and Salami are advocating will be, certainly, creatively reductionistic and murderous. Equally, asking a writer to revise reality as depicted in his drama is asking him to revise the truth. Moderate suiting of theory to art would be more beneficial to literary studies in its service of humanity than dogmatic suiting of art to theory and ideology. Art should be freely and truthfully expressed according to the artist’s perception and instinct. Before feminist critics commence the setting of mandatory theoretical agendas such as this, the substance and the likely futuristic impact of such imperative, as well as the inter-mediationism of gender roles, should be contemplated.
Life’s continuity rests on the conflictive interaction of opposites and positive-negative inter-correspondence. In Soyinka’s gender power construction, characters like Madame Tortoise, Gudrum and Maariya exemplify the feminocratic negativity that exposes the masculinocratic hyper-negativity of Mata Kharibu, Kamini and Bash Abash in A Dance of the Forests (1963), A Play of Giants (1975) and King Baabu (2002) respectively. The anti-social and counter-productive entrenchment of male power by female power, an age long reality, is depicted in the wire-pulling status of the matriarchs in the palaces of the psychosocial patriarchs in the plays. Creative marginalization of women, then by the playwright, as charged by feminist critics, must be profoundly reconsidered and lucidly re-contextualized.
The trans-boundary behaviour of the paradigm wars ensuing from gender epistemology, within a globalized knowledge framework, actually situates Soyinka’s gender sensitivity. The social border-crossing characteristics of gender itself in sub-paradigmatic contexts such as sexuality, identity, masculinity, femininity, etc. indicate that gender, roles and power sharing are subjects of the law of existential flux and change. Conceptualization of gender, then, within a universal existential co-interactive matrix, has therefore, informed the playwright’s attitude to gender constructivism and activism in a manner that links the three existential worlds of the unborn, the living and the dead together in Soyinka’s vision. Gender, just as time and space, as revealed by Plummer’s (2003) model and Wole Soyinka’s existential theory, “is not a fixed identity” (Brooks, 2006: 213) and cannot be treated as such. Gender and roles in the African society are subjects of situational changes. Thus, Soyinka’s temperament demonstrates a flexible engagement of gender as a constructive reality of the elasticity of the African human existence. Feminist reading of the works of Wole Soyinka, then, deserves a deeper understanding of his existentialist philosophy, which respects the male-female balanced instinct as symbolized in the Edan Ogboni’s male-female interface. Actually in the Edan, the major symbol of the Yoruba Ogboni socio-cultural and mystical cult of elders, both the female and male dimensions of humanity are symbolically wedlocked with the subsistence of the male premised on the well being of the female.
Mosse (1993: 2) defines gender as “a set of roles which, like costumes or masks in the theatre, communicate to other people that we are feminine or masculine”. Gender, then, is marked by role distribution according to a culture’s socio-existential dynamism and specificity. Not only are gender-determined roles culture-specific, they do obey the principle of change within the context of time and are equally subject to such variables as class, age, ethnic affiliation and biological sex. Women and men command legitimacy to varying degrees of gender roles in every society. Age and sex confer responsibility status, and power within different human domains. The evolution of gender roles is aided by natural, environmental, mythological, and communal relationship factors.
In Africa, gender roles do overlap. Contrary to the stereotypical conceptualization of masculine rights and feminine privileges, which Western gender and feminine theoretical frames resolve in favour of women and upholds as the social nuisance of male domination in women’s psyche, inter-class and intra-class roles are shared and diffused in Soyinka’s Afro-Yoruba culture. Gender role allotment observes a balance in gender recognition, respect and responsibility.
