What lies beneath the prostitute figure in African literature?

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Gracious Madondo

African literature is replete with female figures depicted as prostitutes or people of lose morals.   

The portrayal of this female figure is largely misunderstood and misinterpreted by many readers.

Many readers new to African literature always wonder why many writers find the image of a prostitute an attractive figure for a protagonist.

While the figure of a prostitute is often frowned upon by society, writers find such a character an archetypal of society’s moral compass.

The figure of a prostitute is not unique to African literature. A prostitute was a dominant feature of the Victorian era in England in works such as “Sense and Sensibilities,” by Jane Austen and William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.’

However, there is a marked difference in the depiction of a prostitute in the Victorian and African literature particularly literature from writers such as Dambudzo Marechera, Ngugi waThiongo and Okot p’Bitek.

Prostitute figures in the Victorian literature are normally depicted as characters lacking agency or are the ultimate villains while in most novels by African writers such characters become empowered in the end.

In the sense of representativeness, African writers’ depiction of a prostitute becomes bold artistic way of encapsulating social reality.   

Shakespeare through the character of Mistress Overdone depicts her as a sexual object as implied by her name, something that makes many discount her story as nothing more than just of a prostitute.

There are various ways of interpreting the vexation writers have with prostitute characters. Feminists interpret the existence of prominent prostitute characters as a symbol of freedom or celebration of their femininity.     

A kind of freedom achieved by women as they go against the expectation and hypocrisy of the traditional patriarchal society that despises female expression of their sexuality.  

While not ultimately celebrating female sexuality, African writers contextualize the circumstances that normally lead a character to become a commercial sex worker.

In other words, readers are called to exercise balance when encountering a female character in a text. Literary critic Robert Langbaum in his “Discussion of Dramatic Monologues” outlines two points of analysis which suggest sympathy for dealing with the emotion, suspend moral judgment in order to empathize and read clearly into the character.

Langbaum also suggests that the reader should first decipher the writer’s authorial intention in presenting the character and the various complications attached the personality of the character in question.

Both pre- and post-colonial African literature feature the female prostitute as the image of choice in pushing a certain thought into the world.

Writers such as Ngugi waThiong’o, Dambudzo Marechera, Okot p’Bitek among others have one way or the other included a prostitute as a protagonist of some kind in their writing. 

Most readers have a tendency of ignoring the social context that creates a female prostitute character.

Dambudzo Marechera’s “The House of Hunger” captures a prostitute who goes behind the bush with a man and is followed by children who laugh at her as she walks away with seamen trickling down her legs.

“The House of Hunger” is about a society characterized by psychological and physical disorder alluded to by the term “hunger” in the title of the novella and this socio-economic chaos can be viewed as the root cause of this social behaviour.

Turning a blind eye to the prostitute’s contribution to the broader story is as result of misunderstandings perpetrated by character stereotyping. This is also the case with the character Wanja in Ngugi waThiongo’s “Petals of Blood” (1977).

Ngugi displays a great liking for the image of the prostitute in his writing and he shows this in “Petals of Blood” and “Devil on the Cross’’ (1980).

“Petals of Blood” is a novel  concerned with four principal characters who are being held by police on suspicion of murder namely Karega, a teacher, Munira , a headmaster,  Abdulla, an Indian shopkeeper who was once a guerrilla fighter during the war of independence and Wanja, a barmaid and former prostitute.

The inclusion of the prostitute among those taking part in the liberation of Kenya signifies the collectiveness of the struggle and how it brought together people from all walks of life without discrimination.

Wanja as character displays empowerment and freedom from the cusp of tradition and society as she is an employed woman working in a bar as a barmaid and also taking apart in the fight for uhuru.

Such personalities fail to gain the full and just interpretation because of stereotyping. Stereotypical thinking, as literary critic Ogo A. Ofuani says, “Is necessary in the socializing process of finding role models but when stereotypes become rigid that individual varieties are ignored or denigrated they act as barriers to recognizing the complex human beings”.

Most prostitute figures epitomize some kind of freedom that deconstructs some cultural and modern patriarchal tendencies. Prostitutes usually do not accept the position of being inferior to men. Instead they feasts on the complete knowledge of the weakness and unwariness of men and draws sustenance and even have control over them.

Malaya is the female character, a prostitute, in Okot p’Bitek’s “Song of Malaya” (1958). Malaya is a complex character. One moment she is a working professional, the next she is a very sentimental mother offering comfort to her son whose father has rejected him. Her clients are also multi-racial- from Indians, white miners to her regular African men such as politicians, engineers to local chiefs, school teachers and schoolboys.   

This portrayal of a prostitute sets the bar very high for the interpretation of the image of the “fallen woman” in literature.

Without doubt social, cultural and religious views regarding women and the commodification of sex need to be suspended so as to reach a fair interpretation of the broader story as well as a clear understanding of the socio-economic situations of the time and how they affected women.

In the case of Ngugi, his message especially to desperate female figures like Wariinga in “Devil on the Cross” is never to give up to life’s problems. Even after giving birth, she strives to get back to school and takes up secretarial studies and later ends up being a mechanic.

 

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