Friday, January 31, 2014

280. That's Doctor Sinatra, You Little Bimbo! by G. B. Trudeau


G.B. Trudeau's That's Doctor Sinatra, You Little Bimbo! (Henry Holt and Company, 1985) is the second Graphic Novel I have read, or remember reading. Trudeau covers several issues with interlinking stories. The issues he broaches are those ironies that exist in democratic countries, in this case America. He covers almost every sphere of life: economics, politics, culture, social issues, and others. For instance, with illustrations, Trudeau punches or makes fun at the emergence of TV series, tanning, and the abortion-pro-life debate. In the latter, he satirises how the president's - perhaps Reagan's - role in a propagandist documentary that favoured the pro-lifers. In one of the skits he laughed at medical colleges at universities producing drugs under the guise of research and the FDAs banning drugs with potential psychiatric value.

Trudeau also covers politics - both international and internal. Internally, issues such as racism and apartheid were discussed. Internationally, he clearly showed America's relationship with South Africa, the US-Soviet relations, and China's anti-West policies and state control in everything, including the arts. Some of the stories are geo-specific and peculiar to the United.

On internal issues, we meet the larger-than-the-law status of American celebrities. It is this that gave the title to this book. It shows how those who have the money to spend are always above the law. And Frank Sinatra was one of them. In a casino when he was told that house rules requires that the supervisor of the shuffles the cards before dealing, he demanded that she deals the cards. When she demanded that the right thing be done, because she could lose her job, Sinatra asked for her boss. And when he arrived the boss told the lady
What's the matter with you, girl? Frank Sinatra is above the rules! He's above simple courtesy! he does it his way! [author's emphasis]
The idea that people choose poverty or that only lazy individuals become poor has been with us and still is. The fact that the poor work hard and earn nothing is lost on people. This is captured by Trudeau in one of the skits. In this, he talks about how people believe that helping the homeless is a way of encouraging vagrancy. When a woman on such a campaign approached wealthy white women and broached her mission that she had a strategy to get people off the street into proper accommodation, these rich women were not willing to help, saying that they would have gladly helped if it were a home for animals or for a big disease.
It's not that we don't care. Au contraire, we adore good causes. It's just these shelters for the homeless have a way of encouraging vagrancy. If only it were an animal shelter. Or a big disease. If it were one of the big diseases, I could have a party.
Trudeau also talked about the emancipation of women. In this funny skit, a woman who had been looking for Mr Right for a long time finally decided that she was giving up and was throwing a party to declare her intentions to end her search. In effect, Trudeau is asking that women should take their lives into their own hands and not live their lives as if it is a man that will make it complete. They should not postpone living until they are married. Taking back their lives make them respectable and happy.

However, he also calls for equal decision-making and the dangers of women empowerment becoming men subjugation so that a wife's decisions are the only ones that rule the family. There was also a choice between careers and child raising, an issue that is still discussed. Through this Trudeau discussed the unjustifiable and rapid increases in the cost of standard of living, which put the less privileged in society farther from the city centres and out of habitable homes, onto the streets.

Racism is not strange. Even today, no one can say that racial discrimination is a thing of the past. Even presidents suffer it. Thus, it is not strange that Trudeau covers it. What is strange is that there is (or was) economic apartheid in one section of the country deemed too prestigious for the poor to loiter. In Palm Beach it is required that domestic workers or servants carry their identity cards or risk being charged for loitering. And Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be arrested. And Trudeau compares this with South Africa under apartheid. And like the inventors of apartheid, the people justify their actions, explaining that it gives the workers a sense of belonging - knowing that they are secure. They claim that it is the right thing to do even when until 1979, 114 years after the civil war, blacks could not own property in Palm Beach.
Ordinarily, dear, it's a good system. In fact our employees all love it. It gives them a sense of belonging. The cards make them feel like members of our big Palm Beach family! [Are they?] Don't be silly, dear. It's just something they can show their friends. ... We've really made great progress with the races recently. Why, in 1979 we did away completely with an ordinance banning negroes from owning property. .... [114 years after the civil war?]
The Soviet-US antagonism was expressed in Ethiopia, at a time when Mengistu was the favourite of the Soviets and was credited for anything the US did. It also shows how Mengistu used starvation as a weapon in the civil war so that even the food, medicines, vehicles supplied by the Americans to be used by aid workers remained locked up at ports and it took raids and bribery to get them to the people who needed them to survive. In the midst of all these the people were conscientised to credit the Soviets for every act of kindness - even if they were carried out by the US. And whilst the US supplied food, medicine and others - the Soviets supplied military accouterments. In between, celebrities visited the country in the name of representing the US and working in the interest of Americans. They sang songs, made albums on aid and charity (as they do now, ask Bono) and about the suffering of Africans and became the voice of Africans.

