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Orality, Gender and Sexuality in Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine


Orality, Gender and Sexuality in Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine 

Dr. Elham Hossain

Associate Professor of English

Dhaka City College

Dhaka, Bangladesh



Gender is not biological. It is a construction and a society imposes it upon its members. Sexism is biological and in many situations it is manipulated by the patriarchal power-structure which maintains a staunch belief that women are innately inferior to men. A community’s orality works in many ways as a repository of such patriarchal prejudice and takes up a repressive role in objectifying women. Many myths in African orality serve as a repository of this repressive force. Modern African literature conspicuously emerges out of the crisis followed by colonialism and imperial enterprises of Europe in Africa. Leaving aside the political issues related to colonial and post-colonial situations, Elechi Amadi explores the heart of Africa and presents an authentic rendition of traditional belief system, power-structure, forces of nature, ethnic values, rituals, songs, myths and festivals in his The Concubine (1966). Africa represents itself more through its orature than through its written form of literary texts. Amadi’s first novel The Concubine (1966) makes a powerful rendition of man’s struggle against the natural forces inherent in orature which antithetically in the name of disciplining, exercises hegemonic role upon man’s free will. Through the character of his female protagonist, Amadi scrutinizes the power of the orature and exhibits how the local myths, belief system and power-structure masculinize a society and set it against the self-determination or free will of women. This paper seeks to delve deeper into the antithetical power of orality both as a constructive and a repressive force in deciding women’s role in the society.

Key words:

Orality, Resistance, Margin, Hegemony, Power-structure, Patriarchy

The seed of modern African literature lies in its millennium old oral literature or orature. Africa’s identity, its strength and rendition run in parallel with its orality which provides the present day African writers with their intellectual sustenance, background and context of their creative task of representing Africa in literacy. An extensive and pragmatic approach to the bulk of African literature today reveals that orality presents Africa as “subject of intellectual and political commitment” for the modern African writers” (Irele 16). Even African novels owe immensely to Africa’s orality for their cultural nationalist orientation. A close examination of the foundational and seminal writing of some African greats reveals the interface where orality and literacy seem to be coeval representation of African reality. Mofolo’s Chaka: An Historical Romance (1931), Amos Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), Gabriel Okara’s The Voice (1964), Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Matigari (1986) and Kourouma’s Les Soleils des Independances (1968) demonstrate the juxtaposition of orality and literacy corresponding African reality. Actually, due to its immensity of subject-matter and impact on the natives, orality poses itself to be a grand narrative, and a persuasive approach to it will help the readers reckon the self of Africa because “Africa is predominantly transmitted through performance rather than through written literature” (Lindgren 342). Ngugi wa Thiong’o has also incorporated this belief in his book of essays Homecoming (1972).  He further believes that orality forms a collective structure that binds the periphery with the center and creates a location of resistance to the western cultural traditions that work as a hegemonic tool (Lindgren 340). Besides, orature can aptly critique the socio-political power-structure. Even languages remain alive in orature. From the perspective of African realities, orature forms the narrative of pre-colonial African society by defining it with its ingenuity and distinct self. In this way, orature serves as a tool to portray African reality with the indefatigable spirit of resistance to the colonial hegemony. A huge number of African writers derive materials from their orature to produce counter discourse of colonialism. Chinua Achebe, Ngugi, Senghor, Okara, Mphelele and many others have taken resort to indigenous proverbs, songs, fables and narratology of African orature to expose the ‘self’ of Africa to the rest of the world. Elechi Amadi also joins this rally and his The Concubine (1966), a canonical African novel, explores the wealth of African epistemology in its orality. Its exploration of oral elements, local myths and belief system, local people’s knowledge of medicine and reliability on supernatural elements present an anthropological scrutiny of indigenous African life. At the same time, its paradoxical role as a suppressing apparatus is also dramatized through the vicissitudes of the characters of this novel.

