A Critique of Tess Onwueme’s Tell It to Women

1 January 2017

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To Women, we travel back to a Nigerian village in postcolonial Africa. The story enlightens the audience about the dichotomy of traditionalism versus modernism and the ways in which different cultures interact. It ends by revealing the true meaning of culture; the real quality in a society that arises from a passion for what is excellent in arts, manners, and customs.

Overall, the play discusses the role of women within this Nigerian village and largely examines the conflict of whether it is better to advance with the rest of the world, or to hold on to the traditions that truly make a society independent and beautiful. The play begins with Yemoja, the most important woman in the village, in a house with Daisy and Ruth, two feminist western-educated scholars. They are the primary antagonists in the play. At this early stage, we see that Daisy and Ruth are not fond of Yemoja.

Daisy and Ruth are leaders of the “Better Life for Rural Women” campaign, which inspires women to believe that they are not only equal to men in many ways, but are even superior in others. The two of them select Yemoja as the mediator between the village and the western world that they are so desperate to force upon the women. The movement causes a great disturbance in the village between the men and women, and especially with Yemoja’s husband and father. Back in Daisy’s home, she has been getting into many disagreements with her family.

Her husband Okei, disagrees with her passion about the feminist movement and they frequently fight about it. Her mother-in-law, Sherifat, still encourages Yemoja to participate in the village’s traditional tribal rituals. Sherifat expresses that it would a terrible fate if Yemoja attempts to assimilate to the modern culture and loses her roots. As the story goes on, Daisy becomes estranged from her daughter Bose, as Bose is beginning to understand more and more the culture of the village and becomes closer to Yemoja and Sherifat.

Towards the end of the play, the villagers organize a march, for which Daisy gives Yemoja steps to teach to the rest of the women. It becomes clear to Yemoja at that point that western culture is not for them. Daisy and Ruth’s superior arrives to enlighten the women about her ideas of feminism. She is the one that will decide whether or not the movement has succeeded or not. When it is time for Yemoja to perform the dance, however, she and Sherifat perform one of the Idu rituals instead. Bose even joins in the dancing. Ruth falls and becomes extremely injured while Daisy is thrust into the middle of the action.

The play ends here in a beautifully tragic scene as Ruth chokes to death while the rest of the villagers celebrate having revitalized their culture. Tess Onwueme’s play was delightfully written and captivating to any audience. The story was intriguing and definitely matched it’s title. Now I see that, Tell It To Women, is a statement on how the women of the village are always being told to do or be something. Whether it is by Daisy and Ruth or by their husbands, the women never really find their own voice until the very end.

We see in the first movement, Sherifat telling the chorus of women that being a wife is “meaning that a wife deserves to be treated like a daughter and not something that you possess. ” Yet, throughout much of the story, we see the women being treated like servants and as subhuman to Daisy and Ruth, the village men, and western civilization as a whole. However, I believe that even as a woman, the author was at times, very objective in her portrayal of feminism. She was able to write a play that showed both the positives and negatives of modernism, while advancing the ideals of traditionalism.

She does all this without losing sight of what is most important to women of a small village like that. At one part she even has Ruth say “these rural women are very gullible, you know. All you need to do is make them feel they are important… we need them anyway, maybe even more than they need us. ” The author is commenting here on the passive-aggressive attempts of Daisy and Ruth but also shows that the village women do not actually need to be modernized. Perhaps here, the author is a little biased because she is making Daisy and Ruth out to be selfish and slightly cruel.

To a western reader, the play was not very easy to read. The names of the villagers were at times tongue tying and I found myself changing opinions about a character because I in fact, thought they were another. Onwueme also does not really explain the native African dialect and proverbial expressions that are used, which was slightly confusing as well. Many play-writes include footnotes at the bottom of the page to explain vernacular that is not known to the reader and that would have been very helpful here.

That being said, the true meaning of the play was present the entire time. The clash of cultures and the lingering pains of colonialism in Africa come through wonderfully in the author’s interpretation. In one eloquent line we see that colonialism left its mark of the villagers. Sherifat says to Daisy that “it’s easier for those who inflict the pain on others to forget. ” Tell It To Women, while at times was hard to follow, beautifully captured the struggle of traditionalism versus modernism and is a true mark of feminism.

Overall, I thought that the play was well written and captivating. Even as a man, when sometimes it is hard to understand the desires of women, let alone women of another culture, I was able to grasp the true value of this play. It enlightened me about African culture and the roles of men and women in society. I believe Onwueme did a tremendous job in exposing the struggles of postcolonial Africa in an artful representation.

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