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Beneath the Darkening Sky by Majok Tulba

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The violence that led to the tumultuous birth of Africa’s youngest nation as experienced by the youngest members of its population is the central focus of Beneath the Darkening Sky. Majok Tulba describes the cycle of perpetuated trauma in which boys such as Obinna are abducted from their villages in South Sudan and forced to watch as their homes are destroyed and their family members are raped and murdered. They are then pressed into service as soldiers who will eventually carry out this destruction against others.

After being seized along with his older brother, Akot, Obinna earns the dislike of his commanding officer almost immediately by vomiting on the man’s uniform accidentally during a turbulent truck ride. He, then, experiences the psychological torment of trekking a path that contains hidden landmines. “If I lose all feeling, there will be nothing to fear. Fear is the only thing that keeps me from walking. Without fear, I stay alive.” When he arrives at the rebels’ training camp, Obinna is determined to resist the indoctrination inflicted upon the captured boys by their leaders while simultaneously struggling to survive the harsh physical conditions of the base. He is separated from Akot but finds a mentor in a more mature soldier nicknamed “Priest” after he insisted on keeping a Bible that he found at a church that his squad attacked. Priest explains to Obinna his own complicated rationale for being a good fighter despite not embracing the cause of the insurgents. While the boys are forcibly metamorphosed into the savage creatures their captors need them to be, the female recruits, including a member of Obinna’s extended family, are brought to the “hospitality house,” where they serve a very specific function for the men of the base.

The intersection between violence and sex is striking in the culture of the camp. In order to prove himself worthy of the privilege of carrying a real machine gun—the newest boys are issued fake ones—Obinna must have sex with one of the girls from the hospitality house. His hesitancy to do so causes him to be ridiculed by his peers. It is only when the prostitute assigned to him tries to publicly jeer him in front of his compatriots that Obinna is galvanized to take vengeful action against her. “Undoing the knot of her sarong I yank it off her. The room falls silent. This woman in men’s territory is naked under my controlling hand.” Thus, in the same way that the rebels’ attacks on the homes of the boys serve as a fundamental form of initiation into their ranks—exposing them to the brutish capabilities of the insurgents while they are powerless—Obinna is only able to fulfill his sexual responsibilities as a warrior in reaction to a woman’s verbal assault on his ego. Even “Crazy Bitch”—the name of the rifle entrusted to Obinna when his commanding officer learns what he has done to the prostitute—has a derogatory feminine connotation.

Tulba avoids discussing the broader conflict between the northern and southern regions of Sudan that serves as the catalyst for the violence that the boys are participants in. The authorities in the camp praise “the revolution” and rail against “the government”, but do not explicate further. Beneath the Darkening Sky easily reads as a companion novel to Ishmael Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow, the latter novel focusing on the return of civilians and former combatants alike to the communities that were destroyed by the type of carnage Tulba details at length. In spite of the ugliness at the core of the novel, Tulba’s prose manages to evoke moments of beauty, “The moon sails over the horizon, heavy and full, and floods the dark jungle with light, like milk spilling from a calabash.” Interspersed with the chapters delineating Obinna’s abduction, excruciating training, and combat exploits are brief vignettes in which he imagines his grandparents and extended family carrying out tribal rites meant to guarantee his preservation in the face of harm. In another poignant passage, a deliriously wounded Obinna envisions his future as a doctor celebrating the opening of a medical clinic that will serve his village. Ultimately though, the realities of being a young soldier are too implacable for Obinna to transcend and the adversarial government forces prove to be no more humane than the rebels who abducted him.

 

Bibliography

1. “The World Factbook: SOUTH SUDAN.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 11 Dec. 2019. Web. 18 Dec. 2019.

2. Tulba, Majok. (2013). Acknowledgements. In Majok Tulba, Beneath the Darkening Sky (pp. 239-240). London, UK: OneWorld Publications.

The Desert and the Drum by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

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In 2018, an incredible victory for the global literary world occurred in that the first English translation of a book by a Mauritanian author was published. In The Desert and the Drum, Mbarek Ould Beyrouk has crafted a powerful protagonist who stands in opposition to the traditions of her clan with uneasy results. The novel opens with Rayhana traversing the desert in the middle of the night, determined to reach the nearest city. She discloses that “the tribal drum”—which is known as a rezzam—is unlawfully in her possession and makes reference to “the little lost soul” that she has been deprived of. The narrative continues in alternating chapters that describe both the events that led Rayhana to steal the rezzam and her present-day efforts to make her way to the city of Atar so she can reclaim her “flesh and blood.”

Rayhana recounts how miners employed by a Western company set up camp beside her clan’s Saharan tribal lands, terrifying and fascinating people who had never come into contact with foreigners or mechanical equipment. Initially, the agreement is that the clan and the miners will avoid contact with one another, but one of the miners inevitably befriends the local youths and showers Rayhana with flattery and attention. Beyrouk handles the intricate situation that develops with the thoughtfulness and sensitivity that it deserves. The miners abruptly disappear, having completed their mission, and Rayhana berates herself. “I’d relinquished the best part of myself, and not even for love, but out of naivety, credulity and ignorance.” She falls ill soon after and a local healer advises her mother to take her to a remote village by the ocean. When Rayhana’s health does not improve, her mother consults another healer who figures out that Rayhana is pregnant. Rayhana’s mother—an imposing woman obsessed with maintaining her family’s image since she is the sister of the chief—takes charge of the situation, extending their exile by the ocean until Rayhana gives birth.

