Tuesday, January 14, 2014

277. African Short Stories by Chinua Achebe and C. L. Innes (Editors)

Chinua Achebe and C. L. Innes edited two collections of short stories - African Short Stories (AWS, 1985; 159) and Contemporary African Short Stories. What makes these collections unique and much different from other anthologies - limiting it to those I have read - is the extent of its coverage. These anthologies cover Africa geographically and politically. Most often, writers from North African countries are hardly included in such anthologies and so too are Francophone or Lusophone Africa. Translations are hardly considered. Even in this collection, whereas West Africa has five entries; East Africa, five; and Southern Africa, seven; Northern Africa has only three entries. Regardless, this is an attempt at covering every part of the continent. 

This review will be in four parts; each part dedicated to one region. The collection addresses several subjects: from politics to religion; poverty to civil war;

WEST AFRICA
The False Prophet by Sembene Ousmane: This story was written in the manner of traditional story telling steeped in oratory and brimming with moral messages. The morale of this story is about honesty and the just rewards of the unjust. Mahmoud Fall changed his identity and his name to Aidra. He then travelled to the southern part of Senegal where he described himself as a Muslim scholar who had studied in Mauritania. He took on the job of an Imam and was given all the best treatments the people could afford; sometimes he demanded them. With guile and deception he ripped the people off their belongings - a coin here and there. He took them all. He ate to his feel and always asked for the choicest foods. When Mahmoud (Aidra) had accumulated enough wealth, he sought to journey back, through the deserts, to his hometown to enjoy his booty. Leaving his pretence behind, he became Mahmoud Fall, the thief. But he would spend not a single coin of this wealth as another would rob him off it. This other, working like a spirit, showed how empty of faith Mahmoud was as he made him seek after his wealth, leaving the God in whose name he had ripped off the people.

Another thing that came out of Sembene's story is the ephemeralness of wealth and the uselessness of making it as the sole purpose of living.

Certain Winds from the South by Ama Ata Aidoo: This is a story about socioeconomic changes and its contribution to migration. It is about the poverty that results from neglect. In Ghana the North-South migration is a historical fact. In this story, Issa and his wife Hawa had welcomed their newly-born baby. However, the economic conditions prevailing within the household was such that Issa must look elsewhere if he was to cater for his wife and child to the minimum acceptable level. And this elsewhere was down south., where economic opportunities abound, or so it is believed.

Weaved into this seemingly simple story is the issue of tribalism and discrimination that go with the migration and living among people of different culture. For instance, when Issa informed his mother-in-law of his intention to go south, she wanted to know if she was also going there only to cut grass. Usually, because of the low levels of education at the time, a situation deliberately instituted by the colonialist to keep people from the northern part of the country as a labour pool for manual work down south, the prospect of these migrants finding jobs that was not labour-intensive was very low.
But my son, why must you travel that far just to cut grass? Is there not enough of it all around here? Around this kraal, your father's and all the others in the village? Why do you not cut these? [10-11]
But Issa rather saw the economic opportunities of going south, even if it is to cut grass, and not its degrading part.
M'ma, you know it is not the same. If I did that here people would think I was mad. But over there, I have heard that not only do they like it but the government pays you to do it.  [11]
However, when the mother-in-law still persisted, Issa played the tribalism card. According to him, southerners think that northerners are those who go south to cut grass, but it is those farther up north who do so. This is exactly what Bessie Head's Maru discussed: And if the white man thought that Asians were a low, filthy nation, Asians could still smile with relief - at least, they were not Africans. And if the white man thought Africans were a low, filthy nation, Africans in Southern Africa could still smile - at least, they were not Bushmen. [Maru, 6].
Even so, our men do not go South to cut grass. This is for those further north. They of the wilderness, it is they who go south to cut grass. This is not for our men. [11]
However, migration down south comes with risk - the risk of family disintegration. And this was the mother-in-law's fear; the fear of losing a son-in-law and her daughter losing a husband, just as it happened to her when her husband went there.

These migration stories, and the fact that the migrant will do any work available, is analogous to what happens to most Africans when they leave their countries to seek better economic opportunities in Europe. In these countries they do all kinds of odd job because 'the government pays [them] to do it' and their absence sometimes disintegrate their families. Aba Asibon Amissah's Salvation in Odd Places published in African Roar 2013 also discussed the north-south migration in Ghana.

