The Role of Women in the Socio-economic Development of the Niger Delta Using Kaine Agary’s Yellow-Yellow and Irene Salami-Agunloye’s Idia, the Warrior Queen of Benin
1.1 Background to the Study
Although women play very significant roles in various spheres of Nigeria’s development, their contributions to the growth of the country are, often, not acknowledged or encouraged. For instance, the role of women in the development of the Niger delta region of Nigeria, where the wealth of the country is being generated, has received little or no attention over the years even though they are actively involved in the developmental activities of the region. Certain challenges still face their efforts and make them seem insignificant to this region.
The Niger delta part of the country is the region that lays the golden egg in terms of providing the country’s wealth, yet it is faced with socio-economic and political challenges that affect not only the area physically but also its people where women form the majority with their children by threatening peace and security to life. To reduce the level of poverty and restore peace in the Niger delta, several efforts and initiatives are now geared towards the development of the Niger Delta region. The question is, are women, who constitute a larger percentage of the population of the region, key actors in the developmental process and, if so, what impact are they making? Poverty, evidently, has a stronger impact on women and places several difficult obstacles in the path of their progress and their impact on society. It, therefore, becomes mandatory to empower women for a faster progress in the reduction of poverty. How, then, are women being empowered to make a change in the Niger Delta? The answers to these questions are very relevant, considering the fact that there is growing evidence that although women are very proactive and participate actively in the socio-economic sphere of the region, their participation in state and nation-building is often unrecognized, unacknowledged, undervalued, unappreciated, and their successes often unrecorded and unrewarded. This stems from the ignorant perception (despite the gains of feminism and consciousness-raising) that women do not have much to offer in the public and political domain. However, as Helen Chukwuma observes, there can be no “meaningful and substantial development of Nigeria as a nation, indeed of any nation, without women… no nation can progress if half of her population is left behind, neglected…the missing link on the plane of human resources is the female factor…” (4).
The significant place of the woman in the home and family cannot be disputed. Man may be the head of the family, but the woman is definitely its heart and lifeline. Without the woman, the family and, subsequently, the larger society, cannot function properly. Dora Chizea supports this notion with the following view of women:
[women are] the building blocks upon which the foundations of happy homes and families are built…The family, no doubt, is the unit on which communities are built. And the nation itself is built by communities. It follows, therefore, that if the building blocks, the mothers are poor, ignorant and unmotivated, the nation is likely to be poor, ignorant and unmotivated. For, how can a nation rise above the collective ignorance of its mothers? (10)
The roles of the woman in the family are diverse and as intriguing as the woman herself: wife, partner, confidant, mother, nurturer, provider, teacher, friend, counsellor, as well as the emotional and spiritual anchor. She is one who instils in her family, especially the children, moral and ethical standards, and does everything possible to ensure they are educated. She is also their number one advocate, critic and encourager. She works diligently to support her husband in ensuring and sustaining the welfare, health and stability of the family day in day out. Sometimes, she is a single parent who plays the role of man and woman, father and mother; this, however, does not hinder her efforts to give of her best to her family. She also plays numerous significant roles outside the dynamics of the nuclear family. These efforts on the home front, though sometimes invisible to the public eye, sustain the welfare, health and stability of the region and, inevitably, its progress and development. Unfortunately, due to gender inequality, the family is often a domain where many women are socially restricted, economically exploited, emotionally degraded and rendered politically passive and poor. This limits not only the woman but her entire family and community who would have benefitted from her resources. The following observation by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) places this issue in perspective: “[women’s poverty] results in deprivation in their own lives and losses for the broader society and economy, as women’s productivity is well-known as one of the greatest generators of economic dynamism” (“Women and Poverty”). Should women’s subjugation in the family and society be totally eradicated and their power to create, nurture and transform fully and effectively harnessed, there is no limit to what women can contribute to the growth and transformation of the Niger Delta.