After considering their options, Rayhana’s mother decides that the two of them will return to the camp and her daughter will marry a suitor who had previously expressed his interest; her child will be left with the healer who cared for her during her pregnancy and delivery. Rayhana consents to the marriage but refuses to have sex with her new husband on their wedding night. Her refusal to have sex in this context where it is obligatory is both an act of protest against her marriage and self-protection since she does not want her husband to discover her disgrace. In response to her husband’s pleading, she confesses her strife to him, and in a surprising turn, he is sympathetic. ‘“I understand everything now, and I want to heal your pain. I’ll go and find your child. I’ll bring him to the town first, then I’ll bring him here.”’ However, when Rayhana’s husband returns without the child, she realizes that his compassion is no substitute for fortitude and takes flight with the rezzam.

In Atar, Rayhana stays with a family of generous strangers. She looks for Mbarka, a slave who worked for Rayhana’s mother until she escaped to the city. Mbarka, who has become ‘“a woman of ill-repute”’, agrees to assist Rayhana. The search for Rayhana’s son leads her to Nouakchott, the capital city, thus placing Rayhana in an environment that is the diametrical opposite of the Saharan camp that she grew up in. She is again offered shelter, this time in the home of the sister of one of Mbarka’s friends whose grown son becomes an ally to her in her quest, though he may have questionable motives for assisting her. Soon, the tribe becomes aware that he is aiding Rayhana and has him arrested; Rayhana escapes but realizes her quest to find her child is a hopeless one.

One of the greatest strengths of this novel is Beyrouk’s willingness to consider the merits of differing perspectives and recognize that no single set of beliefs possesses all the answers. On the subject of tribal morality, Beyrouk depicts how the intolerance of the clan leads to the destructive solution of Rayhana’s mother forcing her daughter to give up her child in order to avoid shaming the family. However, it is also clear that Yahya, the miner who impregnated Rayhana, was motivated purely by selfish interests, lending credence to the tribal wisdom that the miners and clan members should stay segregated. Regarding Rayhana’s own deeply personal quest to seek retribution against her tribe while also locating her son, the concluding lesson is much more complex. Rayhana struggles to be the embodiment of feminine strength and her taking of the rezzam is clearly a symbolic act. ‘“They stole the fruit of my womb, my little love […] and in return I’ve stolen their drum. To punish them for their stupid vanity, to castrate them, to shame them.”’ Thus, the rezzam, representative of masculinity, serves as a proxy to compensate for the feminine loss of the child she gave birth to. Ultimately, however, she fails to defy her tribe and her efforts to do so have consequences for people beyond herself. “To push on ahead would be to hurt other people, to bite the hands that had fed me.” Her theft of the drum has not reunited her with her son. Rayhana has escaped from her tribe but will spend the rest of her life in an abandoned state of isolation forced to constantly reflect on what has been lost to her. In penning The Desert and the Drum, Mbarek Ould Beyrouk clearly recognized his opportunity to explore various aspects of his country’s culture as experienced by a memorable protagonist.

 

Bibliography

1. “The World Factbook: MAURITANIA.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 6 Nov. 2019. Web. 11 Nov. 2019.

 

 

Snares Without End by Olympe Bhêly-Quénum

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A bucolic life in the countryside of Benin veers dramatically off-course for one man in Olympe Bhêly-Quénum’s Snares Without End, which grimly plumbs the depths of human psychology. In his youth, Ahouna is forced to confront the hardships attendant in ordinary life as his typically prosperous family struggles with diseases that kill their livestock and destroy the crops on their farm. Furthermore, when faced with the prospect of carrying out “forced labor” for the French colonial government, his father chooses instead to kill himself. Nevertheless, Ahouna manages to find poignancy in his pastoral existence, particularly by playing music on his rustic instruments. “Sometimes, as we watched these lively scenes in the distance, I took out my kpété and improvised songs, wild and sweet, primitive melodies[…]” Thus, a certain guilelessness is etched into Ahouna’s character which contrasts sharply with the presumptions of his nature that others impose on him later in the novel in light of the atrocity he commits.

Ahouna’s music attracts the attention of Anatou, an enchanting young woman from a neighboring clan whom he ultimately marries. In the aftermath of his father’s death, Ahouna’s sister, Seitou, and Camara, her second husband, come to stay at the homestead of Ahouna’s family. Thus, the children Anatou gives birth to are raised alongside Seitou and Camara’s children with the help of Ahouna’s widowed mother, Mariatou. However, such innocent happiness cannot last as Anatou abruptly becomes convinced of Ahouna’s unfaithfulness to her and he is unable to make her see that he his blameless. Shunned by his wife and seeing no other recourse, Ahouna takes leave of his family, fearing that he will harm Anatou otherwise.

