Show Less
Open access

Fictions of African Dictatorship

Cultural Representations of Postcolonial Power

Series:

Edited By Charlotte Baker and Hannah Grayson

Fictions of African Dictatorship examines the fictional representation of the African dictator and the performance of dictatorship across genres. The volume includes contributions focusing on literature, theatre and film, all of which examine the relationship between the fictional and the political. Among the questions the contributors ask: what are the implications of reading a novel for its historical content or accuracy? How does the dictator novel interrogate ideas of veracity? How is power performed and ridiculed? How do different writers reflect on questions of authority in the postcolony, and what are the effects on their stories and modes of narration? This volume untangles some of the intricate workings of dictatorial power in the postcolony, through twelve close readings of works of fiction. It interrogates the intersections between real and literary space, exploring censorship, political critique and creative resistance. Insights into a wide range of lesser known texts and contexts make this volume an original and insightful contribution to scholarship on representations of dictatorship.

Show Summary Details
Open access

11. ‘Under the Lion’s Gaze’: Female Sexualities under Dictatorship in Selected Fiction from Malawi (Asante Lucy Mtenje)

← 214 | 215 →

ASANTE LUCY MTENJE

11  ‘Under the Lion’s Gaze’: Female Sexualities under Dictatorship in Selected Fiction from Malawi

The intersections between the ideological-material legacies of Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorial regime and representations of female sexuality in Malawian fiction are the focus of this chapter. Drawing from Dubravka Juraga, who points out that ‘literary texts may offer an incisive perspective on the social and psychological dynamics of authoritarianism, addressing not only how dictators maintain power through outright surveillance mechanisms, but what living conditions are like for ordinary individuals under modern despotic regimes’,1 I am particularly interested in using literary narratives to examine how writers explore the congruencies and disjunctures amongst outright political dictatorship and the impact on bodies and behaviours of subjects, along with discourses such as gender and culture which are commonly mobilized in the service of national identity. I focus on two novels by Malawian writers, namely Tiyambe Zeleza’s Smouldering Charcoal (1992) and James Ng’ombe’s Sugarcane with Salt (1989 [2005]), texts which are both set in Banda’s dictatorial regime. The chapter examines the writers’ portrayal of female sexual agency, desires and pleasure and how they simultaneously challenge and reproduce received, normative ‘truths’ about female sexualities.

Drawing on Michel Foucault’s critical insights from his seminal text, History of Sexuality, this chapter explores Zeleza and Ng’ombe’s depiction of female sexualities in their novels as sites of resistance against patriarchal ← 215 | 216 → hegemony, which elude control even while there remain awkward moments in which the female characters continue to be interpellated by normative, even hegemonic discourses around sexualities. Foucault maintains that sexuality has ‘been taken charge of, tracked down, as it were, by a discourse that aims to allow … no obscurity, no respite’.2 He argues that discourse involves power because it is about knowledge and language and narratives are key vehicles for producing knowledge. Power is thus a multiplicity of force relations of which discourse and knowledge are key elements. As such, language is not merely an explicitly directed, repressive power, but productive of knowledge in more dispersed forms – in the case of the present chapter, of the nature of sexuality and ‘proper’ sexual conduct. Thus power paradoxically offers spaces for reverse, opposing discourses as will be illustrated in this analysis.

Regimes of power and sexualities

In contemporary Malawi, the mention of the name of Kamuzu Banda, the first president of Malawi, commonly referred to as ngwazi and mkango,3 invokes many ambivalent memories including those of murders, mysterious accidents, imprisonments and exiles of dissenters as well as peace and food security. To further comment on the ambivalence in the national memories of Banda, Reuben Chirambo explains that ‘the narratives of constructed monuments (both scripted and symbolic) recall and celebrate Banda as a nationalist hero, the father and founder of the Malawi nation, but his critics and victims suggest he was a vicious dictator’.4 Banda’s Malawi, as ← 216 | 217 → Tiyambe Zeleza describes the thirty-year regime (from 1994 to 1964), was ‘a contraption of totalitarian power […] a land of pervasive fear where words were constantly monitored … a state of dull uniformity that criminalized difference, ambiguity, and creativity, an omniscient regime with a divine right to nationalize time’.5 Through a pervasive system of control which employed various state machinery, Banda’s one party state ‘censored memories, stories, and words that contested and mocked its hegemonic authority, thus rewriting history, banishing and imprisoning numerous opponents, real and imaginary, who questioned the legitimacy of the regime’.6 In postcolonial Malawi under Banda, state power exceeded its normal limits; the state was able to exert influence, direct and indirect, on both mundane and politically consequential matters. In such semi-permanent states of political ‘excess’, the postcolonial commandment (as Mbembe calls it), routinizes itself through ‘daily rituals that ratify it’.7 Such control by the regime was even extended to issues to do with sexualities which Banda sought to regulate and mould into his idea of propriety. For example, on one occasion in the early 1970s long before AIDS struck the nation, Banda devoted a three-hour speech to ‘extolling traditional sexual and moral propriety as part of a perceived Malawian cultural heritage’.8

