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Monnew by Ahmadou Kourouma

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The impact of colonialism is a theme that is commonly explored in contemporary African literature. In Monnew, Ivoirian author Ahmadou Kourouma sets his sights back in time and chronicles how French rule was imposed on the fictional West African kingdom of Soba at the end of the nineteenth century. When messengers from neighboring kingdoms arrive to warn Djigui Keita that a French commander leading a white, Christian army is advancing across the continent, seizing the land of the African kings, Djigui’s response is to insist that he is invincible and order members of his court to bewitch the invaders. “The sorcerers threw the most awful spells against the Nazarenes; the marabouts cursed them with the most secret verses; the griots praised the king.” Thus, Kourouma exposes the ways in which the “fixed and immovable society” ruled over by Djigui is unable to wage war successfully against the Western army. The ensuing chapters delineate the harrowing transformation that Soba undergoes as its people are compelled to endure “forced labor”—as opposed to slavery—on plantations and railroad construction sites controlled by the French, as well as being drafted into colonial armies during both World Wars. Throughout this metamorphosis, Djigui, who is made to sign a treaty with the French, remains unquestionably a figure of prominence amongst the Malinke people, though one of questionable power.

A note by translator Nidra Poller prefaces Monnew in which she comments upon the complex nature of literary translation. “With the graceful collaboration of the publisher, who has given me free reign to create an artistic interpretation of Monnè, outrages et défis, I have sought to honor Ahmadou Kourouma’s literary research with my own experiment in translation,” she writes. In this way, she alludes to the subtle power held by the interpreter, who has the ability to remold the way a text is understood without the full awareness of the author or the reader. The meaning of her words is revealed more fully in the novel when the French army utilizes a translator to converse with the natives who is prone to tacking his own commentary onto translations from French into Malinke and who sometimes withholds or mistranslates Djigui’s words to the French. Thus, in their unwillingness to deign to learn the language and ways of the tribes, the French are forced to place their trust in a subjugated native employed as an intermediary to interact with their new subjects. Further opportunities for misinterpretation arise due to the presence of griots in Djigui’s court whose sole purpose is to celebrate his existence with poetic chants, amplifying every sentiment or pronouncement expressed by him. However, Kourouma points out later in the novel that “…the journalists were the griots of Paris.” Therefore, the capacity for warping facts and exaggerating tales is hardly endemic to Africans.

This concept of adaptation and interpretation extends into Monnew’s treatment of Islam, which is also an import to Africa. Djigui and the members of his court visit a mosque regularly for prayers and invoke the name of Allah; however, they continue to engage in many cultural practices that are in violation of Islamic law. For example, Djigui frequently calls for sacrifices of animals and even humans and maintains a harem of hundreds of wives. It is only when a visiting Muslim scholar voyages to Soba and takes refuge in Djigui’s court that the emperor finds himself compelled to revisit the tenets of his declared faith. This leads to various comedic occurrences such as Djigui being forced to make the pilgrimage to Mecca twice because his first journey was nullified by the fact that he divorced the wrong wives in order to pare down his harem.

Ultimately, even after Djigui’s death, distortions emerge regarding his legacy. His followers are forced to concede that “…more than any other chief, he had fatigued his subjects to serve the White man.” Moreover, in the final years of his life, Djigui’s governmental role was largely ceremonial, as one of his sons was appointed the acting chief of Soba by the French. At its conclusion, Monnew cannot promise that the independence won by African countries in the latter half of the century is anything more than an exercise in symbolism and linguistics. The genuine liberation of Africa from Western hegemony is a vision that remains to be seen in the future.

Bibliography

1. “The World Factbook: COTE D’IVOIRE.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 13 Nov. 2018. Web. 16 Nov. 2018.