Though it is believed today that African literature emerges out of its response to colonialism, only a few African writers “could write novels in which the issue of colonialism was conspicuous by its absence” (Gikandi 27). Elechi Amadi is one of these few writers who show that Africa can predominantly be identified in the space of its orality. Orality obviously works as a site of resistance as it creates the space of radical openness in response to the oppressive boundaries. When local belief system, myths, pantheon, rituals and performances encapsulated in orality take a repressive role, it evokes resistance and thus, a conflict inevitably begins between the existing power-structure and the individuals. A dialogue between these two opposite forces can ensure juxtaposition but this process of co-existence turns antithetical when free will drives the individuals to challenge the repressive institutions of the society. This antithesis streams through the plot of Elechi Amdi’s The Concubine (1966).

By choosing a female protagonist Amadi breaks the ‘cult of male protagonist’ of African fictions. Amadi’s selection of a woman as the protagonist of his novel coincides with the traditional role of women in African society before the advent of the European colonialism. But this selection suffers from a dichotomy. In the pre-colonial society women were the integral part of power contour. Even in military and mercantile enterprises women played instrumental roles. They contributed immensely to the security of their territory being in the vanguard. Their rebellion against the colonial policy of imposing tax upon the local people of Nigeria is also glaring in the history. In this connection, James Tar Tsaaior asserts, “Women were also part of the vanguard during the nationalist ferment in many African societies and so formed the integral fabric of the politics of resistance against colonialism and imperialism” (28). Throughout pre-colonial Africa women were involved in nationalist movement. But their achievements were derogated sequestering them by the advent of colonialism. According to Tsaaior, by introducing Victorian cultural framework, the colonizers dislocated women out of the contours of mainstream society and subalternised them to the periphery of the society. But even in the pre-colonial society women’s way of life was not smooth for many reasons. Patriarchy was one of repressive apparatuses that constituted myths and stories about women and hindered them from their exercise of free will. Those masculine narratives constructed in the myths and proverbs of orality assumed repressive role upon women.

Ihuoma, a widow is the protagonist of The Concubine. She sways between the pre-colonial and the colonial power-structures of African society. The supernatural power associated with her prenatal integration with the Sea-King befits her status in the pre-colonial Nigerian society which recognized a woman’s role in the main stream of the society. But after losing her husband Emenike whose death is also wrapped in mystery, Ihuoma’s, reducing into a concubine in the eyes of the society, determines her status in the colonial social framework. Amadi employs orature as a trope to interpret the power-structure of the pre-colonial society in which myths, folktales and orature were operated as a hegemonic force which was no less oppressive than colonialism regarding their role of  branding, naming and above all, sequestering the individuals in the margin of the society. This margin tends to become a subversive homeplace which in the form of patriarchal domination makes an effort to degrade Ihuoma to the derogatory status of a concubine. Tsaaior insightfully calls it ‘an exclusionary textual practice’ (32). Women’s voice is silenced with the male guttural and falsetto voice with a view to leading them to subordination and loyalty to men. This politics against women may be termed as exclusionary politics which tends to lead women to the fringe or periphery of power-structure. Tsaaior, in this connection, asserts:

…the exclusionary politics against women in the male canon is ideologically imperative because totalizing and transcendental forms of episteme manufactured, packaged and deployed from the rich armoury of dominant ideologies see the nation as a dutiful, hardworking and nurturing mother. (33)

The male members of Ihuoma’s society practices this exclusionary politics and deploy the myth of Sea-King as a tool for the implementation of this design. In accordance with the myth, like a typical dominating husband stereotyped in the framework of patriarchal society, the Sea-King who was Ihuoma’s husband in the spirit-world was very angry with her as she showed a disposition of enjoying liberty and free-will. He might have destroyed her if he did not have enough love for her. However, he let her come to the mundane world but nobody could escape his wrath. Due to his wrath, Ihuoma now in the mundane world leads the life of a widow, a concubine. The village dibia Anyika digs out and interprets the myth:

‘Listen’, the dibia began. ‘Ihuoma belongs to the sea, when she was in the spirit world; she was wife of the Sea-King, the ruling spirit of the sea. Again the advice of her husband she sought the company of human beings and was incarnated. The Sea-King was very angry but because he loved her best of all his wives he did not destroy her immediately she was born. He decided to humour her and let her live out her normal earthly span and come back to him. However, because of his great love for her he is terribly jealous and tries to destroy any man who makes love to her. (195)

