Title: Contemporary African Short Stories
Editors: Chinua Achebe and C.L. Innes
Genre: Short Story Collection
Publishers: Heinemann (African Writers Series)
Year of Publication:1992
The Contemporary African Short Stories anthology brings together writers from various parts of Africa, each carrying his or her own writing style. From the magical realism crossed with fantasy of Ben Okri, Kojo Laing, and Mia Couto to the political realism of Nadine Gordimer, Lindiwe Mabuza, Chinua Achebe and C.L. Innes have put together stories from the four corners of the continent that will
give enjoyment to the general reader as well as students and teachers of African writing, [...] that it will encourage them to explore a literature which continues to develop and flourish. (Introduction, page 6)
Also covered are issues of despotism and societal breakdown. Though political issues are raised, they are not discussed in vacuum but through the eyes of the people as in Steve Chimombo's The Rubbish Dump, Daniel Mandishona's A Wasted Land, Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi's Government by Magic Spell and Kyalo Mativo's On the Market Day. Another significant issue about this collection is the strong representation of the female as a character and also as a voice such in Adewale Maja-Pearce's The Hotel, Assia Djebar's The Foreigner, Sister of the Foreign Woman.
I have found that short stories collection provides the quickest way of grasping an author's writing style (not always though) - if the collection is singly authored - or the writing environment of a group of people - if the anthology is multi-authored and geographically categorised, just as this one was. Such collections do not lend themselves easily to review and reviewing them as one book causes each story to lose its essence, like classing in statistics.
Consequently, this review has been structured according to the editors' geographical categorisation. It is my hope that doing this would allow each story to be adequately represented. And it would be long, I am sorry.
Most of the South African stories [...] developed the realist mode [...], portraying in harsh detail the lives of the black proletariat in the shanty towns and urban ghettos. (Page 3)
However, there were more to this than pure rage against racism or apartheid as it existed in South Africa, there is the humanist view of issues therein raised.
The Prophetess by Njabulo S. Ndebele (South Africa)
The Prophetess is a story told from the point of view of a young boy, probably ten, who has been sent by his mother to the fearful and famous Prophetess for Holy Water. The story describes the 'journey', albeit walking, the boy made to the prophetess' house and the mental torture he went through. As is the wont of most short stories, the entire story covers the period he got to the house and back. Yet, within this we get to know how and why the prophetess is fearful and famous so that even when the prophetess coughs the boy expects something to happen. His fear increasing with every action the prophetess made in the darkness of her room,
[...] the boy wondered: if she coughed too long, what would happen? Would something come out? A lung? [...] Did anything come out of her floor? The cough subsided. (Page 12)
relaxing only when he realised that the prophetess knows his mother.
However, from this story we also get to see the growing delinquents as black parents, unable to provide for their children, lose them to the street, where all sorts of behaviours are picked. Then there is the question of faith. Did the boy's mother survived because of the prophet or because of the faith she had in the holy water even though we discover that the bottle broke along the way?
Amnesty by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)
Amnesty tells the story of a South African black Unionist who was arrested for inciting riots among workers.
Narrated by his fiancée, the story portrayed the deep racial division that represented South Africa under apartheid regime. The man had left home to work for a construction company involved in building skyscrapers around the country and had joined the union. The hope was that the dowry would be paid so that in three years they could get married but when the three years came, he found himself in prison. The woman's voice was sharp and revealing. It showed how oppressed the people of South Africa were and how women were doubly affected: emotionally and physically, whenever their loved ones were carted off to prisons and the upkeep of the family rested solely on them. In this story it was during the trial that their daughter was. This is an honest unsentimental story told not to elicit pity but to present the lives of a people.
I couldn't go often to the court because by that time I had passed my Standard 8 and I was working in the farm school. Also my parents were short of money. [...] My father and the other brother work here for the Boer, and the pay is very small, we have two goats, a few cows we're allowed to graze, and a patch of land where my mother can grow vegetables. No cash from that. (Page 25/26)
The emotional pressure escalated when after two years of his six years sentence the woman saved enough money to cover the trip to the prison island to visit and back. However, she was to discover that even in prison the government had control when he were bared from taking the ferry because they had not permit.
We didn't have a permit. We didn't know that before you come to Cape Town, before you come to the ferry for the Island, you have to have a police permit to visit a prisoner on the Island. (Page 27)
So that their love was only sustained through letters which they both knew were read by police authorities.
Then he was released after five years. And the man got more involved in the fight and the woman grew more sad, scared of the consequence if it happens again, scared of what to tell their daughter, scared that perhaps the family would disintegrate, scared that their daughter would lose her father.
