Monday, December 30, 2013

274. Animal Farm by George Orwell

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm are classics in more ways other than literary. His exploration into the intricacies of politics, the psychology of politicians, and the eventual outcome of revolutions provides conclusions that are themselves revolutionary and almost incomparable. The former is the book that gave us words like Newspeak and Big Brother, whose frequency of use has shot up in this period of massive surveillance and draconian government agencies [1]. If the recent National Security Agency's (NSA) global surveillance has increased interests in Nineteen Eighty-Four, then the series of uprisings and pseudo-revolutions across Africa and the Middle East, christened Arab Springs by the Media, should equally force us to reread Animal Farm, as this book - more than any other - shows the effects of uncontrolled and unfocussed revolutions. 

One can cite the Egyptian uprising which toppled the Mubarak regime and its successor Morsi government, or the Syrian uprising, which seems to be more of a military attack by civilians than anything. What one could learn from these uprisings and demonstrations is that if it is not easy to start a revolution, it is equally not easy to direct it to its logical end, especially when the interests and objectives cannot clearly be identified. Besides, once these fires are sparked, several interests come into play and the resulting government, if any, might not necessarily be different from the one which was toppled and in situations where the revolution has no recognised nucleus, reversal to the status quo is swift.

Animal Farm (2000 (FP: 1945), Penguin Modern Classics; 120), is a satiric fable of a revolution that changed nothing. The animals on the Manor Farm are fed up of the drudgery they had to go through just to serve and keep Joneses alive. To them Man is the source of all their problems and so by eliminating man they would have solved all their problems.
Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished. [4]
They realised that - like in most countries where the ruling class live on the labour of the working class - Man is preoccupied with consumption; he produces nothing. He lives on their labour, directly and indirectly. They plough is field, provide manure, serve him with meat and eggs as his needs may demand. Their offspring are sold or eaten by him. In the end, he serves them with just what they need not to die. However, if they should take control over the farm, there would be enough for everyone to eat. To achieve this, Man's authority has to be challenged. Man's government has to be toppled. 
Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself. Our labour tills the soil, our dung fertilizes it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin. [4]
Old Major, the brain and instigator of the rebellion, sensitised the animals on the ways and characteristics of the enemy. He analysed all of Man's cunning and what he is likely to say in his defence. He foresaw that Man was likely to say that his interests and the interests of the animals' were the same and clearly informed them of the impossible equality between the two. Old Major's admonishment seems as important today and to us as humans as they were to the animals to whom he was speaking, for just as the interest of Man and the animals cannot be the same, the interest of corporations and that of the masses can also not be the same and it is foolish to think that the top one percent has the interest of the remaining ninety-nine percent in mind. Consequently, the animals had no doubt of the identity and psychology of the enemy and were thus prepared not be swayed by his shenanigans.
And remember, comrades, your resolution must never falter. No argument must lead you astray. Never listen when they tell you that Man and the animals have a common interest, that the prosperity of the one is the prosperity of the others. It is all lies. Man serves the interests of no creature except himself. Among us animals let there be prefect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle. All men are enemies. All animals are comrades. [6]
As Old Major outlined his thesis on the enmity between Man and the animals, he also provided them with what they should do. To him, the post-revolution strategy was simple: never to behave like Man, for the ways of Man are diabolical. Instead, he preached Animalism which was steeped in the spirit of collaboration, cooperation, and unity. He thought them that all animals are equal; that anything that walked on four legs or has wings was a friend whilst anything that go on two legs was an enemy. He painted a kind of paradise for the farm if the people should pool their labour; he claimed that there would be more food and less drudgery and work would be shared not equally but according to one's ability.
I have a little more to say. I merely repeat, remember always your duty of enmity towards Man and all his ways. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend. And remember also that in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him. Even when you have conquered him, do not adopt his vices. No animal must ever live in a house, or sleep in a bed, or wear clothes, or drink alcohol, or smoke tobacco, or touch money, or engage in trade. All the habits of Man are evil. And above all, no animal must ever tyrannize over his own kind. Weak or strong, clever or simple, we are all brothers. No animal must ever kill any other animal. All animals are equal. [7]
However, after the death of Old Major, leadership naturally fell on Snowball and Napoleon, the two most intelligent animals among the lot. To them, the animals gave their support. And the long-awaited rebellion to rid the farm off Man came into fruition in the Battle of the Cowshed, which left some animals dead and others wounded. Nonetheless, since the beneficiaries of a revolution are not necessarily those who stick to its principles but those who are cunning enough to have mapped out their own strategy ab initio, it was not long before individual interests began to break their front and supplanted group interest. For instance, the breakdown of Communism in former USSR benefitted the members of the politburo and their cronies - those who became the oligarchs, and not the proletariat. Similarly, most individuals who profited from independence were not the masses but those who strategically positioned themselves.

Snowball's and Napoleon's visions for Animal Farm were antagonistic and mutually exclusive. Whereas Snowball was bent on implementing Old Major's visions to the letter (including teaching the animals how to read), Napoleon was training his guard dogs. And because there could be only one leader, the struggle devolved into a full-blown head-on confrontation resulting in the chasing away of Snowball from Animal Farm by Napoleon's personally trained and well-fed dogs. In the end, Napoleon, who really did nothing in the Battle of the Cowshed, and had hidden all through the struggle, credited all the successes to himself and discredited Snowball's obvious heroics, through his eloquent propagandist, Squealer. So effective was propagandist Squealer that even those who saw Snowball charge at Mr Jones with a bullet in his shoulder to doubt their memories. In the end, Squealer claimed that Snowball was not decorated at all, that it was his own fabrication that led to that belief among the animals. When the control was complete, with the dogs ready to pounce and kill and Squealer ready to deceive, the laws began to change.

The pigs who had led in the repudiation of human luxuries now began to enjoy and revel in them; just like politicians in developing countries. They repudiate the sitting government's policies, programmes, strategies, only because they need the power and not because they truly believe in its weaknesses or that they have anything better to offer, for when voted into power they do nothing different. Napoleon made several changes to the governance structure of the animals to suit himself and his cohorts including the The Seven Commandments, which was promulgated after the rebellion. Life on Animal Farm became more difficult and draconian; food became scarce, the animals worked harder than they had under Jones, they were threatened and were savagely murdered at the least protest; the milk and eggs were used to feed the politburo and their children. Using the combination of the animal's fear of Man's return to the farm, doctored production and feeding figures, and eloquence, Squealer convinced the animals that their lives were still better than it was under Jones. After all, were they not working for themselves? Or did they want to see the return of Man? And for those who still had doubts the dogs were there to ensure belief. Every problem on the farm was attributed to Snowball and anyone who was fingered to have been in connivance with him, even in their dreams, were killed. Snowball became the poltergeist and enemy number one of Animal Farm.