There is also a sarcastic statement of serious import, that bothers on recent pretensions, on the USA-South Africa relations. In this skit president Ronald Reagan was holding a benefit recording for 'USA FOR SOUTH AFRICA' dubbed 'Apart-Aid' with proceeds going to the purchase of computers for the needy security forces. These stories show the mentality of Americans at the time. The message Reagan preached through Rev. Falwell was: 'Patience, Faith, & Trust' and 
[R]espect for the freedom of people to live how they choose, even if that means living apart. Being apart isn't necessarily injustice.
Does this sound like something you have heard before? Yes. It means people do not change. This is a satirical collections of stories that received castigation and was lambasted by senators and other members of Congress. These stories have the ability to make us reflect as and question our actions. Introspection to reveal the emptiness of our boasts is what Trudeau sought to achieve with this book.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

#Quotes from Frank Herbert's Dune

A popular man arouses the jealousy of the powerful. [4]

Once men turned their thinking over to mechanics in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them. [11]

A world is supported by four things...the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the righteous and the valor of the brave. But all of these are as nothing...without a ruler who knows the art of ruling. [30]

A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join and flow with it. [32]

The whole theory of warfare is calculated risk...but when it comes to risking your own family, the elements of calculation gets submerged in...other things. [82]

When strangers meet, great allowance should be made for differences of custom and training. [144]

Failure was, by definition, expendable. The whole universe sat there, open to the man who could make the right decisions. [175]

Mood is a thing for cattle or for making love. You fight when the necessity arises, no matter your mood. [188]

Parting with people is a sadness; a place is only a place. [189]

Be prepared to appreciate what you meet. [198]

If you rely only on your eyes, your other senses weaken. [227]

Fear is a mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it is gone past me I will turn to see fear's path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. [230]

The absence of a thing,...,this can be as deadly as the presence. The absence of air, eh? The absence of water? The absence of anything else we're addicted to. [234]

Better a dry morsel and quietness therewith than a house full of sacrifice and strife. [246]

Whether a thought is spoken or not it is a real thing and it has power. [257]

[T]hree things there are that ease the heart - water, green grass, and the beauty of woman. [257]

The mind can go neither direction under stress - toward positive or toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training. [262]

The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences. [272]

The more life there is within a system, the more niches there are for life. [272]

Life improves the capacity of the environment to sustain life. [272]

To save one from a mistake is a gift of paradise. [286]

A leader, you see, is one of the things that distinguishes a mob from a people. He maintains the level of individuals. Too few individuals, and a people reverts to a mob. [292]

It is easier to be terrified by an enemy you admire. [334]

He realized suddenly that it was one thing to see the past occupying the present, but the true test of prescience was to see the past in the future. [360]

The man without emotions is the one to fear. But deep emotions... ah, now, those can be bent to your needs. [371]

Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic. [373]

When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movement become headlong - faster and faster. They put aside all thought of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it's too late. [382]

The unknown brings its own worries. [387]

But wisdom tempers love, doesn't it? And it puts a new shape on hate. How can you tell what's kindness? [470]

The eye that looks ahead to safe course is closed forever. [476]

The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it. [476]

Much that was called religion has carried an unconscious attitude of hostility toward life. True religion must teach that life is filled with joys pleasing to the eye of God, that knowledge without action is empty. All men must see that the teaching of a religion by rules and rote is largely a hoax. The proper teaching is recognized with ease. You can know it without fail because it awakens within you that sensation which tells you this is something you've always known. [505]

Religion must remain an outlet for people who say to themselves, 'I am not the kind of person I want to be.' It must never sink into an assemblage of the self-satisfied. [506]

When law and religious duty are one, your selfdom encloses the universe. [506]

Thursday, January 23, 2014

279. No Sweetness Here and Other Stories by Ama Ata Aidoo

No Sweetness Here (1970; 2013 reprinting by IBSS; 157) by Ama Ata Aidoo is a collection of eleven short stories. Though the title is familiar I have always thought of it as a novel. The short story genre had been used by some writers mostly to fill the interregnum between novels. However, I am pretty sure this was not its purpose in Aidoo's case. The stories in here are quintessential Aidoo, though I have read just a few of her works; they are realistic and examine our daily lives in such a way as to prove, irrefutably, that nothing much has changed; that modernity only adds gadgets and equipment without changing the basic behaviour of humans. If anything at all, we move in circles and in cycles, repeating events and attitudes. For instance, if you thought that power and promiscuity, or power and domination - specifically, the unconscious repression and discrimination that makes the power-bearer superior to all others, are today's problems then you definitely have to think again. Note that this book was first published in 1970, meaning the latest any of the stories was written was in that year; yet, the issues they cover could be pointed out amongst us, over four decades later. What more proof does one need to appreciate that humans have not changed? And this is one of the numerous functions fiction performs: its use as a measure of progress, retrogression, or stagnation. Ama Ata Aidoo's writings make her a chronicler of social, economic, and cultural changes. Note that there is no contradiction between Aidoo being a chronicler of change and the fact that human behvaiour in itself does not change; for how would we know this if there is no baseline for comparison.

One of such issues that has remained with us as a people and which keep coming up is identity, as in our looks. In the period of Aidoo's writing this was as hot an issue as it was now; for it was such discussions that led to the establishment of the negritude movement, that became the mantra for most newly-independent African economies leading to a new wave of socialism across the continent. It was that which influenced the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o to write in Gikuyu. In fact identity has been on the hot-burner since the early twentieth century with Kobina Sekyi's The Blinkards. It is this theme that the first story Everything Counts, which opens the anthology, addresses. Aidoo describes the lives of the people in a period where shoulder-length wigs worn by women, both educated and illiterate; a period where people bleached themselves into multiple-colours of black and red and shades in between and carry themselves with a sort of 'I have arrived' arrogance. Fair skin and long hair even became the national symbol of beauty such that beauty pageants were a contest of the fairer and the silkier.

