Between Imaginary and Real – Images of the Woman in Sefi Atta’s Swallow and Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana

Lola Akande

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Most critics are fascinated by the constellation of institutions and administrative devices in Lagos and tend to treat the city as an artificial construction rather than as a body of customs and traditions. This paper establishes Lagos as a psychophysical mechanism with attitudes that inhere in these customs and traditions. It explores the complexities of the social spaces in Lagos and pays particular attention to the physics of behaviour, and the pattern of regularities in the city’s apparent confusion. The paper adopts a womanist critical approach which gives women the opportunity to be at the centre of discourse. In the analysis of two novels set in Lagos – Sefi Atta’s Swallow (2008) and Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana (1961), a fairly longitudinal perception is emplaced against the background of changes in Lagos life and especially the monumental transformations in the city’s charters, formal organisation, buildings, and streets between 1961 and 2008. There is a sense in which, across the temporal board, literary renderings have not shifted in the depiction of women as subjects surviving in the city only by breaking the rules.

Key words: Lagos, images, womanist, Atta, Ekwensi


New comers to the city are not greeted with the words “Welcome to Lagos.” They are told “This is Lagos” – An ominous statement of fact. […] Their lungs will burn with smoke and exhaust; their eyes will sting; their skin will turn charcoal gray. And hardly any of them will ever leave (The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos, 2006, 2).

The city is generally an important phenomenon in literature; but specifically, writers of fiction provide the most intimate knowledge of urban life because the city is rooted in the habits and customs of the people who inhabit it.  Since the time of Dickens and Baudelaire, the city has been portrayed as a social and psychological landscape and has become one of the most important characters of all, determining and imaging every human action (Sharpe and Wallock, 6). Significantly however, many writers view the city around the idea of alienation and oppression. Also, there seems to be something about the female persona that is more representative of the city than the male; perhaps because a woman is the more alluring persona. A woman appears to be a better way to describe a city than a man; and therefore, the attraction that a woman has for writers must be recognised.

Curiously however, almost all the novels in the world that deal with the city using a woman as the node do so by associating the woman with prostitution. The trend has been the same from George Eliot’s Romola (1862) to Sefi Atta’s Swallow (2008). Across the ages, across cultures and literatures, the city is not only always presented as a woman but usually as a predatory or repressed prostitute. This paper investigates the phenomenon of the city presented as a woman on the fringes of society, prostituting. Perhaps much more worrisome is the realisation that even when the woman is not depicted as an actual prostitute, as in the case of Tolani Ajao in Swallow, prostitution remains a tendency for her. In other words, it is always the direction towards which a woman’s life tends even when she gets a normal job and is serious-minded enough not to fall prey to the lure of the flesh. In ages that can be regarded as deviations, to the extent that women can do normal office jobs as Tolani Ajao does, prostitution as a tendency is always strongly present. This prevailing circumstance suggests  therefore, that there is an unchanging factor and this paper aims at uncovering the factor as well as interrogating why the factor has not changed.

No Nigerian city has engaged the attention of Nigerian writers the way the city of Lagos has done and is still doing. Successive generations of Nigerian writers often regard Lagos as the ideal setting for their works. Significantly too, the opinion of many of them about Lagos has tended to be coincident with that of the rest of the world. Hence, in most Nigerian urban novels, prostitution is depicted as a way of life for women who wish to survive in the city. In view of the foregoing, it may be necessary to ask, what kind of wind blows in the city? In a longitudinal survey between two novels published many years apart, how much difference is there between  Jagua Nana and Swallow in the depiction ofthe unsettledness of the life of the city? Is it possible to find women, from any of the two novels, who would not fail in Lagos? How might such women survive?  Events and characters in the novels may provide answers.

Womanist Theory on the Condition of Women

African theories of womanhood such as African feminism, womanism and motherism propose that a woman could be studied and appreciated from her everyday way of living. That a woman could be a child, mother, sister, colleague and that there are more than one way to picture a woman in the society. This has attracted some strong responses. Chidi Maduka (1999) acknowledges the efforts of some Nigerian female academics/scholars like Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Chiwenye Okonjo-Ogunyemi, Catherine Acholonu, Rose Acholonu, Akachi Ezeigbo and Aduke Adebayo to “challenge the dehumanising tendencies of the patriarchal socio-political institution in the country” (217). However, he contends that the women “seem unwilling to develop vigorous aesthetic criteria for formulating their views.” Consequently, he describes their statements as “fanciful, unsubstantiated, emotive generalisations rooted in extra-literary criteria” and concludes that “feminism, womanism and motherism are troublesome terms for the Nigerian female critic” (217). This intervention does not focus on the academic or literary grandiosity or otherwise of the African theories of womanhood. Rather, what is of interest to the researcher is the global attention that women have successfully generated and seem determined to sustain on the general condition of women and the need to take women issues more seriously by placing them at the centre of discourses.