Meanwhile the prolitburo pigs, slept in the Joneses' feathered beds, drunk and ordered whiskey, ate from plates, wore clothing, and dealt with the owners of the adjacent farms. Though all these had been repudiated or banned at the early stages of the revolution, Squealer was able to explain or interpret each of them. The laws were no longer the same or were what Snowball said they were. He was the sole ruler of Animal Farm working in the 'interest of the animals' and was rarely found outside because the job of thinking was a difficult one requiring good food, comfort, and quietness. In fact, the revolutionary song was banned because it was no longer needed once the revolution had taken place.

The revolution which was fought for with the blood of the animals turned out to benefit only a select few who had cunningly positioned themselves. Everything the animals had blamed the Joneses of came back to them much worst. The only change was the type of leadership and not the circumstances. It became clear that people do not fight oppression because they hate oppression but because they think they are superior to oppression.

The final transformation of pigs into men came about when they began to wobble on two legs, becoming the enemy.
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which is which. [102]
Though this book is an analogy to the rise of Stalin in Russia, its importance and significance lies in its unveiling of human greed and predilection towards dominating others. However, what is germane to us in these times is its treatment of the outcome of revolutions if left unguarded by the masses. This is an important book that requires more than one reading.
[1] The Use of Big Brother, Newspeak, and Orwellian from 1900 to 2008 (in Books) using GoogleNgram Viewer

Note: the problem with this is that it excludes undocumented books, magazines, and newspapers; the latter two is likely to have a large dose of usage of these words. Also, there is likely to be a sort of double counting for the words 'Big Brother' as it could have meanings different from Orwell's. For instance, prior to the publication of 1984 in 1949, there are records of their use, unlike 'Orwellian' whose first appearance coincided with the publication of 1984. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

#Quotes from George Orwell's Animal Farm

Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished. [4]

Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself. Our labour tills the soil, our dung fertilizes it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin. [4]

And remember, comrades, your resolution must never falter. No argument must lead you astray. Never listen when they tell you that Man and the animals have a common interest, that the prosperity of the one is the prosperity of the others. It is all lies. Man serves the interests of no creature except himself. Among us animals let there be prefect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle. All men are enemies. All enemies are comrades. [6]

I have a little more to say. I merely repeat, remember always your duty of enmity towards Man and all his ways. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend. And remember also that in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him. Even when you have conquered him, do not adopt his vices. No animal must ever live in a house, or sleep in a bed, or wear clothes, or drink alcohol, or smoke tobacco, or touch money, or engage in trade. All the habits of Man are evil. And above all, no animal must ever tyrannize over his own kind. Weak or strong, clever or simple, we are all brothers. No animal must ever kill any other animal. All animals are equal. [7]

War is war. The only good human being is a dead one. [31]
Read the review here

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

273. A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta*

As I pointed out in an earlier post, the discourse or specifically the debate in African literature currently is about the poverty-porn (death, more death, disease, hunger, war, famine, and anything with shock-value) and Afropolitanism. This debate came about when it became obvious that the only stories by Africans that gain headlines and about which all the buzz is made are those that deal with the former. Most often the quality of the prose is sacrificed for the macabre theme, sidelining authors who write differently. However, irrespective of which side of the debate you stand, the fact that "Africa now has the fastest-growing middle class in the world [with] some 313 million people, 34 percent of Africa's population, spending USD 2.2 a day, a 100 percent rise in less than 20 years" [The Network for Doing Business] means that one story cannot represent all the complexities and contradictions the continent poses, like the abject poor and the super-rich occupying the same space and time. Consequently, there are others on the continent whose lives are antithetical to the stories churned out by their country men and women. They are unable to relate to these stories which have come to represent the continent. Hence, the need for variety. 

It is this necessity for variety, for a different narrative - not to replace the nailed-down narrative, which would be written out of usefulness, but to add on and enrich literature coming out of Africa - that makes Sefi Atta's latest novel A Bit of Difference (AAA Press, 2013; 221) such an important novel. With her control over language, her beautiful prose, the author dissects the lives of middle upper class families, exposing their apprehensions, inadequacies and achievements; she writes of their ordinary everyday lives in a way that shows the complexities in life. 

The story is about a well-educated Deola, a lady who lives and work in London. At thirty plus, she is not married and her mother is getting worried, requesting that she come home to Nigeria, just like her siblings have done. However, Deola having lived in the UK for some time likes the kind of quietness and independence it offers, unlike Nigeria where personal problems are communal, where every elderly person has a reserved right to advise you on how to run your life and where you are not allowed to retort to such statements and questions of advice no matter what you feel about them.

Sefi's story shows that ethereal change that is sweeping over the lives of many Africans resulting in a kind of unconscious selective cultural osmosis: the middle class leaving behind certain traditional trappings whilst hanging on to others with all the strength that could be mustered. These changes are taking place both in Nigerians at home and those abroad. She shows the difference in opinions and values between the western-educated middle class and its Nigerian-educated counterparts; in most situations, like the quest to be independent, the difference subtle almost nonexistent, in others like the zeal for progress they are marked. Families are now difficult to categorise: they are European in certain lifestyles and very traditional in others. For instance, though weddings could be taken out of from the pages of an English magazine, it would not be considered complete until the traditional parts are added; married couple could maintain a nuclear family, but cannot live in isolation of families and friends. A Bit of Difference also points out the changing gender roles, so no more are women docile and described as if all they have is their sex. Here we meet men who keep families and women who travel around the world and who do not allow the lives of their husbands to oppress them. Here we meet the usual sexual escapades that adolescents and even married folks indulge in. The Africans in this story are either ambivalent about church or are very religious. They are not dumb, sitting somewhere and waiting for help to come from abroad. They are very well educated, after all data shows that Nigerians are the most educated group in the US.

Generally, Sefi wrote about life - the natural flow of life: love, sex, child-bearing, fear, religion, and more. Most stories from the continent make it seem as if the African could not have sex nor be sexually daring and independent. In this story just like in the real world you will meet educated ladies who become pregnant without marriage, who make their own decisions; you will meet gay Nigerian men who are hiding their little secret from their families. Still you will meet families who demand of their daughters marriage and children, and who believe that it is normal for a man to have extra-marital affairs; ladies with sugar daddies or men with area mummies. You will meet the unstable homes arising from cheating spouses, and ladies who do not mind being mistresses to rich politicians. In effect, you will meet real characters taken from life, not phonies trying to live in novels. Sefi captures all of life's dissonances, the contradictions of living, the imperfections, the everyday fears and struggles.

This story breathes, it lives, it has nerves. Sefi's keen sense of observation brings everything to life. The characters are such filled with life that one could just close his eyes and picture each and every one of them in detail. Even in the end, when it seems there is going to be a 'happy ever after' type of ending, Sefi threw in a tiny spanner (the toilet seat incident), providing us with a glimpse into how the Deola-Wale relationship will likely look like.