The pan-Africanists and the pro pan-Africanists, who were fighting against this phenomenon mostly from their diaspora hideouts, were themselves caught up in this neo-colonial entanglements in a different way. They were afraid of going home (or coming back to Africa) to contribute to the development of the continent and to fight the cause they preach. Everything Counts is about the death of our identity and our gradual metamorphosis into hybridised caricatures. And the fact that we are still discussing issues of identity, forty-four years after Aidoo's writing, shows that we have made no progress. When at an informal gathering, Ngugi said 'Africans are afraid of their bodies', he explained further that Africans bleach their skin and cover their heads with hairs from every country - India, Peru, Mongolia, Brazil, etc. - but Africa. [Recently, a whole exhibition was ran for exotic wigs in Ghana]. The African hair is described as nappy uncontrolled and every such adjective of disorder one could conceive. So that an 'uncontrolled' hair could be the object of threat of dismissal from an academic institution. Similarly, when Gabby Douglas won an Olympic Gold at the London Olympics, it was her hair that was mercilessly attacked, and by African Americans, not her record triumph. Later, to appease the people and to show how not-neglectful she was about her hair, she appeared on the cover of Essence with her silky, shiny and straighter hair. If we as a people have not won our identity, what can we gain? This is what Aidoo's story is about.

For Whom Things Did Not Change is about the things that did not change with independence. The struggle for independence was a struggle for change; change not only in the leadership but in the economic status of the ordinary people - the masses. However, it is clear that for most people independence was just a change in leadership. Nothing else changed. Zirigu and his wife Segu are caretakers of a Government rest house. They have seen a lot of the 'big men' come and go, including the colonial government officials and have concluded that nothing has changed in their character since colonial times. By this Zirigu and Segu mean that they still go after the young girls, sleep with them, and buy them gifts, sometimes with the express approval of their parents, who benefit from such malevolent benevolence; that the big men still refrained from local foods and settle for exotic ones prepared by Zirigu, a cook; and that the big men still boss over the people, even those old enough to be their grandfathers because they have education. 

However, most importantly was the story of subtle oppression that Zirigu and Segu went through at the hands of their guests and even the government; the unwritten laws that sustained the master-servant relationship that existed in colonial times. When the Rest House was renovated and fitted with new gadgets such as Water Closets, their quarters was not even connected to the electrical power and they were supplied with a brand-new latrine pan. Though these two additions would have had no cost implications on the project, according to the project manager, they were left untouched primarily because they were not 'big men' and as caretakers must be treated as such. After all, some are more equal than others.

When their new visitor did not come with a girl and did not ask for one, when he asked for the local food and not the Zirigu's exotic delicacies, and also did not imbue himself in alcohol, they were worried if everything was alright with him. The abnormal has become normal and the latter absurd. They were surprised and were unable to call him by his real name as he demanded but rather 'Massa', a corruption of 'Master'. Zirigu was afraid that he might lose his position as a cook should the guest be served the food he had asked for. This incomprehension of relating to his fellow human being on the basis of equality and his fear of authority are symptoms of decades of oppression and discrimination against his lot, something he had come to accept. This story therefore analyses the psyche of the less privileged individuals who have been made to think for such a long time that they are nobodies without education, that they are less human than their educated peers, so that they should called them 'Master' by right. Thus, for the underprivileged (or less educated folks), the likes of Zirigu and Segu, nothing changed. Their lot had not changed, if anything it had been worsened by the knowledge that their own people are those in authority.

In this story also, Ama Ata Aidoo traced the gradual degeneration of meritocracy and the evolution of cronyism as a tool for rising through the political and social ranks. Gradually, it was becoming difficult for individuals who knew no one in certain positions of power to obtain certain posts or to be offered any help they required.

The rapid rate of urbanisation has become a major concern to developers. It is expected that urban centres will account for half (from the current one-third) of Africa's population, currently at over 1 billion, by 2030 and that in some countries the urban centres will account for about 85 percent. However, we did not just get there. Rural-urban migration has been part of the torrid story of Africa. This is partly the theme of In the Cutting of a Drink but fully covered in Certain Winds from the South. In the former, a man was sent to Accra to look for a family member who, at the age of ten, was given to a woman to be trained as a home-keeper and a dressmaker. However, this girl was  not seen for twelve years and the worried family would want to know what had happened to her. Through the man's shock of life and scenes in Accra, Ama Ata Aidoo provides the rural-urban divide that provides the allurement necessary for migration, even if the end results were always not as had been conceived, ab initio. Through the narrator's eyes we become observers of the cultural change that was taking place: women living and cooking for men they are not married to; women drinking beer with men and those working as prostitutes. Aidoo, a chronicler of social changes, brought out the cultural, moral, and developmental gap between the city and the rural centres. The man was even shocked at the number of cars he saw and wondered who paid for all the electricity, expressed as lights, consumed. Certain Winds from the South has been reviewed in African Short Stories

The Message is a funny story of how we receive and treat messages and also of the misunderstanding of the old about new developments, in technology especially. When an old woman received a message that her pregnant grand-daughter in Cape Coast had been 'opened up' and the child removed, she instantly presumed her dead and began mourning. In this mood, she boarded a lorry [yes, a lorry] to Cape Coast to the hospital where the incident had taken place. At the hospital even when she saw Esi Amofa dressed and lying in bed, she could not think of her not being dead, until she began to speak. 

