Trauma in Amma Darko’s Beyond the Horizon

Margaret Fafa Nutsukpo
Department of English Studies
University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

This paper examines the concept of trauma as a significant theme in Amma Darko’s Beyond the Horizon. Using feminism and the contemporary literary trauma theory as a framework, the manifestations of trauma in the novel and their impact on the protagonist are analyzed and discussed with a view to establishing that, patriarchal notions and values in the African society are factors which encourage men’s actions that oppress, degrade, dehumanize and traumatize women. Also, the forms of trauma, their impact, and implications for the life of the protagonist are examined. Finally, suggestions are offered on how women’s exploitation and abuse can be prevented and the interventions and treatments that can help victims survive trauma.

Many a time, African women encounter experiences in society which degrade and dehumanize them. However, little attention is paid to the physical, emotional and psychological impact of these experiences on them. In Amma Darko’s Beyond the Horizon, the writer highlights various forms of subordination, oppression and the resultant trauma which women suffer in the African society and Europe in the hands of dominant men, whose perceptions and attitudes are coloured by the patriarchal culture and values of the African society. Darko’s novel, a self-narrative, gives immediacy to the theme of trauma and the factors that foster it through the actions and reactions of the male perpetrators and female victim. Thus, the overwhelming trauma the protagonist suffers in the novel and how this impacts her life are brought to the fore to raise awareness and solicit action against it.

Any discussion of the exploitation and abuse of women in Beyond the Horizon will be incomplete without examining all representations of their adverse impact on them. This study, therefore, adopts the qualitative approach in its exploration and analyses of the manifestations of trauma in the novel, through the protagonist’s experiences, against the backdrop of feminism, as well as the contemporary literary trauma theory postulated by Michelle Balaev. This is necessary for a proper understanding of the concept of trauma, its effect on the protagonist, Mara, and how she responds to it.

In Beyond the Horizon, Darko, who writes from the feminist perspective, places a premium on the trauma suffered by women as victims of subjugation, exploitation and abuse. This is because despite the various experiences women encounter in society that degrade and devalue them as humans, the extreme traumatic consequences are hardly noticed or given any serious thought although the damage to victims could mar them for life. It is, therefore, important that literature, especially feminist literature, reflects the dangers of this phenomenon, not only to women but to society in general. For this reason, feminists advocate the necessity for notions of trauma and its impact on women to be understood within the context of the ill-effects of patriarchal traditions and values such as women’s subjugation, exploitation and various forms of abuse and their implications for women’s lives.
Balaev argues:
A single conceptualization of trauma will likely never fit the multiple and often contradictory depictions of trauma in literature because texts cultivate a wide variety of values that reveal individual and cultural understandings of self, memory, and society” (Literary Trauma Theory 8).
This argument is valid because just as there are different forms of trauma, so are there different perceptions of and reactions to them. Also, as Balaev posits, the values attached to the experiences of trauma may differ, being largely influenced by individual and cultural factors that could change over time. All these could be reflected in the trauma novel. A defining aspect of the trauma novel, however, is that it depicts how traumatic events can destroy the victim’s self-identity and relationship with others (Balaev, Trends in Literary Trauma 149-150).
In Beyond the Horizon, Mara’s exploitation and abuse stem from the socio-cultural conditioning that influences the perceptions, values and lifestyle she shares with her husband. Consequently, her personal identity and self-worth are destroyed, and she is isolated from her loved ones. This article is significant because it exposes the gravity of the consequences of women’s exploitation and abuse and the need to acquaint victims with strategies that will enable them to survive.