Another theme in the story, but which actually is a consequence of the whole story, is Sefi's indirect take on African fiction. This book seems to teach new (and possibly old) writers other ways to write, not necessarily about Africa but writing in general. Bandele, discussing African literature with Deola after he had entered a literary competition, described those trite stories that keep on winning awards as 'postcolonial crap'.
"Oh, who cares? Coetzee's a finer writer than that dipstick can ever hope to be. What does he know? He writes the same postcolonial crap the rest of them write, and not very well, I might add."
Deola laughs. "Isn't our entire existence as Africans postcolonial?"
"They should give it a rest, the whole lot of them. African should be called the Sob Continent the way they carry on. It's all gloom and doom from them, and the women are worse, all that false angst. Honestly, and if I hear another poet in a headwrap bragging about the size of her ample bottom or likening her skin to the color of a nighttime beverage, I don't know what I will do." [34]
And when Bandele lost out on the prize to this writer whose story checked correctly all the requirements of an African story set out by the establishment, he blurted out:
'Original, ay? I wonder whose bright idea that was. I still can't get over it, but I suppose this is what they want. I suppose this is what they're looking for these days, from those of us of a certain persuasion. The more death, the better. It is like literary genocide. Kill off all your African characters and you're home and dry. They certainly don't want to hear from the likes of me, writing about trivialities like love.' [140]
With this story Sefi shows that Africa and Africans are not always eking out their lives in extreme poverty; that there are trivialities like love; that our happiness is more than mere romanticism of our past and our bushes; that we are more than what we are in books. And even if this novel, like Bandele's, win nothing, its importance would not be judged by it but by how much it achieves within its just over 200 pages. This book is truly refreshing. My only problem is with the publishers; the font size was small.
About the Author: Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria. She was educated there, in England and United States. A former chartered accountant and CPA, she is a graduate of creative writing program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her short stories have appeared in journals like Los Angeles Review and Mississippi Review and have won prizes from Zoetrope and Red Hen Press. Her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC. She is the winner of PEN International's 2004/05 David TK Wong Prize and in 2006, her debut novel Everything Good will Come was awarded the inaugural Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. Her short story collection, Lawless, received the 2009 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. Lawless is published in the UK and US as News from Home.

She lives in Mississippi with her husband Gboyega Ransome-Kuti, a medical doctor, and their daughter, Temi. [Source]

*I have scheduled this to be published on Christmas Day, it is therefore appropriate to wish all readers of ImageNationsMerry Christmas. Thank you for reading and for your encouragement; your presence, your comments, your suggestions, have all been helpful. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

272. Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote by Ahmadou Kourouma

Waiting for the Wild Beast to Vote (Vintage, 2003; 445) is a quintessential Ahmadou Kourouma. Like the previous book, Allah is not Obliged, it is about political failures on the African continent. Like Wizard of the Crow, it mixes voodoo and African mysticism with politics to satirically tell the story of the evolution of dictatorship and its subsequent metamorphoses into questionable democracies, on the continent of Africa.

The story traces how Koyaga developed from a pro-French soldier to become the president and dictator of Republique du Golfe, through a series of prophecies, coups and counter-coups. Fricassa Santos became the president of Republic du Golfe, after independence following an election whose supervision by the United Nations and with Fricassa's own sorcery prevented the French from rigging it to suit their preferred candidate, J.-L Crunet, who had been the country's Prime Minister for the last ten years of colonial rule. Having assumed power, Fricassa's voodoo men had informed him that he should be fearful of one of the members of the Naked People of the Mountain, for he would be the one to overthrow him. Consequently, Fricassa further fortified himself with voodoo, thick walls, and a phalanx of commandos. So when Koyaga, a former pro-French soldier, son of Tchao - the first man to fight for the French, to wear clothes, and to lead his people against French invasion when they attempted to capture and bring the people of the mountain under French colonial rule - and Nadjouma - a woman of such physical powers that no one could face her and in whom even the famous and extraordinarily strong Tchao met his match - after years of service demanded his pension which the French government had paid into the country's coffers, Fricassa decided not to pay and also not to integrate Koyaga and his men into the country's army. According to Koyaga, such pro-French forces, stooges of the colonialist, who fought against the Nationalists freedom fighters in all the French colonies do not deserve to serve in the country's army. But the real reason of his decision was the prophecy.

However, as the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers shows, preventing and suppressing a prophecy is the fastest route to its fulfilment. Koyaga, who was oblivious of the existence of any prophecy - though there was one about him which professed great tidings for him and his people, decided to use force to obtain what was due them from the government. Steeped in the voodoo of his mother and Bokano - a Muslim spiritualist and a marabout, Koyaga's mission suddenly morphed into a plan to takeover the country, of which he succeeded. However, there were four of them who could become leaders: Koyaga; the former Prime Minister, J.-L. Crunet; Bodjo (later Ledjo); and Tima. 

Bodjo (or Ledjo) was a disappointed priest who ran into exile when on the eve of his investiture he was virtually killed by a man who accused him of sleeping with his wife. In exile he fought for the French in almost all their colonies: Madagascar, Morocco, Vietnam, Algeria.
Everywhere he proved himself a formidable leader and a pitiless foe of colonised people struggling to be free. During his travels, he acquired the prestigious rank of Warrant Officer Second Class and the conviction that, in life, only treachery and deception triumph and that they always pay. This credo informed his conduct and, on his return to his country, he played the game of intrigue.
However, even though Ledjo fought against the nationalists he was a quasi-nationalist who believed in certain nationalist ideologies as the non-eternalness of white supremacy and also that the black man was not inherently evil. This ability to believe one thing and do another emphasised his cunningness and his ability to fluidly change beliefs. These socialist tendencies, in a time of the Cold War, lost him the presidency. The power-sharing agreement that followed made him the president of the National Security Committee; ironically, the committee became more powerful than the government and the National Assembly. 

Tima who was openly a communist and an anti-colonialist and had studied under the tutelage of a homosexual patron in France became the president of the National Assembly. To J.-L Crunet, a mulatto who was "unhappy not to be white, but happy not to be black" [116], was given the position of head of government. And Koyaga became the Minister of Defence. Crunet and Koyaga became the liberal conservatives, influenced by the West (during the Cold War) and Ledjo and Tima became the nationalists and progressives (influenced by the East).

However, because "if you pull off a big robbery with someone, you will never truly enjoy the spoils until the other person is dead [Allah is not Obliged, 95], there were counter coups and insurrections, which resulted in the deaths of the three and the elevation of Koyaga into the presidency. Having achieved this, he sought to visit his peers to learn from them the trade of becoming a president in Africa. 

