Thursday, February 28, 2013

229. Definition of a Miracle by Farida N. Bedwei

The rapid mushrooming of fiery faith-based organisations with  promises of heaven and paradise (and their continuous banishment of Satan) who see into the preternatural and are able to spiritually diagnose every problem, from Malaria to Cardiovascular diseases, have ensured that in today's Africa, no occurrence is happenstance. This mentality takes on a new importance if the problem being tackled defies comprehension and the only thing that science can do is to name it. 

In this all-knowing world where nothing occurs by chance and everything has a spiritual root, a child suffering from cerebral palsy is likely to be moved from one prayer-camp to the other. Even when the cause of the problem is known, even when the parents are educated, this itinerant search for a miraculous cure will still be embarked upon and taken seriously. It is within this setting that Farida N. Bedwei's Definition of a Miracle (iUniverse, 2010; 389) is placed.

Zaara suffers from cerebral palsy; the disease attacked her when she was two-weeks old. Now her visiting maternal grandmother from Ghana claimed her prayer group had identified the root cause of the disease; it's none other than Zaara's auntie. With this knowledge coupled with the fact that the family had moved to Ghana from Britain meant that the search for Zaara's cure, or more specifically the destruction of the workings of this auntie, will be fervently undertaken. And in a country of countless prayer camps and countless believers, where invitations to such miracle services come in droves, the search could be long and tedious. 

However, what makes Farida's book - based largely or loosely, I cannot tell but the obvious similarities are there, on the author's life - is her apt depiction of the psychology of the supposed 'patient' for whom the miraculous cure is being sought. Thus, regardless of the 'well-meaning' intention of the parents - here, her mother - the experience of moving from one prayer camp or service to the other, and so from one failure to the other, on the person involved is usually not examined or considered in the larger scheme of things. To the parents, the 'patient's' need to be healed and be 'normal' like 'any other person', surpasses all other considerations. So focused are they on this that they lose sight of what they have; in this story, what Zaara's mother, in her quest for healing, lost sight of was that she had a precocious child whose mental faculties were sharper than most children her age. But precocious as Zaara was, she couldn't avoid the 'it-might-be-me' syndrome which usually affect people who are usually 'different' and seeking help. For moving from one miracle service to the other and not receiving the healing the people there claimed to have received, Zaara began to think that perhaps it was her fault, that there was something inherently wrong with her that deflects this healing from reaching her. Again, the psychological trauma is disregarded. Society's attitude towards such people, referring to them as 'sicklers' (people who are sick) and therefore treating them as if their mental faculties have, in addition, been affected was another source of worry to Zaara who was frequently treated as such but was quick to show such folks, openly or subtly, her displeasure. Another source of worry is the lack of disability-friendly public spaces and structures. 

On the family front, this relentless quest for a miraculous cure by a British-trained lawyer in secluded churches leading to the compulsory drinking and sprinkling of holy-water had a toll on Zaara's family. Coming from a two-religion family - with a Muslim father and a Christian mother, this previously amicable and harmonious existence was put under threat when Zaara's mother became zealously religious to the extent of accusing her sister of being a witch and quarreling with her husband at every turn. Every question became a source of argument between her pesky parents.

However at school, Zaara fitted in well just as she did at home with her siblings. At the local school she attended, she outperformed everybody and was made all sorts of friends. Her classmates, who initially looked up to her weirdly, suddenly warmed up to her; the cultural shock she suffered rippled out of existence. Overall, these were what Zaara defined as a miracle: acting as any other child would act; having parents who helped her fit into her surroundings; and avoiding the fate that almost always befall people with disabilities - the life of a street-beggar.

My only problem with the book is a problem I have with most first-person narrative novels. Zaara seemed to know more than she would have known and she also didn't divulge her source. It's as if she always knew. Sometimes she judged people's emotion and concludes on people's thoughts. Finally, a little more proof-reading would have helped. 

Regardless of these, this book has a lot to offer. Like Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time, we get to understand the issues from the 'sufferer's' point of view. However, more than Haddon's, in this story the 'sufferer' is not only fictional but that the fictional character shares her disability with the author.
About the Author: Farida Nana Efua Bedwei was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and spent her childhood in Dominica, Greenland and the UK before her family moved to Ghana in the late eighties.

