List of Countries




A Lonely Devil by Sousa Jamba


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


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.




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



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.


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.

The Africa Book Challenge World Viewership 2017



Here is a map of all the countries in the world that The Africa Book Challenge has received visitors from since its inception in February of this year. It has been a privilege to share this site with viewers from more than twenty countries (more than 10% of the nations in the world) in five continents.

However, there is still time left in 2017and there is still one (populated) continent that The Africa Book Challenge has yet to receive a visitor from. If you look at this map , I think you will be able to guess what it is.

Have a Happy New Year! In 2018, The Africa Book Challenge will be highlighting countries where English translations of literary work are not readily available in hopes of getting some of this work published.

Baho! by Roland Rugero


Roland Rugero’s Baho! has the distinction of being the first novel written by a Burundian author to be translated into English. It is a slim volume at only ninety pages, but rich in thematic meaning. An epilogue by translator Christopher Schaefer provides helpful insight into the history of Burundi—a nation plagued by more than a decade of war triggered by a Hutu-Tutsi conflict similar to the one in neighboring Rwanda—as well as information about the literary influences that shape the novel.

The plot revolves around the plight of Nyamuragi, an orphaned mute who lives a simple life of nomadic solitude. His attempts to inquire of a fourteen-year-old girl via gestures where he can relieve himself in private are misinterpreted as a prelude to sexual violence. Rapes occur with alarming frequency in the countryside of this nation scarred by unrest, “Mothers make their little girls wear panties under their wraps when they go to draw water and under their skirts when they go to school […]” A mob soon apprehends Nyamuragi, but decides against turning him over to the authorities, preferring vigilante justice. A drought has overtaken the region, exacerbating the hardship experienced by many Burundians in the aftermath of the war. Thus, the decision to hang this mute man, who has no means of communicating his innocence, is transformed into a symbolic attempt to cleanse the village of the evils that were committed during wartime. A one-eyed old woman bears witness—to the extent that she is able—to the impromptu trial that transpires after Nyamuragi is carried away.

Baho! contains many proverbs written out in the melodious Kirundi tongue (the primary language of Burundi) with the English translations provided alongside them. “Uwawe umubonera mu makuba” one such passage reads. “We only discover our kin in difficult circumstances.” These aphorisms appear in stark contrast to Nyamuragi’s inability to speak. The origins of Nyamuragi’s muteness are somewhat vague. He never seems to develop the mechanism for verbalization as a child. His mother takes him to a traditional medicine man to diagnose and remedy the problem. The man performs a ritualistic surgery on Nyamuragi’s vocal cords that causes bleeding, rendering him completely unable to speak. When his parents are killed in the war by guerilla fighters intent on stealing their sheep, Nyamuragi—who hid during their slaughter—loses the desire to communicate with anyone.

Nyamuragi’s muteness also stands in polar opposition to the angry gang that berates him with insults and physical assaults. The vigilantes are not concerned that the defendant who has been brought before their makeshift court is physically incapable of explaining his actions. Nyamuragi’s sentence of hanging via “a solid, virgin rope”—one that has not been previously used for any other purpose—has become an exaggerated form of penance intended to restore honor and prosperity to the countryside. No one recognizes the irony that the scarcity and unrest pervading the village triggered the conditions in which a harmless man can be executed for a crime he did not commit, which is an evil act unto itself.

However, Rugero demonstrates that just as one man’s actions can create a mob, it only takes the careful planning of one man to disband it. The character of Jonathan—a veteran of the Burundian military and relative of Nyamuragi—is introduced. Once he has positioned himself at the front of the mass of people, a single gunshot is enough to disperse them. In their disorganized frenzy to flee, the mob pays no attention to figuring out who instigated this violence and abandons Nyamuragi, enabling Jonathan to help him escape to a nearby vehicle that he has secured. Thus, a skilled and intelligent man is shown to have more power than an undisciplined horde.

Baho! leaves a few loose ends untied at its conclusion in that the vigilantes are never forced to accept responsibility for their destructive intentions and what becomes of Nyamuragi ultimately after he is whisked to safety is never revealed. However, Roland Rugero provides enough thought-provoking material in this novel despite its brevity that readers will enjoy this literary debut from Burundi.


1. Schaefer, Christopher. (2016). Translator’s Note. In Roland Rugero, Baho! (pp. 93-101). Los Angeles, CA: Phoneme Media.

Two Weeks in the Trenches: Reminiscences of Childhood and War in Eritrea by Alemseged Tesfai


Virtually every country on the African continent endured occupation by a European nation due to colonialism. However, the East African country of Eritrea experienced a more unique situation in which it was annexed by neighboring Ethiopia in the early 1960’s, leading to an armed struggle for liberation that would last approximately three decades. Alemseged Tesfai’s Two Weeks in the Trenches: Reminiscences of Childhood and War in Eritrea is the author’s translation of his earlier account in Tigrinya (a common language in Eritrea) of his time spent amongst the troops of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) as they fought the war for independence from Ethiopia.