Without doubt, women of the Niger Delta have made giant strides in the area of education, one of the most powerful avenues through which women can be armed with knowledge, skills, the confidence required to be proactive, the capability to change the power-dynamics and relations in their environment and contribute actively to the developmental process in the region. Among the women academics who have made great impact and still contribute their quota to the growth of the educational sector of the Niger Delta is Grace Alele-Williams (Professor of Mathematics, the first female Vice Chancellor of a Nigerian university), an academic of great repute. Her membership of, and contributions to several educational committees and boards, has left an indelible mark on the educational sector and the development of education in the region and nation as a whole. Today, tertiary institutions and the youths still benefit greatly from her zeal, candour and efforts. Among many other female academics who have followed in her footsteps, to name a few, are Bene Willie-Abbey (Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry and toxicology); Shirley Yul-Ifode (Professor of Basic and Applied Phonetics/Phonology); and Ini I. Uko (Professor of English). These women do not only play active roles in the development of the tertiary institutions where they impact young minds and develop human capital, but also serve the region in several other capacities, socio-economically and politically.
Seasoned female administrators, among them Victoria Aba Tekena, Matilda Nnodim, Dorcas Otto, Efua Koroye, Bridget Nzimiro and many others in the region work hand in hand with women in academics to create avenues and opportunities, and equip the Niger Delta with the vital “manpower” required for the development of the various sectors of the region. To sustain the impact of women in this sector and the region as a whole, state governments of the Niger Delta should invest in the future of their female children, by making female education a top priority on their agenda. They must establish good schools, as well as scholarship and health schemes that will encourage and support the positive development of the girl-child educationally. Professionally, she must be accepted and accommodated in the socio-economic and political sphere, and accorded the opportunity to contribute her quota to the region. Above all, her ambitions and accomplishments should be acknowledged, and strategies put in place to measure her participation in developmental efforts and reward her achievements. This will spur her on to give more of herself and her efforts and to accomplish greater goals to the benefit of the region and nation as a whole.
The Niger Delta is replete with women who are active participants at all levels of the national economy. From the fisherwoman in the creeks of the Niger Delta to the Chief Executive Officer in the urban areas, women have proved they are capable of being full and equal partners with men in the labour force. They play active roles in the developmental process as farmers, traders, teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, administrators, business entrepreneurs to name but a few, significant contributors to the incomes of their households and the economy of their communities and region at large. Without their contributions, the economy of the Niger Delta will definitely be incomplete and worse for it.
However, more often than not, labour is divided along gender lines, creating room for the marginalization of women in some spheres of the economy. This imbalance should be addressed and rectified. Also, in situations where women are limited in their economic activities due to poor access to resources, avenues should be created to expand their opportunities and enhance their participation.
Women who work in informal sectors for sustenance such as farmers and petty traders should be supported by the government and nongovernmental organizations, and provided with credit or loan facilities to enable them expand their businesses, and become major contributors to the economic development of the region and nation as a whole. Bearing in mind that women constitute half of most nations’ talents, knowledge and skills, their competence and resourcefulness should be a plus in the developmental process of the Niger Delta if properly and effectively tapped.
Despite the great potentials of women, the fact remains that only few are mobilized and visible in the political arena of the nation. Surprisingly, however, women of the Niger Delta have carved a significant niche for themselves in this sector at the national and state levels, which does enhance the development of the region. Women such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Former Minister of Finance), and Arunma Oteh, former Director General of the Securities and Exchange Commission and, currently, the Vice President and Treasurer of the World Bank are key players in the political arena of the nation. Also worthy of note is Florence Ita Giwa who represented the Cross River South Constituency in the National Assembly and served on several committees including the Committee on Women Affairs and the Committee on Niger Delta. She also served as a Special Adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo on National Assembly Matters. Ita Giwa has remained an avid social activist whose commitment to the development of the Niger Delta and, especially, to the welfare of the indigenes of the Bakassi Local Government Area, has earned her several accolades.
Several others, among them Ipalibo Banigo (current Deputy Governor, Rivers State), are actively involved in various arms of government, holding vital positions in the executive, legislature, judiciary, and the civil service and making great contributions to the success of the federal and state governments. Without a doubt, their achievements, especially at the federal level, are a reflection of the potential success of the Niger Delta region. State governments of the region should, therefore, tap into women’s reservoir of talent and ensure their full participation in areas of governance such as policy-making and implementation. By encouraging and fully accommodating women in the political process of the region without intimidation, discrimination, and victimization, the political system will not only thrive, it will also be positively transformed for the betterment of all stakeholders in the region.
In looking at women in the creative industry, Richard Florida aptly observes that “human creativity is the ultimate economic resource” (xiii). For this reason, the creative industry must be recognized and harnessed in the developmental process of any nation.