She got Cerebral Palsy when she was 10 days old, and was home shooled by her mother until she was 12 years old when she entered mainstream school for the first time. To the surprise of all, she excelled and has risen to become one of the top software engineers in Ghana. (Source: back of the novel)

* Last year I interviewed Farida on this blog and she talked about changing perceptions with this book. I hope yours get affected, positively, after reading this book. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

228. Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Few authors are able to keep their theme running for such a long time as Ngugi has done. As a critic of the post-independence politics of the new wave of African leaders, Ngugi wa Thiong'o knows more about the tricks, chicanery, and shenanigans of these people than most people. He has observed and written about it both in fiction and in essays. His keen interest has always been the lack of socialisation of government efforts and the endemic corruption that has strangulated several African countries, including his home country of Kenya - which had to go through a series of Constitutional reforms after the 2008 electoral crisis - from developing. Ngugi's observations, from the the dawn of independence when the capsule of euphoria burst and evaporated all at once leaving behind a blanket of realities, are encapsulated in his works. From his first novel Weep Not Child (1964), which studied the hostile relationship between the colonialists and the colonised to Wizard of the Crow (2006) Ngugi has tried to point out that the requisite tools for development have nothing to do with colour. It has all to do with harnessing the resources within the borders of one's country and using these resources efficiently to provide the goods and services the people needs. According to Ngugi, the traits of a good leader has nothing to do with tribe or ethnic affiliation but his selflessness, objectivity and integrity - his ability to bring the resources within the country together; that blackness is not all that makes a man.

In Wizard of the Crow (Anchor Books, 2006; 768) Ngugi wa Thiong'o brings together years of studies and observation in one swoop of a pen into a compelling novel. Wizard of the Crow brings together all the issues Ngugi raises in all his novels - from that carpenter (and the Jacobos) who wanted to have it all, in Weep Not Child, to John Boy and his collusion with the second generation colonialists in Matigari to the betrayal of the freedom fighters and the people by the new elites and that MP in A Grain of Wheat.

However, whereas his previous books centred somewhat on the coming of the colonialists and more on the nefariousness of the first wave of leaders, Wizard of the Crow strictly analyses the behaviours of African dictators and autocrats and the complicity of donor institutions and countries in that ginormous corruptions that have engulfed our countries. In some way it collaborates Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid thesis when she argued that conditionalities and the type of government - autocrat, dictatorship, monarchy, endemically and openly corrupt - matter little as to who gets the World Bank and IMF loans and that governments use huge projects to siphon resources into their personalised off-shore bank accounts.

In WOTC, in that fictional country of Aburiria, we meet the head of state - known simply as the Ruler and his cronies - Sikiokuu, Tajirika, Big Ben, Machokali, Kaniuru and other obsequious grovellers; bootlickers who would sing praises if those praise-songs and appellations will enable them to steal more. In this set up, affiliations and alliances are capricious and lasts as long as dew would in harmattan. In the Ruler's government, positions are given to those who can steal more and those who excelled are made governors and managers of central and national banks, put in places where they can siphon more and share with the leader. Those who are hounded and described as enemies of the state are the poor selfless souls whose only crime is that they won't participate in pillage; that they are pure and seek the healing of the souls; people like Nyawira (the Limping Witch) and Kamiti (The Wizard of the Crow). The corruption described gets to such a level that it becomes abnormal to be moral, to be seen doing the right thing, like the situation Achebe described in his tiny green book The Trouble with Nigeria.

Regardless of the satirical nature of the write and the mirth it can engender in the reader to the point of hiccups and uncontrollable dribbling of tears, what Ngugi described in this novel is the reality of most African countries including those that have taken on a semblance of democracy (and this was also discussed in the book). There are leaders who today refer to the country the rule's natural resources as 'my oil' and run the country like their bona fide property, an extension of their hopeless homes. In WOTC, the bootlickers have decided to honour the Ruler with a mansion bigger and taller than what the biblical Babylonians attempted, and failed. Consequently, this birthday project was christened Marching to Heaven; the vision was for it to become the largest project and to show the world that the people of Aburiria can, and are able to, challenge the developments of developed countries. Now where will the funding come from? The Global Bank had to be convinced to release the resources for this mind-boggling project. And even before the Global Bank agreed (or disagreed) contract seekers have already bribing the chairman of the committee responsible for the project. On the other hand, all the macroeconomic indicators of the country are poor: unemployment is of such levels that the entire country is queuing for nonexistent jobs; inflation is so high that it has rendered the Buris worthless and trading is virtually conducted in dollars.

