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The Parachute Drop by Norbert Zongo

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The dictator who maintains his authority by violently crushing any opposition and making a mockery of the concept of democracy with rigged elections is a common character in the postcolonial African political landscape. In The Parachute Drop, Burkinabe journalist Norbert Zongo explores the mindset of such a leader as well as the circumstances that enable him to ascend to power. As a prelude to addressing the content of the book, it would be negligent not to acknowledge Zongo’s own life devoted to illuminating political truths in West Africa, abbreviated as it was. The Parachute Drop includes a preface in which Zongo describes being apprehended, beaten, and sentenced to a year in prison after authorities obtained a copy of the manuscript that he had sent to a publisher outside of Burkina Faso. Seventeen years later, in 1998, Zongo was murdered by agents acting on behalf of the Burkinabe president.[1] To contemplate the meaning of The Parachute Drop two decades later is to defy the will of those who sought to silence him.

In the hypothetical land of Watinbow, Gouama has been president for a decade since the country was granted independence from European colonial rule. He surrounds himself with a cluster of advisors including Kodio, an officer from the military, Marcel, an emissary from a Western ambassador’s office, and his guru, Tiga, who works with mystics and witchdoctors to determine the correct course of political action. When Gouama is presented with evidence that a coup is being planned by two high-ranking officers in his army, his delusions of invincibility are threatened. Of course, his team has already devised a way to foil the impending overthrow. The two men are paratroopers, and thus a military event is staged that will include a presentation of the skills of the paratrooper unit—the eponymous “parachute drop” of the novel. All goes according to plan as the two officers are killed when their parachutes fail to open, and Gouama celebrates his narrow but decisive victory over those who would attempt to usurp his power. However, as Gouama instructs Kodio and Marcel to search for sympathizers of the coup within the military, a more sinister reality emerges. Kodio, the obsequious underling, is the one who actually seeks to attain power and the two officers who were slain were loyalists to Gouama.

Kodio proceeds with his coup, but Gouama manages to escape to the countryside with the assistance of a few of his aides. In this way, Gouama becomes acquainted with a simpler manner of life as practiced by the villagers, far removed from the opulence and scheming that he is accustomed to. Beneath his imperious veneer, the president is shown to react with childlike helplessness to the obstacles he encounters during his flight. In the midst of a buffalo stampede, “Gouma […] managed to scramble to the top of the nearest tree” as opposed to confronting them. While listening to a radio broadcast of a press interview given by President Kodio “[…] Gouama was no longer able to control himself. He ran up to the radio, cursing and angrily waving his arms about. ‘The liar!’ he shouted.” By contrast, the men from the village who help Gouama are generous and rational. Never once do they inquire about the identity of the mysterious figure they are abetting. They agree to guide him to the border of a neighboring country, where he intends to ask for help from their president to regain his power. It is only when they have reached the border of Watinbow and are preparing to part ways that one of the men reveals to Gouama that he and his compatriots ‘“are […] both members of the student movement and former prisoners, your prisoners.’” He explains to Gouama, ‘“You condemned us to death, and it was us who saved your life.”’ Gouama contemplates the kindness of the men, but the seduction of returning to power is too great for him to change course.

Initially, Gouama is granted the privileges an esteemed ruler is entitled to when he presents himself to authorities in the ally country. However, the tables turn once again, as the president of that country has since established diplomatic ties with Kodio’s government. Gouama does not realize that he has been returned to Watinbow until the plane he boarded under false pretenses has already landed and he is back in one of his old residences in the capital—this time being held as a prisoner for Kodio. In some ways, even as he casts his judgment on Gouama, Kodio seems to recognize that his new regime is a facsimile of the one he toppled. Thus, Zongo demonstrates that progress cannot occur once democracy has been suppressed. He also exposes the role that Western powers play in influencing the unstable political situation in Africa for their own benefit. The ending to The Parachute Drop does not feel like an ending and that is precisely the point. The fate Gouama meets is of trivial consequence. The only way for a ruler to attain significance in a nation such as Watinbow—or any of the real countries this imaginary nation-state is based upon—would be if he were to accept limitations on his sovereignty.