Since its publication, Beyond the Horizon has been studied by many scholars and critics. In her analysis of prostitution and pornography in the novel, Maria Frias discovers that “Darko powerfully denounces, and shockingly speaks out for the lives of black women who are traumatically silenced and sexually exploited in the brothels of the Western world” (8). Frias holds the demands of the erotic market, which promotes prostitution and pornography, accountable for the demand for African women in the industry. She concludes that somehow, the women victims often find a way to reclaim their minds and bodies, and control over their financial gains (8). Frias is right, for Mara does eventually gain control over her body and finances. However, it is pertinent to note that she remains a traumatized prisoner of her profession, having concluded that she is too damaged to be redeemed.
Laure Cakpo-Chichi Zanou et al., in their evaluation of Darko’s contributions to the portrayal of contemporary gender in literary works acknowledge the writer’s reliance on African feminism in the portrayal of the realities of her female characters, while indicting the male characters for their plight. To this end, they observe that the writer undermines her male characters to “deconstruct the male social rule and demonstrate the villainy and greed of the African male characters living in Africa or in Europe” (132).
Bawa Kammampoal, however, identifies Darko’s feminist stance as womanism and posits that patriarchal notions contribute to African women’s exploitation through human and sex trafficking which impacts their well-being mentally, emotionally and physically. For Kammampoal, of significance in the novel are “the ways in which language, deeds and acts are used by the novelist to develop womanish (sic) characters … capable of overcoming limitations of their position in spaces that confine and silence them within domestic realms and beyond” (15). Based on this analysis, female characters in the novel such as Mara, Kaye and Vivian who break free to live on their own terms would fit Kammampoal’s womanist mould.
Lefara Silue’s study of the fictional representation of space in the novel postulates that in the fictional world of the novel which is “unstable and fragmented”, Darko “satirizes and denounces the bestiality of African immigrants in Germany” (217) who force their wives into sex work. Silue further categorizes the universe in the text into what he refers to as two contradictory, but complementary spaces: Naka (Mara and her husband’s village in Ghana) which symbolizes African solidarity while Germany symbolizes immorality; each space and the social role it plays is unique and can greatly influence the actions and attitudes of the characters (Silue 217, 219). This observation is valid because while Naka is a rural community where people still support and rally around one another in times of need, Germany proves to be the space in which sexual immorality and exploitation abound.
It is evident that although several aspects of Beyond the Horizon have been explored and critically analyzed from various perspectives, the theme of trauma in the novel has been overshadowed by critics’ interest in other supposedly predominant themes. The relevance of this article, therefore, lies in its unmasking of trauma as a significant theme in this novel with a view to ascertaining and creating awareness about its impact on victims. Examining how trauma affects Mara’s self-identity and attachment to others in relation to her past, present and future will reveal the extent and impact of the damage she suffers, as well as the gravity of the consequences of women’s exploitation and abuse in the face of current debates revolving around these subjects.