As a quintessential Ahmadou novel, there is a large dose of political history of Africa in the story. In fact, it could easily be described as a historical novel, if not for its surrealism. What he wrote about some of the leaders, beginning from their childhood and their route to the presidency, made it easy to identify them; they are information that Wikipedia easily provides. Through Koyaga's visits to these leaders, Ahmadou describes how leadership worked in that given period in Africa and the type of people who sought it. He also described how leadership was taken away from the people who fought for independence and given to the colonialists' stooges, who continued with the colonialists' policies of oppression and therefore changed nothing in the country. He adds that, like a con artist, these new leaders put on charades to present themselves to the world as leaders who were ready to represent their people; leaders who had denounced communism. Gradually, when they had obtained the peoples' acceptance, and an absolute hold on power, they moved on to call themselves father of the nation, his excellency, and such, turning their countries into one-party states, themselves the only rulers. Ahmadou labelled almost every leader on the continent, directly or indirectly, whose political party was the only one and who had ruled for some time, a dictator. With this generalisation, Kwame Nkrumah and others became dictators. 

According to Kourouma a people are defeated only if they allow themselves to be defeated regardless of the opposition. Thus, Africans complicit in their own colonisation were also complicit in their subjugation by these leaders.

In all these, Ahmadou discussed the role of the colonialists in creating these monstrous leaders; more importantly he pointed to the consequential effect of Cold War policies on African leadership. So that leaders with socialist beliefs, or presumed to be socialists because of what they might have said, but of great capabilities were denounced and killed to be replaced by anti-communists of doubtful capabilities and insatiable lust for power. Yet ideologies are useless if they are strategised to benefit a few individuals under the pretext of helping the people - the masses. It is useless if it does not address the people's needs, for an ideology is nothing but a tool to shape lives, behaviours, thoughts and their outcomes (or effects). The intellectuals who should have remained true to their training, in an attempt to gain positions and enjoy the perks of power, rushed to legitimise the positions of these new leaders in histories, poems and with their words. Though political allegiances and ideologies shift, the motive for the quest of power does not shift; thus, an anti-colonialist's (or a nationalist's) motive is usually not different from a colonialist's (a stooge of the colonialists): one to enrich himself and his bosses, the other himself and his bosses. The end of both situations is the suffering of the masses.

Like Allah is not Obliged, this novel has received glowing reviews. It was described by the Spectator as 'a witty and wholly authentic chronicle of black African atrocity...spellbinding' and the Guardian as 'a thoroughgoing indictment of African way of leadership'. How dictatorship is a black African atrocity is difficult to understand, as if there has never been such type of leadership anywhere in the world, as if these dictators just appeared from nowhere. There is no African way of leadership. There is good leadership and bad leadership. Strangely, what these reviewers at the Guardian and Spectator forgot to add was the fingerprints of the West on all the dictators mentioned in this story. They suddenly suffered amnesia on those part of the story that showed that Emperor Bossouma of Pays du Deux Fleuves (Jean-Bedel Bokassa, later Emperor Bokassa, of the Central African Republic), the man whose totem was the leopard of République du Grand Fleuve (Mobutu Sese Seko of Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire), and the dictator whose totem is the caiman of République du Ébenes (Houphouet-Boigny of Cote d'Ivoire), all three fingered in the story, were supported and maintained massively by the imperialists in their East-West dichotomous game. In fact, these leaders chose their allegiances carefully and brutally declared their anti-communist stand during the Cold War, staunching the flow of Communism into Africa with all their might.
Democracies will only help people who are anti-communist. Even if the Cold War, the struggle between communists and the West, is just a friendly scuffle between white men, between the rich, we have to get involved. We Africans get involved so we can reap the fruits of victory! [286-7]
The relationship between these leaders and their Western counterparts, and the stance of the latter during the Cold War was highlighted throughout in the text. In fact, it is common knowledge how undemocratic the relationship between the West and Africa was at the time. It was clear that had the Devil declared himself anti-communist, these leaders would have found a way to work with him, as they did the world over. According to Wikipedia
In 1975, the French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing declared himself a 'friend and family member' of Bokassa. By that time France supplied its former colony's regime with financial and military backing. In exchange, Boskassa frequently took d'Estaing on hunting trips in Central Africa and supplied France with uranium, which was vital for France's nuclear energy and weapons program in the Cold War era.
The 'friendly and fraternal' cooperation with France - according to Bokassa's own terms - reached its peak with the imperial coronation ceremony of Bokassa I on 4 December 1977. The French Defence Minister sent a battalion to secure the ceremony; he also lent 17 aircraft to the new Central African Empire's government, and assigned French Navy personnel to support the orchestra. The coronation ceremony lasted two days and cost 10 million GBP [Great Britain Pounds], more than the annual budget of the Central African Republic. The ceremony was organized by the French artist Jean-Pierre Dupont. Parisian jeweller Claude Bertrand made his crown, which included diamonds. Bokassa sat on a two-ton throne modeled in the shape of a large eagle made form solid gold.
Of Mobutu Sese Seko, it says 
Installed and supported in office primarily by Belgium and the United States, he formed an authoritarian regime, amassed vast personal wealth, and attempted to purge the country of all colonial cultural influence while enjoying considerable support by the United States due to his anti-communist stance. ... 
During the First Republic era, France tended to side with the conservative and federalist forces as opposed to unitarists such as Lumumba. ... During the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, relations with the two countries gradually grew stronger and closer. In 1971, then Finance Minister Valery Giscard d'Estaing paid a visit to Zaire; later becoming President, he would develop close personal relationship with President Mobutu, and became one of the regime's closest foreign allies. During the Shaba invasions, France sided firmly with Mobutu: during the first Shaba invasion, France airlifted 1,500 Moroccan troops to Zaire, and the rebels were repulsed; a year later, during the second Shaba invasion, France itself would send French Foreign Legion paratroopers to aid Mobutu (along with Belgium).
Additionally, Kourouma narrated the long history of the DR Congo, from the role of King Leopold II and his use of mercenaries in running a country that was his personal property. Again, these narratives are not different from what is available in public domain. Again, quoting Wikipedia
Leopold extracted a fortune from the Congo, initially by the collection of ivory, and after a rise in the price in rubber in the 1890s, by forcing the population to collect sap from rubber plants. Villages were required to meet quotas on rubber collections, and individuals' hands were cut off if they did not meet the requirements. His regime was responsible for the death of an estimated 2 to 15 million Congolese. This became one of the most infamous international scandals of the early 20th century, and Leopold was ultimately forced to relinquish control of it to the Belgian government.
Consequently, the  idea to describe this evil repelled by the people, and supported and maintained by the West, as 'authentic African leadership...' is borne out of a prejudiced and warped mind bent on misinforming and putting the continent in that light. One could understand if this is meant as a marketing tool, for the publishers, to get as many Westerners, who turn to Africa to satisfy their love for the macabre and who think that is all the continent is good for, as possible to purchase it. But this goes beyond that. This is a deliberate attempt by those reviewers to skew the story to suit the West's construct of Africa. If anything at all, this is an authentic chronicle of Western influence in African politics and the effects of that acrimonious and sulphuric Cold War on governance in Africa.