 

[1] All biographical information regarding Norbert Zongo sourced directly from the book edition.

Bibliography

  1. “Burkina Faso Country Profile.” BCC News. BBC News, 3 Mar. 2018. Web. Aug. 5, 2018.
  2. “The World Factbook: BURKINA FASO.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 12 Jul. 2018. Web. 4 Aug. 2018.
  3. Wise, Christopher. (2004). Translator’s Preface to The Parachute Drop. In Norbert Zongo, The Parachute Drop (pp. v-xii). Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

The Africa Book Challenge on Goodreads

The Africa Book Challenge now has a profile on Goodreads. Come follow the page and explore the site to discover more great books from Africa and beyond.

It has been an exciting summer for The Africa Book Challenge. A new entry for Norbert Zongo’s The Parachute Drop is on its way. The site has now received visitors from 13 African countries and more than forty nations throughout the world!

Lastly, it would be negligent not to acknowledge the incredible new developments in East Africa between Ethiopia and Eritrea. When I read Alemseged Tesfai’s Two Weeks in the Trenches last year, I was struck by the intensity of the conflict. It is wonderful to see these two countries working towards peace.

The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison by Jack Mapanje

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It was a collection of poems—Of Chameleons and Godsthat landed Jack Mapanje in prison. Although the book was initially released in the early 1980’s without cause for concern, a reissue in the late 1980’s triggered his detainment by Malawian authorities for three years during which he was never charged with a crime[1]. Thus, it is poetry to which Mapanje returns to emotionally process the ordeal of his incarceration. The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison is an evocative tribute to a cherished homeland in the grip of political turmoil.

The book is divided into four sections. “Another Fools’ Day Homes In” introduces the context in which arrests like Mapanje’s occur. Environmental issues such as a drought exacerbate existing scarcities which in turn fuel social and political unrest. “Road blocks. The silent megaphones blurt, ‘Any more / Yobbos try their liberal jokes again, gun-point burial’” he writes in “The Rise of the New Toadies (1983).” The second section entitled “Out of Bounds” focuses more acutely on the circumstances that led to Mapanje’s imprisonment. In the poem “On Banning Of Chameleons and Gods” he writes “& why should my poking at wounds matter more / Than your hacking at people’s innocent necks?” The titular “Out of Bounds (or Our Maternity Asylum)” concerns a visit Mapanje paid to a maternity ward without prior authorization from government officials so he could witness the dilapidated and inept conditions that women gave birth in. “A fresh smelling babe in the corner grinds. / Mother suckles him gnawing at her tatters.” Thus, Mapanje depicts a political climate in which dissent is met with severe violence, ominously foreshadowing his own fate.

“Chattering Wagtails” addresses Mapanje’s admission to Mikuyu Prison. The first poem “The Streak-Tease at Mikuyu Prison, 25 September 1987” describes the methodical humiliation of a strip-search. “And the guards wonder // What pants University balls sit in …” he reflects mordantly. Lightheartedness is evoked in “To the Unknown Dutch Postcard-Sender (1988)” which relates the story of an anonymous postcard delivered to Mapanje’s prison cell from the Netherlands. The paradox of someone in the Netherlands taking on the effort and expense of mailing something as trivial as a postcard to a Malawian prisoner is superseded only by Mapanje’s incredulity that it managed to reach him. The incident also highlights Mapanje’s ambivalence towards the West. It was a community of artists and activists throughout the world who lobbied for his release from prison. Upon being freed, Mapanje sought asylum in England with his wife and three children. However, it was British colonial rule over what was then Nyasaland that set the stage for the upheaval that his country, like many other African nations, is embroiled in.

