Author: Daniel Mengara
Publisher: Heinemann (African Writers Series)
Year of First Publication: 2003
Read for the Africa Reading Challenge
Mema is a reflective novel in the first person. It's about a young boy recollecting the days of his childhood and of his village and how things have perhaps changed. However, the novel is more than just the reflections and recollections of a young boy. Through this reflections and recollections, Elang Sima - the narrator, tells of how his mother whom he referred to only as Mema remained strong - physically and emotionally - in all her decisions, refusing to succumb to traditional roles and societal pressures.
Mema is known to be strong, bold and irrepressible. She has the proclivity to play all the manly roles in her household, caring not what others would think of her. She attended all medzo instead of her husband and she was fluent, traditionally, interspersing her innuendo speeches with proverbs and wise-sayings. Because of these characteristics she was both loved and hated with equal measure. According to the latter group, her haters, she was a witch. How a woman could virtually beat her husband was beyond comprehension. Then her husband falls sick suddenly, and after she had taken him to all places she knew and done all she could but to no avail, she decided to send her husband to the one place left to be visited - the mimbiri camp. She was advised, diplomatically and physically, not to send her husband to the mimbiri camp for they are evil. Paying no heed to the incessant calls and pulling a machete to kill anyone who stands in her way, Mema takes her husband to this place where he would never return. A day after Mema's husband's death, both of her daughters also died. With the convergence of events, she was labelled a witch and was treated with silent malevolence for none was bold enough to face her. The rest of the novel narrates how Mema resolved to protect this particular narrator - Elang Sima - making sure that he receives the 'white man's education' so that he could become an important person in future like Osuga Zame, the eldest son and child of Mema's husband's sister, who was fighting over her uncle's children with Mema.
The narrator was entirely not sure of what he could remember and uses a lot of repetition to create emphasis, as if telling himself that's the truth. And even though the book is slim at 122 pages, the repetition affected nothing. A lot is packed within this pages as we get to know how the village court is organised and how language plays an important role in such courts. The narrator also pushed to the fore the traditional mode of marriage contraction. Thus, against these background the reader is able to infer that there are changes taking place within the community. The beginning of the story is a bit deceptive and veers off from the main story.
In the beginning, Daniel Mengara, allowed the narrator to tell us the background to his village and his people. The fact that they fought for the Fulassi people who 'are white people, just like the Dzaman and the Nguess'. If knowledge of the local language is anything to go by Dzaman would be the German people, the Nguess would be English and Fulassi, French. In a few paragraphs we are told how the Ngabone gained their independence after the big war. However, by writing in this fashion, several seemingly unlinked stories within the story, Mengara weaved a narrative tapestry that is an exemplification of his description of how his people. My only problem is that we didn't get to know of his other surviving brother as the story was concentrated on him and the mother keeping all others almost on the periphery.
This novel could be read in a single sitting. The poetic prose is beautiful and the traditional stories told to advice would lull ones senses. Yet, they don't descend into the hut-and-calabash archetypal stories of Africa. They represent the curve of transition that was taking place and consequently was more of a marriage or a cross between the old and the new. The results of which is Mema, a novel that is wise. I loved the strong woman the most as she represents today's African woman, not the type always typified in such h-a-c novels; the kind who bows to husband abuse and malevolence; the kind who puts their survival in the man's whimsical heart. Mema was not any of these mis-representations. Mema is the woman I saw in the university, those I meet at work and on the streets; the ones who would take the local economy by the horn, even with their little or no education, selling whatever is saleable to earn a living.
Mema by Daniel Mengara is a must read.
Brief Bio: Mengara Daniel was born in a small poor village in the Department of Minvoul north of Gabon. At the end of his primary school in Newton Minvoul, he enrolled at the College of Jesus and Mary Bitam and colleges and Bessieux Quaben Libreville. He received his literary Bac in 1987. After a degree in English Studies at the University Omar Bongo in 1990, he continued his studies at the University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis in France. From there, he obtained an MA (1991), a DEA (1992) and a Ph.D. in New Plan Study English in 1995. Since 1996, Daniel Mengara is Professor of Language Studies French and Pedagogy of French at Montclair State University in New Jersey (USA). He has published numerous articles and books including two novels, Mema (English, 2003) and The Song of chimpanzees (2008). In 1997, he founded the Society of Research on African Cultures (Sorace) in New Jersey with a view to promote and work towards the rediscovery of the historical and cultural heritage of Africa. Mengara Daniel is 42 years old. He is married and a father. Daniel Mengara has been the presidential candidate for the BDP against Ali Bongo in 2009, after the death of Omar Bongo. (Source: Translated from French using the Google translate service)