Balaev defines trauma as “… a person’s emotional response to an overwhelming event [such as female sexual violence] that disrupts previous ideas of an individual’s sense of self and the standards by which one evaluates society” (149). She identifies a key defining feature of trauma as “the transformation of the self ignited by an external, often terrifying experience, which illuminates the process of coming to terms with the dynamics of memory that informs the new perceptions of the self and the world” (149). Inette Swart gives further clarification of trauma in her observation that “… the term brings to mind associations of pain, shock, disillusionment, life-altering experiences, human aggression and betrayal, and not uncommonly criminal deeds…” (194).
The descriptions above are apt reflections of Mara’s experiences in the novel after her father marries her off to the highest bidder, Akobi, to offset his debts. Her dowry, which comprises “two white cows, four healthy goats, four lengths of cloth, beads, gold jewellery and two bottles of London Dry Gin …” (3), is paid by her husband’s father. Thus, commodified, Mara becomes Akobi’s property to dominate as he pleases, backed by a patriarchal tradition and culture which allot him power and authority over her as his wife. Being a submissive wife, the property of her husband, Mara endures Akobi’s ill-treatment without complaint. In relation to this, Shawn Meghan Burn opines:
When people are thought of as commodities or property, they are diminished and dehumanized and do not have the power to make their own life choices. In many cultures, a female is property - first of her father and then of her husband. These men decide her fate and she is expected to obey. (23)
Mara plays the role of the submissive wife as required by tradition: she puts her husband first, worships and obeys him. She asserts: “For me, not obeying and worshipping Akobi would make me less of a wife … And I didn’t want to be less of anything” (16). Despite how seriously she takes her responsibilities, Akobi does not only disregard and disrespect her, he also constantly abuses her verbally, physically and psychologically to show her who is in control. On several occasions, he either uses her for sexual gratification or abuses her. She recalls:
When I didn’t bring him the bowl of water and soap in time for washing his hands before and after eating, I received a nasty kick in the knee. When I forgot the chewing stick for his teeth, which he always demanded be placed neatly beside his bowl of served food, I got a slap in the face. And when the napkin was not at hand when he howled for it, I received a knuckle knock on my forehead … when Akobi closed the door on the two of us in the room, one of two things happened. He either beat me or slept with me. (19, 20)
Once, he slaps a pregnant Mara without any consideration for her or the child she is carrying. She recounts: “for the first time ever I felt not just the physical pain but an intense emotional one too” (21).
In her submissiveness, Mara suffers pain and the emotional trauma that accompany the constant abuse without any complaint because she has been conditioned to accept everything her husband does, including his maltreatment, as his right. She also tolerates his evasion of his financial obligations to the family and sale of her few significant possessions (a part of her dowry) to acquire a visa to travel to Europe.
For two years after Akobi travels to Europe, Mara suffers neglect, deprivation and alienation as he cuts her off completely. During this period, her letters to him are promptly returned “with a large RETURN TO SENDER in red capitals on the envelope” (50). She is left to cater for herself and their children alone, and to grapple with the emotional trauma that emanates from the anger, fear, anxiety and uncertainties she suffers because of his abandonment. When eventually he writes, it is to demand that she joins him in Europe, an unexpected development which shocks but thrills her, and whose Machiavellian motive she only uncovers after suffering years of trauma in Germany.
As she comes to realize later, Akobi’s sole purpose for contracting a trafficking ring to smuggle her to Germany is to exploit her economically to better his life and that of his mistress, Comfort. This he does first, through domestic servitude, then pornography and prostitution. These harrowing experiences have adverse traumatic effects on her; she is devastated that one whom she calls her husband could subject her to such betrayal and degradation.
Louise Shelley counts, among the consequences of human trafficking, the “humiliation of women, and many forms of gender-based victimization” (60) which include stigmatization, threats, intimidation, assault, torture, injuries, inhumane work conditions in appalling environments, illness and death. However, one of the dire consequences of trafficking which is often overlooked despite its severity is trauma. Shelley further observes:
Many victims who have been … trafficked, if they survive, are permanently psychologically damaged, suffering posttraumatic stress, painful flashbacks, anxiety, fear, incapacitating insomnia, depression, sleep disorders, and panic attacks as a result of the conditions [they faced] … (63)
This is reminiscent of Mara’s experiences for, as a trafficked victim, her very existence is defined, not only by oppression, but also repression and various forms of deprivation, all of which result in the severity of the trauma she suffers.
On her arrival in Germany, she is met with disillusionment, humiliation and pain as she is passively received by a husband she barely recognizes who now goes by a name she can hardly relate to - “Cobby” - a name commensurate with his new status in the German society. In this strange world, far away from the comfort of home and family, among people whose language she doesn’t understand and whose culture and lifestyle are totally different from what she is accustomed to, she becomes totally dependent on her estranged husband and subjected to further emotional and psychological abuse. Cobby welcomes her to Germany with careless aloofness and his detachment manifests in what Mara describes as “domestic rape” in his attempt to “welcome her properly”:
He was brutal and over-fast with me, fast like he was reluctantly performing a duty, something he wouldn’t have done if he had his way, but which he must because he must. And then he was up and I was still kneeling there, very much in pain because what he did to me was a clear case of domestic rape. (84)
Mara realizes the implications of Cobby’s actions, but once again, her social conditioning prompts her to accept this mistreatment without any complaints. This becomes even more evident when he impatiently informs her that he has married a German woman, Gitte:
Mara, I have married a German woman … call it what you like, but polygamy here is not like polygamy at home. Here, polygamy is a crime - they call it bigamy. And I can go to prison for it, you understand? … that is why I can’t tell my wife … my German wife, I mean, that I have another wife. You understand? (79)
With polygamy being acceptable in the African culture, Mara’s misgivings stem from the fact that he does not deem it fit to inform her or her family of this second marriage, and what this symbolizes in their tradition:
Our tradition demanded this. It was a sign of respect to the first wife and her family. When a man took on a second wife without informing the first wife or her family, it showed an indifference towards his in-laws, which in itself was considered disrespectful and humiliating. (79)
The magnitude of her betrayal, however, manifests through the implications of Cobby’s marriage: she must assume the position and role of his “sister” while living under the same roof with them. Vivian, the wife of Cobby’s friend, Osey, explains the situation to her thus:
… he can’t tell his wife that you too are his wife. You get it now? So you will go and live with them, but as his sister and not as his wife … instead of the German wife knowing that you are her rival, she must by all means believe that you are his sister… (79, 80)
Cobby’s attitude and actions, indicative of the fact that he does not regard her as being good enough to be his wife, become a source of anxiety for Mara; she reveals: “The question of why he had brought me here at all began to haunt me” (103).