Furthermore, in 1973, Banda’s regime, through the Decency in Dress Act, imposed strict dress codes for women whereby ‘a new script, steeped in the moralistic, anti-sexual and body shame acts, was inscribed on the bodies of women and with it an elaborate system of control’.9 The act made women’s wearing of trousers, miniskirts, skirts with slits, showing cleavage a criminal offence as it was perceived inimical to the so called Malawian ← 217 | 218 → cultural values. The regime claimed that these prohibited clothing items drew attention to a woman’s thighs and buttocks, two areas considered particularly erogenous in Malawi. Banda was known for having very strict, conservative notions about sexuality and the impropriety of displaying or even discussing anything that might be construed as sexually suggestive. The state’s control of bodies, conflated with the dictator’s puritanical beliefs, made sexuality a taboo subject in Banda’s Malawi. A censorship board was even constituted to monitor and regulate the literature, films, and music Malawians had access to. For example, Marvin Gaye’s hit song ‘Sexual Healing,’ released in 1982, was banned from Malawian airwaves because of its title and lyrics which were perceived to be sexually explicit. Under the regime, even various sexual practices such as homo-erotic practices and oral sex were penalized and prohibited as they were categorized under ‘unnatural sexual acts’ and contrary to Malawian culture. Here, one notes how sexuality exists as a site for marking national belonging, thus reminding us of Foucault’s argument that sexuality is a charged point of transfer for power. Banda’s systematic control of bodies and sexualities was maintained and perpetuated through the indoctrination of the nation, exercised through the regime’s four cornerstones, namely unity, loyalty, obedience and discipline.

Contrary to the regime’s rhetoric that one of its main agendas was to empower women’s lives, women bore the brunt of the regime’s oppressive machinery. Traditionally the role of the Malawian woman has been that of subservience to the man and female sexuality is generally perceived as subordinate to that of men. Modes of regulating and controlling female sexualities are embodied through various forms including through cultural practices, religious and state institutions and their role in socializing women and men. Banda’s regime took advantage of the already disempowered position of Malawian women to further exploit them and to further secure women’s sexuality under men’s control. Oppressive conditions under the regime perpetuated by the Mbumba culture in which every Malawian woman was forced to dance for Banda at every political event, exposed women to different forms of sexual exploitation carried out by politicians and the ← 218 | 219 → youth militia who exercised power over local citizens.10 Emily Mkamanga argues that women suffered in silence despite the Nkhoswe-Mbumba ideology which purported to exist for the provision and promotion of women. She argues that women were ‘vulnerable […] in [the] dictatorship which downgraded [their] status to second class citizens’ and the regime ‘left no woman untouched’.11 Although Banda insisted on sexual propriety in terms of dressing and behaviour exemplified through the dancing women’s donning of long zitenjes, the dance movements in interaction with the dress had a transformative effect on the message. The dance moves in the form of eroticized hip and thigh movements directed towards male politicians, notably Banda himself, presented a paradox. The message of female sexual propriety changed from one of modesty to one of explicit sensuality and sexuality but under the control of Banda, who always made sure that he had the optimum view of women’s dancing bodies.12 Such were the contradictions of Banda’s regime.

Literary production and authoritarianism

Thirty years of Banda’s systematic control on the publication and circulation of literature, which was implicated in various state and cultural institutions, affected literary production in the country. Hester Ross argues that ‘Malawian literature has been affected by the prevailing totalitarian power structures’, and goes on to assert that this is even reflected in the ← 219 | 220 → representation of male-female relations in Malawian literature.13 Generally, Malawian literature has attracted minimal critical attention and even more so, the subject of gender in Malawian novels has been neglected by critics within Malawi and outside. Issues to do with gender and sexuality have not occupied much space in the literature produced by Malawians. In fact, these issues are often glossed over by critics and writers alike in favour of focusing on the harsh realities of Kamuzu Banda’s autocratic regime and less on its effects on gendered and sexed subjectivities. This focus has ‘arrested the discussion of sexuality’, to borrow from Allison Donnell’s observation about the dearth of studies on representations of sexualities in Caribbean literature.14 Nevertheless, the few studies on gender with a biased reference to women in Malawian fiction reflect that their representation in Malawian literary imaginaries is almost always framed within binary representations of the prostitute/mistress living at the margins of society versus the ‘Madonna’, or the ideal, long-enduring wife and mother.15 Francis Moto adds to this observation by contending that he is yet to come across a story that treats a woman character as ‘a whole person in her own right and not only as a tangential individual who cannot lead a free and independent life’.16 However, in these representations, I notice a glaring absence of the complex and heterogeneous ways in which women embody their gendered experiences as well as the diverse and multifaceted inflections of their sexualities. Sexuality in relation to embodiment is important to this analysis for, as Ezekiel Kaigai argues, ‘embodiment offers a nuanced optic through which to capture the way power hierarchies … are exercised’. It is through bodies, for example, ‘that … narratives invite the reader to reflect on how ← 220 | 221 → certain forms of power and domination are gendered in particular ways and how stories present the gendered body as an unstable field of power contestation’ (Kaigai 60).17