The final section “The Release And Other Curious Sights” celebrates Mapanje’s freedom and return to his family, but his exultation is bittersweet as he acknowledges the suffering of those who remain behind bars and those who did not survive their ordeal. In “Your Tears Still Burn at My Handcuffs (1991)”, he mourns his mother who died two months before his release. “You gave up too early, mother: two / More months …” he laments. “For Madame Potipher’s Wasteaways” employs the Old Testament story of Joseph in Egypt as an allegorical explanation for the imprisonment of three men he was acquainted with in Mikuyu Prison. “You know how our vultures devour their young / Boasting about the shame they’ve never had…” In the Bible, Joseph is released from prison and ultimately enjoys prosperity, but these three men know no such luck and are “… tortured under the pretext of cerebral / Malaria.” Poems such as this one underscore Mapanje’s uneasy awareness that he could have died in the same manner as these worthy men.

The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison presents a complex portrait of a sub-Saharan nation that is struggling with political instability and poverty in the aftermath of colonialism. Through his poems, Jack Mapanje emerges as an unassuming yet inspirational figure; his outspokenness and intellect render him unable to refrain from addressing injustices within his country, especially when they cause the most vulnerable to suffer. Yet in spite of what he has endured, he never lapses into cynicism or despair. It is clear that Mapanje truly believes in Malawi and he entreats the rest of the world to do so as well.

Bibliography

1.“The World Factbook: MALAWI.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 20 JUNE 2018. Web. 27 JUNE 2018.

 

[1] All biographical information regarding Jack Mapanje sourced directly from the book edition.

Living, Loving, and Lying Awake at Night by Sindiwe Magona

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Sindiwe Magona’s collection of short stories, Living, Loving, and Lying Awake at Night, focuses on the fate of African women struggling to survive during apartheid-era South Africa. Many of these women work as maids for white families. They are not slaves by definition—they earn wages and cannot be beaten or forced into labor by their employers. However, Magona thoughtfully deconstructs the women’s choice to work for white families in the context of the hardship that exists in rural villages and the restrictions on the mobility of Africans put in place by the Europeans.

The first story, simply entitled “Leaving”, chronicles the harrowing decision a young mother must make in order to alleviate the poverty experienced by her five children in their village. Her husband is separated from his family for eleven-month stretches working as a miner in Johannesburg and frequently neglects to send money back home. Unable to cope financially, she entrusts her children to her mother-in-law and seeks work as a maid in a nearby metropolis. “She would fulfil her obligations as she understood them and provide for them. The only way she could be a mother to her children, she saw, would be to leave them.” After this poignant introduction, the next several stories are narrated by women working for white families, each one sharing the struggles unique to her situation. These stories make up the first section of the book “Women at work.”

A certain degree of interconnectedness exists between the tales in the first part of the collection as the women all seem to know each other and be familiar with the reputations of certain “medems” whom those in their circle have been employed by. Long hours and chronically low wages leave the women straining to balance the demands of working and raising families, which frequently involves paying another person to look after their children while they are working in the homes of their mistresses. Although some of the families are generous and espouse progressive ideals, encouraging the women to fight for civil rights—one woman’s employer even buys her a house—Magona emphasizes that such behavior is completely at the discretion of one’s employer and is in no way stipulated by labor laws. As one maid boldly asserts “Instead of being kind and buying this and that for the maid, just translate the kindness to this woman’s wages […]” In this way, the maid would have the resources to maintain her own life and family rather than needing to plead for additional financial assistance from the family she works for.

The second section entitled “…And other stories” expands upon the theme of disenfranchisement discussed by the women in the first section by showing its impact on all members of African families. The most powerful stories are those that explore how inequality affects children. In “Nosisa”, the eponymous heroine appears to have a privileged upbringing in relation to her peers at an African school. Her widowed mother works as a maid for a white family, the Smiths, who allow her only child to live with her in their home. This arrangement is noted to be atypical “[…] once the white child reaches the age of five and has to start school, the black child becomes an embarrassment, a visible reminder of the inequalities endemic in the society.” Likewise, as Nosisa grows older, she becomes more aware of the advantages that her white peer Karen, the Smiths’ daughter, has in contrast to the setbacks that she will have to endure as an African. Unable to quell the resentment growing inside her, she is driven to take drastic, irreversible action against herself.

