The announcement of the 2012 Caine Prize shortlisted stories promised African fiction that is 'beyond the more stereotypical narratives'. It promised to offer alternatives to the famous, widely known, tales of Africa. If these are the motives, and the two stories I've read are anything to go by, then they are on course.
La Salle de Départ by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is a story about family responsibility, acculturation and home. As most immigrants stories are about. It also fits into that generalised stories where the emigre moves to America, lose his innocence, assimilates the alien culture, comes back home and becomes a caricature of hybrid proportions. Those stories where travel becomes the right of passage into adulthood and where alien characters, sometimes through formal education, at other times through street-education, are adopted and 'mis'-used. In other situations, pathos is played upon and here the story will show how the emigre's incapability of 'fitting' into the system oppresses him to the point of insanity and destitution. It was there in Brian Chikwava's Harare North and in several other short stories by African writers.
However, Myambo's story has a unique feature, besides its setting, that will resonate with most African communities. This uniqueness lies in the responsibility aspect of the immigrant story. It depicts, clearly, the communalism that pervades most homes in Africa. Home in Africa is more than a wife/spouse and children. It goes beyond the addition of a mother and a father to include aunts, cousins, uncles, nephews, nieces and those of whom there is a deficit of vocabularies to define and whose associations are only made using interconnections of a brother's sister's husband's son. Yet, it is through these associations that lives are lived and responsibilities shared. In fact, the current streetism that has become a major feature of Africa's conurbation has been partly attributed to the partial collapse of these communalism, resulting mainly from the adoption of modern ways of life, especially the nuclear family system that insist on using the word 'I and me'. Thus, in Africa, the individual is responsible for more than his children if he happens to come into some form of wealth, relatively. It is the depiction of this and how it played on the emotional cords of the main character, Ibou, and his sister Fatima that makes Myambo's piece an enjoyable read. Ibou has arrived from America and almost everybody wants something from him. But he is a changed man, after having spent almost half of his entire life in that country. He sees them not as his responsibility, including his sisters son - Bababcar, whom she wants him to take with him to America. Ibour makes this known to his sister but his sister also reminds him that he also benefitted from similar arrangement when their uncle took him at a tender age to live with him in America.
Another aspect of the story, which has been typical of the African way of life but which is also going through the rapid changes, is the education of only the male members of the family to look after the rest, mostly the females who are programmed to marry. This pervasive phenomenon sometimes breeds anger, quarrel and regret for its usefulness is solely dependent on the one who has been educated to offer handouts to the others. In this case it was Fatima's education which was sacrificed so Ibou would get more education, a better job, and become the breadwinner of the family, something he is currently fighting against.
The story demonises neither Ibou, for neglecting or fighting against a system he has benefitted from, nor Fatima from demanding that Ibou carried out his responsibilities which saw her rooted into the soil of the land, which saw her become the sand blown about at the whims of the winds, whilst he - Ibou - becomes the wind itself. For who should fault a woman who is bent on getting the best in life for her son. The question that remains to be asked is wouldn't Babacar - an eleven year old boy - become himself assimilated by the very culture that had morphed his uncle into an unidentifiable entity? But when the future is under discussions all 'what ifs' dissolves into nothingness especially when the alternative is an eternity of poverty and destitution.
Ibou's alienation wasn't only against the institutions that established and made him responsible for a family he hardly knows or understands; his alienation or internal struggle was against everything: his dressing as subtly described was of a baseball cap, jeans (perhaps, sagging) and an iPod. In fact, these descriptions when supplanted on the French country of Senegal - the setting of the story - where the majority of people including Ibou himself are traditional Muslims, makes an interesting sight. Not that Ibou cares much about his religion as he doesn't even observe its basic tenets such as fasting during Ramadan. And in all these, Fatima suspects Ghada, Ibou's live-in girlfriend; that she's the one confusing Ibou, causing him to spew philosophies and issues he doesn't himself understand. All through, the difference in understanding regarding the use of language was palpable. For instance, when Ibou said there was no space in their lives for Babacar, Fatima thought he meant 'no living space' and therefore laughed it off, suggesting that her son will sleep in the living room. This threw Fatima in utter confusion rather than anger so that whilst Ibou was unable to converse with his sister, his sister misunderstand the few sentences that passed between them.
Myambo's story, set in Senegal when Ibou was en-route to the airport back to America, is filled with tension and more importantly, it was non-judgemental. The best way to read it relies on where the reader's allegiance lies. Personally, I found Ibou to be inconsiderate and somewhat stony; for he who has benefitted from a situation must not deny others, regardless of the burden that confronts him. Was Ibou afraid of Ghada? Possibly.
This is an interesting story. I will make my judgement of the possible winner after I read all the five stories on the shortlist. However, this story could be accessed from here.
About the author: Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is the author of Jacaranda Journals (Macmillan South Africa, 2004), a collection of short stories set in Zimbabwe. Her work has also been published in Prick of the Spindle, The Journal of African Travel Writing, 34th Parallel and Opening Spaces: an Anthology of Contemporary African women's writing.