Moreover, representation of sexuality in Malawian fiction is often shrouded by a myriad of taboos, essentialisms, as well as political and cultural objections, as it is framed within cultural silences which regard talking publicly about issues of sexuality as taboo. As Joel Gwynne and Angela Poon observe,

sexuality is often perceived as shameful, for the dangers it potentially precipitates – rape, exploitation … – often outweigh its pleasures. Essentialist arguments surrounding sexuality have historically cast the subject as taboo, and even within relationships where sex is sanctioned – namely heterosexual marital relationships – it is often a difficult subject to navigate and negotiate.18

Indeed, this critical observation proves to be pertinent especially when interrogating how sexualities of Malawian citizens within a thirty-year contraption of totalitarian rule, have been represented in works of literature considering the restrictions that were placed on the literary production of issues concerning sexualities.

Representing female sexualities in Smouldering Charcoal and Sugarcane with Salt

Zeleza’s Smouldering Charcoal and Ng’ombe’s Sugarcane with Salt are both set in Banda’s repressive Malawi. Since both texts were published when Banda was still in power, both writers go out of their way to disguise certain ← 221 | 222 → locations and names to avoid political persecution. Writers who seemed to be critiquing Banda’s totalitarianism were detained without trial, exiled and even killed.19 However, the socio-political reality which they depict form part of the backdrop in the two novels and make it clear that the reference is Banda’s Malawi; for example, the portraits of the head of state hanging on the walls, the perversion of youth militia who demand party membership from local citizens, and women forced to dance for the nameless leader. In her analysis of both novels, Hester Ross notes that ‘there is even an irrational “big brother” force in the country which rules by fear’.20 Zeleza, who was living outside the country, reveals that he wrote the novel in 1982 but to avoid the persecution of his family, he only published the novel in 1992 when Banda had begun to lose his grip on power. Banda is simply referred to as ‘the leader’ and he does not appear anywhere in person in the novel. However, reminiscent of an ‘Orwellian Big brother, he has almost everybody in the country in his radar’. The leader is the sole administrator of the only political party in the country which deploys spies for the regime in different capacities. As Ogbeide remarks, ‘the party has no boundaries … through it the leader has his iron grip on the country through vigilant party women, fanatical youth leaguers, chairmen, ministers and other informers who work either as house helps, university lecturers’.21 Reuben Chirambo describes these as ‘untamed pests’, a horde of fanatics or political loyalists who ‘have chosen to serve the party either in position in its hierarchy or as undercover agents in clandestine activities’.22

Smouldering Charcoal focuses on two families from different social classes as they are trying to navigate through life under a dictatorship. Chola is a journalist who is influenced by Marxist thinking. He lives with his girlfriend Catherine who is a university student. On the other side ← 222 | 223 → of the economic spectrum is Mchere, a baking factory worker, who lives with his wife Nambe and their five children. The two families are drawn together by a strike which subsequently has a profound effect on their relationships, identities and politics. Sugarcane with Salt, on the other hand, is about a young medical doctor called Khumbo Dala who comes back from his studies in England only to find his family and the country in a state of disintegration ranging from the divorce of his parents to widespread corruption in the country. Women in the two novels occupy very marginal positions in the society and their significance is mainly in relation to the major characters who are male. Nevertheless, I am interested in the various degrees of co-option and coercion, containment and escape demonstrated by these female characters in the face of totalitarian power structures and patriarchal socio-cultural values and norms which mediate the agency of female sexualities. Further drawing on Foucault’s ideas about sexuality and power as being diffusive, my analysis pays attention to how the self is, to a certain extent, a product of particular knowledge engendered by dominant discourses. I therefore reflect how the embodied self’s relationships to societal modes of respectability, values and aesthetics ‘continue to play roles in how people negotiate place and power, and inform how we traverse the terrain of sexualization’, and that ‘rather than being a mere tool, then, the body acts as both the site and language through which positioning is negotiated’.23 My analysis focuses on three characters in Smouldering Charcoal, namely Catherine, a university student who is expelled because of her boyfriend Chola’s political activities, Nambe, a poor wife to Mchere, a bakery worker who is later arrested because of his participation in a strike, and finally Lucy, Mchere’s mistress, who is also a prostitute who works in a bar which Mchere frequents. In Sugarcane with Salt, I examine the character of Grace, a primary school teacher who has a short-term relationship with Khumbo Dala, the main protagonist of the novel. Although marginal, these characters variously exemplify the ways in which women resist and negotiate cultural and political constraints on ← 223 | 224 → their bodies and sexualities at the same time as they conform to societal ideas of sexual propriety and respectability.