In the ultimate irony, it is shortly after he has made his departure from his family’s homestead that Ahouna murders a woman who crosses his path and presumes him to be a criminal. “I could hear Anatou’s voice in these accusations and mad screams, and, suddenly overcome with a nameless fury, out of my mind with rage, I unsheathed my dagger…” This episode of irreversible violence serves as the catalyst which the rest of the novel occurs seemingly in reaction to. Ahouna is initially sheltered by Monsieur Houénou—an archaeologist and philosopher who acts as a narrator in portions of the text that are not narrated directly by Ahouna or told from a more omniscient perspective—but he soon takes leave of his house and is apprehended by authorities.

The humiliations and torments Ahouna endures as a criminal are catalogued in almost ritualistic detail. “He had been hoisted on to a cross made from two pieces of rough wood and […] was being carried through the streets by six muscular fellows…” As he awaits his trial, he accompanies other prisoners to a quarry where they perform manual labor in dangerous conditions. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Ahouna, the relatives of Madame Kinhou, the woman he murdered, are in disagreement over whether a plot to avenge her death by breaking into the prison and murdering Ahouna should go forward.

In his preface to the CARAF edition of the novel, Abioseh Michael Porter writes, “It is my opinion […] that Snares Without End is Bhêly-Quénum’s attempt to wrestle in fictional form with the problem of existentialism—a peculiarly twentieth-century phenomenon—in an African context” (Porter, 1988). This theory elucidates the characters’ predilection for metaphysical commentary as well as some of the pessimistic statements made in the first half of the novel when the protagonist is depicted deriving satisfaction from his life. It also explains why the novel seems more concerned with asserting the unavoidability of Ahouna’s murder rather than describing his victim’s plight and what the unique impact of her murder has been on those who knew her. However, the novel remains afflicted by a certain amount of unevenness in that the first half—with its detailed focus on the simple joys associated with tending to livestock and raising children—has little in common with the second half (Blair as cited in Porter, 1988) that chronicles the hardships Ahouna faces as a captured criminal (Salien as cited in Porter, 1988). Lastly, it is never revealed whether the suspected motivations behind Anatou’s accusations regarding Ahouna are actually true. Nevertheless, Snares Without End is a thought-provoking work of literature filled with metaphysical insights about the worst tendencies of man, particularly as they occur in the aftermath of injustice and loss.

 

Bibliography

1. Porter, Abioseh Michael. (1988). Introduction. In Olympe Bhêly-Quénum, Snares Without End (pp. xi-xxvi). Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.

2. “The World Factbook: BENIN.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Oct. 2019. Web. 13 Oct. 2019.

Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe by Doreen Baingana

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A trio of sisters is at the center of Ugandan author Doreen Baingana’s collection of loosely interwoven stories, each of which is narrated by or written from the perspective of one of the three Mugisha sisters. Christine and her older sisters, Rosa and Patti, lost their father prematurely—when they were adolescents—and are raised by their widowed mother. The girls also attend a boarding school which is the setting for two of the stories. Although their mother is resilient, her ability to provide guidance to her daughters is strained due to her struggles as a single parent and the result is the stories in Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe.

“Green Stones”, the first story in the collection sets the stage for the rest of the pieces. As a child, Christine relishes clandestinely exploring the contents of her mother’s jewelry box, believing the ornaments her father bequeaths upon her mother are a measure of his devotion to her. “There lay heaps of gold and green, like a strange spicy Asian or Arab dish. The place the jewelry took me to was better than heaven. They were rainbow shells washed up on a fantasy shore.” The appetizing and evocative language Christine uses to describe the jewelry symbolizes the love she believes exists between her parents. “Taata woke something up in Maama that drenched her voice with feeling.” However, soon enough, that “something” is revealed to be distress at her husband’s alcoholism and the deterioration of their marriage. As an adult, Christine rediscovers her mother’s jewelry collection and almost predictably it is a fraction of what it was in her memory. “The glass and stones and beads were much smaller than they used to be. The pearls were a ghastly plastic, peeling even, like children’s garish toys.” She is thus forced to reevaluate her parents’ happiness together before the death of her father.

“A Thank-You Note” is a harrowing account of Rosa’s affliction with AIDS, which was a new and mysterious condition in the era that she became ill, told in the sardonic manner of acknowledging receipt of that unwelcome gift which her lover passed on to her. “…I got what you gave me and I am sure it was you. I can’t resist saying this: you shouldn’t have!” Yet Rosa, who is portrayed as forthright and headstrong throughout the book, particularly in comparison to her pious older sister Patti, refuses to completely succumb to remorse, and instead describes the series of events that led to her contracting the illness with an almost whimsical reminiscence. “We had such a lovely gift, how could we not use it? Why should we regret it now?” Nevertheless, she knows that death is inevitable for her.