“Two little girls and a city” compares the circumstances surrounding the violent deaths of two children—one white and one black. A relaxing afternoon at the beach is disrupted in a horrifying manner when seven-year-old Nina van Niekerk wanders away from her family to search for seashells. A stranger abducts her and proceeds to rape and murder her. Meanwhile, in an overcrowded section of Cape Town, young Phumla meets a similar fate while running an errand at night for her father. Her body is discovered the next morning in a garbage can by an assistant in a butcher’s shop who is tasked with burning the trash. The story utilizes alternating sections to maximize the tension of the narrative; each little girl is depicted going about her typical activities—divergent as they may be—with no knowledge of what is destined to happen to her. Then, the story explores the disparate responses of the authorities and society as a whole to the murders. Of Nina’s death, Magona writes, “[…] the morning paper, the Cape Times, carried the story of the child murdered on the beach. Front page, the story made.” Phumla’s death fails to generate the same amount of attention. “Today, no one knows the name of the little girl found in a rubbish drum at the back of the butcher’s shop. They don’t know it today, for they never knew it then.” The story does not have to explain why this is the case.

Living, Loving, and Lying Awake at Night exposes the mundane inhumanity of the apartheid system in South Africa with a straightforward honesty that is necessary to comprehend the ways in which lives were systematically ruined. Even the final story in the collection, “Now that the pass has gone”, contains strong notes of pessimism as restrictions on African mobility are finally done away with. An act of legislation cannot undo the harm that has been perpetuated against a race for centuries. Thus, works of literature such as Magona’s have a crucial role in the reconciliation of the people of South Africa. They bring to the forefront the experiences of those whose voices have historically been deemed not to matter.

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

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A reunion in a railroad station between two men is the crux of Tram 83, a novel by Fiston Mwanza Mujila of Democratic Republic of Congo (not to be confused with its neighbor Republic of Congo). Requiem is a man of the street, a hustler by trade of anything he can get his hands on; of particular interest to him are stones from the local mines and nude photographs of prominent men. Lucien is a writer, a man who eschews hedonism and corruption and lives a life based upon moral principles. “Tram 83 […] one of the most popular restaurants and hooker bars, its renown stretching beyond the City-State’s borders” bears witness to the unsavory tedium of nightlife in this anonymous province in Africa where natives and the foreigners who exploit their country’s resources drink and solicit prostitutes side-by-side.

Tram 83 is prefaced by a brief forward by Alain Mabanckou of the Republic of Congo and it is easy to understand why this novel garnered his praise. Aside from the two authors’ countries of origin being neighbors, Tram 83 contains many similarities to Mabanckou’s Broken Glass. Both authors employ unorthodox sentence structures in their works. In Broken Glass, the text reads as a single run-on sentence; while Tram 83 does utilize periods, many of its sentences are a paragraph long and are filled with lists and descriptive terms. Both novels have male protagonists who are determined to produce authentically African works of literature. A seedy, rundown bar serves as the focal point for plot activity in each novel. The government of each respective Congo is portrayed as equal parts tyrannical and childish, with dictators prone to bombastic overreactions to the most asinine provocations.

