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No Sweetness Here and Other Stories

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ

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Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter has been the subject of much critical praise and scholarly analysis since its publication in 1979 for two reasons: its portrayal of polygamy in a rapidly modernizing West African society and its structure as a single, continuous letter. Ramatoulaye, a middle-aged Senegalese woman, writes to her childhood friend Aissatou following the death of her husband, Moudou. Ramatoulaye and her husband were still technically married even though he abandoned her and her twelve children to live with his second wife, a much younger woman. Aissatou now lives in America. Her husband, Mawdo, also married a second wife, prompting Aissatou to leave him, taking their four children with her. Thus, in prose that is imbued with passion but devoid of sentimentality, Bâ conducts an informal case study of the divergent paths taken by two women when confronted with the same difficult situation.

Ramatoulaye acknowledges that she went against her family’s wishes by marrying Moudou, a young trade union lawyer educated in France. Her mother preferred an older, more established doctor for her daughter. Mawdo, Aissatou’s husband, defied his family’s expectations for him by marrying the daughter of a goldsmith, a woman considered beneath him due to his mother’s royal lineage. In spite of a happy marriage to Aissatou, Mawdo ultimately caves to pressure from his mother and takes a second wife of her choosing. Moudou succumbs to lust as a middle-aged man and successfully pursues a classmate of his eldest daughter. The girl comes from a poor family and her own mother persuades her to accept this marriage proposal from an older man for the sake of profit.

Despite Mawdo’s insistence that his second marriage is strictly for the benefit of his aging mother and his clear favoritism for his first wife, Aissatou cannot accept his nuptials and leaves with his four children. She resumes her education and succeeds in attaining a position in the Senegalese Embassy in the United States. Ramatoulaye greatly admires the decisions her friend has made and expresses regret for not behaving similarly after her husband marries his second wife. “Yes, I was well aware of where the right solution lay, the dignified solution. And, to my family’s great surprise, unanimously disapproved of by my children […] I chose to remain.” She concedes that uprooting her twelve children is not a realistic step she can take on her own and accepts the revised terms of her marriage, even though her husband neglects her completely in favor his new family.

Ramatoulaye’s acquiescence to her status as the cast-off wife may imply submissiveness in her character, yet her invocation of Aissatou’s rejection of the same fate elevates this quality. Furthermore, as So Long a Letter progresses, it becomes clear that it is not just the memory of Aissatou’s defiance that proves invaluable for Ramatoulaye. In what is easily the novel’s most powerful moment, Ramatoulaye describes complaining to her friend in a letter about the cramped conditions of the bus her children must ride to school since the family can no longer afford a vehicle. She continues, “I shall never forget your response, you, my sister, nor my joy and my surprise when I was called to the Fiat agency and was told to choose a car which you had paid for, in full.” Thus, Aissatou—now a wealthy diplomat in the United States—utilizes her prestige to help her struggling friend, introducing into the novel the concept of women using their newly-gained power to elevate other women.

Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood also deals with polygamy in a West African nation and it is intriguing to compare how the topic is handled in each novel. Nnu Ego, who grew up in an indigenous tribal society and underwent arranged marriages, views her first husband’s taking of a second wife as a direct consequence of her infertility, and thus holds herself responsible for his actions. Her second husband, whom she marries in urban Lagos, inherits the wives his brother leaves behind after his death. Unhappy in this marriage and already struggling to support her children on her husband’s income, Nnu Ego’s only concern is the financial burden that additional women and children will bring to their family. Ramatoulaye is an educated woman who works outside of the home as a teacher while raising her children. Having chosen her successful husband out of love and admiration for him, she perceives his second marriage as a repudiation of their relationship first and foremost, and experiences the ensuing economic hardship as a byproduct of this rejection. Thus, time-period, education level, and socioeconomic status are important factors that influence how polygamy is experienced by a particular woman.

