Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The African Story

I have been promoting African Literature for some time now and it was only a matter of time that I talked about this issue, which having been flogged refuse to pulp.

What is the African Story? Is it a story of or about huts and deaths? Wars and famines? Child slavery and genocide? Ethnic cleansing? Gross human atrocities? Savagery? Cannibalism and cat killers and eaters? Growing up, in the mid eighties and nineties, and learning about the art of story-telling from my father and teachers at school, where Fridays and breaks were story telling periods, I was never told that Africa has its unique story. There we told tales of morality using animals as characters - fables they are known. These stories always ended with a 'what not to do' lesson of life. For instance, we knew that the spider was cunning, the lion brave and cunning and the snake could be wise. The Old Woman was always a repository of knowledge, never a witch. Yes! You heard me right! She was not a witch so that we would say in Twi yenko bisa nana Aberewa - let's go and ask the old woman - anytime there is a difficult decision to be made. And this infused our everyday language.

Twenty-years later, armed with tales to be told, then entered the Conradic and Naipaulic tales of vitriolic falsehood specifically told to denigrate a people. Must one speak with authority over something one scarcely understands? Yet that's what these groups of writers and their cohorts, whose philosophy seem to be that the more morbid the story about Africa the better, did. Not speaking the language, not understanding the culture of the people, the Conradic and Naipaulic tales as in The Heart of Darkness came to define what Africa and its people are all about: Barbaric. Backward. Savages. Cannibals. Pagans. Non-humans. So that a people whose religion is so embedded in their daily life came to be known as Pagans. 

Recently, one of the 'greatest' tall-tale tellers, one who has won numerous awards for his books and accounts of people, the Nobelist, V.S. Naipaul, released his travelogue about Africa titled The Masque of Africa, glimpses of African belief. And that is all that this honoured, knighted writer saw, 'glimpses'. For how could one pass judgement based on this. Yet, in his book, this great writer intimated that the people of Ghana, of which I am one, and other West Africans eat cat because they are so hungry. And he wonders why people would eat cat. As a Ghanaian, first I don't eat cat, and I do not know of any tribe which are cat-eating. I wonder where Naipaul got this information to disinform his readers. I wonder the sample size on which his generalisations were based. As an agricultural Economist who deals with data collection and analyses on daily basis I know the importance of sample size and its effect on research. But of course, Naipaul - the great thinker of our time, the Sir - needs no sample to make his arguments. To him one man speaks for all as he does for his like-minded myopic writers. And yet there are those who are conditioned to believe him. And let me play the Devil's advocate and agree that cat meat is a delicacy in Ghana. How does this differ from those who eat dog, cow, chicken, or as a matter of fact all meat-eaters? You pet a dog or a cat, I pet a sheep or a goat, you eat mine and I eat yours. Does that make me bad? Yet, his book is an acclaimed. After all, this novelist is a Nobelist. An Oxford graduate too.

How did the African Story come to be believed? Having been bombarded with dead and dying Africans from wars, famines and diseases on CNN, BBC and others, people's thinking of Africa, including Africans themselves, became streamlined to death, dying, wars, famines and diseases. So that if it isn't about these it isn't about Africa. Anything to the contrary is not the authentic African Story. How could it be? They ask. How could something good come out of that dark continent of savages and monsters? Publishers accepted the people's views and would later publish only these things about the continent - the authentic African Story.

Enter, our own African writers into the fray. These writers, who think more of the market and commerce than about the veracity of what they are talking about, hiding behind the cloak of freedom of speech, pandered to the 'tastes' of the 'market'. Thus, cementing, strengthening, validating the 'authentic story about Africa'. These African authors accepted that these stories sells. Because the publishers said so and would publish nothing other than this.

Yes, these things do happen as the Rwandan genocide, the DR Congo unending political and civil unrest, the Guinean and Ivorian crises confirm. There is an AIDS pandemic on the continent and that disease is wiping away families like morning dews in the face of the sun. Somalia is adduced as an example of a modern failed state. There is famine in parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. But there is also the brighter side of events. There is Botswana, Ghana (whose latest election was won with a little over 100,000 votes and because no struggles ensued the CNN and BBC refused to give it such coverage as they do to the warring countries). Yet, what is the German Story or the European Story. Is it the burning of the women as witches? the Inquisition? the killing of the Jews? What is the American Story? Is it the student-killing-student stories (Columbine massacre)? or the Healthcare issues? or what? Are there homelessness in America? Are there people who cannot afford healthcare? I don't believe that. Can all Americans read and write? What is the Great American Story? Is teenage bus murdering the story of Britain? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, talked of how she wouldn't get a publisher to publish her first novel (Purple Hibiscus) because it isn't (according to publishers) an African novel. When she finally got it published another, streamlined in her thoughts, pitied her that she doesn't know all African men are such abusive. So, having read American Psycho, she told the patronising Oprahic lady, that she didn't know all American teenagers are serial killers.

And so an industry has been made about Africa with the blessings of the so-called 'lovers' of Africa. Those TV icons who could make or unmake with tears and words. Those who decide what is to be read and not to be read. Those whose shallow sycophantic patronage of Africa could be called anything but sympathetic. Those Oprahic lot. Is it a wonder that Uwem Akpan's collection of five depressing and dystopian short stories titled Say You're One of Them, which saw no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel - no sliver of hope, was selected by Oprah's book club? I doubt. The other African novel is Cry, my Beloved Country by Alan Paton. 

