Author discusses gender, Africa

By Amy Fishman

According to Nwando Achebe, African women have long been perceived as “beasts of burden” and “oversexed.” The assistant professor at the College of William and Mary used her lecture called “When Glances Meet: Interrogating African Womanhood from Within and Without” to dispel many of the common myths. Achebe is a researcher and historian, focusing on the history of women in Africa. She is also the daughter of Chinua Achebe, author of the award-winning novel Things Fall Apart.

President of the African Cultural Association (ACA) Chiebonam Ezeokoli said ACA invited Achebe to speak because many students, both African and non-African, don’t know much about African history and aren’t aware of the role of women in African society.

Ezeokoli said African women are often portrayed negatively by the media.

“They make African women seem helpless and oppressed,” she said. “(Achebe) can portray more of an educational perspective on Africa.”

Originally from Nigeria, Achebe moved to the United States when she was 17. While a student at UCLA in the early 1990s, she saw “skewed” images of Africans in one of her classes. She said this experience propelled her to become an African historian.

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    Achebe said she thinks the media is the reason “we don’t hear positive things about Africa.” ACA Vice President and Chiebonam’s sister, Odinaka Ezeokoli, said the media doesn’t show the good aspects of the African scene, such as women running businesses. Instead they pick “the worst of the worst to show you,” she said. She said these misconceptions come from a lack of education.

    Achebe said the misconception also partly stems from a rule in Africa that both women and men must work. There is no such thing as a “stay-at-home mom,” Achebe said. She explained that European women who stayed home viewed African women who worked as “beasts of burden.” Meanwhile, African women wondered why European women were “idle.”

    Achebe said that modern African women have some of the highest rates of literacy in the world. She said girls’ school enrollment was at 85 percent in 1990, and the gender gap is narrowing.

    Western Africa has the highest school enrollment rate for girls, and women have higher educational degrees than men. Achebe said men also generally “marry up.” She said women produce most of the agricultural labor in Africa. They also comprise the majority of entrepreneurs in Africa. Further, men and women with the same amount of education earn the same amount of money.

    Uganda has a woman, Specioza Kazibwe, as vice president, Achebe said. She is the only woman to hold that position in Africa, she added.

    “There is no monolithic African woman experience,” Achebe said.