The Trauma of War in Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins and Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra
University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.
The war has been written and rewritten from different ideological perspectives. Wartime brutality and atrocity, such as mass killing, ethnic cleansing, torture, and rape, can also be psychologically traumatic for both soldiers and civilians who survive. The victims are denied an opportunity to achieve justice or heal their psychological and emotional wounds. Meaningful recovery by a trauma survivor requires an escape from the private, self-reflexive view of the traumatic event. But this kind of escape is merely impossible in the case of African women or men who are influenced by war.
War is brutal and devastating for both men and women. While men die in glory, women face physical humiliation before death is meted out. Most often they have to also survive watching husbands die and children starve. Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra is an attempt to show how a militaristic barrack culture is responsible for creating demeaning images of women. Political and military power has replaced traditional patriarchy as the most obvious way for men to masculinity and masochism. The novel exposes the hegemony of the patriarchy and destruction of the humanity of women. Women bear the brunt of suffering and humiliation caused by war while men appropriate its spoils. Women raise families amidst starvation, disease and death, make uniforms for the army, nurse and cook for soldiers and get raped and brutalized by them. In the novel Debbie’s maltreatment at the hands of the soldiers becomes a leit motif for the larger oppression that women are subjected to in African society.
Trauma theory brings to postcolonialism a concern with denial and working through losses. Military rule in Nigeria is generally seen as an aberration, with no antecedents to the anti- colonial past. The colonial regime provided Nigeria with training in the game of politics. Buchi Emecheta depicts women in the traditionally patriarchal world of politics and war, as Debbie Ogedemgbe, daughter of a corrupt and wealthy father, joining military, and undertakes a mission to reconcile two bitter enemies who have plunged Nigeria into a devastating and brutal civil war. The Biafran war draws both men and women into the militia and the armed forces, offering women the opportunity to express their androgyny. It is how Debbie and her close friend Babs Teteku join the army. Their good friend Chijioke Abosi is the only man who does not laugh at their desire to join the army. Later on when Debbie undertakes a mission from the Nigerian government to travel to Biafra to persuade the rebel leader Abosi to end the war, she is not singled out for this task because of her superior diplomatic skills. She is chosen to negotiate with Abosi solely because he had been in love with her before she became involved with her current lover, Alan Gray. Emecheta stresses through brutal reminders of the sexist attitude of Nigeran men who only see Debbie and the likes of her as objects of sex and who is a prey to the lust of men.
Buchi Emecheta is the most sustained and vigorous voice of direct feminist protest in contemporary African literature. She explicitly and unequivocally, denounces the sexual status quo. Debbie like Emecheta’s other heroines is determined to overcome the fatal handicap of the female. She is also the most vociferous and militant of them all. Debbie’s exposure to western education helps her to see beyond tribe and religion. But her country men are, long divided and exploited by their colonial masters, are blinded by the rhetoric of sucession. Neo- colonial aspirations fuel the delicate ethnic situations and Ibos, Hausas and Yorubas butcher each other. The political leaders are as corrupt as they come.
War is brutal and devastating for both men and women. Accosted by soldiers from the Federal forces who don’t really care what her credentials are, except that she is a piece of female flesh, Debbie is made to suffer physical rape and trauma. Gang- raped by burly soldiers she also witnesses the inhuman murder of a pregnant woman. Debbie’s mother too has been raped. Unable to ask her mother the humiliating question, she ironically resorts to silence. Debbie knows that the traumatic experiences of the night will not be easy to forget. She did not wish to live after that.
The natural balance between sexes is more disturbed during the wars, when thousands of men are thrown into one sector of a country and hundreds of towns and villages are left to women and children only. The permanent threat of death and the cheapened price of life diminish the sanctity of human values, and at the same time engender a burning desire to ensure the survival of human life by a crude response to the sex instinct.
Debbie’s commitment to her country and its people, overcomes all personal considerations. As a soldier she is committed to complete her military task. The colonial impact, far from liberating African women, only diminished their inalienable rights and prerogatives. Committed to her mission, Debbie travels across war torn Nigeria. Anger, suspicion, hatred and mindless vengeance stalk the country.
Debbie is a new kind of women she was not devastated by the thought of men refusing to marry her. The fear of death haunted her Ibo companions and she was concerned for their welfare but not for the brutal loss of her chastity. She pleads with Lawal to spare their lives, but the logic of military vengeance affords no mercy. Though kept out of active combat, being the weaker sex, women are not spared the untold miseries and the sufferings consequent of war. Untrained to face the psychological horrors of war, and socially conditioned to rear children, these women have to take recourse to inner resources in order to survive and keep alive their children.
For Debbie traumatic reactions occur when action is of no avail. When neither resistance nor escape is possible, the human system of self- defense becomes overwhelmed and disorganized. Each component of the ordinary response to danger, having lost its utility, tends to persist in an altered and exaggerated state long after the actual danger is over. Traumatic events produce profound and lasting changes in physiological arousal, emotion, cognition, and memory. Traumatic events may sever the normally integrated functions from one another. The traumatized person may experience intense emotion but without clear memory of event or may remember everything in detail but without emotion. She may find herself in a constant state of vigilance and irritability without knowing why. Traumatic symptoms have a tendency to become disconnected from their source and to take on a life of their own.
Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins deals with the genocidal terror of the war after liberation from colonialism. The novel is distinctive in covering both pre- and post-independence periods in Zimbabwe. Vera connects personal with collective violence in her story. The novel graphically confronts the impact of the violent environment on individual Zimbabweans, and especially on women, who are primarily targeted in atrocious acts of torture. Vera brings out the terror of the war and the heavy price that women in her culture have paid in the process. The novel tells of the destruction of a community through the violation of its women, and how these women survivors find it difficult to get out of the debilitating situation.
The novel depicts how women’s bodies are made to bear the grunt of national struggles. During the violent period of Zimbabwe’s early independence, the two sisters Thenjiwe and Nonceba are raped by an ex-guerrilla combatant, Sibaso. After killing Thenjiwe Sibaso rapes and mutilates Nonceba, leaving her for dead as he retreats into the hills of Gulati. That rape functions as a devastating weapon of war is made apparent in the novel. The novel shows us that rape emerges as an effective political weapon out of a context that sanctions the subjugation of women, even in times of peace, and that a woman’s vulnerability under a system that does little. Through Nonceba’s rape and Thenjiwe’s murder the story discloses the abject psychological and physical suffering that women had to endure after violation. Their sufferings were concealed by patriarchal tropes.
The novel does not end in pessimism but with Nonceba’s courageous struggle to find a voice to speak about her trauma, to find the language for all victims. One witnesses her re-integration into a social realm, despite her realization that everything has changed, gone, not to be recovered. She can no longer enjoy the feeling of undifferentiated unity represented by her bond with Thenjiwe, but must build her future independently. Vera does not claim for Nonceba a unified subject-position after her trauma, but celebrates her courageous effort to survive despite the wounds of war which no one can heal.
It is Cephas who brings about Nonceba’s recovery and helps her reintegration into society. He takes Nonceba away from Kezi to the city of Bulawayo, where citizens are able to enjoy their freedom. The relationship between Cephas and Nonceba has the promise of growth and restoration. In the absence of a coercive masculinity, Nonceba is able to embrace a future, despite the wounds of the past. In the end Cephas also acknowledges that Nonceba will never be completely restored from the traumas of her past. The novel does not give a simpler alternative for traumas of violation, but it stresses the need for a nation to conceive of female identity in different ways. It is through the ethical acknowledgement of women’s brutalization and suffering, and in the respect for their autonomous identities, that Vera imagines the possibility of both personal and national healing.
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