Feminism is the belief that there should be economical, social, and political equality of the sexes. While it’s been talked about more now, the concept of feminism is not a new one, with conversations around feminism existing long before the 21st century. Plato’s The Republic makes several mentions to how women, during Socrates’ time, regarded women and men equally.[mfn] That isn’t to say gender norms didn’t exist but rather women still held more or less the same degree of public participation as men did.
Christine De Pizan in the 15th century wrote about the atrocities committed against women and is regarded as one of the earliest propagators of feminist literature in Le Livre de la cité des dames. The book touches on atrocities faced by women but also praises these women for their heroism and virtue.[mfn] While Europe has a well-documented history, colonisation completely disrupted Africa (and the world, let’s be honest) and so much literature and history was lost, so it’s difficult to pinpoint a starting point. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor confronts this loss in her novel Dust, and she is one of many African authors who are building a robust, nuanced literary tradition in Africa that actually speaks to the realities of living in the post-colony.
Every once in a while, I come across a book by a female writer that captivates me; transports me to a different place, “Dust” is one of these books. The book is set during the infamous post-poll election violence in Kenya in 2007, and rather than looking at it as an isolated incident, Yvonne explores tribalism as an offshoot of colonisation, and further explores how this part of history affects people in their day-to-day.
Dust follows Odidi Oganda, an engineer turned gang member who was framed by the police and shot to death on election night. Following the shooting we are introduced to his sister, Ajany, who has returned from Brazil to mourn her brother’s death and bury him in Turkana, their home. Ajany becomes the main focus alongside her father (Nyipir), mother (Akai) and an ominous British man (Isaiah).
In the same way Kenya during and after its fight for independence and freedom has had to contend with the fracturing of everything from class and tribal divisions to economic independence, Odidi and his family reflect over the experience of surviving colonisation. Yvonne explores more than the obvious violence of the post-election period, she delves into some of the cultural complexities of simply existing in the post-colony. The following passage takes the reader through the ideological and psychological effects of colonialism and how trauma can be felt in smaller interactions, like family dynamics and the way we communicate with each other.
“Sound gave up names, especially those of friends. It co-opted silence as an eavesdropper; casual conversations heard were delivered to the state to murder…from that day, their days were stuffed with choked fear, suffocated by the family habit of silence.”[mfn]
Silence as a theme is an interesting one and has a vast history in the struggle for independence. Some authors convey this through the loss of language, where the colonised are forced to use the languages of their colonisers, stripping them of their cultural autonomy. In the extract above there’s a safety and anonymity to staying silent, which Yvonne disrupts by equating silence to death.
She provides a more layered exploration of how cultures of silence affect women, particularly women of colour. That’s why movements like #MeToo are so impactful for so many people because the culture of silence around assault minimised the idea of how pervasive it is. While we’re used to seeing images of assault on the news, in movies and in media, breaking the silence around this issue gives it a face and a voice, rather than just a disembodied statistic that can be quickly scrolled past. For women in the global south, the punishment for speaking out is even more extreme and they often find themselves shunned by their communities when they do.
Yvonne’s choice of a third person narrative makes the reader feel like we are looking into this family’s intimate moments. It feels intrusive, claustrophobic, and there’s a sense of foreboding that hovers over every interaction and exchange. She makes the political personal, because it is.