The book is divided into three sections, each of which is devoted to a different genre: short stories, journalistic essays, and plays. The first story “Shobere”—a crude variation of the Italian word for strike ‘sciopero’—is about a group of students who organize a walkout from class in response to excessive corporal punishment administered by an authoritarian teacher. In “Grazmatch Tsegu”, a young boy and his family ponder the identity of a mysterious old man pushing a wheelbarrow, who bears a striking resemblance to a dignitary from their village who vanished many years prior. The final story “Hansu” concerns the fate of a homely woman who is disgraced when her sweet and guileless nature causes her to be taken advantage of. She flees her village with her illegitimate daughter, but is rejected by her prosperous relatives in Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia). She moves to a nearby slum where she earns a meager living for herself and her daughter by braiding women’s hair. When a woman is hit by a car and dies at the scene of the accident, she is mistakenly identified as Hansu. Thus, her relatives are forced to confront their neglect and mistreatment of their family member. Though the first two stories read as non-fiction, it is not entirely clear whether “Hansu” is a work of fiction, or perhaps based upon someone known to the author in his upbringing. Read within the context of the whole book, these three stories provide personal insight into the culture and values that shaped the young men and women who would carry out the war for liberation.

The second section, arguably the core of the book, centers on Alemseged Tesfai’s time spent amongst the tegadalai (freedom fighters) in the 1980’s as they fight key battles against the Ethiopian military. Tesfai is in his early forties when he decides to join the freedom fighters, and though he asserts his desire to participate in combat with the tegadalai, his more experienced compatriots, some of whom he taught as students at a school for young revolutionaries, seek to shelter him from the riskiest aspects of the operations. Nevertheless, in the titular “Two Weeks in the Trenches”—a series of diary entries—Tesfai exposes readers to the brutal realities of combat in the arid terrain of the East African desert, where survival is a game of roulette. ‘“Military mistakes are corrected by death,”’ a company commander remarks to him after a procedural error in a five-man operation leaves three soldiers dead and one severely wounded. The EPLF was remarkable for its inclusion of female fighters on the frontlines. Tesfai does not differentiate much between the experiences of male and female fighters, other than to note that the women tend to suffer from “gastro-intestinal problems” in the trenches. Women fighters, likewise, die in combat alongside their male counterparts.

In “At the Battle of Afabet: The Drama of a Piece of Flesh”, Tesfai is dispatched to report on a major battle against Ethiopian troops for Harbenya—an EPLF magazine whose title means ‘patriot.’ The battle is an impressive success, and though Tesfai is privileged to celebrate in the ranks of the commanding officers who made this victory possible, he struggles as a journalist to find a way to capture its meaning for the readers of his magazine. He finds his metaphor of choice when he and the officers stumble upon a heart lying in a vast pool of blood. “It was a human heart. No bone, muscles or any other body parts, just a heart—an oily, bright and red human heart […]” Based on the remnants of a uniform nearby, they determine that the slain possessor of this organ was a tegadalai as opposed to a member of the enemy forces. Throughout his writings from the battlefield, Tesfai contemplates the bravery and selflessness of the freedom fighters. “These kids do not believe in reincarnation, and yet they have this unflinching conviction that they will live on in their surviving comrades, in the realization of the dream they are dying for.” For him, this solitary heart—completely intact yet severed from any corporeal connection—becomes symbolic of the collective character of the warriors and is the subject of his concluding essay in this section “Heart of the Tegadalai.”

The final part of Two Weeks in the Trenches is comprised of plays that portray the hardship the ongoing conflict creates in domestic life. “Le’ul” explores the plight of a young woman working for a low wage in a factory owned by Ethiopians. Her only child recently died as an infant because she could not afford to pay a doctor to treat him. Her husband drinks heavily, creating unrest in their marriage. By the end of the play, both Le’ul and her husband have been recruited by a family friend to join the liberation struggle. “The Other War” takes on the more complex family dynamic of Letiyesus, an older woman whose daughter, Astier, marries a high-ranking Ethiopian officer after she is abandoned by her first husband, a local Eritrean. Astier, who has a daughter from her previous marriage and a baby with her current husband, invites herself to move into Letiyesus’ house with her family. The situation becomes more sensitive as it is revealed that Astier’s ex-husband was an abusive drunk and that she begged her parents to let her divorce him. Thus, Letiyesus views her daughter’s new allegiances as retribution for the suffering she endured at the hands of an Eritrean man.