Doreen Baingana’s decision to use three sisters as the lens through which to tell her stories as opposed to focusing on a single protagonist enables her to take a more multifaceted approach to her examination of various subjects. “How and why do individuals who start out in the same milieu make different choices and thus follow different destinies?” she writes in a preface that accompanies the Harlem Moon edition of the book.[1] A corresponding exploration of a relationship between sisters can be found in Ama Ata Aidoo’s No Sweetness Here, albeit in a single story. In “Two Sisters”, Mercy lives with her older sister, Connie, and her family after the death of their parents. Duty-bound Connie worries about emboldened Mercy. This contrast between the two young women mirrors the equally disparate natures possessed by defiant Rosa and religious Patti in Tropical Fish. As the youngest sibling, Christine absorbs the influence of these two polar opposite personalities.

The final two stories “Lost in Los Angeles” and “Questions of Home” function as complements to one another. In “Lost in Los Angeles”, Christine recounts her experiences as an immigrant in California. She feels isolated and misunderstood even in the company of other African immigrants. Christine discovers the L.A. alternative art scene, which, as explored through her uninitiated eyes, Baingana depicts with accuracy and humor. In “Questions of Home”, Christine returns to Entebbe after eight years in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. She lives with her mother and Patti, who has never left Entebbe; Rosa is deceased. She optimistically takes a government job, only to be discouraged by the inefficiency and bureaucracy that pervades her office. Though Christine initially has doubts about her decision to move back to Entebbe, she resolves to “learn all over again how to live in this new old place called home.” Thus, she has matured enough to realize that she already possesses within herself all the tools she needs to adapt to wherever she is.

[1] Baingana, Doreen. (2006). Preface to the Harlem Moon Edition. In Doreen Baingana, Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe (pp. xi-xiii). New York, NY: Harlem Moon/Broadway Books.

 

 

The Fury and Cries of Women by Angèle Rawiri

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Angèle Rawiri holds the distinction of being the author of the first novel to be published by a Gabonese writer.[1] In her third novel, The Fury and Cries of Women, she focuses on the maladies faced in marriage and motherhood by an educated African woman. Emilienne defied the expectations of her family and in-laws by marrying a man she met in college who does not belong to the same tribe as her family. In the first year of her marriage, she gave birth to a daughter. However, subsequent pregnancies over the next decade end in miscarriage and she realizes that her husband is having affairs with other women. Tragedy strikes when on the same day that Emilienne has experienced yet another miscarriage—which is vividly described in the opening of the novel—her only daughter, Rékia, goes missing and is found brutally murdered. Devastated, Emilienne blames herself for taking her only child for granted during her struggles to have a second one. Meanwhile, the loss of their primary reason for staying together exacerbates the distance and antagonism between Emilienne and her husband, Joseph. Emilienne becomes determined to overcome her infertility in order to compensate for the loss of her daughter and save her marriage.

Rawiri positions Emilienne’s domestic problems in the context of her extended family, as it is revealed that Joseph’s mother, Eyang—who resides with the couple—dislikes Emilienne and is plotting for her husband to divorce her and marry his mistress. Further complicating matters is the fact that the two sons of Joseph’s sister also live with Emilienne and Joseph after she left them in his care to marry her current husband. However, Emilienne has her own source of authority in her household due to her career and high income, which is another source of marital tension. As her husband informs her, ‘“No man, not even the most liberal-minded, accepts being financially inferior to his wife.” Thus, Emilienne’s strength as a successful, working woman is a hindrance that weakens her marital bond.

In an effort to conceive a child, Emilienne employs a number of strategies—utilizing both Western medicine and folk healers. She sees a respected gynecologist and undergoes laboratory testing and x-rays at his clinic. She also attends a fertility ceremony with her older sister. In an intriguing development, her gynecologist refers her to a hypnotist after he is unable to identify anything medically wrong with her. The hypnotherapy process involves several steps including the patient lying on a bed while the hypnotist—a white, middle-aged, French man— “proceed[s] to massage the young woman’s naked body, focusing on her lower abdomen.” The novel does not explicitly deal with the capacity for sexual exploitation that this method entails, although Eyang refers to Emilienne ‘“getting fondled by a white witch doctor […]”’ in a conversation with Joseph. Concurrently, Emilienne embarks upon a sexual relationship with her female secretary. As Cheryl Toman discusses in the afterword she penned for this edition of the novel, the relationship is unfortunately a problematic portrayal of lesbianism in that the secretary is later found to be involved in the elaborate scheming of Eyang to bring about Joseph and Emilienne’s divorce and also because Emilienne faults herself for having participated in it.

Parallel situations to Emilienne’s struggles to keep her marriage intact and bear a child abound in African literature written by women. In Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, Nnu Ego is divorced by her first husband due to her inability to get pregnant and then gets remarried to a new husband whom she dislikes but manages to have children with. Kawsar, in Nadifa Mohamed’s The Orchard of Lost Souls, suffers from infertility, only giving birth to one daughter who, like Rékia, dies in adolescence. The complexities of marriage—good and bad—are explored in Neshani Andreas’ The Purple Violet of Oshaantu. In each novel, the author asserts a unique perspective through the set of circumstances she places her female protagonist in. Nnu Ego discovers that due to the rapid modernization her country has undergone, having a large family no longer promises to provide the security it would have in a traditional society. Kawsar seems happily married and is eager to embrace her role as a mother, but ends up living alone after the deaths of her husband and daughter. Mee Ali, in The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, has an idyllic marriage to a hardworking and loving husband which stands in direct contrast to the abusive marriage that her close friend, Kauna, endures.