In the final portion of So Long a Letter, Ramatoulaye has opted to prolong the period of mourning that Islamic tradition requires of widows, enjoying the space for contemplation that it allows her. She has rebuffed all the suitors who offer to marry her in the aftermath of her husband’s death. Ramatoulaye has also dealt with the challenges of single motherhood and its impact on her children as they mature and test boundaries, drawn to the temptations of the world outside their home. She catches three of her daughters smoking in their bedroom. Shortly after this incident, she discovers that one of her older daughters is pregnant. The latter issue is perhaps resolved with more glibness than realism. However, it does prompt Ramatoulaye to broach the subject of sexual education to her other daughters.  “Modern mothers favour ‘forbidden games’. They help to limit the damage and, better still, prevent it.” She has received word that Aissatou intends to visit her in Senegal. Thus, the novel ends on a note of hope and anticipation, implying that Ramatoulaye’s liberation from the painful legacy of her marriage to Moudou enables a new chapter in her life to begin, one in which she is reunited with the friend who is her inspiration.

 

The Africa Book Challenge on Facebook

Last Friday, August 25th, marked the sixth-month anniversary of The Africa Book Challenge. Though some of the posts may technically have dates prior, the site did not go public until February 25th.

…Of course, what better way to ring in that anniversary than with some technical difficulties. Many apologies to anyone who received email notifications about posts that do not exist.

Anyway, The Africa Book Challenge now has a Facebook Page because, let’s face it: everyone does.

It is still in the elementary stages of development, so you will have to pardon its unpolished appearance.

Self-promotion is not the name of the game for The Africa Book Challenge, so aside from sharing the entries as they are published, the primary function of the page remains to be determined. Therefore, if you have any suggestions for content, feel free to leave a comment.

Thank you for following along these past six months.

The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta

 

Belying a title that sounds like the sequel to What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood is hardly an elegy to the miraculous nature of the mother-child relationship. Instead, it chronicles how the shifting sociopolitical climate of colonial Nigeria during the World War II Era leaves those brought up in the traditional way of life struggling to cope with their new reality. In classical African society, family and fertility are central to a woman’s identity and status in society; sons, in particular, are expected to provide for their aging parents. However, the consequences of modernization upend this tenet.

Nnu Ego is the daughter of a fierce Ibo village chief and his favorite mistress. Tribal belief maintains that every individual is born with a chi, a personal god that is the spirit of a deceased person, who influences his or her destiny. Nnu Ego’s chi is that of a slave woman who was buried alive against her will in the grave of her father’s eldest wife per tribal stipulation. When Nnu Ego comes of age, her father arranges for her to be married to a farmer from a prestigious family in a nearby village. Though Nnu Ego is happy with her husband and determined to be an ideal wife, she is unable to get pregnant, despite prayers and sacrifices to her vindictive chi. Upon the advice of his family, her husband marries a second wife who gives him a son. Initially, Nnu Ego is permitted to stay on and even assumes some child-rearing responsibilities for her co-wife’s baby, but is later sent back to her father’s compound in disgrace. Her father finds her a new husband, a man who works in Lagos—an urbanized city with a heavy British presence.

Thus, Nnu Ego is relocated to Lagos where she marries Nnaife, who works as a launderer for a wealthy white scientist and his wife. Even though her husband succeeds in impregnating her nine times, resulting in seven surviving births, Nnu Ego takes an immediate dislike to him. “She was used to tall, wiry farmers, with rough, blackened hands from farming, long, lean legs and very dark skin. This one was short, the flesh of his upper arm danced as he moved about […]” She resents Nnaife for his subservience to his white masters and dislikes that she is dependent on him for money. She also has no relatives nearby to help with domestic duties. The death of Nnaife’s older brother means that Nnaife inherits responsibility for his wives, one of whom he takes to Lagos to live with Nnu Ego and her children. This wife, Adako, gives birth to two children, but they are daughters.

When World War II breaks out, Nnaife’s employer returns to Europe to fight in the war. Nnaife, himself, is eventually conscripted into the army and sent away from his family, despite having no knowledge of why the war is being fought. Unfortunately, his departure coincides with Nnu Ego’s two older sons turning the age at which it is necessary for them to begin attending school. Nnu Ego trades small goods in a marketplace stall and manages to scrape together money for food and her sons’ school fees, while also receiving sporadic payments from the government for Nnaife’s army service. Adako abandons the family, feeling inadequate because she has not given birth to a son. She vows to become a “public woman”, but instead becomes a successful merchant in the Lagos marketplace.