But the Ruler was a friend of the United States and the West for his dedication towards their cause during the Cold War. (Exactly what Dambisa stated in her book when she proved, with data, that during the Cold War, it mattered not the type of government one practiced, so far as one showed he is in favour of capitalism or communism one got funded; so that from Mobutu of now DR Congo to Mengistu of Ethiopia to Bokassa of Central African Republic - whose coronation as an emperor is reputed to have cost US$ 22 million - all received donor monies). However, again exactly as Dambisa wrote, the tides have changed. The West, perhaps on a guilt-trip, now wants to see some changes before advancing the required resources for this ginormous Marching to Heaven project. But what type of change do they want? Is it superficial or deeper? The answer came when the leader, after several failures in accessing the required funds, declared the State of Aburiria a democracy where free and fair elections will be held; thus succumbing to the requirements of the West. But with one catch: He will be the Ruler of whichever party that won elections. Thus, regardless of the elections, he is bound to stay in power forever. This sends applause and congratulations to all quarters including donor countries and institutions. In no time the money required for the project was released and work began. Autocracy then was replaced by dictatorial democracy.

Is this therefore a political dystopia fraught with that Orwellian doublethink-doublespeak, where words are democratic and deeds autocratic? What it shows clearly is how the idea of democracy fosters timidity and inaction, allowing the same folks to be in power and do the same things. It also shows that democracy can and do accommodate the negativities inherent in autocracy and dictatorial regimes: the outward morphing of dictatorships into democracies whilst leaving their deeds intact.

Thus, the Ruler in this case symbolises two main practices across autocratic states. The first is leaders who have democratise autocracy so that they win every election and can contest as many times as they want till they drop dead. The other symbolism is that there could be changes in leadership but because they are all corrupt and corruption has become the norm rather than the exception, it matters not who wins the election, the end will be the same: more corruption, less provision of goods and services and the cycle continues unabated. Just as Dambisa said, what a young country at the nascent stages of development needs is not democracy as these leaders democratise and institutionalise corruption in a way that is difficult to challenge; rather such countries need benevolent dictators, perhaps the likes of Mahathir of Malaysia. However, in Africa there has been more of the dictator and less of the benevolence.

In the end, the excessive corruption in the Aburiria government bred jealousy and vile machinations leading to several deaths and palace coups. Though Ngugi derides autocracy in this satiric thesis, he clearly exposes the dangers of excessive capitalism and American imperialism. He showed the multiplicity of American interests and how it can change over time to suit its objectives: from slavery to colonialism to capitalism to globalisation, all to its benefit; in so doing, as clearly articulated, it can befriend the vilest autocrats - the likes of Mobutu (who stole a humongous sum of US$ 5 billion) and Idi Amin (whose atrocities in his home country of Uganda makes his name almost synonymous to Hitler) when it suits them and if these leaders can best serve these interests. Once these interests are served, they quickly withdraw, wipe their hands, and attack that country as if they never dealt with, or know them at all. They launch a vilification campaign against them - sometimes including war, like it happened to Saddam Hussein of Iraq (when they had claimed that this man is the best person to rule his people and later accused him of a crime he had already committed when this accolade was showered on him).

Finally, Ngugi shows the gradual corporating of the world, through globalisation; the gradual recolonisation of the world through the use of corporate or private capital, with Non-Governmental Organisations playing the roles of the wolfish missionaries.

But there are certain distinctions that should be made regarding the actions of the Ruler. Was everything that he implemented bad? The answer is a huge no; however, the ends they were to achieve was what made them bad. For instance, he was somewhat nationalistic, which is not negative if you know your strengths; after all, some call it patriotism, others call it socialism. But nationalising to the benefit of cronies and family is not the way to go. Again, the Ruler streamlined the health system to include traditional healers, but doing it so you can arrest your enemies - Nyawira and Kamiti in this case - serves no end.

Ngugi's disaffection from his characters (even from the protagonists - Kamiti and Nyawira) brought out the humanity in them; that they are not gods (and therefore are fallible and have epistemic limitations) and alone are incapable of taking on the whole country. It might be seen as an unsolvable conundrum, an inextricable knot but what Ngugi is seeking are changes among a large section of people; changes that are major, conscious and directed at a positive end. You can make a change in your circumstances but it's impossible to make it in the world alone if not supported; besides, a lighted country will light up a room but not a city. 