Catherine is one of the interesting characters who challenges societal expectations of how a respectable female is supposed to behave sexually. She is a university student and is described as a beautiful, intelligent woman who is in charge of her mind and body, one who realizes that her sexuality is hers to own and control. She distinguishes herself from other women who after graduation ‘sink into the anonymity of marriage’ by mapping out a plan for herself after marriage thus resisting the almost inevitable obscurity that accompanies female determination after marriage in the male hegemonic society she has been brought up in.24 She refuses to shelve her ambitions while settling for marriage with the successful Chola. She asserts that when she gets married ‘she would not be reduced to a carbon copy of Chola, a faceless wallflower’, just like other married women.25 Being a carbon copy of Chola and a faceless wallflower implies the loss of her own individuality and autonomy and being at the service of Chola’s needs. This effacement of one’s identity is embedded in patriarchal, cultural expectations of wifehood which enforce limitations on women and places them at the service of man of the house. To conform to such expectations also connotes being a ‘good’, ‘respectable’ wife, one who knows her place. Catherine refuses to limit her capabilities and ambitions by being Chola’s subordinate and despite objections from her family and friends she chooses to be in a fulfilling sexual and love relationship with Chola often ‘cuddl[ing] up to each other’ with ‘soft music playing in the background’ while making passionate love.26 Often times, she feels a pleasurable ‘warmth and tenderness tingling in her body as an aftermath of sexual pleasure derived from her passionate lovemaking with Chola.27 The narrator says about their relationship:

They had been going together for two years now. They had been engaged and living together for the past six months despite the objection of her parents and some of her ← 224 | 225 → friends … They had agreed that there was an advantage in knowing each other before taking the final plunge in order to find out whether they were really compatible.28

Her rebellion against expectations from her parents and her friends illustrate her defiance against notions that equate female respectability with so-called sexual purity and which are moulded within cultural narratives that require heterosexual marriage to be the basis for living together as that is the normalized space for legitimate sex, ‘divine and sacrosanct … the most appropriate place to be in terms of conducting sexual activity and or the procreation of future generations’.29 Her relationship with Chola, seen as a transgression of moral codes of female sexuality, therefore subjects her to different forms of ridicule and shaming from many people, including her own peers who label her a prostitute who is interested in getting money out of her ‘sugar daddy’.30 From these labels, one notes that the relationship, which is actually based on mutual respect and affection, is reduced to a transactional activity in which they see Catherine callously intending to exploit the older Chola and financially benefit from him before dumping him for younger suiters. The age gap between Chola and Catherine provokes this disapproval. Catherine is stereotypically framed as a femme fatale since primary ridicule and shaming is directed to her and not Chola, who is largely exempt from negative labels.

The expectations of wifehood discussed earlier and prescribed sexual propriety for women which Catherine rejects and refuses to conform to can best be understood through Foucault’s argument that it is through discourse, paradoxically verbose and clear, that expectations, experiences, and events are constituted. According to Foucault, the discourse of sexuality has been instrumental to the development of the self and he points out that particular knowledge (in this case about women) produces and reinforces a certain truth about female sexuality and how this is subsequently ← 225 | 226 → internalized and manifested in various subjectivities such as wifehood and motherhood. Catherine resists the internalization of such subjectivities and maps her own path. Thus, Zeleza’s depiction of Catherine’s reactions against societal expectations of female sexualities not only illustrates the social construction of sexuality and how discourses generate subject positions, it also portrays ‘how people embody, transgress or reconstruct such positions’.31

Zeleza further shows how Banda’s male state agents and political party leaders use sexuality as a tool through which to exploit and punish women who did not subscribe to the laws of the regime or whose husbands or male relatives were suspected to be anti-Banda. The author’s depiction exposes what Desiree Lewis calls ‘a conflation of power and sexuality’. In repressive contexts such as the one depicted in the novel, ‘far from being disassociated from any realm that we could call “instinctive”, sexuality is constantly defined through and within violence and the assertion of power’.32 As the narrator explains about those who did not possess a party membership card: ‘Others were beaten to death, their houses burnt, or women raped and children barred from school, if they did not possess the almighty card’.33 Emily Mkamanga argues that even though public prudery was at its height during Banda’s regime, it was however undermined by the MCP itself with its perverse sexual exploitation of women.34 This aspect is portrayed through Catherine who is almost sexually assaulted by government agents. Her firm belief that a woman should not be used as an object of sexual pleasure for men, ‘that what was at stake was the very essence of her being’35 enables her to fight off attempted rape, first by the government official who promises to give her favours whenever she wants to visit Chola ← 226 | 227 → in exchange for her body and who happens to be the same person who had arrested Chola for covering anti-Banda activities. Later, her professor, Dr Bakha, also attempts to lure her into having sexual relations with him thus taking advantage of her vulnerable situation when she is expelled from university because of her association with Chola. In both cases, she could have used her sexuality to secure these benefits since without Chola who provided most of the material benefits she would suffer financially as she had no other stable source of income. However, she refuses to be objectified by these men and asserts ownership of her sexuality by resisting and warding off the violent advances.