2. Poller, Nidra. (1993). Translator’s Note. In Ahmadou Kouroma, Monnew (pp. xi-xii). San Francisco, CA: Mercury House.

Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

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Dust—a single word evoking brevity and simplicity—belies the complexity of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s expansive tome that ultimately falters under the weight of its ambitious scope. A troubled family is forced to grapple with the death of a wayward son who was killed in a police raid. Patriarch Aggrey Nyipir Oganda travels to Nairobi from rural northern Kenya to obtain the body of Odidi Oganda. Arabel Ajany, Odidi’s sister, journeys from Brazil as much to escape her own demons as to bury her brother. Meanwhile, a stranger from England arrives at Wuoth Ogik, Nyipir’s secluded, desert homestead, stating that Odidi has information regarding the whereabouts of the father he was born not knowing. As the backdrop to this domestic turmoil, elections that have taken place in Kenya have been compromised by corruption. The unrest that ensues throughout the country leads Nyipir to reflect on the equally brutal period that ushered in Kenya’s independence from British colonial rule.

Dust opens with a riveting prologue that describes Odidi’s desperate attempt to evade capture by the police during what was supposed to be his last heist for a gang he was working with, only to be shot and killed. Unfortunately, the ensuing chapters are fragmented and fail to delineate central plot points that will advance the novel in the aftermath of his death. Thus, it is unclear whether Dust’s primary focus is on seeking justice for Odidi or dissecting the dynamics of the Oganda family that led to the estrangement of the children from their parents and Odidi’s descent into criminality. Upon being presented with the corpse of her son, Odidi and Ajany’s mother, Akai, vanishes into the desert, spurning her husband and daughter. The Trader, an enigmatic figure notorious for “collect[ing] secrets, a source of income, a pleasurable economy,” is summoned to Wuoth Ogik to eliminate demons of various forms. Nyipir’s reminiscences on his rise to power and fall from grace while serving his country in its founding days, as well as the arrival of British-born Isaiah, who hopes to learn his father’s fate, obfuscate the narrative further.

The characters Owuor crafts, while imbued with careful detail, fail to live up to the intensity the novel attributes to them. The fascination with Isaiah’s father, Hugh Bolton, for whom “[…his mother] cried out for… before she died” is unclear given that Hugh is portrayed as a negligent husband and a bigot who staunchly believed that the British should govern Kenya. The romance between Ajany and Isaiah feels forced, especially given that Ajany had recently left a troubled relationship in Brazil. Akai Lokorijom, Odidi’s mother, is portrayed as an imposing and captivating figure, but is not physically present for most of the novel. Thus, her character is not represented on her own terms until the conclusion of the book. Nyipir and Odidi emerge as the two most credible characters, who share a similar arc, though it occurs under different circumstances for each of them. Nyipir is deemed a traitor to the military for inadvertently acknowledging the atrocities that were carried out by the Kenyan government in its early days. He is imprisoned, tortured, and destined for death until a sympathetic former colleague helps him escape. He then turns to illicit dealings in cattle and arms in the north Kenyan desert. Odidi trained as an engineer at the University of Nairobi and founded his own firm with a classmate but resigned in disgrace after refusing to accept a government bribe in exchange for work on a corrupt project. “[…] Odidi’s time with the gang came from heroic idealism. He had only been organizing the disenchanted youth to work for a different future for themselves.” Thus, father and son are forced to turn their backs on the country they sought to serve.

The final sixty pages of Dust see the preponderance of the novel’s action, but the revelations that occur are unsatisfying. Isaiah’s discovery that his mission to locate Hugh Bolton is not relevant to his identity is weakened by the fact that his character does not exist much outside of this quest. Akai’s explanation for her emotional distance from her daughter detracts from the formidable complexity of her character. Even after taking revenge on the missionaries who betrayed him, leading to the deaths of his wife and children, the Trader remains a wandering recluse, “a gatherer and carrier of stories.” A wake for Odidi at Wuoth Ogik brings some closure for the Oganda family, but ultimately they disperse from their homestead, and it is unlikely that they will ever see one another again.

Perhaps the most compelling character in Dust is the northern Kenyan countryside. Owuor’s prose pulses with descriptions of “a stark otherworldliness where the sky dominated everything” and “[…] giraffes browse on the extended banks of streams, among pockets of flowering shrubs of all hues…” This arid landscape contrasts sharply with urban Nairobi and is divorced from the political turmoil that the latter is gripped by. The final message conveyed in Dust is that no matter who inhabits the country or takes charge of its government, the land will always remain and is the ultimate authority over Kenya and its people.