Anyone who reads this book will come to understand their governments better. The reader will come to appreciate the ways of politics, governance and corporations. It should be a manual for the hoi-polloi so that they are not taken in by those apples dangling before their eyes. It is highly recommended.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Additions to the Library

The last time I shared books I've acquired was in September, though I've acquired a few and have read some already:

October, 2012
  1. Women Leading Africa - Conversations with Inspirational African Women by Nana Darkoa Sakyiamah (Editor). 
November, 2012
  1. Search Sweet Country by Kojo Laing. I've read this book already. However, I bought it because the author is unique in his approach to the novel and was challenged by Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters.
  2. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I once heard that no one can say she/he has sat in a Literature class without reading Woolf. I'm not a student of Literature but I love literature (the small 'l') so I decided to just try it and I didn't regret it.
  3. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. I chose this book because I've seen the author's name on some list before. I really don't know where but I chose it and read it and was, again, not disappointed. It's simple and straightforward, describing the proselytising life in a desolate place.
  4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I watched the movie and loved it. I also saw my former boss reading this. A busy man he was, I was shocked to see him read this book. I promised myself to also read it.
  5. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson. I hope to complete Stieg Larsson's trilogy; though I didn't get the third book The Girl who kicked the Hornet's Nest.
  6. Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue. Because I couldn't get Room in my local used-books store, I settle on this. At least, it will offer an introduction to the author.
  7. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I bought this book only because it is on my Top 100 list and also because I want to, after reading it, be able to say 'I too have read it'. It sounds braggadocio but once in a while one has to brag. It helps.
  8. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. Again, have seen this and another book of his on several lists of top 100 books. Besides, no one needs any talking-to to read Hemingway. I've read this already and it is good.
  9. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. Again, I wanted the Poisonwood Bible but in its absence, I think this will serve as an introduction.
  10. Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman by Dorothy Sterling. This simple book tells of the life of this extraordinary woman. It was worth the read; an introduction though.
February 2013: Most of the books that will be purchased this year, all other things being equal, will go to fulfilling my main 2013 reading objectives: Russian novels, non-fiction (especially on language, its development and psychology (or thought) and its link to development), and other unique novels.
  1. Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Gradually, Ngugi is becoming one of the authors I want to one day say I've read entirely. I searched for this book for so long but never managed to buy it; however, when I saw this copy in a Duty Free Bookshop at JKIA I instantly grabbed it and jumped into it when I completed the one I was reading. In fact, it epitomises Ngugi's life's work; this book brings his entire thinking about post-colonial independent African states. It jumped onto my all-time favourite list and will be on the favourites favourite list, if I were to prepare such a list.
  2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. To be read to fulfill the objective of reading Russian authors this year. At close to 1,400 pages, this monster of a chunkster, with its small print, will likely cast out all reading demons out of the faint-hearted. I hope I am able to persevere for I want to read it soon (that is next).
  3. Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo. Again, like I've already said, I want to read more non-fiction this year, compared to last year and this book fits into an article I'm currently thinking about writing.
  4. My First Coup D'Etat by John Dramani Mahama. Ever since this book came out I had been eager to read it; but later the enthusiasm fell and I lost interest. However, a trip to the EPP bookshop (the one located Legon) brought back that enthusiasm. By the way, EPP is doing something spectacular for Ghanaian book-lovers, readers and students. In an era where books are being replaced by music CDs and bookshelves are receding like low-tide oceans, they have shocked the system with a huge shop at Legon (more about this another time).
  5. Interventions - A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan with Nader Mousavizadeh. I'm not one for memoirs. I think it's a nice way of sanitising and rationalising ones actions. However, sometimes there is sometimes one could learn from them; even George Bush's Decision Point still have something to offer beyond the sanitisation of his blind invasion of Iraq and his belligerent posture and behaviour that terrorised and plunged the world into a state of insecurity and hopelessness. Before I'm attacked I hope no one will imagine himself as a citizen of Iraq or Afghanistan. So I decided to get this new memoir of the son of the motherland. I want to know more about him, even if it's sanitised. Besides, a man like him has a lot to offer and through them one can understand the world better.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

227. The Ghost of Sani Abacha by Chuma Nwokolo

Sometimes we look so long at a thing that we lose focus of the other beautiful things that surround us. Those unable to bear our absolute and inimical neglect drop out and disappear from the stage, their works waiting to be exhumed by a careful reader. They assume posthumous importance and their works suddenly appear on several reading lists - personal or academic. The fate of many a writer has so been determined.

Fortunately, Chuma Nwokolo's fate will not follow this posthumous line. His is a fresh voice painting the same abstract pictures, but from a unique perspective. He is a worthy name of his generation and we might lose the likes of him if we keep focusing too much on the generations above them. In Chuma we have a writer who is in love with language and the relationships between words and their meanings. Reading him is an enjoyment and the reader will not forget. He gives taste and colour to words; he brings language alive and his descriptions are superior.