The differences between Tram 83 and Broken Glass are equally striking. Credit Gone West, the bar in Broken Glass, caters exclusively to Africans, whereas Tram 83 serves foreign clientele known as “for-profit tourists” in addition to the locals. While Mabanckou’s novel essentially reads as Broken Glass’ book, the actual text of Lucien’s stage-play is never fully revealed to readers; his writings are only presented as brief quotations that he jots in a notebook that is his constant companion. Whereas Broken Glass records the memoirs of the patrons of Credit Gone West as well as his own pitiful life story, Lucien tackles more ambitious terrain with ‘“…a stage-tale that considers this country from a historical perspective.”’ This contrast in content implies divergent notions held by each author about what authentic African literature should strive to be. Mabanckou’s stance is that the African novel should depict the typical African in his real-life circumstances; Mujila asserts that African literature should engage at a higher level with Lucien’s play including non-African historical and political figures as commentators on his country’s situation. This elevation of the intention of African literature is more thoroughly extended through the elevation of Lucien as a character. Lucien abstains from paying for sex and turns down bribes from political figures who offer him the lucrative job of serving as their personal propagandist. His reply is: ‘“It’s wrong, my conscience reproaches me for it.”’ Mabanckou’s Broken Glass writes from the perspective of a derelict man who has squandered everything he once had, though he is reluctant to admit it. Even the audience each protagonist writes for is markedly different. Lucien secures a publisher in Europe for his play, whereas Broken Glass’ editor is the owner of Credit Gone West.

Atmosphere and mood are strong components of the structure of Tram 83, particularly in depictions of the eponymous bar. Fragments of dialogue are interspersed repetitiously throughout the text and become representative of certain happenings in the bar. ‘“Do you have the time?”’ adolescent prostitutes ask as a prelude to aggressively waylaying prospective male customers. In some respects, this repetition invokes the oral tradition that is pervasive throughout Africa, in which patterns of speech serve to enhance a story. The plot of the novel unfurls slowly with new details about each character’s situation being introduced subtly from within the context of the mundane bar environment. Some of the most compelling action of Tram 83 is not even depicted in the text. For example, when Lucien is arrested for trespassing in one of the mines to retrieve a notebook he left behind while assisting Requiem with a raid to collect stones, a prostitute who is infatuated with him is said to have secured his release; however, the details of how this happened are not specified. Ultimately, though Lucien may succeed in his goal of securing a European publisher for his text, despite Requiem’s constant interference, it is telling that both men wind up fleeing the “City-State” on a train from the same railroad station where they became reacquainted at the beginning of the tale.

A Lonely Devil by Sousa Jamba

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The title of Sousa Jamba’s novel provides thought-provoking insight into the mindset of its protagonist. All evidence suggests that Fernando Luis is indeed a devil, or at least has the capacity to be one when circumstances allow for it. As a youth, he discarded the cherished guitar belonging to a fellow pupil at the orphanage he grew up in by throwing it into the ocean because he was jealous of the boy. As a grown man, he tortured individuals in a prison camp and betrayed his first girlfriend. However, as the title also implies, his wickedness is fueled by a pervasive isolation and sense of inadequacy resulting from his “rootless” upbringing as an orphan. Set on the island of Henrique—a small African nation-state governed by a Marxist dictatorship after being liberated from Portuguese rule—A Lonely Devil illustrates how tormented individuals can easily become manipulated by ruthless political regimes in need of pawns to carry out unspeakable acts of brutality in order to maintain their power.

The early section of the book is devoted to Fernando Luis’ upbringing in a Catholic orphanage after he is abandoned by his mother at the age of four. Later on, he reveals that as a ten-year-old he inadvertently witnessed the suicide of the man who is identified as his father. As an adult, Fernando Luis—or Nando as he is frequently called—works as a journalist for a propaganda newspaper in Henrique and becomes fascinated by the organizational hierarchy among the Henriquean clans. Of particular interest to him are the high-ranking Monangolas “descended from a group of plantation workers from Angola.” He develops a romantic relationship with Tete, a young Monangola woman. However, when Tete becomes an outspoken opponent of the current regime, she is rounded up by the president’s army after a suppressed uprising. Fearing for his own safety, Nando turns on Tete and voluntarily offers evidence against her to the police. His actions have the unintended consequence of so greatly impressing the island’s secret police that they recruit him to join their forces and work in Alpha Zulu—a prison camp for political dissidents.