The conversation between mother and daughter was one-directional; we only read the mother's responses  and explanations of her daughter's questions and her own apprehensions. This is what drives the latter part of the story to its end.

The Apprentice by Odun Balogun: Ogunmola's family used to be rulers. His grandfather and great-grandfather had been illustrious rulers of the land, until the coming of the colonialists who changed everything and decided that his father could not rule as they wish. This decision by the colonialist meant that Ogunmola's father did not become an Oba and the family fell from grace. Repelled by the white man's wickedness to his family, they who had whose lives had been lived for the people, Ogunmola shunned the white man's education, considering it to be a way of acceding to them.

As an apprentice, he was caught between two master craftsmen, Omotola and Omotaiye. Sacked by Omotaiye for not working as he had been thought but rather working on designs of Omotola, the latter received him only to charge him for similar accusations. Thus, they each accused him of not letting go off the other's skills when all he wanted was to be unique.

Ogunmola is like Africa whose shores were flooded by the invaders who would not let it decide its own future; who would not let it be free to exhibit its unique traits or to decide its development path. But who would be influenced by people of doubtful capabilities and with second class degrees from all over the world, compounding an already complex problem in the process.

The Will of Allah by David Owoyele: This is a funny story about how two thieves met their just rewards. Dogo and Sule are directly opposite: whereas Sule was religious and believes that Allah has given each person means to earn his living and whatever he is was the will of Allah, Dogo is very non-religious. Though Dogo and Sule cannot be described as friends, they come together as often as is necessary for their common good. They are both thieves who relied on one another to ensure success. Each had served a time in jail before. 

As thieves, Dogo and Sule could not trust themselves. In their last robbery, Sule handed over a huge gourd to Dogo who kept watch outside the window. Unfortunately for them, the house that entered that night belonged to a snake-charmer and the gourd was where the snake was kept. One by one, the snake ended their lives.

Civil Peace by Chinua Achebe: Achebe's Civil Peace is a story about the resilience of the victims - Jonathan Iwegbu in this case - after the Biafran civil war in Nigeria. It depicts the resourcefulness of a people who want to move on by using whatever was available to them. It is about a people with the determination to live, who would see hope in their hopelessness and make progress in the face of boundless challenges. In effect, if life offered them lemons, they make lemonades. 

When Jonathan lost his son in the war, he chose to be happy for three children and the wife who survived, and his old bicycle which he dug up, greased, used it to transport people, and made enough money to open a palm-wine bar. When his house lost some of its fittings, he was happy for the concrete and was thankful that unlike others the structure withstood the shelling; he looked for old roofing sheets and discarded timber to fix what he could. When his ex-gratia - earned as a rebel fighter - was paid, he was glad; when he lost it during a night robbery, he considered it as nothing.
'I count it as nothing,' he told his sympathizers, his eyes on the rope he was tying. 'What is egg-rasher? Did I depend on it last week? Or is it greater than other things that went with the war? I say, let egg-rasher perish in the flames! Let it go where everything else has gone. Nothing puzzles God.' [34]
This is a man eager to rebuild his life and who would not allow any obstacle to negatively affect this determination.

The war had changed everything to such an extent that the thieves who had come to rob him of his ex-gratia claimed that they do not have a predilection to violence as the war had wreaked enough of it upon the people. Though this story is a serious one, there are tinges of humour in it, especially when the thieves helped their victims to call the police (knowing they were either in league with them or were afraid of them) and when the robbery became a negotiation. 
'Ok. Time de go. Make you open dis window and bring the twenty pound. We go manage am like dat.' [33]