Is it not the African story that birthed movies like 'Tears of the Sun', 'District 9' and more recently 'Avatar'? (Mayowe Atte, a Nigerian author). Chimamanda talked about this in her podcast the Dangers of a Single Story and Binyavanga also talked about it in his article 'How to write about Africa'. Yet, this misrepresentation would go on until Africans themselves learnt how to write about themselves. Until they learn to know that the authentic African story isn't only about death, war, famine, diseases; that the only thing good about the continent is not about its wildlife; that an African has headed the UN before and a Kenyan-American is the president of America, this would continue to be the story about Africa.

Can't a continent's writers earn publishing rights based on the quality of their writings rather than the content of their stories? Should writers conform to this African Story rule? I hope the emerging African-owned publishing houses like Cassava Republic, Fafarina, Sub-Saharan Publishers, Ayebia-Clarke would not pander to what the 'market' says but would make quality material their hallmark

Monday, November 29, 2010

Proverb Monday

Proverb (in Akan): Onipa bewu na sika tease
Transliteration: Man would die but his riches would remain on earth
Implication/Usage: No matter what you do you cannot take your wealth with you. Hence it is important not to do injustice to others in our quest for wealth.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Library Additions

Yesterday I added a few books to my growing unread titles. It takes a second to increase the unread titles but days to decrease it by one.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton: This is an African classic novel by the South African and published by Vintage. I purchased this book because I have come across it several times and still wondered why it wasn't on my TBR. so when I chanced upon it last three weeks, I prayed that no one would get this before I am ready to buy it. And my prayers were answered. It's now resting in my shelf.

The Other Crucifix by Benjamin Kwakye: This book was much touted by Geosi and later supported by Kinna. I promised both that I would get my copy this month so we could talk more about the author and his books. This book is not on my TBR but on the list of authors to look out for. The novel is published by Ayebia-Clarke.

The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangrembga: This is a sequel to Nervous Conditions, which I purchased last month or so. Why not read all the series in a book if one had access to them? Besides, I have also talked about this book. It is also published by Ayebia-Clarke.

Bu Me Bε, Proverbs of the Akans by Peggy Appiah, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Ivor Agyeman-Duah: This book is mainly a resource book. It contains proverbs of the Akans and I would be posting one proverb in its original form, English transliteration and how or when to use it. I believe that if I could write in English, I should also be able to write in Twi. This I haven't done and it is something I would love to change. Using folklores from one's origin helps spice one's writings. This book is also published by Ayebia-Clarke.

Proverb 1: εba a εka oni

If it comes it affects your relatives.
(Trouble which affects one person affects their whole family group). (Page 13 of Bu Me Bε)

I would quote a new proverb every Monday morning.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

47-49. Non-African Books I have Read this Year II

Once a while I bring to my readers non-African books I have read. Since these are non-African books, this post is not a review. However, it helps me judge my progress with the 100 books to be read and share thoughts on this book where possible. The first was posted exactly two months ago

96. The Castle by Franz Kafka
So finally I read this dystopian novel. Kafka takes us on a journey that bothers the mind. I was so tired after I read this book that I didn't think I would read Kafka again this year. I read this because almost every literary/book person has read it and besides I have read The Trial, which is on my TBR 100. There is a surveyor who wants to get into the Castle and the book tells of all the impediments and troubles he went through and still couldn't get there. The book as I see it as about the present life. How many of us are able to achieve our dreams. They mostly remain as dreams. And even those that realise theirs soon dreams another. Do we sometimes bring our troubles on us? Are we the cause of some of our problems? Is everything determined? I think in Kafka's notes, determinism is the key to every action and not randomness. For though events in the book seemed to happen randomly, they are determined. For instance, the 'Mayor' of the village knew K. would come and visit him. When K. first called the Castle the person who received it knew that he would call and knew he was coming into the village. I enjoyed reading this, that is if you took out the mental torture the book took me through.

97. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Oh! what a book. Anyone who hasn't read it should. This book traces the Dead family from the days of slavery to the period of emancipation. Macon Dead, so called because of an error during the registration of freed slaves, has a farm which his white neighbours were jealous of. They killed him. His wife gave birth to a daughter when she died. This daughter has certain idiosyncrasies that makes her unique. Lovely book. In this book realism and surrealism is difficult to extricate from each other. Morrison was able to make the search and quest for freedom so real yet achieved through such surrealistic means that the reader begins to wonder which is which. The story was set within the period when slavery has just been abolished and blacks were exercising their freedom in a strangulated way. I read this book because I have Toni's Beloved on the TBR 100; and she is also a Nobelist, winning the award in 1993. Song of Solomon is her third novel published in 1977.

98. Lord of the Flies by William Golding 
This book is on my TBR 100. The only book amongst the three that is actually on the list. The copy I read is a poorly printed one. I loved this story. I see it as a continuation of Atwood's Oryx and Crake with Ralph, Jack, Maurice and co being children of Crake. In this classic novel, we learn of the nature of man, the savagery that we are capable of inflicting on another and the length we would go to have control over the other. We also see that politics and religion are a natural part of us for when the children became afraid of the island they left the head of any pig, they killed, on a stake for this 'thing'. On the political front, even though Ralph was popularly voted to be the Chief we saw how Jack, wanting to suppress and oppress the others, stole the Chief title from Ralph, formed his own tribe and began his savagery killing his own friends, people who were his friends and doing these because he wants to express his fearlessness or bravery to his subjects. Later, we realise that it is possible that they whole event was staged or probably an experiment. This is a true classic. Speaks on different levels.

