The Romanticization of Females- A Closer Look at ‘The Fisherman’s Diary’

Africa has numerous traditions that have in one way or the other subdued, subjugated and subjected women (from childhood to adulthood) to varying forms of inhumane practices. It is worthy of note that all these practices over the years have been fueled by men who feel it is only natural for a woman to be inferior, thereby giving them, the men, the power to dictate and decide how a woman ought to live her life. With the exposure of Africa and Africans to Western education and with technological advancement, a lot of these barbaric practices have not just been brought to limelight, but have been condemned in its totality. The Fisherman’s Diary, just like many other movies that have been produced, yet again, speaks against a societal issue that has existed for ages and has done a great injustice to the female gender, namely— Patriarchy. 

Cameroon’s entry in the Best International Feature Film category at the 93rd Academy Awards, The Fisherman’s Diary, is an intriguing film that depicts the trials and tribulations accustomed to being a girl child in the village of Menchum. The movie follows the story of a 12-year-old girl, Ekah (Faith Fidel), who is inspired by the story of the youngest Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Malala Yousafzai, thus, aspires to become more in life than tradition is ready to offer her. In Menchum, a fishing community, where a girl child’s education is seen as a Western tool of deceit and is shunned, young Ekah wishes to go to school. Mr Solomon (Kang Quintus), Ekah’s father, has seen what education can do to a woman. While it is not a Malala-esque experience, he went through a sour one that will forever break his heart. In light of this history which is revealed slowly in the movie, he doesn’t want his daughter, Ekah, to have anything to do with school and will do anything to prevent her from treading on what he presumes to be a path to self-destruction. The only thing that young ekah yearns for is to go to school, but an atrocious custom and her father’s pride and bitter experience stand in her way. However, Ekah’s tenacity and courage (well-portrayed by Faith Fidel as praised in our review) to escape from this barbaric custom, develops into a series of stormy events that permeates the movie. 

Ekah and Solomon’s Case From The Fisherman’s Diary

L-R: Solomon (Kang Quintus) and Ekah (Faith Fidel).

It must be understood that this is a very sensitive issue because when some people hear patriarchy or feminism, they immediately think one is trying to place one gender above the other. But just as we can see in The Fisherman’s Diary, patriarchy is the default mode of the African society —and almost all other foreign societies that have gradually evolved— and it shows how women in general, the girl child in particular, have suffered and endured just to be considered worthy to be seen. 

In The Fisherman’s Diary, Solomon, Ekah’s father, refuses his daughter from going to school even though she has an interest in learning. Ekah does everything to please her father and hopes that her father would grant her this one thing she is asking for. Even after teacher Bihbih (Damarise Ndamo) spoke to Solomon about Ekah, telling him how bright she is, he is still quite adamant and prefers that his child remains a fish seller like him. Consequently, Ekah begins to sneak out to study against her father’s wish but her father finds out and she is beaten mercilessly, in what marks a tear-jerking scene in the emotional movie. After this tumultuous event, Solomon tries to pacify his daughter and make her understand that he did it out of love and going to school will bring nothing but trouble for her. In Solomon’s opinion, by preventing Ekah from going to school, he stands against disrespect and dishonour, and abides by what his society dictates of a girl child.

As shown in a series of flashbacks, we see how Western education negatively affected Ekah’s mother (Onyama Laura) after she misused the freedom and knowledge that comes with education.  There are  always two sides to everything in life; the positive and negative part. Whatever anyone does with the knowledge gained in any aspect of life is on the individual alone. You do not blame a Chemistry teacher for teaching student A and B Chemistry if student A and B decide to build on the knowledge to make illicit drugs. In this case, education is not the general problem but a personal one like Barbara’s, Ekah’s mother. I guess she has always been a nasty person to begin with. Being educated played its positive part, she became knowledgeable, but using her knowledge to oppress another person is another negative thing entirely. 