At the conclusion of The Fury and Cries of Women, Emilienne experiences upheaval in virtually every area of her life. The workers in the office where she is a manager go on strike. She ends her relationships with her mistress and then her husband, telling Eyang, ‘“Now you can have him all to yourself.”’ Thus, her realization that she will never be the most important woman in her husband’s life gives her the strength to terminate her marriage. Meanwhile, her sister has a medical emergency in her own pregnancy. At her bedside in the hospital, Emilienne utters a revelation, confirming that she has, in fact, found the strength to start anew.

 

[1] There is some discrepancy here as Cheryl Toman identifies Rawiri as “the first novelist of her country” in her afterword to this edition, yet also reveals that a male author, Robert Zoutoumbat, had already published a novel in 1971. In her web-page regarding Gabonese literature for the University of Western Australia (“Gabon”, 2006), Jean-Marie Volet lists Zoutombat as the first author of a Gabonese novel.

 

Bibliography

1. “The World Factbook: GABON.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 10 Jul. 2019. Web. 31 Jul. 2019.

2. Toman, Cheryl. (2014). Afterword. In Angèle Rawiri, The Fury and Cries of Women (pp. 195-220). Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.

3. Volet, Jean-Marie (Editor). “Gabon.” The University of Western Australia/French. 10 Nov. 2006. Web. 31 Jul. 2019.

 

The Lieutenant of Kouta by Massa Makan Diabaté

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Lieutenant Siriman Keita, who fought for the French during both world wars, perceives himself to be a war hero of epic proportions and presumes that the inhabitants of Kouta, the village he moves to upon retiring, will agree. However, it quickly becomes apparent in Malian author Massa Makan Diabaté’s novel The Lieutenant of Kouta that his fellow countrymen are indifferent to his service and sacrifice. Although the ex-soldier tyrannizes school children who commit infractions such as petty larceny with draconian punishments, he is the object of much clandestine ridicule. The irony of this supposedly fearsome figure becoming a pawn in the schemes of others—both the villagers and the French colonial administrators alike—is only surpassed by the sincerity of his efforts to achieve redemption at the end of his life.

Lieutenant Siriman Keita, known as “the lieutenant” throughout the novel “…lived in Kouta in a big square house, twenty-five by twenty-five meters, surrounded by an imposing court of relatives and sycophants.” His two most cherished activities are regaling those around him with tales of his gallantry in battle against the Germans and taking corrective action against anyone whose behavior has somehow offended him. From a distance, the villagers—who had nothing at stake in either of the world wars in Europe—ponder his erratic behavior among themselves. ‘“Have you seen any of our boys go off to carry the rifle for the Whites and not come back acting strange? The people of Kouloubalaya had to clap Fagimba in irons after his demobilization.”’ The lieutenant takes up domestic pursuits such as adopting a child and successfully courts a woman for marriage with entertaining results. He is then called back into battle against a neighboring village inhabited by a rival ethnic group only to be defeated by his opponents who trick him with a fake surrender. Thereafter, he winds up imprisoned by the French government for treason.

A counterpart to the lieutenant can be found in Djigui Keita, the emperor of Soba in Ahmadou Kourouma’s Monnew—the similarities between these two characters extending far beyond their shared last name. Each man is convinced of his invincibility as a leader and a warrior to such a degree that he is oblivious to his limitations and can be easily defeated by his adversaries. However, Lieutenant Siriman Keita is also an inverse of Djigui Keita. The latter Keita is determined to preserve his rule even as his kingdom is turned into a province of the French colonial government in West Africa. The former Keita fully allies himself with the French powers, in part because his years of military service have brainwashed him, but also because he is compensated for doing so. When one of the village elders mentions to him the possibility of a self-governing Mali, he responds, ‘“The Whites, leaving the country! Never repeat that again in my house, or you can forget about coming here. No! Who would pay my pension?”’ Thus, the lieutenant has an incentive to maintain his stance against the liberation movement even as it pits him against the people he lives among.

In a twist that is both sobering and unexpected, the lieutenant returns to Kouta after being released from prison humbled by his experience. “And when they spoke of his time in prison, he simply answered, ‘Every man has two houses: the one he built with his own hands, and the one that his life’s misadventures built for him.”’ He converts to Islam—which he had previously abnegated—and forges a close friendship with the local imam. When the French authorities attempt to bestow upon him a prestigious military honor, he declines it. Despite the intentions his actions signify, he is unable to thwart the duplicity of those who seek to utilize his status for their own purposes, but winning—at least in the traditional sense—is no longer a requirement for the lieutenant. A scholarly preface to the novel provides historical information about African veterans of the French army and how they were perceived by their civilian peers, the emergence of Mali as an independent country, and autobiographical information about Massa Makan Diabaté. Thus, The Lieutenant of Kouta is a thoughtful yet amusing depiction of a unique type of man who had a role in Malian society as it transitioned towards self-rule.