EAST AFRICA
The Gentlemen of the Jungle by Jomo Kenyatta: Jomo Kenyatta was the first president of independent Kenya. Gentlemen of the Jungle is a fable about the relationship between the European colonisers and the natives. It touches on the takeover of a country from its autochthonic inhabitants by colonising settlers. In this story, a man befriended an elephant and offered a shelter for his trunk during one heavy rainfall because the room was too small for both of them. No sooner had the elephant's trunk entered the room than he whisked out man and took over the house. The commission formed - which did not include a single human being - to investigate the problem concluded, without allowing the man to talk, that
Mr Elephant has fulfilled his sacred duty of protecting your interests. As it is clearly for your good that the space should be put to its most economic use, and as you yourself have not reached the stage of expansion which would enable you to fill it, we consider it necessary to arrange a compromise to suit both parties. Mr Elephant shall continue his occupation of your hut, but we give you permission to look for a site where you can build another hut more suited to your needs, and we will see that you are well protected. [38]
Every other hut that was built was taken over in this manner by the animals. When the animals were thus sheltered and the huts had started decaying, man built a bigger and better hut. All the animals that had taken over his previous huts sought to takeover this one leading to a fight among them. This offered man the chance to set the hut ablaze, killing the animals altogether. The story is about colonisation and the struggle for independence.

Green Leaves by Grace Ogot: When thieves came to their village to steal their oxen, Nyagar was among the mob that chased after them. Though the slippery ones managed to escape, they were able to catch one on whom they all fell, showering him with blows until he collapsed, presumed to be in the throes of death. To avoid witnessing the final breath of the thief, which according to their customs would bring onto them evil, they covered him with green leaves hoping to come for him for burial in the morning. Nyagar, rich in cows with three wives and twelve children, had other ideas. He wanted what the thief had. Earlier than the agreed time, Nyagar woke up to make the journey alone to where the thief lay dead. But the thief was recovering and during Nyagar's search, he punched him, killed him, and covered him with the same green leaves.

Ogot's story had a lesson to teach: greed is not the way. Though this is one of the most talked about lessons in life, it is the one which was least adhered to. Today's politicians and businessmen are all like Nyagar, though they may have more than the people they represent or deal with, they still want more and would do everything to rip the people off. Nanga in Achebe's A Man of the People is one classic example. These Nangas and Nyagars care less about the larger people. They are greed personified.

Bossy by Abdulrazak Gurnah: This is one story I really did not get and should have read it again. It talks about the takeover of a country and about two friends who visited an island: one died at sea and the other found himself entrapped in a military takeover.

The Spider's Web by Leonard Kibera: This is about the change that changed nothing for the majority of the people. It's about those post-independence African elites who took over power at all levels of governance and maintained the status quo. Houseboys like Ngotho who had worked for white masters were all too happy to be working for their own people, post-independence; they believed that they were going to work for the common good of the people but did not expect anything much to change at the individual level.
Everybody had sworn that they were going to build something together, something challenging and responsible, something that would make a black man respectable in his own country. He had been willing to serve, to keep up the fire that had eventually smoked out the white man. From now on there would be no more revenge, and no more exploitation. Beyond this, he didn't expect much for himself; he knew that there would always be masters and servants. [66-7]
However, what befell them was more than what they could have preconceived. Their new bosses - those whom they knew entirely - were most often as bad and wicked to them as their white masters. What worried them most was that these were people who should have no reason to treat them as they did. There were completely innocent-looking people who checked positively against all the requirements of good morals. And who changed completely for the worst and supported their actions with several reasons. And Mrs Njogu nee Lois - who had spent time in jail for slapping back a government officer (a white lady) prior to independence and had overnight assumed cult status for her audaciousness - similarly slapped old Ngotho, a man whose daughter was as old as she was, for almost no offence. 

For the majority of Africans nothing changed except the colour barrier. The expected economic transformation that would have catapulted them turned out to be a mirage.

Minutes of Glory by Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Post-independent Kenya and the rise of the educated elites into top positions was fast; equally fast were plunging towards doom. It was at a period of contradictions: euphoric nationalisation, rapid Westernisation and uncontrolled cronyism. It was within this period that Beatrice - a girl with some education but without the necessary resources or connections to move up the social ladder - found herself. Beatrice was a girl who wanted to blend in, to be noticed and feel important, to be part of the change and the euphoria that had gripped the country, even if it meant being a concubine or mistress to one of these important men. However, this was also lost to her. She was barely noticed in every pub she worked at and constantly overlooked by customers who preferred her colleagues. She wondered what exactly the other girls had that she did not have. She adopted European looks to the extent that her poverty could allow: bleaching creams that peeled part of the skin because it was not enough, but it changed nothing.

