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Discussing the works of Maaza Mengiste, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Solomon Gebre-Selassie explores the characters and plots of three African novels by female writers.

Looking at Africa through the eyes of its female literary protagonists might be perhaps a better way at understanding the hopes and concerns of the masses of Africans. Thus this essay reviews the common themes in the debut works of three writers – Maaza Mengiste’s ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’, (W.W. Norton & Co., 1988, p. 308); Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’, (Seal Press, 1988, p. 204); and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Purple Hibiscus’, (Algonquin Books, 2003, p. 307). The authors are from Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Nigeria respectively.

The main shared themes in all three books are the esteemed status given to education in each society; strict family upbringing that in at least two cases (Chimamanda and Tsitsi) borders on child abuse, or is unambiguously family brutality; political oppression by the state and survival skills, and most notably in Tsitsi’s work, a dignified, native feminism that is non-modernist and unmediated by Western influences. (I will address the authors by their first names, but as a side note, I am not sure how some writers commenting on the EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front) and Ethiopia address/call the prime minister not Meles but Zenawi, using his father’s name, a totally autonomous man in the style of Ethiopian appellation).


The characters in each book put a high premium on the value of education. For Tsitsi’s female character Tambu, it can even be said it is the defining theme of the book, as captured by the first line of the first chapter that says ‘I was not sorry when my brother died.’ She said this because her intense desire to get educated was stymied and ridiculed by her parents and relatives who disparaged her quest for education by saying ‘Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables.’ She was at last able to get the education she so desired after her brother suddenly died, and an opportunity opened up. Her brother, the only male heir, was the one selected by the elders to receive an education. He was then expected to get a good job and provide for the family. When he dies, the family decides that it would be Tambu as the eldest daughter to replace him to get education. The decision was made, however, as a reluctant act, for the family was still concerned that even with education, a female would help out her husband and his family and not her own.

The man responsible for financing their education was their uncle, who had obtained a degree in England and was a principal at a local mission where he took his cousins for education, because he felt tremendous responsibility about the security and safety of his extended family. Coming back to the homestead during school breaks meant for the kids weeding plants using hands and hoes; bathing in cold water in a flowing river – not in a bathtub using gushing hot and cold water; eating sadza regularly with fingers and meat hardly at all – and never with a knife and fork; and enjoying no light beyond the flickering candles and home-made paraffin lamps. Thus education was the liberator from the mundane hard chores of rural life, and a gateway to better and modern life, hence the high premium. Although Tambu is allowed to stay with her uncle and start school at the mission once her brother who was there dies, she has a hard time to go beyond elementary school. Catholic sisters came to her school to matriculate the kids for advanced schooling at a faraway Catholic high school. She was one of the two kids who passed the entrance exam, but her uncle and all male relatives, including her father, refused to send her away. Her mother was her ally who steadfastly supported her daughter’s education, and Tambu was able to go to an all-white Catholic high school.

For Chimamanda, it was her female character Kambili’s father that was obsessed with his children getting the best education his money can afford and the kids showing the results of his investment. After exam results were announced one semester, and Kambili came in second, she came home to face a dejected father:

‘Good evening, Papa?’

‘Did school go well?’

Kambili said yes and handed the report card to her father. He seemed to take forever to open it and even longer to read it.

‘Who came first?’, Papa asked finally.

‘Chinwe Jideze.’

‘Jideze? The girl who came second last term?’


After he asked his daughter to follow him into his bedroom, the father holds a stern conversation with his daughter:

‘“Kambili, you did not put in your best this term. You came second because you chose to.” His eyes were deep and sad. After a few days, her father dropped at her school and asked her to show him the girl who came first (Chinwe). A group of girls were chatting at the door of the class.

“She is the girl in the middle.”

“Look at her,” Papa said.

“How many heads does she have?”

“One. I did not need to look at her to know that, but I looked at her anyway.”

“When you look at the mirror, how many heads do you have?” he continued.


“The girl has one head too, she does not have two. So, why did you let her come first?”’

He then goes on to tell his daughter how poor he grew up, how he did not have anyone to give him the privileges that she has, all the familiar stuff that most of us with kids tell our children. Kambili did not disappoint her father. By the next semester she came out first.

