NOT TO BE MISSED
"Mosaïques Africaines", chronicles by Rita MENSAH-AMENDAH
Paris: L'Harmattan, 2002. (112p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Over the course of twentyfive short chronicles, Togolese author Rita Mensah-Amendah says "no to gender inequalities, no to mutilations, no to the status of 'outsider' ascribed to wives by their in-laws... instead she calls for women's rights to be respected, their expectations fulfilled and their dignity acknowledged." This statement by M. T. Gbéassor  encapsulates well the spirit of the book, primarily addressed by the author to her compatriots . People from other parts, however, would also gain much by reading these "African mosaics" that offer an enlightening take on gender and family relationships in Togo .
Central to the author's argument is the proposition that traditional family loyalties do not include wives. They are considered as outsiders ("déva"), the author suggests, pushed to the periphery of family decision-making and reduced to their reproductive function (p.103). Plenty of money changes hands when a man "acquires" a wife and she is traditionally considered a mere "receptacle" for her husband's semen. This particularly sexist approach to gender has been ingrained in the social fabric for generations but, the author submits, it is not in keeping with contemporary women's expectations and "one day, it will have to change" (p.89).
Adjusting to new ideals is not easy though, as clan solidarity is overbearing. It is preventing "dévas" from integrating fully and constraining women's lives. It means that a wife is not invited to take part in discussions about her husband's family affairs. This includes decisions taken about her own children who traditionally belong to their father, not to her. Thus her limited influence in determining when they will leave her, what they will do in life, who they will marry, etc. Furthermore, if a woman is repudiated or decides to leave an abusive husband, her children remain behind: "Just go the way you arrived, with your womb and your breast" (p.88), she would be told by her husband and in-laws, as she is forcibly pushed away.
The eaves-dropping, "philosophising, taxi driver" who butts in on the conversation of two of his passengers further highlights the precariousness of the women's condition: "My life is threatened if my daughter becomes the accomplice of her mother... The situation is dire. There is only one thing to do: to throw everybody out, the woman and the girl. ... The mother is, and always remains a "déva". That should never be forgotten ... whereas my daughter, she is my blood, she belongs to my clan and is expected to follow the same rites and customs as I. Her loyalty and duty are to her father and clan solidarity. If she cannot understand that, then, out of my house!" (p.86).
Keeping "dévas" at arm's length and excluding them from family business also has dreadful consequences when a woman's husband dies. Widows have no claim to their husband's estate and they are often left completely destitute after their husband's demise. New family laws aimed at protecting children and wives' interests have been passed in Togo, but sharing the spoils of death with a woman who has no traditional claim to her dead husband's estate remains a contentious issue As a woman, in utter disbelief said, speaking to the author from the floor during a talk on Togo's new family code: "I, the mother who lost my son, I who carried him, breastfed him, who bled myself dry to send him to school, I would get nothing of his estate, absolutely nothing now that he has died! Everything would go to another woman. And it would be someone far removed from all my sacrifices who would reap all the benefit attached to raising this man? Go back to the drawing-board and change that law: it is not just" (p.77).
This genuine concern highlights the precarious position of women who have been subjected to the age-old principle of "divide and rule". Polygamy and male philandering are still the norm and, beyond the ideals of mutual assistance and co-operation, women have been pitched one against the other under the impassive gaze of their men-folk: women of one clan against women of another, wives against their sisters-in-law, mothers-in-law, husband's mistresses, older and younger co-wives, etc. And in anointing women as the custodians of the status quo, patriarchy made sure that they would faithfully uphold hierarchies so inimical to their cause. That explains much of some African women's rock-ribbed conservatism, submission to custom and frequent hurtful attitudes vis-à-vis other women. Thus, the point made by someone during another talk by Rita Mensah-Amendah on the topic of violence against women : "When one speaks of genital mutilation, I ask myself, who are the mutilators? When widow's rituals are performed, I ask myself who is inflicting the worst mistreatments and sometime humiliating demands on the distressed widow? Among couples, who is more often then not at the origin of family strife? Who is considered as the safe-keepers of tradition? Who is making sure they are immutable and fight against change? There is only one answer: women..." (p.101). That is undoubtedly true, but as Rita Mensah-Amendah puts it, in the final analysis it is not women who profit from the crime.