Bibliography

1. The World Factbook: KENYA.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 26 Sep. 2018. Web. 13 Oct. 2018.

The Purple Violet of Oshaantu by Neshani Andreas

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The concept of marriage is virtually universal, and yet what it is meant to signify from a religious, cultural, social, or economic perspective is so fluid that it transcends any single, standard definition. In The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, Neshani Andreas uses sensitive and inspiring prose to explore the marriages of two women in Namibia. Ali, the narrator of the novel, has a warm and loving relationship with her husband Michael, who lives away from home much of the year working as a miner. Though Ali became pregnant with his child before they were married, Michael voluntarily proposed to her and she relocated to his family’s village, where she gave birth to several more children. As a new bride, she befriends Kauna, for whom her only daughter is named. Kauna’s husband is Shange, a man who beats her and carries on an indiscreet affair with another woman. When Shange dies unexpectedly, Kauna accepts his passing with a stoicism that is deemed scandalous throughout the village. “Rumours that Kauna was not crying or showing any emotion towards the sudden death of her husband spread like wild fire.” Ali struggles to support Kauna while contemplating the history of her friend’s marriage in which she was victimized by her abusive husband.

The Purple Violet of Oshaantu bears many similarities to Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter. Both novels analyze marriage from the female perspective. Furthermore, this reflection takes place in the aftermath of the death of a spouse. Friendship between women is a powerful force in each novel, providing a counterpoint to the marital bond. The mutual respect that Ali and Kauna have for one another mirrors the admiration Ramatoulaye expresses for Aissatou in her letter to her friend, recollecting how she left her husband when he took a second wife. Ali admires Kauna’s strength in being able to raise her children without the help of a stable partner, whereas Kauna is impressed by Ali’s ability to negotiate her marriage on her own terms with a man who is committed to her.

The theme of female supportiveness is expanded in the novel as other characters are introduced who embody different forms of strength. Kauna’s aunt Mee Fennie is a role model in that she divorced her husband and successfully raised three children on her own. Sustera is a nurse who sends Kauna to the hospital after a particularly bad beating by Shange and helps her obtain contraception when she wishes to stop having children. Mukwankala is an elderly woman who challenges Shange in public about his treatment of Kauna after learning that she has been hospitalized. The most inspirational example of female collaboration takes place when Ali helps Kauna organize an okakungungu upon realizing that her friend needs help tilling her land. “The women understood Kauna’s situation. There was a wonderful spirit, a spirit of sisterhood.” In a single day, the women of the village are able to complete work which would have burdened Kauna and her children for weeks beyond the ideal season for planting. Ali is in awe of the outpouring of support shown for Kauna and what the women have accomplished as a group, “As we parted, I looked at them and thought, Yes, girls, you have done it again.”

Unfortunately, not everyone holds Kauna in such high regard. When her in-laws arrive to conduct Shange’s funeral, they are dismayed by her refusal to cooperate with the expected mourning traditions. Her disobedience has consequences in that her husband’s relatives buy Shange’s property, which she cannot afford, and evict her and her children. Kauna’s departure from Oshaantu is bittersweet as it represents her failure to triumph over the unjust will of her in-laws and the loss of her friendship with Ali. However, it also signifies Kauna’s realization that she must part ways with the remnants of her old life in order to build a new one. In the final chapter, Michael comes home to visit the grave of his childhood friend and spend time with his family. In this way, Andreas provides an example of a happy marriage and illustrates the positive effect it has on Michael and Ali’s children. Ali expresses her gratitude to her husband, ‘“Michael, I don’t always say this, but I want to thank you for what you do for us… I appreciate it […]’” Michael encourages Ali to connect with other women in the village now that she no longer has Kauna. Thus, Andreas implies that the key to a well-balanced life for a woman is to build relationships both within and outside of the domestic sphere that provide her with guidance and compassion throughout her existence.

 

Bibliography 

1. The World Factbook: NAMIBIA.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 27 Aug. 2018. Web. 3 Sep. 2018.

 

The Parachute Drop by Norbert Zongo

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

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

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

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

 

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

Bibliography

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

The Africa Book Challenge on Goodreads

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

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

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

The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison by Jack Mapanje

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

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

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

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

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

A Lonely Devil by Sousa Jamba

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

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

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

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

The Africa Book Challenge Year I

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

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

 

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

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