In Maaza, we read a heartbreaking story that opens in Addis Ababa on the eve of a revolution; her characters such as the father, Hailu, is a prominent doctor educated in England, who is awarded a golden watch by the emperor for his scholastic achievements, and who is very meticulous at what he does. His older son, Yonas, is also an intellectual par excellence, teaching history at the local university.


It would not be an exaggeration to say that in ‘Purple Hibiscus’ the author brings up the subject of ‘excessive and illegal love’ by a high-strung father. The father that cared for the education of his kids was also a controlling and brutal father. The author paints him in such opposing sheds and colours, it is very sad to pronounce Kimbali’s father as a child abuser. But alas that is what he is. Whenever they visit their relatives, his children take with them a schedule the father has made for each of them, dictating what to do from what to what time, and who to see and what not to see! Angered by this robotic-like control, their aunt, who is a university lecturer, takes the schedule away from Kambali and lets the girl spend her day as she wishes.

The father resents his own father (Kambili’s grandfather) for not being a Christian, and for believing in traditional gods. For that, Kambili and her brother are forbidden from staying at his house for more than what is necessary (to exchange greetings and such). Kambili’s brother sustained a crushed little finger as a result of an injury his father caused in the course of a severe beating of the son for some minor infraction. Kambili herself was also taken into a bathtub by her father, and her feet scalded with hot water so much so she could not walk for days. Soon after that, he beat her so hard, she had to be rushed to a hospital, and was hospitalised for a long time. Such a brute of a man. And yet, this same man, had the kindest of hearts running his newspaper business and caring for his employees and his extended family. When the Nigerian police killed his editor, he took care of the funeral costs and started financially taking care of the widow and her daughter.

In ‘Nervous Conditions’, Tsitsi’s monster character is the uncle who is providing for all his extended family, including for the education of Tambu, but again showing a split personality.

He was mad one night at his own daughter, Nyasha, who came home late. He thought she was dishonouring the family’s name by staying late, but she was just playing with friends and learning a new dance move with friends, including her own brother and cousin, Tambu.

‘“Er, Nyasha,” began her father, “can you tell me why you are back so late?”

“I am sorry, Daddy. I was talking to friends.”

“What sort of friends are these that you are out all night talking to them? Good friends would know it is late and time to go home.”

Nyasha was silent.

“Answer me girl!” her father insisted. The atmosphere was growing tense. The father continued and repeated that no decent girl would stay out alone. Nyasha started getting angry now and challenged her father if he wanted her to admit guilt over something she had not done: “I am guilty, all right then. I was doing it, whatever you are talking about. There. I have confessed.”’

The father felt disrespected and started moving towards Nyasha to grab her. All family members tried to intercede, but he forcefully and loudly told them all to get out and keep out. A fight ensued between father and daughter, because the daughter started punching him back.

In ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’, the family turmoil is mostly around Dawit’s (the youngest son) political involvement. He belonged to an underground political party that was fighting the military junta. This did not sit well with his father. This was a father–son rancour occasioned by a directionless revolution:

‘“I found this. Where the hell did you get this?”, the father said showing a pistol to his son.

The son stood stiff without saying a word for a few minutes.

“I asked you a question,” said Hailu.

“Do you really think this is mine?” asked Dawit.

“Do you think I’d use it?”

“Don’t lie to me! I already know what you are doing. Tell me the truth.”

“You’d rather believe a lie than the truth, I could tell you it isn’t mine, but that is not what you want to hear. You want to hear what you think you already know. And you don’t know anything.”

Then the father said, “You think you are strong enough to fight them with this?” Hailu dangled the gun in front of Dawit’s face. “Where do you keep the bullets?”

“I don’t have the bullets. There was a boy from my school,” he said softly, releasing the tension between the two, “they left him near the road like trash. They are the killers not me.”’

There is also a heated argument between the two brothers, the younger, radical Dawit who belongs to an underground opposition party, and the older non-political Yonas:

‘“What do you know about peasant rights? Have you ever been outside the city? Have you ever tried to learn about the people you say you are speaking for? All your demonstrations are about higher pay and lower petrol costs – middle class elitist concerns, how does that help the poor in the countryside?”, Yonas admonishes his younger brother.

“Who is going to speak up for them?” Dawit asked. “People like you, who just want to hide until things get better? At least we are trying to get things changed.”’

