Power of the Powerless

In Power by Gazelle Mba

Power is not always embodied or rather disembodied as ‘the man’, an institution or the government. It feels slippery, you know it exists but you can’t hold it in your hands. It is impossible to define, so much so that approaching an essay on the topic feels daunting. What could I possibly contribute to the conversation around such an unwieldy and difficult concept?

My own ideas of power are shaped primarily by a feeling of suspicion towards it. A distrust of so-called ‘powerful figures’ in African societies that we are supposed to idealise or look up to, that are often positioned as above critique. It is often desired for its own sake, as an end in itself, through which those with greater amounts of power, through their wealth, or gender, nationality, race, or any other identity markers can lord what they have over those who are less powerful.

The often deeply harmful ways power functions in our societies deserve to be challenged and reimagined. But there are also other manifestations of power, which send shock waves through the established order of things. These frissons of electricity that are caused by the power of the ‘less-powerful’ can be better understood when we think of power as that which creates movement. I mean movement both in the sense of a person lifting heavy furniture or running, as well as mass protests and riots, where people gather on the street in dissent. Power is expressed in the most everyday acts of and in the world’s largest revolutions through the continuity of movement, which enables our social creativity.

In this sense, power has the potential to exist in small, repetitive acts which circulate amongst those who are often deemed powerless, seen as hapless victims to the whims and desires of greater social or political forces. In a Nigerian context where enormous power differentials and inequality fall along gendered and economic lines, and successive governments have used censorship and imprisonment to quell political dissent, it is useful to think of ways that ordinary people articulate critiques of power when their voice in the public sphere is more often than not continuously suppressed.

One example of power as circulation lies in the history of Onitsha market literature. Onitsha market literature refers to the once-thriving print industry, where pamphlets catering to the general populace were printed and sold. The pamphlets were written for the average man and women, therefore they reflected local cares, concerns and anxieties relating to religion, gender, nationalism and the economy. They were sold in Onitsha Market, the commercial epicentre of Anambra state and one of the busiest and largest markets in West Africa. Onitsha Market Literature constituted a multifaceted genre, with topics ranging from romantic advice to dramas, plays, history and racy stories. This as well as other forms of popular entertainment were driven by a desire for Nigerians to consume stories that resonated with their life experiences. Stories published in the pamphlet often included tales of sex, love, marriage and money.

They expressed more than just personal concerns and interests, the tales, which contained stock figures such as the wayward woman or sexual schemer and supernatural figures such as witches or ogbange created powerful social idioms through which readers could project their anxieties and fears around poverty, financial difficulty and the struggle of living in the city. These cultural and social idioms were as anthropologist Misty Bastian has also argued, crucial for negotiating the complex feelings of powerlessness about the national condition in rural areas, a sense that the Nigerian discourse of politics and power is being carried on without rural people.

While Onitsha Market Literature ended with the Biafran war, it was succeeded by Nollywood video films whose subject matter also revolved around similar narratives such as those concerning unmarried women. Both Onitsha market literature and Nollywood serve to discipline and confine female sexuality by narrativizing it as out of control and dangerous. This remains a strong feature of Nigerian society outside the domain of the culture. It seems then that these cultural forms enable the articulation of power struggles and hierarchies that exist in the wider society.

The long history of gender and class struggles in Nigeria in particular deserves greater attention. Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Molara Ogundipe-Leslie stand out as bastions amongst nigeiran women’s rights activists. I am equally captivated by collective shows of resistance and the strategies they employed. For instance, in the Aba Women’s War Ogu Umunwanyi developed from the long-established and public practice of ‘making’ egwu (song and dance). ‘Making’ egwu fits with the image of Nigerian life and politics, developed from my childhood, where I saw that all major events were usually accompanied by a dance. y

Prior to 1925, Egwu performances were used as a means of shaming local male authorities as well as the vehicle for airing women’s communal grievances and making\ their demands known to the community. Egwu performances were devised, practiced and refined during women-only meetings and unveiled at public events like markets or town festivals. New egwu was circulated to non-participating women through these performances, they would encounter the latest movements, words and tunes. Iterations of these dances and songs are still performed today, by groups such as Egwu Umunwanyi Udoka Orlu in Imo State and albums were recorded by Nkwere Aborigines Women Club.

The participatory and active nature of egwu, the way in which it circulates and brings together disparate people, is a model for other power struggles within Nigeria many decades later. Although egwu and Onitsha Market literature make use of different mediums- one uses the body and the other texts- they both show how power amongst the less-powerful was expressed through the circulation of shared concerns and troubles. Regardless of the result of these power struggles, there is something to be learned about a society when we turn our eyes to the ways that the less-powerful make their troubles known. They foreground the notion of a politics of the powerless as participation.