Nnaife survives the war and is reunited with his family, receiving payments and a promotion to a covetable workshop job, thus bringing some stability to the family. However, this constancy is short-lived as Oshia, Nnu Ego’s eldest son, announces his intention to attend college and expects his parents to supply the funds for him to do so. At this point, Nnu Ego is forced to confront the misalignment of her expectations for her family. Up until now, she has believed that education is crucial for her children to be able to secure better jobs and contribute financially to their family. Yet the higher the degree of education her son pursues, the greater the expense burden for his parents, while he is still not earning money on their behalf. By contrast, Adaku, who “[Nnaife] dismissed […] as an evil woman […]”, earns enough money on her own to send her daughters to a convent school.

In addition to her sons, Nnu Ego’s two older daughters—four of her seven children are girls—are causing problems of a different nature. While Taiwo agrees to an arranged marriage to an educated clerk, her twin sister Kehinde falls in love with a boy from the Yoruba tribe, a traditional rival of the Ibos. Nnaife flies into a rage and seeks vengeance on the family, but is arrested by the police and tried for attempted murder. As Nnu Ego testifies on behalf of her husband, trying to explain what was at stake in her family, the prosecutor responds, ‘“But the trouble is that we are now in the twentieth century and in Lagos.’”

These words encapsulate the unbearable crux of Nnu Ego’s situation. From the time she was a child, she was raised to believe that if she made sacrifices for the sake of her people, they would sacrifice in turn for her. However, the modern values pervading society emphasize the will and autonomy of the individual. In this context, her husband is depicted during his trial as a greedy alcoholic whose violent actions are only meant to protect his daughter’s bride price, while depriving her of the right to marry a spouse of her own choosing. Her sons emigrate to the United States and Canada, but neglect to keep in-touch with her. “[…] when they predicted that soon her son would be back and driving her about in a big car, she knew that they had all missed the point. She was not destined to be such a mother.” After her death, Nnu Ego never grants a child to anyone who prays to her requesting fertility. It is unclear whether she is channeling the punitive nature of her own chi or trying to protect naïve young women from stumbling down the same path she did.

 

Passage of Tears by Abdourahman Waberi

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(c) Can Stock Photo / Ludvig 

Abdourahman Waberi’s Passage of Tears addresses the classic ambivalence of the expatriate who revisits his country of origin after a long time away. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, twenty-nine-year-old Djibril—who lives in Montreal but works for a consulting firm in Denver, Colorado—returns to Djibouti to prepare an intelligence report that will be reviewed by the American government. Due to its location in the Horn of Africa—sharing a border with Somalia and across the Red Sea from Yemen—Djibouti has become “an essential square on the ever-changing geopolitical chessboard”, with American marines installed in camps abandoned by the French Navy after Djibouti became independent. Djibril, or “Djib” as he prefers to call himself, left Djibouti when he was eighteen, first to study in Paris and then to reside in Montreal.

Passage of Tears is amorphous in both structure and plot. As Djib hunts for clues for his report, he muses on his childhood, devoting particular attention to his twin brother, Djamal, and their antagonistic relationship, as well as a friend named David, with whom he shared a much closer bond. In alternating sections named after letters of the Arabic alphabet, he is tormented, addressed directly, by an unidentified prisoner who shares a cell with his “venerable Master”—the two of them subscribers to a fundamentalist Islamic sect with connections to a terrorist organization. The prisoner keeps a written record of the sermons of his cellmate “on old bits of paper that the wind has blown into our cell.” However, he soon discovers other writing extant on the recycled parchment. It is a chronicle of the life of the German intellectual Walter Benjamin, who attempted to flee Europe during the rise of the Nazi regime, and may have spent time in a French detention facility located on the same grounds as the tower the prisoner is kept in.

The lack of focus in the novel undermines its readability as the relationship between the protagonist and the prisoner is unclear for the majority of the narrative. There is no explanation of what crime the prisoner has been sentenced to death for and the objective of Djib’s mission remains vague. Furthermore, Djib is an insular and isolated figure, fastidiously absorbed in the minutia of his investigation; he is seldom depicted directly interacting with other characters. Djib recalls that his parents were distant towards him when he was growing up. He has a French-Canadian girlfriend, Denise, with whom he lived in Montreal prior to his return to Djibouti. They met in college, where she introduced him to Walter Benjamin’s writing. However, none of these characters are fleshed out enough to engage readers.

