#100AfricanWomenWriters: 19. Neshani Andreas

Image Source: Sister Namibia

"For most of my life I just wrote for myself ... I never told anybody." said
Namibian writer, Neshani Andreas in a 2005 interview with Erika von Wietersheim.

Said to be the first Namibian (and only Namibian writer) to be included in Heinemann African Writers Series with debut novel, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu (published in 2001), Andreas 'always wanted to write ... I wrote as a child, in high school, as long as I can remember.'

Andreas (the second of eight children) was born in 1964 in Walvis Bay, Namibia. Her parents worked in a fish factory and writing as an occupation 'was not recognised' or 'encouraged as a serious activity' in her community. As Andreas goes on to explain about being 'shy and almost embarrassed about a passion that was completely strange to the society in which she grew up':
I lived in a world that did not make sense to anybody else. On the other hand I had to fit into a world around me that did not make much sense to me.
As Erika von Wietersheim writes, this difference was further exacerbated by Andreas' friends reaction to telling them about her passion:

Andreas was in her early twenties when she made the first attempt to mention to friends that she liked writing. The reaction was devastating; nobody gave her wish to write any serious thought, and the young woman felt even more discouraged than before. Undeterred, Andreas continued her lonely writing for the following ten years, filling pages and pages with notes. "My writings became part of my luggage whenever I moved from one place to the next. They were my most treasured things," she says.
In the meantime, Andreas trained as a teacher at Ongwediva Teachers' College, and taught English, history and business economics from 1988 to 1992 in a school in rural northern Namibia. Living there and being immersed in the rural culture led to Andreas developing a profound respect for the women she encountered - an experience that inspired The Purple Violet of Oshaantu.

Andreas then went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts and Post Graduate Diploma in Education at the newly established University of Namibia in Windhoek. She then became Associate Peace Corps Director for the US Peace Corps in Namibia, a position she held for four years. Thereafter she worked for the Forum of African Women Educationalists in Namibia (FAWENA) - an organisation promoting women's and girls' education - as Programme Officer.

Illustrations by Zing Tsjeng for the book series Forgotten Women 

A turning point in Andreas' writing career came when she finally met someone who shared her literary passion:
One day she was speaking to a young Peace Corps Volunteer, Reed Dickson, and mentioned in passing that she had tried her hand at writing. Dickson's reaction was different from any Andreas had experienced so far. Dickson immediately asked his shy colleague to show him some of her notes. Andreas gave him a few pages to read and, to her surprise, he was impressed. "This was one of the most treasured moments in my life," she remembers. "I had met the first person in my life who showed interest and understanding in my writing."  
The exhilaration of being acknowledged as a writer prompted Andreas to buy a laptop computer, and she started writing with a purpose. All the stories stored in her mind for years, particularly about village life in northern Namibia, surfaced in an outburst of creativity. "Now I was doing it!" she recalls. "There were papers lying all over in my room, I was writing all day."

Neshani completed the manuscript for her novel in 1999 and presented it to Namibian publisher, Jane Katjavivi, who presented it to the Heinemann African Writers Series. Katjavivi is said to consider this as 'one of the most memorable moments in her publishing career, realising as soon as she had read the manuscript that it would be a success'.

Set in the fictional rural village of Oshaantu, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu is the story of the friendship between two women, Mee Ali and Kauna, narrated through the voice of Mee Ali. While Mee Ali is happily married to Michael, Kauna is trapped in an abusive marriage to Shange. While her neighbours and family are aware that Kauna is being treated brutally by her husband, social custom dictates that they should not intervene.

Talking about the novel, and finding the right balance when writing it, in an interview Andreas
... did not want to be insensitive to my culture, I did not want to be insulting, but I wanted to be as honest and realistic as possible. ... I have to write honestly, otherwise I would feel uncomfortable. Being dishonest to please others goes against your own creativity.
Andreas also did not want to focus on the South African military occupation, return from exile and political events in post-independent Namibia:
I had to write about other things; travelling in overcrowded minibuses, selling and buying at markets, about sickness, witchcraft and church, about ordinary things.
While the novel was a success, Andreas wrote at a time where the literary culture in Namibia was still in its infancy. As explained in the 2005 interview with Erika von Wietersheim
"Writing is a lonely business … You write alone, and you never know if anybody will ever read what you write." But Andreas remains passionate about the written word. "I could never stop writing. It is with me every day, I never forget it. I edit in my mind whatever I hear or read. I pick up what people say, how they say it, I pick up words, expressions ..."

