A review by Lindsay Barrett
Title: The Virtuous Woman
Author: Zaynab Alkali
Publisher: Longman, Nigeria
This novella tells a story about young people in a manner meant for young readers. While it is a minor work in terms of its brevity and focus it is also a profoundly touching morality tale that raises pertinent issues about the perceptions and social values of youth in Northern Nigeria. Zaynab Alkali writes with a didactic commitment to delivering a message that makes her work sometimes almost tract-like in its form. However her finely balanced use of English prose, and a descriptive sensibility that is almost poetic in its intensity, overcomes this tendency. Her tale is not merely believable but also enlightening. In the opening sections of the work she presents the territorial setting with a flavour of recollection that brings the situation that she depicts alive with immediacy. Her character sketches of individuals who are incidental to the central focus of the tale and her dramatic characterisations of the main personalities are exquisitely drawn. This gives resonance to what might otherwise be regarded as a somewhat episodic narrative. An impressive example of this quality informs the depiction of the relationship between the tragically lame heroine Nana Ai and her aged grandfather Baba Sani.
Nana Ai’s early childhood as an abandoned juvenile deprived of parental care but nurtured by the old patriarch in a rudimentarily serviced rural hamlet is symbolic of trials that seem fated to overtake her in adulthood. Alkali uses subtle observations and forthright critical comments on the social mores of the society that she is depicting to set the scene against which she builds a story of hope and change. Nana Ai gains a dramatic opportunity for transformation of her circumstances when she wins a scholarship to attend the Government Girls School in a distant town. This opportunity is coveted for their own children by the elite members of the community. Nana Ai’s deserving victory in gaining the scholarship is an example of regulatory probity that is all too rare in the society at large. Having achieved this rare feat therefore the challenge that faces the young girl is how to bring about the fulfilment of all the dreams that such an opportunity promises. The main body of the tale narrates the journey that she must undertake in the company of her friends Laila and Hajjo to reach the school in a city down south. This becomes an odyssey of fateful events.
In confronting this challenge the flowering of her youthful dreams is symbolised in the awakening of her womanhood as she encounters Bello, a young man set on the same path to academic promise as her. Bello’s social station and worldly experience is relatively superior to hers but his gentlemanly demeanour and candour in his interaction with her on the journey towards the future is portrayed by the author as the epitome of propriety. Again in the narration of this encounter the author seems to be propagating a code of conduct based on principles of behaviour established by tradition rather than by genuine human intercourse. She tempers this conservatism with the build-up of adventurous incidents that abound on the journey from the North to the Southern city that serves not only as the real destination of her educational odyssey but also as the promised land of her intellectual liberation. This subtle formulaic setting gives the simple tale a resonance that strengthens its worth as a literary achievement. Along the way Nana Ai must reject the improper advances of some people in authority whose conduct is symptomatic of the rot and decay that has created the moral deficiency that her hunger for education is meant to overcome. The rejection of immorality is also the context in which the awakening of her attraction to Bello becomes relevant.
An important element of this tale is, as we have mentioned before, the importance given to the depiction of incidental characters. This becomes even more important in moving the tale forward in the narrative about the journey as the protagonists encounter their fellow passengers in a lorry, some of whom are doomed to perish in a ghastly road accident along the way. In the end this is a story of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Nana Ai awakens a compassion and understanding in Bello that rejects pity and embraces the value of mutual respect. The seminal message that this simple but resonant work delivers is that love must be based on respect. It rejects the devaluation of the human spirit that disrespect for the virtuous sensibilities of womanhood, often camouflaged in traditional attitudes of masculine chauvinism towards young women in the society depicted here, represents. However the way in which this message is delivered in a tale that is moving and credible indicates that the author is a storyteller of real talent whose work is a fitting choice for the Rainbow Book Club’s list of special selections.
10 February 2015