This inaccessibility is particularly frustrating given that Djibouti is a country greatly in need of literary representation, as it is often overlooked in comparison to its more prominent neighbors Ethiopia and Somalia. Though Waberi explicates some of the reasons for Djibouti’s significance in the post-9/11 world, he never discusses the consequences of this development from the perspective of the Djiboutian people. Instead, just as Djib has assimilated into Western culture—living in Montreal while working for a firm in Colorado—the novel favors the story of Walter Benjamin, without making a compelling case for its relevance to the present narrative.

Intrigue picks up in the final quarter of Passage of Tears as the whereabouts of Djib’s brother are established and the prisoner in the tower reveals that the terrorist network he is affiliated with is planning to execute Djibril. At the same time, now that the prisoner has allowed his mind to be engaged by the life story of Walter Benjamin, he finds that he can no longer restrict his thoughts to the monolithic doctrine he has devoted his adult life to. “For this story, I have neglected the repetitive commentaries of my Master. It doesn’t matter who wrote it; this parchment has already enchanted me […]” It is in this plot development that Waberi has his greatest success. The prisoner’s turn away from the narrow mindset of fundamentalism is subtle enough to satisfy the story’s need for resolution without seeming falsely optimistic. As for whether it is too late for Djib when this happens—perhaps it was too late for him from the moment he arrived in Djibouti.

Bibliography

1. “The World Factbook: DJIBOUTI.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 7 June 2017. Web. 13 June 2017.

2. Osborne, Peter and Charles, Matthew, “Walter Benjamin”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Web. 13 June 2017.

The Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih

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Tayeb Salih’s The Wedding of Zein is actually a compendium of two short stories and a longer novella. In “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid”, a date palm tree believed to have sacred powers by the inhabitants of the village where it is located is the target of distant government officials who always believe that the ground on which it stands is the ideal spot for an irrigation pump or ferry stop. The villagers band together and, often abetted by elements of nature, succeed in driving out the bureaucrats who would destroy their holy relic, even though their children flee to the capital city to continue their education and escape the coarseness of life in their village. The story ends on an uncertain note with its narrator inquiring of a sophisticated visitor passing through the town, ‘“And when […] will they set up the water-pump, and put through the agricultural scheme and the stopping-place for the steamer?”’ The implication is that even the townspeople are growing wary of their efforts to drive out modernization in the name of defending the hallowed doum tree. The visitor replies, ‘“What all these people have overlooked is that there’s plenty of room for all these things: the doum tree, the tomb, the water-pump, and the steamer’s stopping-place.”’ Thus, Salih advocates for compromise—reminding readers that progress is necessary and inevitable, but that it is unwise to completely relinquish one’s history. In “A Handful of Dates” a young boy is forced to confront the realization that his brilliant and ambitious grandfather is not so worthy of the admiration he once bestowed upon him.

The titular story “The Wedding of Zein” comprises the majority of the book. Zein is regarded as the village idiot by the townsfolk, prone to professing his love for a particular beautiful young woman of the town, only to see her married off to a worthier suitor, leaving him to seek out the next object of his infatuation. Therefore, the announcement of Zein’s impending nuptials to a beautiful, pious, and intelligent young maiden spreads through the town like a contagion. From here, the novella broadens its perspective and uses the backstory of Zein’s life leading up to his engagement as a point of reference for analyzing how life is organized in a rural village, while also invoking spiritual themes of charity and redemption.

Though its subject is matrimony, “The Wedding of Zein” devotes little in-depth attention to Ni’ma, Zein’s bride, or any of its other female characters. The women in the village occupy the margins of the story—disseminating petty gossip or else ululating with excitement over the upcoming wedding. This is in sharp contrast to the male characters, all of whom are described at length. In terms of discussing why the desirable Ni’ma would choose the ungainly Zein as her husband, the story can only conjecture that she was “prompted by pity for Zein, or intrigued by the idea of making a sacrifice—something very much in her character […]” as though Salih himself cannot authentically understand the reasoning of his young heroine. Even in its evocative description of an abundant Sudanese wedding—replete with staid prayers and risqué dancing taking place side-by-side—the bride is missing. In fact, the story discusses Zein’s wedding costume in great detail while making no mention of what Ni’ma wore.