On the way to Cape Coast, the differences in attitudes between the old woman and the young male driver were clear. The driver and the other young people in the lorry considered the woman archaic and overreacting, whereas the woman could not stop talking about her granddaughter who had been opened up. Aidoo also discussed the ritual of pitying in Ghana; a situation where everybody whom one tells his or her problem will have something to say something to console the victim, which sometimes lead to the telling of his or her own similar stories. Even enemies in such moments suspend all hatred to grieve with the victim.

The title story, No Sweetness Here, is about the pain of motherhood and of loss. Just as the title suggests, there is no sweetness here on this earth. Life is full of encumbrances. Maami Ama's marriage had gone stale and was seeking divorce and Kwesi, the pretty son of the two, was at the centre of it. Ama's husband Kodjo Fi and his family hated her because she did not behave as was expected of her (buying her mother-in-law gifts of cloths, as the other in-laws did). On a day of reconciliation - the Ahobaa Festival - the two sought to completely divorce. And Kwesi's custody had to be decided. A child belongs to the father though he belongs to his mother's family, where his inheritance is, that is the custom. Kwesi's father claimed him but Kodjo would not enjoy this feat. That afternoon something happened to Kwesi.

A Gift from Somewhere. Abena Gyaawaa had lost her child she had had on the very day they were born until a Mallam visited her at the point of delivery one afternoon when everybody was out on their farm. This Mallam, himself a quack, promised her that the child she bore would not die like the others; but when she instantly went into labour and the child she delivered was dying (or dead) she cried and asked the Mallam if the baby was not dead. He, in turn, performed some face-saving incantations, looking for ways to escape this tragedy he had no control of avoiding. He sent the mother to fetch some items but before she left she forbade her the eating of fish on Fridays and Sundays. When the lady departed to bring the items the Mallam had asked for, he escaped. But the baby survived and was named Kwaku Nyamekye (God's gift) and other children followed. Abena doted on Kwaku to the annoyance of his father. According to the Mallam if Kwaku reached a certain age he should be the one to perform the rituals, unless Abena wanted to go on with it. And Abena - a clear indication of a mother's love - decided that she would bear the burden until her dying day. This story, like No Sweetness Here, is set in a polygamous home and it shows the relationships that exist among co-wives and husbands. These stories are about the love between a mother and a son and how deep and protective it could be.

Two Sisters is a story about two sisters who are different in their views on life and the paths to success, and what it entails. Mercy is bent on living large even when her education and means in life did not allow or could not support such a life. She needs to be able to stand-up to her friends who change their wardrobe regularly and are picked from work by big cars. So like they all do he befriended an Member of Parliament, one old enough to be her father. This worried Connie, her elder sister who was of the meek type and could not even stand up to her husband, James, who has been cheating on her and does not mince words about it. James is not bemused by Mercy's behaviour. To him, it is natural and is rather looking for means to exploit the situation.

Again, Aidoo's realism shines through. Progress by or through connection or proximity - tribal, crony, familial - to power has become the norm since the dawn of independence. Meritocracy is lost and non-functional. The society then was like James. Connie on the other hand represents the ideal: she cared about the future of her sister, what would happen to Mercy should the MP drop her like he had done to the others? In the interim, Mercy left home to live in a government bungalow Mensar-Arthur, the MP, had acquired for her. And the coup came and Connie was thankful for it for solving a clear and present danger she had no strength or ability to change - a small change in the dynamic wheel of life. For her the coup was justified for eliminating the likes of Mensar-Arthur who had come to symbolise the government. But Mercy was tenacious and she also knew that humans, as they are, do not change. If Mensar-Arthur was no more, another would replace him and the cycle would rotate at the same speed as if nothing had interrupted it. So Mercy stayed away from  Connie's home until one day she appeared with an old captain, a member of the new junta regime, who had been appointed as head of the commission investigating some issues regarding the old government. Connie was surprised at Mercy's relentlessness and James, as usual, was his happy self - scheming and seeking ways to use the new man. Do things change? There really was no change except new people with old souls. The soldiers were about to do the same things they had accused the old regime of and the wheel turned relentlessly and endlessly on.

The Late Bud. A troublesome child - Yaaba, finally decided to surprise her mother but like everything she did, even this surprise ended in disaster and led to more trouble for her. Having overheard her mother talk about the need to paint the floor of their rooms, Yaaba decided to go with her friends early in the morning to fetch red-earth, forgoing an opportunity to wear her Christmas dress to church. At the time she woke up in search of a hoe, she fell in a large bowl of water, hitting her chest against the edge, collapsing and spilling the entire water. Later when the twins with whom she was going to fetch the red-earth came to call her, the relatives who had been awoken when Yaaba's mother had shouted for thief were surprised that Yaaba would willingly do such a good thing.