The author's The Ghost of Sani Abacha (County Books, 2012; 309) is a collection of twenty-six (26) short stories covering several themes: love, politics, values, religion, and more. Whether describing the marital home, pastoral duties, the James Iboris of politics, or botched love affairs, Chuma writes from a point of knowledge that can only come from keen observation and understanding of the human condition. He understands how problems begin: asymmetric information arising from the 'I am sure' and 'Mine is true' attitudes people put on, which in itself originates from nonexistent communication lines. 

Chuma's story seems to have more to say than the words on the page and after the story ends, literally as in 'My Las' Foolscap' and also figuratively as in all the others. He sends his words in one direction, taking the reader along, linking one event to another, snowballing, and finally turns the reader around. The reader then begin to ask questions 'why didn't Chuma explain?' 'Why didn't he expand?' and in this way the reader becomes part of the story. For instance in 'Ma Rebecca' a story about a woman who kept losing his husbands and to avoid shame went to the big city, stole a child and came back to the village. She was later arrested yet the child she stole kept coming back to her after she was released from prison. What might have caused this? It's up to the reader to guess, right or wrong we write our own stories. This strategy works brilliantly if the reader wants to be part of the story-writing-and-telling process; the reader can choose his or her own conclusions as best as he deems fit.

The title story The Ghost of Sani Abacha is a satirical representation of politics especially as it is practice in most African countries, where wealth, its quest and finally its accumulation, becomes the true end of politics, and politics its means. It shows how anyone, regardless of his background, but with the right connections, can become a politician, amass wealth, and rise to the status of a power-broker without advancing any course beneficial to the people. Though written long before James Ibori, the prison-to-politics governor, was arrested to the embarrassment of the Nigerian government, this story can be an apt parody of the case.

Gluttony brings out man's inherent inclination to greed. It is also about the cost of free. When a whale suddenly appeared at the beachfront of Waterside, it provided enough meat to the three villages; from roasting to frying, kebab to barbecue, whale meat became the staple food. But the abundance of meat translated directly into stomachache. The story shows how enough cannot be enough; how people will keep adding and storing even if they don't need it. In this light it exposes or explains why the rich are still corrupt; why corruption will be difficult to uproot; and the reason why the poor look for opportunities to self-aggrandise. Gluttony is more about political corruption than overeating.

The Fall of Phiri Bombai is where the nuances of Chuma's story telling come alive. The reader goes through the emotional roller-coaster Phiri goes through as he rises and fall. Here the role of politics in ensuring inefficiency in the Civil Service by promoting people who are incompetent but with the right political associations and sidelining those who are efficient. Yet it is more than that. It's also about belief and anxiety. 

A Taste of Leftovers, the longest story in the collection, is a love story that didn't go well, initially, due to misinformation and asymmetric information. In this piece, and throughout the anthology, Chuma showed that he has exceptional understanding of his female characters and can easily carry their emotions to the reader. 

Chuma Nwokolo's literary journey has just begun and he is one we must watch. Late last year, I did read his book Diaries of a Dead African. He is a storyteller who knows his trade, in his hands the reader his safe. The only thing about this collection is that the publisher could have done more on proofreading.

This book is recommended to all readers. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

226. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Sophocles' Oedipus Rex - written around 430 BC - is a classic tale of fate (destiny) versus choice. It addresses the dilemma that has afflicted man since the beginning of time. For instance, in most cultures people attribute every occurrence - good or bad - to an omnipotent, omniscient being. Yet the fate-choice inclination has consequences on responsibility; if we live by fate must we not blame fate for what we do? If so then crime becomes an item of fate. The fate-choice continuum then becomes difficult to extricate, swinging from end to end depending on the fallout.

In this story, though the philosophical conundrum was somehow not resolved, it was clear that Oedipus' behaviour contributed to the fulfilment of the prophecy surrounding his birth. Thus, if fate takes into considerations one's character and character feeds into choices then fate is difficult to change by actions; that is, assuming that ones character is not dynamic or is robust to exogenous variables.

The other questions that could be raised is, should Oedipus have set out heavy penalty for the perpetrator? Death Sentence is okay except when it is your son or daughter. People who don't have their 'skin in the game' (to loosely quote Nassim Taleb), can proffer any advice they want. It is therefore imperative that we are just and principled to all including ourselves and know that what we set out to do to others might one day be done against us: the laws we set today, will tomorrow be used to charge us.