Female writers/critics from the Diaspora such as Alice Walker, Bell Hooks, Nancy Morejon and Jenika McCrayer have espoused the womanist theory aimed at defending the black woman’s honour and integrity. McCrayer (2015) asserts that womanism gives women the opportunity to be at the centre of discourses, and have “scholars […] focus on women’s unique experiences”(5). According to her, “womanism acknowledges that women are unsupported and drowning;” hence, it “makes woman’s experiences a priority” (5).Back home in Nigeria, Okonjo Ogunyemi, arguably the country’s leading womanist theorist as well as other female critics of Nigerian descent, also encourage the men to expand their view of women beyond the women’s capacity to fatten up the men. Hence, womanist theory holds that its importance does not consist in being in opposition with men; but that the womanist theory is important because it deals with the woman in and of herself; it recognises that a woman is a normal member of society who ought to be looked at in her own right to significance. The theory asserts further that it does not have to always present a split issue, one between a man and a woman in confrontation, but that outside whatever confrontation that may exist between the sexes, there is the need for a woman to try to live a ‘normal’ life. The insistence that women just want to live ‘normal’ lives is fascinating. The submission of the womanist theorists is particularly intriguing because living a ‘normal’ life in the city begins with having a ‘normal’ job; something to do that could save women from dishonour. Consequently, the fact that women take the centre stage and become visible is a very important issue and is therefore germane to the present discourse. Also, womanist theory is relevant to the interpretation and appreciation of the selected novels because of the way Ekwensi and Atta make women the subjects of their novels thereby providing a sufficient handle in terms of having a gender issue to contend with.

As a form of redress and affirmation of classical feminism, the theory presents the woman as someone always under subjection; it insists that from the beginning of time to the present, the situation has not changed. Coincidentally, both Jagua Nana and Swallow depict situations that tend to lend credence to an unchanging situation. One of the vital questions to ponder is who is subjecting women to domination in this case? The plausible answer may be that it is the city that is subjecting women in the sense that it hardly offers alternatives to failure. Another significant point to note is that men control the city  and they directly or indirectly command, control and subject women to perpetual domination.

To lend further support to the foregoing argument concerning men’s propensity to command and control women, some critics such as Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon (1994) hold that from time immemorial, men tend to be happy with women who are sexually available. Maasik and Solomon observe that “things easily get awry for women who assert themselves sexually” (601).To buttress their assertion further, they note how feminist semioticians have insisted that “there has been a continuous history of male control and that what men have always attempted to control the female sexuality (601).” The feminist semioticians also recall that “in the traditional sexual mythology, women are offered only three roles: the part of the virginal bride, of the whore and of the castrating witch” (601).

As interesting as it may seem to pursue this line of argument, it is necessary to reckon that patriarchy is supposed to be an organised concept which by extension yields an organised way of subjection. In this sense, therefore, it is argued in this paper that it is unnecessary to emphasise patriarchy especially as not all cities are well run enough to be able to sustain the argument of organised patriarchy in the city. Rather than emphasise patriarchy, the pertinent question to ask, perhaps, is: can women live ‘normal’ lives in the city? What does it take for a female character to succeed in the city? What are the things she must have and are those things available? In other words, what are the things that would make a woman appear successful rather than a failure in this particular city? The answers need to be found in the selected novels. How much more than the other by a much older male author is the latter novel by a woman abreak from the norm? That is to ask if  the other novel may not have underdone the picture by not sufficiently presenting the forms of life that could be a critique of other forms of life as may need to happen with presentation of a dominant image of the city. Instructively, the dominant image of a city like Lagos is fairly easy to determine. The nature of Lagos goes beyond its residents being in a hurry to get to their destinations. The fact remains that Lagos is a city of filth. It is also a disorganised city; and a city that is disorganised will likely disorganise the lives of people who live in it.