Earlier Yaaba had been wondering if the woman she called mother were truly her mother. This arose from the manner she called Yaaba's sister 'my child, Adwoa' and Yaaba just that. The relationship between Yaaba and her mother was not easy, emanating from the former's misdemeanours. Here the precociousness of children and their ability to process information in their own way come to the fore. How do you handle and stubborn child? Do you tolerate him? Or punish him?

Each and every story in this collection is steeped in realism; however, Something to Talk About on the Way to the Funeral epitomises what the anthology represents. The narrative style adopted here even benefits from it. When people attend funerals or parties or such gathering, the object of gossips become the lives of the victims or patrons by whose circumstances the gathering was taking place. It is through the gossips and tit-bits of two friends - one living in the village of Ofuntumase, another arriving there just for the funeral - on the way to a funeral that this story, the story of the relationship between the deceased and her son, is told. These two friends are not siblings neither are they distant relatives but just as it is in small towns and villages, they knew enough of the history of the deceased and the bereaved family, filling the tiny gaps with conjectures and hearsay.

From them - one speaking and the other interjecting - the reader comes to realise that the deceased had only one child, Ato; that he had the child with a 'big man' when he went to work for the family and to hush things up they brought Auntie Araba - the deceased - to the village to deliver. Auntie Araba loved her son and pampered him. She gave him whatever he asked for. However, when the man involved failed to have a child with his legal wife, he came and settled all requirements and took Ato away, on the excuse of offering him the chance to get better education. Ato who had been coming to the village of Ofuntumase for vacations impregnated Mansa during one such holidays. Her mother took Mansa in, looked after her, worked with her until such a time that Ato would come and marry her. But Ato did not come when he was expected. He had impregnated the daughter of a 'big man' who was threatening fire and brimstone if he refused to marry his daughter. And this daughter is one of those who abhor village life and disregard villagers. Mansa left the village in search of a better life, which did come. She took control of her life and succeeded, albeit with help here and there.

Again, we see Ama Ata Aidoo's trick of change and no change in the dynamic. Was Ato not just like his father and Mansa like Auntie Araba? What then had changed between the generations? Nothing. This is what Aidoo is trying to tell us, that change though certain affects the peripherals of life. The nature of man is usually unaffected. To put it differently, in the larger scheme of things everything returns to equilibrium regardless of the changes in the variables. Yet for the whole to be in equilibrium, the parts must also be in equilibrium.

Other Versions, which ends the collection, is about the life of a young man and his relationship with his mother, and father, as he progressed through his education. A mother who would not accept anything from the son but would prefer that the son handed anything he had for her to his father - a man whose meanness is legendary; who after paying the last O'Level fees decided that he had done enough. When this boy found himself in the US, he realised that the lives of women worldwide were the same and their love too. For her mother's only joy was in the knowledge that he was doing well.

Conclusion. Though I have not read enough of Ama Ata Aidoo's works, the few I have read speak of an author whose perception of life and events is phenomenal. She knows and understands what she wants from her stories. The narrative could be a monologue or a dialogue, but they usually change perspectives as the story unfolds. Aidoo's conversations in her stories are taken directly from real-life; thus, reading her stories one feels as if one is having those conversations or participating in the narrative. What Aidoo puts in her dialogues are exactly the things we will say - no inverted and extraordinarily complicated sentences which only politicians, in their attempt at bamboozling the masses, will make. What she writes about are things we are likely to meet or see, if we stop to look; and how she writes about them are how they occur in life.

One theme that runs through each of these stories is the emancipation of women. In this way Aidoo could be described as a feminist who wants to see women take control of their lives. In this regard, No Sweetness Here is a feminist text. Regardless of what the subject matter one could read the subtle messages of women empowerment.
When a black man is with his wife who cooks and chores for him, he is a man. When he is with white folk whom he cooks and chores, he is a woman. Dear Lord, what then is a black man who cooks and chores for black men? [For Whom Things Did not Change; 20]
The relationship between the women and the men in these stories is not an easy one. They are centred around women and their relationship with the world from within the confines and dictates of society, village, family, and men. There are mean men, men who neglect the women they impregnate, those who truly do not love their children and has no way of training them in the way they wanted, those whose perception of wives is determined - ironically - by their mothers, old men in amorous relationship with young women, men who would not cook for their wives though they are professional cooks; there are single-parent women, women who are rejected or discarded like a piece of used rag, women who become the breadwinners of their homes, and those who will do everything possible to keep the family together.
Once when mother didn't know I was within earshot I heard her telling my little aunt that Father always feels through his coins for the ones which have gone soft to give away! [Other Versions; 152]
Yet, I will say Ama Ata Aidoo is a cautious feminists, for she remains non-judgemental in her stories even when describing polygamous homes. She is not preachy and moralistic. She does not allow her story-telling to be overwhelmed by themes and agendas.