The end of the Cold War marked the end of the usefulness of these dictators. Overnight, they became excess baggage that needed to be disposed off to save the sinking ship. They lost their appeal and their wickedness and lies - using communism as an excuse to crushing insurrections in their countries - were no longer countenanced. The new stories were reforms and democracy. However, as experienced politicians these leaders were able to transform themselves into the new governance system which became a condition for economic aid. And this is what happened to Koyaga, whose celebration of his thirtieth anniversary in power used up the entire resources of the country leading to protests and widespread violent demonstrations. When he shouted communism, he was told it had already been defeated, it no longer existed. He must reform if he were to receive any assistance. He must allow political parties to be formed and must go for elections, which he did in a spectacular manner, thus becoming the first democratic president of the country.

The narrative structure is somewhat complex. The story was narrated by Bingo, a griot, with interjections by Tiécoura, his assistant and Koyaga - the President, and his aide, Maclédio. But it was written down by a different person who occasionally appeared but largely remained anonymous, writing the story directly as Bingo reported, making it seem as if it is Bingo writing his story.

However, this story could have been half its size and would still have told all that it told. The extra stories were too long. It was almost as if Kourouma was writing the complete history of every figure or character in the story, even when it does not add to the story. This made some parts seem unnecessary and repetitive. For instance, excluding the entire lateral story of Maclédio and how he became Koyaga's right-hand man would have benefitted the story.

Furthermore, Ahamadou's penchant of intruding into his novels with his own understanding and point of views, though minimal in this story, was present. This always takes away from the novel. His personal influence could easily be distinguished from the characters'. It lacks that fluidity with which an author merges his desires with that of his characters so that the reader sees only the characters and not the author. However, his use of hyperbole in this story is accepted as griots are allowed to tell their stories in their own fashion.

On the side, it has been suggested elsewhere that the parodied the late Togolese Gnassingbé Eyadéma. For those who want a scathing read on African leadership during the Cold War read this book. However, if you want the same thing with much more bite read Wizard of the Crow.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

#Quotes from Ahmadou Kourouma's Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote

When the partridge takes flight, its fledgling does not linger on the ground. [3]

Though he may sojourn long in the branches of the baobab, the partridge will never forget the nest of lowly brush where he was hatched. [3]

So then, though a man know not whither he is going, let him remember whence he came. [3]

The bush-fire that burns at the edges of the plains can be contained; the fire that burns at its heart cannot be extinguished. A man may take a bullet in the leg and yet live, but not a bullet through the heart. [8]

The chief weapon of the White Man, of the civilised man, is not his repeating rifle but his patience. [11]

It is with the end of the old rope that we begin to weave the new. [15]

You may plough on a day of rest but lightning keeps its words in its belly. [15]

You will escape the damp of the dew if you walk behind an elephant. [15]

Transgression is like a tiny ember thrown on to the vast savannah at the height of the dry season. You can see the place where the flame catches, but no one knows where it will end. [23]

Water always flows along the ancient bed it has carved; the antelope does not leap and leave its calf behind. [25]

A bird that has never left its tree cannot know that elsewhere there is millet. [29]

A vast country can only subjugate a small people who do not know how to unite and face the aggressor head on. A rich people can dominate a poor country only if its people do not know how to sacrifice themselves. A country which is a master of technology can defeat an underdeveloped people only if they lack cunning and courage. [30]

Even in the darkness a calf does not lose its mother. [37]

The elephant dies, but his tusks remain. [37]

The young of the centipede curls up in imitation of its mother. [37]

African tradition holds that the respect due to the mother is greater than that due to the father. The physical prowess of a child he owes to his father, his moral prowess to his mother. [37]

One must rise early if one is to walk a long road by nightfall. [41]

The old eye closes, the old ear still hears. [49]

The monkey does not give up his tail, whether he inherits it from mother or father. [49]

The leopard is spotted, his tail likewise. [49]

When one does not wish to be touched by the monkey's tail, one stays clear of the troop. He who would not be caught up  in our many stays clear of villages and all human society. [50]

[N]o day is too long that it is not ended by nightfall. [67]

If the little mouse leaves the paths of its forefathers, the spikes of the scutch-grass will gouge his eyes. [68]

If you cannot climb a tree which your father has climbed, at least place your hand upon its trunk. [68]

He who retreats from the sight of men brushes against his mother's pubis. [68]

When we see the mice frolic on the cat's pelt, we can imagine what challenge death may inflict upon us. [69]

Death is the elder, life the younger. We humans are mistaken in putting life against death. [69]

It is said that it is better to die than to be shamed, but it must be quickly added that shame bears its own fruit, death bears none. [69]

When poverty and debt strike it is always furtively, by night, that a man leaves the land which welcomed him when he was rich...[80]

We are slow to grow, but not slow to die. [81]

The place where one awaits one's death need not be great. [81]

If God kills a rich man, he kills a friend; if he kills a poor man, he kills a villain. [81]

You will never be acclaimed a great healer of lepers if your mother is covered in pustules. [82]

Death devours the man, but it does not devour his name or his reputation. [93]

Death is a tunic that every man will wear. [93]

Death is sometimes unjustly accused when it carries off the old, those so aged that they were already finished, before death claimed them. [93]

A boat is never so large that it cannot capsize. [110]

It is those with few tears who are first to weep over the dead. [110]

The death of a goat is a misfortune to the owner of the goat; but that its head is added to the stockpot is a misfortune only to the goat. [110]

Life is always painful for people who love those who reject them and despise those who accept them. [116]

Death grinds without boiling water. [125]

One does not spread a sieve in the path of death. [125]

The body of a bird rots not in the air but on the ground. [125]

It is not by his words and his gestures, but by his silence and solemnity, that one knows a wise man in a crowd. [126]

Where a man is destined to die, there he goes early. [130]

When the vital nerve is severed, the chicken kills the wildcat. [130]

Let no man be impatient to see the day when his family and all their families sing his praises. [137]

Condolences do not bring the dead to life but they sustain the faith of those who live on. [138]

If one should see the bearer of condolences emerge from a sewer, it is because he has not contented himself with the formula 'May God have pity on the dead'. [138]

A bird's feather may fly into the air but ultimately it comes to earth. [139]

Blood which must spill does not spend all night in the veins. [139]

If at the moment when two people separate, neither feels regret, the separation has come too late. [146]

The eye does not see that which gouges it out. [164]

When fate cuts all ties, no parent can hide his child. [164]

If a fly dies in a wound, it has died in its appointed place. [185]

A single sorrow does not rip out the belly at a stroke. [185]

The camel's scrawny croup has been with her a long time, from the time when she was a virgin. [185]

