Maryam Bobi, author of the novella #Bongel
In as much as the proponents of the pure school of art will pontificate art for art’s sake, literature cannot be wholesomely divorced from commitment. Achebe could not have put it more aptly when he stated that ‘The whole pattern of life demanded that one should protest, that you should put in a word for your history, your traditions, your religion, and so on.’ Consequently, it is nearly impossible for a woman writer who has had a firsthand experience of sexual inequalities in her sexist community not to try and ‘put in a word’ for her sex. The emergence of feminism, a protest movement in literature and art, is geared towards redressing apparent anomalies and wrongs against the disadvantaged woman in society. In Nigeria, Flora Nwapa, the first woman novelist, blazed the trail with her 1966 novel, Efuru, followed by Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen, Ifeoma Okoye’s Behind the Clouds and Men without Ears, Zaynab Alkali’s The Stillborn, Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus¸ to mention but the most prominent.
It is regrettable that after almost six decades since the publication of Nwapa’s Efuru, it is not yet Uhuru for the plight of women in a male-dominated world. The Jahiliyyah-like condition of the woman, despite the appreciable progress made over the years, Nirvana cannot be said to be attained, paving the way for the cries of aluta continua to still rend the air from the feminists’ camp. Maryam Bobi’s recent novella, Bongel, is a timely contribution to this hue and cry.
Set in the contemporary, cell-phone era, Bongel revolves around the title central character, Bongel, a Fulani medical student at the El-Khamar School of Medical Science. Through the sly handiwork of her course-mate friend and room-mate, Kauthar, a romantic relationship is engineered with the latter’s elder brother Abdul, studying in the UK. Unfortunately, Bongel has reckoned without her sordid past. Given out in marriage without her consent by her despotic father at the tender age of twelve to the rich Alh. Tanko, a man old enough to be her father, she had a stillbirth which she was blamed for killing the child. This precipitated her divorce and ironically the golden opportunity to resume her truncated education. The plot, rendered in a limpid, pacy and confident language, interspersed with snippets of flashbacks, Bobi can be said to have arrived almost made as a writer, to borrow Achebe’s excited welcome of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. For a debutant novelist, her prose reads like that of an experienced writer’s at the top of the tree. The reader cannot resist such luscious expressions: ‘… she kept to the shoulder of the tarred road’ (p. ix), ‘Images flew around in her mind. She would love to arrange them orderly, to create a coherent panorama’ (p. 10), ‘… she feared that she was beginning to veer away from virtue’ (p. 14), ‘… the rotten ones who perfume themselves in lies and deceits’ (p. 61) and ‘Bongel felt washed back to land by the waves. The storm had calmed’ (p. 93). Good expressions like the above helped to accentuate the writer’s themes most poignantly and succinctly. It is trite that literature cannot effect revolutionary changes like politics, nor can it shoot a gun, but there is no gainsaying the fact that a well-executed piece of work can pack quite a punch on the face of a nihilistic and sexist world.
Through the effective use of apt imageries, the reader is made to empathize, or better still, feel vicariously Bongel’s near-death experience when her ancient husband, Alh. Tanko, the man with ‘kola nut-stained teeth’ (p. 72), rapes her in the name of consummating the marriage with his child-bride:
“… he became so furious he took the wrapper off her body and pinned her on the bed. Bongel felt her executioner grunting like a pig, breathing hot tepid air down her face, and burying her in an envelope of arid smells. The tearing pain that hit her brain was worse than any pain she had ever felt in her life … another volley pain [sic] struck her, going off like a giant bell. She wanted to hold her head together for fear it might explode but found she was suddenly too weak to even move her hands. Her pelvis, abdomen and thigh muscles were burning and pulsating. At that moment, rational thoughts became impossible for her. She could not recall anything at all …’ (p. 68).
The impact of the above soul-stirring description coupled with other images-laden episodes in the work is worth more than several girl-child legislations which are more often than not obeyed in the breach than in their observance.
Undoubtedly, Bobi is not a writer sold on the oft-regurgitated theory of art for art’s sake. She is a writer brimming with a catalogue of messages; a writer of commitment. In the first place, what African writer is not? According to Achebe:
‘I believe that it is impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest … So commitment is nothing new… In fact, I should say that all of our writers, whether they’re aware of it or not are committed writers.’