And Ama Ata Aidoo can be funny. Sometimes you cannot avoid laughing in public to questionable stares. Who does not know that Cape Coasters - literate or illiterate - are more English in their mannerisms, sensibilities and behaviour than the general Ghanaian population, and where more could one find this than in their names and language?
Scrappy nurse-under-training, Jessy Treeson, second-generation-Cape-Coaster-her-grandmother-still-remembered-at-Egya No. 7 said, 'As for these villagers,' and giggled. [The Message; 53]
How many times do you hear Treeson as the name of a person? Yet a visit to Cape Coast will offer one the opportunity of hearing several of such -sons, like Blankson, Menson, and others. In fact, it is entirely possible to pinpoint a Fante from their names. This book is highly recommended.
__________________

Monday, January 20, 2014

#Quotes from Ama Ata Aidoo's No Sweetness Here

When a black man is with his wife who cooks and chores for him, he is a man. When he is with white folk whom he cooks and chores, he is a woman. Dear Lord, what then is a black man who cooks and chores for black men? [For Whom Things Did not Change; 20]

It should be possible that if one can see several miles out in front, into the distance, one should also be able to see into time. All this breeze. These clear skies. Fresh breezes should blow the nonsense from our souls, the stupidities from our minds and lift the veils off our eyes. But it's not like that. It's never been like that. There are as many cramped souls around here as there, among dwellers down there. In the thick woods and on the beaches. Like everyone else, those poets were wrong. [For Whom Things Did not Change; 24]

Scrappy nurse-under-training, Jessy Treeson, second-generation-Cape-Coaster-her-grandmother-still-remembered-at-Egya No. 7 said, 'As for these villagers,' and giggled. [The Message; 53]

He was beautiful, but that was not important. Beauty does not play such a vital role in a man's life as it does in a woman's, or so people think. If a man's beauty is so ill-mannered as to be noticeable, people discreetly ignore its existence. [No Sweetness Here; 66]

My daughter, when life fails you, it fails you totally. One's yams reflect the total sum of one's life. [No Sweetness Here; 70]

A goalkeeper is a dubious character in infant soccer. He is either a good goalkeeper and that is why he is at the goal, which is usually difficult to know in a child, or he is a bad player. [No Sweetness Here; 78]

If there is anything people of this country have, it is a big mouth. [Two Sisters; 118]

The good child who willingly goes on errands eats the food of peace. [Late Bud; 121]

A good woman does not rot. [Something to Talk About on the Way to the Funeral; 137]

That is the story I am telling you. I am taking you to bird-town so I can't understand why you insist on searching for eggs from the suburbs. [Something to Talk About on the Way to the Funeral; 138]

[L]et us say it will be good, so it shall be good. Something to Talk About on the Way to the Funeral; 140]

Once when mother didn't know I was within earshot I heard her telling my little aunt that Father always feels through his coins for the ones which have gone soft to give away! [Other Versions; 152]

Thursday, January 16, 2014

278. A Cowrie of Hope by Binwell Sinyangwe

Binwell Sinyangwe's A Cowrie of Hope (Heinemann AWS, 2000; 152) is the first novel by a Zambian I have read. The whole of their literary landscape is closed to me and with the exception of a few short stories in anthologies and Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid, it is one of the countries whose writing still remains hidden to me. 

A Cowrie of Hope is set in the early nineties, a period that was, across the continent, marked by economic reforms and structural adjustments; changes in government or democratisation; and the discovery and spread of the HIV/AIDS disease. To these add, and as part of the setting, drought. Thus, these were the nineties became the singular refrain in this novel, an indication of the importance of such a decade. It is the turning point in the politico-economic structure of most African countries with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) adding as a condition, political and economic reforms, to aid. As an aside: it is important to note how sometimes fiction and non-fiction could merge seamlessly, as Dambisa's treatise provides the account on aid and its eventual consequences.

It is in this period that Nasula, widowed and her husband's family having captured his property after refusing to marry his younger brother, had to find the means to see her daughter, Sula, through school. Wobbling on the edge of poverty, either she fell into starvation and death or abandoned her single-mindedness of schooling her daughter - an idea that had almost become a disease, she did not dither but chose the former.

The story is about Nasula's travel to Lusaka to sell her remaining bag of beans to raise the necessary funds to sponsor Sula, who had been admitted to a prestigious secondary school. Yet, life in Lusaka could best be described as the survival of the fittest. The economic hardship had sharpened people's survival instinct, with others succumbing to their treachery instinct. And into the hands of one of these, Gode Silavwe, Nasula fell and was rid off her priced possession without any payment made. Lost and lonely, she promised herself never to return to her village until she had retrieved her money from the famous trickster. 

This story that highlights a part of my life like no other. I called my mother and thanked her for the umpteenth time after reading this book. For in Nasula I saw her. All through the story we are confronted with a mother's love, that primordial instinct that many would attest to. Sometimes it is almost like an incurable affliction. 

