Aghogho Akpome, University of University of Zululand
In a short tribute to Buchi Emecheta, one of Nigeria’s and Africa’s more prominent pioneering female novelists who died in 2017, Adichie said “[w]e were able to speak because you first spoke” (Ikeji, 2017). This is an apparent reference to the growing numbers of Nigerian and African female writers whose works amplify female and younger voices in cultural, literary and socio-political discourses which have been historically dominated by older male voices. Through the character and role of the protagonist, Kambili (and, to a lesser extent those of Jaja, her teenage brother; Amaka and Obiora, their teenage cousins; their widowed aunt, Ifeoma as well as Amadi, the youthful chaplain), Purple Hibiscus (2003) highlights the suffocating socio-cultural structures that silence women and young people in an archetypal postcolonial African society. Such was Nigeria, in which the novel is set, under the grip of serial brutal military dictatorships from 1983 to 1999.
One of the most striking successes of the novel is how skilfully it dramatizes its characters’ intense and often fatal psycho-social struggles to overcome these obstacles and find their voices. This struggle is highlighted in the story’s second section aptly sub-titled “Speaking with our spirits”. But before we even get there, we are shown, in the opening section, an example of Kambili’s seemingly pathological inability to express herself and carry out sustained conversations – even in an intimate, non-threatening occasion where the family is savouring freshly made wine from the father’s factory:
“It’s very good, Papa,” I said.
Papa swirled it around his bulging cheeks. “Yes, yes.”
“It tastes like fresh cashew. “Mama said.
Say something please, I wanted to say to Jaja. He was supposed to say something now, to contribute, to compliment Papa’s new product. (Adichie, 2003: 13; my emphasis)
There are many occasions like this where Kamibili, as the first person narrator and focaliser of the story, shares with readers what she would intend to say, but would, almost invariably, be unable to say. As it lays bare some of the psycho-social processes involved in the silencing of women, children and youths, Adichie’s narrative technique simultaneously narrates their intentions, experiences and frustrations in ways that ultimately make it possible for the unsaid and unsayable to be heard. These surgical narratological gestures expose the many traumas of the voiceless. Kambili’s poor communication skills often makes her socially awkward – especially when she visits her cousins and when she is in the company of her school mates who wrongly accuse her of being a snob.
I wanted to tell the girl that it was all my hair, there were no attachments, but the words would not come. I knew they were still talking about hair, how long and thick mine looked. I wanted to talk with them, to laugh with them so much that I would start to jump up and down in one place the way they did, but my lips held stubbornly together. I did not want to stutter, so I started to cough and then ran out into the toilet. (Adichie, 2033: 141; my emphasis)
But her suffering is not limited to these interpersonal social contexts as is evident in the immediate aftermath of one of Eugene’s many moments of rage:
The silence was broken only by the whir of the ceiling fan as it sliced through the still air. Although our spacious dining room gave way to an even wider living room, I felt suffocated. The off-white walls with the framed photos of Grandfather were narrowing, bearing down on me. Even the glass dining table was moving toward me. (Adichie, 2003: 7)
What Kambili’s response reveals is a personal dimension of trauma that powerfully links voicelessness and violence to space. Her expansive and luxurious surroundings seem to exacerbate, Kambili’s unease. (This can be linked to the fact that it is within these spaces that Eugene repeatedly unleashes physical harm on her, Jaja and their mother effectively turning the luxurious home into a kind of torture chamber). It is a paradox which, I suggest, can be understood as an allegorical device to problematize the relationship between the material and psychic conditions of voiceless postcolonial subjects.
Kambili’s different experience of space is foregrounded when she and Jaja go on holiday at the small flat of their widowed aunt, Ifeoma. Ifeoma’s humble, single-parent, female-headed home with its narrow bathroom, low ceilings and the novel’s eponymous purple hibiscus, is a space of uninhibited self-expression. It sharply contrasts Eugene’s luxurious mansion in several ways, but most significantly for the visions of freedom it offers Kambili and Jaja – freedom to laugh, argue, protest, question, sing, decide, dare, love. It is where Jaja’s rebellion against Eugene takes root.
It is where Kambili’s tongue begins to be untied and where her journey to self-realisation begins – she dares not only to develop romantic feelings for a priest, but actually says those feelings out loud to him. Therefore, as the story closes, when she writes about the things she does not talk about, we understand that the silence this time is “a different silence” (Adichie, 2003: 293). It becomes a deliberate silence, a product of free choice rather than the mark of voicelessness.
 This is not to suggest that such paradoxes may only be found within postcolonial societies. My point here is that the circumstances in this narrative can be directly linked to, and understood within, the specific contexts of postcolonial societies.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. 2003. Purple Hibiscus. London: Fourth Estate.
Ikeji, Linda, 2017. “Chimamanda Adichie mourns Buchi Emecheta”. Available at: https://www.lindaikejisblog.com/2017/01/chimamanda-adichie-mourns-buchi-emecheta.html. Accessed 10 January 2020.
