Thursday, 2 December 2010

Book review By Dr Siga Fatima Jagne: Silent voices

By Dr Siga Fatima Jagne-Jallow
“Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot
know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search
for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated
society" Rich Adrienne, When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision 1
The above quote from Adrienne Rich sets the tone of the review, as the sleepwalkers awaken.
This book, as its title suggests, “The Silent Voice: Stories of Gender in The Gambia” is about the coming
to a voice of those women who have been silent over the centuries. The coming to voice is important for
every human being. Without a voice you become a subaltern as passive subject rather than an active one
with Agency. Amie Sillah in her stories shows us women who have a sense of agency, whether in the
rural or urban context.
In the tradition of Mariama Ba, though not in an expostulatory form, the eleven stories in the book focus
on the trials and tribulations of everyday women in their social and domestic context. As Mariama Ba
puts it, even though I was well-educated I also had to learn how to wield the pestle. From Habibatou to
Ndungu, the women always have the presence of mind to change their situation by moving from an
oppressed state to one of liberation and celebration. In each of the stories, poetic justice is common place.
The stories are not about gloom and doom but about the celebration of women who triumph and whistle
like women undaunted; undaunted by their situation and arriving at a position of strength. These are
women who whistle undaunted against the chauvinism of the world; women who whistle undaunted
because their mothers make sure that they do. No adversity is too great for these women not to overcome
it-- they ride the waves of adversity to arrive safely onshore.
The empowerment of women through education and economic activities is a recurrent theme in the short
stories, the heroines are always redeemed through education or their children are. In the short story ‘the
Caste system” Fatima uses her education to buy her freedom from oppressive in-laws and ensures that she
never gives herself time to wallow in self-pity. This is the case of all the main characters in the book. In
the case of Majula, a victim of FGM, she was able to triumph over the legacy of FGM and proclaim that
none of her children will have to go through what she went through.
Issues of wife beating, polygamy and general violence against women is explored in all eleven stories;
stories so touching that they can only lead to deep reflection on the issues raised. The gender power
relations are evident in all the stories, but each one also provides the opportunity for the heroines to
reclaim their lives and their bodies. Because the ultimate question is whose body is it anyhow?
1 Rich, Adrienne. When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision. Ways of Reading. Ed. John Sullivan. Boston:
Bedford, 1999. 601-615.
The author brings to life all the silent referents in our society; the issues that never enter the public debate
albeit in a limited space. Caste, always a silent referent, is brought up here to raise issues of
discrimination based on issues that are not gender or economic. To the author the politics of location of
her heroine, heroes and anti-heroes are extremely important. Fatim’s mother- in-law like Yaye Khady in
Mariama Ba’s “A Scarlet Song” is caste conscious and long for the golden old days when everybody
knew their place. These stories show the women as both oppressed and oppressors. It is not all the
women who are good in these stories making them transcend simple gender issues and entering into a
more universalist discourse. The fact that the book closes with an actual historical happening is no
accident because it brings together the past and the present to then map out the future of gender relations.
The complexities raised in the stories show that the issues have moved from gender discourse to a
transformational one allowing the characters to move from gender to class and positioning issues.
The question on most lips will be, do these stories depicted here actually exist in our society? Though
hard to believe, they mirror the realities of the poor, the vulnerable, the downtrodden and all those thrown
at the margins of society in one way or the other.
Women’s space as ritual ground is also brought up even when women work out of the home. The home is
the ritual ground were all the women’s activities take place
However, to conclude all the women-- in the words of Bessie Head’s heroine, Elizabeth in “A Question of
Power,” “I have discovered God and Elizabeth is his prophet” Profound words indeed.
Congratulations Amie! You have put the key issues of Gambia on the map and not just on gender issues,
but on socioeconomic issues, such as poverty, power relations and so on.

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