All of the pieces in this collection were written in the 1960’s, nearly a decade after Sudan gained its independence from colonial British rule. However, none of them address the ongoing conflict between the northern Arab majority and the non-Arab tribes of the South, in which slave trafficking, genocide, and other human rights violations were reported; in 2011, South Sudan became recognized as an independent state.[1]  That The Wedding of Zein focuses instead on the relatively peaceful lives of rural countrymen is refreshing, and adds a much-needed dimension to the cultural understanding of what was once the largest country on the African continent.

 

 

[1] “The World Factbook: SUDAN.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 12 Jan. 2017. Web. 06 May 2017.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi

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Nawal El Saadawi has gained international acclaim as both a psychiatrist and a writer. Despite her village upbringing, she earned a medical degree from the University of Cairo in 1955. Woman at Point Zero developed out of her research on neurosis in Egyptian women during the 1970’s, which led her to interview female prisoners.[1] Yet after reading the story of Firdaus—a woman awaiting her execution after killing a man—the reader is more likely to be afflicted by chills of anxiety than the heroine who transcends it

Half-fact, half-fiction, Woman at Point Zero is, at heart, a fable about male hegemony and abuse with Firdaus as its anything but passive focal point. Growing up a peasant in the Egyptian countryside, she watches her father beat her mother regularly. Her uncle takes her to Cairo after her parents die and sends her to school, but also molests her. “I was trembling all over, seized with a feeling I could not explain, that my uncle’s great long fingers would draw close to me after a little while, and cautiously lift the eiderdown under which I lay.” Her first husband—a man three times her age—beats her “whether he had a reason for it or not.” Bayoumi, a coffeehouse owner, offers her shelter in his flat when she flees her husband, but then locks her in it by day and rapes her by night when she states her intention to find work. There are the countless men she lies beneath as a prostitute, first for the wealthy madam Sharifa Salah el Dine, and then working on her own. There is Ibrahim, the “revolutionary”, who wins her love and spurns it. Lastly, there is Marzouk, a pimp who forces his way into her life and drives her to kill.

Despite its predominantly harsh content, moments of tenderness are present in Woman at Point Zero. One evening, Firdaus is sitting in the playground at her boarding school, contemplating what will happen when she graduates. A teacher discovers her and expresses concern. Without meaning to, Firdaus starts to cry. After a few minutes, she looks up and discovers that her young teacher is crying too, though she attempts to hide it. Shortly before her graduation, Firdaus finds out that she has received a certificate of merit in addition to her diploma; however, no one from her family attends the ceremony to sign for them. When her name is called, the same teacher ascends the stage with her and signs as her guardian so that she can receive her awards. Firdaus never sees the teacher again. In a second instance, when Firdaus overhears her uncle and his wife discussing their plans for her marriage, she considers running away. As she is packing her bags, her youngest cousin discovers her. Unable to understand what she is doing and barely able to talk as a toddler, she can only utter ‘“Daus, Daus”’ as Firdaus flees her uncle’s house. Such moments lend humanity and affection to a narrative that is otherwise starkly bereft of either. That they occur exclusively between female characters underscores the extent to which women are each other’s’ only allies in a world shaped around the desires and expectations of men.

While much of the discussion of the book centers around the behavior of the male characters alongside discussion of Firdaus, the supporting female characters are equally worthy of examination, particularly in terms of how much they are complicit in the violence that Firdaus experiences in her life. It is her mother who subjects her to the ritual of female circumcision, which is carried out by another woman from their village. When Firdaus complains to her uncle about her husband’s beatings, his wife reassures her “that her husband often beat her” and “that […] men well versed in their religion […] beat their wives.” While meeting Sharifa Salah el Dine serves as a climactic moment in the novel in which the expectations of womanhood that have been imposed upon Firdaus are challenged, she reduces her to a pawn in her own scheme for profit. “Day and night I lay on the bed, crucified, and every hour a man would come in.” When a particular man expresses his desire to marry Firdaus, Sharifa becomes indignant, and it is revealed that he once fell in love with another one of her prostitutes and may have been in love with Sharifa at one point. While Sharifa yields to his advances and has sex with him, Firdaus decides to escape the apartment, determined to live on her own. Thus, while compassion is solely the domain of women, it is a scarce resource; in a world that has so little to offer them, the majority of women are reduced to perpetrating violence against and exploiting one another in attempts to raise their status in society.