Nothing changed until, fed up with her ghostly status, she stole from a client who only turned to her because all the others were occupied. With this money, Beatrice bought herself dresses, stockings, and shoes, and stretched her hair. Back at the pub where she worked, she became the centre of attraction. Suddenly, she who was overlooked became the target of whistles and caterwauling from politicians and other rich clients. But Beatrice had her strategy mapped out; she would show them how it felt to be ignored, to be snubbed. And until the patron from whom she stole came in with the police to arrest her, Beatrice had her revenge on everybody - her minutes of glory.

This is a short story that has most of the contradictions of the African: the socioeconomic changes of post-independent Africa that did not benefit the masses but enriched the few; the mad-rush towards westernisation - as bleached and fair women with straight silky hair (extensions, wigs, cream-treated hairs) becoming priced items, existing within the same time and space with mad nationalism; a sense of community living side by side with social classification based on income.

Ngugi had stated, in a different forum, about how Africans hate their bodies and would prefer a Mongolian or Peruvian or Brazilian (or any other country's but African's) hair on their head. This comes out clearly in this story.

NORTHERN AFRICA
An Incident in the Ghobashi Household by Alif Rifaat: This story was part of the author's Distant View of a Minaret anthology. It deals with the extent women would go to keep their families from breaking apart. A man left his daughter and wife to work in Libya. The daughter, to whom the man had promised a beautiful marriage dress of pure silk, got pregnant almost at the same moment that the man left and Zeinat had to find a solution before Ghobashi arrived, for they would bear the consequences of his anger should he return to meet a mother instead of a daughter, especially in a culture where chastity before marriage is of paramount significance.

This story is beautifully told and the reader is almost unaware of what is happening until Zeinat's motive was unfolded.

A Handful of Dates by Tayeb Salih: Masood had been selling his land to his neighbour anytime he married or was about to marry. And because he had married several times, he who owned large hectares of land had become almost a destitute tenant. Whatever dates he harvested on the remaining piece of land was handed over to his debtors whilst he scrounged to live.

When the grandfather told his grandson - the narrator - of his ambition to buy the remaining one-third of Masood's land, the grandson was sad and broken. When the boy saw the state Masood was in, that to Masood every piece of date counts, he could not believe the man's passivity and his grandfather's ambition. He who had always thought that his father had always owned all those tracts of land could not bear the truth. Like unwanted phlegm in his throat, he run off to vomit all Masood's date palms he had been eating.

A Conversation from the Third Floor by Mohammed El-Bisatie: A woman went to visit her husband in prison but had to speak from the compound of the prison to the husband on the third floor. The tensed conversation was about the work that was to be done in the household, which perhaps would have been done by the man. As the conversation went on, it was clear that the man could not identify the baby the woman was carrying, indicating how long he had been away from home. But there was no indication that they were going to be together again. If anything, the separation was going to intensify as the prisoners were about to be transferred to another prison to address overcrowding, and the man did not know where this new place would be. He promised the wife that he would write to her but the behaviour of the prison-guards shows that it is not certain that this letter, when written, would get to the wife.

SOUTHERN AFRICA
Papa, Snake, and I by B. L. Honwana: It is a fact that people usually do to others what they do not want done to them. A family tormented by a rich neighbour were themselves discriminating among their minions - separating their children from the house-helps and treating each group differently.

When the neighbour's dog was bitten by a snake in Papa's chicken run, the man came rushing for compensation. Papa's son could have prevented the snake from the dog but did not, perhaps from the enmity between the neighbours.

The Bridegroom by Nadine Gordimer: A young man is about to marry a young girl, whose parents require him to find a way to keep his 'gang of kaffirs' away from their daughter. However, living alone this man has formed a sort of bond with these 'kaffirs' he works with. How can he tell them - including his cook - to keep off from his wife or not to loiter anywhere near her, especially since these black folks can talk back at him and are loquacious?

Nadine's motif is known: apartheid South Africa. With beautiful lines and keener eyes Gordimer dissects and exposes the rot in the society at the time.
In his own time the black man appeared with the folding table and an oil lamp. He went back and forth between the dark and light, bringing pots and dishes and food, and nagging with deep satisfaction, in a mixture of English and Afrikaans. 'You want koeksusters, so I make koeksusters. You ask me this morning. So I got to make the oil nice and hot, I got to get everything ready...It's a little bit slow. Yes, I know. But I can't get everything quick, quick. You hurry tonight, you don't want wait, then it's better you have koeksusters on Saturday, then I'm got time in the afternoon, I do it nice...Yes, I think next time it's better...' [117
With such descriptions the author showed exactly the relationship between blacks and whites in a racially divided country. The houseboy's quarters was in darkness, a symbol of deprivation and oppression; whilst, the white man's quarters was lighted. The light-dark colour symbol is an apt representation of the black-white divide.