Lagos: A City of Literary Interest

 Lagos has a special image nearly at all levels of academic and non-academic discourses including that of popular culture, and transnational theories of urbanisation. The city has a centrality in all discussions almost compared to cities like London, Paris, New York, New Delhi and Johannesburg. There is a peculiarity that Lagos presents to the world especially in terms of unmanageable cities. Although, all cities have a common problem of managing crowds; the population of Lagos has grown rapidly in the last four decades and “is growing faster than any of the world’s other megacities” (George Packer, 2006). This realisation must have prompted the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements to project that Lagos would rank third, behind Tokyo and Bombay by 2015 (3). The early planners of Lagos appear not to have reckoned with the fact that the city’s population could soar to such unimaginable proportions with dire consequences. It is in view of this peculiarity and distinctiveness that the city has attracted the attention of leading writers and artistes and has become the focus of intense scholarly interest in books such as Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, and Robert Neuwirth’s Shallow Cities.

The phenomenal stature of Lagos has also necessitated the use of the city as setting by most Nigerian novelists, each chronicling and cataloguing the many woes of Lagos. In People of the City, for example, which was written as far back as 1954, Ekwensi labels the city as “an enemy that raised the prices of its commodities without increasing his pay; or even when the pay was increased, the increased prices immediately made things worse than before (54). Interestingly, a research finding conducted in 2007(fifty-three years after the publication of the novel) confirms Lagos as the second most expensive city in Africa.  As part of the findings of a worldwide cost of living survey conducted by the research arm of The Economist News Magazine, the report compares prices and products in more than one hundred and thirty cities around the world and finds that Lagos comes second after Abidjan, Cote D’ Ivoire which takes the first position in Africa. The report states that Lagos urban dwellers are among the hardest hit by high commodity prices and soaring accommodation costs. It adds that “Lagos was among the most expensive cities in the world in 2007 and ranks as one of Africa’s cities with the highest cost of living” (The Punch, Friday, March 23, 2007, 3).

As serious as this problem may seem to scholars and observers of city life, there are yet more problems confronting the city of Lagos. The city seethes with filth as Packer (2006) notes that “the most widely available commodity in Lagos is garbage (15). Other problems include homelessness, absence of piped water, an almost intractable daily gridlock and the far more sinister spectre of street urchins, otherwise known as area boys. Still, there are countless other indicators that depict Lagos as a city on the brink; the endless surge of commuters towards a commercial bus with only a few empty seats, the shutdown of a busy street by a partying crowd; high speed vehicles riding against the flow of traffic on one-way routes. It is an unending list of problems and woes.

Even before Nigeria attained independence and especially from the 1960s, Lagos was regarded as the single most likely city capable of offering economic succour to scores of Nigerians who migrate from other parts of the country and the world into the city on a daily basis. This influx was increased by the oil boom of the 1970s. The boom lasted until the socio-economic burst of the 1980s which also got worse in the 1990s, but people have continued to move into Lagos in large numbers and presently, the city is reviled as chaotic and crime prone. Lagos residents are particularly transfixed by disturbing socio-economic indices in these areas – security, housing, transportation, education and roads. As Odia Ofeimun (2007) observes, the fact that all the contestants in the 2007 gubernatorial elections in Lagos State emphasised, even if only out of perfunctory political obligation, the imperative of overhauling those sectors underscores the crisis state to which they have degenerated.

Also, the mass exodus out of Lagos, of the head offices of major corporate organisations were partly due to the menace of social miscreants, declining infrastructure and environmental standards and traffic congestion among several other problems Lagos is associated with (Adegoke, 51). Described as “the armpit of Africa” (This Day, 51), it appears that Lagos is the only city in Nigeria where slum clearance is one of the most important aspects of governance. Ofeimun (2007) discloses further that since the 1930s, “governor after governor have earned folk-sobriquets as Governor Bulldozer,  Action Governor and Harbour Master as a play up of the slum-clearance propensity of the regime in power” (Tejuoso, 2007: 56). A cruel joke told some years ago about how a first-time traveller could tell when in Lagos encapsulates just one of the many disturbing defining characteristics of Lagos. According to the joke, you know you are in Lagos when a putrid smell assails your nostril.