Anyika’s myth is remarkable for its role of stereotyping in relation to sexism and this discourse or the narrative of the Sea-King and the fantasy tales like this one usually comes from African oral art which “may exhort people to demonstrate strength, prowess and courage and yet lull others into humility and silence before dominant power” (Mlama 23). Oral art in any community enjoys the power of exercising pervasive impact on both the rulers and the ruled, though not equally. Similarly, the story of prenatal existence of Ihuoma that the village dibia Anyika narrates rules over the villagers. Ekume’s father Wigwe and mother Adaku’s conscience is controlled by the belief system represented by the folk belief and tales. Accordingly, they arrange all the rituals directed by another dibia Agaturumbe to evade the wrath of the Sea-King and implement the marriage between Ihuoma and their son Ekume. True, the strength and prowess of the indigenous myths and narratives shape and define the power-structure of the society and it is next to impossible for anybody to break through this system. Ihuoma, Ekume, Wigwe, Adaku and Madume cannot stand against it because they are merely individuals and any system that runs in parallel with the tradition and belief-system of the society assumes the impetus of an institution, fortified and acknowledged by the community. As such, they are bound to comply with the stories about Ihuoma’s prenatal condition constructed by Anyika and Agaturumbe who represent hierarchical organization of the society for his role of conveying the myths from one generation to another generation and thus, recognizing their invincible hegemony.

In this connection, it appears conspicuous that orality which accommodates the hierarchal organizations also provides the pedagogical framework to the African cultural identity and it is not just a phenomenon but an instrument that contributes immensely to the aesthetics of African life. Also, it is “a dynamic discourse about society and about the relationship between individuals, groups and classes in society” (Furniss 1). Thus, orality serves to the individuals as a tool with which he can explore the repository of knowledge about the concerned society and its psychology. For example, the myth of the Sea-King articulates the patriarchy of the African society and its advocacy by Anyika and Agaturumbe advocates the power-structure based on patriarchy which, not nature, determines gender roles. So, it is irrefutable when Ato Quayson asserts, “Orality in Africa is not just a mode of speech different from writing, but undergirds an entire way of life” (159). It works as a form of interaction between people and their society and it is one of the most powerful ingredients of culture which can be used to explain the habits such as, “why people respect old age, have many children, take care of their children, work hard, take polygamy and support male dominance” (Falola 50). It defines even intergenerational links shaped in the framework of patriarchy which never allows anybody to violate the traditional gender roles. Patriarchal belief system promulgates that “…assertiveness in a woman is unattractive, even unnatural…” (Tyson 142). Thus, African orality imbibed in the essence of gender and sexism promulgates patriarchal dominance upon women and places men in the locus of the society and leads women to the periphery with designations that they are less rational, less intelligent, and less courageous and for their protection they must depend on men. In this novel, Ihuoma’s fate is decided by the Sea-King, a masculine god, lying in the centre of patriarchy. And patriarchal discourse advocates that,

… women who adhere to traditional roles are considered “good girls”. They are put on pedestals and idealized as pure, angelic creatures whose sense of self consists mainly or entirely of their usefulness to their husbands, fathers, or brothers. In contrast, women who violate traditional gender roles are thought of as “bad girls,” especially if they violate the rules of sexual conduct for patriarchal women… (Tyson 142).

This hegemonic patriarchy sustains its self-righteousness from the local myths and legends which promote the cult of the peripheral roles of women.

Besides, Amadi’s treatment of orality or folktales directs the readers’ attention the Third World feminism. In a First World country a woman usually fights for political rights and gender equality. On the other hand, in a Third World country like Nigeria or Kenya or any other African country, a local woman has to fight myths, legends, folktales and the belief-system which promote patriarchy. When a woman in a Third World country goes out of her home she discovers herself in a different world, a masculine world. Her body in this world is treated as a site in which oppression is inflicted to suppress her voice. Sexual violence and dowry related harassment are inflicted upon this site, that is, body with a view to transforming her into a voiceless Other. Current myths and narratives, even literature, such as epic poems also depict women as a subjugated self, an object, not a subject. So, when a woman develops her language and voice for gender equality in a Third World country, she has to struggle ceaselessly to produce a counter narrative against the existing masculine narratives and discourses. It is undoubtedly a mammoth task for her to shift this masculine paradigm. Ihuoma’s futile attempt of overcoming the stereotype of concubine can be treated as one of the sites in which she, like  Third World women, restlessly wrestles to challenge these hegemonic narratives and discourses of the patriarchal society.

The power of these narratives and discourses of patriarchy emanates from the people’s subjugation to them. In the socio-ethical backdrop of African rural life myths, legends and chronicles are usually looked upon as true in relation with the social realities. Besides, the atmosphere of magic realism that has been created by the juxtaposition of natural and supernatural elements on the same backdrop impacts the life of the local people extensively and intensively. For example, Ihuoma’s husband died of the fatal wound received from Madume in a combat with him. But the dibia of the village interprets this natural incident with an air of supernatural chronicles of the wrath of the Sea-King who was Ihuoma’s husband in the prenatal spirit world. The myths, like that of the Sea-King, are an inseparable part of African orality and it underpins the socio-ethnic structure of African life. Besides, local proverbs work as a powerful narrative that criticizes, guides and controls the individuals’ life and their cultural values. For example, Madume’s rigorous claim for the piece of land which belongs of Emenike, Ihuoma’s husband, is condemned and Chima warns him with reference to a popular proverb that his inconsiderate persistence may turn him into a man who is “Like the hunter who was never satisfied with antelopes, he might be obliged to carry an elephant home one day and collapse under the weight” (16). It is one of the examples through which Amadi explores the dominant role of local orality upon the individuals and their cultural values.  

 Drawing the readers’ attention to the status of women in the indigenous African society and providing a subject-matter orality contributes to the domestication of the novel-form and Amadi has employed it in his novel with a view to covering the space of local cultural realities. Regarding the contribution of orality to the technical aspects, it is undeniable that domestication of African novel is done through its exploration of oral forms of narratives and folkloric forms. In this connection, it is worth mentioning that ‘novel’ is not originally an African literary genre and it comes into Africa hand in hand with colonialism which also brings orthography and organized form of literacy to Africa. A contrapuntal study reveals that orality is both a strength and weakness of Africa. It underpins the diverse culture of different indigenous groups scattered all over Africa, and at the same time it provides European hegemony a congenial space to flourish over years due to the lack of alphabet of local languages. As such, colonialism names Africa as an ‘Oral other’ taking the advantage of its lack of systematically written form of literature. The colonial discourse of modernity manifests itself ‘in terms of racial superiority’ which ultimately invigorates them to deploy different aspects of colonial modernity, such as, education or literacy, colonial medicine, census, judiciary and other aspects of life to translate the Africans into colonial subjects or other (Alam 16). In response to this colonial enterprise of transforming the natives into other, the Africans do not sit idle. Africa advances in various sectors for the domestication of its identity. As a part of this attempt, a huge number of African novels emerge out of the spectrum of the elements or orality.

True, The Concubine (1966) picks up a good number of elements from African orality and tends to domesticate African novels not in form but in subject-matter. The same task is accomplished by Chinua Achebe in his Things Fall Apart (1958) and Arrow of God (1964) and Ngugi’s The River Between (1965) and A Grain of Wheat (1967) to domesticate African novels against the backdrop of colonial modernity. In The Voice (1964) Okara executes the same task of domesticating African novels. After examining its syntax and other grammatical whereabouts, Elechi Amadi defines Okara’s English as ‘Nigerian English’ (50). Amadi himself derives proverbs, myths, idioms, characters and folktales from the oral aesthetics of Africa and exhibits that African novels are “a fusion of two traditions, at once Western in its appropriation of the formalized and written structure of the West and African forms of orality” (Tsaaior 5-6). The form is Western but the content provides the novel with its originality that goes with the identity of Africa and its indigenous cultural values.

Amadi brings about an excellent fusion in his novel between form and content, European form and African content. For African content, he explores oral aesthetics which usually conducts the life of the rural people. The local people interpret every happening in terms of folkloric discourse. The village folk interpret cultivation, harvest, marriage, birth of children and rain in terms of folkloric aesthetics. They believe in the god of thunder who causes rainfall. Amadi incorporates it very effectively into The Concubine (1966) to explain the people’s belief-system constructed by supernatural machinery. In his words:

The god of thunder was connected with rain, so Nwokekoro was also the chief rain maker. Everyone in the village knew that he kept a mysterious white smooth stone which when immersed in water, caused rain to fall even in the dry season. Nwokekoro could also dispel heavy rain bearing clouds by merely waving a short mystic broom black with age and soot. (8)

It is undeniable that African orature is more of performance than of narration. Storytelling is a popular form of orality and the griots usually make its practice. The most striking thing about the role of griots in storytelling is that every time the griots bring about innovation in the way of delivery and the content of the stories. It adds new dimensions to the art of storytelling. Besides, dance in association with songs, drums, ogene, igele is very common in African orality. It is a medium which expose both joy and sorrow. One of the examples of such a performance may be drawn from the incident related to the tragic death of Emenike. The sadness that Emenike’s death evokes is expressed in the ritual of dance and death. The tune of the music is enthralling but the words are sorrowful`:

Do you know that Eke is dead?


We fear the big wide world;


Do not plan for the morrow,

Eh-Eh-Eh. (28)

 With a good number of specimens like this, one Amadi presents the aesthetic mores and belief-system controlling the indigenous people widely and creates a vive of Africanness and subjective identity of the African novels.

Even the setting of the novel takes the readers to an idyllic Igbo village free from the manipulation of colonial and post-colonial interference. This text was produced in 1966, in the post-colonial era of Nigeria. Post-colonial Nigeria is remarkable for cultural manipulation, Westernization of local culture, education and neo-colonial conceptualization of life. But the village Omakachi that is imagined in this novel as setting makes the readers call it a ‘village novel’ because the people, geography, ethnicity, indigenous culture, rituals, festivals and metaphysical interference in the people’s life have come from the repertoire of oral aesthetics of Africa. Even the interpretation of life and death of the villagers, their diseases, sanity, insanity and fate are made by the deterministic force of pantheon of the local people. Mutual relationship between husband and wife is not marred by the mechanical vive of the Westernized city life. Motherliness, fatherly affection, children’s loyalty to their superiors and parents are measured and decided by the aesthetic mores of rural life and ethnic values here.

Again, orality serves as a masculine discourse in African society. It is almost universal that orality projects an ephemeral image of women. In this subcontinent The Bag of Grandmother (Thakurmar Jhuli) serves as a glaring example of the masculine role of orality. In most of its stories women are portrayed in negative images. They are either too good or too bad, not fit to be flesh and blood. They are demons, goblins, witches or very docile wives fighting restlessly with the hard realities of life and making every possible sort of sacrifice for the comfort and contentment of their husbands. In The Concubine the myths and narratives chosen from the local oral elements depict women subjected to the authoritarian role of men. Ihuoma has no choice except dedicating absolute subjugation to the Sea-King, representing patriarchy. She is fated to undergo the humiliating state of life as a concubine. She inevitably falls victim to the politics imposing gender-identity of the patriarchal society.

Thus, The Concubine (1966) emerges out of Africa’s orality and Amadi’s ingenuity in putting the elements of orality in the Western genre makes it a unique and representative African novel. By exploring orality, Amadi also explores the masculine discourse working as an oppressive apparatus to marginalize women in the society and place men in the pivot of the power-structure. Most of the African novelists, especially of the first generation, concentrate on the subject-matter of colonialism and explicate how irresistibly it shapes, controls and exploits African life in the capitalistic backdrop. Colonialism, a patriarchal discourse also tends to uphold the masculine ideology and capitalistic hegemony to promote the vulnerability of women and brand them as inferior to men. On the other hand, orality discovers both the weakness and strength of women and this dichotomy finds a significant space enclosure in Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine (1966).

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