However, in Sinyangwe's effort to describe the state of the protagonist's desolation, he fell into the trap of repetitiveness and unlike the situations where the back-and-forth lead to an unveiling of secrets and the telling of the story, in this situation they were mere rephrasing. For instance compare these paragraphs:
But misfortune had not caged the woman's soul. Poverty, suffering and never having stepped into a classroom had not smoked her spirit and vision out of existence. Her humanity continued to be that which she had been born with, one replete with affection and determination. It was this which fanned her desire to fight for the welfare of her daughter. Her soul had eyes that saw far and a fire that burned deep. She understood the importance of education and wanted her daughter to go far with her schooling. She understood the unfairness of the life of a woman and craved for emancipation, freedom and independence in the life of her daughter. Emancipation, freedom and independence from men. [Paragraph I, Page 5]
Nasula was poor, illiterate and clothed in suffering, but she was an enlightened woman possessed with a sense of achievement. She had not tasted success in her own life, but she wanted her daughter to achieve much. She wanted her daughter to reach mountain peaks with her schooling and from there carve a decent living that would make it possible for her not to depend on a man for her existence. [Paragraph II, Page 5]
Ideas could build on each other, like an inverted pyramid; however, when they say the same thing but with different constructions, it encourages the reader to skim or skip entire pages. Also consider this
The first time Nasula was told about how other children teased her daughter and how her daughter ignored them and held her head high, the story so touched her that when those who had relayed the story had gone and she was alone, she broke and wept. She was moved to tears because Sula herself never mentioned this ordeal. [Paragraph II, Page 74]
And paragraphs III & IV of page 74:
All along, Nasula had feared her daughter might be laughed at, given the child's awkward clothes and possessions. The possibility haunted her and made her wonder how she would pacify and comfort the little one. But she had deceived herself. She thought that when something of this nature occurred, she would either hear about it from her daughter's mouth or see it on her daughter's face.
But what she feared had already occurred and done so without her hearing a thing from Sula or noticing anything herself. She had remained in the dark until she had been told by other people.
There were also some incongruities in some of Binwell's statements. The setting was one of drought famine, diseases - the appearance of the 'slimming disease' (or AIDS) and the devastation it was causing, the economic reforms (elimination of free education; the privatisation of farmer loans to ensure repayment) and the change in government. These had taxed heavily on the people to the point of death and abject desolation. The concomitant survival strategy was one of thievery, trickery, and treachery. The consequential paucity of food resulting from these could therefore be linearly deduced from the preceding events. However, even though the nineties was 'The years of rule of money. The years of havelessness, bad rains and the new disease. The harsh years of madness and evil' [122], it had become .... years of no money but plenty to sell. The nineties were years of sale, not purchase [78].

Regardless of these issues and the coincidences which always beset events whose ends are already determined, the language in this book is poetic. It is sweet and demands reading and immersion even in the desolation of the period described. Binwell in this book showed that being a single parent was not a death sentence; he restated the path to women emancipation: education and information. Thus, when Nasula was forced to marry her husband's younger brother, because customs demanded it or forfeit any care or property of her husband, she stood her grounds and refused it outright knowing the kind of person this would-be husband was and having heard that the new disease could be contracted through promiscuity and unprotected sex. She also saw that her lack of education contributed to her predicament and the only way to prevent her daughter from becoming like her was to educate her irrespective of the demands or commitments this would make on her.

In A Cowrie of Hope therefore, Binwell established the tone for what would become the clarion call in the new millennium in Africa: education of the girl-child; democratic governance; and women emancipation and rights. These are the attributes of this book. Besides, the ending - though predictable - was fulfilling for who would not want to see Nasula succeed in her quest to educate her daughter especially after having gone through those difficult moments at the hands of the serial and fearful robber Gode Silavwe and his clique of policemen?
____________________
About the Author: Binwell Sinyangwe was born in Zambia in 1956. He studied Industrial Economics at the Academy of Economic Sciences in Bucharest, Romania, where he was awarded M.Sc. in 1983. His first novel, Quills of Desire, was published by Baobab Books in Zimbabwe in 1993. It was also published by Heinemann in 1996. The story Wild Coins was published in an anthology of stories by Zambian writers. Sinyangwe has also had a number of articles and poems published in Zambian newspapers and magazines.

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.
__________________
Read about Chinua Achebe here

Monday, January 13, 2014

#Quotes from African Short Stories edited by Chinua Achebe and C. L. Innes

An animal cannot live at man's expense when man is a nomad. Like clings to like, it is said. [2; The False Prophet by Sembene Ousmane]

If the setting sun brings a stranger, don't look for him at sunrise. [4; The False Prophet by Sembene Ousmane]

Make sure of your money first. It's easier to pray when you're sure of having a full belly. [6; The False Prophet by Sembene Ousmane]

Pregnancy and birth and death and pain; and death again... when there are no more pregnancies, there are no more births, and therefore, no more deaths. But there is only one death and only one pain. [8; Certain Winds from the South by Ama Ata Aidoo]

Show me a fresh corpse, my sister, so I can weep you old tears. [8; Certain Winds from the South by Ama Ata Aidoo]

In the old days, how time goes, and how quickly age comes. But then does one expect to grow younger when one starts getting grandchildren? [9; Certain Winds from the South by Ama Ata Aidoo]

Every calling has its hazards. [23; The Will of Allah by David Owoyele]

He who attempts to shake a stump only shakes himself. [23; The Will of Allah by David Owoyele]

Allah, he was sure, gives some people more than they need so that others with too little could help themselves to some of it. [23-4; The Will of Allah by David Owoyele]

In a partnership that each believed was for his own special benefit, there could be no fancy code of conduct. [24; The Will of Allah by David Owoyele]

Wash when you find a stream; for when you cross another is entirely in the hands of Allah. [24; The Will of Allah by David Owoyele]

