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  • Women Writing Africa. Vol. 2: West Africa and the Sahel
  • Lisa McNee (bio)
Esi Sutherland-Addy and Aminata Diaw, eds. Women Writing Africa. Vol. 2: West Africa and the Sahel. New York: Feminist Press, 2005. 477pp. ISBN 1-5586-1500-8, $29.95.

This exciting new volume in the Women Writing Africaproject is a treasure trove that readers will return to over and over again for insight into West African and Sahelian women's lives. As the title of the project implies, women in Africa do not simply represent Africa in oral and written literatures; indeed, they shape the continent.

This second volume fully realizes this innovative perspective on the relationship between words and the world. A wide-ranging, thorough introduction to the anthology guides the reader towards a feminist perspective through an excellent overview of the history and social contexts of the region. The anthology is interdisciplinary in nature, and includes oral literature, historical texts, interviews, and fiction. The texts illuminate a broad swath of time and space, presenting specific historical events and aspects of women's lives from the thirteenth century to the present. Many of these texts are deeply moving; all of them are highly informative. The headnotes are excellent, packed with information about texts and contexts, as well as about the authors and oral artists. Given this wealth of texts and explanatory material, the anthology will prove invaluable, both for scholars and for students.

Women Writing Africalays to rest the many stereotypes and prejudices that have bedeviled Africa and African women, offering in contrast a rich source of women's own words about their lives. Colonial tropes do receive attention, however, primarily to ensure that readers do know about the long history of discursive bondage. The introduction of this anthology opens with a discussion of colonial images of Africa as a seductive woman. In contrast to West African artists' depictions of Mammy Wata, the jealous siren of the [End Page 747]seas who bestows good luck upon her followers, the colonial image of a snake-like Africa represents danger and death. In short, Europeans saw Africa as "the white man's grave." That grave was a woman's arms, if we accept the European trope of Africa as seductress.

The anthology frees African women from these discursive chains by presenting their own words, written and performed, in context. The entire collection succeeds in this endeavor, but certain sections are particularly strong in this regard. In the section "1916 to 1970: The Rise of Nationalism," most of the texts dispel the colonialist stereotypes very powerfully. A text about the famous Aba Women's Revolt (Nigeria) stands out. Nwanyeruwa's 1930 testimony before the commission of inquiry about the Aba revolts gives a vivid description of the events. Before this period, women had never been taxed. When the warrant chief arrived to demand taxes, she refused and made comments he disliked, so he "held me by my throat. One's life depends on her throat" (171). As a result of Chief Okugo's violent attempt to enforce the law, the women "sat" on him by singing and dancing outside of his home and mocking him. For many, the Aba Women's Revolt is the epitome of feminist revolt against colonialism and patriarchalism. Francophone women's resistance is represented in the text "That is How the Women Woke Up," a text about the march on Grand Bassam, Côte d'Ivoire. Oral texts and letters to the women's column give voice to other types of resistance. In criticizing colonialism and white racism, these women freed themselves from discursive chains, and often from real ones.

The colonialist notion of a Great Divide between "oral cultures" and "literate cultures" has been particularly problematic for African women, who "write" in both modes. The Women Writing Africaproject clearly rejects theories of the Great Divide, and presents both modes of self-expression as equally powerful in their own way. Perhaps it is for this reason that the second volume is evenly divided between oral and written texts, The liberal use of oral texts and the introduction's informative discussion of orality and the diversity of oral genres...


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pp. 747-751
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