It must have been particularly lonely, as Andreas noted that
Writing is still not encouraged by Namibian society, it is not regarded as a respectable job, as something that has any benefit. It is my dream to write full-time, to wake up every morning and to know that this is my job, my life, just to write.
Yet, Andreas continued to write, and had finished her second novel at the time of her interview: "It is quite different from the first one".  Andreas was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2010 and passed away in 2011.

Interview: Neshani Andreas by Erika von Wietersheim. Source: Sister Namibia


#100AfricanWomenWriters: 18. Angèle Rawiri

Source: litterature et ecrivains dailleurs
I hadn’t thought about [becoming Gabon’s first novelist]. I was rather taken up by my reflections, my doubts, my worries, my fears. When the novel came out, I found out that I was the first.
These were the words of Gabonese writer Angèle Rawiri in a 1988 interview for the African women’s magazine, Amina, translated by Cheryl Toman in her book Women Writers of Gabon: Literature and Herstory.

Born in 1954 in Port-Gentil (her father was the president of the Gabonese Senate and poet; her mother, who passed away when Angèle was six, was a teacher), Rawiri was said to be Gabon’s first novelist with Cheryl Toman noting that:
Angèle Rawiri has played quite a unique role in the development of national literature in Gabon and historically speaking, she has set herself apart from other pioneering women authors of any time period or tradition.
Rawiri was said to be quiet about her public life - even though her father was a prominent politician in Gabon, but according to the Historical Dictionary of Gabon, Rawiri studied in France at the Lycée of Alès and earned a baccalaureate at the girls' college at Vanves. In Paris at the Institut Lentonnet, she obtained a second baccalaureate in the commercial translation of English. Rawiri then spent two years in London to perfect her English, and supported herself by playing small roles in James Bond movies and fashion shoots for magazines.

Rawiri returned to her hometown of Port-Gentil in Gabon in 1979, and worked as a translator and interpreter of English for the state oil company, Société Nationale Pétrolière Gabonaise. Toman further notes that it was Rawiri's brother who encouraged her to write her first two novels: Elonga and G’amerakano. By the end of 1980s, Rawiri left Gabon definitively and headed for France where she finished and published her third and final novel, Fureurs et cris de femmes.

While Rawiri had lived in Gabon, France and the UK, in the same 1988 interview in Amina Magazine, Rawiri, considered herself a ‘deracinee’ (uprooted woman) explaining: I never felt at home on African soil and at the same time, I didn’t feel at home in Europe either’. Writing might have been a way for Rawiri to deal with these sentiments of 'perpetual exile' she felt - using it as 'an outlet for exploring aspects fo culture and society that bewildered or enraged her'.

However, unlike other African women writers I have featured so far in this series, Rawiri encountered relatively few obstacles if any in becoming Gabon’s first novelist. In the same Amina interview, Rawiri explained:

I must admit that it was rather easy. Friends who were journalists helped me out by putting me in contact with an editor.

Rawiri's writing led to three published novels - often described as a trilogy (although they do not have much in common) - Elonga, G’amarakano: Au Carrefour, and Fureurs et cris de femmes (Fury and Cries of Women), which are the 'hallmarks of an important decade for Gabonese literature written in French' according to Cheryl Toman.

Toman described Rawiri's first novel, Elonga, as following a young man of Spanish and Gabonese descent, whose Spanish father's dying wish is for his son to leave Spain to reconnect with the country of his already deceased mother’s birth (the fictitious African country of Ntsempolo). Rawiri's second novel, G’amerakano au carrefour, tells the story of Toula, a dismally paid secretary who succumbs to her mothers badgering and is further convinced by her best friend and colleague, Ekata, that she should dramatically modify her appearance if she ever hopes to find her way out of the poor neighbourhood of Igewa.

