Ayesha Harunna Attah is the author of The Hundred Wells of Salaga which Cassava Republic published in May. She grew up in Accra and was educated at Mount Holyoke College, Columbia University, and NYU. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Asymptote Magazine, and the Caine Prize Writers’ 2010 Anthology. Her debut novel, Harmattan Rain, (Per Ankh Publishers) was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2010. Her second novel, Saturday’s Shadows, was published in English (World Editions) and Dutch (De Geus) in 2015. Ayesha is a 2014 Africa Centre Artists in Residency Award Laureate and Instituto Sacatar Fellow. She was awarded the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship for non-fiction. She lives in Senegal.
“I am a feminist,” I often heard my father say when I was young. This was long before I understood what feminism was, but I could glean its meaning from the way things went in our house: my mother had kept her last name; there were many days when my father cooked (I was so proud when he went on TV and stewed up a wicked-looking tagine) and cleaned and did the laundry; when they had one car, he would drive and she would drive; before running a story in their newspaper, my mother would put her intrepid editing skills (eagle-eyed, he once said) to work. These seem like small examples, but they were big to me. I didn’t see this dynamic outside our home, and I wanted everyone to have parents like mine.
It made sense that two people running a family should be on the same footing, that they had this complicity and complementarity. They were equals, but they weren’t fighting to occupy the same space: they had different strengths and they brought them to the table. They became my relationship goals.
Then there was my sister and I. My father wanted us to push as far as we could (I’m sure he still harbours a secret hope that I will get a PhD some day) and told us boyfriends and husbands could wait. I liked the idea of being a feminist.
I went to a women’s college, Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts. There, feminism was a buzzword, ever-present, omniscient. Feminism there came off as militant and anti-man and very far removed from the world of equals that feminism had first embodied for me. I decided I wouldn’t be a feminist. I didn’t see myself in it and I shrank back from it.
All the same, college introduced me to books like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and provided me with a safe space in which to be a woman. I discovered Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex. One is not born a woman, but becomes one grew into a mantra of sorts. Even though I was still not quite calling myself a feminist yet, I was warming up to the idea.
When I moved to Senegal, I saw another world unfold between men and women, even farther from the one I’d grown up in. I found there: men who weren’t even working who had two wives (my father is Muslim, but was only married to my mother); women sometimes had to ask permission from their husbands to take part in an economic activity; and the birth of a boy was a celebration (I am still told so many times, “It’s good you have a son”). I became a feminist in Senegal. Living here has made me hanker even more so for a world in which everybody is given a fair shot, in which men and women have the same opportunities and are treated equally.
There was a word that reassured me on my journey, one that became a bridge between the way I previously perceived feminism and my embracing of it: womanist. Coined by Alice Walker, in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, she wrote that “Womanist is to feminist, as purple is to lavender,” and that it is “Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.” It was the crystallization of what I had felt in college, it explained why I’d been so hesitant to be called feminist. It was because the feminism I saw in college didn’t include me as a black woman, as an African. I loved the term womanist for embracing everyone.
Now that I have a son of my own, I hope he, like my father, would one day call himself a feminist/womanist. In his toy box, his dolls cohabitate with his vroom-vrooms. On his bookshelf are books on fearless girls and books about tractors. Boys and girls who are open to all the world has to offer from an early age, I’m convinced, will be only the richer for it. Books are great ways to open up the world, and so, I will introduce my son to books with strong women and with strong men, with books with girls who cry and with boys who cry.
When my father was ten, he would often visit his grandmother in the town of Salaga. He didn’t like the soups that had been cooked up and his grandmother would indulge him and let him cook his own food. It was a feminist move for both of them, against the grain of their highly patriarchal society, in which only women did the cooking. I have no doubt that little acts like my great grandmother’s helped shape his worldview.