In life, a man may mistake the plate of food intended for him, but never the words directed at him. [186]

Truth and lies are never far from one another and truth rarely triumphs. [190]

There is no journey so long that does not one day come to an end. [204]

He who must live will survive, though he be crushed in a mortar. [204]

For every arrow which you know is destined not to miss, puff out your belly so that it may strike home. [204]

When a man with a noose about his neck passes by a dead man his gait changes and he gives thanks to Allah for the good fortune the Almighty has bestowed on him. [204]

Only he who has never wielded power believes it is unpleasant. [205]

When power cuts off the roads, the weakling is within his rights to cower in the brush. [205]

A lone citizen's cry of distress is not broadcast by the tom-toms. [205]

It is in a thicket that seems to us unimportant that the vine which will entrap us takes root. [224]

The croaking of the frogs does not hinder the elephant as he drinks. [239]

If the mighty eats a chameleon, it is said to be a medicine, to have healing powers. If the poor man eats of it, he is accused of gluttony. [240]

If a small tree should spring up from the earth in the shade of a baobab, it will die a sapling. [240]

In a dictatorship, the hand ties the foot, in a democracy, it is the foot which ties the hand. [259]

The rhythm of the tom-toms changes in honour of the king, not so the firewood which warms the drumskin. [259]

A fly which waits on a king is king. [259]

The works of Allah are not always just or perfect: sometimes he will bless you with a large head without giving you the wherewithal to buy a long turban. [260]

The drum which does not punish the crime is a cracked jug. [276]

While a king sits on his throne, another is having his throne carved. [276]

There are no wicked kings, only wicked courtesans. [276]

A fish-hook is useless to catch a hippopotamus. [296]

If you should see a goat in a lion's den, fear it. [296]

If the rat has put on trousers, the cats will take them off. [296]

An acacia tree does not fall at the bidding of a scrawny goat which covets its fruit. [309]

The sky has not two suns, nor a people two sovereigns. [309]

A leader has need of men, and men of a leader. [309]

Slippery ground does not cause a chicken to stumble. [309]

The fire which will one day burn you is the same as that which warms you. [310]

A huge elephant does not always have huge tusks. [310]

The civet leaves its filth at the spring where it drinks. [310]

It is he whose impotence you cured who steals your wife. [333]

If the millet threshers hide their armpit hair from one another, the millet will not be clean. [333]

It is often the man for whom you went to draw water from the river who provokes the leopard to attack you. [333]

Before creating a waterfall, the river slows to form a small lake. [357]

If someone has bitten you, he has reminded you that you have teeth. [358]

If you have been carrying an old man since daybreak such that by nightfall you are dragging him, he remembers only being dragged. [358]

He who spends time at the King's court will always end up betraying his friends. [358]

The buzzard as it swoops has not the least idea that those below realise its intent. [382]

A man does not forget the shrub behind which he took cover when he fired on an elephant and hit him. [382]

The fresh-water mangrove is a poor dancer for its roots are many. [382]

There is not but one day alone, tomorrow, too, the sun will shine. [383]

If you can bear the smoke, you may warm yourself at the embers. [383]

A little hill will lead you to a greater. [383]

He who lives long will see the dove dance. [399]

Fate blows without a smithy's bellows. [399]

The ox which stands for hours in one place will move off with a dart. [399]

A day that is yet to come exists, not so a day that will never come. [419]

When a brush-fire crosses the river, it poses a dilemma for he who would snuff it out. [419]

The bounds of an awkward customer are in the grave. [419]

There are not enough cows to fill all the fields the mind can conjure. [445]

At the end of one's tether, there is Heaven. [445]

The night goes on and on, but day will come in time. [445]
Translated by Frank Wynne. Read the review here.

Friday, December 20, 2013

271. Allah is not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma

African literature now has two unnecessary camps - Afropolitanism and Poverty Porn - and the discourse has been on which of the two represents the continent, sort of. But does it matter? Can one narrative represents the second largest and the second most populous continent of a whopping 1.033 billion grouped into "54 recognized sovereign states and countries, 9 territories and 2 de facto independent states with very little recognition"? [World Population Review, 2013]. That one theme cannot represent the continent is perhaps known by both 'camps'. So what incited this discourse? (By the way, there are several others who do not believe in either of the two and whose writings are not influenced by them.)

African writers who wrote in a particular style about wars, poverty, deaths, hunger, and such depravities have often been singled out for awards, even when the quality of their prose does not support the award adequately. It became (and is) the magic formula to fame and awards for the African writer who wants to see a meteoric rise in his fortunes. These writers have been accused of telling stories to suit the West's construct of Africa in order to get published, win awards, and become famous. Jose Eduardo Agualusa in his book The Book of Chameleons, described someone as having 'built up his whole career abroad, selling our national horrors to European readers. Misery does ever so well in wealthy countries.' (Pg 68 ).

Sometimes these accusations may seem justified; sometimes they may not. Most often they are debatable: the continent has had its fair share of difficulties and one cannot easily discount the diseases, deaths, poverty, and wars which it has come to represent. In fact, the continent has become synonymous with these. However, no group is happy to keep this narrative up than Africans themselves, especially the few privileged ones. They play this up so that any comparison with (to) themselves will weigh in their favour. They become our spokesmen and women, our representatives - the physical embodiment of what we could become should the continent be aided.

However, in no other book does the macabre and the praise converge than in Ahmadou Kourouma's Allah is not Obliged (Vintage, 2007 (FP: 2000); 215). Described as 'a work of luminous humanity' by the Financial Times with the author himself described as 'one of Africa's pre-eminent novelists' by the Guardian, Allah is not Obliged is a book that tell the story of a young boy of ten who, in embarking on a search for his auntie in Liberia following the death of his cripple mother, gets caught-up in a tribal war of historical proportions; civil wars that would see him trek between two countries - Liberia and Sierra Leone. The recent conviction of Charles Taylor, a Liberian War Lord and a major player in both wars, for war crimes in Sierra Leone shows the enormity and savagery of these wars.

According to Birahima - the narrator and an ex-street child,
The full, final and completely complete title of my bullshit story is: Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth.
Thus, it is this unfairness combined with human stupidity and depravity that Ahmahou explored when he uncovered one of the large and deeper wounds that festered and nearly crippled the western part of the continent. The Sierra Leonean and Liberian wars were bitterly fought and because of the complexity of the factors that led to the war, it was just too difficult to disentangle. Together with his relative Yacouba, a confident trickster who would ply his trade as a jujuman to several mini warlords, Birahima would move from camp to camp, village to village and country to country in a war that would cruelly murder the leftovers of his innocence with their unwarranted massacres.