In view of the foregoing, it is hardly surprising that many Nigerian novelists do not view Lagos as a good city. Indeed, filth, crime, corruption, chaos, high cost of living and sexual immorality have become subjects of Nigerian city novelists and their exasperation is understood against the backdrop of many problems that confront the city.  In Jagua Nana’s Daughter, “Ekwensi exposes the height of human exploitation for monetary gain” through Auntie Kate’s abduction of Jagua’s daughter, Liza and pushing the innocent girl into the hands of her Greek lover who was in need of a child. Not satisfied, Auntie Kate “further enriches herself by providing business executives with young girls” (Ofor in Ikonne et al, 28). Not that Lagos is so typical among novels of the city. The corruption and sexual laxity in Festus Iyayi’s novel, Violence (1979) even outstrips that of Ekwensi’s novels because in Violence, sexual recklessness is not a disease that afflicts only the young or unmarried, but also supposedly married men and women. Instructively, the moral decadence cannot always be attributed to poverty. One of Iyayi’s characters, Iriso, for example, is a government official and is ‘doing well’ while another character, Obofun, is a wealthy man. Curiously, all the characters in the novel that are sexually reckless and morally bankrupt are ‘decent’ at the beginning of the novel and very hesitant to give up their old values but all gradually yield to moral irresponsibility as a result of experiences in the city which appear to predispose them to immorality. In the novel, both the rich and the poor engage in sexual immorality as each group struggles to cope with the pressures the city exerts on them. Interestingly however, Iyayi does not present the countryside as a better alternative. In fact, he insists through his characters that life in the village is far worse than what it is in the city because life expectancy is far shorter in the village than it is in the city. Thus, the need both to render and to comprehend the multiplicity of the ways of the city has always been considered of great importance especially in fiction but no definite judgment seems to have been made on whether or not there has been a change in the customs and traditions in the city and in particular, on the city’s disposition to women.

Swallow and Jagua Nana

Jagua Nana chronicles the escapades of a middle-aged Eastern Nigerian prostitute, Jagua Nana, in the permissive Nigerian city of Lagos. Upon her arrival in Lagos, Jagua sets about seducing and capturing man after man, young, old, educated, unlettered, including die-hard criminals; Her image in the prostitution trade becomes larger than life and she is a frontline member of a popular night club – The Tropicana. Altogether, Jagua spends ten years in Lagos, they are ten wasted years as she has nothing to show as reward from the ‘trade’ to which she has devoted many of her active years. The last few months of her stay in Lagos are most degrading; Jagua lives as a squatter with a younger prostitute in the most slummy of Lagos slums where she sometimes sleeps on the “bare floor which came off in powdery puffs” (165). By the time she is to leave Lagos for the village, the very place against which she turned her back ten years earlier, she has to “go round her former friends … to borrow some money” (175) to enable her undertake the journey. Thus, the novel deals with the lures of the city which beckon on people of all shades and character promising much, but delivering nothing to them.

Swallow tells the story of an averagely educated and relatively young, unmarried Nigerian woman, Tolani Ajao, who sojourns in Lagos to earn a living but who soon finds out that earning an honest living in a city like Lagos can be more difficult than she had anticipated because “Lagos had the worst of city life” (170).

Having acquired a Diploma Certificate in Secretarial Studies from a polytechnic and now employed as secretary by the Federal Community Bank in Lagos, Tolani’s dream of becoming a happy city dweller seems accomplished but it turns out to be a life dogged by unimaginable challenges. First, she discovers that the cost of living in the city is prohibitive. Hence, she has to share a flat with a female colleague; also unmarried working in the same bank with her because neither of them can afford a separate apartment. In addition to the challenges of sharing an apartment with a hitherto strange person from a completely different background, world view and idiosyncrasies, Tolani  finds that the rent nevertheless takes as much as half of their pay, thus making their living very precarious. Another problem that confronts Tolani in the city is the chaotic transportation system which hampers free movement of residents from one point to the other. Consequently, she leaves home as early as 5 o’clock every morning in order to be able to report for work at 8 o’clock and returning home is no less difficult. Besides, the daily journeys carry a lot of risks including death through accident. Worst of all, Tolani and her flatmate and colleague, Rose, are already in their late 20s, and like all women of their age, they not only consider themselves ripe enough for marriage but are also desperate to ‘settle down’ each with a man of her dreams.