The Betrayal by Ahmed Essop: We really do not know who we are unless we are challenged and this is what Doctor Kamal found out in a rather unpleasant way. Doctor Kamal professed to be a follower Gandhi, yet when he was confronted by a possible challenge to his political position from a youth group that had denounced racialism, he called for violence. When violence erupted his double-sidedness dawned on him and he felt guilty. This is about political contradictions and intolerance.

Protista by Dambudzo Marechera: To begin with, this was the strangest story in the collection and it was my favourite. Dambudzo still remains a mystery to me, having heard about him yet having not read him. Protista would not be alien in a science fiction anthology. It captures a stream of consciousness. It traverses all subject areas: science to mysticism to transfiguration. The narrator is describing his exile - more of a soul and mental exile than a political one but even then the former results from the latter. It also results from adult imposition which the narrator could not bear as he sees himself transform into things to escape the dryness, the drought, the barrenness of the world. He escapes his tormentors through death and even then he is forced back to life to live this abhorrent life. He is the protista - that unicellular organism that undergoes fragmentation to create new ones. Yet he could not escape. 

His - the narrator's - creative and highly imaginative mind sharpens the torments, bringing it closer than it should be. He sees death as the only end, but it was an end which will not come. He's transformed into a tree - his freedom truncated and rooted into the soil and the only way to extricate himself is to wound himself. No one listens to his cries - which he does not waste time to do, for he is alone in his wilderness. Yet his suffering was prophesied to him in a dream and also through his huntress who left him one early morning; the only woman whom he spent time with in his exile - that period of time that traverses his youth and encapsulates both his fears (the worst moments in his life) and his good memories - making its excision difficult.

This is an interesting short story that will mean a lot of things to different people. Here, I take it as a political oppression carried out by society. It is about someone struggling to express himself and in doing so is rejected and persecuted by society. It is about our inability to accept people who are different to us. A great story.

The Coffee-Cart Girl by Ezekiel Mphahlele: A man helps a girl selling coffee during a black-workers' strike in a factory at a time when it was illegal for blacks to go on strike. The two struck a friendship the next time they met which itself transformed into love, though each was silent about it until China - the man - became jealous of Naidoo - another street trader. This jealousy resulting from an exchange of a ring (from Naidoo) for coffee (from Pinkie, the woman) almost became lethal. Regretting his deed, China promised not to repeat that; however, he stayed from Pinkie's cart for the next three days, within which period the authorities came to sack all black coffee traders for unsightly siting of carts. So China lost Pinkie forever, hoping that they might meet one day, and then they could exchange their life stories. At least that was what China thought.

Here Mphahlele was describing the untold effects of the random behaviour by the racial government of South Africa on the people. The small things also count.

Snapshots of a Wedding by Bessie Head: This is about the celebration of a wedding and the rituals that go with it. More importantly, it is about the decisions that go into marriage: should one marry an uneducated girl or a respectful but illiterate one, especially in those periods where to be educated was synonymous with arrogance. Kegoletile impregnated two girls: one educated and arrogant and the other illiterate and submissive. However, because of his educated background and the recent rush to marry (formal) working women, he chose Neo over Mathata. Yet, deep within himself, he knew he would have been happier with the latter. The bride's family having suffered Neo's arrogance drummed it into her to be submissive and be a good wife for they know that her attitude could be her downfall.

Reflections in a Cell by Mafika Gwala: A serial offender, a juvenile delinquent who cut deals was arrested when he attempted to purchase a gun. And he was bent on not divulging any information to the authorities. There was use of the prisoner's dilemma here.

It captures the realities of most youth where rebelling against family and society, they end up with crime and jail term.

Conclusion: This is an admixture of stories - the good and the not so good. They cover several topics and represent the diversity the continent has to offer. Short stories are always difficult to talk about and what appear here are mere summaries. Overall, it is recommended.
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Read about Chinua Achebe here

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