 

Bibliography

1. Auerbach, Shane and Cheick M. Chérif Keïta. (2017). Introduction. In Massa Makan Diabaté, The Lieutenant of Kouta (pp. v-xii). East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

2. “The World Factbook: MALI.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 20 JUNE 2019. Web. 25 JUNE 2019.

Quills of Desire by Binwell Sinyangwe

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The timeless debate over whether one can prosper in life exclusively because of one’s talents and abilities is at the core of Zambian author Binwell Sinyangwe’s novel Quills of Desire. Wiza Chambuleni is on the verge of graduating from secondary school after a relatively tumultuous five-year course. Despite being a highly-ranked student, he is strong-willed and defiant, and frequently clashes with school administrators. He aspires to be like his older brother, Kocha, who attends college in England. “Kocha was his idol. By the standards of his home area, Kocha had done wonders in the educational field. Wiza had vowed to emulate him.” Taking first place at a prestigious science fair at which he meets a beautiful, educated female student—the school he attends is all-male—seems like the culmination of everything Wiza has been working towards. However, when he decides to consummate his new relationship, a jealous classmate informs on him to the school authorities. Wiza, who has been in trouble in the past, is swiftly expelled.

Unable to bear returning to his family in the countryside after the ignominy he has brought to them, Wiza hides in Lusaka, the capital city. His lack of a secondary school certificate means that he is only eligible for menial jobs and lives in one of the city’s slums. “During those years, he had perpetually been gripped by a very real and desperate longing to see Kocha come back from England to help him return to school.” After two years, he gives up and goes home to his family. Though Wiza’s parents accept him without judgment, they are unwilling to help him resume his studies as he wishes and insist that he must get married. A girl from a nearby village—simple and uneducated—is selected for him. Refusing to acquiesce to this fate, Wiza flees his parents, this time eking out a living in a fishing village. Nevertheless, he still insists to himself that Kocha can redeem him. Upon learning through a chance meeting with his younger brother that Kocha’s stay in England has been extended, Wiza returns to his family again. His parents impose upon him the marriage they have arranged for him. Wiza ostensibly yields to their demands, but ultimately takes his destiny into his own hands in a drastic manner. Ironically, he does so just after the unexpected return of Kocha.

Parallels can be drawn between Wiza Chambuleni and Nyasha in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. The two characters are fiercely intelligent and both possess an attitude of unwavering obstinacy that is a virtual blind spot within their respective personalities. Nyasha excels at school but rebels against her father’s paternalism; Wiza also thrives academically, but cannot suppress his instinct to challenge authority, even when doing so is detrimental to the goals he has laid out for himself. “The extreme potency of his dream had set before him a life’s goal of erudite power, material wealth and personal prestige to be attained not through licking anyone’s boots […] but by merit alone.” Each character experiences a form of implosion, resorting to self-destructive behavior in order to reject submission to obligations that neither one is capable of resisting in any other way.

Quills of Desire uniquely presents the constraints of an arranged marriage from the male perspective. Typically, African literature and sociological texts focus on the pitfalls of early marriage as they pertain to adolescent girls, for whom it frequently spells the end of educational pursuits due to childrearing responsibilities. Wiza, however, is pressured to marry after his education has been terminated and his parents see no other recourse for him. As his father counsels him, “You have tried hard to be educated—with every support I could give you—but you failed to complete your secondary school. Don’t blame yourself or anyone else for it—look to something different.” In Wiza’s mind, however, he is undeserving of the bride he once anticipated for himself. When he was a student, he assumed that “His wife would be modern, beautiful, elegant, sophisticated and, above all, a holder of a BSc degree.” Now, he has failed to achieve scholastically and professionally and cannot accept that his standards have been compromised.

Quills of Desire provides an insightful portrait of a young man whose vision for his life is unwittingly sacrificed to the unwavering conviction and belief in himself that enables his aspirations in the first place. Wiza’s failure to consider the power of those who might be leery of his rebelliousness or jealous of him—such as his secondary school principal or rival classmates—gives them the power to sabotage his fate. Well-crafted and likeable supporting characters such as Humphrey, Wiza’s best friend who unofficially runs the school’s infirmary, Chambuleni, his hardworking and long-suffering father, and Evi, the object of his affection, enhance the readability of the novel as does Binwell Sinyangwe’s thoughtful prose. Furthermore, the concluding moral of Wiza Chambuleni’s plight can easily be applied to a broader context beyond the novel.

 

 

 

 

What the Day Owes the Night by Yasmina Khadra

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Algerian author Yasmina Khadra has gained acclaim throughout the world as much for his novels The Swallows of Kabul and The Attack which thoughtfully examine conflict in Afghanistan and Palestine respectively, as for the mystery surrounding his identity. An officer in the Algerian army, Mohammed Moulessehoul used his wife’s name as a pseudonym under which to publish his books in order to avoid being censored by the military until he retired and relocated to France. In What the Day Owes the Night, Khadra melds a bildungsroman about a young man with the coming-of-age story of the Algerian nation as it claims its independence.