Patriarchy and the Use of Endearment

The use of endearment is one of the various ways patriarchy is established, sustained and preserved. Some men use soothing words or names for a girl child. Unfortunately, some  girls might think it is out of pure love that they are being called such. Within the Yoruba community (and I imagine there are equivalents in other cultures and languages), little girls are frequently addressed as ”iyawo mi” or ‘iyawo wa” (meaning: my wife) and oftentimes they even add “na me go marry you” (meaning: I will be your future spouse), just because the girl cooks well or she is very hardworking. These little girls giggle or smile but unbeknown to them, they are being mentally prepared to take on the role of a wife. To these little girls, they see no harm in being called cute names and being at the centre of affection of someone, but to the adult men, they know it is a practice that has been proven to work over the years. 

Such men think of the kitchen, they see a woman; they think of chores in the living room, they see a woman; they even think of the ‘other’ room, still a woman. Why attach a gender to a particular role when both can play the role without altering their biological composition? In The Fisherman’s diary, Ekah is called “little maami” by her father, a phrase which translates to “small mummy”. Mr. Solomon calls Ekah by this name because according to him, Ekah is a replica of his mum and she acts exactly like his mum. With this, it can be understood that Solomon subconsciously wants Ekah to be like his mum, who, one could presume, was a housewife and subjected her whole life to selling fish and the patriarchal rule. Mr. Solomon’s brother, Lucas (Cosson Chinopoh), also reiterates this when he meets Ekah gathering fish for sale, saying to her, “you be good. You see as you be, make you just be like that. No change at all. We like you like this”. This is Mr. Lucas saying to a young girl of twelve, to remain as an illiterate fish seller, to not question anything that her father says or does, no matter how demeaning it is. Now, this harmless endearment “little maami”, which often produces a shallow smile from Ekah, has transcended into a “golden cage” for Ekah which her father and his brother do not want her to escape from.

‘What’ is a Woman to You?

Ekah (brilliantly played by Faith Fidel). Via Netflix.

Child marriage is also one of the societal issues that a girl child is subjected to, one that has been in existence for many years in Africa. It is very rare to find a situation where a male child is given up for marriage against his will. It is usually the girl child and we’re talking about girls from as little as eight years, being given to full-grown men as wives. In The Fisherman’s Diary, Ekah, a girl of twelve, is given out in marriage to a man old enough to be her father. She is used as a tool of freedom to settle Mr. Lucas’ debt. Giving Ekah out in marriage is the conclusion Mr. Lucas arrives at, an appalling act her father agrees to just because Ekah didn’t give up on her education dream. According to Mr. Lucas, once a girl is married, she is no longer the responsibility of her father but her husband’s, therefore, he advises his brother to marry Ekah off and relieve himself of her problems. Here, Ekah has been objectified, she has been reduced to an object that has no voice and as an instrument of barter. With the exchange of palm wine, Ekah unwillingly becomes a married woman. She is forced on a miserable path, without anyone seeking her opinion about what she really wants.

With the themes The Fisherman’s Diary attempt to portray, it is still shocking that child marriage is still practised in modern-day Africa? Well, the Becheve community in Obanliku local government area of Cross River State, Nigeria, still practices child marriage for the settlement of debts. “The ancient custom is called Money Marriage and the victims are called Money Woman or Money Wife. Becheve girls are sold into money marriage for cash as low as 10,000 naira. Food items like tubers of yams; livestock like goats and pigs––– all depending on the bargaining power of the groom”, according to a Channels TV report. This is what young girls are subjected to in a community in West Africa in the 21st Century, as also depicted in a recent short film, Soma by Ugochukwu Onuoha and Dika Ofama, where a thirteen-year-old girl is sold off into marriage to help settle her father’s debt. 

Despite how civilization has penetrated and a lot of people have embraced education, this barbaric tradition is still being practised. Many of the Becheve girls have accepted their fate, had their feelings suppressed and been made to abide by a barbaric act as part of their customs. They have been brainwashed into thinking that such a wicked act as this is normal, just like how Ekah’s friend, Andong (Zoe Elora Ebai Mayohchou), is satisfied with such a society where oppressing women and cutting off their voices is the way of life. Serving as an antithesis to Ekah, the movie perfectly depicts Ekah’s friend, Adong, a character who cannot see beyond the cage, complaining to an envious Ekah, “I was in class thinking about us, how we were free and enjoying by the seaside”. She is like many others who are contented with whatever the patriarchal society throws at them, in her case, finding freedom in being a fisherwoman at sea over being a student in class. In these societies, menare the ones trading their daughters off for debt settlement and it is still men that are buying these young girls as wives. In The Fisherman’s Diary, Mr. Lucas had the power to give Ekah’s hand in marriage to settle his own debt, because he is a man.