This was a time in Ethiopia when a searing revolution was underway, and the military dictatorship was killing tens of thousands of youth in what was called ‘the Red Terror’. In Maaza’s novel, we see that even a decent father who was serving his family and nation in his capacity as a doctor was not spared from being victimised by the dictatorship, and ended up being severely tortured in jail narrowly escaping death.


Africa is no stranger to political repression and dictatorship. In Chimamanda’s Nigeria, we see how daily life is an uphill struggle for an ordinary citizen. Kambili’s father runs a paper (the Standard), and his editor Ade Coker, is in and out of jail before the regime finally kills him. The lack of freedom of press is an all-too-familiar phenomenon across much of Africa.

Kambali’s aunt Ifeoma is a university lecturer and loses to theft her exam questions. In order to prevent that, she asks the university administration to bolt her office door so that it cannot be broken into. Their response is no and the reason blamed on a lack of budget. She has to organise her family to get wood planks, and bolts up her office door. On top of that, she is blacklisted as a troublemaker by the regime. Ordinary Nigerians (like most Africans) suffer power outage, a lack of clean water and a lack of a regular supply of gasoline for those with cars. When students riot protesting the bad governance, they are routinely beaten up by the police. The author captures the resilience of citizens faced with instability and a series of coups; the struggle to maintain intellectual freedom and autonomy in higher education; and most of all, like across most of Africa, the preponderance of want and poverty in the midst of so much wealth. Bright intellectuals and educators, such as Aunty Ifeoma, flee the country for fear of their lives.

In Tsitsi’s book, if one expects to sense a rage against Robert Mugabe’s regime, one would be disappointed. The only window into her view of the current regime there comes from some reporter’s question following the publication of her book:

‘“Q. After living in Germany for some time, you have recently relocated to Zimbabwe. Why?”

“A. Life is difficult in Zimbabwe, but my soul breathes more freely here.”’

Her political theme is a native feminism that reveals the suffering women undergo in African societies. Some have divided Tsitsi’s female characters in her book into three categories: the escaped females (from patriarchy); the entrapped females; and the rebellious females. Tambu is cited as a character that has escaped from patriarchy, while her mother and aunt are considered trapped. Nyasha, the girl we saw above entangled with her father, is the example of the rebellious female. Had it not been the accident of history (the death of her brother), Tambu would have remained an uneducated country girl married away to some poor peasant and toiling the farmlands. Contrary to the prohibition imposed on Ethiopian girls in some rural areas to kill a chicken to prepare a meal, girls in Zimbabwe and Nigeria at least appear not to be victims of such male chauvinistic prohibition that is shrouded in religious and traditional garb.

Maaza’s ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’ is through and through political – describing how a repressive political system pervades through and across each and every element of a society through its long-reaching tentacles. The family, headed by medical doctor Hailu, is ravished by the state. It all began when a tortured teenager girl was brought to the doctor’s care by units of the military who tortured her in the first place. They had realised that they had mistakenly nearly killed the daughter of one of the higher-ups in the military hierarchy. They order the doctor to save her life without telling him about their new-found kindness. The doctor thinks that they wanted her alive in order to get more information out of her to implicate her friends, and thereby to torture her more. He decides to do mercy killing and deny them the pleasure of hurting her more. For that he himself is tortured beyond recognition, losing his teeth and with busted lungs. When he is finally released, his sons and granddaughter could not tell who the stranger at their door was.

The family goes through hell while he was in jail. His older son, Yonas, believes in the power of prayer to right the wrongs of a society, and vehemently disagrees with his younger, radical brother. Dawit, the younger one, as stated earlier, is a member of an underground political organisation and has convinced himself, along with his comrades, that there is no other alternative than fighting against the repressive regime. His childhood friend, Mickey, was raised and educated by Dr Hailu, bringing him up like his own sons because Mickey’s parents were too poor. Mickey has decided to go into the military and is now one of the top guns of the repressive regime. Undoubtedly, this does not sit well with Dawit and the Hailu family. However, they try to get Mickey’s help to get Dr Hailu out of jail, but Mickey is so opportunistically latched on to the system, he has no guts to try such a project that he thinks if he tried it might make himself a suspect in the eyes of his bosses. Maaza’s political narrative is so gut-wrenching that she does not even leave out the brutality of the regime’s killing of small children. Her story begins with the removal of Emperor Haile Selassie from power, an emperor that did not have a good record on respecting the rights of the people either. Unfortunately, the people who replaced him proved to be worse. And like a bad horror film, Africa continues to suffer from interminable cycle and recycle of dictatorships.


