Integrating Literature to Teach about Women of West Africa. (Women of the World)

By Doughty, Julie | Social Education, January-February 2003 | Go to article overview
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Integrating Literature to Teach about Women of West Africa. (Women of the World)

Doughty, Julie, Social Education

Despite the availability of rich resources, most social studies courses fail to provide a multidimensional view of African women. (1) If women of Africa are studied at all, they are often constructed as poor, abused, exotic, or as victims. In her introduction to Opening Spaces, a collection of short stories by contemporary African women, however, author Yvonne Vera states, "Women of Africa have not been swallowed by history, they too know how to swallow history." (2) In other words, although American classrooms have neglected to explore the experiences of African women, women in Africa have been revolutionizing and documenting their own experiences. I have selected three works written by West African women that demonstrate how literature can be an ally for social studies teachers as we try to integrate the ideas and experiences of African women into our curricula.

Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo is a novel appropriate for high school juniors and seniors that portrays the complicated lives of modern African women. (3) Set in Accra, the capital of Ghana, Changes captures the pressures that educated African women often face as they challenge traditional female roles to pursue professional careers. The novel's main characters, Esi and Opokuya, are close friends who are both well-educated, secular, Christian, career women. Their narrative provides insight into the lives and perspectives of middle class, urban Ghanaian women and counters stereotypes American students may have of African women.

The story opens as Esi contemplates divorcing her husband of twelve years, Oko, after he rapes her one morning in an effort to reassert his "interest" in their relationship. After the divorce, Esi's only daughter goes to live with Oko's family, making Esi a rarity in her society. She is divorced, professional, and not the primary caretaker of her only child. Eventually, Esi marries again. This time she becomes the second wife of Ali, a dynamic businessman. Ali, who is Muslim, is originally from Mall, though he has some family in northern Ghana. His first wife, Fusena, gave up her career long ago for Ali and their children. Fusena's longtime fear that Ali would take on a more educated wife comes true when he marries Esi. At first, Ali showers Esi with passion and their independent life-styles seem to complement each other. Despite his generous gifts, however, Ali is unable to give Esi the attention she wants. By the end of the novel, Esi seems resigned to life without a satisfying love.

Throughout this time, Esi and Opokuya continue to provide each other with emotional support, albeit a support tinged with envy. In her lonely moments, Esi wishes for the family life that Opokuya maintains. On the other hand, Opokuya, exhausted with the care of her children, the demands of her husband, and the responsibilities of her career, craves Esi's freedom. She is also afraid of losing her husband, Kubi, and suspects that he is cheating. Opokuya's desire for freedom manifests itself when she and Kubi argue over control of their one car. Power, tradition, and habit win out, and the car remains in Kubi's parking lot unused while Opokuya straggles to get the day's errands done. In a symbolic twist of events, Opokuya is aided when Ali gives Esi an exquisite car. Thus, Esi has a deluxe version of independence, but she longs for Ali's attention. Esi then fixes up her old car to give to Opokuya. In the end, Opokuya wins her own form of independence, but it is tempered by the responsibilities of her children and concern about her husband's fidelity.

Classroom Application

A novel such as Changes could easily be integrated into a world history unit on post-colonial Africa, a world cultures unit on West Africa, or within a sociology unit on gender, social change, and work. The themes of agency, work, gender roles, and marriage are particularly powerful. Students could select a character and collect information on the roles of work, gender, and marriage in the lives of their character as they read the 166-page text.

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