Obedience and Rebellion in Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus

The African continent, over many years, has suffered from internal conflict both religiously and politically. At times, it is a matter of Africans struggling to find peace with the white colonizers who make such an impact on their lives through imperialism and slavery. At other times, Africans experience turmoil within their own governments ruled by other Africans such as themselves. As groups of people pick a side, whether it is for authority or for those who campaign for liberty, turmoil ensues. Two famous African novels, God’s Bits of Wood (Sembene Ousmane) and Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) both illustrate the deep issue of whether or humans should obey any authority without question or rebel against what they see as unreasonable.

In Ousmane’s work, the people of French West Africa (1947-1948) rebel against their own government. The reason is simple: there is rampant poverty in West Africa, and the ruling classes do not seem to want to offer a helping hand to the poor. Therefore, there is inequality in terms of class. Women join forces with those who cause a strike against the owners. The demand is that poverty be stopped by affording people new opportunities. However, there are those who question this kind of rebellion, holding on to a tradition of obedience to authority. A respected member of the community, Sérigne N’Dakarou, rebukes the women for their resistance to the government: “You burn the homes of innocent people, and you obstruct the law-you are behaving like infidels…what has happened, to make you abandon your homes and your children and roam the streets like this” (Ousmane 124). N’Dakarou accuses the women of injustice; in their rebellion, the women have interfered in the lives of those “innocent” people who have done them no harm whatsoever. In their rage, they have been hypocritical in being obstacles to justice. If they claim to rebel against a harsh government, why do they destroy innocent lives to achieve that purpose? They are behaving like “infidels,” a Muslim term for “unbeliever.” Not only have they mistreated one another in their passionate rebellion but have also rebelled against God. Thus, they will be harshly judged as a result. But the most significant harm they have done is not obeying the traditional role of motherhood. By participating in a pointless riot, they have neglected to feed their children and watch after them. Why will they put so much energy into chaos and not obeying the role of being a submissive mother instead? N’Dakarou argues that if they stay at home, obey the law, and take care of their children, then justice will surely come to Africa. Rebelling against this maxim only causes more problems. If they obey authority instead of questioning it, then peace will reign.

Yet the role of being a mother is the primary reason for rebelling against authority, according to Ramatoulaye, a struggling African mother. She has a conversation with Hadramé, a man who makes a living by selling rice. He is obligated to sell rice at a fair price, otherwise, the government will find out that he has been too lenient to the poor: “They know everything I do” (Ousmane 42). Yet Ramatoulaye begs him for at least two pounds of rice to feed her starving children: “You have no heart…give me two pounds just- enough to cheat the hunger” (Ousmane 42-43). Hadramé would gladly give Ramatoulaye some rice if not out of fear of being disciplined by the government. The government surveys his every move, and if he rebels against them, then he will be punished. As a result, he does not live in love for his fellow man but out of fear of punishment. Thus, Ramatoulaye’s accusation stands true. In her eyes, it is far more important to help someone who struggles with poverty than obey a strict authoritarian rule. To extend love to another, one must sometimes disobey their own standards of conduct. Even though Ramatoulaye’s suggestion rebels against Hadramé’s ethics of obeying his station in life, her rebellion is quite minor compared to the violence of the village women. Afterall, she only wishes to “cheat hunger” for a small moment, not cause a violent revolution against the government. Ironically, by trying to persuade Hadramé to sell his rice to her cheap, she exemplifies the need for a greater good than obedience, namely, love for one’s neighbor. She simply needs help in feeding her children as a mother. That concept (helping humans support their families) was the ideal goal of government control in the first place. Yet Hadramé’s stubbornness gets in the way of love, for he refuses to disobey his government.

The conflict between rebellion and obedience is also prevalent in Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus. Kambili, a Nigerian girl raised by a strict religious father, Eugene, is always in compliance with his authority. She follows Eugene’s every move and cannot question the things that he teaches her. She even reaches a point in compliance to where she loves Eugene for everything he is: “…most of what Papa said sounded important…I would focus on his lips, the movement, and sometimes I forgot myself” (Adichie 25). Kambili is so devoted to her father that she focuses on everything he does. Kambili believes in her father’s authority for she thinks that everything he says will have an important effect on her life. So she must listen to him in all things. In so doing she “forgets herself.” She ceases to be an individual in her own right. Her own personal dreams and desires have no importance. But the idea of rebellion is shocking to her. On a fateful day, her brother Jaja refuses to partake in communion, to the distress of Eugene. Kambili thinks “I stared at Jaja. Had something come loose in his head” (Adichie 6). Kambili believes that Jaja is not acting reasonably by not going by her father’s schedule. She isn’t used to the idea that someone can veer off course from Eugene’s strict plan. So Jaja’s disobedience can only be seen as something irrational, completely crazy at worst. Her dependence on Eugene has led her to no other conclusion. Jaja’s disobedience to Eugene shocks her, for she was never open to the idea that anything could undermine her father’s rule. As a child who needs a leader, her dependence is to be expected.

Yet Kambili finds herself undermining the values that her father has placed upon her once she visits her grandfather, Papa Nunwuku. Eugene solely forbids Kambili and Jaja to never take part in a feast dedicated to pagan idolatry. But Kambili is put into that position when her grandfather is eating. Jaja warns her to leave so as to obey Eugene’s religious authority. Kambili, however, has different plans: “I wanted to stay so that if the fufu clung to Papa Nunwuku’s throat and choked him, I could run and get him water” (Adichie 66). Kambili’s reasoning is simple enough; she desires to watch over her grandfather in case something happens to him while he is eating. She simply wants to care for another, just like Ramatoulaye in God’s Bits of Wood. Yet her decision is significant. By staying with Papa Nunwuku, she is participating in an immoral action in terms of Eugene’s Christianity. By remaining at the dinner, she no longer complies with her father’s wishes. Yet her desire is not destructive but loving. She only wants to keep another safe. But in order to this she must resist what she has been taught her whole life. This rebellion against her own convictions sets the stage for her to see life differently, that it isn’t based upon a stern adherence to authority but mutual love. Ironically, she thought it was loving to obey her father in all things but ends up turning against that notion to help another.

The conclusion that the reader can draw from these two African masterpieces is that, though authority and rebellion constitute a lifelong struggle in Africa, the underlying reason of it all is love. People are willing to submit to the harshest tyranny simply because they have affection towards the one they obey. Even if the other treats them terribly, they wish to serve them out of sheer kindness. At the same time, those who rebel against authority desire justice for others, for others to be free. Liberty becomes their slogan for justice all over the world, not only in Africa. As a result, one may conclude that love is the primary motivation for both obedience and rebellion. The fact alone is quite optimistic, for it teaches, as the old saying goes that “Love Conquers All.”

Works Cited

            Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Purple Hibiscus. New York: Anchor Books, 2003. Print.

Ousmane, Sembene. God’s Bits of Wood. England: Heinemann, 1962. Print.


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