Similarly, Nambe refuses to be the object of political party men’s perverse pleasures and strategically manipulates the same system that is used to sexually exploit women thus illustrating that African women ‘know when, where, and how to detonate patriarchal landmines … how to go around patriarchal landmines … how to negotiate with or negotiate around patriarchy in different contexts’.36 Nambe and her husband Mchere live in dire poverty and she resorts to brewing local beer to provide for her family. However, in order for the business to be allowed in the area, she had to obtain permission from party officials who also used their ability to grant permission as leverage to get sexual gratification from the local women:

When Nambe was approached by one of the party officials after she had started her business and was asked whether she had obtained the necessary permission, she replied affirmatively. Little did she know what was meant by permission. When the party official made himself clear, Nambe was utterly shaken. What a price! She could not allow it … But she did not want to stop brewing kachasu either. Surely there had to be a way out. Yes, how about promising him that next time would do because at present she was not in the right condition? He bought her story. When he came back a few days later she took a gamble: well, how unfortunate he was, she said, he had come rather late, for none other than the Party chairman himself had been to see her and had told her to keep herself only for him. He could go and ask for the chairman’s permission if he still wanted her.37 ← 227 | 228 →

Because of selling kachasu, a home-brewed spirit, a trade that she engages in as a source of income for her impoverished family, Nambe is considered as being outside the bounds of female respectability. This is because women who brewed kachasu were labelled as ‘aggressive and disobedient to their husbands and morally loose’.38 A party official takes advantage of this stereotype and uses it to sexually exploit Nambe who is desperate to make ends meet. The official is aware of the power that he yields in the community and the fact that the women in Njala village cannot openly challenge his power and therefore will give in to his sexual advances. Refusing to be commodified as a sexual object, Nambe appropriates the same discourse which objectifies women’s bodies and constructs female sexuality as free and open to male consumption to manipulate and resist the party official’s sexual advances. To buy herself some time, she lies to the party official, saying that she is menstruating, as a tactic to ward off his sexual advances. Though temporary, the strategy works as it is a cultural taboo to engage in sexual intercourse with a woman who is on her monthly period since she is considered to be defiled in that moment. As a way of rejecting the official, hence defending her bodily integrity, she wittingly performs the role of sexually licentious kachasu when she tells him that she is already sleeping with the party chairman who is obviously much more powerful politically and socially than he is. She deliberately uses commodifying language which reflects the official’s perception of female bodies to taunt him and make him aware of his inferiority when she tells him to go and ask permission from the chairman with whom she is supposedly having sexual relations. This strategy saves her from the official’s advances.

Further exploitation of female bodies by powerful politicians in Banda’s regime is portrayed through the character of Lucy, a prostitute at a bar in Njala. Lucy, a former beauty queen is coerced into a relationship with an older man, an MP for Njala who ‘seduced her by promising to pay her school fees at one of the famous boarding schools for girls’.39 The MP merely uses her for his own sexual gratification for he refuses responsibility and abandons her soon after she falls pregnant at seventeen. She becomes expendable ← 228 | 229 → for she is now tainted with the inescapably female-embodied, public visibility of pregnancy and framed as a damaged, typical representative of sexual promiscuity. Because of his powerful position and gender, the MP escapes repercussions of his despicable behaviour as well as the ostracism that Lucy faces because of the pregnancy. He ensures her silence by threatening her that if ‘she continued spreading lies that he was responsible, she and her family would pay for it’.40 Lucy resorts to sex work as a means of supporting herself, her child and her family. Despite her circumstances, Lucy refuses to be a victim and fights against exploitation from men who simply want to use her labour for free. For example, when Mchere, her regular client, begins to make a habit of not paying her after sex, she demands payment, and ‘threatened that unless [he] gave her K2 right now she would never talk to [him] again’.41 She asserts herself by threatening to withdraw her labour from Mchere who is becoming potentially exploitative. Furthermore, she refuses to be objectified by Mchere when he approaches her in her room at the back of the bar. She tells him, ‘If it’s sex you want I am not in the mood for it and I don’t have the time’.42 Exercising her agency, she disabuses the notion that because she is a prostitute she is open for sex at all times even if she doesn’t want it. She takes charge of her body by controlling who has access to her body and when.