Thus, the protagonist adopts his titular persona as he carries out brutal and often lethal interrogations of anyone suspected of being an enemy of the current president. Scene after scene unfolds of him subjecting men to horrific beatings and other more creative forms of torture. Of his time in the camp, Nando reflects: “Once you have taken a human life, it does not matter how many other lives you take; you can only sink further.” His internalized sense of inferiority makes him an ideal candidate for this work, as he seeks to improve his image of himself by lashing out at others, whom he views as worthy of punishment simply for being presumptuous enough to question the authority of the ruling political party. At the same time, Nando is filled with contempt for the people of Henrique. “Henriqueans […] were a people who deserved the government and treatment they got.” In this way, he demonstrates that he has no political motivation for the work he is doing; his quest is carried out to satisfy an individual need.

Eventually, Nando becomes fatigued by his work at Alpha Zulu and seeks out an assignment of a different nature. Henriqueans have become obsessed with imported soap operas from Brazil, causing concern for the ruling party. “They did not want people to believe that there was any other country in the world better than Henrique.” Perpetually embittered by the happiness of others, Nando requests to go to Brazil to write a series of articles meant to discourage Henriqueans from desiring the Brazilian way of life. Instead, he quickly adapts to the warmth and pleasantness of Brazil and its people and finds himself unable to write the pieces he intended to. He deserts his position with the Henriquean secret service and goes to live with a woman he met while in transit to Brazil. For a time, Nando begins to let go of his past life and the harm he has caused to others. However, though he evades his pursuers who would bring him back to Henrique, he is unable to escape the core elements of his personality that enabled him to commit acts of cruelty. In one particularly chilling scene, when a trio of adolescents attempts to rob Nando in the street, he murders one of them—savagely attacking the youth even after he has been subdued. “I had actually enjoyed seeing that thug in pain. I had enjoyed hearing his cries for mercy, I had enjoyed continuing mercilessly to beat him.” Thus, Fernando Luis is forcibly confronted with the knowledge that he can never be fully assimilated into a civilized society; the world he is suited for is a hellish one he would prefer did not exist.

The Africa Book Challenge Year I

One year ago today The Africa Book Challenge launched. It has been a year full of education and excitement. Here are some of the highlights of what has been accomplished so far:

  • Entries posted for books from 16 of the 54 countries in Africa
  • The establishment of a Facebook Page which serves as an informal way to keep in-touch with readers and share relevant articles, information, and events–as well as share the reviews when they are posted to this site
  • Readers have reached the site from all 6 populated continents and 28 countries. That is one-seventh of the world, including 9 African countries! Here is a map of all the countries where readers have been from thus far:                                                                                   New Bitmap Image (4).jpg

 

If you have ideas or suggestions regarding what you would like to see on this site in terms of layout or content, you can send them here.

Most importantly, thank you to everyone who has read, commented, or followed this website! Your support has been invaluable to this endeavor over the past year. I cannot wait to find out what adventures Year II of The Africa Book Challenge will involve.

Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou

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It is an oft-repeated adage that the most loyal customer—virtually a fixture—at a typical hole-in-the-wall bar must possess an arsenal of intriguing stories. Alain Mabanckou, a novelist who hails from the Republic of Congo (not to be confused with its neighbor the Democratic Republic of Congo which was formerly known as Zaire) takes this theory to heart in Broken Glass, a book set mostly inside and written by the patron of a local bar. When the eponymous protagonist Broken Glass relates an anecdote to Stubborn Snail, the owner of Credit Gone West “about this famous writer who drank like a fish, and had to be picked up off the street when he got drunk […]” Stubborn Snail offers him a notebook and tells him to record the stories from the bar in it. The resulting book reads as a run-on sentence—periods are never used, which is ironic given that Broken Glass reveals that he was once a teacher—and is jam-packed with literary references that will leave even the most dedicated scholar of prose feeling defensive about the gaps in his or her reading history.

