On April 1st 2003, Leymah Gbowee, an activist who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize, learnt that fighting was nearing Monrovia, her country’s capital. There were clashes between rebels and then president Charles Taylor, and the scheduled presidential elections seemed increasingly unlikely to take place. Distressed, Gbowee began to make calls to her colleagues at WIPNET, the organisation she was a founding member of. “We need to step up” she told them. “The men have failed […] the women of Liberia want peace now”. And so the women began to organise. They printed flyers, made statements on radio, spoke to people on the streets. Over the course of a few days, almost one hundred women arrived in Monrovia. Leymah Gbowee and her group had mobilised.
On April 14th, despite warnings from the president against street marches, they scheduled a protest in one of Monrovia’s central marketplaces. They would all wear white and when the president, whom they knew would be driving by the market in the morning, passed through, they would walk to the roadside to let him know that the women of Liberia had had enough.
On the day, Leymah Gbowee made her way to the market at dawn. She was the first to arrive. She knew that in order for the protest to succeed at least a few hundred women needed to be present. But she needed not be anxious. As the sun emerged, hot and resilient, so did the women. Truck after truck of women came. First, a hundred women gathered. Then three hundred. Then five hundred. Then seven hundred. Then a thousand. The women who came were of all walks of life; students, activists, professors, market women, women displaced from camps, women who came simply to get drunk in the company of other women. Above all, they were women who had been pushed to their physical, psychological and spiritual limits and as they moved forth toward the president’s vehicle, they all demanded one thing – an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.
But the president ignored their demand. And so the women, the thousands now of women, decided that if there was no answer within the next three days, they would make themselves impossible to ignore.
There was no answer. Thus, on the 23rd of April, 2003, Leymah Gbowee led the women to the Monrovia’s City Hall where she planned to address the man who had caused the country so much meaningless pain and suffering. Upon entering City Hall the women chanted:
We want peace, no more war.
Our children are dying – we want peace.
We are tired of suffering – we want peace.
We are tired of running – we want peace.
Still the war continued. The women continued, too, to protest. For months to come, they would meet daily at the market – they refused to make their suffering invisible. In June, when peace talks were scheduled in Accra, Ghana, between Charles Taylor, the rebels, and the presidents of Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, South Africa as well as a US delegation, the women also left for Accra.
Only things were to get worse. Charles Taylor learnt that he would be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court, and fled. Subsequently, days of bombardment followed in Liberia leaving hundreds dead, houses smashed, stores looted, hospitals closed, famine spreading, episodes of cholera breaking out, no clean water and the city’s beaches were turned into public toilets. Everywhere you looked people were running and running.
On June 21st, by now exhausted and forlorn, Leymah Gbowee once again put on her white T-shirt and said to her colleagues, “We are going inside.” By inside, she meant parliament. They arrived during lunch break, and as the men began to exit the hall, Gbowee shouted, “No one will come out of this place until a peace agreement is signed!”. They threatened to arrest her. She responded, ”I will make it very easy for you to arrest me, I’m going to strip naked.” She took off her hairband, took off her lappa, started to take off her clothes.
As many Africans might know, there is a powerful symbolism attached to women stripping publicly. The belief is that if a woman exposes the parts of herself through which men have been given life, she is indirectly taking back the life that man has been given. Therefore, this act shook the men thoroughly. While the war did not end there and then, what the women did that day marked the beginning of the end. On August 11, 2003, Charles Taylor resigned.
I share the story of Liberia in order to now draw a comparison between Leymah Gbowee’s indefatigable actions and an old parapsychological and philosophical African mythology about feminine consciousness, namely that of Oya, an ancient Yoruba goddess who represents feminine wrath toward injustice.
Before we examine Oya further, let me briefly give you some context about the pantheon to which she belongs, namely the Orisha. The Orisha are generally known as a group of gods and goddesses that Yoruba people and their descendants have worshipped historically and traditionally. Although to call the Orisha gods and goddesses does not paint the full picture. More completely, the Orisha are energies, forces, super human beings that represent something sacred, higher up and powerful. In a nutshell, the Orisha are archetypes quite similar to ancient Greece’s gods and goddesses such as Apollo or Aphrodite. And in the same way that Greek mythology has been used for centuries to apply insights to contemporary European life, be it within politics, literature, philosophy or gender relations, there is an equal depth to be gained from the study of African mythology.
In fact, I would argue that African mythology is one of the richest resources available to modern day Africans wishing to reinvigorate discussions about social change. Alas, it is buried underneath the rocks of a colonial narrative that once deemed it primitive and backwards. As Wole Soyinka says about the Orisha, he says, “we need not embrace the Orisha to profit from the profound wisdoms that can be extracted from them.”
What he means is that you do not need to be a “devotee”, as Orisha worshippers of whom, mind you, there are millions in Africa and the diaspora, are often referred to. This is a good time to also explain that I am not a devotee myself, but I am curious – and appreciative – of the ways that the Orisha enhance our understanding of African society.
It is this appreciation which has led me to research Oya in particular, because as god of the wind, of lightning and of social transformation, as well as the patron of the marketplace and of women’s affairs, Oya is a a feminist god. In fact, I would argue that Oya is the very essence of African feminism, the archetype of feminist consciousness in an African milieu. Oya is a no nonsense deity. Never ingratiating, she is the epitome of concentrated intellectual, social, and erotic feminine power. Furthermore, she bestows her powers upon all women who wish to connect with them. This connection – the one between Oya and feminism – is what I refer to as Oyalogy.
Let me also state at this stage that feminism is a contested idea in Africa; it has waxed and waned in popularity over the last fifty or so years, but its theories have had a notable significance on legislation, educational curricula and everyday values of women across the continent. Oyalogy – which I shall outline shortly – is particularly useful for African women because it applies to the broad spectrum of feminist concerns that we face, which I identify not only as male dominance but also legacies of colonialism and racial oppression. In other words, African feminism is no different to western feminism in seeking to abolish patriarchal rule, but it has developed in a different context than the history of women and gender in Europe. The usefulness of Oyalogy is therefore that it provides a tool with which we can explore precisely the multiple layers of resistance to oppression that have emerged from the entanglement of foreign and indigenous patriarchies. Let me repeat and emphasise that: Oyalogy is not about understanding oppression in as much as it is about reinvigorating power.
The central components of Oyalogy are, as one might assume, Oya’s key characteristics – her being a force of feminine leadership, her restoring balance in society by all means, even, if necessary, by causing anomie. Oya literally translated from Yoruba means “She tore” and indeed when Oya speaks her mind, she tears away veils of comfort with her sharp talons. Oya’s words, like a tropical storm, are a purification.
I shall now recite some praise poems for Oya to elaborate on Oyalogy. In Yoruba mythology, each Orisha has their own canon of praise poetry, verses that are recited by bards when they perform ritual in order to connect with the Orisha in question. For instance, you have praise poems for Ogun, the god of iron. Or Shango, the god of thunder. These are age old poetries, passed on from generation to generation. The poems are translated from Yoruba (by Judith Gleason) and I have shortened and edited them somewhat for the purposes of time and clarity.
Now we shall explain what it is we call “Oya”
Now we shall praise Oya […]
Now that something tore into the house
And paralysed everyone with fright, save Eshu
Who gallantly stepped forward
Hai! Hai! I greet the elegant turbulence of your stride! he says.
Then he offered her sixteen snails
A bowl of shea butter, and a flask of palm oil
All of which Oya swallowed in one gulp
Whereupon, with bulging eyes and a walloping sound
She began to vomit
What was she throwing up?
Everything collected from three wicked characters called Alara, Ajero and Orangun
Spewed forth on the floor
And the observers became wealthy at once
What shall we call her? they exclaimed!
Can we not keep her?
Please don’t go!
All these things you swept into my house?
I might says Oya
I will, if you realise that
She who stove into Alara’s house and captured his goods
She who drove into Ajero’s house and took what she could
She who tore into Orangun’s house
She am I who came down just now
And I will never depart from your house
If you know how to take care of me
Feed me correctly and you will become the
Richest man in the world
For I am Oya!
Who knows how to calm me down
Knows how to prosper
Let us now return briefly now to Leymah Gbowee and the women whom she lead to the parliament building in 2003. Could one not argue that they tore into the house, that they paralysed everyone with fright, that they stove and drove into parliament taking what was theirs and regurgitating it for all of society to benefit? Could one not claim, that only when the male politicians learnt how to calm them down, did they prosper?
Here’s another praise poem for Oya.
Praise to Oya
Great godmotheress of the wind
And the leader of freedom
For women who unfreely
Praise the broken earth
Is this not the spirit that Leymah Gbowee and WIPNET demonstrated in Liberia? To be leaders of freedom for women who unfreely praise the broken earth? See, central to Oyalogy is the idea that studying the Oya archetype reveals a story of enduring female resistance in Africa, past and present.
I shall end with another praise poem, and if you could bear in mind the stripping of the women in Liberia as I recite it.
Vagina is highly intelligent
Wizard’s penis is long
Child who carried the corpse
Oya, the complete fighter
Massive woman up in the sky: pow, pow
She frowned, whirling the huge tree
Which collapsed reluctantly
May she sweep riches
Tomorrow into the same place
For the surface of lagoon
Assaulted hilltop from above
Mysterious, commendable force
From the heavens, sky sent power
Wind over the lake
Lept freely across the wilderness
Leaping from mountain to mountain
Honour be upon her head
I praise the force of Oya
Which I have encountered
Uplifted, I now lift up
Whose uplifting strengthens me
In conclusion, let me make clear that Oya does not strike her victims without reason. Her wrath is evoked when there is disharmony in society. In other words, according to the Yoruba cosmogony, Oya is invoked when imbalance creates disorder. Similarly, it should be said that conceptualisations of Oya are complicated by the fact that she, like all Orishas, is not a one-dimensional deity that can be neatly defined. Ifa, the spiritual system to which the Orisha belongs is a spirituality that unlike most religions adapts to its time. Yet what makes conceptualisations of Oya tricky, is what makes Oyalogy useful. Oya’s ambiguous nature assists in imagining what transformative action may look like. It may be quarrelsome, disruptive and insolent but it comes from a place of compassion and complexity.
Critical action from a place of radical compassion – as we may refer to it – is what Leymah Gbowee and the Liberian women took that tumultuous year in Liberia’s history. By realising that they had only two options, to give up or to fight back with vehemence, Gbowee and her sororal unit not only altered the course of the war, but they also discovered a new source of power. A source, which as the development of Oyalogy shall scintillate, was in fact a familiar one – themselves.
Any thoughts or questions?
Based on a talk delivered at Trinity College Dublin on May 25th, 2015 as part of their Africa Day programme.
Image is Donna Nera by Ilya Repin, 1876, via Wikimedia Commons—
SUBSCRIBE TO MY NEWSLETTER