By Owei Lakemfa
WORDS went round the University of Ife, now, Obafemi Awolowo University, that a leading literary critic, Ms. Molara Ogundipe (later, Professor) from the University of Ibadan, was visiting. She was at Ife to give a Marxist interpretation of Professor Wole Soyinka’s 1965 novel, The Interpreters.
This was 1980/81 when Soyinka was Head of Ife Drama Department, and, still half a decade from his Nobel Prize. Many found The Interpreters a turgid and impenetrable novel. The novel’s very first statement: “Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes” was a put off for some. But this leading feminist writer was coming, not just to dissect it, but give a Marxist interpretation.
The presentation went well and the newest professor on campus made a response which I did not agree with. So in my contribution, I punched some holes in her response. The woman was furious! This was not just her first outing as a professor, but to be contradicted by a student, was intolerable. She interjected, saying: “ Much as I do not want to kill a fly with a cannon, I will not tolerate any insult”. Mr. Gordini G. Darah (now a professor) came to my defence. He told the newly minted professor: “A cannon can kill a fly, provided it has balls”. The furious professor walked out. That was the first time I met Ogundipe. She was cerebral, quite articulate, confident and persuasive.
Some radical intellectuals, including Ogundipe, held a Women In Nigeria, WIN, Conference at the Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, Zaria from May 27-28, 1982. The participants then established an organisation by that name. The objectives included defending the rights of women, working for their liberation and fighting for social justice. Ogundipe and other founders of WIN were quite clear that women cannot be liberated without the society itself, including the working class and the poor, being liberated.
Ogundipe’s presentation, which was on the theme of the conference, encapsulated her position on the various strands of women oppression. On race, she argued: “ The oppression of women, economic or personal, is not solely a White-Black Race confrontation although the oppression of Black Women is deeply tied to the variable of race in the history of imperialism”.
She noted that one of the main challenges of women emancipation is that: “ The liberation of women is conceived as the desire of women to reduce men to housekeepers. Since most men despise manual work for feudal and middle class reasons, women’s liberation is feared as an effort by women to ‘feminise’ men, that is, degrade them”.
Ogundipe argued that women in traditional African societies were quite active in the economy and that even where they were driven indoors, they continue to be productive, adding that “women work in purdah and sell their products through emissaries”. Women, she argued, tend to be subordinated in marriage, and blamed for childlessness; “…as men are never admitted to be sterile or infertile”. She added: “ A childless woman is considered a monstrosity…”.
In this paper she presented 37 years ago, Ogundipe said: “Abortion is not likely to be legalised soon”; and that women “ can only claim equality within marriage if they are willing to share the financial and other burdens of marriage”.
WIN was also open to men; so I joined and helped to establish its Lagos chapter. Ogundipe moved to Lagos to join the GUARDIAN Editorial Board and we worked together on the WIN project. She could not immediately secure accommodation in Lagos, and the Lagos-Ibadan shuttle was quite burdensome. So she moved in to stay with my family in a flat in Bakinson House, Bakinson Street, Oregun.
In those days, we had endless debates, especially about her hypothesis of the seven layers of oppression she posited the African woman was subjected to. Ogundipe’s consciousness as a woman, a female in a male-dominated academic system, and being a witness to the place of women within a cultural, religious, capitalist, colonial and neo-colonial patriarchal society, firmed her postulations on the woman.
She argued that while the woman is universally oppressed, the African woman is the most oppressed. She, however, insisted that rather than a blanket assumption, women needed to be studied within their specific environment.
Ogundipe condensed her ideas on women in an hypothesis she called, the Social Transformation in Africa Including Women, STIWA. Explaining STIWA, she said: “…What we want in Africa is social transformation. It is not about warring with men, the reversal of role, or doing to men whatever women think that men have been doing for centuries, but it is trying to build a harmonious society. The transformation of African society is the responsibility of both men and women and it is also in their interest. The new word describes what similarly minded women and myself would like to see in Africa. The word ‘feminism’ itself, seems to be a kind of red rag to the bull of African men. Some say the word by its very nature is hegemonic or implicitly so. Others find the focus on women in themselves somehow threatening…”.
As a thinker, she was conscious that coining such an acronym would be useful for mass mobilisation. It gave the sense of an ideology: Stiwanism, while a person who identifies with the concept could be called a Stiwanist.
Professor Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie, as she later became known, produced a lot of intellectual works, including books like Sew the Old Days and Other Poems (1985); Re-Creating Ourselves: African Women & Critical Transformations(ed.) and Moving Beyond Boundaries.
We lost contact when she went abroad. After I returned to the country in 2015 following a three-year absence, I was unaware she was also back. Then on March 12, 2016, I got a request from her on Messenger for my cell number and e-mail address, vital information tools that were absent the last time we were in contact. We were back in contact discussing various issues. Then on November 13, 2018, she sent me a message for advice on the media she should write for as she intended resuming column writing.
Earlier this year, I promised that when next I am in Lagos or Ibadan, I will visit her in the new university in Ogun State she was teaching. That visit will never happen as on June 18, 2019, the warrior-academic, Marxist-Feminist- Narratologist, departed the earthly battle field for other fields.
Let me end this tribute with a poem she wrote four decades ago:
“How long shall we speak to them
Of the goldness of mother, of difference without home;
How long shall we say another world lives;
Not spinned on the axis of maleness;
But founded and wholed, charting through;
Its many runnels its justice distributive”.