For Toman, Elonga is 'the least feminist but also the least woman-centred', and could be the reason why it has received the least amount of critical attention:
... critics simply were at a loss as to how to categorise it since women novelists from Gabon, like other African women writers, do tend to give the spotlight to female protagonists.
Rawiri's third novel, Fureurs et cris de femmes (translated to English by Sara Hanaburg as The Fury and Cries of Women) is considered the richest of her fictional prose portraying one woman's life in Central Africa in the late 1980s. It follows Emilienne,
... whose active search for feminism on her own terms is tangled up with cultural expectations and taboos of motherhood, marriage, polygamy, divorce, and passion. She completes her university studies in Paris; marries a man from another ethnic group; becomes a leader in women's liberation; enjoys professional success, even earning more than her husband; and eventually takes a female lover. Yet still she remains unsatisfied. Those closest to her, and even she herself, constantly question her role as woman, wife, mother, and lover. The tragic death of her only child - her daughter Rekia - accentuates Emilienne's anguish, all the more so because of her subsequent barrenness and the pressure that she concede to her husband's taking a second wife.

While working on her fourth novel, Rawiri died on November 15, 2010, in Paris. For French speakers, here's a video of an interview with Angèle Rawiri.

#100AfricanWomenWriters: 17. Alifa Rifaat

Source: Author Photo. Heinemann AWS edition of Distant View of a Minaret.

A caption under a picture of Alifa Rifaat in a 1993 Middle East Times (Egypt) captures Rifaat's intentions for writing about women's lives and sexuality: she is inspired, the caption reads, 'by a woman's Islamic right to a fulfilled emotional and sexual life'. - Barbara A. Olive on Alifa Rifaat's Short Stories.

Alifa Rifaat (the pseudonym of Fatimah Rifaat, who was born in Egypt in 1930 and died in 1996) began to write early - when she was nine she wrote her first story, about the village where her family lived in the summer - with rural Egypt becoming the setting for most of her stories. Unfortunately, writing for Rifaat came with its (external) challenges. Starting early in her life when Rifaat was strongly reprimanded by her older sister for writing.

Rifaat attended Misr al-Jadidah primary school, the Cultural Centre for Women, and the British Institute in Cairo from 1946 to 1949 - where she studied English. When Alifa Rifaat expressed interest in continuing her education by enrolling in the College of Fine Arts in Egypt her father first arranged a marriage for her to a mining engineer - this marriage lasted eight months, and then arranged for her to marry her cousin, a police officer.

For the first few years of their marriage Rifaat’s husband let her write and publish stories under her pseudonym. She published her stories from 1955 until 1960, but later her husband denied her the right to publish her stories. This period of denying Rifaat the ability to right happened for more than a decade, with her husband even forcing her to swear on the Qu'ran that she would stop writing. As noted in a 1985 The Middle East journal,

Her husband was furious, not so much because of the subject matter, but because writing gave her a kind of independence and was perceived as undermining his authority as a husband and head of the family. She continued to write, using pen-names, but when he found out, her husband forbade that too. He threw her out of the house. She went back to her own family, but received no sympathy from her father, who also said she should stop writing.

But against those people who urged her to get a divorce, Alifa Rifaat argued that "it is better to be an unknown wife than a well-known writer". For the next 15 years she wrote a little, and then only in secret. But being forced to repress the urge to be read brought her close to a nervous breakdown, a state vividly evoked in some of her stories.

Finally, in the early 1970's, her husband relented and she began to write again. The result was her collection of short stories, 'Distant View from a Minaret', which dwell on the tensions, dilemmas and dreams of women in marriage.

Rifaat continued to publish short stories through the 1980s following the death of her husband - she was widowed at the age of 48 and raised three children on her own. Her best-known work in English is Distant View of a Minaret (1983), consisting of fifteen short stories which are set in provincial Egypt. One of the stories, My World of the Unknown, follows the female narrator's sexual encounter with a djinn.

As expressed in the 1985 article in The Middle East Journal,

While much of Rifaat's later writing is deeply rooted in her experience, the most important theme in her stories centres on the sexual and emotional problems encountered by women in marriage. ... in the years she spent travelling around Egypt with her husband (in the course of his work as a policeman) she met many other women and learned of their problems. "We used to talk freely and we discussed especially the question of sexual fulfilment - because our society does not allow us to experience sex as freely as a Western woman does", she told Sarah Graham.

Rifaat, however, is not a feminist in the Western-sense. 'Women', she says, 'have a right to be fulfilled in their sexual and emotional lives', though she does not question marital relationships as such. What she does argue is that men should wield the power they have over women in marriage much more responsibly than they usually do. She also argues for more sexual education for women, 'if only through books'.

Rifaat's fiction has met with a range of responses, from conservative efforts to keep her fiction out of bookstores, to encouragements from her literary acquaintances to write even more boldly about the lives of women.