“The Other War” may come across as excessively hostile with its implication that even in the domain of romance and family, Ethiopians and Eritreans are incompatible. Tesfai, however, provides a thoughtful afterword to the play, explaining it within the framework of a 1970’s ethnic cleansing campaign in which Amhara (the dominant ethnicity of Ethiopia) soldiers were sent to a region with a heavy Somali population that was prone to unrest, and encouraged to either marry or rape the local women. In the words of a high-ranking Ethiopian military official: “[…] either through marriage or by coercion. We will thus change their composition…” In light of this, although Tesfai states he has no moral objections to inter-ethnic unions, he felt compelled to artistically explore this disturbing form of ethnic subordination.

Two Weeks in the Trenches is hardly an easy read, but it is an enriching one. The tome benefits from the juxtaposition of different literary formats: short stories, reporter’s prose, and plays, allowing the author to take a multifaceted approach to examining his subject matter. It is also helpful that Tesfai translated his own work from Tigrinya, enabling him to preserve in English the meaning of his original text. In 1991, Eritrea finally gained independence; though the book ends before this ultimate victory occurs, readers are left with a passionate understanding of this struggle and the people who persevered in its name.


1. “The World Factbook: ERITREA.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 14 Nov. 2017. Web. 18 Nov. 2017.


Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga


Boarding schools are a popular milieu for novels about adolescents, perhaps because they remove their characters—already at a critical juncture in their lives—from the family structures that have molded them thus far and introduce them into an environment largely dominated by the peer influence. Nevertheless, Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga is sure to leave a lasting impression on even the most seasoned reader of the bildungsroman genre.

The novel takes place fifteen years before the Rwandan genocide of 1994 at Our Lady of the Nile—an all-female Catholic lycee “founded to train the country’s female elite […]” While the students hail from African families, the school’s administration is almost exclusively Belgian and French—the legacy of imperialism, as Rwanda was a colony of Belgium until 1962. Yet the tension and power differential between an all-white staff and an African student body is soon eclipsed by an even more insidious air of divisiveness between two of Rwanda’s ethnic groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis. According to a policy attributed to Belgian authorities, Our Lady of the Nile is required to maintain a certain quota of Tutsi students, most of them coming from poorer backgrounds than their Hutu counterparts.

Education is a theme that is frequently explored in African literature from the colonial era and its aftermath. What renders Our Lady of the Nile unique is its depiction of the school setting in almost categorically negative terms. Whereas Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions portrays education as an instrument of empowerment for women—albeit one that is complicated by the influence of colonialism—Mukasonga’s representation of life at the lycee is steeped in cynicism. The mission of “female education and advancement” touted by the school is revealed to be a sham as most of the girls come from affluent, politically-prominent families. As one student bursts out after tragedy strikes, ‘“We were already fine merchandise, since nearly all of us are daughters of rich and powerful people, daughters of parents who know how to trade us for the highest price, and a diploma will inflate our worth even more.”’ Instances of bribery and corruption permeate the novel as the girls openly discuss the ability of their parents to buy certain favors using money or connections. Likewise, the girls recognize that they have been incorporated into this system from birth and will be utilized by their families accordingly.

The Roman Catholic values of the lycee are upheld in an equally specious manner. The chastity invoked by its namesake is little more than a bargaining chip to ensure that the girls receive expensive dowries for their families when they marry. “[…] they must be virgins when they wed – or at least not get pregnant beforehand. Staying a virgin is better, for marriage is a serious business.” While the lycee enforces ostensibly strict policies such as forbidding the girls from decorating their rooms with pictures of Western actresses, the head priest clandestinely rewards select students by offering them dresses to try on in the privacy of his personal chambers. When a student becomes engaged to an ambassador—a relationship that will politically benefit her family—she is permitted to visit him overnight at the school’s guest quarters. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the novel is the implication that the Belgians are tacitly supportive of the Hutus’ campaign to drive the Tutsis out of Rwanda.

The narrative structure of Our Lady of the Nile is distinct in that it never identifies a single protagonist, instead utilizing a third-person omniscient viewpoint that zooms in on the various girls in different chapters. This technique causes the novel to lose some of the introspection that typifies coming-of-age stories, but also enables readers to access the mindsets of the different girls as they interact with one another. The book emphasizes the experiences of its two Tutsi characters, Veronica and Virginia. These girls are disdained by their Hutu peers at the lycee, exalted as the “pride and joy” of families who hope that the diplomas received by their daughters will lift them out of poverty, and become the object of fascination and fetishization for whites who try to pinpoint the ancient origins of the Tutsi people. Their antagonist is Gloriosa, the daughter of a prominent member of the Hutu party, who is vocal about her politics at the lycee.

The brutal climax of Our Lady of the Nile takes place near the end, with the student body enlisting the help of a local Hutu militia to drive out the small quota of Tutsi students. The rebellion is quelled and politics are shown to change on a national level, but the conclusion is unsettling since it foreshadows the massacre that will be carried out. Though Mukasonga does not shy away from depicting the bigotry and unrest that plagues her country, she devotes a significant amount of space in her novel to exploring the beauty of the Rwandan landscape and culture. Scenes of students visiting gorillas in the wild and discussing their favorite recipes for preparing locally-grown bananas will leave readers realizing that there is much more to know about Rwanda than the carnage that rendered it infamous.