Wake... by Lindiwe Mabuza (South Africa)
Note that Lindiwe was the ANC representative in Stockholm and Washington. Currently, she is South Africa's high commissioner to the United Kingdom. Her story was the most difficult story I read in this collection. It merges several voices and writing style. According to the editors Wake draws
on a variety of techniques and writing style - realist description, dream, dialogue, drama, stream of consciousness, traditional and contemporary songs of children and adults, and political statement. (Page 4)
And I cannot agree less with the editors. However, in summary it tells the story of an eight year old girl who lost her friend. There are places where the narration shifts from the girl's point of view to the dead girl's father. The story is about a girl who had died during the 1976 Soweto Uprising where black students demonstrated against the use of Afrikaans in schools. This is how the narrator captured the cause of the demonstration that subsequently led to the death of several students:
There was no drama to the eight hundred deaths. No mystery either! Only the quantity and nature of violence. The fascist government wanted Africans to think, breathe, evaluate and conceptualise in Afrikaans. 'Only dogs and slaves are defined by their masters,' said Frederick Douglass. The students said no! to indoctrination and demonstrated. The police shot them.The fascists of South Africa said shoot 'at any cost'. Absolutely no drama to hot pursuit and murder, in cold blood. (Page 36)
And later the fascist government was to institute a 'no mass funeral for victims of Soweto riots', thus controlling the people even in death. The narrators' frustration was directed at anything including the earth which seemed to be exacting from them the prize for the gold it has provided them, while leaving the ones who were actually wearing the ornaments, the wealthy white apartheidists.
In the end I would say this is a powerful story. It is poetic in some parts, lamentful in others and plain anger in most parts. Yet there were elements of hope as seen through the girls eyes when he saw his dead friend resurrect.
A Wasted Land by Daniel Mandishona (Zimbabwe)
A Wasted Land is an exploration into the fallouts of the fight for independence in Rhodesia, (or Zimbabwe). In this short story, Bernard - the narrator - questions whether the war between the nationalists and the government was worth it when the result was already known. The war had led to
row upon row of empty shelves as business slackened considerably. There was no bread, sugar, eggs, soap, salt, milk, butter. In fact, there was nothing. (Page 63)
And Bernard had become disillusioned about the war, having lost an uncle who had left the country after being expelled from the university for political activities only to return in strait, a mad man, who was later to commit suicide.
On the day of burial, after debt had virtually brought the family to a standstill, he was to lose his father through similar circumstance as his uncle Nicholas. And this is where Bernard's argument takes its root. He decried the war and disregarded the nationalists view
... of dismantling by proletarian revolution a political system that had been in place for over a century. (Page 61)
According to Bernard
The nationalist politicians and the government were like parasite and its host animal who need each other because of the mutual benefit of an otherwise harmful co-existence. (Page 61)
And even at that period he saw the promise by the nationalist as
a tainted utopia, a paradise of emptiness. (Page 61)
Finally, the war left Bernard's family naked, with nothing other than the clothes they were wearing. And who would love a war that did this to him and his family. Most often in such wars, the angle everyone looks at is the one provided by the fighters and as always it is a political view shaped and skewed by the would-be beneficiaries. But in this story Mandishona, through the eyes of Bernard, sees it differently. He isn't talking about the politics, about the governments and their oppressive regime nor the nationalists and their Utopian ideals, he is concerned about the humans, his relations, who are dying endlessly for this cause, which they are not guaranteed to bring hope or change to their lives.
The Birds of God by Mia Couto (Mozambique)
Mia Couto's The Birds of God mixes magical realism with fantasy. A poor fisherman had gone to the river to fish. He sees a bird and wished the bird was in his canoe, then the bird was in his canoe almost dying. He realised that this was not a bird he would want to feed on and decided to let it go. But this the bird won't go. He took the bird home, feeding it with the fish he would feed his wife and children. The poor bird became lonely and the fisherman wished for another bird and was given. These two birds took most of the food away from the family and the wife got annoyed. Yet the man sees this as a test of goodwill from God. He thought that
It was his task to show that men could still be good. Yes, that the true goodness cannot be measured in times of abundance but when hunger dances in the bodies of men. (Page 69)
When the birds hatched and more food was diverted from household consumption to feed them, his wife left him. And everybody said he was mad. So deep was his love for the birds that when he came home from fishing one day - because he foresaw a problem at home - to find that they had burnt to ashes he wished himself dead and Enersto, the man, died.
This story marks the developmental path of African writing is taking. Writers are now exploring whatever they want, mixing traditional culture with fantasy and others and this has become Couto's trade mark.
Next is Central Africa.
ImageNations Rating: 5.0 out of 6.0