At its finale, the murder that happens is almost an afterthought. That Firdaus was driven to kill seems inevitable—the man she kills is no more or less deserving of death than any of the other men she has met—rather, it is her evolution as a character that leads her to take his life. “When I killed I did it with truth not with a knife”, Firdaus insists on the eve of her execution. It is a testament to Nawal El Saadawi’s palpable retelling that this “truth” has survived four decades after Firdaus’ life was taken from her.

[1] All biographical information regarding Nawal El Saadawi sourced directly from the book edition.

Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah

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Ishmael Beah’s 2007 memoir recounting his years as a child soldier in the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone garnered him widespread praise from book critics and human rights advocates alike. In 2014, he produced his second literary offering, this time having set his sights on writing fiction. Radiance of Tomorrow is an evocative and sensitively-written novel chronicling what awaits people who make the journey back to their homes in the aftermath of conflict.

The book opens with Mama Kadie, an elderly woman returning to Imperi, her native village, seven years after she fled during its ambush. “There were bones, human bones, everywhere […]” in Imperi, but Mama Kadie soon finds that she is not alone in her instinctual desire to return. She reunites with two other village elders, Pa Moiwa and Pa Kaneisi. Together, they begin the task of making Imperi habitable again by clearing away the skeletons of their peers, while tentatively coming to terms with all they have lost in their years away from home.

Shortly thereafter, other displaced residents begin to return, rounding out the cast of characters for the novel. There is Colonel, an authoritarian young man who has put himself in charge of three other youths who presumably met during the war. Mahawa is a sixteen-year-old mother to a two-year-old son. “Her eyes, especially when placed upon the child, held love and deep hatred.” The father of her son is never named. Sila and his children, Hawa and Maada, return to Imperi as amputees—each of them missing at least one hand after being tortured when they took shelter in what they thought was a deserted village. Lastly, Bockarie and his wife and five children return, bringing great joy to Pa Kaneisi, who searched all the schools in Freetown (Sierra Leone’s capital) in hopes of finding his teacher son.

From here, the novel veers off sharply to explore the devastating consequences of exploitative greed when a foreign mining company sets up a development near Imperi to mine for rutile. Dams built by the company pollute drinking water and deform fish from local streams; a student is killed after stepping on a live wire on his way to school. Police and security personnel do nothing except shield the company and its workers from the protests of the villagers; attempts to appeal to the Paramount Chief—the representative to the government for Imperi and its surrounding villages—are unsuccessful as she has been bribed by the company. Meanwhile, Bockarie’s efforts to resume his teaching career at the recently reopened secondary school are thwarted by inadequate resources and a corrupt principal. Reluctantly, he decides to take a position at the mining company to better support his family. Colonel launches a series of improvised sabotage attacks against the mining company, but goes into hiding to avoid detection.

Ishmael Beah succeeds at crafting thoughtful and well-developed characters who accept the common challenge of rebuilding their homeland, but possess unique perspectives shaped as much by who they were before the war broke out as by what they endured during it. Though the people of Imperi have been scarred by conflict, they have retained their gentleness. When a former child soldier with a particular reputation for ruthlessness wanders into the village, provoking dismay among the townspeople, Mama Kadie remarks ‘“I could have never imagined a world where the presence of a child brings something other than joy.”’ Beah’s imaginative prose is well-matched to the characters who inhabit his novel. In an author’s note preceding the book, he discusses the ‘expressiveness’ of Mende, his native language. Thus, a cloudless afternoon is rendered “that time of day when the sun came to a standstill and flexed the brightness of its muscles so intensely […]” and shortly before Mama Kadi makes her way to her village, the dirt road to Imperi “anticipated it would soon end its starvation for the warmth of bare feet that gave it life.”

