54c. Contemporary African Short Stories

Cages by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Zanzibar)
Abdulrazak Gurna
Cages is a story about an émigré, Hamid, who has moved from his village to settle in the city. The old man who took him in when he arrived and gave him work as a storekeeper is sick and dying. Hamid has never moved beyond his kiosk before and has always wondered what life is beyond the sprawling darkness that is the squatters' camp. Then a beautiful girl came to buy something from his shop one day; she came the next day and the following day... and the next thing was that Hamid had somehow fallen for the girl but is unable to tell her. One evening Hamid broke the imaginary borders and ventured into the darkness beyond.

This story could be an allegory of life, where one bottles up his potential, afraid to live the kind of life he is capable of living. Literally, it also defines the kind of lives some of the urban populace live. Especially those who have moved into cities with the expectation of a better life. Such individuals soon find that life in the city has never been rosy.

Government by Magic Spell by Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi (Somalia)
This story gives a twist on despotism. It's one lovely and satirical tale you might read on how people become despots. When Halima was born she was possessed by a jinni. And her jinni (spirit) is an infant one that is likely to do good things. Halima's clan rules the country. A long time ago one of their clan members was given a position in the government and gradually he employed every family member irrespective of their educational background. When Halima reached a marriageable age and she decided not to marry, his family in the city came for her. There Halima, together with her jinni, was asked to help her people prosper in their rulership. She prepared concoctions into the general water supply so that the people in the country would stop asking questions. Yes, it is that funny. The Tahleel (the concoction) was meant to eradicate curiosity and turn the people into zombies so that the rule of Hamila's family would would elicit no rancour from the people and would be finite.
One of the effects of the 'Tahleel' was to cure people of curiosity. Those who drank it stopped asking questions. Above all they stopped wondering about the actions of the clan's leading men. They became model subjects doing without question, without objection, what they were told to do. (Page 98)
Her decisions and actions though impacted negatively on the country, was not complained about. For example, the slaughterhouse she asked to be built to facilitate her sacrifices to Ges Ade, was built so close to the city's popular beaches that when the place was taken over by man-eating sharks, no one was able to visit the there anymore. And Halima's clan ruled for so many years as she continued with her rituals increasing the potency with time to keep her people in power, and the people from asking questions. 

A Night Out by Tololwa Marti Mollel (Tanzania)
Tololwa Marti Mollel (?)
Mika is a traveller who has got stuck in a little town because of petrol shortage. He hires a hotel but went out into the night. She met Mama Tumaini. The story is about the uneasiness that was between them that night even when they made love. The father of Mama Tumaini's baby is a soldier who had gone to war in Uganda and she doesn't know whether he is dead or not. In fact, he even considers him dead. And has resorted to this to make ends meet. Mika, not wanting to feel attached to Mama Tumaini and her baby, woke up early morning and set off to Dar es Salaam.

This story is about single parenting and how it affects women. It is a very short short story.

On the Market Day by Kyalo Mativo (Kenya)
Kyalo Mativo
Since the drought started the people of Wingoo Valley have not been able to cultivate crops. As a result they are hungry and angry at the government. Kama Lango has resorted to the purchasing cows on auctions for resale using the extra profit to buy food for his family. 

The government has announced that it isn't the cause of the drought and so let no one blame them for their predicament for the lack of rain and its concomitant famine are natural disasters against which man is powerless.
'Let it be known to those who are accusing the government of doing nothing [about the drought]; let them know that their rumour-mongering will not be tolerated.' (Page 106)
However, Pancreas Mbula, having studied abroad has decided to come home and help his people, kept telling them that it was the government's fault. He told of how the 
mountain towering about the clouds with a white cap on top of it [...] [was] actually a frozen lake whose water melts four times a year and trickles down the mountain-sides right through the thick forest surrounding it, zigzagging its way down the slopes. That melted water [he explained] is equal to twice as much water [...] as we receive form natural rain. [Which] can be [the] semi-desert into a green field all year round. (Page 109)
While Mbula ranted on why the people should vote for him and how he would change their lives, with all the mannerisms of a 'new' politician, the people nodded and applauded and sang songs with his name and achievements. Yet, Kamali's family would be without food as the cow he purchased strangely died on his way home.