Monday, November 22, 2010

46. The Lion and the Jewel by Wole Soyinka

 Title: The Lion and the Jewel
Author: Wole Soyinka
Genre: Play
Publishers: Oxford University Press
Pages: 64
Year of Publication: 1963
Country: Nigeria

Comedic. In the Lion and the Jewel, Wole Soyinka tells a funny story - almost in style of the cunning Ananse folklores told in Ghana - involving four 'main' characters. Sidi is the Jewel: the village's belle whose beauty has been captured by a photographer and published in a magazine. As a result she sees herself as above anyone in the village including Bale Baroka, the Lion of Ilunjinle. Bale Baroka, is the Lion of Ilunjinle and its chief. He has several wives and is courting the love of Sidi, the village's Belle (the Jewel). Lakunle is a young (of twenty three years) bombastic teacher in the village who is bent on bestowing Western culture onto the people of Ilunjinle. In the meantime his priority is to stop the payment of dowry. When in school he wears an old threadbare un-ironed English coat with tie and a waistcoat. And he also loves Sidi. The final major character is Sadiku, the Lion's head wife. She became the head wife because she was the last wife of the previous chief who was succeeded by Baroka, the Lion and as tradition demands, she becomes the head wife of the new chief.

The story opens with Lakunle expressing his love for Sidi and denouncing strongly the payment of dowry. Lakunle describes the custom of dowry payment as
A savage custom, barbaric, out-dated,/Rejected, denounced, accursed,/Excommunicated, archaic, degrading,/Humiliating, unspeakable, redundant./Retrogressive, remarkable, unpalatable ... An ignoble custom, infamous, ignominious... (page 7) 
However, a young girl whose dowry was not paid is seen as she having forced to sell her shame becuase she was not a virgin.

Bale Baroka, the Lion, asked his head wife, whose duty it is to woo any woman the Bale wants for him, to tell Sidi to come for dinner one evening and to express his love for her, on his behalf. This the woman did. However, Sidi who has become famous and so having put on airs, told the woman the Baroka is too old and not fit enough to be her wife.
You waste your breath./Why did Baroka not request my hand/Before the stranger/Brought his book of images?/Why did the Lion not bestow his gift/Before my face was lauded to the world?/Can you not see? Because he sees my worth/Increased and multiplied above his own;/ ... (Sidi, Page 21)
Be just, Sadiku,/compare my image and your lord's -/An age of difference!/See how the water glistens on my face/Like the dew-moistened leaves on a Harmattan morning/But he - his face is like a leather piece/Torn rudely from the saddle of his horse ... /Sadiku, I am young and brimming; he is spent./I am the twinkle of a jewel/But he is the hind-quarters of a lion! (Sidi, Page 22/23)
And this set the stage for the Lion's cunning. Sadiku herself sent Sidi's message to Baroka and he in turn sounded surprised at his own request and told Sadiku of how he is no more a man:
Yes, faithful one, I say it is well./The scorn, the laughter and the jeers/Would have been bitter./Had she consented and my purpose failed,/I would have sunk with shame. ... The time has come when I can fool myself/No more. I am no man, Sadiku. My manhood/Ended near a week ago.
Sadiku, upon hearing this became happy and set out to celebrate though she had promised not to say a word to anyone. In her celebration, through songs, she told Sidi what has happened to the Baroka and how great women are. Sidi then asked Sadiku to help her taunt the weakness that has befallen the Lion by pretending that it was all a mistake when she rejected the Baroka's proposals. However, later we would read that Sidi became the Lion's wife.

Wole Soyinka
Though the storyline is linear as it is in most plays, Soyinka uses the character of Lakunle to greater effect. He mocks the rapid embracement of vapid Western culture through Lakunle, who, using 'big' words, damned all traditional practices. We see that though he was a young man and Sidi loved him, he was never able to take advantage of what was presented him. Sidi was prepared to marry him any day anywhere yet his abhorrence of the payment of dowry was the cause of his loss. So that the Lion, using his wisdom (call it cunning), won the Jewel. Lakunle, however, berated Sidi strongly against her not covering certain parts of her body and her carrying things on her head, which Lakunle claimed, would spoil her spine. He even went ahead to call her 'weaker sex' and 'small mind'. And with these characteristics of Lakunle, he became almost like a caricature with no firm belief.

This is an interesting story written in poetic format: structure, language and delivery.

This being the second African play I have read, I have come to enjoy the genre. This is a book I would recommend to all. I cannot compare it with any of Soyinka's plays (this being the first), however, it is similar in 'effect' to Ola Rotimi's Our Husband has Gone Mad.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Interview with Mamle Kabu

