Borders Literature Online

SITUATING CHIMAMANDA ADICHIE'S PURPLE HIBISCUS WITHIN THE CHILD WELFARE POLICY CONTEXT OF NIGERIA

Article by: Olatoun Gabi-Williams |


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Review

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has, in the words of one admirer, 'a face to die for'. She also has an enviably good mind and talent to burn as a writer. Born in 1977 in Enugu, South-East Nigeria, so well -received have her writings been, they have earned her an uncommon recognition as a writer across the world.

In 2015, the Swedish government provided a copy of her essay, We should all be Feminists to every 16 year old school child in the country. Important awards have been conferred on Adichie including in 2003 the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book, and in 2008, a MacArthur Genius Grant. In 2017, she gained entry into the prestigious American Academy of Arts & Sciences and in 2020 she emerged the Winner of Winners in a public vote held by the Women's Prize for Fiction in celebration of its 25th anniversary. On September 22nd 2021, Adichie, a guest of honour at the opening ceremony for the two new exhibition halls of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin was invited to speak after President of the German Republic, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Emphasizing their historical and religious significance to the local African people, she built a compelling case for the return (to sites of provenance) of artefacts and artworks stolen during the colonial era and housed in museums across Europe.

I was privileged in 2004 to attend a literary evening organized by Farafina the first publisher of the Nigerian edition. The evening was held at The Yellow Chilli restaurant on Victoria Island, in Lagos where I live. It was a full house with plenty of good food and drink. Asha, a wild, brilliant musician, now based in Paris, raised the roof. She was supporting an unknown, very young woman. Adichie must have only been 23 at the time. Did any one of us have any inkling then, of the behemoth she was so soon to become?



Chimamanda


Looking back now, it is astonishing to me that it took my second reading of Purple Hibiscus to discover quite how remarkable this debut novel is. It is the work of a beginner already at the height of her powers when she sat down to write it. Indeed, Chinua Achebe, a founding father of African literature, is credited with saying that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came fully made.

In my original review of her book, I built a case around religion as a major trigger of its violence. Since writing that review, I have experienced an epiphany - of sorts and there has been a shift in my way of looking. In this review, I build a case around religion as a key element in the arsenal of the European colonizer as he laid siege to the lands and above all, the peoples of Africa.

Now religion remains backdrop, but it is far less the central thesis of the book; now it is more the framing narrative of a powerful novel which mirrors post-colonial Nigeria's struggle to find a place to call home in a cultural and religious war-zone.

In this paper, there is no scope and frankly I lack the scholarship for a discussion of Beatrice Achike's multiple batteries, a lifetime of battery, humiliation and victimisation at the hands of her husband, Eugene Achike. In their tragic marriage, afropatriarchy is represented by the wife while europatriarchy, in their shocking twisted union, is represented by her husband. These are terms coined by the Nigerian/Swedish feminist and scholar, Minna Salami whose book, Sensuous Knowledge, should be referred to for a clear understanding of the terms and the issues they address.

My discussion here centres three people: Jaja who is 17 when we meet him, his sister, Kambili, the fifteen year old narrator of the book and their father, Eugene Achike. He is the patriarch whose absolute power propels the story and whose dark shadow is cast over the outcomes of each family member at the broken heart of this book.

Through Eugene Achike, we see how Christianity, when embraced, mis-interpreted and mis-applied by powerful local hierarchies, will perpetuate the epistemic violence unleashed by colonialists who sought to re-orient and re-configure pre-Christian Africa.

My colleague, Afua Twum-Danso Imoh is married to a man from the Igbo tribe of Nigeria. Afua may know far more about Igbo traditional religion than I do. What I know is that it is polytheist and animist. The Igbo subscribe to a creator God, Chukwu and believe in lesser deities and spirits and in ancestors who protect their living descendants. Papa Nnukwu is a proud and joyful adherent of this religion which intuits a divine essence in all things. Father to Eugene Achike, the old man blames the mission school of the colonial era for the monster his son has become. While relaying stories to his grandchildren about the harm perpetrated by the British missionaries, Papa Nnukwu needs to be reminded by his daughter Ifeoma that she attended the same mission school.