Nevertheless, there is one thing that stood out concerning Oedipus' character. He was a man of principle and of great astuteness. He faithfully accepted his crime and even though he could have watered it down or accepted reprieve from the senators, he sought to be the man of pride and principle. 

I read this book because I had already read and enjoyed The Gods are not to Blame a pastiche by Ola Rotimi. It is also good to read the original book on which another is based upon. And for a book to have survived this long, it means it can survive more; hence no need for me to say it is recommended, though I just did.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

225. Gathering Seaweed by Jack Mapanje (Editor)

Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing (Heinemann, 2002; 328) edited by Jack Mapanje is an anthology of essays, poems, articles, songs and speeches by Africans who have at one point in time been political prisoners or have had political infractions with the law and have been jailed for it. The collection is broken into Origins; Arrest, Detention and Prison; Torture; Survival; and The Release. In this anthology one will meet the pioneers of independence fighters in Africa like Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana,  Agostinho Neto of Angola and others; also present are the fighters against apartheid in South Africa: Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Breyten Breytenbach; equally important are the post-independent right fighters such as Jack Mapanje, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong'o and others.

Contributors come from all the various regions of Africa: north, east, west, central and south. However, what this collection shows is the similarity in human wickedness regardless of the location. Even more important is the comparison of pre-independence and post-independence. The collection clearly shows that after the euphoria of independence died down, and reality dawned on us, most of the first wave of leaders and those who came afterwards became autocrats imprisoning the opponents who they see as threats to their hardly won 'seats'. Thus, though the people in power changed from white to black, the wickedness never did. Thus, this anthology clearly shows that wickedness and the zeal to hold on to power by punishing all opposition is a human condition. It echoes what Ngugi said in his novella Weep Not Child
Blackness is not all that makes a man ... There are some people, be they black or white, who don't others to rise above them. They want to be source of all knowledge and share it piecemeal to other less endowed. ... A rich man does not want others to get rich because he wants to be the only man with weal. [22]
The situations captured in this anthology has truly been expanded in Ngugi's Wizard of the Crow. Mapanje, by this anthology, has shown the light to the path we have to take. That it is difficult to suppress resistance. It also reflects Nassim Nicholas Taleb's discussion in Antifragility where he says that variation produces antifragility (something that gains from mishandling) whilst sameness makes things fragile.

This is a collection worth reading and studying. It brings out certain inherent commonality of the human condition. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

224. Speeches that Changed the World by Emma Beare (Editor)

Speeches that Changed the World (Bounty Books, 2006; 192) edited by Emma Beare is a collection of speeches, interviews, dialogue and one-liners that are supposed to have marked an epoch in time. Sometimes these epochs are not long-lasting and the speeches not-world changing; sometimes the reverberations of the outcomes of the speeches can still be felt today, like John F. Kennedy's speech that empowered NASA and sparked the space race, which promised that America will put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s and did. Today, Curiosity is on an exploratory tour on Mars.

However, some of these speeches are there only for their beauty; this is the case in most of the one-liners - like the ones by Princess Diana - whose significant impact on world cannot be determined. Same can be said of Mark Anthony's speech delivered at the death of Caesar. The collection is mostly West-centric and not comprehensive enough. The only Africans in there are Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk.

The collection is divided into ten sections: Ancient History, Love, Religion, Science, Patriotism, Philosophy, Humanity and Liberty, Sport, Politics, and War. Contributors ranged from Woodrow Wilson to Hitler, Mandela to Einstein, John Kennedy to Thucydides, Mark Anthony to Karl Max and more. Where the speeches are longer than is necessary, the 'irrelevant' parts are edited out whilst still maintaining the import of what the speech is about. Some of the entries were also not penned by one person though they have had major impacts on the world like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly of the United States. 

Whilst not comprehensive enough (but including George Bush's Axis of Evil speech), the editor could have shown in the footnotes in a sentence or two what impacts the entries have had on the world. This would make the reader appreciate them more. Future editions should be more inclusive and wider for the world has existed for a long time to more impactful speeches than those presented here.