When did you begin writing?
I did a bit of writing aged about 8 or 9 with illustrations but later I got embarrassed about it and threw it away so nobody would see it. I’ve always regretted that. In adulthood, I knew I wanted to write, I knew I would write, but interestingly, I felt I wasn’t ready, not experienced enough to be worth listening to or reading, till I was about 30. Then I felt ready and I started. But I think another factor was that that was when I stopped keeping a journal and I think the urge needed somewhere else to go.
For whom do you write/ who is your audience?
This is different according to different stages of writing. At the inspiration stage I don’t really have an audience, it’s just me and the story. As I write I do consider the audience in terms of technicalities, say, in using a phrase in a vernacular language, whether it’s necessary for it to be understood by everybody and if so, how to go about that. Then of course, if I want to try and get it published, I have to think during the writing process of issues like word length, how appealing it is to whom. But I’m not very good at that, generally I just allow it to come out before I start worrying about that, which is not always a marketable strategy. Generally, I write for people who feel things the way I do, who will discover things in my writing, who can basically appreciate it, regardless of who or where they are.
What prompts you to write?
Something I once described as a restless and rather inconsiderate urge lodged somewhere in my entrails. I don’t really know where it comes from or what it wants but it’s been there since childhood and it just doesn’t go away even when it is being crowded out by other pressures in my life.  And actually it’s the only thing that’s always been there even when I was completely in the wilderness about ‘sensible’ career choices. The actual writing process is interesting and also a bit mysterious, it’s like “If you sit down, it will come.” I often write things I had no idea I was going to write when I sat down.  
What was the inspiration behind The End of Skill?
I wrote ‘The End of Skill’ immediately after ending a year-long study on kente cloth, a project I did under the auspices of my day job as a research consultant. Two particular anecdotes I had encountered during interviews with kente weavers and custodians sparked the idea in my mind and also gave birth to the main character. One thing that really sank in through the study was how much kente is still a living tradition in Ghana and how wonderful that is, but at the same time, what that has cost in the face of modernization. That theme worked its way almost involuntarily into the story.
What was your reaction to hearing that you had been shortlisted for the Caine Prize?
Mamle Kabu
I was in shock. I knew my story had gone in together with others from the “Dreams, Miracles and Jazz” anthology but still, making the shortlist with the rest of the continent for competition seemed like a pipe dream. Hearing I’d done it made me feel like a character in a book. An author’s pet that just gets her wishes written into the story!  It was like fiction. 
What are the challenges facing short story African writers? How can these be resolved?
In Ghana not only short story writers but writers in general face the problem of finding a reading public.  Writing is easily classified as ‘difficult’ if it goes beyond the formulae of pulp fiction and then the reading of it becomes viewed as an academic exercise, which cuts out the vast majority of the reading public. The popularity of religious books and self-help books also helps relegate non-pulp fiction to the back shelves. How to resolve these challenges? Well to begin with there is the fundamental problem of low literacy. That would be a good place to start. 
Why did you become a writer?
It seems to have been hard-wired into my brain from childhood that I should. I’m not quite sure why.  It’s just something that wants to be done and suggests itself gently but persistently.
What are your concerns as a writer?
Money is an eternal concern, writing doesn’t really pay any bills at this point in my life.  Linked to that is time, the terrible, recurrent frustration of having ideas that you don’t have the time to put down and develop properly.  Finding publishing outlets for my work is also a concern.  I’ve been very lucky but have also had a lot of rejections and they are so demoralizing. 
As an African woman writer do you consider yourself a feminist? Or do you embrace feminism as a perennial issue?
I embrace feminism as a perennial issue, I’m not sure women like me have a choice in Africa really because otherwise we get labeled just for wanting half-way decent treatment. While being the type of woman who would automatically be classified a feminist by many, I object to the very concept of feminism, to the need for a label for people just wanting to be treated fairly. What do you call a man who stands up for his rights just as a man?  A part of me feels that promoting the concept of feminism promotes the need for such a concept.  I like my strength as a woman just to be a part of the way I am, like my height.  I will stand up to be counted as a feminist if it’s required to protect women who are helpless to defend themselves but it is not a label I readily embrace just for the sake of it or for image purposes.  I like to bring women’s strength out in my writing in a way that does not evoke labels but rather shows naturally and indisputably what they have a right to and are worth.
How do you yourself work – coping with job demands, marriage, living in societies other than your own? How do you fit in all those things into your life? How do you divide your time?
Living in Ghana (for the past 15 years) I feel I am back in my own society (after 10 years in the UK) although being bi-racial that is not always a clear-cut question. Anyway, coping with job and family demands and still trying to be a writer is so hard that it often seems impossible to keep being all those things at the same time. Economic forces are what make the decision really, if I didn’t have to worry about money I wouldn’t have any problem deciding how to divide my time! I would just write!  Although I don’t think I would want to give up my work completely because it contributes so much to my writing. One of the reasons I’ve written mainly short stories so far is because I work freelance.  So I fit my writing in between contracts. But it’s always hard to find long enough bits of time in between to finish my novel. As it is, if my writing urge wasn’t so strong it might have got pushed out by the other things by now, especially kids. It’s not easy to combine them with anything. Yes, the juggling act has been incredibly difficult.
What future projects/events will we see you involved in? 
The completion of my first novel I hope, and others after that. I also want to write screenplays and get involved in film direction. 
What is your opinion on the direction and momentum of African literature today?
I think more and more opportunities are opening up for African writers all the time. Today, any aspiring writer anywhere in the world can find opportunities to get published just by going on Google. He/she can submit a story from Ghana to U.S.A at the touch of a button. This is not to say it’s easy to get published, it’s not, but still, it’s a whole lot easier than it was pre-internet.  Anthologies are being put together with calls for stories going out on the internet. This is how I have had some of my short stories published including “The End of Skill,” which is one in an anthology of 27 stories from all over the African continent, all of which were submitted via the internet (together with many others that were not included in the final selection). Literary magazines for African writers like ‘Kwani!’ in Kenya and ‘Sable’ in the UK are providing opportunities to new writers. So I think African literature is gathering more and more momentum and will have a much bigger international profile in the next decade or two than it has hitherto enjoyed.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

45. The End of Skill by Mamle Kabu

Author: Mamle Kabu
Title: The End of Skill
Genre: Short Story
Publisher: Picador Africa
Published in: Dreams Miracles and Jazz
Year: 2008
Editors: H. Habile and K. Sesay

This week is Ghanaian Literature week at Kinna Reads and I have joined her in bringing to light the gems of Ghanaian Literature. Amy at Amy Reads is also participating.