Fortunately, the Niger Delta is replete with women playing active roles in the various fields of this industry. Several are writers, artists, designers, entertainers and communication experts in the mass media. The first published Nigerian female writer, Flora Nwapa, whose iconic work, Efuru (1966), is a constant reference point in literature classrooms throughout the world, is from Oguta, Imo State, an economic hub of the Niger Delta. Nwapa blazed the trail that prompted African women writers to tell their own stories in their own ways, and advocated the need for women to shake off their passivity and speak against female oppression and represent the African woman in a new and positive light. For her, female writers must embrace the reality of the woman’s experience, project her power and affirm her being and becoming by making society aware of her “inherent vitality, independence of views, courage, self-confidence, and, of course, her desire for gain and high social status” (Nwapa 532). As Ernest N. Emenyonu significantly observes, one of the most appealing and enduring qualities of Nwapa as a writer and novelist is the realism of her themes (18).
In her works, therefore, Nwapa presents female characters that are resourceful, industrious and resilient – strong, independent and assertive women who strive to become highly successful and respected individuals; female protagonists such as Efuru (Efuru, 1966); Idu (Idu,1970); Amaka (One is Enough,1981) and Rose, Agnes and Dora (Women are Different, 1986) who recognize their self-worth and contribute in several ways to their personal, as well as the growth of their families, communities and societies.
Several other women writers of the Niger Delta have risen in Nwapa’s wake, prominent among them, Buchi Emecheta, an indigene of Ibuza, Delta State. Regarded as one the most prolific African women writers, Emecheta is credited with critically acclaimed works such as Second Class Citizen (1974); The Bride Price (1976) and The Joys of Motherhood (1979). Oike Machiko avers that Emecheta is a writer who is conscious of her role as an African woman writer and a representative of the African woman. Oike also identifies The Joys of Motherhood as a masterpiece which “brought Emecheta international fame as a writer who spoke to the world for African women oppressed by what was called ‘third world tradition” (61). Central to Emecheta’s works “is her depiction of the impact of sexism on the lives of women and the roles they play in society, and the challenges they face in the performance of these roles while struggling to defend their basic rights as human beings with equal dignity as men and…to develop positively and contribute their quota to the development of society” (Nutsukpo, “Marking Her Mark” 150).
Like Nwapa, Emecheta extols the virtues of the African woman, focusing on her character, strength, resilience, industry and her capacity to love unconditionally as is evident in Nnu Ego, the protagonist in The Joys of Motherhood. Emecheta recognizes the patriarchal system as being replete with repressive structures that stand in the way of women’s actualization, and urges women need to be conscious of these obstacles in order to overcome them. Evidently, Nwapa and Emecheta recognize education as necessary precursors to women’s positive development. They decry the economic exploitation of women and the denial of opportunities that would equip them to compete favourably with men in different spheres of society and to contribute more to the growth of society. They, therefore, advocate sisterhood as an avenue through which women can achieve consciousness-raising, self-awareness and assertiveness by supporting, encouraging and challenging each other for personal and societal development.
Currently building on the successes of the older generation of women writers of the Niger Delta are contemporary writers, among them, Sophia Obi-Apoko, author of two collections of poetry titled Tears in a Basket (2005) and Floating Snags (2009), and novelist, Kaine Agary, author of Yellow-Yellow (2006). These are women writers “…whose works are informed by an awareness of gender issues … [and who] are establishing clearer definitions of, not only their identities, but those of their fellow women” in the region (Nutsukpo, “Literary Traditions” 136). Like Nwapa and Emecheta, Obi-Apoko and Agary recognize the woman’s role in the development of, not only the Niger Delta, but Africa as a whole as “crucial for the survival of the race” (Nwapa 527). To enable women play this role effectively, all, writers especially, must create awareness of what the woman can do and, is capable of doing, and provide role models that inspire and empower women to contribute their quota to the development of society. Through their literary works, women writers of the region promote the Niger Delta, its peoples, rich traditions and cultures, arts, as well as its inexhaustible potentials; this attracts tourists to the region, thus aiding its growth. Also, many of their voices are strident in drawing attention to the plight of the region and its people, and soliciting social change. Their efforts are, therefore, an important component of the collective contributions of women to the development of the Niger Delta. Thus, this research work examines the role of women in the socio-economic development of Nigeria especially in the Niger delta using Kaine Agary’s Yellow-Yellow (2006) and Irene Salami-Agunloye’s Idia, the Warrior Queen of Benin (2008).