But the old man's views about his son are hard to dismiss. Eugene Achike bans his family from speaking Igbo, their mother tongue, in public. He insists that English is spoken. The civilized language. He descends into deadly rages at the barest hint of transgressions his wife and children have not committed. For his children, no socializing, no recreation. He regiments their lives obsessively. They have no life outside the life of fear they live with him. In the canon of modern African fiction, for his cruelty towards his family, in the name of Christianity; for his maltreatment of his father who does not share his Christian beliefs; Eugene Achike will remain one of the most memorable casualties of the epistemic violence carried out by the colonizers of Africa as they imposed their world-view.

I must pause here to share a little from my journey into the study of epistemic violence. Loosely, it is the process of weaponizing knowledge against the so-called Other. Let me quote Enrique Galvan Alvarez, a leading scholar of post-colonial studies.

It is violence exerted against knowledge or by means of knowledge and probably one of the key elements in any process of domination. As part of my investigation of the phenomenon of Eugene Achike, having found Alvarez [on the website https://epistemicviolence.aau.at/index.php/en/home-2/ Epistemic Violence,] I reached for other scholars who could shed light on the interface of power-structures that provide the triggers for the human and ideological drama of Adichie's novel. The power-structures are: a family ruled by a tyrant; a nation under military rule; a university under a sole administrator.



Sensiuos_Knowledge.JPG


In Sensuous Knowledge, the inspiring monograph written by Minna Salami; in essays by the much older Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, I have found accessible explanations about the wide range of knowledges, about the diverse ways in which knowledge can be configured, the wide range of sources of knowledge and the good and evil purposes to which knowledge can be put. My encounter with these two scholars has left me wondering why the study of knowledge is relegated to scholarly spaces, why it is conspicuously absent from main-stream discourse given its centrality to our lives; given the encompassing range of its impacts: from life-giving to life-threatening.

As part of the critical work he undertakes in Decolonizing the Mind , Ngugi wa Thiongo performs the essential task of explaining the function of language as the collective memory bank of a people's experience in history; as the premier channel of a society's norms, values and traditions. Part-memoir, part-analysis of the structures of imperial power, part-exposition of the functions of language in human society and its role in specialized settings, Decolonizing the Mind is always polemical. Like Eugene Achike, Ngugi wa Thiong'o also passed through the colonial education system. And because he knows we need to ask how exactly the colonizers waged the war that conquered Africa, he provides the answer in a graphic recollection from his own childhood:



Ngugi wa Thiongo


In Kenya, English became more than a language, it was the language, and all the others had to bow before it in deference. Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment: 3-5 strokes of the cane on bare buttocks, or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as: I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY.

The language with which Ngugi prefaces this recollection is magnificent: the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and blackboard. The physical violence of the battle field was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom.



If an objective of this book is to build a case to support the dignity of African cultural identity and to mourn the violent assaults by our colonizers on that dignity, the scenes centering the Aro festival, are critical. We remember the trepidation of the family knowing Eugene Achike would forbid a visit to the festival and we remember the joy of the actual festival; how that joy contrasts so starkly with the family's earlier fear.



Aro Festival


Ezi Icheke is full of people on the day of the festival; the place is vibrant with colour; people dressed as Agbogho mmuo - maiden spirits -are on parade. There is a mmuo wearing the mask of a grimacing human skull. Papa Nnukwu instructs the women to look away. As I looked on at this scene, I smiled thinking of the story my mother told me about a friend's sister jumping into a wheel-barrow, to hide out- of- sight of agemo masquerades who paraded the streets of their home town of Ijebu Ode in South-West Nigeria.

But here, we are on the pages of Purple Hibiscus with Ifeoma, Papa Nnukwu and the children. This is Igboland, Ezi Icheke, South-East Nigeria. Everywhere hawkers are selling food and drink. I drink in the colours of these local scenes, seeing what all readers will see; what Ifeoma, a university lecturer sees; what her children and Papa Nnukwu see; and ultimately, what Jaja and Kambili see. Despite having been programmed by their father, to reject devilish folklore, they see it too: the sheer beauty of rich, ancestral traditions.