The End of Skill, which was shortlisted for the 10th Caine Prize in 2009, is a different kind of short story told by Mamle Kabu. The story unlike many others takes a path that lies untrodden. Most at times stories are told of change; of how wills must be asserted; of how parents force their children to tow a path, take a career, marry a given person, and how the children are affected by their parent's decisions. Always negatively affected. However, in The End of Skill, Mamle Kabu tells a story of how parent's decisions aren't all that colloquial.

Jimmy or Kweku, as known and called by his father, was tired of continuing the father's business of Kente weaving. According to him this work brings no financial rewards fitting enough of people of his age, this his father wouldn't listen to even if he conveys his thoughts in a not so bluntly a way.

However, Jimmy is only satisfied and fulfilled when he is weaving the Kente cloth and his father knows this. So Jimmy was to leave the village of Adanwomase to Accra with the aim of finding a different kind of job - one that would pay the bills and make him and his father live a financially-fulfilled life. But what if this dream could only be achieved through the only thing that Kweku or Jimmy has no peer - weaving? And what happens when he found that he shared his father's sentiment about the fate of the Adweneasa Kente cloth in the hands of expatriate and others alike who would treat this Kingly cloth just as another decorating piece? What happens when passion meets money?

This is a wonderful story, one that I have never believed could be told. It speaks of the wealth of stories in the country and how we need not stretch too far to gain ideas to write. The story is also not what people usually refer to as the 'typical' African story. It encompasses the village setting and the city setting and it is so true to life. We each have a story that begins not from the city, but somewhere remote.

This story together with the other shortlisted authors: Parselelo Kantai (Kenya) for You Wreck Her, Alistair Morgan (South Africa) for  Icebergs, EC Osondu (Nigeria) for Waiting and Mukoma wa Ngugi (Kenya) for How Kamau wa Mwangi Escaped into Exile, together with the best from the Caine Writing Workshop were published as Work in Progress and Other Short Stories. Kabu is also the author of 'Human Mathematics' published in Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multi-racial Experience edited by Chandra Prasad, W.W. Norton (2006) and 'Story of Faith' in African Women Writing Resistance: Contemporary Voices, edited by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, University of Wisconsin (2010).
Mamle Kabu

I recommend that you each read this story here. Or you can purchase the entire anthology, Dreams Miracles and Jazz, which include seasoned authors such as Binyavanga Wainana, Segun Afolabi, Sefi Atta, Brian Chikwava and Biram Mboob, here.

An interview with Mamle Kabu would be up on this blog soon. Keep watching.

Monday, November 15, 2010

44. Changes by Ama Ata Aidoo

Title: Changes
Author: Ama Ata Aidoo
Genre: Novel (Love Story)
Pages: 200
Publishers: African Writers Series
ISBN: 978-0-435910-14-3
Year of Publication: 1991

Changes by Ama Ata Aidoo is a love story that transcends the sub-genre within which it has been placed. Sometimes in our inability to classify a book we give it a classification readers would quickly agree. If one knows the culture and religious dynamics of Ghana, one would realise that Changes challenges a lot of the stereotypic mentality of Ghanaians, that the characters, some of which are the usual archetypal Ghanaians, were mostly opening new avenues of our social life and pushing the boundaries of what has become the norm in relationships, such as inter-cultural marriages and women divorcing their husbands.

In an age where anything practiced by our forebears is described as evil or colloquial, where people (educated) would gladly accept homosexuals and condemn polygamists, only because the former is accepted by the West and the  latter not, we read of an educated and independent, but married woman, Esi finding love in an already married man, Ali. Esi is married to Oko but feels suffocated by the presence of her husband, feels psychologically oppressed and so would not even offer him sex on the pretense of tiredness and work, so that when he 'jumped on' her one early morning, she treated it as marital rape and would later file for divorce. and having met and fallen in love with Ali, she would become the second wife of Ali.

Ama Ata Aidoo
However, her archetypal parents, especially her grandmother, wouldn't hear of this. They all found something very wrong with her and her decision to leave a monogamous marriage, where the husband is not even known to have concubines or cheat on her, only to enter a polygamous one and one that takes her across cultures and religions. Esi, though is not your usual Church-going Christian, is generally regarded as a Christian since according to the religious dynamics of Ghana anyone who is not what we refer to loosely as a 'Northerner' and who hasn't converted to Islam is considered a Christian, and for her to choose to become a second wife of Ali, a Muslim with the liberty to marry more than two, is more than difficult to understand; but that is what Esi is, difficult to understand.

Marrying Ali, Esi suddenly began showing all that Oko, her ex-husband, wanted in her: cooking, loving, sex and being there. With this we know that Esi's  claims of oppression by Oko wasn't what led to the divorce, nor even the marital rape.
As you know, my job can be very demanding sometimes. I have to prepare materials for ministers, permanent secretaries ... you know, such people. And then I have to do a lot of travelling; inside the country, outside. Oko resented every minute he was free and I couldn't be with him' (Page 54)
'Supper is ready,' she announced. Food. Another source of pleasure when you were with Esi, Ali was thinking. She cooked like nobody else he knew or had known. (Page 91)
All through the story we get to know that Esi did almost everything that she never did for Oko for Ali. And when nemesis visited and Ali's 'free time' whittled out Esi was forced to accept that fate. And there was a
woman involved. Later we are to find that marriage and love alone do not a good relationship make.

Along Esi's story, is the story of her friend Opokuya and her husband Kubi, an interesting couple with their own problems. But what if Kubi loved Esi?

The story is a true-to life story but one that would happen infrequently. The prose spoke to me on several levels. For instance, I was able to relate to some of the jargons used in this book such as when 'armstrong' was used to refer to a thrift or a skinflint.