Alifa Rifaat spoke and wrote only in Arabic - about stories that were deeply rooted in the Arabic and Islamic traditions, and also dealt with themes of eroticism and sexuality, which is said to have distinguished her from other male and female writers in the Arab world, where explicit references to these topics are typically considered taboo. Olive further notes that Rifaat's fiction has not gained wider recognition, and offers the following reasons:

Although she is self-educated, having read methodically through a number of small libraries during the years of her exile from writing, Rifaat does not possess a university degree and thus does not have direct connections to academic literary groups. With the exception of two pilgrimages to Mecca and one visit to Europe, she has traveled little, remaining a quiet secret for most readers outside of Egypt. Finally, Rifaat's professed devotion to Islam has allowed for easy categorisation of her fiction as limited, with critics often interpreting her female protagonists as weak or submissive.

Alifa Rifaat became a member of the Federation of Egyptian Writers, the Short-Story Club, and the Dar al-Udaba (Egypt), and also attended the First International Women's Book Fair (London, England) in 1984 where she spoke about the rights of women in Islam and the topic of polygamy. In 1984 Fatimah Rifaat also received the Excellency Award from the Modern Literature Assembly. Alifa Rifaat produced over 100 bodies of works in her lifetime that have been translated into multiple languages and have been produced for television and read on BBC.

#100AfricanWomenWriters: 16. Mariama Bâ

Mariama Ba around 25. Source: UNESCO

Yes, this is the first time that I wrote a serious novel. I have written before when I was a schoolgirl. I wrote essays for homework which were published. I wrote a dissertation which was published by the ‘Review Espirit’ a long time ago. I have written articles for newspapers, lots of them, but this book is my first serious effort to see the light. This is my first book.

So, said Senegalese writer Mariama in a 1981 interview with Barbara E. Harrell-Bond. The year before this interview, 1980, Mariama was awarded the first Noma Award - an annual prize of $3000 endowed by Japanese publisher Shiochi Noma to African writers published within Africa. The award was presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which in 1980 had a Black Africa theme.

Mariama Ba being awarded the Noma Prize in 1980. Source: AUFS Report, 1981.

This was for Bâ’s first novel, Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter) - one of the most widely read works of Francophone African literature. Published in 1979, it follows a Muslim, French-educated, middle-aged Senegalese school teacher, Ramatoulaye, during her iddat, the mourning period of four months and 10 days prescribed for Muslim widows. In this long ‘letter’ written to her best friend Aissatou, Ramatoulaye looks back on her life with Modou Fall, her husband of 30 years, providing readers with a specific insight into her own experiences as well as those of other women.

In her acceptance speech for the Noma, Bâ remarked that she was surprised at winning:

I was very surprised. Even more so because I did not know of the existence of the prize. And even more, I did not even know that my book was being considered for any prize … A friend came to my house to tell me I had won. I was unaware of it. I didn’t even realise that there was prize money … I was even more proud and happy because it was not only a prize for Francophone Africa, but a prize for black Africa. That is, all of French- and English-speaking Africa. There were many candidates, so it was a prize which obviously was important.

Bâ died a year after she received the Noma award after a long battle with cancer, and before her second novel, Un Chant Écarlate (Scarlet Song), was published. briefly spoke about her second novel during her 1981 interview, when asked if she was ‘working on another book’, and worked on the revisions in order to prepare it for publication after her death:

Yes, and it is finished. I do not know if it is going to receive the same reception as 'Une si longue lettre'. As a matter of fact, it is the reception of 'Une si longue lettre' which makes me more and more hesitant to deliver this work to publishers. This first reception was so good, the book has been so well liked, that I wonder what kind of reception will be given to this other book.

Scarlet Song, published posthumously in 1986, also received international attention. The book deals with an interracial relationship in Senegal and the struggle of women to overcome the traditional system of polygamy and gender discrimination. On the book, Bâ goes on to explain:

I have taken the white wife and the African husband as the theme. Here, if a black woman married to a white man, we can easily accept that, at least more easily accept it … The colonialists took black women as wives and it never was a tragedy, you see … Because here in Senegal, it is the woman who is given into marriage, and belongs to the husband’s family. It is not the same thing with a man. The man bears the family name. He is the root of the tree which flourishes to give fruit. The fruits contain the seed which will make the race live again and nourish the ground. Thus the problem of a white wife is more interesting from the point of view of the mentality of the man’s mother, and from the point of view of society. There are more possible situations. So my book is about a white wife and a black husband.

