The Impatient: A tapestry of gender inequality and struggle in rural Cameroon

The Impatient: A tapestry of gender inequality and struggle in rural Cameroon
Book Club: A stirring novel about three Cameroonian women who resist cultural pressure — including polygamy, forced marriages and domestic abuse — that have defined and blighted their lives.
5 min read
26 April, 2023

The Impatient is the literary debut (in English) of Cameroonian author, Djaili Amadou Amal.

It tells the story of three characters - Ramla, Hindou, and Safira – and their tussle with patriarchy-entrenched practices and ills.

Through the stories of these three characters, Amadou Amal masterfully weaves a tapestry of the injustices that women face in their daily lives. The novel is an unflinching portrayal of the realities of gender inequality and how religious scriptures can be used to justify tyranny.

Throughout this review, I refrained from referring to all three characters as ‘women’, because only one of them gets to show readers her experiences as a grown woman (in her mid-30s). The other two are snatched from the sweet embrace of their teenage years.

"The Impatient is a masterful work of literature that deftly explores the themes of gender, power, and agency in the context of rural Cameroon"

The beginning of the book takes on a fascinating route while introducing us to Ramla and Hindou. Both protagonists are half-sisters that are being forced to marry.

Ramla is marrying a man who upends her betrothal to another, while Hindou’s future husband is the unruly cousin that she’s afraid of. In this opening scene, the men from the girls’ family give them advice that will (supposedly) grant them a happy and fruitful, married life. Munyal - meaning patience – is a word that surfaces repeatedly, as these men reel off advice that renders the future husbands as gods.

I find this interesting because oftentimes, women are usually tasked with this ‘advising’ duty, and they are expected to uphold the patriarchy while at it.

On the other hand, Safira deals with several emotions as her husband’s new bride arrives, and the womenfolks admonish her to be patient; she is after all, the daada-saare, the first wife – a prestigious position!

In a sarcastic and succinct tone (much like the one I used in the last sentence), Amadou Amal examines two practices that still oppress women to date: forced marriages and forced polygamy.

I think it’s brilliant that she uses this style because it passes across the gravity of these practices while exposing the absurdity. What is even more impressive about this book is Amadou Amal’s ability to shed light on these issues without resorting to stereotypical or reductionist portrayals of Cameroonian women.

I got to experience the beauty of (Fulani) Cameroonian weddings ( as well as the larger cultural practices) – which suggests that the author acknowledges how beautiful marriages and weddings can be in the culture when they are not tainted by force. This point of view is important because it closes many doors that can lead to disparaging the entire Fulani culture.

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I think it’s also brilliant that the only protagonist that manages to effect any change to her cruel fate (designed by her menfolks) is the only character that protests, using valid Islamic sources – without needing to misinterpret the words to suit her agenda, unlike her menfolks.

While the wedding ceremony is ongoing, she wordlessly laments, “ O my father! You say you know Islam like the back of your hand. You force us to be veiled, to say our prayers, to respect our traditions, so why do you deliberately ignore the precept of the Prophet which stipulates that a girl must consent to her marriage?”.

This is the only instance when a so-called ‘unemotional’ protest surfaces in The Impatient, and I think this is deliberate because this protagonist happens to be the most educated of all three – driving home the importance of education as a vital tool in securing one’s freedom.

Ramla, Hindou, Safiya and other female characters like Goggo Nenne and Hindou’s mother, Amaraou, all embody the different beyond-the-obvious ways that these sinister patriarchal practices disempower women.

Some women like Ramla, lose grasp of their dreams of successful futures. Others like Goggo Nenne, kill their empathy by endorsing and championing these oppressive practices in the hope of securing some power in a deeply patriarchal society – a phenomenon that Turkish academic, Deniz Kandiyoti, termed a ‘patriarchal bargain’.

Even worse, from a religious perspective, other women like Safiya are pushed to the edge of disbelief by these practices that are justified in the name of God. All that these demonstrate is that autonomy and economic liberation are not the only things that women have to part with when they live under repression.

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For all of these women’s lives, their societies drum the concept of munyal into them. When they come to realise that what is expected of them is ‘patience in the face of oppression’ – a version that contradicts the innocent one sold to them – they embrace ‘impatience’.

Hindou best conveys this realisation (and the rage that accompanies it) when she says “I don’t want to be patient anymore,... I’ve had enough. I’m tired of enduring. I tried to bear it but it’s not possible anymore. I don’t want to hear ‘patience’ one more time. Never say munyal to me again! Never again with that word!”.

But of course, the world is not kind to impatient women; they are branded as ‘crazy’, ‘jealous’, and ‘immoral’. While the story of Ramla, Hindou and Safiya ends quite abruptly, I am inclined to believe that they left us a gem: whether women chose patience or impatience, it’s a lost battle, so why not choose the one that leaves you with a level of autonomy?

The Impatient is a masterful work of literature that deftly explores the themes of gender, power, and agency in the context of rural Cameroon. It is a powerful call to action in the ongoing struggle for women's rights around the world. This book will stay with you long after you turn its final pages.

Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.

Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha