How to change the world with a ‘louding voice’

Abi Daré: Her debut novel is still top of Amazon’s Best Books of 2020. © Sophia Evans

Is finding your voice the key to a better society? The Girl with the Louding Voice has gripped thousands. Now, new research shows a surprising link between cooperation and individuality.

Adunni will be heard. She is the 14-year-old protagonist of the bestselling novel The Girl with the Louding Voice by Nigerian author Abi Daré. It is an Amazon bestseller and, this week, it is being serialised on BBC radio. Its message of education for all and the empowerment of women grapples with some of the most important issues of our times.

The novel takes us to Nigeria and Adunni’s journey from her small village to the big city, as she pursues her mother’s advice: “Your schooling is your voice, child. It will be speaking for you even if you didn’t open your mouth to talk.”

But there are massive obstacles in her way. Her mother has died, her father has sold her into a forced marriage and, when she escapes to the city, she endures domestic slavery as a housemaid for a rich Lagos family.

Although the novel is a work of fiction, it is based on harsh reality. Around the world, 130 million girls are currently not in education and, every day, 41,000 women under the age of 18 are forced into marriage.

The two problems are linked. Over 70% of Nigerian women without education will marry before 18. And, once married, they are dependent on their husbands and unable to go to school or college.

Abi Daré says the message her novel conveys is summed up by Nelson Mandela’s words: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” But this education is not accessible to everyone and, to claim her right to it, she must find her “louding voice” and challenge the patriarchal society that values men more than women.

This struggle to control her own destiny is not only about gender equality. At its heart is individualism, the idea that everyone should be allowed to realise their full potential and not be held back by society’s rules and norms.

Individualism is a relatively recent idea. Most societies throughout history have valued social order and conformity over the rights of the individual. Knowing your place, and sticking to it, has always been regarded as fundamental.

In North America and Western Europe, the individual appears to be more important than society. But even here, the social pressure to conform and follow the crowd keeps individualism in check. Even if the penalties are much lower, it can take courage and confidence to speak up, stand out, and dare to be different.

But new research suggests individualism is much older than we thought, and plays an important role in social interaction. Scientists believe we evolved our uniquely expressive faces to communicate our individuality, to tell other members of our tribe that “this is me, not someone else”.

And, paradoxically, it is precisely this emphasis on individuality that allows us to live in complex social groups.

So, is finding your voice the key to a better society?

Speak up!

No. Society needs harmony and conformity. Individualism harms communities by selfishly focusing on the desires of the individual, instead of celebrating our interdependence. And if we don’t value these relationships, they may not be there when we need them most.

Yes. Society is made by individuals. The rich and powerful may tell you that the social order is natural and fixed, but we know that the rules of a society can be rewritten. To change the world for the better, we need everyone to find their voice and be heard. That alone can create a society where no one is mistreated, silenced, or ignored.

You Decide

  1. Have you ever felt your voice has not been heard?
  2. Which is more important: society or the individual?

Activities

  1. Adunni invents a new word, “louding”, to express her individuality. Draw a picture of yourself and, using thought bubbles, create your own words that express your identity.
  2. List your three top personal strengths and write a page about how you could use them to change the world.

Some People Say...

“I want to enter a room and people will hear me even before I open my mouth to be speaking.”

From The Girl with the Louding Voice by Nigerian author Abi Daré

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Education is a human right, included in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The notion that everyone should be free to think independently and realise their own potential developed during the 18th-Century Enlightenment. Philosophers, like Kant and Rousseau, argued we should “dare to know”, and ask difficult questions that challenge the traditional ways of organising society.
What do we not know?
Whether this radical individualism is good or bad for society. The US is often presented as the home of “rugged individualism”, where everyone is free to pursue their dream. Critics say this is good in theory, but that it weakens social ties and divides society. Alternatively, China is an example of a collectivist society built around the Confucian ideal of harmony. Supporters say this creates peace and stability; critics argue it suppresses individual freedom and creativity.

Word Watch

Abi Daré
Interviewed about the book, she said, “I wanted to explore the amount of talent and dreams and intelligence that we kill and waste when we don’t allow these girls to go to school, when we hire these young girls and get them to work.”
Forced marriage
Nigeria made world headlines in 2014, when 276 girls were abducted by the terrorist organisation Boko Haram and forced into marriage. Boko Haram literally means “Western education is forbidden”.
Domestic slavery
According to the International Labour Organisation, there are as many as 15 million workers under the age of 14 in Nigeria. Many are “house girls”, unpaid domestic servants.
Louding voice
Appropriately for a story about individual expression, “louding” is a word of Adunni’s own creation.
Patriarchal society
Literally, patriarchy means a society ruled by the fathers, the heads of households, who own all property and make all decisions. However, the term is now used more broadly to describe any society where men have more power than women.
Individualism
The 18th-Century political and philosophical Enlightenment celebrated the rights, intellectual abilities, and creativity of the individual. However, these individuals were, universally, wealthy, white men. It took a further three centuries to expand the concept to include everyone.
Social order
Medieval feudal society, for example, was ordered according to the Chain of Being. All authority came from God, through the king and the nobility, down to the ordinary peasant. If you tried to improve your status, you were accused of challenging God’s natural order.
Tribe
Our evolutionary ancestors used their unique faces to recognise other members of the tribe, as well as remember past acts of kindness or selfishness. Today, we don’t just have our faces to express our individuality. We can communicate our tribe membership with our clothes, our speech, our likes and dislikes.

Subjects

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