1.2 Aim and Objectives of the Study
The aim of this study is to project the role of women in the socio-economic development of Nigeria. The objectives are:
i. To examine the contributions of women in the socio-economic development of the Nigeria.
ii. To describe the role of women in the development of the Niger delta.
iii. To explore the role of women in Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow.
iv. To discuss the role of women in Irene Salami-Agunloye’s Idia, the Warrior Queen of Benin.
1.3 Significance of Study
The study is significant because of the following reasons:
i. It will examine the role of women in socio-economic development thereby projecting a positive image of women in society.
ii. It will contribute to past literatures on gender studies or feminist literature.
iii. It will be useful as secondary source materials to future researchers in feminist literature.
iv. It will be useful to students and teachers who may consult it for further research.
v. It will be useful for its contributions to knowledge.
1.4 Methodology of Study
This research adopts content analysis in the discussion of the roles of women in societal development using two selected texts. The primary texts are Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow (a novel) and Irene Salami-Agunloye’s Idia, the Warrior Queen of Benin (a play). The secondary sources of information will come from journal articles, past projects, internet materials, and magazines that are relevant to the topic under discussion. The study applies feminist literary theory to the discussion of the selected texts.
1.5 Scope and Limitation of Study
This study is an examination of the role of women in the socio-economic development of Nigeria. Specifically, the research discusses the role of women in the Niger delta using the works of Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow and Irene Salami-Agunloye’s Idia, the Warrior Queen of Benin. The study is limited to the thematic explorations of women characters in the two texts and how they are able to contribute to the development of their society.
1.6 Brief Biography of Authors
Irene Salami-Agunloye or Irene Isoken Oronsaye Salami-Agunloye hails from Edo State, an ancient Kingdom, located in that region of the nation now known as south-south Nigeria. A Professor of Theatre Arts, her academic pursuits took her through the University of Ibadan (South-Western Nigeria) and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (Northern Nigeria). She lectures at the University of Jos (North Central Nigeria. She has at various times been the Head of Department of Theatre and Communication Arts; President, Nigeria Association of Women Academics; National Secretary, Nigerian Participatory Rural Appraisal Network; National Vice President and Treasurer at different times of the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artists (SONTA), President Jos Club of the Federation of Business and Professional Women (Emotan… 2001)
She has successfully actualized her callings as daughter, wife, mother academic and mentor to many. As an academic, she is the author of many works including the five plays one of which is being studied in this research. Not content with realizing her full potentials as a human being, she reaches out to motivate and inspire the younger generation to actualize their own potentials by initiating the Shade Tree Theatre and Street Care Africa (More than Dancing, 2003).
About Irene Salami-Agunloye, Hussain Tsaku categorically asserts that as a woman writer, her creative impulse interrogates the boundaries of power and powerlessness and their impact on African females both in the traditional and modern setting… she is an embodiment of [a brand] of feminism which believes in the equality of human beings irrespective of their gender… [she] remains one of the most ideologically engaged female playwrights today (303-4).
Irene Isoken Salami-Agunoye has written, contributed and edited several works. Her plays are: Emotan (2001), The Queen Sisters (Ubi and Ewere) (2002), More than Dancing (2003), Sweet Revenge (2004) and Idia, the Warrior Queen of Benin (2008). Interestingly from the above, it can be seen that for four consecutive years 2001-2004 Irene Salami-Agunloye determined and succeeded in creating a play each year in addition to every other demand on her from the various spheres of life.
Kaine Agary grew up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. She has lived in the United States of America and now lives in Lagos, Nigeria, where she is the Editor of TAKAii magazine. Yellow Yellow is her first work of fiction.
1.7 Definition of Key Terms
- Socio-economic development: This is used to mean a positive or upward increase in the social and economic activities of a country that increase the standard of living of its people.
- Feminism: The movement or ideology that believes in the equality of gender and seeks to provide equal opportunity for both male and female without bias or prejudice.
- Role: This is used to mean the position occupied by a person or the activities they engage in so as to contribute to nation building.
- Niger Delta: This refers to the South-south states of Nigeria or the regions that oil production is a major activity. It is also the region that generates crude oil which is the main stay of Nigeria’s economy.