In Sugarcane with Salt, Ng’ombe clearly portrays patriarchal socio-cultural values that subordinate and commodify women’s sexuality as working in concert with authoritarian power structures in the mediation of female sexuality. The country is facing devastation as it is ‘sagging under the yoke of betrayal, moral failure, corruption, drug peddling, disillusionment and stock suffering’. Against this backdrop, Ng’ombe moves away from ‘the thinly disguised socio-political context’ to focus on women and how they fare at the hands of both the dictatorial regime and the patriarchal society.43 Of interest to me is the treatment of Grace, a primary school teacher ← 229 | 230 → who teaches with Pempho, Khumbo’s former primary school classmate who happens to be the headmaster of the school now. In contrast to the traditional and backward town where she lives, Grace is presented as a modern, young, educated woman who does not seem to fit in the town. Khumbo is immediately drawn to her independence and her assertiveness which is further mediated in the way she carries her body sensually as well as the way she interacts with people of the opposite sex. However, the fact that she is a single woman makes her vulnerable to the sharp eyes and wagging tongues of the community who monitor her every move. This is done especially by her fellow women who assume that she is going to go after their men. Furthermore, her singlehood renders her sexuality subject to commodification by the headmaster who unashamedly brings all types of men to her house at night in order to hook her up with them. Grace reveals to Khumbo, who is taken to Grace’s house by Pempho who conveniently leaves the two of them together:

‘This is not the first time he has done this to me,’ she replied. ‘That’s the price you have to pay for being single in a small town like this. Everyone makes passes at you.’[…]

    ‘The visitors I have had from Pempho have always come at Pempho’s instigation.’ She hesitated before proceeding. ‘It’s as if he wants to see my breaking point.’44

There are a number of points to be noted in the way female sexuality is framed within this context. Firstly, the fact that Grace is single is an anomaly which stands against the norm, since patriarchy dictates that woman be attached to a man in order to gain validation. Female autonomy and self determination exemplified by women who decide not to be male appendages therefore destabilize societal gender roles and expectations. Secondly, the fact that Pempho decides to use his position as Grace’s work superior to turn her body and sexuality into a commodity through which his friends can achieve some gratification shows how little he respects her and how he reduces her body to a sexual object. Her resistance against being reduced ← 230 | 231 → to a sex object is in turn viewed by Pempho and others as stubbornness which needs to be dealt with.

Interestingly, unbeknownst to Pempho and others, Grace does have a boyfriend called Dan Kapena who lives away in the city. However, even though Grace is faithful to him, staying indoors and refusing to interact with men about anything other than professional issues, her boyfriend is non-committal to her. The presence of Khumbo whom she is mutually attracted to offers her the chance to temporarily explore her sexuality by having a sexual affair with him, even though she is well aware of the transient nature of the affair since Khumbo is engaged to a white woman called Sue. Thus, transgressing the moral codes of female respectability, Grace exercises her agency to pursue sexual pleasure at the expense of her reputation. However, even though Grace exhibits some considerable level of independence, challenging patriarchal norms of respectable female sexuality, it is interesting to note that when she suspects that she is pregnant she becomes conscious of the shame that is associated with pregnancy out of wedlock and she grudgingly decides to get married, thus conforming to conventional expectations regarding respectable womanhood.

‘I think I am going to have a baby,’ she whispered evasively, and a tear or two landed on Khumbo’s hand.

    ‘Are you certain?’ he gasped, helpless.

    ‘I am hoping that Dan won’t find out.’ She whispered […] ‘I need a father for my baby,’ she […] cried openly. ‘I’ll just have to accept his proposal’.45

To rid herself of the shameful burden of having a child out of wedlock especially one whose father was already involved with someone else, she decides to pin the responsibility of fatherhood on Dan to save face. She clearly does not love Dan, as she only grudgingly accepts his proposal because the child is on the way. Ng’ombe’s portrayal echoes Rachel Spronk’s argument that though modern women express the desire to challenge conventional modes of femininities, ‘they also internalize certain constructions of femininity that are at odds with change’. Spronk further notes that about ← 231 | 232 → modern women: ‘[T]heir experiences and their wishes relate to conventional discourses that discourage particular expressions of their sexuality, as well as with those more liberal discourses that encourage them to explore sexuality’.46 Similarly, Grace, as a product of her society, also embodies such ambiguous attitudes. She undermines conventions proscribed for female sexuality by following her sexual desires thereby being or representing the modern or liberal woman but at the same time she conforms to conventional notions of femininity by wanting a father for her child to avoid being stigmatized for having a child out of wedlock.

In conclusion, female bodies in Banda’s autocratic regime were subjected to different kinds of sexual abuses and controls which aligned with patriarchal socio-cultural values to limit women’s mobility and sexualities. However, these two texts depict the agency available to and exercised by women to negotiate against such restrictive discourses. At the same time, the two authors’ representation of female sexual agency highlights the problematics of women’s open expression of sexual desire and pleasure in a context where such freedom is perceived as transgressing the norms. I also observe that the representation of female sexual agency in the two texts is to a certain degree framed within paradoxical, normative expectations of gender and female sexuality.