Unfortunately however, there appears to be only two types of men in Lagos. In the first group are men who are sincere, loyal, forthright, hardworking, focused and struggling to earn an honest living in the city and ready to ‘settle down’ just like the girls but who are constrained by the demands, limitations and vagaries of the city and are unable to actualise their dreams. In the second group are men who beat, steal, use, kill, or waste women’s time without remorse. The tragedy of the spinster living in the city, in the heroine’s view, is that there is no way for her and her fellow desperate spinsters to know the difference by merely looking at the men in the city since they all appear promising and serious on the surface. The heroine gets involved in a relationship with a man in the first category of men while her flatmate, Rose, gets entangled with a man in the second category. Either way, their lives appear jinxed as marriage may elude both girls going by the dictates of the city. Not even Tolani’s desperate move of surrendering her life savings to her boyfriend, Sanwo, to enable him to pay her dowry yields a positive result. Nevertheless, Tolani continues to weather the storm in the city amidst mounting pressures. She learns to cope with the rigours of city life without compromising her ideals and she is even determined to trust her boyfriend and wait for as long as it may take him to find his feet in the city and marry her.

However, a series of unhappy events in the novel truncate her plans and leave her utterly confused. Her relationship with Sanwo suddenly comes crashing in addition to which she suffers an undeserved suspension from her place of employment following her refusal to yield to her randy boss’ sexual overtures. Now totally overwhelmed by challenges she is unable to deal with in the city, Tolani decides to retrace her steps back to her birth place, Makoko. This was after the news of the death of her colleague and flatmate, Rose, through a “bag burst” on her way to England as a drug courier comes hitting her like a thunderbolt.  Worse still, while in the village; Sanwo brings the news of the termination of her appointment thereby ending the novel on a gloomy note.”I was a failure, a complete one” (253), she laments piteously. Thus, in Swallow, the city exerts so much pressure on women such that they are driven to confusion, misery and even death.

Atta’s most dominant concern in Swallow from which the novel derives its title is a major vice in the city – drug trafficking. The author observes that while most drug traffickers in the city are women (188) –suggesting that women in the city are more susceptible to trafficking in drugs – women are usually not the barons; but mere couriers or mules who run errands for men. Also of concern to Atta is what appears to be victimisation of women by men at work places in the city occasioned by the necessity for women in the city to earn a living outside their family and immediate environment. Unfortunately, this prevailing circumstance of women in the city exposes them to men who attempt to use them to satisfy their sexual urge and victimise them if they refuse to be so used. Sexual harassment at work places and its negative consequences on the modern working class women in the city plays a significant role in directing events in the novel and in determining the fate of the heroine and her colleague and flat-mate. Rose’s woes begin very early in the novel when she is sacked by her manager, Mr. Salako.

Prior to her sack, Rose has impliedly been tending to Salako’s extra-marital sexual needs while also working directly under him as his secretary. But for reasons that are not made clear in the novel, Rose appears to get tired of being a mere tool for her boss’ sexual pleasure after some time and becomes rude and insolent to him, hence he promptly sacks her for alleged insubordination. Using official might at his disposal, Salako also orders the heroine’s transfer to replace her sacked colleague as his secretary with the intention of using her as yet another tool for the satisfaction of his sexual pleasure. However, unlike Rose who tolerates Salako for a long time without divulging the secret even to her flat-mate, Tolani refuses to accept the indignity of having to sleep with a man simply on account of being his subordinate in the work place. Salako does not take her rebuff lightly, issuing her with a suspension letter and a promise to ensure that she eventually loses her job: “I will make sure you leave this job” (169). Expectedly, the relationship between the two becomes frosty and neither Tolani nor indeed the reader is surprised when Tolani receives the news of the termination of her appointment from the bank.

Thus, a man succeeds in destroying the promising careers of two women in the city; and in the case of Rose, her entire life is destroyed because the incident is the remote cause of her death.  Unfortunately, Atta does not seem to think that this ugly trend in the city may be reversed soon enough. Events in the novel seem to suggest that women who live in the city may have to continue to tolerate or devise means of coping with sexual harassment in their work places.  Perhaps, they may have to regard the menace as part of the conditions for living in the city. A pointer to this submission is that no one calls Salako to order throughout the novel which may be taken as an indication that he may continue in the practice.