The basis of Wole Soyinka’s gender construction and activism, therefore, is femino-masculine role indispensability. Women fulfill their social, moral and spiritual roles in his dramas as the nemesis of men; enforcers of discipline in men; critics of men; and conscience of men and vice versa. Eboh’s (1998: 336) observation of the “awareness by women of their indispensability to the male” is correct, but, contrary to her thinking, it is not a one-way affair. To the radical feminist and the orthodox genderist, development may be a gender issue, but to Soyinka, a gender existentialist, development is beyond gender. Rather, gender flexibility and freedom as reflected in the Afro-Yoruba social perception of gender roles within the context of the male-female symbiotic components of society, guided by the collective zeal for communal progress, is a factor of development. The intertwined questions of development and underdevelopment transcend the mere barriers of gender and address the core issues of social order and human security. Wole Soyinka reflects, in his dramatic writings the disordered status of post-colonial African states. Within this purview, both males and females are either heroes or villains, strong or weak. The human factor, not gender, is what, existentially, counts.
Artistic creativity is an existential preoccupation. The human community derives its essence from social, psychological and spiritual conflicts. Men and women are vehicles of these conflicts since we are individual sites of conflict of good and evil, therefore of different quests and this is the world which Soyinka’s drama usually presents. No Soyinkaresque art exists, therefore, that satirically chronicles the society as the writer has “met or seen it” without a balanced vision that prescribes, profoundly, how “it ought to be” – because, inherent in conflict is the dynamics for its resolution. The three plays earlier mentioned, A Dance of the Forests, A Play of Giants and King Baabu, like other plays, belong in Wole Soyinka’s dramatic pool of cleansing rites, for his political satires too, and not only the ritualistic plays, have their communal purificatory dynamics. Prescription of an imagined universe, then, is premised on the necessity of atonement, which mechanics is built-in in the plays. More positive and stronger women as much as men, therefore, are central tools to the realization and continuity of this cleansed future of humanity. This is Soyinka’s gender activism and existentialism in the context of how the universe “ought to be”.
Madmen and Specialists (1971), Kongi’s Harvest (1967) and Death and the King’s Horseman (1975) present women as socio-spiritual correctionists, revolutionaries, humanists, eco-activists and guardians of the cult of human continuity in a world of mostly anti-life men. Of the three categories of social system in the Merina culture discussed by Ifi Amadiume (1997) – “the matricentric system dominated by a motherhood ideology; the descent system dominated by elders and a patriarchal ideology; and an invisible, inverted and externalized matriarchy in the Vazimba category, owners of the land and natural force from which the power of blessing is derived” (42) - the Vazimba autochthonous category is pronounced most important. The Vazimba is “considered to be the original owners of the land and natural fertility…Vazimba cults are usually dominated by women” (42). Symbolized by wild cattle, the Vazimba – almost like the Gelede cult - is the cult-guardian of fertility, wild and unbounded nature, strength, power, vitality and nature’s watery surplus. This position coming from Amadiume is not surprising.
The Vazimba cult, strikingly, equals the matricentric Earth Cult created by Soyinka in Madmen and Specialists as a counter-force to the patricentric Cult of As – a life eroding power cult. Women being the custodians of the Earth Cult in the play are as originally African as in the Gelede, Osun, and Vazimba cults of earth continuity. And the intention of the playwright to ensure the perpetuity of the Earth Cult in the safer hands of women is obvious in his enrolling of the youthful Si Bero as the only apprentice under the guardian of the matriarchal figures – Iya Agba and Iya Mate. Si Bero, in a philosophical sense, is also a femino-positive opposite character to the masculino-negative Dr. Bero. This, actually, is a dialectical projection of life’s good-evil matrix. Soyinka’s achievement here resides in maintaining the objective neutrality of the profound African gender order. Mystico-symbolically, then, Madmen and Specialists emerges as a strong operative and campaign site for ecofeminism - a brand of feminism observed and coined by Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1974:
“The male traits of wishing to dominate had been manifested no less in attempt to subdue nature than in the oppression of women. The suggestion that women are more in tune with nature and threatening to it than men has gained resonance among feminists. They claim that their biological role of giving birth and nurturing is more compatible with the Earth Mother than is the male drive to conquer. This notion has led some feminists to conclude that the fate of nature and the fate of women are joined and that salvation of each is dependent upon the same thing: vanquishing patriarchy” (Baradat, 2003: 300).