The war motif gives this book all the characteristics of what an African novel has come to be known and perceived. From a priest turned rebel to dead bodies being fed to dogs, Allah is not Obliged has it all, and more. Captain Papa le bon was trained as a priest in the United States. His ordination was to take place in Liberia; however, when all was set, war broke. He stayed in Liberia and became a soldier-cum-priest seeing to the spiritual and physical needs of the people under him and the emotional needs of the women. As a priest, Captain Papa le bon preached and exorcised spirits; as the alpha-male he slept incessantly with people's - including his soldiers' - wives. As a rebel leader, he trained and used child soldiers; took bribes from traders before allowing them to trade in stolen goods; killed whomever he wanted; and represented Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in the Eastern part of Liberia. How much more classic than this get? Captain Papa le bon, in addition to carrying a Bible and Qu'ran in his hands, covered himself in magic talismans with Kalashnikovs hanging across his shoulders.

Though the narrative is at times sarcastic with its matter-of-fact tone exposing the stupidity of adult behaviour in such periods of war (when they are overrun by their animalistic passions instead of their brains), the praises this book received had nothing to do with the prose; it has everything to do with the content. One could see an attempt at filling every page with the macabre. For instance, the stories Ahmadou told before the war and those set in non-warring countries were themselves gruesome. This is the story of Sarah prior to the war and her path to becoming a child soldier: Sarah's mother was knocked down by a drunk driver. Her father who was a sailor did not know what to do with her so he sent her to live with his sister. Sarah's auntie physically abused her for the slightest offence. She was beaten and starved when she could not account for the fruits a gang of boys stole from her; when it happened the second time, Sarah stayed away from home and became a street child. On the street, she was raped and left for dead. She was hospitalised and upon her discharge ended up in an orphanage. The orphanage was attacked at the onset of the war, all the nuns were either murdered or raped, and Sarah ended up becoming a prostitute and from there graduated to a child soldier. Or rather, like almost all the child soldiers whose stories Birahima told, asked to be a child soldier. The stories of the other child soldiers were not any different, filled with rape and death. Even in Togobala in Cote d'Ivoire, Birahima's story was macabre and bloody. He described how his mother's leg was going to be cut and given to dogs. And there were a lot of dogs doing the munching in this novel. The men in Togobaland, like Yacouba, Sekou, and their friends, were crooks and thieves who swindled people out of their wealth. There is enough gruesomeness to make the skin grow carbuncular goosebumps.

The characters are one dimensional, that is if one can refer to them even as characters. They pass through the narrative like ghosts, leaving no impression. They were emotionless, unfeeling, like zombies, like automatons, like they are portrayed in African war movies. The only emotion they exude is an unquenchable urge to kill. He describes both the people and the countries as 'fucked up'. Every president in the story was a dictator, from Houphouet-Boigny to Qaddafi and those in between.

There are some inconsistencies which make the story come across as a sort of childhood braggadocio, especially since Birahima had once been a street guy who loved the thrills. Captain Papa le Bon was described as someone who went everywhere without his Kalashs; he carried them with him in his sleep and when he was having sex. However, in another breath, Ahmadou says Captain Papa le bon took his Kalash every morning and before going on his rounds. This may not be much since Birahima was just ten year old. However, it counts for something when it is compared to the other things Birahima talked about.

For instance, the kind of historical information provided at some places was not things a ten-year old illiterate could conceive. Birahima knew almost every date, place, and detailed occurrences that took place at the war fronts and in the conferences and meetings organised in hotels away from the countries during the two civil wars. He knew the histories of both wars like they were his mother's hut.
The second round of negotiations in Abidjan opened on 29 and 30 July 1997, back on the twenty-third floor of the Hotel Ivoire. ... Surprise! The Junta's new proposals are completely in opposition to the points established in the first round of talks on July 17. Now the Junta wants to suspend the constitution and stay in power until 2001. ... 
And it was not as if Birahima was a War Lord with a stake in the war or that he participated in those meetings and historical moments he described with such vividness. He was just a boy looking for his auntie who in the end turned out dead (with all the deaths going on, everybody could predict this).

Ahmadou most often forgot that he was telling a story through the eyes of a child. He could be virtually seen jumping in to vent his personalised anger, emotions, and perceptions about the war to the reader through his narrator. Thus, one is unsure if this is an essay or story; a treatise or thesis. Birahima mixes facts with fantasy and complete falsehood making it difficult for the reader to trust him, He makes his personal beliefs the facts and his facts history. The story, in this way, loses its status as a story. It becomes something else. A child narrator should be believable or at least should not say things he has no means of knowing in a story meant to be realistic. If it were fantastical images of the netherworld, or any of such things that only children see, it would have been acceptable and believable. He talked about Qaddafi having a lot of military camps training terrorists, with authority. How did Birahima get to know these things if it were not Ahmadou saying what he wanted to say through him?

Attempts were made to make the book sound street-tough with its excessive use of street-lingua such as 'fuck' and swear words such Faforo, Gnamokode, Walahe and others. Natives, niggers, savages, bushmen, and other such descriptions used in the book sounded too forced and artificial. And the frequent references to the use of dictionaries to justify Birahima's use of 'big words' was a let down. Whilst some very 'big words' were not at all defined, some other equally unnecessary ones like 'stuff', 'army ants', and others were defined. In fact, a person should know the word to search for it. A person cannot just pick the dictionary and suddenly discover the right word. There should be a starting point. Besides, how could an illiterate ten-year old read the dictionary? Similarly, the frequent use of certain refrains in the telling of the story was not only forced but annoying.

This is a story of a street child who found himself locked up in an unfortunate situation; however, it is more about the story of the wars than it is about the narrator's role or himself. There was too much an attempt at the macabre, which would have been acceptable had it been restricted to the war parts. However, from the first page to the last, the macabre was present in its graphic detail. In this way, it lost its significance and the war sections became just mere attempts at shocking readers the more. The story is written in a tongue-in-cheek manner with the intention to deride and scorn and to be sarcastic. However, the fact that the Liberian and Sierra Leonean wars occurred, the fact that the wars resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands (Sierra Leone, 200,000; Liberia, 220,000; according to Wars and Casualties of the 20th and 21st Centuries), and the fact that the book itself records some historical  moments makes it an important book worth the read. If one take away the poor use of the child-narrator, the failed attempt at scatology, one will come out from reading this book with an average understanding of the history of the wars in those two countries.
About the Author: Ahmadou Kourouma (November 24, 1927 - December 11, 2003) was an Ivorian novelist. From 1950 to 1954, when his country was still under French colonial control, he participated in French military campaigns in Indochina, after which he journeyed to France to Study mathematics in Lyon. He returned to Cote d'Ivoire after it won independence in 1960, yet he quickly found himself questioning the government of Felix Houphouet-Boigny. After brief imprisonment, Kourouma spent several years in exile, first in Algeria (1964 - 1969), then in Cameroon (1974 - 1984) and Togo (1984 - 1994), before finally returning to live in Cote d'Ivoire.

