Friday, December 24, 2010

54e. Contemporary African Short Stories

WEST AFRICA
This is the concluding part of the series of reviews from the Contemporary African Short Stories, edited by Chinua Achebe and C.L. Innes. The anthology was categorised into geographic areas: SOUTHERN AFRICA, CENTRAL AFRICA, EAST AFRICA, NORTH AFRICA and WEST AFRICA.  I decided to review the stories one after the other instead of finding common thread running along them and reviewing them along those lines or using themes to merge stories. This has been fulfilling but also tasking. Future short stories collection might take a different approach.

Converging City by Ben Okri (Nigeria)
Ben Okri
This is the second time I am reading this story, first encountering it in his collection of short stories title Incidents at the Shrine. I must say that reading it a second time has helped me appreciate the story very well. Converging City is a mosaic of interconnecting scenes through which Okri portrays the urban stragglers and strugglers; the urban poor and how difficult life is for the majority of the people.

The story begins with Agodi inadvertently spewing water on a girl. The girl insulted him and Agodi decided to chase her and convert her. During the chase he was tripped by the midget Ajasco Atlas who beat him to advertise his prowess and credentials as an ex-wrestler and a body guard. From there the scene moved to Agodi chasing a naked man from his store. The naked man having lost his senses, perhaps because he was too hungry, lay in the street causing a traffic jam. This traffic jam later imbued fear in a head of state who was afraid that he was going to be assassinated by some invisible people who run the country. The scene went back to the naked man as he was taken away from the road and then to Agodi as his kiosk was stolen and his wife left him; later returning as a 'true prophet' in a purple and yellow cloak and establishing a church.

Through the trials of Agodi, Okri was able to show the level or intensity of the economic struggle the people were going through: there was a wrestler who was beating people to advertise himself (Ajasco Atlas); a man of God selling smuggled goods (Agodi, before his kiosk was stolen); soldiers being robbed of their money and identity cards; a hungry man left to die because he had asked for a soft drink and sardine when he collapsed and people went to help him; a head of state afraid of traffic because there were some unseen beings who would want to kill him; who wouldn't did not want to see Agodi again because he owed them; and then there was the wife who left. In Convergence City there is a real convergence of people's struggles against life and the linkage between people is made clear. We get to know that one's problems is a function of others people's problems. 
The man in the street had seen a whole day pass and had learnt nothing. He had settled himself near a gutter. He covered himself with unread newspapers. He lay down as if dead, though he jerked in delirium now and again. He watched Ajasco Atlas, who had gone past a few times, shouting about his feats in India. [...] The man in the street also watched the shed of J.J. Agodi with special zeal. He was the only person who saw the road move. [...] then he saw the shed move gently. (Page 143).
Okri's magic realism is a trademark of his writing. In this way it reminds me of Mia Couto. This short story is an interesting one.

The Hotel by Adewale Maja-Pearce (Nigeria)
Adewale Maja-Pearce
This is the shortest of all the short stories. The theme in The Hotel is similar to A Night Out by Tololwa Marti Mollel. In The Hotel, a single mother is trapped in a town after his husband died to operate a hotel where she lived with her son. A man dropped by one day by 'chance' with the hope of leaving the next day. However, a day led to another then another and he spent a week. Within this period a familial bond was formed between the man, the woman and her son. One day the man picked only his wallet, left the hotel and never came back.

I was annoyed with the man. If you knew you would not stay don't raise hopes; don't let the young boy develop some affection and the woman too. Yet, that's what happened. 
At noon he told her that he was going out. She wanted to accompany him but he told him he wanted to be on his own. [...] Walking rapidly in the suffocating heat the dust got into his mouth and in his eyes. He got to the platform in time to hear the train approaching. (Page 148)