Psychotherapists observe that extreme betrayal of trust in a relationship can result in trauma and, for Mara, Cobby’s betrayal is a situation she has no choice than to accept and live with, being completely dependent on him and, therefore, totally at his mercy. However, in the following extract, she questions the rationale behind his actions and the roles she is expected to play. This reveals her understanding of Cobby’s ruthless manipulation:
My husband Akobi didn’t consider me sensitive and intelligent enough to understand and feel this emotional burden he was placing on me. If he thought me numb, dumb and naïve that he could take my feelings and emotions for granted, then how come at the same time he assumed me capable of convincingly playing this sister role on which his whole fate depended? (90)
It is obvious that Cobby’s selfishness does not allow for any empathy or remorse on his part. He does not care about the emotional trauma Mara suffers because of his actions, rather he threatens to kill her should she expose him in any way. She is left to suffer his betrayal alone, separated as she is from her loved ones back home in Ghana.
Cobby’s ruthlessness becomes even more evident when Mara loses her first job as a housemaid which precipitates her criminal and forceful initiation into prostitution through pornography. Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee define pornography as “an extreme example of the male gaze and the normalization of violence against women … [which] extends the sexualization of and objectification of women’s bodies for entertainment” (388). Catharine Mackinnon gives more insight into pornography by asserting:
In pornography, there it is, in one place, all of the abuses that women had to struggle so long even to begin to articulate, all the unspeakable abuse: the rape, the battery, the sexual harassment, the prostitution, and the sexual abuses. Pornography sexualizes [them]; … it thereby celebrates, promotes, authorizes, and legitimizes them. More generally, it eroticizes the dominance and submission that is the dynamic common to them all. (334)
Pornography, therefore, violates, degrades, and dehumanizes women. Drugged by her husband and his accomplices who film her as she is assaulted by several men in an orgy, this pornographic film is used to blackmail and control her by stripping her of her subjectivity. Susan J. Brison reveals that pornography and prostitution involve several forms of sexual violence which “objectify and traumatize the victim [and] the pain they inflict reduces the victim to flesh, to the purely physical … as if the tormentor says with his blows: You are nothing but a body, a mere object for my will - here, I’ll prove it!” (144).
Mara is shocked and devastated by her predicament. She narrates: “I began to weep … The situation was this: the three of us were watching a video … And this was what Osey and Akobi blackmailed me with so that I agreed to do the job at Peepy” (115). She is left with no choice than to capitulate when Akobi threatens to send the film to her family, the thought of which she finds unbearable. Thus, she becomes a prostitute, a victim of Akobi’s manipulation, reduced to “a totally alienated being who is separated from and who does not control her body: the dimension of power as domination” (Collins 177). Her body becomes Cobby’s money-making machine. Even more traumatic is the fact that she comes to realize that she is only a pawn, a sacrificial lamb through which Cobby plans to achieve his quality life with his first and only love, Comfort. This betrayal has a psychological impact which changes her perception of the world as she asserts: “This world that we live in is cold. God, it is very cold” (115).
As a prostitute, Mara is vulnerable and marginalized, works long, painful hours, and is subjected to physical abuse and trauma by clients who, having paid for her services, feel entitled to do with her body as they please, and often leave physical wounds and scars on her. She laments:
What my poor mother back home in black Africa would say to these hideous traces of bites and scratches all over my neck, should she ever have the misfortune of seeing them, I fear to imagine. They extend even far beyond the back of my ears, several bruises and scars left generously there by the sadistic hands of my best payers … (2)
Even more prominent is the handicap to her little left finger, now bent because of the displacement of the bone, an injury inflicted by a client who, in her words, “does horrible things to me like I never saw a man ever do to a woman … (3). The experiences above validate Margaret Andersen and Dana Hysock’s observation that “the sex work industry is marked by violence and victimization … [and prostitutes experience] severe abuse from partners, clients, and/or pimps …” (272).
Although Mara escapes from her bondage to Cobby after exposing him to Gitte (who divorces and has him arrested) and relocates to another city, she voluntarily returns to pornography and prostitution, unable to rise above her victimization. She continues to endure the physical, emotional and psychological trauma of her past and the present because she is resigned to her fate, believing that she is too damaged and unfit for anything else. She reveals: “… this coldness I feel does not grip my body so much as it does my soul. It’s deep inside me that feels this chilliness, from the dejected soul my body harbours, a soul grown old from too much use of its shelter” (1). What is striking here is the correlation between Mara’s feelings and Laura Brown’s perception that the insidious nature of trauma stems from “the traumatogenic effects of oppression … that do violence to the soul and spirit” (107).
The traumatic impact of Mara’s engagement in pornography and prostitution can best be understood by African women whose socio-cultural background places a premium on the sacredness and dignity of the woman’s body which must be guarded from any form of defilement. As such, she regards the violation of her body as an irreparable damage. This is evident in the opening paragraphs of the novel which paint a very graphic picture of Mara’s perception of herself due to the emotional, physical, and psychological trauma she suffers: “I am staring painfully at an image. My image? No! - what is left of what once used to be my image” (1).
Evidently, Mara’s self-identity has been damaged as she can no longer recognize the person she once used to be - the joyful young woman who arrived in Germany excited to help her husband build a brighter future for their family. Now, after critically assessing herself in the mirror, all she can see is her worthlessness, isolation and alienation despite being surrounded by several women in a similar situation as herself “…being used and abused by strange men” (1). She relates: “… They are all about me. And yet here by myself, alone inside my room, I feel so very, very far away on my own. So friendless, isolated and cold” (1).
Due to her predicament, Mara is also unable to reconnect with her past and loses contact with her family, those she loves the most. She is also unable to change her present for, as noted by Brison, often, the victims’ emotions are shattered, leaving them numb, but also “without the motivation to carry out the task of constructing an ongoing narrative” (146). Having been so deeply impacted by the various forms of trauma which now define her very existence - past, present and, by every indication, her future, she asserts:
… I may be dirty, old and overused but I can still feel emotions. And that is why I cry sometimes. And when I’ve got my crying to do I sit here alone before my large oval mirror and stare painfully at this bit of garbage that once used to be me and I cry. (3)
Nothing paints a clearer picture of her awareness of the damaging effects of trauma on her than her perception of herself as “garbage” - useless and worthless! Her sadness, depression, despair and tears, symptoms of the trauma she suffers, has resulted in what Brison describes as “… a constriction of the boundaries of her will…” (153). This explains why Mara is resigned to her fate, unable to fight back to regain her sense of self.

