Below is the full transcript of Nigerian journalist Minna Salami’s TEDx Talk: To change the world, change your illusions TEDxBrixton.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: To change the world, change your illusions by Minna Salami at TEDxBrixton
As a child, one of the people that I was the most afraid of was my dad’s mother, Grandmamma. Grandmamma was a typical Nigerian elder. She was a tough woman around whom even the unruliest of children transformed into beacons of exemplary behavior.
Many Africans know a woman like my grandmother was. If not their own mother, they are almost definitely likely to have a female family member who exudes power in a matriarchal way. Which is not to say that Africa is matriarchal; no continent is. But many of its women may fool you into believing so.
Grandmamma was one of them. She was not unaffectionate, however. She would often sit with her arms wrapped around me for hours, telling me stories, even though her English was poor and my Yoruba was even poorer. No, she was not unloving. But she was traditional. And the tradition in her house, which also happened to be my house, since we lived together in a family compound for many years, was that elders were to be well behaved around.
Now, mind you, it is not that I was an unruly child. By contrast, much like I still am today, I was what Jungian analysts may call an extroverted introvert, which in less fancy schmancy terms, simply means that I both loved the limelight and was terrified of it. In Grandmamma’s presence, my withdrawn side tended to show up.
On the other hand, one of the people around whom I sparked like a firework was my Finnish grandmother, whom I called Mummo. Unlike Grandmamma, who carried herself in a self-assured and almost macho way, Mummo’s decorum was demure like many Western women of her generation. She was polite, and did not like to take up too much space. She was firm but not strict. And although she would scold me at times for behaving like a “wild beast”, I had Mummo wrapped around my little finger. My summer holidays with her were some of the most memorable and care-free days of childhood.
When I look back to why I, five years ago, started my blog, MsAfropolitan, a blog about feminism from an African angle, and Africa from a feminist angle, I cannot help but think about Grandmamma and Mummo, two women who, in different ways, had a tremendous impact on my life. There is a wonderful book called Ways of Seeing, by an author called John Berger, in which he writes, “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”
As a child, I looked and recognized that although the worlds in which my grandmothers lived often collided, the bodies that they lived in as women brought them similar experiences. Through motherhood, marriage, and all the many roles that are cast upon women, sometimes like a heavy cloak, and other times like a secret path to compassion, both my grandmothers’ lives were marked by the struggles and triumphs of being female in a male-dominant world.
But I saw something else too, something which I found terribly disturbing. It was that, because of the illusions that shape our world due to race, a woman like my Finnish grandmother Mummo could be considered empowered, beautiful, intelligent, and so on, whereas a woman like my Nigerian grandmother often could not.
As John Berger might say, before I could express it in words, I saw the illogical illusions of racism. After all, both my grandmothers’ lives were marked by patriarchy, albeit in different ways.
Grandmamma was the first of my granddad’s four wives and all her children carried their father’s surname, as children in patriarchies do, which is the same delicious surname that I have inherited. When I tried to trace her lineage, I found out more about the men in her life than about her. Mummo too grew of age in a world where there were strict rules about appropriate female behavior.
Their triumphs were similar too. Both my grandmothers worked and took great pride in doing so. Furthermore, in their lifetimes, a lot would change. Finland would go to war against Russia. Nigeria would fight and gain independence from Britain. And in both cases, women would rise, and feminism would gain women rights: to work, to vote, and so on.
As I grew older, I began to feel the need to express the things that I had already learned as a child. At this point, although I had been raised to cherish my heritage, I had also become accustomed to the sense of lack that being labeled inferior due to your race and your gender can evoke.
I saw and continued to see representations of African women that did not reflect the reality of the women in my family, or my friends, or my colleagues. It became clear to me that rather than the complex reality of what it means to be an African woman, the media were saturated with one-dimensional portrayals of African womanhood. And I identified three major stereotypes, which I call the Struggler, the Survivor, and the Stereotyped Empowered African Woman.
The first, the Struggler: she is the woman whom war, famine, and/or poverty has rattled. In media images, she is usually in despair, grieving, shouting, weeping.
The second: she is otherwise identical to the first, only she has survived the struggle. In media representations, she usually smiles illustratively to demonstrate this point. But we are always aware that harsh conditions still surround her.
The third, the Stereotyped Empowered African Woman: she is basically everybody else. She may be a politician, or a policewoman, or a baker, or an artist. But media representations of her always hint at someone who has struggled, survived, or comes from a lineage of women who have struggled, survived, and only then are empowered.
An African woman is hardly ever just a woman. She is hardly ever depicted doing mundane things: drinking a cup of green tea, or crafting, relaxing, reading, and above all, loving, and being loved.
Now, if the media project these one-dimensional stereotypes, unfortunately, African men and white women have not always helped to withdraw these stereotypes. White feminists have produced a lot of research about African women which does not take into account the ways that things like colonialism and racism affect women’s lives in Africa.
On the other hand, although we share painful memories of oppression with African men, as the cultural gatekeepers of African history and social theory, African male thinkers, generally speaking, have not always included struggles with sexism into so-called “our” story of Africa. This is unfortunate, because ultimately, these stereotypes serve to uphold one of the greatest illusions of our times which is that Africa is a continent that little good comes out from, including its women.
Due to people’s illusions, they are blinded to the work of women like Adelaide Casely-Hayford or Albertina Sisulu, women who shaped Pan-Africanism far more than our history books record. Or Judith Kanakuze, a woman whose work helped usher not only the first gender egalitarian parliament in Rwanda but the first in the whole world.
Or Oby Ezekwesili, the Nigerian activist whose words inspired the bringbackourgirls hashtag. People know the hashtag, but they don’t know the voices behind it. And yet, her work has helped bring overdue gravitas not only to the situation of girls in Northern Nigeria but women and girls who are trafficked all over the world.
I like to think that some day, these women will be as readily known as Gloria Steinem or even Nelson Mandela, or Chinua Achebe.