Patrons of Credit Gone West, seeing one of their kinsmen scribbling feverishly in a notebook, are eager to have the tales of their lives included in the memoir that Broken Glass is assembling. They make their stories known to him by either pretending that he has inquired about them first or insisting to him that his book will not be successful without them. There is Pampers Man, a man who wears multiple layers of diapers due to the grisly treatment he suffered during a prison sentence–which need not be delineated any further. There is Printer Man, who immigrated to France and cultivated a successful, middle-class life—working for a magazine and marrying Celine, a white woman. He starts a family “in the comfortable suburbs […]” because he wants to be “well away from negroes” although he insists to Broken Glass “I’m no racist […]” All seems to be going according to plan for Printer Man until he agrees to take in his illegitimate son, who was born prior to his marriage. Printer Man assumes his son is just an insolent, unruly teenager of the typical variety, until he discovers him having sex with Celine. When he attempts to take charge of the situation, they turn the tables on him and call the police. Printer Man is banished to a mental institution—thus calling into question the validity of his entire story. As he entreats his biographer in Credit Gone West: “[…] tell me honestly, Broken Glass, in your heart of hearts, do you also think I’m mad […]”

Of course, no great work of literature would be complete if it did not pay tribute to its author’s own saga of hardship and misery. Broken Glass reveals that his mother raised him on her own after his father was murdered. When he was a grown man, she drowned in the River Tchinouka under possibly mysterious circumstances or perhaps she was just drunk. However, Broken Glass’ real arch nemesis is revealed to be his ex-wife, Angelica, whom he refers to as Diabolica. In reality, Diabolica weeps at the sight of her husband “outside in a pool of my own urine, my blackish, liquid excrement […]” after an evening of wanton drinking at Credit Gone West. Her worst crime against her husband is conspiring with her family, Broken Glass’ in-laws, to take him to a charlatan faith-healer in an unsuccessful effort to cure whatever ails his soul. When he is demoted and reassigned to a teaching post in “the bush” after showing up to class intoxicated, Diabolica is supportive and willing to relocate with her husband. He refuses and is consequently fired. Thus, Broken Glass’ wife is forced to realize that her marriage is a lost cause and separates from him. Upon hearing rumors that his ex-wife has remarried, Broken Glass remarks, “[…] I don’t care, there’s no such thing as a good husband, I was the man she needed, the rest are just wretched freeloaders and liars who’ll exploit her till they’ve used her up.” The irony of this statement hardly needs to be noted.

What makes Broken Glass so successful as a novel, beyond its hilarity at face value, is its ability to defy stereotypes perpetuated by the West about African suffering. Broken Glass and his cohort of dysfunctional friends are not afflicted by ‘African problems’ but by maladies of a more universal nature that are found on every continent on the globe. While Mabanckou’s characters may be unpleasant, their misery and cynicism could easily have been lifted from the pages of a Voltaire novel, just as the Sovinco red wine Broken Glass favors is equally popular in Europe. In the first chapter of Broken Glass, Broken Glass reveals that as soon as he gives his notebook back to Stubborn Snail, he plans on abandoning his squalid surroundings, “[…] I’ll no longer be one of his customers, I’ll be dragging my bag of bones about some other place […]” It is only towards the end of the book that he admits the truth about his destination, befitting of someone who has completed a work of literary greatness.

 

Is It Still 2017 Somewhere?

Dear Readers,

You may remember that at the end of 2017, I posted a map from the WordPress stats generator of all the countries in the world that The Africa Book Challenge had received viewers from, which spanned five out of the six populated continents.

Today, The Africa Book Challenge received a viewer from that 6th continent.

 

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Thank you readers for all of your support! 2018 is certainly shaping up to be an exciting year for The Africa Book Challenge.