His first novel Les soleils des indépendences (The Suns of Independence, 1970) contains a critical treatment of post-colonial governments in Africa.Twenty years later, his second book Monnè, outrages et défis, a history of a century of colonialism, was published. In 1998, he published En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, (translated as Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote), a satire of post colonial Africa in the style of Voltaire in which a griot recounts the story of a tribal hunter's transformation into a dictator, inspired by Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo. In 2000, he published Allah n'est pas obligé (translated as Allah is Not Obliged), a tale of an orphan who becomes a child soldier when traveling to visit his aunt in Liberia.

In France, each of Ahmadou Kourouma's novels has been greeted with great acclaim, sold exceptionally well, and been showered with prizes including the Prix Renaudot in 2000 and Prix Goncourt des Lycéens for  Allah n'est pas obligé. [Source]

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Readers' Top Ten - Nana Yaw Sarpong (Blogger)

About Nana Yaw Sarpong: Nana Yaw is a Poet, the Producer of Ghana's foremost Literary magazine programme, Writers Project on Citi FM, and handles media relations for Writers Project of Ghana. He is also the curator of Creative Writing Ghana and a Literary activist.

I have read a lot of African novels, plays and poetry. Having to pick ten is a challenge, particularly because I've to recall titles and authors. I do not keep a unified library at this point in time and that made it harder. But in no order of preference, here is my list*. 

1. Anthills of the Savannah - Chinua AchebeI read Anthills while in Secondary School, before I even read Things Fall Apart. It represented for me the shattered opportunities of independence and a leadership of dictatorships. It was not so much the form of government that stood out for me: it was the neglect of people and the delusion of those military empty-heads. I will pick this book over Things Fall Apart for generational reasons. If there is space, I am definitely adding Arrow of God.

2. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born - Ayi Kwei ArmahClassic. I am very aware of the criticisms of Armah using filth and rot to describe African governments and systems of behaviours. I recently read a critical paper that sort to render Armah's descriptions of the man's perceptions of a decayed society as a homosexual obsession. Of course the author of that academic paper was a Western and he made his intentions perfectly clear: a homosexual agenda into African systems of thinking. But that is how powerful the novel remains. It was the second book of Armah's I read after Fragments. It's one novel that gives me pleasurable nightmares. 

3. Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters - Kojo LaingLaing is a master. Of language, of stories, and even of tooli. His latest novel brings to fore the magical realism that I have come to associate with his writing. When I first picked up Search Sweet Country, I did not want to finish reading it. I think Wainaina was right in describing Laing as the best out of Africa. He owns the language he uses. I have met Uncle Kojo and he is even more phenomenal when he talks about his work. If you want to start reading Kojo Laing, start with the short story Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ. (At Ghana Voices Series, which is a monthly book reading programme organised by the Writers Project of Ghana and the Goethe Institute, Kojo Laing said he was working on another novel).

4. The Prophet of Zongo Street - Mohamed Abdullah. This collection of short stories is so beautifully told by Mohamed. I think I was in my last year at the Department of English at the University of Ghana when the collection was published. It had been included in our reading list. One of the freshest stories about our zongos that we rarely see captured in fiction. Unfortunately, not many are aware of the existence of this collection in Ghana.

5. Changes - Ama Ata AidooI had a lot of questions for Ama Ata Aidoo about the sexual choices her lead character makes. About how she treated her husband and how she goes along with Ali. But this novel is more than a love story. It's a message, it's a story about many women with wishes to have sexual freedom without the remits of constitutionally okayed affairs. It's a great story. If you have time, pick up No Sweetness Here, as well as Diplomatic Pounds.

6. Two Thousand Seasons - Ayi Kwei Armah. This novel represents for me the calling to reconstruct a very psychologically damaged African past. First, it was the acceptance that community leaders, kings - or the rather derogatory and reductive term chiefs - had played in assisting Europeans plunder Africa of its people and resources. Then glimpse of hopes of regrouping and retraining and re-idealising of African peoples. It is the ambitious project - the hard work that Africans must put in in order to be their own and compete on their own terms and own their people and resources again! Osiris Rising continues the project and there re shots at it too in Why Are We So Blest. For me, Armah remains the grandfather of African Literature - with a Galaxy tab or is it Uhuru?

7. Kongi's Harvest - Wole Soyinka. Soyinka is the king of plays and in Kongi's Harvest, we see how he dribbles through African leadership and followership matters. Kongi is your archetypical General Sam in Anthills of the Savannah, and thus, the failure of leadership in Africa. It's a great play. And who does not know of the prowess of Soyinka's writing?

8. The Poor Christ of Bomba - Mongo Beti. I only read this book because of the Book Discussion Club of the Writers Project and found its picturesque rendition of colonial Africa fascinating. Given that many are yet to come to terms with what happened, the variances of the experiences, this was a great book. Many argue that colonialism has ended, and so Africans should move on. Well, that's comfortable for the plunderer and the psychologically bought African. Memory is a guidance.

9. A Harvest of Our Dreams - Kofi Anyidoho and Look Where You have Gone to Sit (New Ghanaian Poets) - Edited by Martin Egblewogbe and Laban C. Hill. While all may be aware of Anyidoho's poetry, the anthology Look Where You Have Gone to Sit features nineteen poets from Ghana! All of these poets should be below 40 at the time of publishing and is clearly a bold attempt to present one of the best poems you will ever read from Ghanaians. I am sure Anyidoho would have a thing or two to pick from therein.

10. Chuma Nwokolo's Diaries of a Dead African and The Ghost of Sani Abacha are books I will include in my top 10. Martin Egblewogbe and Nii Ayikwei Parkes' Mr Happy and the Hammer of God and Other Stories and Tail of a Blue Bird respectively are in the 10th of my list. I'll also include So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda N. Adichie.
* I have linked some of the titles to posts within ImageNations, where such reviews are available. Note that my views on these books may differ from Nana Yaw's and so this must be borne in mind when reading them.

Monday, December 16, 2013

#Quotes from Ahmadou Kourouma's Allah is not Obliged*

The full, final and completely complete title of my bullshit story is: Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth. [1]

A man should always thank the shea tree for the fruits gathered from beneath its branches. [9]

Balla used to say no kid ever leaves his mother's hut because her farts stink. [10]

Once a fart is out of your arse you can't put it back. [20]

When people say there's tribal wars in a country, it means that big important warlords have divided the country up. They've divided up all the money, all the land, all the people. They divide up everything and the whole world lets them, everyone in the whole world lets them kill innocent men and children and women. [43]

Even a chicken-thief will tell you: if you pull off a big robbery with someone, you will never truly enjoy the spoils until the other person is dead. [95]

You follow the elephant through the jungle so as not to get wet from the dew. [159]
Translated by Frank Wynne. Read the review here.
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