However, commitment is not without its snags especially when not skilfully handled. Any wonder then that most Marxist or feminist works of art are unreadable propaganda tracts? This is perhaps the major lapse in Bobi’s Bongel, thus reducing the work to a compendium of societal ills against women – child marriages, the deprivation of the girl-child education, vesico vaginal fistula (VVF), oppression of women in marriage, favoritism of the male child over his female counterpart, the list is inexhaustive. Because of the desperate bid to cram too many themes into the work, the love story between the heroine Bongel and Abdul is slight, usurped by preachy flashbacks on women’s victimization in a patriarchal society such that even the least Suyayya novel from Kano Hausa Market Literature is more engrossing with plot complications than Bongel. Alas, in literature we estrange our readers with so-called serious themes at the expense of spellbinding plots while romance and thriller writers hold their breaths on the edge with masterful storylines, leaving us with no choice but to embrace our comfort-zone alibi that people are no longer reading. In consequence, the character of Bongel is not developed satisfactorily. In spite of her ugly past, it is expected that she will be wiser and more wary in subsequent relationships, but no, she is not created to learn from her past experiences. Just like Nora’s famous shutting of the door on her marriage in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House resounded positively across the globe, Bongel’s spirited effort to negotiate a truce with Abdul, who is not man enough for her, in the end of the book is a big fatal blow on the feminist posture of the work. Most likely the writer has allowed the benign feminism in Alkali’s The Stillborn to negatively influence her to the point of cheapening her central character. In the older writer’s work, Li’s relationship with Farouk is that of a valid marriage which has birthed an issue but the same cannot be said of Bongel’s starry-eyed romance with Abdul. Again, one of the perennial weaknesses of most feminist works by women writers is the pathological obsession with male stereotyping. Male characters never live in their works. For example, Abdul, Alh. Tanko and Bongel’s father are all cardboard, stock characters not imbued with flesh and blood or any redeeming features by their gender-partial creator. If anything, this robs the work of depth, verisimilitude, subtleties and great suggestive meanings. One of the first lessons a writer learns in writing ‘enter-educative’ works is that subjects like VVF and HIV are better subtly suggested instead of devoting nearly two pages (pp. 76 -77) on them like academic papers.
Similarly, for a work well-packaged in terms of high paper quality, font size and cover-designs, the publishers cannot be exculpated for allowing some careless errors of syntax find their way into the work, to wit: ‘a mere two days’ (p. 6), ‘his minted breathe’ (p. 16), ‘ in variance with’ (p. 23), ‘a little ways ahead’ (p. 30), ‘such ugly incidences’ (p. 50), ‘other girls’ marriage’ (p. 60), ‘battered under’ (p. 66), ‘must have ensued from his joints’ (p. 67), ‘resulted to’ (p. 76), ‘… the pain that hiding these three dark passages’ (p. 93). Additionally, on two or three occasions, tenses are used indiscriminately such as: ‘Bongel has been pregnant’ (p. 27), ‘contrary to what Kauthar thinks’ (p. 27) and ‘she wouldn’t be as devastated as she is now …’ (p.8). In a third-person narrative technique in the past tense, the use of present tense can only be used sparingly in streams of consciousness or interior monologues or when making reference to a universally immutable fact. It also seems the writer had the West in mind as her audience when she was writing this work as can be gleaned from expressions like these: ‘… that reminds me that it’s haram, something wrong’ (p. ix) and ‘It was a customary tradition among the Hausa-Fulani people’ (p. 74). This appears to be the norm now, though unfortunate, that when writers are divulging some terrible facts about their cultures, they often obsequiously turn to the West for a mark of acceptance.
The foregoing notwithstanding, Bobi is a fledgling albeit promising writer who deserves attention and help. She, along with her older countrywomen Razinat Mohammed and Halima Sekula are fresh exciting female Northern voices trying to carve a niche for themselves on our literary landscape. It is, however, worrisome that since the publication of Alkali’s The Stillborn in 1984, Northern Nigeria is yet to produce another female writer who can hold a candle to that literary matriarch. It is long overdue now.
Isaac Attah Ogezi is a noted playright and fiction writer. He practices law and lives in Keffi, Nigeria.