Agbogho mmuo


Jaja and Kambili are silent about the Aro Festival where Agbogho Mmuo parade the streets. They are silent about spending time with Papa Nnukwu who is a heathen, an animist. Jaja and Kambili are always silent. We, the readers, see the children as they should be: far more frightened of their father than any of these.

Agbogho mmuo


He sits in the front pew in his church. Where others remain standing, he kneels at the altar of communion - his eyes shut tight, his face set tight. He is the financier of the Church of St. Agnes, a great philanthropist, a human rights activist At home he is the perpetrator of hideous crimes against his wife and children because he loves them too much to leave them to the clutches of sin; he loves them too much not to purify them of their sins. I have read essays on Purple Hibiscus which argue that the novel indicts fanatical Christianity. Upon reflection, on a closer inspection of the text, I no longer find that to be the case. The novel is an indictment of egregious heresy with its harmful even life-threatening consequences; an indictment of a patriarchal culture which forces the complicity of women and children if not in their own abuse, in its perpetuation. It is an indictment of the unbridled power of authority figures and finally, centrally, it is an indictment of the violence of colonization. Nowhere does the book put true Christians, loving souls, even passionate ones, in the dock.

Let me give you examples of the barbarism Eugene Achike carries out in this book: a little finger chopped off because Jaja -at the age of 10 - fumbles 2 questions of the Catechism. We watch him come into the bathroom with boiling water fresh from the kettle which he slowly and steadily pours on the feet of each of his children. There's a horrific scene in which he beats his daughter into unconsciousness and she is hospitalized. Why such savagery? She is harbouring a painting of her grandfather whom she loves; his father, whose religious beliefs he violently rejects.



It is worth pointing out that 2003, the year Purple Hibiscus was published in the UK, is the year the Child Rights Act was passed in Nigeria. The CRA elevates the status of children; they are the subject of rights; they have agency now as rights bearers. The Act has been domesticated by over 24 states in Nigeria, a nation of 36. Across several of its provisions - I have posted some on the screen - child abuse is explained and specific provision is made for the prosecution and punishment of criminals. Sanctions involve fines and jail terms. Section 11 of the CRA 2003 protects children from neglect, maltreatment, sexual abuse and torture and importantly recognizes the dignity of children - a necessary development in a cultural setting which can seem to promote the status and privileges of elders at the expense of the well-being of children. The 2003 Act outlines children's entitlements regarding protections to be afforded them by their parents and guardians from the foetal state through adulthood at 18 years. [I rejoice that with CRA section 17, the unborn child has a right to protection from harm.]



Child Right Act 2003


What we witness in Purple Hibiscus needs no explanation: a succession of hideous crimes committed by one man against his living children. And by means of the violence he carries out against his wife, we see the same monster kill his unborn children. Rooted in extensive knowledge of human development, inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other related rights instruments, the child rights laws straddle the life/survival of children, their development, their participation in the world around them and their protection. If you look at the father's treatment of his own children through the lens of these laws passed decades after he lived in fiction and died in fiction (too slowly), the case for the prosecution is unassailable.

In my distress about the suffering of the children, I my knee-jerk reaction was to reach out to my friend, Juleus Ghunta, a Jamaica based survivor of Adverse Childhoood Experiences (ACEs). He has become a sought after expert around the world due to his advocacy work and his children's books around ACEs. I asked Juleus important questions including one about Kambili. Let me share it with you:



Juleus Ghunta.JPG


I shudder to think about Kambili's trajectory through life in the real world post-Purple Hibiscus. What would it look like?

"If she receives long-term help, therapy, an opportunity to physically relocate from the place where she was abused to one that is safe, where she is loved and supported by people who truly care for her, she'll likely heal and even excel. There's hope, even with horrific cases like hers.

