List of Countries

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The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá

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In 2017, the first English translation of a novel by a Bissau-Guinean author was published. In The Ultimate Tragedy, Abdulai Silá explores the multifaceted impact of Portuguese imperial authority on the people of his homeland. The novel opens with its heroine, Ndani, arriving in the capital city of Bissau with the hope of gaining employment as a servant for a white family. It is revealed that a witch doctor known as a djambakus “…said she harboured an evil spirit inside her, the soul of a wicked defunct; he’d foretold a turbulent future for her […]” On the verge of giving up her search and accepting that she will spend the night homeless, Ndani is offered a position by Senhor Leitão, though his wife is initially reluctant to have her. After working for two years for the family, Ndani finds herself embedded in Senhor Leitão’s wife’s “[…] noble task of spreading civilisation and God’s word to the farthest flung corners of Portuguese Guiné.” However, Ndani’s ascent to grace is undone when Senhor Leitão’s wife discovers that her husband has been raping her and sends her back to her village.

The Ultimate Tragedy then shifts its perspective to describing the life of a Régulo—a native who holds a position of leadership in the community even in the era of colonial administration. The primary focus of the Régulo’s existence is utilizing and enhancing his prolific cognitive capacities. “A person should always have something concrete to think about. Above all else, a person should never not be thinking.” His talent for analyzing situations extends itself most critically to concocting “‘…a plan for how to throw the whites out, a plan for how to stop them ruling our land.”’ His intricate scheme for lashing out at the newest colonial Chief of Post for a slight involves the construction of a school for the village and taking Ndani as his sixth wife for whom he “[…] build[s] a house as big and beautiful as the Chief of Post’s house […]” However, some glaring omissions in the judgement of the Régulo soon lead him to abandon his new house and bride. His mental and physical health decline and he eventually dies alone.

Ndani returns to being the central focus of the novel in the aftermath of her second disgrace which occurs when the Régulo discovers that she is not the virginal bride he presumed her to be, prompting him to return to his other wives. A romance develops between Ndani and the teacher who has been employed at the Régulo’s school. Ndani is able to reclaim her damaged sexuality in some of the text’s most surprisingly beautiful moments. “There, for the first time, she gave herself to a man voluntarily. She accepted him between her thighs, gladly and without fear or indifference.” It is significant that the Teacher was selected for the Régulo’s school with the help of Senhor Leitão’s wife who backed the building of it as part of her crusade. Thus, the two people who were so instrumental in robbing Ndani of agency over her sexuality are the ones who introduced the man with whom she finds love and starts a family into her life.

Ndani and the Teacher move to Catió “…a faraway land, cut off from everywhere else, embraced by the sea on all sides.” Though initially, they enjoy prosperity—the teacher finds a job at a new school and Ndani becomes a seamstress—a new blow is dealt to them when the Teacher gets into a physical altercation with the town administrator and the man is later discovered dead in his home. A Portuguese physician rules the death to be an accident, but the Teacher is tried and deported. For years, Ndani harbors faith that her husband will return to her and her family, making annual pilgrimages to the pier that the ship he was deported on left from. Eventually, however, her sense of loss overpowers her.

The Ultimate Tragedy struggles to maintain its focus due to its omission of the perspective of Ndani from some of the most crucial elements of the story pertaining to her. For example, her being dismissed from her Portuguese employers’ household and sent back to her village as well as the Régulo’s repudiation of her are discussed only briefly. Furthermore, some of the key plot aspects strain credibility. It is hard to fathom that Ndani was the only girl that the Régulo believed was suited to be his wife and that the reasons why she was forced to return to her village were not known to him. Likewise, the idea that the administrator of Catió could so coincidentally have a fatal accident in his own home immediately after the Teacher struck him is fairly unrealistic. However, The Ultimate Tragedy remains well worth reading as much for the insight it provides into life in Guinea-Bissau under Portuguese rule as for its thoughtful portrait of a woman’s unique struggle to overcome adversity and find love and purpose in life, even though she is unable to keep it.

 

Bibliography

1. “The World Factbook: GUINEA-BISSAU.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 28 Feb. 2020. Web. 8 March 2020.

We Must Take Action Now: The Africa Book Challenge Year III

 

niger-1758968_640.pngThree years ago today The Africa Book Challenge launched and I am pleased to report that its mission is two-thirds complete! 36 books from a total of 54 countries in Africa have been featured on this site. One of the themes that has emerged in the past year has been establishing connections between the books in terms of the subject-matter that they tackle. However, as it stands now, the work of The Africa Book Challenge cannot be finished.

There are still several countries in Africa from which no English translations of literary works exist. Unfortunately, these nations are often among the most disadvantaged in the world, making it crucial that we take the time to read and understand their stories.

One such country is the West African nation of Niger. Niger has the highest birthrate of all the countries in the world, but ranks lowest on the Human Development Index. The country gained the notice of Western media in October of 2017 when four members of the United States military were killed during a mission by Islamic extremist militants. Furthermore, the United States recently established a drone base in the Agadez region of Niger in order to strengthen its presence in order to fight grassroots Islamic terrorist groups in West Africa, but is already considering scrapping the base due to a reorganization of priorities.

It is not within the parameters of the mission of The Africa Book Challenge to comment on whether or not the United States should maintain a military presence in Niger. However, without any literature translated into English available, many people in the West lack the capacity to gain insight into this country’s people and its culture(s), which could prove critical in understanding the challenges this country faces. We cannot aid a country in solving its problems when we do not understand the framework for them, and this is where books prove to be most invaluable.