Ten-year-old Younes learns lessons about hardship and misfortune early in life when his peasant father’s anticipated harvest of plenty is set on fire in an anonymous act of malice. Bankrupt and forced to surrender his family’s lands, Younes’ father moves his family to Oran, a nearby city. Younes recounts, “There is nothing cruder than the inequalities of a city. Walk around a block and day becomes night, life becomes death.” Initially, Younes’ father is too prideful and stubborn to accept anything more than the most minimal financial assistance from his brother, Mahi, who enjoys a prosperous life as the owner of a pharmacy in the European section of the city and is married to a woman of European descent. However, as he finds himself unable to turn the tide of his own fate and that of his family, Younes’ father abruptly takes up his brother’s offer, allowing him to raise his only son as his own.

Subsequently, Younes—now called “Jonas”—receives a privileged upbringing with parents who dote on him and provide him with an education. At the same time, Younes comes to realize that Mahi feels conflicted about the societal status he has achieved. Mahi is arrested for his involvement in the Algerian movement for independence, but even in these efforts, his conviction is compromised. “The gossips said that before the police even put him in the van my uncle was a broken man, that he had confessed everything he knew as soon as he was questioned.” The identity struggle of the successful Muslim who has assimilated into the Western world is one that Yasmina Khadra has reflected upon previously in his writing. In his novel The Attack, the protagonist is a gifted Palestinian surgeon who has cultivated a comfortable life and earned the respect of his Israeli peers, only to have his world shattered when his beloved wife is confirmed to have committed a suicide attack. In an effort to understand the meaning behind her actions, he returns to the Palestinian village he grew up in and is forced to revisit the hardship and poverty that he was able to leave behind.

Feeling disgraced, Mahi relocates his family to Rio Salado “…a beautiful colonial village with leafy streets lined with magnificent houses.” In Rio Salado, Younes discovers the relationships that will prove transformative for him. He becomes friends with five local boys who accept him even though he is the only Muslim in their group. He loses his virginity to a mysterious French woman whose husband has disappeared overseas, only to later fall in love with her daughter. The rivalry to win the affections of Émilie strains the kinship between the boys as they emerge into adulthood.

Seemingly without warning, the war for independence erupts in Algeria. The violence has tragic consequences for Younes’ friends and even Émilie’s family is affected. Younes’ ambivalence regarding the conflict is tested when he finds himself forced at gunpoint to abet the freedom fighters first by letting an injured commander take refuge in his house and then by clandestinely delivering medical supplies to them. When he is captured, ironically by an Arab who sympathizes with the colonists, it is an influential European nobleman in Rio Salado who secures his release. Younes bears witness to the obliteration of Algeria as ruled over by colonial powers through his frantic search to find Émilie who left Rio Salado for Oran with her young son after her home was burned down. “Algerian Algeria was being delivered by forceps in a torrent of tears and blood as French Algeria lay bleeding to death.” Younes cannot reclaim Émilie in the same way that the colonists cannot maintain their claim over Algeria.

As an author, Khadra carefully avoids taking sides through his narration of the conflict. Though he acknowledges the harm that colonialism inflicted upon native Algerians, the Europeans he depicts are well-rounded beings whose primary concern is preserving their way of life. As Younes’ neighbor from childhood laments later in life, ‘“Not everyone was a colonist, not everyone went round slapping a riding crop against their aristocratic boots; some of us didn’t have any boots at all.”’ Thus, the sense of loss they experience when they evacuate Algeria is not of power but of a homeland. Despite Khadra’s years of experience in the masculine military environment, his sensitivity towards his female characters is striking. Of the women Younes’ family shares their dilapidated tenement in Oran with, he writes, “The women stuck together, they supported each another [sic] if one was ill, the others would make sure there was food in her pot, look after her baby, take turns sitting by her bedside.” Though Émilie’s presence drives a rift that is nearly insurmountable through the youthful friendships Younes has cultivated in Rio Salado, she is never portrayed as having malicious intent. Khadra’s prose is creative and intelligent, describing a host of situations ranging from the pangs of love to the austerity of senseless violence with deftness.

The final fifty pages of What the Day Owes the Night serve as the epilogue. Younes, now an old man, journeys to France where Émilie’s son takes him to visit the grave of his recently-deceased mother. It is also an opportunity for him to see his friends who fled Algeria in the wake of its independence. Contemporary Algeria has faltered in its quest to thrive as a new nation due to the rise of Islamic insurgency. As Younes is about to board the plane to return to his homeland from France, he reconnects with someone very dear to him, the parting implication of the novel being that some ties are more valuable than unfulfilled love.

Bibliography

1. Anonymous. “Reader, I’m a He.” The Guardian, 22 June 2005. Web. 17 Apr. 2019.

 

 

This Is Our World: The Africa Book Challenge Year II

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Today marks the two-year anniversary of The Africa Book Challenge and I am pleased to report that its mission is halfway to being accomplished! 27 books from 27 different countries in Africa have been featured on this site out of a total of 54 nations.