If she does not heal, she'll either retreat (even more) into herself, practice self-harm, endure numerous illnesses or become a menace to her family, peers and society. Or all these things at the same time. But even then, unless she becomes terminally ill, I wouldn't say she is irreparably damaged."

For the rest of this important conversation with the author Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows: A Story about ACEs and Hope Click here



JACE.JPG


CLOSING

Purple Hibiscus is an urgent reminder of the Biblical axiom: wherever the Spirit of God is, there is liberty. Let's turn it the other way round: wherever there is liberty, there, is the Spirit of God. The God whose name means Love.

17 year old Jaja and 15 year old Kambili, victims over their lifetimes of the hate and madness of their father, are given a taste of freedom and love in the home of Ifeoma, their father's sister and in the company of their grandfather, Papa Nnukwu.

I hope there is a sequel to Purple Hibiscus so that we can learn not more about hate from Chimamanda Adichie but about the kind of healthy, consistent, unconditional love needed to heal the Jajas and Kambilis in our societies and about the availability of people within and outside the family who can and are willing to provide it.

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PANEL DISCUSSION

With me here are 2 men, experienced professionals who are very willing to provide that care. Dr. Tayo Ajirotutu, Head of the Department of Psychology at Federal-Neuro -Psychiatrist, Lagos and Tunde Koleoso, a social worker and retired Assistant Director at the Department of Social Welfare at the Ministry of Youth & Social Development, Lagos State Government.

A quick look at their career profiles.

Dr. Ajirotutu Omotayo

Dr. Ajirotutu Omotayo has a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology, an M.Phil. degree from the University of Ibadan, a Master's degree all from the University of Lagos, Nigeria and a first degree in Psychology from the Enugu State University, Enugu State, Nigeria. He is a fellow of the Nigerian Association of Clinical Psychologists and a member of the Nigerian Psychological Association. His work experience spans over 20 years in clinical practice. It includes psychological intervention for people going through various forms of psychological distress ranging from workplace issues, substance addiction, work-life balance, emotional issues, marital distress, sexual abuse, coping disorders, learning disorders, mental retardation, other mental health issues and traumatic experiences. A sought-after speaker who has added, through his presentations, to the body of knowledge in the nation about clinical psychology, Tayo is currently working with the Lagos state task force of covid-19 as a member of the psychosocial response team. He is also Head of the Department of Psychology at the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria.




Olatunde Koleoso

Olatunde Koleoso is a graduate of Philosophy from the University of Lagos. Starting as a junior social worker, he worked with the Lagos State Government where he rose to the position of an Assistant Director (Social Welfare). While in service, he worked in major departments of social work. From the administrative (general service) department, he moved to Case Work Services (now Family Social Services). From there, he moved onto Hospital Social Services and then onto Correctional Services which is an intervention for youth and children of dysfunctional families. Appointed as an Assessor in the Family Court System, Tunde has attended many valuable workshops and conferences within the ministry including UNICEF sponsored workshops on policy formulation and the implementation of the Child Rights Law of Lagos State, 2007.














  1. For Tayo: October's World Mental Health Month, so let's start with Dr. Tayo Ajirotutu, head of the Department of Psychology at Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital
    1. Frantz Fanon, was a renowned psychiatrist and author of The Wretched of the Earth or Les Damnés de la Terre, the bible of liberation struggles, He is the first psychiatrist to have made the connection between colonialism and mental disease.

      Talk to us about Eugene Achike, the perpetrator of the violent acts, in light of this recognition.



    2. The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon


    3. Jaja, Kambili and their mother Beatrice live in a constant state of fear in a home setting where the actions of the father, head of the household, oscillates between loving tenderness and extreme violence.

      Give us a diagnosis of the mum Beatrice and the children. What are your concerns for each of them going forward? Here you need to talk about Adverse Childhood Experiences and their short and long term effects.
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  3. For Tunde: As a social worker, the classification, out of reach children is familiar to you. We tend to think of them as coming from families where there is severe economic hardship, families who live in hard to reach places; you think of parents who lack education and don't register the births of their children because they don't understand the need.