The Africa Book Challenge has been working diligently this past year to reach out to publishers and make them aware of this situation as well as find examples of Nigerien works of literature that are candidates for translation. It is my goal that by this time next year, there will be solid movement forward in this endeavor as it is the only way that The Africa Book Challenge can achieve its ultimate goal.

 

Bibliography

1. “Human Development Reports.” 2019 Human Development Index Ranking | Human Development Reports. Web. 22 Feb. 2020

2. Park, Madison. “Niger Ambush: Timeline of Attack That Killed 4 US Soldiers.” CNN. Cable News Network, 25 Oct. 2017. Web. 22 Feb. 2020.

3. Woody, Christopher. “The Pentagon Is Thinking about Closing a $110 Million Drone Base It Just Opened to Focus on Russia and China.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 24 Dec. 2019. Web. 22 Feb. 2020.

4. “The World Factbook: NIGER.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 7 Feb. 2020. Web. 22 Feb. 2020.

The King of Kahel by Tierno Monénembo

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The African ruler who holds himself in the highest esteem and harbors a belief in the infallibility of his own power while simultaneously being manipulated by European colonial authorities who seek to erode his supremacy is a common theme in African literature. In Monnew, Ahmadou Kourouma describes the reign of Djigui Keita, who first attempted to use witchcraft to thwart the French armies invading his kingdom, but is forced to sign a peace accord with them. In Norbert Zongo’s The Parachute Drop, a contemporary dictator is so dedicated to driving out any opposition to his authority that he fails to recognize that those he has allowed to get closest to him are plotting against him as well as the extent to which the Western diplomats who counsel him are actually motivated by their own agenda to maintain power even in the era of sovereignty for African nations. Guinean author Tierno Monénembo explores colonialism in Africa from a different angle, penning the fictional biography of a real-life French explorer who seeks to establish a sphere of influence in West Africa.

The King of Kahel opens with Aimé Olivier, a privileged aristocrat and successful engineer, embarking on his first expedition to Africa. Olivier’s motivation for his journey is two-pronged. He desires to attain power in the traditional sense, “He would carve out a colony for himself by draining the marshes and educating the tribes. He would turn it into a kingdom adhering to his ideas and radiating the genius of France.” However, he also believes that European society has devolved into a state of stagnation and that “Africa would become the center of the world, the heart of civilization, the new Thebes, Athens, Rome, and Florence wrapped into one. This would be the new age of Humanity he had predicted […]” Thus, Olivier establishes himself as a different entity from the stereotypical colonizer in that he is not only convinced that he is uniquely qualified to conquer Africa but also to reshape it in ways that will be transformative for the global universe.

Monénembo cleverly intersperses the harsh realities of Olivier’s sojourn through the uncharted West African landscape with grandiose appraisals of his formative years and endeavors prior to devoting himself to the exploration of Africa. His journey is marred by the predictable pitfalls of illness, detainments and plots against his life by various overlords, as well as his habit of falling in lust with the wives of African chieftains despite having a devoted wife in France. However, Olivier is persistent, so convinced of his own greatness that he has already started crafting his own autobiography. “Embarked upon when he was twelve years old, this Metaphysics of modern times was now in its twentieth version.” The various officials Olivier interacts with in the hierarchical French government at different points throughout his journeys are dismissive of the complicated theses he spouts off as reasons for his missions, but approve his travel knowing that they can take manipulate his efforts so that they are the ultimate beneficiaries.

At times, the scheming and double-crossing of tribal lords and the dozens of ailments that leave Olivier on the verge of death over the course of his multiple trips to Africa make for redundant reading. Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly unclear who, other than himself, Olivier is loyal to. As one of the African chieftains finally points out to him, ‘“Oh yes? When it rains, you’re white, when it’s sunny, you’re black, and when it’s windy, you’re no one at all. I know this kind of animal, it’s called a chameleon…”’ Ultimately, Olivier meets defeat in Africa not in battle with warlords, nor by being arrested and put to death by the French, but rather because he is shunned by colonists after falling out of favor with the governor of the settlement where he is residing—this time accompanied by his grown son—and falls prey to health issues in his advanced age. He dies unceremoniously years later as a civilian in France. Thus, Tierno Monénembo leaves it to the interpretation of the discerning reader whether Aimé Olivier was a brilliant expedition leader whose ideas were beyond the comprehension of his contemporaries—who nevertheless exploited him for their own gain—or a madman who used his inherited privilege to go on voyages in order to support his inflated sense of self-importance.

 

Bibliography

1. Berto, Frank J. “From Boneshakers to Bicycles.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 19 Nov. 2019. Web. 1 Feb. 2020.

2. “The World Factbook: GUINEA.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 30 Jan. 2020. Web. 1 Feb. 2020.

3. “Sanderval, Aimé Victor Olivier”. Europeana Collections. Europeana Collections, 25 Nov. 2013. Web. 1 Feb. 2020.

Beneath the Darkening Sky by Majok Tulba

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

The Desert and the Drum by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

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

 

 

Snares Without End by Olympe Bhêly-Quénum

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe by Doreen Baingana

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Fury and Cries of Women by Angèle Rawiri

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

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

 

The Lieutenant of Kouta by Massa Makan Diabaté

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

Quills of Desire by Binwell Sinyangwe

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

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

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

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

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