Bibliography

Chirambo, Reuben, ‘“A Monument to a Tyrant” or Reconstructed Nationalist Memories of the Father and Founder of the Malawi Nation, Dr. H. K. Banda’, Africa Today 56.4 (2010), 2–21.

——, ‘Untamed Pest, Night Storms, Smouldering Charcoal and Prospects for Democracy in Africa: Tiyambe Zeleza’s Smouldering Charcoal’, Journal of Social Development in Africa 14.1 (1999), 121–32.

Donnell, Alison, Twentieth-Century Caribbean Literature (London: Routledge, 2007). ← 232 | 233 →

Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1 (New York: Pantheon, 1980).

Gilman, Lisa, The Dance of Politics: Gender, Performance, and Democratization in Malawi (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2009).

Gqola, Pumla D., ‘Yindaba kaban’ u’ba ndilahl’ umlenze? Sexuality and Body Image’, Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity 19/63 (2005), 3–9.

Gwynne, Joel, and Angela Poon, eds, Sexuality and Contemporary Literature (Amherst, MA: Cambria Press, 2012).

Izugbara, Chimaraoke, and Jerry Okal, ‘Performing Heterosexuality: Male Youth, Vulnerability and HIV in Malawi’ in Andrea Cornwall et al., eds, Men and Development: Politicizing Masculinities (London: Zed Books, 2011), 21–32.

Juraga, Dubravka, ‘Nuruddin Farah’s Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship: Patriarchy, Gender, and Political Oppression in Somalia’, in Derek Wright, ed., Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah (Trenton: Africa World Press Inc, 2002), 283–307.

Kaigai Kimani, ‘Sexuality, Power and Transgression: Homophobia in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Memory of Departure’, Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies 1/1–2 (2014), 59–70.

Lewis, Desiree, ‘Rethinking Nationalism in Relation to Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”’, Sexualities 11/1–2 (2008), 104–9.

Mbembe, Achille, ‘Provisional Notes on the Postcolony’, Africa 62/1 (1992), 3–37.

Mkamanga, Emily, Suffering in Silence: Malawi’s 30-Year Dance with Dr Banda (Glasgow: Dudu Nsomba, 2000).

Moto, Francis, Trends in Malawian Literature (Zomba: Chancellor College, 2001).

Mvududu, Sara, and McFadden Patricia, Re-conceptualising the Family in a Changing Southern Africa Environment, Women and Law in Southern Africa (Harare: Research Trust, 2001).

Ng’ombe, James, Sugarcane with Salt (Blantyre: Jhango Publishing Company, 2005).

Nnaemeka, Obioma, ‘Nego-feminism: Theorising, Practicing, and Pruning Africa’s Way’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29/2 (2003), 357–86.

Ogbeide, Victor O., ‘Raping the Dreams and Subverting the Aspirations: Post Independence Disillusionment in Zeleza’s Smouldering Charcoal’, International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literature (IJSELL) 2/7 (2014), 76–83.

Ross, Hester, ‘“All Men Do is Love, Love …” Context, Power and Women in Some Recent Malawian Writing’, in Kings Phiri and Kenneth R. Ross, eds, Democratization in Malawi: A Stock-taking (Blantyre: CLAIM, 1998), 168–94.

Sagawa, Jessie, ‘Archetype or Stereotype? Three Images of Women in the Malawian Novel’, Paper presented at an International Conference on Malawian Literature, Blantyre, Malawi, 1996. ← 233 | 234 →

Spronk, Rachel, ‘Sexuality and Subjectivity: Erotic Practices and the Question of Bodily Sensations’, Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 22/1 (2014), 3–21.

Tamale, Sylvia, ed., African Sexualities: A Reader (Cape Town: Pambazuka Press, 2011).

Tembo, Nick Mdika, ‘Politics and stylistics of female (re)presentation in James Ng’ombe’s Sugarcane with salt’, in Reuben Chirambo and Justus K. S. Makokha, eds, Reading contemporary Africa literature: Critical perspectives (Rodopi, Amsterdam, 2013), 109–26.

Zeleza, Tiyambe, Smouldering Charcoal (Essex: Heinemann, 1992).

——, ‘Banishing Words and Stories: Censorship in Banda’s Malawi’, CODESRIA Bulletin 1 (1996), 10–15.


1 Dubravka Juraga, ‘Nuruddin Farah’s Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship: Patriarchy, Gender, and Political Oppression in Somalia’, in Derek Wright, ed., Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah (Trenton: Africa World Press Inc., 2002), 283–307 (283).

2 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Vol.1 (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 20.

3 Ngwazi was Banda’s official title, which means ‘the all wise one’, and mkango means ‘lion’ in Chichewa (the national language of Malawi).

4 Reuben Chirambo, ‘“A Monument to a Tyrant” or Reconstructed Nationalist Memories of the Father and Founder of the Malawi Nation, Dr. H. K. Banda’, Africa Today 56.4 (2010), 2–21 (3).

