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The Sun Will Soon Shine by Sally Sadie Singhateh

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An adolescent girl defies the cultural standards of her village by escaping from an arranged marriage to a much older man and pursuing an education in this uplifting novel by Gambian author Sally Sadie Singhateh. Nyima, the protagonist of The Sun Will Soon Shine, excels as a student and dreams of attending high school in the Gambia’s capital, Banjul, only to find out from her widowed mother that shortly after her birth, her father had negotiated for her to become the fourth wife of a prominent man in their village. Nyima is forced to undergo female genital mutilation in order to satisfy her husband. She, then, fails to get pregnant and is subjected to spurious treatments at the hands of various witchdoctors which are unsuccessful. Her husband rejects her due to her failure to conceive and she becomes isolated and depressed.

Nyima’s grim prospects for her future change abruptly when her cousin, Jainaba, pays a visit to the village. Jainaba, who lives with her husband and daughter in Banjul, is educated and has become a successful lawyer. She is horrified to learn that her gifted cousin has been forced to abandon her studies in order to submit to an arranged marriage. She offers Nyima the opportunity to live with her and resume her education, telling Nyima’s husband that she will take legal action against him if he tries to prevent her from leaving. Nyima perseveres in her academic pursuits and enjoys the relatively high standard of living that Jainaba is able to provide for her in the city. Jainaba’s daughter is absent from the household because she attends a boarding school in the United States, but Nyima makes friends with the family’s housekeeper, Sibi, and Araba, one of her classmates. In a particularly affecting scene, the two girls check out books from the library to gain a better understanding of what female circumcision is and its adverse health effects. “It was very embarrassing being watched by the librarian but we needed to know what had been done to us.” Thus, the two young women utilize the resources their education provides them with to gain knowledge about a custom that has harmed and disempowered them.

When Jainaba moves overseas for a year to work for United Nations Peace, she leaves Nyima in the care of her husband, Gibou. Nyima is wary of Gibou. “My encounters with men had left me petrified of them. Along with the fright was a burning loathing.” Unfortunately, Nyima’s suspicions about Gibou prove to be true as he begins to sexually abuse her in Jainaba’s absence. He convinces Nyima that ‘“[…Jainaba] won’t believe anything you tell her…”’ to ensure that she will keep his predatory behavior a secret. Unsure where to flee and knowing that doing so will mean giving up her education again, Nyima tolerates being raped and becomes pregnant—a cruel irony considering that she was presumed to be infertile during her marriage. Nyima confesses her pregnancy to her cousin but refuses to reveal the identity of the man who impregnated her, implying that she became romantically involved with someone voluntarily. Unable to conceal her sense of being betrayed and let down, Jainaba nevertheless agrees to help Nyima, arranging for her to meet with an obstetrician for prenatal care. A mere few weeks before she is supposed to deliver her baby, Nyima suffers a life-threatening medical complication and her child does not survive. Nyima finds that she is ambivalent about her stillborn baby, “…there was a tiny part of my heart that was full of love for it. I tried to hate it because it was Gibou’s, but I could not.” In the aftermath of this harrowing situation, Gibou refrains from abusing Nyima.

Unable to be deterred from achieving her goals, Nyima returns to high school, which she had withdrawn from due to her pregnancy. When she graduates, she decides to attend college in Strasbourg, France. Nyima savors the experience of living in Europe, meanwhile she continues to succeed academically and makes new friends. She even meets a man whom she thinks she might be capable of falling in love with—an experience she regards with great trepidation. After Nyima finishes college, Jainaba and her daughter visit her in France and Jainaba reveals that she has learned the truth about what her husband did to Nyima and is in the process of divorcing him. She expresses remorse for putting Nyima in harm’s way and not being more skeptical of the circumstances surrounding her mysterious pregnancy.

Nyima returns to the Gambia and works for the television station run by the state, living with Jainaba until she saves enough money to buy her own house. She then returns to her old village to visit her mother, offering her the opportunity to live with her in Banjul. However, her mother declines, ‘“I was born in this village, child, and I would prefer to die here.”’ Nyima continues to make her career the primary focus of her life. She coincidentally crosses paths with Mohisse Camara—the Burkinabe medical researcher whom she found herself attracted to in college. Mohisse eventually takes a research position in the Gambia and proposes to Nyima. Nyima is overjoyed, “I never imagined I could feel such emotions as the ones I was experiencing then. It was like a dream, one I had never had before.” Having a child with Mohisse is a struggle for Nyima both physically and psychologically, even though she is finally in a positive situation to nurture a young life. She is reluctant to seek modern fertility treatments from an obstetrician in France, comparing them to the indignities done to her by the witchdoctors when she was a child bride. Ultimately, she agrees to see the fertility expert, succeeds in getting pregnant, and gives birth to a daughter.

In The Sun Will Soon Shine, Singhateh crafts a central character who possesses the fortitude to navigate the myriad of obstacles that get in the way of her aspirations, but is sensitive enough to be likeable and relatable. The novel opens poignantly with Nyima watching Muna, her young daughter, struggling to learn how to read, which serves as the framework for Nyima to reflect on her own formative years. At a mere one hundred pages, the novel thoughtfully explores many diverse issues relevant to the lives of African girls and women, including female genital mutilation, child marriage, the struggle to overcome trauma, and the pursuit of education, testifying to Sally Singhateh’s skill as a writer and the strength of the story being told.

Ualalapi: Fragments from the End of Empire by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa

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The rule of the last monarch of Mozambique before the Portuguese seized control of the region in the late nineteenth-century is the subject of Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s novel, Ualalapi: Fragments from the End of Empire. Structured as a series of short literary vignettes meant to capture the viewpoints and actions of multiple characters, the novel describes how Mudungazi has his brother murdered in the aftermath of their royal father’s death to eliminate his rival heir. Unsurprisingly, the reign of Mudungazi—who declares his new name to be Ngungunhane—proves to be a troubled era as he struggles with turbulence and violence in both the political sphere and his personal life.

The titular character of the novel, Ualalapi, is the warrior who successfully carries out the task of murdering Ngungunhane’s brother, Mafemane. The mission is challenging because Mafemane greets his assassins with grace. ‘“I don’t want to waste your time; you’ve come a long way. You can kill me.”’ Ualalapi is the only warrior who is capable of slaughtering the man who faces his murderers so unflinchingly. However, guilt over what he has done drives him to take flight. “He disappeared into the forest covered by the night, breaking with his body the leaves and branches his blood-filled eyes did not see.” Thus, he is not a participant in the remainder of the narrative.

The plot then shifts to detailing the troubles instigated by Damboia, Ngungunhane’s aunt, who proves to be the female who wields the most authority over him. Damboia accuses a warrior of making sexual advances towards her, even though she is notorious for her libidinous behavior towards Ngungunhane’s male attendants. Ngungunhane has the man killed. His execution is witnessed by his thirteen-year-old daughter, Domia, who grows up and plots vengeance against the king. She sneaks into his house with a knife concealed in her garments under the pretenses of being a servant, however, Ngungunhane sees the weapon and thwarts her efforts, raping her and then instructing his henchmen to kill her and dispose of her body. Nature takes retribution against Damboia, who is depicted as self-indulgent and unscrupulous in the novel. She dies after she is mysteriously beset by menstrual bleeding that lasts for three months. In his delineation of these two female characters, Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa depicts how women found ways to exercise agency and shape circumstances in their male-dominated environment.

Interspersed with these passages detailing specific events in Ngungunhane’s reign are briefer ones written from the perspective of Portuguese officials in the government and military. These accounts are notable for highlighting the brutality that the Portuguese showed towards local villagers during their attacks on Ngungunhane’s lands as well as their racism. One commander is described as “urinating with some effort over the platform where Ngungunhane used to speak in times of the rituals […]” after a raid. Thus, the forces that seek to unseat Ngungunhane are hardly more civil than the despot was.

Ualalapi’s most dramatic moments occur when Ngungunhane addresses his people as he is preparing to board a ship that will deport him to Portugal after he has ceded his authority to the colonialists. In a long-winded yet haunting monologue, Ngungunhane describes the calamities that will afflict his subjects in the years to come. ‘“Our history and our customs will be denigrated in schools under the attentive gaze of men dressed in women’s robes […]”’ However, perhaps more curiously, he prophesizes that even after the native people overthrow their colonizers the turmoil will continue with ‘“…men roaming the bush, killing fathers and mothers, longing for the time of the whip and the sleepwalking plantations.”’ In his introduction to the novel, Phillip Rothwell describes how Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa wrote Ualalapi in the decade after Mozambique became a sovereign nation which was a period of great upheaval (Rothwell, 2017). Thus, Ngungunhane’s remarks foretell the instability that has persisted in Mozambique and other African nations as they navigate the challenges associated with self-governance and statehood in the aftermath of colonialism and struggle to forge a promising path into the future.

 

Bibliography

1.“The World Factbook: MOZAMBIQUE.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 6 Apr. 2020. Web. 25 May 2020.

2. Rothwell, Phillip. (2017). Foreward: Lessons to Power from the Past. In Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa, Ualalapi: Fragments from the End of Empire (pp. ix-xiv). North Dartmouth, MA: Adamastor Series 11/Tagus Press at UMass Dartmouth.

A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir

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A young woman’s quest to experience romantic passion in defiance of her authoritarian father’s wishes and the resulting consequences are the subject of Comorian author Ali Zamir’s novel, A Girl Called Eel. Written as a single, continuous sentence—a style utilized by Alain Mabanckou in his novel Broken Glass—seventeen-year-old Eel commences her story by revealing that she is on the verge of death, but is determined to explore the circumstances that led her to end up in her current predicament. “[…] I’m just a miserable outcast paying the price for making a royal mess of things, so bear with me while I get it all off my chest before I’m sucked into the vortex of eternal sleep…” In the novel that ensues, Eel’s musings span both the physical landscape of her island country and the metaphysical domain of the heart with its capacity for lust and searing betrayal.

Eel grows up in a house overlooking the beach on the Comorian island of Anjouan with All-Knowing, her widowed father, and her twin sister, Rattler. Eel is considered by those around her to be quiet and introspective in contrast to Rattler who is a truant at school but popular among her peers. Privately, she harbors contempt for her father, whom she dismisses as “[…] a second-rate philosopher marooned on an island in the Indian Ocean […]” All-Knowing unwittingly plants the seeds of Eel’s unraveling by allowing a fisherman named Voracious—whom Eel has secretly developed an attraction to from afar—to help him carry his gear back to his house. “[…] Voracious was a man, a real looker, he was hot, and not only had I spotted him, I’d seen him up close and touched him for the first time in my life…” The two soon begin meeting clandestinely. Eel stops going to school and is introduced by Voracious to wine and cigarettes in addition to sex. In spite of taking up smoking and drinking and abandoning her education, Eel never questions the possibility that Voracious’ influence over her might be destructive. Eventually, however, Voracious suspiciously requests to only meet Eel on certain days of the week. Eel discovers that she is pregnant and shows up at Voracious’ apartment on a day that he is not anticipating her and finds him with a woman whom he introduces as his fiancée.

Eel accepts that she must find a solution to her quandary on her own, but her attempts to do so are upended when All-Knowing learns that she is pregnant. He immediately banishes her from the house, going so far as to prevent her from taking her belongings with her. She does, however, manage to keep in her possession a ring that Voracious had given her, which she sells to a local jeweler, the irony being that she was originally reluctant to accept it because “…love is […] completely different from a token someone gives you…” Thus, the ring serves as a substitute for the support that Voracious might have provided to her and her unborn child in that she is able to pay for transportation to Mayotte—a neighboring island that is officially French territory—where she believes she will find employment and build a new life. At this point, the novel veers into its most sinister territory as it is revealed that “…the passage to Mayotte was risky and illegal…” even with the allegedly reputable navigators whom Eel has been referred to at the boat’s helm. Disaster strikes in the form of an unforeseen storm and everyone on the capsized boat perishes; the narrative wraps around to its starting point and Eel spends her final moments in the sea struggling to make sense of her life and contemplating the death that awaits her.

Ali Zamir employs a number of remarkable literary devices in A Girl Called Eel. As previously mentioned, the novel consists of a single sentence. Zamir also gives his characters unconventional names that describe their core personality traits. Interestingly, Eel discloses that All-Knowing had very precise intentions for the name that he chose for her. The novel repeatedly draws on images and metaphors pertaining to the ocean and the creatures that dwell within it, paying tribute to its unique island environment.

A Girl Called Eel bears strong similarities to Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s The Desert and the Drum in terms of its content. Both novels feature young female protagonists who discover that they are pregnant by men who have abandoned them. In each novel, a parent—Eel’s father and Rayhana’s mother—is deeply affected by the cultural stigma attached to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and reacts vengefully. Rayhana’s mother keeps her daughter in exile to conceal her pregnancy and then forces her to give up her son before the two of them return to their village; All-Knowing expels his daughter from his house. Whereas Rayhana flees her village and steals the rezzam as a means of punishing her clan for depriving her of her child, Eel is more focused on starting over in a new environment. Ultimately though, neither protagonist’s efforts are enough to keep her from being destroyed in the wake of external cruelties.

Editor’s Note: The Africa Book Challenge stands with the world in the global struggle against the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Bibliography

1. “The World Factbook: COMOROS.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Apr. 2020. Web. 21 Apr. 2020.

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.