2018 and the beginning of 2019 has been an incredible time for The Africa Book Challenge. The site received more than twice as many visitors in its second year than it did in its first. Furthermore, the site has now received visitors from more than 60 countries, nearly one-third of the countries in the world! 21 of those countries are in Africa.

Here is a map that shows all the countries The Africa Book Challenge has received visitors from thus far:

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For a comparison, here is a map showing all the countries the site had received visitors from at this time last year.

2018 was also an amazing year for Africa and the world, and there is every reason to believe that 2019 will be likewise. Some of the highlights include the following:

Of course, not all the news has been good news:

  • In October of 2018, Niger lost trailblazing journalist Mariama Keita. English translations of Nigerien literature are virtually impossible to find, making Keita’s success all the more invaluable.
  • In August of 2018, Nobel Prize-winner and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan passed away. Kofi Annan is featured in Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust due to his role in bringing about a truce in the aftermath of the contentious 2007 elections in Kenya.

Inspired by these gains and in spite of the losses, it is truly imperative for the mission of The Africa Book Challenge to continue. It is my firm belief that we get the literature that we demand. These past few years have seen many books translated into English from countries where literature by native authors was not available in English before, but there is still more work to be done. As publishers realize that these are the books that we want to read, they will respond to this demand.

Thank you to everyone who has read, commented, and followed along these past two years. It is because of you that this site keeps growing.

La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

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La Bastarda, the harsh-sounding title of Equatorial Guinean author Trifonia Melibea Obono’s novel, conjures up an air of grim condemnation that is contradicted by the surprisingly optimistic message that the book imparts. Sixteen-year-old Okomo lives with her grandfather and the families of his two wives since her own mother died during childbirth after getting pregnant outside of marriage. She has no knowledge of who her father is, and the person she feels most connected to is Marcelo, her uncle, who is known as a “man-woman” in the village and thus shunned. Okomo, herself, possesses none of the stereotypical feminine attributes that a woman in the Fang tribe is expected to exhibit in order to attract a husband, much to the chagrin of her grandmother. An excursion into the forest to collect wood has startling consequences for her. Okomo learns that the villagers have burned her uncle’s home to the ground and that he has taken refuge in the woods. The bearers of this news are none other than the very group of girls that Okomo’s grandmother has prohibited her from having contact with. She has a liberating sexual encounter with the three girls and finds herself calling into question everything that has been dictated to her by her grandparents while learning more about aspects of herself that she was previously unable to understand. An afterword by scholar Abosede George provides historical and geographical information about Equatorial Guinea as well as some thoughtful commentary on the themes explored in the novel.

What makes La Bastarda so successful is the way in which Obono juxtaposes homosexuality—the perceived abnormality—with some of the traditional heterosexual practices of Okomo’s tribe that are hardly consistent with the ideal of a loving relationship between a man and a woman. When one of Okomo’s uncles is found to have fertility issues, Marcelo is expected to impregnate the man’s wife in order to maintain the respectability of the clan, but he refuses. When Marcelo explains this situation to her, Okomo asks, ‘“The women agree to this?”’ Marcelo’s noncompliance with this practice is indicative not only of his homosexuality but also of his unwillingness to do something that violates a woman’s sovereignty over her body and sexuality. Likewise, it is revealed that the reason Okomo’s grandfather married a second wife is because her grandmother became sterile when she contracted syphilis from him after he had an encounter with a prostitute. An aunt explains to her, ‘“My father was cured in the hospital, he did it quickly, and that’s why he didn’t suffer any of the side effects, but he never told Mama.”’ Thus, in the Fang tradition, a woman has no recourse against a husband who has been unfaithful to her, and it is his prerogative to take another wife when it suits him.

A tragedy rounds out the narrative arc of the novel in the form of a betrayal that comes from within the group of girls. When their activities are made known to the villagers, two of them are married off and Okomo is sent to another town to live with distant relatives. Incidentally, this village is where Okomo’s father lives and she makes the effort to locate him. As it turns out, he is not the disreputable wretch that her grandparents made him out to be, but he also does not provide any solutions to the problems that are currently plaguing Okomo. Ultimately, she realizes that she no longer has any affinity to her family or her clan. “…I escaped to the forest to live with my uncle Marcelo, the man-woman, and the other three indecent girls from my village, the only family that life had given me.” Although it was her blood relatives who initially rejected her, she now understands that she must cut ties with them.

La Bastarda is a mere one hundred pages long, with ten of those pages devoted to its afterword. However, it is a testament to Obono’s clear and detailed prose that the novel feels rich and satisfying despite its brevity. Okomo may not be able to transform her immediate environment into one that is accepting of people who do not conform to its cultural expectations, but she can seek asylum in the woods, free from the judgment of those who would force her to change.

Bibliography

1. George, Abosede. (2018). Afterword. In Trifonia Melibea Obono, La Bastarda (pp. 91-101). New York, NY: Feminist Press.

2. “The World Factbook: EQUATORIAL GUINEA.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 5 Feb. 2019. Web. 13 Feb. 2019.