This is my first reading of Ama Ata Aidoo, and her story Anowa is on my reading list. Recommended? Yes, highly recommended.

This is my contribution to the Ghana Literature Week (November 15-21) hosted by Kinna of Kinna Reads.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Golden Baobab Prize Announced

Accra, November 9, 2010 - The 2010 winners of the Golden Baobab Prize, a leading African literary award, have been announced. This year Lauri Kubuitsile of Botswana, Mirirai Moyo of Zimbabwe and Ahmed Farah of Kenya were selected as the distinguished winners by a prestigious panel of judges. They join the growing circle of promising authors chosen by The Golden Baobab Prize, which is the only prize of its kind: it is awarded annually to inspire the creation of quality African literature to be enjoyed by youth readers all around the world. The prize offers a monetary award to its winners and connects outstanding stories with an array of African and international publishers. 

This year, Kubuitsile's Mechanic’s Son won her the Golden Baobab Prize for the best story written for ages 12-15 years.  Moyo’s Diki, the Little Earthworm was named the Golden Baobab Prize for the best story written for ages 8-11 years and Farah's Letters from the Flames, earned him the Golden Baobab Rising Writer Award which is given to young writer 18 years and below who shows exceptional literary promise for his/her age.

The 2010 Golden Baobab Prize shortlist for Category A (stories targeted at readers 8-11 years) features:
  • Dorothy Dyer (South Africa), War Stories  
  • Gothataone Moeng (Botswana), The Rainmakers of Botalaote
  • Lauri Kubuitsile (Botswana), Lightning and Thunderers 

The 2010 Golden Baobab Prize shortlist for Category B (stories targeted at readers 12-15 years):
  • Jenny Robson (South Africa), Only the Stones Still Cry
  • Patrick Ochieng (Kenya), Neighbours

Among the renowned Golden Baobab Prize panel of judges sit esteemed Ghanaian publisher Nana Ayebia Clarke, critically acclaimed Kenyan author Muthoni Garland, two-time former President of the Hans Christian Anderson Award jury Jay Heale, multi prize-winning children’s author and illustrator Meshack Asare, highly regarded Nigerian publisher Bibi Bakare-Yusuf and Global Fund for Children Books Director Cynthia Pon.

 This is the second time Kubuitsile has won the Golden Baobab Prize: in 2008/2009 she was selected to be the winner for her story Lorato and her Wire Car. Last year   Ivor W. Hartmann won as well for his story Mr. Goop. Vivilia Publishing in South Africa has since published both of these winning stories. In that same year, 18 year-old Kenyan Aisha Kibwana won with her story The Strange Visitors That Took Her Life Away, earning her the Golden Baobab Rising Writer Award. She shares the honor now with fellow Kenyan, 16 year-old Farah.

Information was obtained from the Golden Baobab website.

Library Additions

Over the past two weeks I have come to possess some books, mostly through purchases, which I must share with you. But before I do so, let me take talk about the resurgence of old almost lost books on the Ghanaian market and thank some publishers (or a publisher) for doing so.

Last week I passed by the Silverbirds Lifestyle shop and I saw books that I thought were almost lost: Tsitsi Dangarembga. I jumped and jumped. I looked at those books and realised that they had one publisher: Ayebia. Nana Ayebia Clarke, the founder of Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited, is a Ghanaian-born publisher currently resident in the UK. She was the Submissions Editor for Heinemann and Caribbean Writers Series for 12 years. Together with her husband, David, they established this publishing company in 2003 specialising in quality African and Caribbean writing. They hope to be the first stop for established and budding writers who require a publisher who understands where they come from. Their mission is to publish books that will open new spaces and bring fresh insights into African and Caribbean life, culture and literature in a way that will enlighten, stimulate and entertain.

Now the books:

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu: This book was sent to me, autographed, by the author. I showed it off to my friends at work who didn't understand why I should be happy. I interviewed the author here and definitely you would be reading the review of the book here. It was published by Weaver Press.

Fela, This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore: I purchased this book together with the next book when the author, Carlos Moore, together with the author of the next book, John Collins discussed Fela at the Nubuke Foundation. This event was organised by Kinna of Kinna Reads. Yes, and I had it autographed. This book was published by Cassava Republic.

Fela, The Kalakuta Notes by John Collins: I purchased this book when the author John Collins discussed Fela's life with Carlos Moore at the Nubuke Foundation. This was also autographed by the author.

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust: Though Proust is not originally on my 100 TBR, as an author he is on the list of authors to be read. Yes, I have a list of authors I would purchase from if I ever come across their books. This book is over 1100 pages! and published by Penguin. I know I am not reading it now. May be next year. But who knows?

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy: I bought this book together with Marcel Proust's book from a second-hand book dealer. The two books cost less than US$ 3. I didn't know Thomas Hardy was on my list of authors - not my fault! the list is long. But when I checked he was on it. 

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga: This book was bought on the impulse. It is on my list of TBR so when I saw it at the Silverbirds Lifestyle Shop, I couldn't prevent myself from buying it. I had earlier seen The Other Crucifix by Benjamin Kwakye and skipped,  Cry my Beloved Country by Alan Paton and skipped, and African Love stories edited by Ama Ata Aidoo, which I also passed. However, when I got to this book, I couldn't. When I saw the sequel The Book of Not I had to pinch myself to avoid purchasing it since I have exhausted all my budgetary allocations on books. I hope Silverbirds keep these three books for me, else...

