Strong Female Characters in African Literature

On the sixth day of creation, God created man in his own likeness and image. He looked at his creation and was pleased. He named him Adam. God then decided that Adam needed a helper, a companion and he put Adam to sleep, took a rib out and created a woman and named her Eve. When Eve was deceived by the serpent and ‘made’ Adam sin, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. And right

there, in the beginning, in that first story of creation, begun the portrayal of women as men appendages, as helpers, as accessories, to help men further their causes.

African literature has, like most literature in the world, portrayed women or female characters in much the same manner; as frail, incomplete or docile appendages. Female characters are mostly defined by their relationship to men – as mothers, wives, daughters or mistresses – and their roles confined to the home setting as nurturers and caregivers. This is in part because much of the earlier works of literature was written by men, born of and educated in patriarchal societies where women were pushed to the back banner and traditions dictated that women were to be seen, not heard. They had no say in decisions, even those that affected them and were mostly viewed as indeterminate, dependent beings.

It was not until 1966 when Flora Nwapa challenged that status quo when she published Efuru, the story of a young, strong, independent-minded woman who despite childlessness and failed marriages, was steadfast in charting her own path, away from the dictates of society. Nwapa became Africa's first Anglophone internationally published female novelist and is considered the mother of modern African literature. Other female writers followed suit - Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ifeoma Okoye Zaynab Alkali, Nadine Gordimer, Maryam Tlali , Bessie Head, Grace Ogot, Mariama Ba, Aminata Sow Fall, among many others – all writing about strong women and challenging the sexism in literature. This upsetting of the status quo was however not without opposition from the male counterparts.

"When I do write about women in Nigeria, in Africa, I try to paint a positive picture about women because there are many women who are very, very positive in their thinking, who are very, very independent, and very, very industrious." - Flora Nwapa

Nwapa’s writing was criticized as weak and her story labelled as ‘inauthentic’. Male critiques termed her work as less mature and focused solely on women's ‘small talk’. One of her harshest critiques, Bernth Lindfors, a leading researcher in African Literature, described her novel as one focusing on an ‘Ibo woman in distress’. In his opinion, Nwapa told the story of Efuru in a “lifeless monotone that robbed it of all life and colour”. He further opined that when her characters spoke, they said ‘things of little importance’ which was a show of her inexperience in writing.

Despite these early setbacks, Nwapa and other African female writers pioneered the reimagining of the African female character from the inferior, subjugated and objectified women in male writings to more visible, self -assured and industrious female characters. Characters who are strong, independent and realistic, who boldly resist male chauvinism, paternalism and dominance, and play a part in charting their destinies.

These resolute and consistent efforts paved the way for contemporary African women writers to write stories about women unashamedly. I have put down a few strong female characters in contemporary African Literature that have resonated with me; women who find strength in their circumstances and challenge the status quo and fight for space to live their lives by their own rules.

Kainene and Olanna

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Kainene and Olanna are foreign educated twin sisters living in Lagos; similar in some aspects and yet completely different in personalities as can be. Olanna is beautiful, kind and empathetic. She gives up the ‘good life’ in Lagos to join the love of her life, the revolutionary mathematics professor Odenigbo, in Nsukka and takes up a teaching job at the University. From the onset, we see Olanna as a headstrong woman, abandoning the assured, comfortable life that had been ‘mapped out’ for her in Lagos and choosing to follow her own path in Nsukka much to her parents’ dismay. In Nsukka, Olanna falls into the role of a supportive girlfriend, ready to take on the role of host when Odenigbo’s friends come visiting, but she never shies away from being seen and voicing out her opinions.

When Odenigbo cheats with Amala resulting in the birth of a baby girl, Olanna is broken. Her pain and heartbreak drive her to make unwise decisions such as sleeping with Richard, Kainene’s boyfriend, but through the support of her equally strong aunt, Aunty Ifeka, Olanna picks herself up, dusts herself off and makes a conscious decision to be in charge of her own life, her emotions and her decisions from then on.

“You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man…. Your life belongs to you and you alone.”

It is the war however, that really tests Olanna’s strength. When Odenigbo is overwhelmed by the change in circumstances and resorts to drinking, Olanna steps up; both in caring for Baby, Odenigbo’s child with Amala, but also Ugwu, their houseboy. She is keen on playing a role in Biafra and rejects attempts by her parents to persuade her to flee to Britain with them. She instead throws herself into the liberation effort, teaching refugee children and then running her own school.