Thus ecofeministically, the evocation of the destructive energy of the earth through fire, at the end of the play, by the two matriarch-guardians of the Earth Cult to consume Dr. Bero and his surgery – a laboratory of de-earthification – is in fulfillment of the cult’s duty of earth’s protection through the de-masculinization of an anti-Earth patriarchy.
Segi, the Ogunnian heroine in Kongi’s Harvest, shares the same revolutionary mission with Mama Put and Miseyi, in Beatification of Area Boy (1995). The former paradigmatizes the Yoruba agbajo owo (collectivism) philosophy, which informs the art-cult practice of Gelede, (see Lawal, 1996) as well as irepo (harmony) concept of the Ogboni cult in the Edan symbol, in taming the despotism of the chief protagonist- character, Kongi: an anti-Earth figure - and making him atone for his infringement on humanity, through the combined effort of Segi and Daodu. Indeed, Segi, the feminocratic Ogunnian, is more catalytic to the exposition of Kongi’s ori buruku (negative inner/spiritual head) than Daodu, a masculinocratic Ogunnian. Both Mama Put and Miseyi join her in this Ogunnian mission to activate the satiric energy and revolutionary potency of the post-colonial society depicted in the latter drama for change.
The Bacchae of Euripides (1973), which merits the sub-title: the feminocratic fantasia, reifies Dionysianism - a fertility cult that owes its existence to the bacchic and maenadic indulgence in “peasant’s natural evocation of, and self-immersion in, the mysterious in Nature” (vii). In this agrarian play, certainly one of the most credibly mytho-revolutionary of Soyinka’s dramas, the writer evokes the Ogunnian-Dionysiac-impulse-for-change in women, led by the tragic hero’s mother, Agave, to assert the imperative of life’s continuity. Life, Soyinka affirms, transcends parochial sexist view, gender warfare and even mother-son tie. Not only is Pentheus, the masculinocratic anti-life factor, de-phallicized, Dionysus, the god himself, is feminized. Agave has to choose between her errantly tyrannical son and Mother Earth. She chooses the latter, midwives the process of her son’s dismemberment and ensures the continuity of life.
In Death and the King’s Horseman, Soyinka philosophically employs the society’s conceptualization of matriarchal power to subvert the myth of patriachy; thereby reducing men’s imagined superiority through a process of symbolic demasculinization. This de-phallicization is contained in the role played by Bride – mundanely or supernaturally instigated – as Elesin’s nemesis. Elesin’s tragicity is an exploitation of a good dose of his hedonism. The Bride is created to be a key character-critique of the manifestation of the king’s horseman’s erotic instinct at the wrong moment. Iyaloja, the human balancing force in the play, is one of Soyinka’s most memorably dignified characters. She is the custodian of the Market, which she personifies. As the insurer of the Market’s well being, she is endowed with the Great Mother image of the Gelede cult’s object of veneration.
Actually, there is a relationship between the Market and The Earth in Yoruba cosmo-communalism. The Market is not just a spatial site of commerce. It is more a spatial continuum of the Earth. The logic of this assertion is sustained by the fact that apart from being the space that attracts people most after the Road, the Market is the final spatial destination of both the agricultural products of The Earth as well as the eventual products of the human labour. Iyaloja’s role, then, as the Mother of the Market, is politically, economically and spiritually critical. Aside being a force for checking and balancing the excesses of the usually patriarchal governmental establishment – a responsibility she fulfills with dignity, her usually towering image in terms of wealth and influence is a great source of nourishment to the entire community. Thus, she personifies The Earth itself. Iyaloja completes, the symbolic triad that Soyinka intends constructing via the dead king and the union of Elesin and the Bride. Within this construct, the king represents the past; Iyaloja the present; the Elesin-Bride-union the future. Among the Yoruba, the Market is more matricentric than patricentric for there has never been a Babaloja (Father of the Market). Symbolically, therefore, the Market is the community’s pulse center.