Anubis: A Desert Novel by Ibrahim al-Koni

 

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In Anubis, Libyan author Ibrahim al-Koni reconstructs ancient mythology about the Tuareg—his ancestral tribe—as adapted from legends regarding Anubis, the Egyptian god of the deceased, who was born an illegitimate child. The resulting novel launches its protagonist on an unmapped journey through the merciless Sahara Desert in search of the father he does not know. His mission takes on a metaphysical dimension as he matures in the arid wilderness and becomes a father himself, only to learn that fate is cyclical.

The Tuareg are a nomadic people of North Africa, renowned for the deep blue veils worn by the men and the matrilineal organization of their tribe. In Arabic, Tuareg translates as “abandoned by God”, evoking the determined fate of the Tuareg to wander the Sahara desert without establishing roots. The origins of the Tuareg cannot be historically verified, though they are possibly related to the Berber ethnic group of North Africa. Thus, they have the liberty of incorporating the folklore of other peoples into their heritage, such as that of the ancient Egyptians. That the Tuareg, themselves, identify their tribe as Imuhagh which means “free men”[1] illustrates their defiance of the characterizations that outsiders have made about their way of life. The final section of Anubis is comprised of several pages of tribal proverbs. “Time is that unknown entity that we always kill by talking but that always kills us by its deeds,” reads one such saying. When read as a collection, they invoke the hard-won wisdom that has enabled the Tuareg to persevere timelessly.

The premise of Anubis seems promising enough, focusing on a young man’s quest to find his father, whom he identifies from childhood as “the shadow squatting by the tent post[…]” However, the protagonist, who remains nameless though he takes on multiple personae throughout the novel, is never clearly developed outside of this solitary effort. Conversely, he possesses an air of narcissism regarding his journey and seldom demonstrates concern for those around him. For example, the first time he ventures out into the desert to locate his father, his mother fears for him so greatly that she offers herself to be slaughtered as a sacrifice in order to ensure his safe return. Her martyrdom on his behalf does nothing to deter him from setting out into the desert a second time and he entertains no lasting remorse about her desperate actions, despite having fond memories of her teaching him and caring for him as a child. At a later point, the protagonist takes refuge amongst the wild animals of the sand dunes, adopting as his mother a hybrid creature with “curving horns like those of a Barbary ram […and the] body […] of a gazelle, although of huge proportions.” In the aftermath of a fire, he craves meat and partakes of the burnt flesh of an animal, only to realize immediately afterwards that it is the body of the creature who has nurtured and protected him as she would her own lamb. “Then I realized that I had poisoned my body with ‘“evil,”’ since I had devoured my mother’s flesh, which had been molded together with my father’s.” Thus, the protagonist’s main concern is the effect his actions will have on his own body and spirit, rather than the harm he has unwittingly caused others.

Anubis has its greatest success when it juxtaposes life in a comfortable oasis that can easily sate every human need against the austerity of living in the desert. As settlers flock to the lush oasis discovered by the protagonist, the need for law and governance becomes apparent, paving the way for corruption and violence. The protagonist is banished from the oasis by those he once believed to be his kinsmen and returns to the desert. “I returned to my solitude where its passages received me and brought home to me the true nature of my situation.” Though the desolate terrain is treacherous, it is no more so than humankind and perhaps more honest in its intentions. Thus, even in his imaginings of how the Tuareg came into being, al-Koni depicts their forefather as an outcast amongst his own tribe, unable to lay claim to a homeland other than the Sahara that he is destined to wander.

 

[1] A discrepancy exists in that the Bradshaw Foundation resource translates Imuhagh to mean “free men” whereas the glossary at the end of Anubis translates it as “dispossessed, plundered, lost, and noble.” The difference in meaning is significant enough to warrant this annotation, especially since the Anubis translation evokes a similar meaning as the Arabic translation for Tuareg.

Bibliography

1. “The Tuareg of the African Sahara: The Nomadic Inhabitants of North Africa.” Bradshaw Foundation. Bradshaw Foundation. Web. 9 Jan. 2018.

2. Hutchins, William M. (2014). Translator’s Note. In Ibrahim Al-Koni, Anubis: A Desert Novel (pp. vii-xi). Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.