The Housegirl by Okey Chigbo (Nigeria)
Okey Chigbo
In The Housegirl, a housegirl (or maid) named Comfort narrates the story about the kind of relationships that exist in the house she lives in with another housegirl, her madam's husband, her madam and their son, Cally and daughter, Obiageli. She feels bitter about the way her madam has not paid her ever since her - the housegirl's - father died, which is over a year ago. She says of her
Madam is getting thinner every day despite her successful business, because her wooden heart is sucking up all the kindness in her body. (Page 154).
Her madam's son is also considered 'wild' and has been expelled from his school. He is also cunning and wants to have his way with all the housegirls in the house.
As I was watching myself in the mirror, he came up behind me and started to rub my stomach with his hands, and then worked his way up to my breasts. Yes, he actually touched them. He really is a wild animal, Cally. (Page 161)
The voice Okey used for Comfort is a conversational one and very catchy. The English is very simple and straightforward. The story attracts and encourages the reader to participate in it, if you get what I mean. It really is an interesting one.

The Miracle by Ba'bila Mutia (Cameroon)
Ba'bila Mutia
This perhaps could be the only story I have read that had pitched traditional belief with Christianity and the former had prevailed. A man's father forced him to marry a third wife, after the first two failed to give him a son who would pass on the family's name. The third wife first gave the man twins and so their names changed to Manyi - mother of twins and Tanyi - father of twins. Six months after the death of the man's (Tanyi's) father Manyi gave birth to a son. But this son's left leg seemed to have withered just like the man's father's leg before it was finally amputated. Realising this the man named his son, Ba'mia - father has come back. Whereas the man wants them to accept the child just as he is, Manyi - a devout catholic - wanted to have his son healed and become 'normal'. So when she heard that the Pope is coming to another town Menda she decided to go with Ba'mia so that his leg would be healed. Meeting the Pope Ba'mia asked
'I want you to make me walk upright,' [...] 'I will pray for you ...' the Pope began to say. 'But ... but,' [...] 'My mother said you are here for God. You speak with him. She said you will make me walk erect.' (Page 175)
Obviously the boy didn't walk straight. On their way back, the boy told his mother all that Tanyi had been telling her that Ba'mia is his father who has come back.
'I am Ba'mia,' he said softly. 'What do you mean?' she asked. 'Tanyi's father,' he replied. 'I came back to be reborn in the family to inherit what is rightfully mine -'
This belief is common amongst Africans. Anytime a person is born with features similar to a dead relative it is believed that it is that relative who has come to be reborn. Sometimes, the child is given the name of that relative and treated as an elderly person. Though one cannot prove the veracity of this, it remains a belief just as all religions are based on belief system.

Weaverdom by Tijan M. Sallah (Gambia)
Tijan M. Sallah
Weaverdom is an allegorical and satirical tale about colonisation. As an allegory, Tijan used the weaver birds to represent the colonisers or the British and the grass to represent the colonised. As a satire, one cannot help but laugh at the description given to the weavers. In fact even the Lord's Prayer was given a new twist.
The weavers have an English accent, punctuated nasal notes that grip everyone's attention. They have a habit of messing up in the name of Queen Victoria's glory, the Elizabethan successions, and the CommonWe or CommonWoe. 
[...] The weavers do not care where they build their nests; rumours have it that they came from a little island, somewhere in the northern ice, where the sun is for occasional rejoicing and where irreverence for weaver-ways raises hackles. The weavers do not care about the biological rhythms of others. They send their harbingers, and then flocks follow with fervent zeal, like a school of faithful Iranians executing their heaven-driven orders communicated through the sacred lips of the Ayatollah. (Page 179/180)
Interspersed with the narrative are songs by the Grass, the Forced Grass, the Rain, the Forced 'Lesser' Souls and the Weavers. The Weaver song is the Lord's Prayer
Our Father, who gave us the art of heaven, /Hallowed is our name, us great Weaverdom. /So that our kingdom spreads/ Like it has over the isles/... (Page 183)
There is also a powerful play on words so that her royal highness becomes 'her royal harness'; Anglican becomes 'Weavercan', Empire Day becomes 'Vampire Day' and others. Tijan bemoans the way in which the West has made itself as the origins of civilisation while systematically ignoring places and civilisations like 
ancient Egypt with its pharaohs, pyramids, practical and mystical men; Timbuktu with its Sankore centre of learning; India with its spices, tea, and spiritual quests; China with its pottery and exquisite designs; Persia and Mesopotamia with their mystical wisdom and culture of the land; and Hellenic Greece with its Apollonian angst and Dionysian conviviality. (Page 182)
I cracked my ribs reading this and I hope you also would.

Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ by Kojo Laing (Ghana)
Kojo Laing (right)
When the small quick lorry was being lowered from the skies, it was discovered that ti had golden wood, and many seedless guavas for the hungry. As the lorry descended many layers of cool air, the rich got ready to buy it, and the poor to resent it. The wise among the crowd below opened their mouths in wonder, and closed them only to eat. They ate looking up while the sceptical looked down. (Page 185)
 In the introduction, I classified Kojo Laing's work as magical realism crossed with fantasy. My bad. Kojo Laing's work, as with his recent full-length novel Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters, is as much surrealist as it possibly can. This opens up Kojo Laing's work for several interpretations.

The golden wood lorry descended on earth with the inscription 'VACANCY FOR THE POST OF JESUS CHRIST'. The bronze man in the lorry had, according to his narrative, killed Jesus Christ behind the millionth galaxy of stars, and was here on earth to look for replacement. He searched the mortuary, the courtroom, the seat of government and the 'church of the shrine' for people who have the capability of filling the vacancy. At these places he killed those he had chosen to replace them and dump them into the lorry, to wake them through the manipulation of time. At the Seat of Government he requested for the most rotten and least principled minister and this he selected for the position. 

I cannot do just enough to this story for it entails a lot. One could read different meanings into this short story. For instance, there was the feeling that Laing was recreating the 'great' battle in the bible that sent the devil to the earth. Yet, this devil was a computer fabrication which communicated with his lorry via radio waves and operated on battery. 
If there is no spirit beyond the gadgets then the gadgets take over ... (Page 192)
And this is what the bronzeman told Father Vea who had elected himself to show the him the places where he could find people to fill the vacancy
'My lorry of wooden gold has its own mind, created through a new type of computer.' (Page 190)

This story also depicts control, especially of the universe for the man had killed Jesus Christ because he had too much spirit and gadget. Once the bronzeman told Father Vea this, the Father realised that
No one man, no one people will ever control the universe, [...]. If anyone succeeds in the process of doing so, then we could all see the terrible narrowness of the galaxies, see the desire to murder the spirit.
And it was this same control exhibited by the bronzeman that, perhaps, led to his death as he run out of energy ... and it was seen that there was a bearded man who had 
just jumped down from a sudden cross in the sky, looking with wonder at the nailmarks on his hands. (Page 196)

Leading from his novel Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters I have come to expect almost anything from Laing. His writings mixes religion with technology making it unique, albeit difficult to comprehend. I can say, after listening to him talk about this book, that the man is hugely talented and views life in a very different way.

This marks the end of an arduous review process started on December 22, 2010. I may not travel this path again. However, I hope you enjoyed my take on these stories. Let me know what you think and how you want reviews in 2011 to be like. Thank you!

ImageNations Rating: 5.0 out of 6.0

4 comments:

  1. Ben Okri, I know is a good writer and I enjoyed this story as well. However, the story with the highest suspense and that which I enjoyed most from the west African collection was 'The Miracle.' This story has too a heavy doze of suspense particularly from the time the mother and Ba'mia steal their way from the house to meeting the Pope. Oh Mine! African writers have talents - and this book showcases some of the finest writings from Africa. Some of these stories have even inspired me to search for their books.

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  2. @Geosi, I thought the boy would be healed. But then he wasn't.

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  3. I've really loved how you chose to review this collection Nana, thank you for it! I'll certainly be adding more of these authors to my wish list as the stories sound really great. Did you have a favorite in the collection?

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  4. @Amy,this was burdensome. Thanks. Yes I had favourites: Mia Couto, Ben Okri and Kojo Laing.

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