5 Tiyambe P. Zeleza, ‘Banishing Words and Stories: Censorship in Banda’s Malawi’, CODESRIA Bulletin 1 (1996), 10–15 (10).

6 Zeleza, ‘Banishing Words’, 10.

7 Achille Mbembe, ‘Provisional Notes on the Postcolony’, Africa 62/1 (1992), 3–37 (10).

8 Chimaraoke Izugbara and Jerry Okal, ‘Performing Heterosexuality: Male Youth, Vulnerability and HIV in Malawi’ in Andrea Cornwall et al., eds, Men and Development: Politicizing Masculinities (London: Zed Books, 2011), 21–32 (22).

9 Sylvia Tamale, ed., African Sexualities: A Reader (Cape Town: Pambazuka Press, 2011), 16.

10 Women in Malawi were fondly referred to by Banda as Mbumba za Kamuzu which literally means women who were under the protection and moral care of Kamuzu Banda as their nkhoswe.

11 Emily Mkamanga, Suffering in Silence: Malawi’s 30-Year Dance with Dr Banda (Glasgow: Dudu Nsomba, 2000), 6; 11.

12 Lisa Gilman, The Dance of Politics: Gender, Performance, and Democratization in Malawi (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2009), 66.

13 Hester Ross, ‘“All Men Do is Love, Love …” Context, Power and Women in Some Recent Malaŵian Writing’, in Kings Phiri and Kenneth R. Ross, eds, Democratization in Malaŵi: A Stock-taking (Blantyre: CLAIM, 1998), 168–94 (169).

14 Alison Donnell, Twentieth-Century Caribbean Literature (London: Routledge, 2007), 182.

15 Jessie Sagawa, ‘Archetype or Stereotype? Three Images of Women in the Malawian Novel’, Paper presented at an International Conference on Malawian Literature, Blantyre, Malawi, 1996.

16 Francis Moto, Trends in Malawian Literature (Zomba: Chancellor College, 2001), 10.

17 Kimani Kaigai, ‘Sexuality, Power and Transgression: Homophobia in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Memory of Departure’, Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies 1/1–2 (2014), 59–70 (60).

18 Joel Gwynne and Angela Poon, eds, Sexuality and Contemporary Literature (Amherst, MA: Cambria Press, 2012), xi.

19 Writers imprisoned by Banda include Jack Mapanje and Felix Mnthali.

20 Ross, ‘All Men Do’, 181–82.

21 Victor O. Ogbeide, ‘Raping the Dreams and Subverting the Aspirations: Post Independence Disillusionment in Zeleza’s Smouldering Charcoal’, International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literature (IJSELL) 2/7 (2014), 76–83 (both quotations 78).

22 Chirambo, ‘Untamed Pest’, 9.

23 Pumla D. Gqola, ‘Yindaba kaban’ u’ba ndilahl’ umlenze? Sexuality and Body Image’, Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity 19/63 (2005), 3–9 (3).

24 Tiyambe Zeleza, Smouldering Charcoal (Essex: Heinemann, 1992), 55.

25 Zeleza, Smouldering, 55.

26 Zeleza, Smouldering, 55.

27 Zeleza, Smouldering, 14.

28 Zeleza, Smouldering¸ 55.

29 Sara Mvududu and Patricia McFadden, Re-conceptualising the Family in a Changing Southern Africa Environment, Women and Law in Southern Africa (Harare: Research Trust, 2001), 63.

30 Zeleza, Smouldering, 54.

31 Rachel Spronk, ‘Sexuality and Subjectivity: Erotic Practices and the Question of Bodily Sensations’, Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 22/1 (2014), 3–21 (6).

32 Desiree Lewis, ‘Rethinking Nationalism in Relation to Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”’, Sexualities 11/1–2 (2008), 104–9 (106).

33 Zeleza, Smouldering, 18.

34 Mkamanga, ‘Suffering in Silence’, 22.

35 Zeleza, Smouldering, 144.

36 Obioma Nnaemeka, ‘Nego-feminism: Theorising, Practicing, and Pruning Africa’s Way’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29/2 (2003), 357–86 (377–8).

37 Zeleza, Smouldering, 73.

38 Zeleza, Smouldering, 73.

39 Zeleza, Smouldering, 104.

40 Zeleza, Smouldering, 104.

41 Zeleza, Smouldering, 63.

42 Zeleza, Smouldering, 104.

43 Nick Mdika Tembo, ‘Politics and stylistics of female (re)presentation in James Ng’ombe’s Sugarcane with salt’, in Reuben Chirambo and Justus K. S. Makokha, eds, Reading Contemporary African Literature: Critical Perspectives (Rodopi: Amsterdam, 2013), 109–26 (both quotations 113).

44 James Ng’ombe, Sugarcane with Salt (Blantyre: Jhango Publishing Company,2005), 47.

45 Ng’ombe, Sugarcane, 107.

46 Spronk, ‘Sexuality and Subjectivity’, 17; 14.