The Nigerian Civil War:
The story told in Purple Hibiscus is set twenty or thirty years after the Nigerian Civil War, during the rule of General Ibrahim Babangida. The war was the culmination of tensions between the Igbo people in the South-East and the federal Nigerian government in the north, tensions that became even more apparent in the aftermath of Nigerian independence. Hostilities erupted in January of 1966 when a political coup was initiated by several Igbos within the Nigerian Military. Among them was Major General Johnson T. U. Aguiyi, who himself was assassinated in a countercoup in July of 1966, and several thousand Igbo’s were murdered later in that year. The following year, the South-East state of Biafra was declared. Nigeria, fearing the loss of control over vital oil fields now occupied by Biafra, took up arms against this breakout state.
An economic blockade was enforced on Biafra, which led to a devastating depletion of resources in the region. The blockade would later move to include oil, but the most significant effect would be the loss of civilian life due to malnourishment and extreme famine. The civil war ended in 1970, but the idea of an independent Biafran state lives on. As late as July 2020, Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra/Biafra Independence Movement (BIM-MASSOB) became accepted as a member of the General Assembly of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.
Babangida’s regime and corruption in Nigeria:
The Nigeria that Kambili grows up in carries elements of Nigeria of the 1980s and ’90s, at a time of great political and economical instability. Rumors about corrupt politicians, secret imprisonments and suspicious deaths in the novel reflect historical human rights abuses committeed during Babangida´s regime. Human Rights Watch has catalogued these abuses here. The character of Ade Choke is said to be inspired by real-life journalist Dele Giwa, who was himself killed by a mail bomb at his home in Lagos in 1986. And in 1995, writer Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed and his body was burned with acid and thrown into an unmarked grave, similar to how the character Nwankiti Ogechi is killed in the novel (201).
Ogaga Okuyade (2009) suggests that Adichie critiques Babangida´s abuse of power by making “Eugene’s home … a microcosmic of the entire Nigerian nation. Eugene’s hegemonisitic cum religious rule coupled with his idiosyncratic posture articulately parallels the despotic disposition and histrionics of General Ibrahim Babangida’s regime” (254). Just as Kambili and Jaja are allowed a brief period of freedom at Aunty Ifeoma´s flat, “Babangida’s government gives the Nigerian people an opportunity to explore democracy within a military ambiance. The redeeming and innovative air of democracy became very compelling, so that Nigerians embraced it with their hearts.” (255).
In Purple Hibiscus, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie has found a way of not only expressing the horror of child abuse in the closed-off home sphere, but of critiquing the abusive and corrupt leadership of the young Nigerian nation and its persecution of those who opposed it.
Domestic Abuse and violence again women in Nigeria
|Purple Hibiscus deals heavily with domestic violence, as well as violence towards women in general. While the level of violence against Nigerian women in the home is still lacking in proper coverage, pilot studies adamantly conclude that it is “shockingly high”. Up to two-thirds of women in certain communities in Nigeria’s Lagos State are believed to have experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence in the family, and in other areas around 50 percent of women say they are victims to domestic violence.
Due to the country’s widespread tolerance of violence against women, there is also an absence of official studies. As such, research into the prevalence of violence in the family has been conducted by individuals and organisations. In a recent small-scale study of gender inequality in Lagos and Oyo states, 40 percent of the women interviewed said they had been victims of violence in the family, in some cases for several years.
Likewise, a 2001 survey by Project Alert on Violence Against Women, a non-governmental women’s rights organization set up in January 1999, disclosed the grim statistics on domestic violence in Nigeria. While newer data is not available, the problem of violence against women is clearly still a huge issue. In the study, interviews were conducted with women in various workplaces, and with girls and young women in secondary school and at university in Lagos State. In Lagos State, 64.4 percent of the 45 interviewed women in workplaces said they had been beaten by a partner, boyfriend or husband, and 56.2 percent of 48 interviewed market women had experienced the same type of violence.
According to Amnesty, the federal and state governments of Nigeria were partly responsible for these “shocking” numbers. Neither the Lagos government nor the Federal government were doing anything substantial to stem the tide of violence – and in some cases they were even condoning it, according to the human rights group, who launched their report ‘Nigeria: Unheard voices – violence against women in the family’.
As Amnesty disclosed, Nigerian women are beaten, raped and even murdered by members of their family for supposed transgressions, which can range from not having meals ready on time to visiting family members without their husband’s permission, all of which Adichie portrays in her novel. Husbands, partners and fathers are responsible for most of the violence against these women, while the courts and police often dismiss domestic violence as a family matter and refuse to investigate or press charge, thereby offering little to no protection for women. This is well reflected in their report from 2005 titled “Nigeria – Unheard Voices Violence Against Women in the Family”.
While news and statistics from Nigeria are discouraging, there are those nationally and internationally who are persistently combating this violence. This includes spreading information about women rights, legal reforms, a police force and judiciary capable of aiding female victims and the establishment of safe-houses where women can escape violence. The lack of the letter is particularly important, as Adichie illustrates the lengths some might go to in order to escape this violence.
As mentioned, Project Alert on Violence Against Women are ceaselessly working to improve the lives of women in Nigeria by providing information on all forms of violence against women and young girls; advocating for zero tolerance to all forms of violence against them; and providing practical support services to female victims of violence. Their blog is a testimony to their history of tireless commitment to their cause.