This story tells of politicians and their needs - votes - and how far they would go just to attain these votes while the needs of the people remain unattended.

Leaving by M.G. Vassanji (Tanzania)
M.G. Vassanji
Aloo has obtained a scholarship to study abroad but his mother is reluctant to raise the necessary money that would help him leave. The reason is not because Aloo's mother is wicked but because he loves him so much that she can't help seeing his son in a country so far away. Aloo's mother became a widow at thirty-three and had refused ever since to marry for fear that the next husband would ask her to take her children to the 'boarding'. She loves them so much that she sleeps in the same bed with the two younger ones, Aloo and the narrator. Some of the elder children had married and left home and Aloo's mother's hope now rest on the narrator and Aloo himself. Hence, leaving Aloo to go to America to study was the most difficult decision she had to make. Yet, when she saw the eagerness in her son and the pictures of the school, she relented in her decision and sought for the necessary financial aid required to send the Aloo abroad. This is an emotional story.
She looked at me looking at her and said, not to me, 'Promise me ... promise me that if I let you go, you will not marry a white woman.' 'Oh Mother, you know I won't!' said Aloo. 'And promise me that you will not smoke or drink.' 'You know I promise!' He was close to tears.
The major fear of every parent whose child leaves home for a Western country is the picking up of 'negative' social habits like drinking, smoking and womanising. This fear is so ingrained that it forms the basis of advice given you on your travels. You would be told that you shouldn't forget where you came from and must do things not to shame your family. Yes! In most African countries one does not leave for oneself alone. As long as you bear the family's name when there is a shame on you there is also a shame on the family. You would also be informed that all those who had gone and led negatives lives had come home with nothing and had not been able to even put up a house. Thus, the prospective traveller is sent to acquire knowledge and wealth but not to sell his values and beliefs.

ImageNations Rating: 5.0


  1. these stories sound like great little windows into African cultures for the Western or non-African reader. Thanks for the heads up. I happen to know that Santa is bringing me at least one book featured on your blog so you're doing your job of advocating for African lit!

  2. Nana, take it from me, with the East African, Cages was my favorite. I like the way he plays Hamid in the story as he falls for the girl. In fact, I see the climax of the story to be inherent in the last statement made by the girl - do u remember that statement? Very funny.

  3. @Marie, if I am able to convert just one person into reading African Lit I would have achieved my aim and I know I have with you about to read one. Yay... lol. That's great. And yes, they are.

  4. @Geosi, you are really funny... let me quote it for you:

    "You're always giving me things. I know you'll want something in return. When you do, you'll have to give me more than these little gifts". That's after the man has been giving her more of everything she buys. lol... quoted it from the book not memory.

  5. Nana, yes...yes...that is it. You got me laughing and laughing here. You making my day. In fact, that statement is well-crafted... I liked this story.

  6. @Geosi, thanks... lol. Yes that sentence is well crafted and I still read it in a very soft voice... pretending to be a lady. And she said it as it should be said or as any lady who really meant business would say it, mincing no words.

  7. More great authors I need to try. In fact I think I should add this collection to my wish list! Happy to see Gurnah had a story in the collection as I enjoyed the book that I read by him.

  8. @This is my first reading of most of these authors. In fact with the exception of Okri and Laing (from the West African section, which I am yet to review) I haven't read from any of these authors. And that's why I have instituted the African Reading Challenge. I hope to read full novels of these authors.

    What is the title of Gurnah's book you read?

  9. I read and really enjoyed Paradise, and have Desertion on my tbr pile for next year. Eva at A Striped Armchair read By the Sea which also sounded fantastic and I'm on the lookout for a copy.

  10. @Amy I would be on the look out for some of these. Paradise was actually a Booker nomination.

  11. the synopsis of leaving is sound great. im enjoy reading it although not fully finished the story..

  12. I'm not able to read The content of Assia djebar's "The foreigner, sister of the foreign woman "


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