Disparate WOM4N: The African Woman and her conditional place in the West

Dambisa Moyo. Isabel Dos Santos. Vera Songwe. Alengot Oromait. Lupita Nyong’o. These women are just some of the offerings from the second largest Continent on earth, Africa. Over the short few decades of post-colonial Africa, women from all reaches of the Continent have become just as highly valued a commodity as the land’s gold, oil and cocoa.  Moreover, if we expand our understanding of what it means to ‘be African’ – that is, to trace back ones descendants to the land (though let’s not go too far back) the 54 glorious nations give you Condoleezza Rice, Zadie Smith, Dr Aileen Alleyne, Oprah, Beyoncé. These women are no small gifts.


Even now, as African economic growth surpasses that of Western Europe (in 2013 Sub-Saharan Africa’s average economic growth was 4.7% compared to Europe’s average of 0.1%), as ‘fewer children bear arms, record numbers go to school … and HIV infections have fallen by up to three quarters’*, the suggestion explored by two of Fourth Estate’s authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Sefi Atta, that women have even greater opportunities to make a name for themselves in Africa, than they do in the Western world, is one that is sadly true only in fiction.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In the award-winning author’s third novel, Americanah Adichie’s Ifemelu struggles to find her place in American society. Even with a US degree, stable and well-paid job and spats of American boyfriends in her arsenal, her yearning for her native Nigeria remains unabated throughout this compelling tale. One of the reasons? Career. Though she finds the offerings from Nigeria slim and varnished with the brush of uncertainty, it is the potential presented that galvanizes her in action. Into making the counter-intuitive decision (well, to me anyway) to move back to Nigeria. The same goes for Sefi Atta’s protagonist Deola from A Bit of Difference. Her return to Nigeria stems from a myriad of reasons, but, once again, one of the key grounds is career-related: ‘What was the point of work­ing for an organization that hired Africans like herself, who, in the process of being refined, could no longer think for themselves?’ she laments. And so, we see both characters journey back home in an (unintentional) effort to lessen the African diaspora.

Sefi Atta

So we come to the question: is there more out there for educated, smart African women in Africa? The answer, is of course, yes and no (my history tutor basically answered every question ever asked by his students with that one line – genuinely was a fantastic tutor). This can be seen in both our authors. Both Adichie and Atta divide their time between Nigeria and the US, refusing to be held in captivity by either world. And the same goes for hundreds, thousands, of creative, scientifically-minded African women. It goes without saying (I’ll say it anyway), without the support of Western research, ideas, individuals and resources, women from Maya Angelou to MP Diane Abbott would have had very different lives. However– without their upbringing, grounded in Ghanaian, Egyptian, and South African – among others – cultural norms these women equally would not have become the women they are today, would not have campaigned, discovered, generated and created many of the things we read, use, and enjoy in the modern world.


Madam C. J. Walker developed the most successful scalp disease formula of all time, becoming America’s first black female millionaire. Claudia Jones founded Notting Hill Carnival. Helen Folasade Adu- better known as Sade- has over 50 million songs worldwide. Doctor Patricia Bath patented a method for removing cataracts from the eye. Naomi Campbell has broken through the glass ceiling that exists for Black models, paving the way for Chanel Iman, Alek Wek and Jourdan Dunn – the 2008 black issue of Vogue Italia was the highest ever selling issue in its catalogue. Without women from Africa we would not have the folding cabinet bed, the rain hat, the home security system, the keyboard stand, the toaster, worst of all, we wouldn’t have ***Flawless***.


In a recent Guardian interview, Adichie argued that women in a Nigerian corporate setting were likely to be bolder and much more vocal than their European counterparts. “Why?” she was asked. “Because although there’s a lot of gender bullshit in Nigeria, I think women in the West have a lot more invested in being liked. And being liked if you’re female means a certain thing. So in workplaces, women who are bosses in Nigeria are fierce…” **. When it comes to professionalism and getting the job done, Nigerian businesswoman know how to handle themselves, and I recognise this mental attitude in many of the successful and admirable African women we see today. Whether dealing with the Sub-Saharan sun, a British winter or windy West Coast African women – women – seem to be unstoppable, a force to be reckoned with – and they’re liked! And if their potential isn’t harnessed they’ll either go where it will be appreciated or break through gender and racial barriers. Truly remarkable, African women are not only inspirational but they continue to give and give. And thank you very much, we’ll keep on taking.

Sefi AttaAmericanah cover image












Words by Emmanuella Kwenortey

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** http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/21/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-interview

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