Regardless, this will kindle further investigations and reading in the reader, if he were the inquisitive type. If not, the reader would learn some bits of history, however edited they are.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Some Quotes from The Best of Simple by Langston Hughes

Some white church convention - I read in the papers where they have resolved all that over and the Golden Rule, too, also that Negroes should be treated right. It looks to me white folks better stop resolving and get to doing. They have resolved enough. Resolving ain't solving. [80]

They are always worrying about dusting something, cleaning up something, or washing something, especially in the spring. Now, you take Joyce, every time I go by her place, either she, or her landlady one, is bulldozing the house - sweeping or mopping or dusting or washing out curtains, or ironing slip-covers. I swear there is many a thing to keep clean in a house. But a man do not worry about it as much as a woman. [114]

That man you was talking about were white. He could afford to throw out things. White folks have got plenty of things. Almost all we got is problems, especially the race problem. Everybody's talking about it. The white folks down where I work is always discussing this race problem. I tell them that white folks can measure their race problem by how far they have come. But Negroes measure ours by how far we have got to go. [115]

Them white folks are always telling me, 'Isn't it wonderful the progress that's been made amongst your people. Look at Dr. Bunche!'
All I say to them is, 'Look at me'. [115]

Racketeers are not in the papers just for the parties they give ... They often donate a lot of money to charity, or marry one actress after another, or open night clubs, or do something sensational. If good people want to be news, they have to do sensational things, too. Just being good is not good enough - at least, not for the papers. [133]

If I had not told so many lies myself in my time, I would have believe F. D. was lying. But I know that sometimes a lie is the truth. And some things that really happen are more like lies  than some things that don't, [137]

I thought all white folks were white folks until I come North to Maryland. I did not know some were Jews. [141]

'Good examples are not set by deceit,' I said
'Oh, but sometimes they are,' said Simple. 'A congressman is a good example until somebody catches him with a deep freeze. A minister is a good example until he gets caught with the deacon's wife. I am a good example as long as F. D. thinks I am in bed asleep. ...' [148]

What I am saying is the high cost of living and the high cost of loving together is more than I can take. I don't mind dying for love, but I hate to be broke. I cannot pay my landlady with your affections. I cannot get my laundry out with heart throbs. Neither can I ride the subway with a kiss. I can't even buy a beer with love. [172]

Saturday, February 09, 2013

223. The Best of Simple by Langston Hughes

The Best of Simple (Noonday Press, 1961*; 245) by Langston Hughes is a collection of seventy very short stories serialised chronologically to tell the story of Jesse B. Semple (usually spelt Simple) - an average black Joe whose experiences and actions during the epoch of segregation could be described as representative of the larger black community, especially Harlem.

From unstable jobs to living from day to day; from saving to marry to caring for a other family members; from the torments of segregation to becoming the head of a family, Simple's dialogue provides an insight to life and especially of dashed aspirations and frustrations of black Americans who had become slaves in the South and had to escape to the North to have some semblance of opportunities in terms of jobs as factory hands or maids, where the rights of black workers are not guaranteed. As expected, Simple talked about racial discrimination and how foreigners - as long as they are white - have more liberty and rights when they come to America than they who had been born there.

Simple's observations also included the changing social, cultural, political and economic life of the people. For instance, he bemoaned how skirts were increasingly becoming shorter and how scantily dresses cover the body; he also bemoans why there are no blacks in the movies and plays apart from singing, where they were represented. In the economy, Simple did not understand why blacks earn far less than whites, and why they (blacks) are employed mostly for the menial of jobs even if they have the necessary skills. He also observed how blacks suffered from serious identity crisis, with each wanting to become white - in their dressing, look (powdering themselves), culture and more. However, the most scathing of all of Simple's observations was the comparison between game reserves and segregation. According to Simple, whites loved animals more than they love blacks and so had created game reserves with strictly enforced 'no hunting' signs whilst they have created slums for blacks unprotected from lynching to death by white supremacists and keeping them out of the amenities-filled white neighbourhoods through high prices, .

Laced through Simple's commentary is the story of his own (love) life and how he was (un)working on his divorce from Zarita and to marry Joyce, a 'cultured' woman who almost rubs shoulders with the creme de la creme of black society. His ways with women, especially with is ex but undivorced wife, and his changing views as he matures and gets closer to becoming a husband.

Though Langston Hughes wrote this narrative from the point of view of Simple, it was not Simple who narrated his stories. The stories are given to the reader second-hand by Simple's best friend and drinking pal, Joe. Joe provides the necessary counterpoint to Simple's ideas. He played the Devil's Advocate in all of Simple's ramblings, teasing him out and giving him counter-examples on every issue Simple raises. These counterpoints provides the much-needed alternative. Simple questions why blacks do not patronised things produced by blacks; why they do not support one another or help their own? and why they need the stamp of white folks to see the greatness of some blacks who are doing well? This is an example of pathological analysis of black behaviour Simple and his friend performed. The use of race as an excuse by individual blacks for not working was also dissected. They were worried how privileged blacks prefer to be accepted by whites, to live in white communities and do the things they do, whilst at they same time breaking all contact and associations with other blacks who are not as privileged as they are. These blacks usually pretend to talk about race or pretend to be working to improving the lot of their people, even though, in reality, they want to be the only ones doing well.

