Purple Mangoes is a collection of 10 stories that explore womanhood in West Africa. The voices vary from story to story, each one sharp, distinct and revealing of another facet of the female experience in African society.
The first time I read the collection I ached with the bleakness of it all. I lamented the short-sightedness of the women who crowded around a newborn in Baby Girl and discussed her like a commodity at the market.
“You know a good daughter will fetch a good bride price for her father, especially if she is hard working and beautiful.”
I fumed on behalf of the adolescent in The Child Widow who is married off to an elderly man then accused of murdering him when he dies.
I shook my head at the ignorance of the father ready to murder his own daughter after she is accused of being a witch by a greedy church pastor in Witch Child.
Louisa Ibhaze’s writing is vivid – the texture of skin, the crackle of fabric, the brush of dust hanging in the air – she builds her scenes with simple ease and forces you into the heart of the drama. The clarity of her writing is both terrific and terrible. Terrible because you can easily see yourself standing with Adesuwa in her rich aunt’s living room, wobbling in her too high heels, tugging at her too short skirt struggling to read between the lines as her aunt calmly explains the role she expects her niece to play in her Hospitality Business. Lousia’s writing takes you to some very dark places, and her storytelling skill means you have no choice but to follow.
On that first read I marvelled at the complicity of elder women in the mistreatment of young women. In Rite of Passage it is the women who dance and sing and cook to celebrate the cutting of their daughters.
“Amidst the screams of their daughters, mothers let out cries of joy as drums were beaten ceremoniously, and we novices danced to the success of the older girls’ rite of passage.”
It is the women who cajole and shame and (if necessary) ostracize the young girls to ensure their compliance in the dangerous rituals.
“On this day, the rose that stoked the embers of promiscuity and indecent desires would be taken out and we would become modest women, worthy of husbands,” one narrator tells herself, regurgitating words she has imbibed with her mother’s milk.
Louisa presents us with a world where a girl’s value is rooted in her appeal to men and her usefulness to society. A girl child must be bent, reshaped, remade to please her husband. She is the one expected to serve her parents. She has no inherent worth. She is a currency that can rise or fall in value.
On my second reading of the collection I had my, and yet, realisation. It was then I picked up on the defiance, felt that ‘below the surface’ strength of the women, their resistance.
The wife in He Had Fallen and Died boldly confronts her husband’s mistresses. Mama Ubong grabs her husband’s machete and clings stubbornly to it to prevent him from attacking their daughter in Witch Child. In Bed a new wife looks forward to sex with eager anticipation in stark contrast to her mother and grandmother’s coerced experiences. In Abiku a childless woman defies her abusers and carves her own line between her Christian faith and traditional beliefs in search of the child she wants.
Louisa’s women live in a hostile world, yes, but I think this serves to highlight their courage and strength.
This is a collection that not only delivers some powerful, absorbing stories but it stays with you, sort of lingers in your bloodstream long after it’s done.
Have you read Louisa Ibhaze’s witty novel: Authentic Mama?