  1. “The World Factbook: RWANDA.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 19 Oct. 2017. Web. 23 Oct. 2017.

No Sweetness Here and Other Stories by Ama Ata Aidoo



Ama Ata Aidoo’s No Sweetness Here is a compendium of short stories that focuses on the social unrest that ensues in Ghana as it transitions into independence after British colonial rule. The volume includes eleven stories as well as an afterword by Ketu H. Katrak devoted to scholarly analysis. Like Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, No Sweetness Here addresses the ways in which Africans are rendered subservient to Westerners under colonial rule. However, Aidoo introduces a new dynamic for the postcolonial era in which Africans educated in Europe return to their homeland and establish a new ruling class, demanding the same sort of submissiveness from less privileged Africans as Europeans did. Themes of moral degradation and the gaps between traditional ways and modern culture are also present in the collection.

In “Everything Counts” an educated woman and her male peers debate the practice of wig wearing among African women. The woman sees it as a harmless measure, adopted primarily for convenience. The men, however, disagree and view the women’s unwillingness to be seen with natural hair as a rejection of their racial heritage. It is only when the winner of the national beauty pageant turns out to be biracial that this woman is forced to confront the truth in the viewpoint of the men. “[…The winner’s] hair, a mulatto’s, quite simply, quite naturally, fell in a luxuriant mane on her shoulders…” Thus, she realizes how deeply the equation of beauty with whiteness is ingrained into the mindset of Africans. A similar example of the self-loathing Aidoo depicts can be found across the Atlantic in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in which a young girl trapped in an abusive home is convinced that she could transcend her fate if only she had blonde hair and blue eyes.

“A Gift from Somewhere” makes a hero by pure coincidence out of a mallam (traditional medicine man), who wanders into a village eager to find a miracle to work in order to eke out his meager living. He is confronted by a woman whose infant son is gravely ill and whose other children are previously deceased. The mallam dutifully prescribes a cure, telling the child’s mother ‘“Yourself you must not eat meat. You must not eat fish from the sea, Friday, Sunday. You hear?’” Privately, he admits to Allah that the child will likely die despite his intervention, and abandons the woman’s hut without collecting his fee to avoid being exposed as a fraud. To everyone’s great surprise, the child survives and his mother gives birth to several more children. The woman is unsure whether to direct her gratitude towards the mallam or the personal god whom tribal custom dictates is in charge of her destiny or the Christian “Jehovah”, the latter representing the influence of European colonizers. Nevertheless, she adheres to the fast according to the mallam’s instructions.

“Two Sisters” examines the relationship between Mercy and Connie, siblings whose parents are deceased. Connie, a teacher, is married, has a baby, and is pregnant with her second child. Mercy lives with Connie and her husband, working as a secretary. Connie is distressed to find out that Mercy has become the girlfriend of a much older man in government, a man who has ‘“[…] so many wives and girl-friends.”’ However, since her sister is a grown woman and Connie is not her mother, she has no recourse to intervene. Connie also has her own set of relationship struggles due to her husband’s infidelity. Aidoo sets up a dichotomy between the two women: Connie is the diligent and responsible one, preoccupied with living a moral life while failing to demand the same treatment in her marriage; Mercy is the more heedless one, who seizes upon an opportunity without consideration for principles. A coup displaces the politician Mercy was having her affair with, reassuring Connie. Her relief proves short-lived since soon after the new government is installed, Mercy attaches herself to a new political bigwig. Thus, the story asserts that while the names and faces may change, the modus operandi of the powerful men in government never evolves in any meaningful way.

As Ketu H. Katrak discusses in her afterword to the collection, Aidoo’s stories are punctuated by long exchanges of dialogue meant to invoke the African oral tradition of storytelling.[1] She explains that “Many precolonial African cultures, predominantly oral, lost ancient oral literary traditions rendered invisible by racism and a Western belief in the superiority of written language and literature.” To remedy this ailment, Aidoo fashions an intricate compromise in No Sweetness Here by utilizing the English language and prose form, but incorporating elements which are distinctly African into her text (Interview with Aidoo; James as cited in Katrak, 1995). In this way, Aidoo subtly alludes to an overarching solution to the maladies that plague her country during its transition: namely, that even as a new generation of Africans seeks to emulate Western-style democracy in the establishment of self-rule of their country, they must also seek ways to preserve the African identity.



[1] Katrak, Ketu H. (1995). Afterword. In Ama Ata Aidoo, No Sweetness Here and other stories (pp. 135-160). New York, NY: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York.