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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.

 

Weeding the Flowerbeds by Sarah Mkhonza

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Weeding the Flowerbeds is Sarah Mkhonza’s memoir of the years she spent in the early 1970’s at a private boarding school located on a Christian mission in Eswatini (known as Swaziland until 2018). Bulelo, as she is known in the book, and her two friends, Makhosi and Sisile, persevere in academics but chafe under the rules set by the hierarchical administration at Manzini Nazarene High School. They also struggle to determine the role that Christianity—which is imposed on them through daily worship services—will play in their lives on their own terms. Photographs included in the book show glimpses of Mkhonza’s life at the school, though they are unlabeled.

Sarah Mkhonza deserves admiration as a woman from a developing African nation who managed to produce a book about her experiences receiving an education in the era shortly after her country gained its independence. Therefore, her voice and perspective deserve to be heard. Unfortunately, Weeding the Flowerbeds suffers because it never identifies a strong enough plot objective around which to shape its narrative. The teacher who is credited as being a positive influence on Bulelo and her friends—a young Englishman named Mr. Fields—is not introduced until halfway through the text. None of the three girls experiences a crisis great enough to serve as a turning point in the narrative arc of the memoir. In Our Lady of the Nile, Scholastique Mukasonga successfully employed the boarding school setting as an arena to enact a prelude to the carnage that would later occur in Rwanda. Mkhonza does not connect the experiences of the girls at Manzini Nazarene High School to the larger issues that were ongoing in Swaziland as a newly independent African nation.

Tsitsi Dangarembga explored the ambivalence felt by a young African girl who receives an education in the British colonial school system in Nervous Conditions. Tambudzai knows that succeeding academically is the key to escaping the poverty that her immediate family endures, but is also keenly aware that her schooling is being provided by those who view her people as second-class citizens. Mkhonza does hint at the desire of the girls to use their education to resist the legacy that the European mission symbolizes. “… [W]e had subtle resentment that showed itself in excessive ridicule of the missionaries and the oppressive manner in which we thought they governed our lives. In all the positions that they occupied, we were sure that we wanted Africans.” However, this assertion never becomes the catalyst for significant action in the narrative. Bulelo and her friends may argue with school administrators about the punishments they receive for seemingly trivial infractions, but there is never any full-scale resistance or reformation. Long blocks of text and verbose, redundant prose further detract from the readability of Weeding the Flowerbeds. It is worth noting that Mkhonza published her book through a self-publishing firm. Therefore, some of the grammatical errors and other issues of readability may be attributed to a lack of copyediting and other editorial advisement that an author would receive at a traditional publishing house.

The final chapters of Weeding the Flowerbeds leading up to Bulelo’s graduation from the mission school constitute the strongest section of the book. Curiously, Mkhonza does not reveal what the three girls plan to pursue after finishing secondary school—nursing school is discussed as an option by one of her friends but is never confirmed. One issue that has been resolved for Bulelo is her relationship with Christianity. “There would no more be preaching and praying in my life. I was going back to my Methodist background, where salvation was not a daily thing that was preached about three times a day.” Mkhonza accurately captures the relief and regret that a student feels on the day when school is finally over. “I looked at the high school for the last time. I really felt that those red, white, and green walls had given more to me than I had given to them. I hoped that I would keep all that they had given.” In moments like these, it becomes clear that there is wisdom and poignancy in Mkhonza’s writing, but it struggles to shine in the midst of this frequently redundant and unfocused text.

Bibliography

1. “The World Factbook: ESWATINI.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 22 Jan. 2019. Web. 24 Jan. 2019.

2. “Sarah Mkhonza.” Ithaca City of Asylum. Ithaca City of Asylum, 19 Feb. 2017. Web. 24 Jan. 2019.

Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi

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In her slim yet provocative novel, Mauritian author Ananda Devi challenges the popular perception of her country as a Western tourist’s paradise. Eve Out of Her Ruins reveals the unsavory underworld of an urban ghetto in which the East African island nation’s youth are driven to organized gangs and prostitution to escape the despair and poverty they are beset by. Narrated in turn by each of the four main characters, brief vignettes sketch out the realities of men and women on the cusp of adulthood, who rebel in various ways against the bleak fate that life has mapped out for them.

Seventeen-year-old Eve discovered prostitution when she was barely an adolescent and bartered her body in exchange for school supplies and other things she needs that her indigent parents could not provide. “I am in permanent negotiation. My body is a stop-over. Entire sections have been explored. Over time, they blossom with burns and cracks.” Yet her real passion is reserved for Savita, her best friend. “Nobody knows what pulls Eve and Savita to each other. Eve and Savita are the two sides of the moon.” Saadiq, who goes by “Saad” is a sensitive young man whose unrequited love for Eve is matched only by his passion for writing poetry. “I want both: to write, and to have Eve. Eve and writing. Hand in hand. Having only one of them is as good as nothing. They are the fruits that will sate me…” Clélio is a sullen, delinquent youth who has already spent time in prison for assault and declares, “I’m at war. Fighting everybody and nobody. I can’t get away from my rage. Someday, I know it, I’ll kill someone.” However, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that he acts out in order to externalize his emotional wounds, particularly those left by the brother who immigrated to France and only interacts with his family via brief phone calls from overseas.

The novel is divided into two halves, the first of which delineates the relationships between the four main characters within the Port Louis ghetto that they call home. The second section begins with the neighborhood having been shocked out of its mundane drudgery and typical petty violence by the brutal murder of Savita. Savita was last seen alive walking Eve home from the high school where Eve turned tricks in exchange for a teacher’s help with biology lessons. This event has dramatic ramifications for the three surviving characters. Savita’s parents—and the neighborhood as a whole—hold Eve indirectly responsible for the death of Savita. Her father uses the situation as an excuse to lash out at the daughter he did nothing to protect from sinking into her fate, yet still despises for the ignominy she brings to his name. Clélio, the most disreputable juvenile felon of the neighborhood, is arrested for the crime. There is no evidence linking him to the murder, but he cannot provide an alibi either. Saad feels Eve’s grief embedded on his own heart and tries to assist her in any way he can think of. Initially, he accompanies her to the police inspector’s office so she can inquire about viewing Savita’s body in the morgue, but by the end of the novel, he has transformed into the man who will pay with his life for Eve’s actions in retribution against Savita’s killer.

Despite all the ugliness it unearths, Eve Out of Her Ruins manages to pay homage to the natural beauty of Mauritius. As Eve describes in the moment after she makes the harrowing decision to avenge Savita’s killer, “There’s a place where the birds’ cries are short and piercing, and where summer burns so vividly that you’ll forget even the memory of maggots in your guts.” In this way, Eve absolves the island of responsibility for the crimes that have been committed for so long by generations that they have warped the lives of herself and her peers. As the novel reaches its conclusion, the neighborhood youth are plotting a riot to protest the unjust incarceration of Clélio, which will likely backfire. Meanwhile, Eve’s own violence assumes a transcendent quality against the backdrop of the island’s splendor; she rejects passivity and chooses to fight back against what destiny presumes she will accept.

Bibliography

1. “The World Factbook: MAURITIUS.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 3 DEC. 2018. Web. 23 DEC. 2018.

2. Le Clézio, JMG. (2016). Forward. In Ananda Devi, Eve Out of Her Ruins (pp. 3-5). Dallas, TX: Deep Vellum Publishing.

3. Zuckerman, Jeffrey. (2016). Translator’s After. In Ananda Devi, Eve Out of Her Ruins (pp. 141-143). Dallas, TX: Deep Vellum Publishing.