There are insinuations in Swallow that high cost of living in the city including the exorbitant amount often demanded by city landlords tends to place women at the economic mercy of men. Also, the insensitivity and meanness of private employers of labour who are mostly men, is identified as a major factor limiting the economic capability of women living in the city. One of such insinuations is illustrated through the way the city environment unduly commercialises the bride price system which is an integral part of village tradition.  While agreeing that the bride price system is instituted in the village setting to serve as a means of appreciating the family of the bride for having taken proper care of their daughter, Atta observes that the system appears to be constituting a huge challenge to young men and women aspiring to get married in the city because city life tends to manipulate, bastardise and destroy the concept:

In Lagos, every relationship began and ended with a question of money. […] What used to be a tradition was now a means of extortion. The women of the bride’s family drew up a list and presented it at her engagement ceremony. Sometimes, families stated exactly how much naira they wanted (14).

Atta seems to be arguing that the essence of the bride price system is being completely destroyed and ridiculed in the city and that brazen irresponsibility and recklessness that appear to characterise city life are gradually encroaching on one of Nigeria’s finest customs.  Consequently, a majority of young women dwelling in the city are being rendered unmarriageable since eligible bachelors may not be able to raise the bride price being demanded in the city. This scenario assumes a ridiculous dimension when the heroine, in her late twenties and desperate for marriage, goes as far as pleading with her boyfriend to accept her entire life savings to enable him to pay her bride price:

I had told Sanwo […] I had a savings account at the bank […]. I could withdraw the money and […] we could use […] towards my dowry. He said that was like telling him he was not a real man […] (14).

Unfortunately, the woman in the city increasingly becomes desperate and frustrated as time and age continue to take a toll on her. Hence, the bride price system, innocently conceived and instituted to serve as part of Nigeria’s proud cultural heritage is being turned into a clog in the wheel of progress of the modern Nigerian woman residing in the city. Little wonder then promiscuity and waywardness are the norm in the city as the eligible bachelors shy away from marriage. The heroine’s lament is indicative of the seriousness of the issue and of Atta’s worry over it:

He was the same man who had …ironed my work clothes if I asked, and nursed me through bouts of malaria, but the moment he heard the word “marriage,” he was on defence; I was the enemy. How could the word alone bring on such a reaction in him, and what would I do then? Remain his girlfriend forever? (29).

In Jagua Nana, in spite of her advanced age, Jagua Nana also makes a brave attempt at finding a life partner in the city. Towards this end, she subordinates her ambition to Freddie Namme’s quest for a brighter future by travelling abroad for higher studies. Hence, she not only consents to Freddie’s travel plan, she also takes definite steps to encourage and support him by providing him with financial assistance:

                          No worry, Freddie. I goin’ to  sen’ you to England. You be clever boy, and your brain open […].You know what you doin’. You serious with you work […] mus’ try pull together to sen’ you (8, 26).

Jagua is undoubtedly a woman with determination. After Freddie’s departure to England, she undertakes a trip to his country home with the intention of meeting his parents and hopefully securing their approval of her relationship with their son. Unknown to her however, Freddie’s younger love interest, Nancy and her mother are already in the village for the same purpose. Events in the novel tend to lend support to the submission that Freddie appears to have known his real goals in the city and that he may also have carefully mapped out strategies for achieving them. Hence, he pretends to be in love with an older and richer woman so as to obtain financial favour and knows when to call it quits with her. The assurances he frequently gives his real love interest and the woman he later marries are instructive:

             No Nancy. I’m not going to marry Jagua… But just now, it won’ be de right thing, if I let her know. Ah mus’ wait till ah enter de ship firs. Till I land in Englan’ Den! I will show my hand(39).

Also, Freddie casts doubt on his reputation as a gentleman when he sets a trap for Jagua at her regular prostitution beat and gives her the beating of her life. He is calculating and smooth. He perfects his desertion of Jagua long before he sets her up so that by the time he carries out his plan, he does it with admirable neatness and finality that leaves the reader wondering if it is the same Freddie, the famed gentleman.