The book was also set in Senegal and not France because ‘otherwise it would not be interesting’.

If they were in France there would not be any problem. If the book was set in France, in Europe, anywhere else, there would not be a problem. They could isolate themselves from the parents and the others. It would not be the same thing.

Writer and teacher, Mariama Bâ was one of the pioneers of Senegalese literature. Born in Dakar, Senegal in 1929 to a Muslim Lebou family, her father, was a civil servant, 'a teller in the Treasury of French West Africa.'  He was also a politician and was the first Minister of Health after the decentralisation bill was passed in 1956. Her paternal grandfather 'Sarakhole (from Bakel) ... was an interpreter in Saint-Louis, then in Dakar where he died.'

lost her mother when she was very young - 'I only know her through photographs,' she remarked in a 1981 interview, and was raised a Muslim in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents on an extended family compound close to a mosque. She received her early education in French, while at the same time attending Koranic school with Dakar’s leading clerics. Bâ’s grandparents did not plan to educate her beyond primary school - they did not believe that girls should be taught beyond that. However, her father’s insistence on giving her an opportunity to continue her studies eventually persuaded them, and she attended French school.

I had the good fortune to attend the French school (which is now Berthe Maubert School on Avenue Albert Sarraut) thanks to the perseverance of my father who, whenever he had a holiday, would come to beg my grandparents to continue to grant him this favour.

During school holidays I continued my Koranic studies at the residence of the late Amadou Lamine Diene … He had become the Imam of the main mosque in Dakar, and his nephew, the current Imam, El Hadji Mawdo Sylla, was my teacher. The fact that I went to school didn’t relieve me from the domestic duties little girls had to do. I had my turn at cooking and washing up. I learned to do my own laundry and to wield the pestle because, it was feared, 'you never know what the future might bring!’

eventually obtained her school-leaving certificate, and won admission to the École Normale, a teacher training college for girls in Rufisque (a suburb in Dakar):

A year after the Primary School Certificate Examination in 1943, I had the joy of coming first in French West Africa at the competitive examination for entry to the École Normake in Rufique. My father was away in Niamey and Mrs. Berthe Maubert (primary school teacher) had the lonely task of overcoming the resistance of my family who had had enough of “all this coming and going on the road to nowhere.”

Her earliest works were essays she wrote (on nationalism) while at the École Normale. Some of her works have now been published. Her first work constitutes essentially a useful method of rejection of the "so-called French assimilationist policy". École Normale is also where Bâ met Mrs. Germaine Le Goff who “taught me about myself” - “taught me to know myself. I cherish the memory of rich communions with her, which have made me a better person."

Bâ also credits her father with strengthening her education:

A man of finance, but also a man of letters, my father taught me to read. A flood of books accompanied his homecomings. It is from him that I learned how to express myself orally. He would have me recite in French what I had learned, and never tired of correcting me.

Bâ graduated as a schoolteacher in 1947, and taught from 1947 to 1959, before transferring to the Senegalese Regional Inspectorate of Teaching as an educational inspector due to her failing health. However, her teaching had been so exceptional that in 1977 President Leopold Senghor founded the Mariama Bâ  Boarding School to honour her legacy as an educator. Bâ later married a Senegalese journalist and member of Parliament, Obèye Diop, but divorced him and was left to care for their nine children on her own. By the late 1970s, after most of her children were adult, Ba became a vocal activist for women's rights and a critic of the neocolonial system that had evolved in most of the newly independent African nations.

In addition to So Long a Letter and Scarlet Song, Bâ also wrote La Fonction politique des littératures Africaines écrites (The Political Function of African Written Literatures) in 1981, arguing that Africans should embrace and feel pride in their culture and achievements. While Bâ’s activism was most prevalent in her literature, particularly with her focus on women’s experiences in a traditional Muslim and patriarchal society, Bâ also worked as a journalist where she wrote about women’s issues and participated in women’s organisations.

I end with ’s last words during her 1981 interview on her thoughts on the Noma prize:

Really, in some ways one can say that the Noma prize has rekindled the fire of hope … This Japanese publisher thinks of promoting African books, to give something so that African literature goes forward. That is the meaning of this gesture for me. The existence of all such prizes is always an encouragement. That is what it really shows. As I was saying earlier, books are an instrument for development and books must not die. We must encourage people to write, to allow the great flourishing of writing.
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