By Anote Ajeluorou
WHEN America’s Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues came to Lagos some years ago with its seemingly bare-bottom approach to canvasing women’s struggles and to force society to look at itself in the mirror, some theatre-goers felt somewhat uncomfortable. Women’s issues had never been approached with such bare-it-all candour that was even somewhat exhibitionist. Some modern-day grandmothers of the Abrahamic faiths squirmed at the audacity of it; that perhaps there are subtler ways of tackling such vexing issues without going to the extreme as Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues does. However, the play opened a new vista for local theatre practitioners to play up similar disturbing practices against women. They therefore set out to canvas the complex issues that exist in man-woman relationships, whether as boyfriend-girlfriend, husband-wife or the wider social reckoning, with the many prohibitive dos-and-don’ts ranged against womenfolk.
One early response to Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues is Wole Oguntokun’s The Tarzan Monologues. Apparently, men also are on the receiving end and that they also cry. But how does society view men’s struggles? And are women not part of those magnifying men’s problems, as Ensler’s play does for women? But it is Ifeoma Fafunwa who has seemingly localised Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues in her explosive play, Hear Word! Naija Women Talk True. While Ensler’s take may be viewed as Western and cosmopolitan in approach to women’s stories, Fafunwa has localised it within the African milieu, such that the market woman and woman farmer in remote villages could see herself reflected in the play and even personalise it to their own daily experiences, and become wiser in the process. That has also informed how Hear Word! has been performed in workshop fashion among local women in their own mother tongues (local languages) to avoid any ambiguity in understanding the play’s intended message. Two such innovative performance venues were at the popular Oshodi bus stop/market and Makoko in the heart of Lagos, so the play’s central message of empowering women and giving voices to their struggles could be brought home and amplified as concerns of universal import to all women.
So what exactly are women’s issues and how do men and society generally (including fellow women) conspire to undermine and undo women in their daily experiences? What are the daily struggles that women undergo in order to gain a foothold in today’s society? Sexual molestation or harassment of women at home, in offices and everywhere possibly by those who hold some advantage over them, child and early marriage and its associated complications, not least is the dreaded Vesico-Vagina Fistula (VVF) after child birth, and wicked widowhood rites in some African societies that strip women of their humanity and hold them accountable for their husbands’ death, etc. These are among the many instances of injustices meted out to women on account of their sex. Hear Word! therefore sensitises society to its duty to protect female-folks from these male-instituted acts that criminalise and humiliate women for no fault of theirs.
Hear Word! boasts of an A-list performers such as Dame Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Joke Silver, Oluchi Odii, Ufuoma McDermott, Zara Udofia-Ejoh, Debbie Ohiri, Elvina Ibru, Omonor Somolu, Mofe Okorodudu, Uchechika Elumelu, and Ejiro Asagba, among others. This power-packed performance cast members enact the play as a campaign performance tool designed to change men and society’s attitudes and mindsets about how to relate with women and see their issues as men’s issues as well as for society’s wellbeing.
A few instances from Hear Word! will suffice how women navigate the delicate balance between retaining their sanity and how they relate with men and the larger society. Hear Word! is performed in a series of episodic monologues that range from ‘Touch,’ ‘Dodo,’ ‘Black widow’ to ‘VVF’ and many more. It’s about how men and society view women as objects that answer to every of their needs, whether willingly or not. And there lies the problem, why women are crying out in performances like Hear Word!, why they demand to be properly treated as human beings deserving of respect, beings whose opinions should count and always be sought first before any decision is made that affects them.
A 14-year old girl (Oluchi Odii), who runs an errand to buy fish for her mother, finds herself being molested and groped by a certain young man near the fish seller who is in the habit of holding her hand and teasing her in an amorous way that she finds uncomfortable. She vows not to go on errands to that market again for fear of that young man who makes advances to her. For another woman, it’s a man sitting close to her who brushes his hand against her breasts. At first she dismisses it as an innocent mistake. But then it happens again, and she is wondering if she should challenge the man when it happens a third time. An elderly lady beside her assures her it’s a mistake even when she is convinced it’s not.
These are the some of the molestations that young women go through in full view of everyone who either cheers the acts on or jeers at the women in such uncomfortable situations. It could be the boss in the office touching a female employee inappropriately, and she has no defense against it. The questions is: why would a stranger behave that badly to a woman he meets on a bus by touching her breasts? What gives him that sense of entitlement to demean the lady the way he does? What laws are there to protect that lady from the public groping she is made to suffer and endure? If she were to raise alarm, would society not rail against her for crying wolf where there’s none? Wouldn’t she be accused of dressing provocatively to justify the man’s bad behaviour? Who or what protects a woman against such personal violation?
Within family circles, it’s even worse for young girls whose vulnerability is always exploited by unscrupulous older relatives. A 12 years’ old girl (Oluchi Odii) finds herself being molested by her auntie’s fiance when he comes calling and her auntie is not home. He not only commands the poor girl to serving him inappropriate things like alcohol, he nettles her in the toilet in a bid to violate her. It’s the sad and tragic situation of most young girls who are molested daily. Sadly, no one believes their stories of sexual molestation in the hands of people who should protect them, who often threaten them into silence. The mere physical touch as she struggles to free herself from the amorous grip of her auntie’s fiance invokes in her all unimaginable fears that could assail a 12-year old girl. All her pleas to the uncle falls on deaf ears, mother threat of pregnancy upon physical touch from a man becomes all more real. Now she is convinced her life has come undone by the uncle’s touch, as pregnancy is sure to result. What would she tell the world? Her trauma is real and she wails her tragedy to the wide world to hear her plight.
But it’s not all gloom and doom for women though. Stories of emancipation and women empowerment and enlightenment (Taiwo Ajai-Lycett) also abound in the performance. Elderly women who have seen it all also tell their stories as sources of encouragement to younger women to not give up on their dreams and ask them to stand up for a just society that takes women’s issues into account. These elderly women encourage other women that they have roles to play in educating society against some of these negative practices that undermine women. Also, the challenge for modern women is to raise good boys who will grow into men who will defend their women in future, so women coming up do not fall into the same deadly traps as their mothers and grandmothers.
Fafunwa is a thorough-bred professional who has endeared many to stage performances with the quality of her productions, as a producer and director. Her cast of performers is always on the high end that gives her incredible stage results. Young actor Odii shows immense promise in Hear Word! Naija Women Talk True, as in other productions like Ini the Musical. She is a rising star to watch in future. Her scenes (molested young girl, early marriage and childbirth with VVF) portray the plight of young girls in a patriarchal society, girls who swim against strong tides, as they navigate an environment littered with so many banana peels. Her performance is top notch; her scenes make passionate appeals and tug at the human heart and that of society to behave justly and sensibly towards young women who will be tomorrow’s wives and mothers. It is hoped that Hear Word! will also hit the stage Easter 2023 as it did during Christmas in December 2022, so its messages of hope and women empowerment keep resonating in remote as well as urban centres.