Radiance of Tomorrow defies readers’ expectation that it will end with a straightforward moral. The people of Imperi returned to their village with the hope that being in familiar surroundings would aid them in healing from the violence they have survived. However, by the novel’s conclusion, the villagers have been forced to relocate when the mining company discovers mineral reserves directly on the land where their houses stand. The people of Imperi are betrayed not only by Westerners who savage their land in exchange for mining profits and think nothing of the civilians who get killed in the process, but also by their government and its representatives (the Paramount Chief) who sell away not only their property, but their values, choosing industrialism over tradition. Bockarie moves his family to Freetown in search of opportunity, but soon realizes that the capital city is beset with its own demons of burglary and prostitution; privately he wonders how he can shield his older children from their impact. Thus, Beah makes readers confront the reality that chronic hardship in Africa is caused not only by internal political conflict but also by the interference of outsiders who benefit from creating turbulence within its countries.

The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me by Calixthe Beyala

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“…She needed to seduce the stars in order to survive.” Thus, reads the last line of the prologue to Calixthe Beyala’s The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me. Nineteen-year-old Ateba Leocadie lives with her aunt, Ada, in a Cameroonian slum. Ateba’s mother, a prostitute, left her behind, and Ada keeps a series of lovers, none of whom stays around for very long. Conversely, she expects her niece to remain a virgin so that she can marry her off to a suitable husband, subjecting her to periodic “testing” by a female elder in their village to ensure that this is the case. The story is narrated by an amorphous spirit who is revealed at the end to be Ateba’s soul.

This narration technique dilutes the quality of Ateba’s story. Though The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me deals with many weighty topics including parental abandonment, prostitution, and intimate partner violence, its tone seems insipid. Ateba ponders the nature of God and writes letters to imaginary women about philosophical subjects. She is prone to making observations such as, “In the past woman was a star and would glitter in the sky night and day. One day, through some phenomenon the trampled stars refuse to explain, man was propelled on to the earth.” Perhaps in her own voice such musings might seem compelling, yet with her disembodied soul as a mouthpiece, one realizes that none of them provides any real solutions to the problems Ateba and the women in her life are facing.

The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me also suffers as a novel because of its heroine’s contradictory reactions to situations she is confronted with. When Ada rents a room in her house to a young man named Jean, sexual tension between him and Ateba is inevitable. Jean has a violent steak and assaults her verbally and physically during several of their interactions. Nevertheless, when Jean later invites her to meet him at a café, she goes willingly and takes pains to dress up for him. Even though Ateba is a virgin, she recalls how when she was fifteen, she convinced her neighbor’s ten-year-old son to lie with her and guided him to sexually stimulate her without penetration occurring. “In the QG, you learn to cheat very early. To cheat. To lie.” Given that the boy in question was prepubescent, it is difficult not to perceive a certain degree of sexual exploitation in Ateba’s actions.

Perhaps Beyala’s moral for The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me is the harm inherent in prizing a woman’s virginity above all else. However, there are other books that demonstrate this issue more successfully. One example—though it is not by an African author—is Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory. In Haitian tradition, women are subjected to nightly “testing” by their mothers to ensure that they are still virgins. Teenage Sophie immigrates to New York to be with her mother, who gave birth to her after being raped and then left Haiti. When Sophie falls in love for the first time, her mother finds out and begins to “test” her. As an act of defiance, she destroys her hymen using her mother’s spice pestle and is kicked out of her home by her mother, even though she has not engaged in sexual activity. This episode provides a provocative context for consideration of what virginity can be construed to mean as a measure of one’s worth in a culture or a self.

Unfortunately, The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me never puts forth a reasonable alternative to Ateba’s enforced chastity. Her prostitute mother disappeared when she was young, her neighbor murders her husband’s lover, and her best friend becomes pregnant and dies after getting an abortion. Thus, at its conclusion, the message seems to be that if women are disempowered as virgins, they do not gain power as sexual beings.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

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I had the privilege of being introduced to Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions in a literature class my sophomore year of college. However, since a good deal of time has passed since then, I deemed it best to give it a reread.

