By Ozoro Opute
GENDER inclusiveness is a term that was alien to the consciousness of most African traditions that prefer to keep woman away from being on the same table as the men. However, with acceptance gradually being forced on the men by law, it’s still a slow-pace process. One of the main factors working against women is that when they marry, they leave their fathers’ homesteads and make homes elsewhere. Thus women are denied the opportunity of being assertive in their own fathers’ homesteads, because they have moved to their husbands’ homes, and they similarly stand on one leg, as it were, in their husbands’ homes, because they are strangers from other men’s homes. But the women are pushing back now; aided by various legal instruments, they are beginning to take back some of the privileges stiff-necked traditions have long denied them in their fathers’ homesteads. Partaking in a father’s inheritance is one such area women have achieved success and gained a measure of grudging inclusiveness from men.
Tow plays that won the yearly Beeta Playwright Competition organised by Bikiya Graham-Douglas’ Beeta Universal Arts Foundation (BUAF) in two successive years explore women’s inclusiveness theme with a measure of success. However, the women have to fight every inch of the way to get what is due them. The two plays are published by Ibiso Graham-Douglas’ Paperworth Books (PwB), in partership with BUAF. ‘Daughters of the East’ by Achalugo Chioma Ezekobe (Paperworth Books, 2018; Lagos) and ‘Jagagba’ by Abdul-Qudus Ibrahim (Paperworth Books, 2019; Lagos) both tackle the niggling issue of alienation of women as beings not capable of inheriting their fathers’ estates.
In Ezekobe’s ‘Daughters of the East’, which focuses on female inheritance in Nigeria’s Southeast Igbo heartland, the platwright is on a familiar terrain where, until recently through legal adjudications, females were forbidden from inheriting a kobo from their fathers’ estates when they die, as everything goes to the male children. Barthelomew Aniekwe has just been buried; his will has been read, but the extended family insists it will honour the will in part. There’s a vexing provision where Aniekwe’s landed property in igboland is willed to his last daughter, Mmesoma. The elders will not hear of it. They concede that Aniekwe’s properties and businesses in the city can go to whoever he wills them to, but certainly a landed property in Igboland cannot be willed to a female child.
Fortunately, Aniekwe’s last child, a son, is studying in Canada and is unable to return to bury his father. The family favours him to have that property and asks Mmesoma to hand the property to her brother even when he’s away and won’t need it and had agreed to his father’s terms in the will that was read. The family does not care that Mmesoma has a thriving modern farm in the property. Their only grouse is that their late brother spat on ‘omenani’ (tradition) and willed a landed property in Igboland to a daughter who ought and should be married off to another man where she can have claims in her husband’s home. They call it ‘allu’ (sacrilege/abomination) that Aniekwe perpetrated and wondered what he smoked before willing a property in Igboland to a daughter when he has a son.
But Aniekwe’s two daughters come prepared for the fight. The eldest daughter Loretta will have none of it. Their mother who runs the Aniekwe business in the city is somewhat concilliatory, focusing more in grieving for her late beloved husband than fight over property, but the girls feel their sense of entitlement is being threatened and decides to fight. The extended family comes in full force: Aniekwe’s brother, his sister, and two extended family members, a man and a woman who represent the community’s interests.
Ezekobe’s ‘Daughters of the East’ throws up some interesting perspectives. It calls to question a woman’s true identity. Why should a woman’s identity be subsumed under another person on account of marriage? The mere fact that Aniekwe’s two daughters are not yet married rankles the family which believes they ought to be in their husbands’ homes and not argue over their brother’s prpperty with them. Mrs. Cosmas Ezeani’s situation comes handy. For as long as her neighbours knew her, she has just been Mrs. Cosmas Ezeani; not even her birth name is known to her neighbours, because she wears her husband’s identity like clothes. This prompts Loretta to ask her: ‘Are you not a person? Were you not something when you were born? Were you not a person before you got married? Yet you can attack us because we are unma
rried, and our father has left something to (sic) us, and you even want us to be ashamed about it.’