Monday, November 08, 2010

This Bitch of a Life, the Official Biography of Fela by Carlos Moore

Dr Carlos Moore
Literature lovers in Ghana on last week Thursday had the fun of their lives (at least most of them had), when Dr Carlos Moore, author of Fela's official biography, This Bitch of a Life, and professor John Collins, a musicologist and author of the Fela: Kalakuta Notes, took the stage to discuss the works of this great musician who was and is an industry on his own. 

The discussion, organised by Kinna of Kinna Reads, saw interesting revelations in the life of Fela, a great musician Africa has ever heard. Questions were asked of the man, what he believed in and what motivated him to do what he did. This is a musician we would never understand: for the passion to fight a government as corrupt as it was cannot be cultivated from just the need to do good. Anyone who wants to do what Fela did must be born for it. After all, it is no coincidence that he is called Anikulapo (he who carries death in his pouch).

Participants had the chance of purchasing autographed copies of these books. And I got an autographed copy of this book, which I would be reviewing on this blog soon.

The next such discussion by Kinna would be in December where we would have Marilyn Heward Mills, author of Cloth Girl.

Burt Awards for African Literature - 2010: Call for Submissions

CODE, a Canadian NGO and the Ghana Book Trust have the pleasure to invite Ghanaian authors and publishers to take part in a writing competition to produce engaging and educational stories for youth 12-15 yeas old.

The Burt Award for African Fiction is a newly created annual award to recognise excellence in young adult fiction from Ghana. The Award is sponsored by CODE through the generous support of a Canadian patron, Bill Burt. The award is restricted to authors who are citizens and resident in Ghana.

1st Gold: GH¢ 16,000
2nd Silver: GH¢ 8,000
3rd Bronze: GH¢ 4,000

  1. Manuscripts will be accepted through publishers only; who are allowed to submit not more than three manuscripts. The manuscripts are expected to be prepared by authors in collaboration with publishers. This is to ensure that the submitted manuscripts are edited to some extent by the publishers before they are read by the jury.
  2. Manuscripts shall be written in English and show the mastery in the use of the English language.
  3. Manuscript should be prose fiction with content and language appropriate for ages 12-15.
  4. Each story should demonstrate a solid command of English, through clear, coherent language, proper sentence structure, vocabulary, and punctuation.
  5. The story should have strong literary merit with: i) Engaging characters with whom young readers can identify; ii) A protagonist who overcomes challenges or obstacles in a positive way; iii) A well-developed plot with a clear beginning, middle and end; iv) Effective use of literary devices.
  6. The story should have a strong narrative style - with strong imagery, lively dialogue, and vivid description - to arouse young readers' interest and curiosity and keep them turning pages.
  7. The story should reflect issues and challenges of concern to contemporary Ghana.
  8. Manuscripts which have the potential to evolve into a sequel or series will be welcome.

The length of the mauscript should be between 75 and 120 pages and should be in Chapter form. It should be type-written, double spaced, Times New Roman, font 12.

Deadline for submission: The manuscripts should be electronically submitted to the Ghana Book Trust by Friday 29th April 2011by 4.00 pm. (Email Address: gbt@africaonline.com.gh)

They will be reviewed by a panel of qualified judges to determine the winners and the decision of the judges will be final. CODE will explore the possibility of having these titles co-published in Canada. Copies of the titles will also be distributed to the Ghana Book Trust's network of CODE-supported schools and other community libraries.

Winners - The winners will be announced through the media, and will be awarded at the Ghana International Book Fair in November 2011.

Culled from Friday, November 5, 2010 edition of the Daily Graphic, page 31.

Click here to read last year's winners.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

43. Matigari by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Title: Matigari
Author: Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Translator: Wangui wa Goro
Genre: Fiction (Satire)
Pages: 175
Publishers: Heinemann (African Writers Series)
Year of Publication: in Gikuyu, 1986, (in English 1987)

It was my first attempt at writing this review that led to my article on Precolonial and Post-Colonial African Literature. Ngugi's novel, Matigari, is one that is funny along all lines and at several levels. Just after independence, Africa's faithful literati realised the path along which the new governments were taken the country. They foresaw that such a path portends nothing but doom and so decided to speak against it. One of such prolific writers against the system in Kenya and because of the ubiquitousness of the atrocities on the continent for that matter Africa, was Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

In Matigari, Ngugi wa Thiong'o created a fictional hero Matigari ma Njiruungi (this in Gikuyu means 'the patriots who survived the bullets'). Matigari, having fought the colonialist into the bush and having kept the flame of independence going came from the forest to possess the land for which he had fought only to realise that the new Lords of the land, those who fought not but took the opportunity to jump onto the seats once it was vacated, had, in collusion with the colonialists, taken over his land and house and all his property, leaving him with nothing. The period where the sower does not reap what he had sown was still going on with utmost impunity. Matigari did not understand what has happened in his absence. He went about asking the people, the masses, who themselves have been beaten into cowardice by the government with the help of the security forces, where he can find justice and truth.  
...My only thirst and hunger are to do with my troubled spirit. I have travelled far and wide looking for truth and justice...(page 94)
Having sworn not to use violence this time, he roamed the land, entering all corners and asking whomever he met where he could find truth and justice. And the people considered him mad in the beginning, yet he never gave up, he had hope:
... there was no night so long that it did not end with dawn (page 3)
With this Matigari went on ... asking, keeping his belt of peace on. He was arrested two times: once he was sent into a police cell the other into a mental home, and on all two he absconded. His name spread through the land and his fame led to different stories and theories. Some considered him Jesus Christ; some said he was female; others male; others tall; others short; yet they all agreed that Matigari, whom they had earlier considered mad was their saviour. 