Young Tambudzai grows up in poverty in 1960’s Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), largely due to her father’s irresponsibility and lack of work ethic. Her family is provided for by her wealthy uncle, Babamakuru, who was taken under the wing of white missionaries as a child, and has been educated in both South Africa and England. When Tambu’s brother, who had gone to live with Babamakuru and study at the missionary school he presides over, dies suddenly, there are no other male children in the family. Therefore, Babamukuru offers Tambu the opportunity to receive an education on the mission in her brother’s place; the hope being that she can work and provide for her family of origin before she marries and starts a family of her own.

In the beginning, glowing descriptions of Babamukuru’s home on the mission evoke the rags-to-riches fortune that Tambudzai believes she has stumbled upon when she arrives. Nevertheless, a subtle uneasiness pervades the narrative, foreshadowing the objections she will grow to have to her unequal status as an African woman from an impoverished background in a hierarchy where whiteness, wealth, and masculinity are judged superior. First, there is the way that Babamukuru is given the status of a virtual deity in his extended family in exchange for his willingness to support them financially, with no one ever questioning the authority this gives him to dictate their circumstances. The day she moves onto the mission, Babamukuru and his wife, Maiguru, subject Tambu to a lecture about “how lucky I was to have been given this opportunity for mental and eventually, through it, material emancipation.” Then, there is Maiguru who is as well-educated as her husband, having earned a master’s degree in philosophy while in England with her family, yet turns her income as a teacher over to her husband and dotes on him and their two children. Finally, there is Nyasha, Babamukuru’s daughter, with whom Tambu shares a bedroom. Having spent three years living abroad in England, Nyasha has picked up many modern habits, particularly in terms of how she relates to and rebels against her parents—much to their consternation—and in her forward behavior around boys. In stark contrast to the rest of her family, she is openly critical of her father and the way that he receives the automatic obedience of everyone he relates to; obedience he demands.

Nervous Conditions excels at examining the conflicting values attendant in the dynamics that frame Tambudzai’s life. Her uneducated mother believes that the mission killed Tambu’s brother and warns her not to fall prey to “the Englishness”, seemingly unable to conceptualize the benefits that her daughter’s educational attainment and eventual employment might bring to her own life. Nyasha, who is the embodiment of everything Tambu hopes to accomplish while living on the mission, is disliked by her African peers and maligned with a hierarchy of insults. “‘She thinks she is white,’ they used to sneer, and that was as bad as a curse. ‘She is proud,’ pronounced others. ‘She is loose,’ the most vicious condemned her.” Meanwhile, as Tambu thrives at school and remains dutybound and thoroughly appreciative of her uncle’s graciousness, she is held up by Babamukuru as the ideal daughter that he wishes Nyasha would become.

Nervous Conditions garnered high praise from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, and it is easy to see why since she covered similar territory in her novel Possessing the Secret of Joy. In that book, a young African woman is spared the dangerous rite of female circumcision due to the intervention of missionaries from America. However, she later undergoes it voluntarily in an effort to regain her African identity and winds up suffering lifelong consequences from the procedure. A parallel to this destructive agency can be found in Nyasha’s own attempt to take control of her body. Having absorbed Western ideals of beauty, “[…] Nyasha, who believed that angles were more attractive than curves […]”, succumbs to what in the West would be called anorexia nervosa, though it is never explicitly named in the book. She starves herself to the point of delirium and purges whatever food her parents force her to eat.

Thus, the uneasy tension that follows through Nervous Conditions is fleshed out to fruition at its conclusion. The ultimate focus of Nyasha’s rebellion—herself—proves self-effacing and she winds up remanded to a clinic. Tambudzai earns a scholarship to a school at a Catholic convent attended by both white and black women. However, in light of all that has transpired in her family, she raises strong questions within herself about the sacrifices she (and others like her) must make to their identities to be deemed worthy of such opportunities by those in the position to grant them. In 2006, Tsitsi Dangarembga published the long-awaited sequel to Nervous Conditions entitled The Book of Not. Presumably, this is the story of Tambudzai’s emergence into adulthood as a full and autonomous self.