On the platform of these plays, women’s role as actors in socio-spiritual re-ordering of community validates Soyinka’s matricentric power construction and activism in which the wild-wolf instinct in women is variously reified. The Soyinkaresque drama, then, can be understood as a Jungian site with the dramatist as a committed tapper and restorer of “women’s flagging vitality” via “extensive psychic-archeological digs into the ruins of the female underworld” (Estes, 1992).
Though gender has been paradigmatized within a global scholarship-war construct, in the Soyinkaresque world, gender-scale is balanced with a conscious spirituality, knowing full well that in the Yoruba pantheon, goddesses are as important as gods. This view is supported by the cultural position of women, in many African cultures, as “sacred, particularly as mothers” (Ogundipe, 2007: 22). This balance is informed by the race’s mysticism, which has the principle of correspondence as a cardinal fork. The Edan Ogboni, for instance, is a male-female symbol in which both the feminine and the masculine harmonize in one spirit of the race. As a matter of fact, the Edan is regarded as the sign of the Feminine Plus – for within its construct, initiates refer to one another as omo iya (maternal siblings), and not omo baba (paternal siblings). Iya in Ogboni metaphysics, simply refers to Ile (Mother Earth). The popular maxim on the lips of Ogboni initiates – omu iya dun, gbogbo wa la jo n’mu (we all suckle at Mother’s nourishing breasts) – parallels Yemoja’s praise name as iya oloyon oruba (the pot breasted mother) and Osun’s well acclaimed motherhood status in Yoruba cosmogony, thus the veneration of Iya Nla (Great Mother) in the Gelede art-performative-cult. Now, even in Yoruba cosmology itself, the feminine heart and body, just as the masculine, is balanced by being a deposit of nature’s creative-destructive provinces - a paradigm whose mysticism has greatly influenced Soyinka’s dramatic matricentricism and patricentricism. Soyinka’s gender activism, then, hinges on the correspondent law that posits a cross breathing between the male-female and good-evil conflict and resolution sections of humanity.
African scholars, then, have the mandate to be wary of vogue-scholarship and its sometimes stereotypical frames. Being truthful to the continent’s metaphysical reality is recommended as the most potent antidote to the raging Afro-modernist intellectual dilemma and its latching-on to the apron of orthodox feminist legislation. A deep knowledge of a writer’s operative philosophy is imperative for critics who have chosen the feminist path, to make profound and well honed critical statements and contributions to African literary and theatrical scholarship. Afro-feminist criticism should take into cognizance the metaphysics of gender, rather than the politics of gender. Actually, this is what Soyinka’s creativity and some other African neo-primitivistic writers explore. Soyinka is a gender mystic.
Social and spiritual change are as necessary as they need a catalyst (Mosse, 1993) and women, as well as men, have been demonstrably employed as catalysts of socio-spiritual change in Soyinka’s works. Not only are they vessels of revolutionary underpinning of his works, they are introspective voices of protest, cultivators of communal value and preservers of revolutionary ethics with strong implication for society’s future. Mosse is convinced that “the resurgence of women as actors on the world stage is one of the most potent dynamics in the struggle against an unjust social order” (202). This theoretical position authenticates Soyinka’s gender creative pragmatism.
Aside fictional characters, Soyinka presents factional characters to underscore his belief that women are as intellectually and socio-politically capable and enthusiastic as men. His oeuvre reflects the inscribed spaces of matricentric leadership within which code women integrally function as equal and capable partners in the social developmental project. Madam Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Wild Christian, his own mother, in Ake: Years of Childhood (1983) are ardent civil society organizers whose strength of personality, underscored by their unwavering commitment to the cause of social justice, successfully actualized the Egba Women’s Riot of the 1940s in colonial Nigeria. This is an incontrovertible historical fact. Though feminine images, their Ogunnian importance, within a social fabric that recognizes men and women as partners in progress, made them leadership instruments of the de-masculinization of the then Alake, the paramount ruler of the Egba people, over the unpalatable issue of women taxation.