When threats and other arm-twisting tactics fail the Aniekwe’s extended family, they resort to an ancient tradition. Since it’s a taboo for a girlchild to inherit a father’s landed property in Igboland, Mmesoma has to undergo the ‘Nrachi’ ceremony that will make her a ‘female son’, so she can inherit the property, but she must remain unmarried all her life to produce son/s who must bear Aniekwe’s name who will be able to inherit Aniekwe’s property. It’s a tradition reserved for the daughters of men who are unable to have sons to continue their lines; when such daughters perform ‘Nrachi’, they then become the sons their fathers were unable to have who must them sleep with men and bear children who answer their fathers’ names. The family insists it is the only way Mmesoma can continue her possession of the property. But Loratta and Mmesoma and their mother Chika are scandalised that the family would propose such custom for a man who has a son.
Ezekobe’s ‘Daughters of the East’ is a play for now in its topicality of theme. Its import will be better felt if it’s staged in parts of Igboland for further enlightenment on the rights of the girlchild. However, a better editing is needed to make it better, its dramatic impact heftier.
IN Ibrahim’s ‘Jagagba’, the girlchild takes the matter of inclusiveness into her own hands, seeing that the men will not willingly invite a woman to the table where important kingdom decisions are being made. But Olori Abebi will not be kept out for long. The powerful King Adewale of Ile-Rere does not have a heir to take over from him in spite of marrying many wives who give him only daughters. In a fit of murderous anger, he orders all his wives and daughters murdered and adopts a son Adebola to rule after him, having banned his only brother Adesupo who asked to succeed him sine he has no son. King Adewale would later marry Abebi who hastens his last days on earth.
But Abebi is a woman well ahead of her time. The head of another ruling house Chief Balogun had whiped off his only brother Aisoye and his family for expressing similar sentiment, as Adesupo that King Adewale should abdicate. Olori Abebi is Abisoye’s daughter with a servant woman unknown to anyone; she’ become the only serviving child of Abisoye. When she becomes queen to King Adewale, she begins her move by training all cast-away girls in the community in the art of war in a neighbouring village. After King Adewale’s death, his adopted son Adebola is in line to succeed him, but Adesupo shows up and challenges Adebola to the throne. Once there’s a situation where two or more are contesting for the throne of Ile-Rere on who wears the powerful ‘jagagba’ crown, a fight to the death is organised. Whoever emerges victorious wears the crown. Unknown to anyone, it is Olori Abebi who puts up Adesupo for the contest in the hope that she will be considered a member of the king’s powerful council. Adesupo kills Adebola during ‘Ija Jagagba’ (fight for ‘Jagagba’).
But Adesupo will have none of that nonsense from a woman becoming a member of the king’s council. Abebi turns to Balogun to challenge Adesupo and successfully defeats Adesupo. But Balogun, like Adesupo, does not consider Abebi fit for the king’s council; he wants her to marry his third son but must not discuss their little secret with anyone. It’s the same secret that she gave to Adesupo to defeat Adebola. With a few days to the installation of Balogun as king, with the quest to a council seat quashed, Olori Abebi acts fast and turns to her cast of female warriors. But she must first convince the Baba Ifa priest to crown her instead of Balogun. How does she achieve this sacred feat for a woman to be crowned king of Ile-Rere? This is the dramatic height of Ibrahim’s play, ‘Jagagba’, in giving women their deserved due, as beings also capable of sitting in the highest positions in the land, who must not be discriminated against on account of their sex, as enshrined in the constitution and other global human rights instruments.
Even diehard tradition of Ile-Rere has no choice but accommodate Queen Abebi who proves to the people that a woman has as much right and guile to ascend to the throne as a man. With Adebola, Adesupo dead and Balogun who soiled his hands with murder, the only person with the right claim to the throne is Olori Abebi, a woman closest to the throne as queen to the last king, Adewale. With her formidable all-female army by her side, Queen Abebi, is able to force tradition to bow to the superior claims of a woman of astuteness and guile.
Ezekobe and Ibrahim’s plays have shone a light on a dark spot on some of Africa’s traditions that discriminate against women in favour of men. The two plays deserve wide stage performance presence for a wider audience to see them and judge for themselves where the wind is of female ascension is blowing and take a cue: that tradition is man-made and can always change according to the dictates of time.