    But in Purple Hibiscus what we find are 2 children out of reach, off the grid, not due to poverty and poor education but as result of the immense wealth of their father. The children are hostages within their home which is built like a fortress.

    How would any child welfare system anywhere in the world reach them? Walk us through step by step, your response to the plight of Kambili and Jaja who are hostages within the fortress of their own home.

    You should talk about the Child Protection Unit at the Ministry of Youth & Social Development; the Domestic Violence Helpline and the work of the SPCU and Family Court created by the Child Rights Act 2003. Let us see clearly the links in the child protection chain. Let us understand how you guys work together.

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  5. For Tayo: Kambili, Jaja and their mother will need mental health care going forward: talk to us about the mental healthcare apparatus currently available in the country.

    (Here, you should please talk about the existing Mental Health Care Delivery policy and the status of legislation etc and human resources. Here, talk about the kind of care you would provide (your proposed intervention) theses survivors of abuse and for how long
    Talk about what is specifically missing from the Nigerian mental healthcare system as it stands and why it is necessary to have these missing things put in place)

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  7. For Tunde: Jaja takes the blame for his father's murder. We are told he goes to jail for 3 years and that he his 'awaiting trial''. He is not treated well in prison and it is a harsh place for this boy in his late teens.
    1. Talk to us about what was reasonable to expect in child justice administration in the 1980s. What can we reasonably expect now in the era of child rights?
    2. We know gaps still remain between policy and legislation and practice when delivering child protection services. Name the specific gaps. What are your recommendations?

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  9. For Tayo: Emphasis tends to be placed on the healing of the victims in domestic violence.

    Talk to us about the emphasis that should be placed on the mental health perpetrators of violence. How would you, an experienced practitioner working within the Nigerian system go about addressing the mental healthcare needs of perpetrators of violence?

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  11. For Tayo and Tunde: How do we get the news about the rights of children into the mainstream? How do we get our people to understand that child rights are not imports from the permissive secular West but are rooted in expert knowledge of child development?
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VOTE OF THANKS

I would like to express my deep gratitude to Professor Debbie Watson of Child and Family Welfare, Department of Childhood Studies, University of Bristol. It is a privilege to have known you for many years now. Thank you for the invitation to alumna of Bristol University to discuss a work of fiction which I believe should enjoy the status of a case study on the impact of tyranny and violence on childhood, particularly affluent childhood, in an African setting.



Professor Debbie Watson


Thank you to Dr. Afua Twum-Danso Imoh of Global Childhood Welfare, Department of Childhood Studies, for organizing the program. It was really nice to work with you, Afua. My appreciation goes to Dr Nadia Aghtaie, Director, BSc. Childhood Studies programs for your enthusiasm to see today's event happen.



Dr Afua


My colleagues on the panel, Dr. Tayo Ajirotutu of the Federal Neuropsychiatric hospital, Lagos; Tunde Koleoso, latterly of the Lagos State Ministry of Youth and Social Development: This event at the University of Bristol marks the continuation of our work together to promote the rights based child welfare in our country. Finally, to the audience from Bristol School for Policy Studies and elsewhere, thank you ever so much for joining us.



VIDEOS

Event




PROGRAMME

13:00 - 13:05 - Welcome to the event, aims and overall structure, linkage to Mental Health Day and Black History Month - Debbie Watson

13:05 - 13:13 - Recorded Reading of Extract of Purple Hibiscus by Titilayo Olajide student at the University of Lagos, Nigeria

13:13 - 13:40 - Olatoun Gabi-Williams - Review of Purple Hibiscus in line with aims stated in abstract

13:40 - 14:15 - Panel Discussion Moderated by Olatoun Gabi-Williams

14:15 - 14:45 - Q & A - Moderated by Debbie Watson

14:45 - 14:50 - Last words - Olatoun Gabi-Williams

14:50 - 15:00 - Concluding Remarks and a few words about SPS seminar series - Debbie Watson

Olatoun Gabi-Williams


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