Socio-culturally, the Yoruba ethically philosophizes the necessity of moral correctness by proverbially expressing: K’okunrin r’ejo, k’obinrin pa, k’ejo ma saa ti lo ni (A man may sight a snake first while a woman may eventually kill the beast; what is most important is for the snake not to escape). The sub-text of that proverb is that it would be an unforgivable crime for both man and woman if either of them has to abandon his or her social duty to the extent that the future of community is left unprotected and subsequently imperiled and destroyed. Role-playing in the African society, then, is gender-boundless and relies, to a great extent, on the male or female individual’s sense of pragmatic responsibility. In recognition of the courage and self-sacrifice of Kudirat Abiola - wife of late M.K.O. Abiola, a candidate in Nigeria’s controversial June 12 1993 presidential election that was annulled by the military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida - Wole Soyinka, in defiance of the military might of Sani Abacha, named the pirate revolutionary radio, one of the most potent mass media of the civil society engaged during the period, “Radio Kudirat”. Winnie Mandela’s courageous role in the organized struggle against the now crumbled apartheid order in South Africa is eulogized with a poem in the collection, Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems (1989):
The rare illuminated scroll in whose prophesies
Humanity discerns its fate. The world would read her
In a hundred tongues” (1989: 10)
Female characters with positive vision and demonstrable involvement in social re-engineering like Winnie Mandela, Mrs. Ransome-Kuti, Wild Christian and Alhaja Kudirat Abiola - who capture the image of Iya Nla of the Gelede ritual-mask performance’s ancestry - are constant in Soyinka’s works and they have some form of attachment with the Earth and community. Iya Agba and Iya Mate are custodians of the Earth Cult in Madmen and Specialists; Iyaloja in Death and the King’s Horseman is the mother of the Market. As matriarchal power-figures, the replication of Iya Nla of the Gelede cult through Ogunnian women in Soyinka’s plays remains permanently established.
The male-female correspondence is conceptually fundamental in the African existentialist spirituality. The African mind seeks balance and unity between the ever-opposing poles in the correspondent matrix. This ideal is what the Gelede cult pragmatises. The Gelede, essentially the most communocratic of all Yoruba masking arts, as well as the Edan, Ogboni’s sacred symbol, acknowledge the ako-abo and ibi-ire (male-female and evil-good) complementarity. Thus the Gelede ritual performance is a methodic aesthetic neutralization of evil. Carrying and dancing the highly feminine mask that is “specifically dedicated to the maternal principle” does not only imply the willing submission of patriarchy to matriarchy, the insertion of the miniaturized symbol of the mainly patricentric nocturnal Oro cult in the Gelede-Efe headdress – “which the uninitiated must not see on pain of death” (Lawal, 1996:77-79) is a conscious and symbolic self-de-phallicization by men themselves. The sub-textuality of the Gelede mask’s patricentric terrestriality is the celestiality of matriarchy. Its self-reflexivity indicates the patent invocation and mirroring of “the mystic, spiritual essence of the second sex” (Ibitokun, 1993: 40).
Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ classic, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (1992), seeks to restore women’s flagging vitality through extensive “psychical archeological digs into the ruins of the female underworld” (3). What Estes refers to as the Child-Self/Soul-Self companion to femininity is never a missing force in the African originary matriarchal/patriarchal socio-spiritual gender systematization. For “womanity” to be rescued from the tendency to forget who she is and what her responsibilities and worth are, it must be constantly interrogated. Wole Soyinka’s observation of this artist-philosopher’s obligation in the human domain must have necessitated his socio-mythopoetic response through the creative site. Womanity remains an ancestral site of antiquated ruins. Converting the space into an archeological site of astounding discoveries profitable to humanity’s continuity is the responsibility of a mythographer like Pinkola Estes and a mytho-dramatist like Wole Soyinka. Archeological digs and findings, we must know, not only preserve memory, they equally validate the truths about myths, legends and other remote facts. They validate the truth about us: the truth about the only humanity of woman and man.
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‘TUNDE AWOSANMI, Ph.D., Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, firstname.lastname@example.org
RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence