As The Memory of Love is told from various male perspectives, the female characters in the novel become more symbolic than personal. We never get to know the inner thoughts of characters like Saffia or Nenebah and in many ways Adrian, Kai and Elias are guilty of idolizing them. However, because of this distance, we are able to consider these characters in a more allegorical way. I’d like to look at the theme of mothers, and their symbolism for the state of Sierra Leone, the motherland. Firstly we see the cold compliance of Saffia, who sees her dreams of a happy marriage crushed by betrayal and government censorship. She becomes a mother to Nenebah, but raises her as if she is a single mother. Nenebah remembers growing up and never seeing her parents together, and it is in this degrading of familial unity and happiness that we first see how the destabilization of Sierra Leone pre-civil war began to degrade the ties holding together the country. If we consider mothers symbolic of the motherland, then Elias’ infidelity to Saffia, in preference for the love of Vanessa, is symbolic of the gains from corruption that tempted Sierra Leone’s leaders away from the path of freedom and independence that the country so dearly fought for.
If Saffia is the beginning of the decaying of the motherland, then in Nenebah’s path to motherhood we see the reality of the civil war. While she was carrying her baby, Nenebah experienced severe complications and died. She was bringing new life into the world, just as the people of Sierra Leon fought to create their independent country. However, the effort was marred with corruption and political destabilization, and in the end the country tore itself apart in a violent civil war. In Nenebah we see the initial hope of Sierra Leon coupled with the violent consequences of reality. As a character, Nenebah was fiercely loyal to her country, and refused to leave or raise her future children in any other place. As a mother and a character she was a regenerative force for Sierra Leon, attempting to stay true to her people and bring forth a new generation. However with her death, hope seems to die with her. That is, until it is revealed that Nenebah’s daughter is alive and well, continuing our belief in life after trauma.
Finally, Mary represents the motherland post-war as she began to gather its people and heal its wounds, as no foreign service worker can. Mary was raped during the war and had a child from this assault, yet our image of her towards the end of the novel is a happy mom-to-be who was moving past her trauma for the sake of her family. Although some trauma cannot be forgotten, especially when that trauma results in a child, Mary does what so many Sierra Leoneans had to do – accept the trauma and move on, forgetting the bad and focusing on the good. Mary spoke of her plans to bring the child begotten of war home to raise with the child begotten of love, putting her trauma behind her and uniting her family. In this sense, we see the mothers of the country resolutely begin to piece their people back together, even if, for those like Agnes, that means taking on some mental wounds that may never heal.
Can you guys think of any other examples of mothers, or maybe even anti-mothers, who symbolize the path of Sierra Leone?
In response to our brief in-class discussion, regarding the misogynistic characteristics of the African ethnic groups present in the novel, I thought it best to address a passage that discusses Mbanta’s concept that “Mother is Supreme.” This passage adds to what we had previously come to know as a woman’s role in the clan. This passage depicts a whole new version of women that we have yet to see in Things Fall Apart.
We have read about women cooking, bearing and raising children, and obeying orders without ever really reading about their impact on society, until this passage. It is now evident that a mother’s role is much more multifaceted and important than what we had discussed in class. Uchendu, a leader of the Mbanta clan, explains “But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his mother land. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme.”(98) Achebe’s inclusion of this narrative provides the reader with insight into the value of women in the clan, which we had yet to really see. Furthermore, I do not think Achebe’s usage of the word supreme was accidental. By definition supreme means “most important or most powerful.” Achebe wants us, as readers, to recognize the significant role that females play not only in the clans but also on the novel as a whole. This passage stands out primarily due to its uniqueness in that Achebe had not previously shed light on the prominence and importance of women in the novel.
Now to briefly play devils advocate in the fifty or so words I have left: One could argue that this passage is just furthering the sexism that we already knew to be present in the novel in that it is associating sorrow and bitterness with women.
However, I personally see the inclusion of this passage as an important message to the reader that a women’s role in the culture Achebe has depicted is much more than what we had previously concluded.