Young boys are quick to learn that real authority follows the male line, and many take advantage of their mother who knows no other way but to submit to the caprices of their "fofovi", or "little dad". In Togo, as in many other parts of the world, gender equality does not exist. Rita Mensah-Amendah's chronicles call for change: "Averring and asserting gender equality is nothing but an appeal for justice" (p.20) she says. Justice for women, of course, but even more importantly justice for all, women and men, boys and girls, old and young. Thus her emphasis on the necessity of substituting brute force for dialogue and concessions. People's attitudes and expectations evolve, she argues, but only very slowly and women's perception of themselves is the key to any societal change of any significance.
It is therefore no coincidence that the first chronicle, titled "Self esteem", is introduced by an epigraph encapsulating two different views of gender relationship:
"Husband: Before everything else, you are a wife and mother
Wife: I rather believe that before all else
I am a human being endowed with reason" . Rita Mensah-Amendah's credo is contained in these few lines and her advice to the younger generations is simple: "My daughter, never ever let a man, or anyone else make you feel inferior and despise yourself ... not ever" (p.13). "Today's woman, more than ever, has to prove herself by her intelligence, talents, personality, determination, hard work and aptitude for being in charge of herself" (p.92).
In that context, the education of girls is a topic of major significance to the author, and the second chronicle borrows its title from the well-known words of wisdom: "Work is a woman's first husband": work that will ensure one's independence and freedom. As another chronicler from Benin once wrote: "For a long time, many women have known that "their first husband is their profession". In other words, the woman who does not have a job does not have a husband. Instead, she soon has an impudent and unrepentant dictator. What to expect! And all those who did not understand that before marriage are bitterly regretting it" .
That, of course, does not preclude women from enjoying the joy of motherhood, breastfeeding, raising a family and, in the final analysis, leading a fulfilling and happy life amidst their in-laws; thus the author's reference to a line by Beninese author Jean Pliya, that gives its title to yet another chronicle: "Thank you, Lord, for the marvellous children You have given me" (p.67). Children belong to both parents in equal measure. They are in need of affection and both mother and father should engage in positive reinforcement, rather than insults, corporal punishment or even downright malicious accusation of sorcery.
Physical and verbal violence against others do not testify to the power of the perpetrators, she argues. On the contrary, it proves their inability to deal rationally with the issue at hand. The twentyfifth, and final, chronicle that is devoted to the role of sorcerers in society, proposes a similar argument. Like beating one's wife and abusing "déva", accusing a neighbour or a relative of sorcery epitomises the ploys aimed at eschewing one's own responsibility and the need to face the facts.
Mosaïques Africaines goes to the roots of women's oppression. Behind the author's heartfelt reflections, readers discover a very coherent analysis of Togolese women, uncomfortably squeezed uncomfortably between modernity, tradition and the imperatives of social change. Power structures developed over centuries have led to an intricate web of family expectations and loyalties. These have dominated every aspects of communal and familial interactions, but they are no longer serving the community well. Rita Mensah-Amendah's highly informative collection of chronicles is a sincere testimony to progressive women's fight against reactionary forces and individuals who find solace in perpetuating the oppression of women, the marginalisation of "dévas", the beating into submission of wives and children, and the ill-substantiated accusations of sorcery that shift personal responsibilities onto unsuspecting and innocent others.
1. "Foreword", p.10.
2. Koffi Anyinefa. "Note de lecture", octobre 2008. [http://togolitteraire.haverford.edu/LE_TOGO_LITTERAIRE/AMENDAH,_R.M..html] Sighted 22 April 2012].
3. See also a recent collection of short stories by the same author: Rita Mensah-Amendah, "Faits divers et d'espoir", Lomé: Editions Graines de pensées, 2011.
4. Rita Mensah-Amendah has been actively involved in the defence of women and promotion of their legal rights in Togo. She was instrumental in the publication of the Guide juridique de la femme togolaise, CRIFF/GF2D (Collectif), Lomé, Arc-en-ciel, 1999, and the Manuel d'Information et de sensibilisation sur les violences basées sur le genre, (Collectif), Lomé, FNUAP/DGPF, 2002. [From Gaetan Noussouglo, "'Faits divers et d'espoir' de Rita Amendah". "Togo Cultures", 17 mai 2011. [http://www.togocultures.com/spip.php?article486] [Sighted 22 April 2012].
5. Ibsen. "Une maison de poupée" (1879).
6. Gisèle Hountondji, "Les bêtises de Napoléon", in "La Nouvelle Tribune" (Cotonou), no 118, 8 mai 2002, p.2. [http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/Hountondji_chronique1.html] [Sighted 22 April 2012].
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities