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Far and Beyon’ by Unity Dow

A mother mourning the death of her two oldest sons with her remaining son and daughter in a village in Botswana is the focus of Unity Dow’s novel Far and Beyon’. The prologue that opens the novel describes Mara’s experience giving birth to her daughter, Mosa, against the backdrop of a sunset outside, but the chapters that proceed shift to a grimmer period in her life as she participates in the funeral rites honoring her son Pule less than a year after the death of her son Thabo. It is revealed that the two young men died of AIDS, thus the traditional rituals meant to honor the dead appear in contrast to this modern illness. Mara’s two other children, eighteen-year-old Stan and nineteen-year-old Mosa, are faced with the daunting tasks of dealing with their grief and continuing their journey to adulthood in the aftermath of their brothers’ deaths.

Mara is a single mother who was never married to the fathers of either Thabo and Pule or Mosa and Stan. When her sons first became ill, Mara sought out the assistance of various folk healers. After their funerals, she continues to carry out the elaborate rituals the soothsayers prescribe in the hope that she can free her surviving children and Pule’s three-year-old daughter, Nunu, who now lives with her, from the “witchcraft” they insist her family is afflicted by. Stan is particularly skeptical of these healers, “[…]as far as he was concerned, they had caused more problems than they had solved. They were always blaming some relative or friend for the misfortunes of their clients.” Mosa, by contrast, does not necessarily believe that the rites will work, but thinks that she and Stan should comply with them for the benefit of their mother who lacks the education and cultural framework to understand modern science. “You cannot take away her belief without replacing it with something else.” In this way, the novel delineates a more complex dynamic to the standard conflict between inherited cultural doctrine and new ideas.

Stan is fortunate to be a boarder at his high school, living under the supervision of Mr. Mitchell, a compassionate teacher from the United States. Mosa attended the same school as a day student but withdrew after becoming pregnant, secretly leaving her home and moving in with a friend who helped her obtain an abortion. She successfully creates a plot to convince the principal of her high school to allow her to be readmitted without divulging that she was pregnant, though she is certain that her classmates are aware of her past predicament. Mosa’s academic aspirations are threatened when a teacher makes unwanted sexual advances towards her. It is revealed that impropriety of this nature occurs frequently at the school and goes unpunished. “[…B]eing pressured into sex with a teacher was just one of the many hurdles of attaining secondary education.” Though Mosa is determined to resist the teacher’s advances, she is unconvinced that she can hold him responsible for his misconduct. When another student confides in her that she is being targeted by the teacher as well, Mosa agrees to take action but on her own terms.

Mosa approaches the leaders of the school’s dance and art clubs with the idea of using an upcoming awards’ ceremony to showcase artwork and theater performances that will depict the abuse that is taking place at the school. In order to guarantee that their efforts will have an impact, the girls write a letter inviting the Minister of Education to the event. The Education Minister, who is female, accepts the invitation to the ceremony. In a memorable and passionate scene, the students use poetry, visual art, and a dance performance to communicate their plight and insist, rather than implore, that the Minister of Education come to their aid, which she promises to do. Thus, Unity Dow shows young women coming together and boldly using unique forms of self-expression to make public their painful experiences in a domain where they feel justice is withheld from them.

Far and Beyon’ takes as its starting point one of the most agonizing ordeals a family can go through—the loss of two children—and uses it as a catalyst for transformation and positive change. Mosa, in particular, refuses to let her past difficulties define her and emerges as a character of influence and strength in her family. Stan uses the trips back to the village for Pule’s funeral and the various rituals in its aftermath to connect with his mother and sister. The novel concludes on an uplifting note with Mosa—who admitted to Stan that she could have contracted HIV from the man who impregnated her—sharing with him that her test results are negative. Spared the fate that claimed her brothers, Mosa can focus on building a future that will transcend the traumas that she and her family have endured.

Bibliography

1. “The World Factbook: BOTSWANA.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Oct. 2020. Web. 10 Oct. 2020.

The Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui

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The ways in which words can be weaponized by government regimes to manipulate people and engineer societal realities is the central theme of Togolese author Kossi Efoui’s novel The Shadow of Things to Come. The narrative begins with the protagonist known only as “the speaker” spending the night at a safe house from which he hopes he will be ushered into exile and thus avoid being conscripted into military service. He then reflects on the circumstances that have led him to take this drastic path in the context of the sociopolitical climate of his country.

When the speaker was five years old, his father was arrested and sent to “The Plantation” and his mother subsequently lapsed into madness in her grief, causing her to be incarcerated in various asylums until she finally died or was murdered. Thereafter, the speaker is raised “in a yard populated by some twenty children under the aegis of a benefactress we called Mama Maize, a woman who had taken us in […]” Unthinkably, his father survives his ordeal and is reunited with his son during a period known as “The End of the Times of Annexation.” The speaker grows up with his father in housing that is paid for by the government as a form of restitution for his father’s imprisonment. Intriguingly, Ikko, another young boy from the makeshift orphanage, lives with them also because he managed to convince authorities that he is a brother of the speaker and since his father “had come back silent…” he is unable to dispute this claim.

The speaker attends a prestigious secondary school. His “official mentor” is a doctor, but clandestinely he befriends Axis Kemal, a bookseller, whose grandfather was an Egyptian immigrant. It is Axis Kemal whom the speaker turns to when he is selected for “the Frontier Challenge”—a military campaign against tribes that live in areas where natural resources which the government wishes to excavate have been found. The speaker is desperate to avoid participating in “the Frontier Challenge” after seeing its effects on Ikko. “The bad thoughts—that’s the colloquial name given to the disturbance that affects some young people on their return from the Frontier Challenge.” Axis Kemal arranges for him to escape to a reclusive local island where the people are known to accept refugees from the nation.

Many works of African literature address the challenges presented by linguistic differences and the ways in which various entities can exploit them. In Ahmadou Kourouma’s novel Monnew, the translator who facilitates communications between the newly-arrived French colonizers and the Soba people often engages in side conversations with Djigui Keita and does not always faithfully interpret the ruler’s words into French. Efoui’s novel contrasts with Kourouma’s in that The Shadow of Things to Come is set in modern times and depicts a government that constructs a dominant narrative to control the people it presides over as opposed to communication being manipulated in a power struggle between two opposing sides. The protagonist of Roland Rugero’s Baho! is a mute who is unable to defend himself against rape allegations that arise when a young girl misconstrues his body language. Though Nyamuragi was a mute from birth, he becomes a recluse after his parents are murdered during the civil war in Burundi. Thus, the role of trauma in a person’s ability and willingness to communicate is underscored in Baho! as it is in The Shadow of Things to Come through the plight of the speaker’s father.

The novel sets up many thought-provoking juxtapositions between characters and situations to illustrate the paradoxically calculated and insipid nature of a reality constructed upon propaganda. For example, the inability of the speaker’s father to verbalize what he endured at “The Plantation” ironically benefits the government that is eager to control the narrative about these prisoners. When the speaker’s father eventually dies, Ikko is as devastated as the biological son. “Though he was not his real father, that stranger was, at least, not imaginary.” The novel concludes with the speaker, who has been summoned from the safehouse, simultaneously acknowledging the risks of and expressing a sense of marvel about his escape. “I’ve long known there’s no magic formula against the roaring of storms, that there’s no prayer that will calm the furious sea. There’s just the intelligence of mind of an expert at the helm […]” The Shadow of Things to Come does not reveal whether the speaker arrives at the island he is fleeing to or what awaits him there, but his realization that he has marshaled the courage to go ahead with his mission closes the novel on a liberating note.

 

Bibliography

1. “The World Factbook: TOGO.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 4 Aug. 2020. Web. 10 Aug. 2020.

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.