In Maaza, she shows us the high sense of justice Dawit has towards those he feels life has treated badly. In one such instance, we see how readily he jumps to the defence of a much older servant woman almost being sexually violated by a teenage rich boy. She says:

‘There was a shuffle and rustling coming from the open door of the servants’ quarters, and a desperate pinched cry. He [Dawit] ran in and took a few seconds to comprehend what he was looking at. There was a woman, older than his mother, sitting naked on the bed, tears running down her face, and trailing between her heavy, sagging breasts. In front of her, holding his penis, was Fisseha, equally naked, the familiar smirk on his face.’

“Mulu?” Dawit said. He did not recognise her without her clothes on.

“Get out of here!” Fisseha said, “Go!” He still had his hand on his penis, his scrawny hips still arched towards Mulu.’

At that moment, Dawit decided to right this injustice, and started beating the bigger Fisseha, and teaching him a lesson. He beat him so hard and shamed him so much, Mulu (the older woman), was concerned about getting fired.

In Chimamanda, it is a subtle and an unconsumed love story between 16-year-old Kambali and Father Amadi, a young Catholic priest who is himself a victim of mandatory Catholic celibacy. Like a young teenager experiencing the magic of love the first time, Kambili just adores the feelings her senses exude whenever the young priest is around. She starts feeling happy the moment a car drives up to her aunt’s house, and secretly wishes it is Father Amadi. She enjoys his voice whenever he utters a word, even when that word is not directed at her. Her cousins and friends tease her about their secret love, and she does not resist or deny it a bit. Father Amadi takes her with the boys a couple of times and alone at times to a soccer field where she plays and enjoys herself for many hours. He once took her to a hairdresser to get her hair done, and the hairdresser asks her if he were her brother. Knowing he was not, the hairdresser swears that Kambili has a young priest for a lover, and suggests that he might abandon the church for the teenager’s love.

This did not take place, and Chimamanda lets the two lovers stay in a suspended fate.


The three writers sprinkle their works in English with words from their local languages – Shona, Igbo and Amharic respectively. Some words are loaded with cultural meanings. For instance, a woman calling another woman ‘Nwunye m’ in Chimamanda’s is revealing: it was Kambili’s aunt Ifeoma calling her mother that. It meant ‘my wife’. A woman calling another woman ‘her wife’ is not the post-modernist version of same-sex relationship, but rather an Igbo notion that confers and extends family status to an outsider woman who becomes family by marriage. There are many other Igbo words in Chimamanda’s: ‘nodu ani’, ‘yeye’, ‘gbo’, ‘Njemanze’, ‘Nne Nne’.

In Tsitsi, we find the following Shona words: ‘mhunga’, ‘rukweza’, ‘nhodo’, ‘yuwi’, ‘sadza’. And Maaza, although not a frequent user as the other two, has her share of word usage: ‘berbere’, ‘zebegna’, ‘emebet’, ‘shamma’. Both Maaza and Chimamanda use italicisation to denote the local words, while Tsitsi just treats them the same. Some book critics have suggested an appended glossary to help decipher the meaning of the local words. However, I think it is part of the excitement of reading a book written in English by a non-native, marvelling at the art of hit-and-miss in solving the riddle of unfamiliar words. Oftentimes, it is easy to understand the meaning based on the context.

African folk tale also features in at least Chimamanda. When his grandkids ask him to tell them a folk story, the grandfather teases them by asking that they have first to explain to him how the people he sees in television got into it in the first place. After every one laughs, he goes on to tell them a folk tale on how the tortoise has a cracked shell.


Africa has arrived for some time now at a historical intersection where famous women – highly educated and/or activists, such as Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, South Africa’s Winnie Mandela, Ethiopia’s Judge Birtukan Mideksa and Kenya’s Wangari Maathai are fighting hard for human rights, environmental protection and social justice. Between them and the attainment of these goals (at least in the case of the last two) are Africa’s big men that are responsible to a large extent for the deprivation of the continent, and the suffering of Africans. These women writers have in their debut novels successfully showed the face of Africa and the similar fate of its citizens through the medium of literary work.


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