Kainene, on the other hand is a born leader. Strong, independent, unforgiving and fearless right from the start. Never one to shy away from expressing herself and her sexuality, Kainene takes on the operations of her father’s businesses in Lagos and becomes very successful. She is critical of her twin sister’s decision to play the ‘good wife’ role in a small town to an underwhelming and ugly man.

Kainene is self-assured in her relationship with Richard and does not seek validation from her relationship or from him. On the contrary, it is Richard who is seen to constantly seek validation and reassurances throughout the narrative. When Olanna sleeps with Richard, Kainene is hurt and unforgiving. More unforgiving of her sister than of Richard because she held her relationship and bond with her sister in much higher regard and so the betrayal cut that much deeper. This incident fractures the core of their relationship but when war comes the two sisters face some of the worst atrocities, forcing them to re-evaluate what is really important. They are able to rise above their fights and find forgiveness and compassion for each other.

“There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.”

Throughout this narrative, both Kainene and Olanna are depicted are strong women. Not without flaws, but women who are able to recognize their flaws and make amends where and when required.


Behold the Dreamers – Imbolo Mbue

Neni is a Cameroonian Immigrant living in New York on a student visa. She works as a nurse aid and is working her way through school studying chemistry in the hopes that she will become a pharmacist – a coveted profession back home in Cameroon. She lives with her husband, Jende, a struggling taxi driver who gets a well-paying job as the chauffer for Clarke Edwards and his family and in the summer, gets a part time job as the Clarkes’ nanny.

Neni is a headstrong woman with a clear vision of what she wants out of life and is not afraid to go after it. She loves New York and wants to carve out a life for herself and her family in the big city, despite the uncertainties of their immigration status. Neni is focused on her studies and pursues her dream of becoming a pharmacist with passion. Her commitment and hard work earn her membership into the honor society, Phi Theta Kappa at her college.

“….because while there existed great towns and cities all over the world, there was a certain kind of pleasure, a certain type of adventurous and audacious childhood, that only New York City could offer a child.”

Neni is a woman not afraid of wanting many things – a good life for herself, wealth, a big house, better opportunities for her children, designer clothes and bags, a more in-tune marriage, better quality friendships. She wants it all and she is prepared to fight for her space and her right to want all these things.

“I don't like how people say to a woman, oh you want so many things, why do you want so many things? When I was young my father said to me, one day you're going to learn that you're a woman and you should not want too many things; like I should just be happy with my life even if it's not the kind of life I want. "
"I'm not ashamed of wanting many things in life. Tomorrow when my daughter grows up I will tell her to want whatever she wants, the same thing I will tell my son.”

When their asylum request is denied and their lives becomes so entwined and entangled with the Clarkes’ that Jende has all about had enough with America and is ready to go back home, Neni is not willing to let go of her American Dream. She wants to stay, she wants what she wants unapologetically and makes daring and drastic moves – she did not come to America and sacrifice so much only to go back Cameroon poor. She is also tired of feeling as is everyone else is better than her.

“It was for the boundless opportunities they would be denied, the kind of future she was almost denied in her father’s house. She was going to fight for her children, and for herself,”

Whilst her husband resigns more into himself, giving up and falling into depression, hardship and strife seem to have the opposite effect on Neni. Neni takes charge and we see her shed off her complacency and reliance on her husband. She comes out of his shadow and sheds off his dominance over her. She makes more deliberate decisions and weighs her options, some of which included divorcing her husband so she could stay in America. She blackmails Cindy, who she believes is the cause of the predicament they found themselves in by getting Jende fired.

I admire Neni for her resilience. I totally understand that most people may not agree with some of the decisions she made, but those decisions were right for her and her family and when she finally resigned herself to going back to Cameroon, she made sure they would not be starting from the bottom and would have a leg to stand on once back home.

Morayo and Morenike

Daughters Who Walk this Path – Yejide Kilanko

Daughters who walk this Path is probably one of the most underrated books of our times but one that I recommend to everyone and anyone who cares to listen. This book will turn you into a feminist, like it or not. It will move you and stay with you; not just because of the interesting story or incredible writing, but because of the strong female characters in it.

Daughters who walk this path is a bildungsroman following the life of Morayo, an intelligent and spirited young girl living in Ibadan, Nigeria. We are introduced to Morayo when she is 5 years old and her resolve is tested right from that early age. When her albino baby sister Eniayo is born, shrouded by rumours and misconception of witchcraft, Morayo becomes extremely protective of her and remains so throughout their lives.