Simple's discussion of segregation brought out another angle of segregation; one which has hardly been discussed: that is the issue of language. He explained how blacks who could speak a foreign language, or even pretend to speak one, are treated differently and better, almost like whites, than those who speak English, especially if it's the ghetto lingua.

With Simple, nothing is simple: domestic issues such as the sucking of pork bones and issues of manners could very easily morphed into global issues such as the dropping of atomic bombs and the implementation of Jim Crow.

This is a simple book. The language used for the dialogue - which is what carries the story - is written in that ghetto English lingua. Simple provides another window to the life of blacks in a not too distant past. It is recommended.
* First Published

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

January in Review... Projections for February

The reading target for 2013 is not different from that of 2012: I intend to read 70 books this year. Consequently, I have set a target of at least 50 pages a day and 6 books a month. These strategies helped me achieve the 2012 targets and I hope it will help this time around.

A total of 7 books were read in January. These gave a total of 1642 pages or 53 pages per day. The following:
  1. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. This was the first book I read this year, obviously. It is about the life of a young boy who survives a shipwreck, alone, and what he went through. However, the book is much more than just the story of a castaway. It gives hope and faith; it shows how much we can achieve if we put our minds to it and believe in it. Piscine Molitor Patel's story is one worth the read and if you're not the reading type, just read it. Or watch the movie adaptation which I cannot confirm if it stuck to the story.
  2. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. This is a non-fiction, largely autobiographical story about the author. It narrates his life using the elements of the periodic table both as symbols of what happened to him and and how they actually influenced his life. Primo, at an early age, had interest in Chemistry and so stayed with it through his college and university education. It was this intransigence to his profession, always seeking new ways to do things and his dedication that saved him at Auschwitz.
  3. The Best of Simple by Langston Hughes. What a book. Written in a series of short stories, this book tells of how Simpel lives his life during the periodic of American segregation. Langston arranged his short stories to tell a complete story of the everyday struggles of Black Americans and their psychology during those days.
  4. Speeches that Changed the World by Emma Beare (Editor). This is a collection of speeches and one-liners and responses. It is arranged from the ancient period to the present and has been edited (parts left out) for easy reading. I, however, think more famous speeches could have been added. As it is now, it's very western and even that one would have expected some major speeches to be present. Again, though a historical background was sometimes given, the result of that speech - which made it changed the world - would have enhanced its appreciation.
  5. Gathering Seaweeds by Jack Mapanje (Editor). Gathering Seaweeds is an anthology of poems, letters, speeches and essays by Africans who have at one point in their time become political prisoners or have had political infractions with the law. Though most of the names are famous, like Nkrumah, Mandela, Kaunda, there are lesser known ones. However, what makes this anthology stands out is not the number of unique individuals or the detailed description of their imprisonment; what makes this collection important and worth studying is how similar the descriptions of treatments meted out to incarcerated prisoners were both before (or during the struggle for) independence and after independence. It shows that the evil never left; it assumed a new form. Mapanji did well to put this anthology together.
  6. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. I read the Ola Rotimi's version of this play, titled The Gods are not to Blame and liked it. This play touches on fate and choice when it comes to destiny. Are our destinies pre-ordained? Are our actions only leading to its realisation? These philosophical principles are discussed in this Greek tragedy.
  7. The Ghost of Sani Abacha by Chuma Nwokolo. Chuma's 26 short story anthology is a delight to read. Whether he is describing the marital home, pastoral duties, politics, or botched love affairs, Chuma writes from a point of knowledge that can only come from keen observation. He has a way with words and he strings them together beautifully. Chuma understands how problems begin: asymmetric information arising from the 'I am sure or certain, mine is true' attitude people put on. The stories are varied and definitely the reader may find more than enough favourites.
Currently, I am reading Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow, a book of 768 pages - a chunkster of a chunkster. This means that perhaps my reading target of 6 might not be achieved in February; but who knows? In addition to this, I intend to read Fathers and Daughters - an Anthology of Exploration by Ato Quayson.
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