In addition to the foregoing, both Ekwensi and Atta demonstrate concerns about problems commonly associated with the city including high cost of living, insecurity of lives, high accident rate, poor infrastructural facilities such as energy and poor transportation system as well as poor medical facilities, filth, over-crowding, menace of street urchins., bribery and corruption, forgery, sexual immorality, environmental degradation, high crime rate, youth unemployment and class stratification which is very apparent in the city resulting in the designation of certain areas as reserved areas while some are tagged as slums. Ekwensi especially presents the city as a chaotic place and at bursting point with several irresolvable problems. These problems range from unemployment to overcrowding, homelessness, thuggery, alcoholism, high living, night life, threat to the marriage institution, religious hypocrisy, susceptibility to ritual killing and sexual immorality among others. Dwellers are attracted by the glamour of Lagos, the promises and hope it dangles before its potential victims who see the city as the Eldorado of opportunities and as a place for limitless enjoyment.

Ekwensi’s treatment of the city however takes a significant departure from Atta’s approach in the way that Ekwensi’s protagonist is a confident and bold slum dweller without a feeling of inadequacy or inferiority about her low status. Jagua can be rightly described as the Queen of Slums.  Being an experienced and confident prostitute, Jagua lives in a single room in a slum and takes great pride and delight in entertaining and attending to the sexual needs of her numerous clients in the room which is usually paid for and furnished by a client. When eventually, her politician lover, Uncle Taiwo, is killed by his party and Jagua’s property are seized, she shares a room with a younger prostitute, Rosa, who also lives in a single room in Ajegunle, an obviously more slummy neighbourhood than Jagua’s.  Jagua lives ‘happily’ with Rosa and the place soon becomes to her just like her former accommodation to which she freely takes her clients for sexual entertainment. It is therefore uniquely Ekwensi that his novel focuses on the slums of the city and his characters are created to suit the slums. Atta, on the other hand, appears to be more concerned with ‘modern’ issues such as those bordering on career and self identity for the woman among others. She uses events in the lives of her characters to insist that these contemporary problems are weighty enough to be of concern to women and those who worry about women issues. Atta’s heroine is a relatively big girl who can afford to pair up with a colleague to share a flat. Swallow therefore pays greater attention to the challenges confronting the middle class residents of the city.

Notwithstanding the identified differences between the novels, what is most significant is that both novels take up the woman in the city and what she must encounter in order to live in the city. Jagua Nana is a self-professed prostitute; the other is a working class woman. Prostitution is about self subjection. A prostitute subjects herself to things she would normally not take but for the fact that somebody pays for it and therefore it is the case of an underdog who will always be an underdog unless she stops doing the trade. In order to be more socially acceptable, the prostitute must stop prostituting. This means that she changes her nature and she is no longer interesting in the way she was before. Whatever she now does has taken her away from that typicality in terms of definition. Tolani Ajao presents a more positive image in Swallow because she escapes the lure of cocaine and still goes to the office and escapes the lure of virtual prostitution imposed by an employer. It means she is not exactly as vulnerable as her image as a woman suggests because her vulnerability would have meant either that she succumbs to the first or the second.

However, the fact that she has to leave the city shows a give-up kind of image. We may be interested in whether she will return to the city but in comparison with Jagua Nana, they both have to go back to the village. Ekwensi tries to make Jagua Nana’s return to the village a little positive in terms of her giving up a life of prostitution; but she is no longer quite the same. She is now thoroughly spent. Tolani still has something to give, but her going back to the village is like a give-up, or, at best, a preparation for a re-launch. That re-launch could be interesting in terms of wanting to know what she would do differently. Unfortunately however, the novel does not answer this question as she does not return to the city in the novel, but if she was going to do something differently, what would it be?

 Atta makes a significant observation in Swallow that is worthy of consideration. She draws a brilliant comparison between the condition of women in the city and that of their counterparts residing in the countryside and concludes that although women are generally dominated and mostly treated unfairly by the men in the rural areas which is a good reason for more women to relocate to the city in search of freedom, menopausal women are however treated with greater respect and are freer from male domination in the village whereas the city does not appear to recognise differences in the ages of women that inhabit it neither does it set different conditions of living for the women on the basis of age. In other words, the city is not a respecter of age. Atta’s heroine, Tolani, provides further insight into this revelation in her description of the status of her mother in the village:

[…] my mother […] had attained the status of women her age within the compound. She was almost a man, now that she was past her childbearing years. People in the compound valued her knowledge and experience and they respected what came out of her mouth. She settled arguments between neighbours, heard disputes over property and rent (246).

It is ironic that the city which seems to hold a greater capacity for the liberation of women from the stress and strain of difficult traditional practices of the countryside does not insulate them from the endless struggle for survival that characterises city life. The city does not seem to have a compassionate attitude towards women who live in it even when the women are at their advanced age. Mrs. Durojaiye in Swallow remains tormented by sundry problems in the city despite her age and status. Perhaps, the reason the city appears to be insensitive to gender difference in this regard is because to accord women a special treatment in recognition of the attainment of a certain age may be tantamount to giving recognition to village tradition and thereby contravening the city ethic which thrives on individuality, anonymity, coldness and insensitivity.

Equally worthy of note is the way Ekwensi permits the mixing together of different people in the city to strip his characters of tribal or ethnic loyalty.  At the beginning of Jagua Nana, he reveals that Jagua and her boyfriend, Freddie Namme belong to the same ethnic group and speak the same language. Significantly however, both of them avoid communicating with each other in their native tongue even when Jagua only manages to speak Pidgin English.

                                   Like Freddie, she was an Ibo from Eastern Nigeria but when she spoke to him she always used pidgin English, because living in Lagos city, they did not want too many embarrassing reminders of clan or custom (5).    

In line with the author’s intention, tribal or ethnic affinity does not play any role in their relationship or dealings with each other. Decisions to love or hate each other are taken without recourse to their common ethnic background. It is instructive also that before the novel ends, Jagua  pitches her tent with Chief Taiwo, a Yoruba man, vowing also to fight Freddie Namme with all her might – “I goin’ to fight you till I die. Me an’ Uncle Taiwo” (136), she tells Freddie pointedly. She also carries out her threat by helping Taiwo in his campaigns and throwing jibes at Freddie.  It is instructive that Jagua’s effort at getting Freddie to the hospital when he is attacked and the condolence visit she pays to the family are not done on account of ethnic kinship but on the strength of the old romantic relationship that once existed between them. 

Ekwensi goes further to demonstrate the capacity of the city to neutralise ethnic consideration when, in the novel, Freddie marries a Sierra Leonean girl maintaining that all African people are the same regardless of what part of Africa they hail from. Thus, Ekwensi seems to be saying that living in the city has some advantages; especially the opportunity it gives individuals to re-orientate themselves and assume new dispositions and idiosyncrasies that keep them in tune with the demands ofcity life.


A close reading of the two novels reveals many similarities between both authors’ presentation of Lagos in spite of the fact that Ekwensi wrote about the situation in the city many years ago whereas Atta’s novel may be taken as portraying current circumstances. First, both heroines come from the village to sojourn in the city but have to go back to the village. That is to say, they come to live in Lagos, they struggle to survive but fail, and then return to the village. Also, the two women are somewhat idealistic in their everyday lives. At forty-five, Jagua Nana believes all she needs to do to make a younger man marry her is to take care of the man’s financial needs and that he would come back and marry her after achieving his life ambition simply because she has the dream to marry the man. There is a sense in which her dream is a perfectly human dream because every human being is allowed some kind of idealism. Properly speaking, however, it is a false dream that would never work.

In the same way, Atta’s heroine, Tolani, who says she would rather lose her job than subject herself to sexual slavery is also being idealistic. The question is, what would a woman like Atta’s heroine have to do in the situation she finds herself? If she goes into prostitution, she loses as Jagua Nana does, if she goes into cocaine, she loses as her friend, Rose. What then would a ‘normal’ woman do to survive in Lagos if she would not engage in demeaning activities? This is the picture the reader is able to draw from the two novels. A closer look at the situations in the novels is therefore a look at a very common fabula. The fabulation is that at virtually all counts, Jagua Nana and Swallow seem to match each other for being very common place – the same old story. In other words, both authors present the reader with a picture of a city that does not change. There is a consistent image of Lagos in both novels which suggests that the woman is always moving towards criminality in order to survive; she is always having to, or there may be no survival for her.

This conclusion inevitably takes us back to the womanist theorists and their concern about the reduction of the woman to just the other sex rather than the human being she desires to be. In dealing with situations in the two novels, therefore, the city emerges as a personality that is opposed to womankind. Specifically, and consistently, Lagos seems to be unable to deliver for the woman who comes into the city. It is in the light of this that this article argues that it may not amount to an exaggeration to present the city as a hegemon and to sustain the position and concerns of the womanist theorists regarding the circumstances of women as legitimate and relevant especially against the backdrop of the enormous challenges awaiting women who sojourn in Lagos.

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