Matigari later realised that
one cannot defeat the enemy with arms alone, but one could also not defeat the enemy with words alone (page 131)
And with that, he plunged into the forest to retrieve his weapons to fight John Boy (a native Kenyan) and Williams, the former's father was a servant to the latter's father and after Matigari chased them into the forest their children had shared all the properties that was supposed to be for the people.
Ngui wa Thiong'o

The novels fame was multiplied when in 1987 the government's security forces literally acted it out by going around in search for the person who was calling himself Matigari. Realising that there was no such a person and that it was a fictional hero in a book, the
... police raided all the bookshops and seized every copy of the novel. (page viii, Introduction)
Later the author was to join his book in exile.

The beauty of Matigari is not only about the prose or the precise use of language and the simplicity of the diction. The beauty lies in the veracity of the issues written about. Though a satire, the book represents the African society right after independence and today. One thing that came out clearly in this novel is the changeover from communalism (caring for all) to individualism, where each fighting for himself sold all. John Boy, whose education was funded by the community, refuted the ideology of communalism and advanced the individualism agenda 
I would ask you to learn the meaning of the word "individual". Our country has remained in darkness because of the ignorance of our people. They don't know the importance of the word "individual", as opposed to the word "masses"... (page 23)
And through this oppression, the academia sold itself for they sought positions by toeing the line of the government and nodding and singing praises when they are called upon. They acted like puppets, responding to the strings of the puppet master. Matigari explained that
There are two types of people in this country. There are those who sell out, and those who are patriots (page 126)
This is an interesting book, a revolutionary book. Ngugi used a medium in which he could decry the rot that has taken society by its throat, cogently. Has anything change? No! It is only increasing! The numbers at the 'grabbing-stealing-cheating-killing' end is increasing and that the Matigaris are dying off, losing faith and hope in the system they helped established.

As you can see, this book has jumped onto my all-time favourites list. It is that good. I recommend it to all who love change, who want to see the right thing done.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Pre-Colonial* and Post Colonial African Literature - Is Writing the Path to Development

Pre-colonial African Literature concerned itself with the fight for independence. Writings that were churned out during this period (before the 1960s) addressed colonialism and occupation and its tone was vitriolic. Such books as Ngugi's Weep Not Child sought to put the fight for independence into perspectives. So drunk were the people with the struggle of the day that the people (of Africa) began to confuse independence with development. And as a matter of fact development, by a people for the same people according to their likes and dislikes, is truly a function of independence. However, when those who position themselves to enjoy the fruits of independence behave like the oppressors, against whom the masses struggled, then the people's development becomes a mere word not a philosophy.

Dissolved in the quest-for-independence euphoria, the people - the freedom fighters , those whose real blood fetched freedom - forgot to ask questions of those who were window-sitting expecting the seat to be empty and jump onto it. So that when independence was gained and the only thing that changed was the colour of the oppressor and the mode of oppressing did not abate but in certain situations increased, the people of the pen picked up their writing materials and opened the flood gate of words. The objective of post-colonial literature then moved from attacking the white oppressors to attacking the native-black ones. Like the Jacobos in Weep Not Child, the John Boys of Matigari and the Koomson's in The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born, these individuals misappropriated the country's resources: making the Castles that beheld slaves their abode, riding in upgraded vehicles like the colonialists did and living in absolute luxury like the colonialist while leaving the development of the masses to the masses. 

Thus, from the mid to the late 1960s, when the independence euphoria dissolved, the people woke up to the realities of their plight. The people realised that independence in itself is a necessary condition for development but not a sufficient one. Sufficiency comes from having selfless leaders, leaders who look beyond their paunches and hear the groaning of other people's intestines; leaders who want to lead rather than to be led; leaders who have vision.

When these characteristics were found to be dearth in the early leaders of Africa, many a literary giant faced the problem head on and addressed their illusion, their disappointment. During these periods the man Ngugi wa Thiong'o became an ardent speaker against the atrocities perpetrated by the Kenyan government against its people. He spoke and wrote of the corruption breeding in the fish's head; against the poor vision of the leaders; and of leaders aping the very people who had just been somewhat 'sacked' from the country. Ngugi wrote A Grain of Wheat and Matigari, which addressed these issues and which also sent him running into exile. Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born addressed this issue, hammering more on society's part in corruption, which was manifesting itself into moneytheism. Many poems were written with the sole aim of asking questions. Asking why we have not yet developed, as promised by the quest for independence. But it turned out that it was the objective of the masses and not the 'aristocrats'.

Within this decade most African countries are celebrating or would be celebrating their 50th Independence Anniversary. The question that begs to be asked and answered is what are our literary giants writing about the current state of the continent's affairs? What are they writing about? What are they fighting for? Are they the same people who fought against the colonialist? and against the early despots and juntas? Or have they morphed into a caricatures, who in connivance with governments, are sucking the masses dry?

Today, most governments are afraid of literary personalities and so this 'industry' is given little to no attention. They become government-relevant on the few occasions when they are called to recite poems to grace or mark an event. African governments have done little to support the publishing industry.

As Ghana celebrates its 9th Book Fair, I ask: are writers still influential as they were? Are they still holding governments to task? In an interview with a writer I asked him whether the influence writers have is declining and he asked if they even had an influence before? An educated society is one that knows about itself. It is also one that use the civil discourse of the pen to address issues and not guns and bayonets. Hence, let's look back at the writing profession, for in it lies our path to development.
*The use of pre-colonial here is deceptive. It should be colonial as the period before colonial rule isn't what has been captured in the above article but rather the period during colonial rule (Updated on March 1, 2011). 

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