At 11 years, Morayo is sexually abused by an older cousin and forced to live in silence. This encounter completely shifts her personality from a confident, playful and talkative child to a resigned, shy and suicidal girl. When she eventually masters the courage to tell her parents of the incident, they tip toe around the issue as is the case in most African family settings especially when the abuse is from within the home. This tips her over the edge. Morayo however finds a lifeline in Morenike, an older cousin who has also been through her own share of pain and abuse.

In her later years, stemming from her traumatic experience, Morayo engages in self-destructive behaviours of sexual explorations and misconduct. It takes a rough and tough journey of self-discovery and the guidance, friendship and support of Morenike, to find restoration and strength.

Morayo and Morenike together, through the years, show us what is means to form deep and supportive female friendships, through pain and hurt and struggles. They show us how vital it is to have a network of support between mothers, daughters, sisters and friends and how these can carry us through the toughest times in our lives. In Morayo and Morenike, I learnt the true meaning of friendship, I saw survivors and overcomers.


The Dragonfly Sea – Yvonne Awour Odhiambo

We meet Ayaana at six years old. A curious, explorative, free-spirited girl living in the nondescript little island of Pate off the Kenyan Coast. So nondescript is this tiny island, it does not appear in maps as Ayaana later points out. Ayaana is in a constant state of questioning and search for identity. As a young girl, Ayaana piques the interest of everyone who meets her. She spends her days scanning the shore as the boats dock, playing guessing games and wondering which one of the men getting off the boats is her father. She is enthralled by the sea, its beauty and its wonder and has a deep longing to find a father. When her path leads her to Muhidin, another lonely soul with a deep love for the ocean as she has, she chooses him to be her father much to the chagrin of her mother.

What is particularly striking about Ayaana is that at that young age, she had grasped, almost innately, the intricacies of the phenomena that is ‘choice’. In a little known island, with the odds set against her and a society that looks down on her as a girl born of a single woman, Ayaana is brave enough to realise that she has the power of choice. She chooses Muhidin and holds on to him jealously. Throughout the narrative, Ayaana is aware of this power of choice and wields it. We see her exercise it boldly throughout the book; she disengages from Koray when she realises she is in an abusive, toxic relationship. She chooses not to get into relationship with Lai Jin despite having deep feelings for him and she chooses to go back home when her thirst for identity and belonging in not quenched in her sojourns.

In her later years, Ayaana is identified as the ‘descendant’ - the link between China and Africa, in an attempt to justify Chinese interest in Africa and sent off to China for studies, we see her transform into a keen observer – of people, of nuances, of language, of the sea, of cultures, of herself. She is on a journey of self-discovery and as she travels from Pate to Shanghai to Turkey and back to Africa, she finds friendship and love. She also finds enlightenment. And yet she still craves for something else, for her sea, her identity. She does not stop seeking and questioning and charting her own path.

Ayaana is such a memorable strong character. She goes against the grain to show us what it means to find strength in a world that tries to dwarf you and take away your voice. A society that refuses to acknowledge your individuality, attempting to box you in their definition of who they think you are and who you should be.


Woman at Point Zero – Nawal El Saadawi

Firdaus is a woman who was born with the odds stacked against her. Her earliest memories are of herself as a child going hungry as she watched the father eat the only available meal of the day. In her early childhood, she is forcefully circumcised (genitally mutilated) and soon after sexually abused by her uncle. Orphaned and alone, she is taken in by the uncle and his new wife and sent to school. Just when she thinks things are getting better, the uncle abuses her and she is unable to continue with school. All this before she turns 18.

The rest of her life is a series of unfortunate events all at the hands of the men she meets – the 60 year old husband she was forced to marry and who repeatedly beats her and forces his way with her every night, the rescuer who becomes a pimp and sells her off to his friends, the love interest who disowns her, and the pimp who tries to forcefully share in her earnings. She ends up killing this pimp and is sentenced to death for this crime, a punishment that she willingly accepts because for once in her life, she has decided to fight back and has no regrets for killing this man.

Firdaus is the embodiment of a woman who has overcome so much, a woman for whom strength is the only available option. At point Zero, she picks herself up and refuses to let the dictates of society determine her worth, how she defines herself and how she lives her life. When Firdaus makes the decision to live her life in her own terms, she does so unapologetically and when death comes knocking, she accepts it and opposes any attempts by men to ‘rescue’ her for their own glorification.


Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ifemelu is one of the most complex characters I have ever encountered. One minute, I am so endeared to her, I can relate with her struggles, I share her opinions and her values and I felt like she was telling my story. Next minute, I wanted to slap her senseless. She exhibits some narcissistic, selfish and condescending traits that can make even the calmest person lose their shit. But when I holistically interrogate the person of Ifemelu, I recognize that in her non-linear ways, is a strong woman who was growing and discovering herself, what works and what doesn’t.

As a child growing up in Nigeria, Ifem is very outspoken. She challenges societal norms that expect her to be a quiet, obedient girl by non-conformance. She refuses to be silenced and speaks up to her mother’s church friends. In high school, ifem believes in the power of individuality and avoids the trap of the ‘popular kids’ clique. She is unique in her individuality and when she chooses to have with Obinze, she does it when she feels ready.

When Ifem moves to America in her Uni years, we begin to see a drastic shift in her character and personality. America is a big, strange and lonely place and the novelty of it shocks Ifem. She now has to contend with racism and the colour of her skin, a fact that she was not alive to back home in Nigeria. She has to suffer white Americans being overtly racist or excessively apologetic for the transgressions of their race to exasperating levels (Kimberly). In her struggle to survive, ifem ends up doing ‘uncharacteristic’ things and this experience almost knocks the life out of her. She retreats within herself and becomes depressed and we start seeing an Ifem who is no longer so self-assured, who engages in self-sabotaging behaviours – she cuts Obinze off and begins dating Curt, a privileged and rich white American man. She later cheats on Curt with a man she didn’t even like. When she starts dating Blaine, she is never really into it, they don’t have much in common and at one point describes her relationship with Blaine as ‘being content in a house but always sitting by the window looking out’. She breaks up with Blaine and returns to Nigeria – still on her journey of self-discovery - and turns Obinze’s life upside down!

Her experiences in Nigeria in childhood, America and back in Nigeria as an adult turn her into a deeply observant woman. She observes the differences between the men in her life, between races, between Non-American blacks and American Blacks; and taps into this observations and experiences, pouring it in a blog that resonates with so many of her readers and in doing so finds confidence and strength. Ifemelu is not perfect, she is flawed, she is kind, she is a pragmatist, she is a lover, she is jealous, she is a friend, she is complex but she is a woman you have to admire – she transcends societal expectations of how to be a woman and becomes the woman that she wants to be, unapologetically.


Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeyemi

At times I get jealous of young black girls growing up in these times. They get to grow up in Wakanda Times! Times where you can switch on the TV and never run out of super hero movies with badass female actors who look like them taking on leading roles. A world with Beyoncé in it. Where you open up a book and meet characters like Zelie and Princess Amari, young, strong-willed, and kick ass young adults who have the strength to bring Kings down and change the destinies of their people. It’s all fiction I know, Afrofuturism, they call it. But I see possibilities, I see strength, I see renewed hope, a belief that you are not bound by the colour of your skin – you can aspire to greatness and you can be great.

Zelie lives in Orisha, a mythical place in Nigeria among her Maji people. She is a diviner – a people chosen by the gods to wield magic- and has been chosen by the Sky Mother to bring the magic back and restore the Maji to their former glory. The only catch – magic has been forbidden in Orisha for a long time and the King has ordered the killing of anyone caught practicing magic. Together with Amari, the princess of Orisha and her brother Tzain, they journey across the land to reach the holy temple, their only chance to fully restore the Majis’ magic. This journey is however not without challenges. After them is Prince Inan, Amari’s brother who is next in line for the throne, and the King who is threatened by the uncertainty of magic.

Zelie is a fearless leader, she risks her life several times standing up for what is right for instance, when she saved Princess Amari who was running away from home at the risk of capture and possible death at the hands of the King’s men. She is brave and determined and at times somewhat irrational because she chooses to let her heart guide her. Zelie is a strong, young black female character that will resonate with so many young readers. She gives one the power of belief which is at the core of shifting the old narrative that all superheroes are white with long blond hair – they can very easily be female, dark with streaks of white kinky hairJ. I wish I had met Zelie when I was younger.


Are there any other African Female characters that have resonated with you in your reading? I would love to have your take on these characters and any other female characters that have challenged your thinking, biases and perspectives.


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