Mara’s trauma narrative is one which raises “difficult ethical and moral issues such as questions about blame and responsibility, and about the roles of victim and perpetrator” (Swart 194). For her, the blame lies solely with her husband, Cobby, who is responsible for changing her perception of life and destiny. She recounts:
Once, long ago, I believed my mother when she said to me, ‘Your life is your road, Mara. God puts you at the start of this road and propels you to walk on, and only He knows where your road will end, but it is the road He chose for you and you must walk it with gratefulness because it’s the best for you.’ Once, before I started to walk my road all on my own, I believed mother. But that was before I was given away to this man … [who] took me off as his wife … (3).
Many readers will support Mara’s indictment of her husband for her predicament. However, as noted by Swart, “no matter how much the argument revolves around where the responsibility lies and who has been harmed … [violating the freedom of another robs] both oppressed and oppressor of their humanity” (194). Bearing this in mind, programmes and strategies that will advance gender equality by transforming not only gender relations in society, but also personal lives, must be developed to help uplift women. Awareness-raising programmes that will enlighten women and society about the concept of trauma in all its manifestations and how to effectively surmount them must also be established.
Victims must not be further victimized through stigmatization but supported and encouraged to seize opportunities for intervention and treatment through counselling or psychotherapy. Brown, however, advocates feminist therapy which must embrace “strategies and solutions advancing feminist resistance, transformation and social change in daily and personal life, and in relationships with the social, emotional and political environments” (“Psychological Trauma”). Victims must also be encouraged to share their self-narratives to free them from the burden of trauma and pave the way for them to become active survivors.
It is in recognition of the significance of memory and narration in the trauma recovery process that Darko uses the flashback and self-narrative (presented through the first person narrative voice), two significant techniques, as stylistic devices to tell Mara’s story. These techniques create room for a deeper insight into the forms of trauma encountered by the subordinated, exploited and violated woman by bearing witness to their horrific impact through her protagonist, Mara. They also create room for a strong personal and emotional connection with the reader. Darko, thus, gives prominence to the theme of trauma in the novel and highlights the need for consciousness-raising to eradicate the factors that give rise and render women vulnerable to it.

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