Patriarchal Power Play

Mr. Lucas (Cosson Chinopoh) and Solomon (Kang Quintus). Via Netflix.

Right from childhood, when a girl makes a mistake, phrases like “who will marry you if you keep behaving this way?”, “your husband will have a tough time with you” and “no man wants a wife who does this/that” are said to little girls; a means to prepare them for what they think is their only purpose in life. Mothers are also to blame for this demeaning phrase because they also use these phrases; a way of telling their daughters that being a wife equals living a fulfilled life, hence, their true purpose. This is where the phrase, “there is no job as satisfying as being a mother” comes in. A phrase or means cunningly used to romanticize women into giving up their dreams and careers to become subjects of what society dictates to be right for them, a rule that mostly favours the men. 

Connecting the use of endearment or cute names to how patriarchy is sustained, can be delineated from “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen. In this book, Torvald Helmer calls his wife “my little pet” and for every word of endearment he uses on his wife, he adds “my little”. Initially, his wife, Nora Helmer, is okay with it, thinking it is her husband’s way of expressing his love to her. However, it becomes clear that these soothing words are demeaning and an indirect way of saying she will always be beneath him. At some point in the book, Torvald refers to her as his doll and while his wife relates it to her beauty, he is in fact referring to the uselessness of a doll. For Torver, Nora stands in as his object of amusement, someone who is easy to manipulate and handle — a lifeless person — just like a doll. These ploys that men use, sound innocent, cute and non-violent, which makes it harder to perceive. For those girls who are lucky enough to be educated, more often than not, they challenge the status quo and defend their right to be heard, but for many others who do not have such opportunity, the story is different and they are left with no other option but to accept the status quo.

Crucial Notes From Ekah

Ekah stares, as Adong is dragged to school. Via Netflix.

Ekah is an epitome of determination, persistence and resilience. She is a symbolic representation of thousands of young girls in Africa and beyond, who are being silenced and forced to live their lives according to the dictates of an obviously biased society. Ekah is strong-willed, and this pushes her to not give up on her dreams. She is faced with the challenges of being a girl child in a patriarchal society, but Ekah refuses to be defeated. Despite being denied the right to an education by her father; despite being objectified by her uncle, and being married off at the age of twelve to a man old enough to be her father; in spite of being raped continuously and being depressed to a point of attempting suicide; Ekah rises above defeat, grabs the bull by the horn and marches forward to chase her dreams. Ekah is inspired by Malala Yousafzai, a young girl from Pakistan who advocates for the girl child to be educated. Just when all hope seemed lost, probably the quote by Yousafzai that says, “when the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful”, resonated with Ekah and she refused to be crushed by a tradition that only aligns with patriarchy. 

In view of the foregoing, Ekah’s fight  against all odds to seek education gave a voice to thousands of other girls who are voiceless and to those who are ignorant of the values of education, as they watched on during her exploits on television. She created an atmosphere of curiosity for others who would like to have a taste of education. But not every girl child suppressed by the patriarchal society is resilient like Ekah or has a mentor like teacher Bihbih who pushed her to the road to freedom. There are many young girls in rural areas who are not privileged enough to have a school in their community, lack exposure, talk more of having someone who only wants the best for them. In The Fisherman’s Diary, Ekah had teacher Bihbih but not every girl child is lucky enough to be in her shoes. 

Beyond the fictional world of the movie, thousands of papers have been published, and movements have been organised in a view to heal our society of these archaic acts against a girl child. However, little or nothing has changed to address this issue. In rare cases ,a girl child forcefully frees herself from the grasp of these deranged men and abominable customs, and some others lose their sense of identity and place in the world. Patriarchy has deepened its roots in the society, particularly in the abode of Africa; it is like that stench that has come to stay. All hands should be on deck to bring about a positive change in the lives of young girls in such communities. If the media, filmmakers, N.G.O’s, the government and individuals do not work hand in hand, there will only be few girls like Ekah, and millions who will still remain in patriarchal captivity and sadly— movements, published books, movies, and analysis can only do very little.

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The Fisherman’s Diary is currently streaming on Netflix.

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