Gleeful tallysheet of past misdeeds. A time there was... but we ended it all with a careless selfishness. [51; Bossy by Abdulrazak Gurnah]

She worked in beer-halls where sons of women came to drown their inner lives in beer cans and froth. [71; Minutes of Glory by Ngugi wa Thiong'o]

This generation was now awed by the mystery of death, just as it was callous to the mystery of life. [75; Minutes of Glory by Ngugi wa Thiong'o]

It's nothing, Mother, but, you  know, our son believes that people don't mount wild horses, and that they only make use of the hungry docile ones. [114; Papa, Snake & I by B. L. Honwana]

He was exposed, turning naked to space on the sphere of the world as the speck that is a fly plastered on the window of an aeroplane, but he was not aware of it. [120; The Bridegroom by Nadine Gordimer]

The lyre-player picked up his flimsy piece of wood again, and slowly what the young man was feeling inside himself seemed to find a voice; up into the night beyond the fire, it went, uncoiling from his breast and bringing ease. [122-3; The Bridegroom by Nadine Gordimer]

At that very moment she realised fully the ghastliness of a man's jealousy, which gleamed and glanced on the blade and seemed to have raised  a film which steadied the slit eyes. [142; The Coffee-Cart Girl by Ezekiel Mphahlele]

You can't smack a fly, that is the trouble with you, man. Honest and educated, no many educated are honest these days. [156; Reflections in a Cell]

Thursday, January 09, 2014

A Bookish Outlook for 2014 - No Challenges, Almost!

Unlike previous years in which my readings have followed, but not dictated by, certain objectives, this year is to be a year of free reading. By 'free reading', I mean it would be challenge-free, direction-free, and anything free. Almost. I am sorry, but almost. A reader has to read. 

Reading Target. I have discovered that setting yearly reading targets have improved my reading tremendously. In 2012, I set a target of 70 books and read two more books; in 2013 60 but read 3 more (albeit more pages than in 2012). In both of these years, I have been spurred on by a determination to not disappoint myself. Thus, I feel that I should once again set a target towards which my reading will be directed. Though not in the current year, it is my life-long dream to read a 100 books in one particular year. And with this fantasy away let's get back to reality; I hope that even together with the necessity to write more this year I will be able to read 60 books. I will aspire but should I fail, I will attribute it to writing.

Country of Focus. I am not very sure if I have read any French author of literary merit. I am in doubt because I cannot recollect all the books I have read and among those I do there is no French author. Alright, I just remembered that I have read Angelique, Marquise of the Angels by Anne Golon. But this was such a long time ago, probably in 1997, that it is safe not to consider it. Whatever it is, just as last year was to Russian authors (which might continue this year), this year will be to French authors. Here, I am more likely to read the classics as they are easily available through the Penguin Popular Classics. Already, I have two books by Victor Hugo - Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I will look for others.

Big Books. Again, judging by the few unread books on my shelves, I am likely to read big books this year. I have the two popular books by Ayn Rand - The Fountain Head (1943; 704 pages) and Atlas Shrugged (1957; 1069 pages). Apart from the sheer size of these books, the font are below average, the results of profit maximisation, that I shiver to think the length of time it will take me to read this tome. Add to this is the heavy philosophical theme of her books. Furthermore, I intend to read that controversial Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses (itself over 540 pages) and the highest-selling and most-popular trilogy of all time, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (at an average of 400 pages per book). I have had this hard-cover collection for a long time but have not come around to reading them. I read the Book I - Fellowship of the Ring - about a decade ago. In the light of these, should I be able to read 50 of the target of 60 books, I would consider it as a great accomplishment.

African Books. As it stands now, I have not yet decided on the direction my reading of African books will take. The fact is that I am slowly reading my way through the Heinemann AWS, this couple with the almost complete absence of new African books means that I might fail to achieve much in this direction. However, I am not going to give up entirely. I have heard of a place where I could get Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go, should everything go as planned I will be reading this very book. I have also seen A Fine Madness by Mashingaidze Gomo in some bookshops.

Non-Fiction. I intend to also focus on non-fiction this year. Though I failed to do so last year, I would try as much as possible to keep the focus. The reading areas would be what I should have done last year:
  1. Development, Culture and the Human Mind;
  2. Thought and Language;
  3. Philosophical, Political and Economic writings about Nation States and Humanity.
The Book and Discussion Club. In the midst of these all, I will also be reading whatever book that The Book and Discussion Club of the Writers Project of Ghana will select for each of its monthly reading, unless I have read the book most recently to be able to effectively contribute to the discussion. The selected books for the first three months, beginning from February to April, are The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Testament of the Seasons by Mawuli Adzei, and 1984 by George Orwell, respectively.

The Top 100 Books Challenge. In October of 2009, I made a list of 100 books to be read in five-years. This challenge comes to an end on October 27, 2014 and I am yet to read half of the listed books. As it stands now, I either have to extend the deadline or to terminate it and unofficially continue with it since there is no way I am going to complete that challenge. I will give an full update on October 27, 2014.

These are just directions to guide my reading this year. They would not dictate, as they have never done, my reading. Reading should first be enjoyed and I intend to keep that cardinal principle.
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