262. African Roar 2013 by Emmanuel Sigauke (Editor)

The first principle I have adopted in my reading is that every book has something to offer. Thus, I do not go into a story or a book with a prejudiced mind or with the structure of another book in mind. Neither do I attempt to impose my expectations of how things should have fared on a story. Consequently, I attempt to judge every book on its own merit, without comparing it with another. Using this strategy, I do not pronounce a story as bad in relation to another or my expectations; I judge a book on its own merits.

With this out of the way we can proceed to talk about African Roar 2013 (StoryTime, 2013; 170). African Roar has become an annual anthology of African short stories since 2010. This being the fourth edition. I really do not know how I missed the 2012 edition but have talked about the 2010 and 2011 editions on this blog. First, it is important to commend StoryTime for their insight and for what they are doing for young and relatively unknown African authors. Most of the names in this collection are young aspiring writers with a slim pile of published stories. To such folks African Roar offers an important platform where they could share what they have and use it as a launchpad for greater things.

This year's anthology features thirteen short stories from seven different countries. This diversity (with authors coming from Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Nigeria, and South Africa - some of whom were born outside the continent but currently lives here whilst others were born her but lives abroad) has resulted in an anthology with as many stories as there are authors. Themes range from identity, changes, home, and abuse, to motherhood, death, migration, and marriage. 

Though these countries spread fairly well across the continent - covering Southern, East, West and Central Africa, it is still deficient in its coverage. The countries in the collection represent only Anglophone countries and the lack of translations means that North African countries - Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya etc. which speak French or Arabic - and Lusophone, Spanish and other Francophone African countries are left out. Perhaps with time StoryTime will remedy this.

Home by Alison Erlwanger: Alison's story is about love, identity, and home - as in one's place of origin, one's root. The issue of home can easily be disregarded in an increasingly globalised world with unprecedented volume of migration aided by supersonic improvement in technology, and unrestrained intermarriages. Today, an English man is as much at home in Cape Town as a Nigerian is in Berlin or Milan. Despite these developments, people - regardless of race - still feel they have to belong to some place and thus must be associated with a part of the earth where they could call home, irrespective of whether they actually live there or not. This story therefore questions where home is and its relations to identity. In doing so, it brings to the fore a less discussed thread of the emigrant stories - the diversity of Africa and its European and Indian citizens. Usually, with the mention of an African, one conceives images of black skin and woolly hair; however, the Indian population in East and Southern Africa is not insignificant. Africa is no more homogeneous in complexion than America is; it is no more a continent for blacks than America is a continent for whites. We have our fair share of mixed races, of half-castes, quadroons, and octoroons who were born and have lived on the continent all their lives. 

Home in this story is where the heart is - pun intended. As a Zimbabwean of a half-caste Indian father and a Zimbabwean mother, Fungisai was described as un-African at every turn. This was exacerbated by her inability to speak any of the local languages. In New York she was confronted with this and had to always explain herself to her Nigerian partner, Neville - a professor of Politics, especially when his friends came visiting. However, Neville himself was trapped in his quaint vision of who an African is and how the African should look. It was his perception of the African identity that kept him still in love with his Nigerian fiancée - a woman he had not seen in so many years. Yet, in his mind, she was the ultimate African woman, pristine and servile, to whom Fungisai did not compare. However, Neville had a rude awakening when, as providence would have it, he chanced upon this former, still-loving, girlfriend - Kathy - at a conference on Igbo art. It was at this meeting that it dawned on him that Africanness is more than one's complexion and that home is more than where the 'hut' is; it is where the 'heart' is and the heart can be anywhere one chooses. Fungisai described Africa as an ideology, she says
Africa, it is an ideology, neither one of us has been there in over ten years Nevy, and yet we are always there in our minds, in our arguments, in our disappointments. But sometimes you go to a part of the ideology where I cannot touch you, and I want to be able to touch you ... So today I am saying this, I know where my home is, it is wherever you are, and unless you come to terms with loving me, and loving Nigeria at the same time, we have to go our separate ways.
This is a beautifully strung multi-themed story. Each theme - identity, home, love - is intricately linked to the other. 

Business as Usual by Jayne Bauling: Set in South Africa, Business as Usual is about the lives of the poor; it is about their survival tactics - sometimes feigning anger and violence to extract their living from the rich - their everyday challenges, their aspirations. It is also about the indifference of the rich and society at large towards the poor, the homeless hobos. Ironically, society only cares when one such person dies in a public space, but not beyond that. When this happens all emergency buttons are activated to get the cadaver autopsied, after which the business as usual button is punched and all is left to survive on their devices.

A group of traders and hawkers sell their wares around a post office in the city, where towards winter they receive their trading and hawking kin from Jozi. Once a while their wares are patronised by the rich; however, even this is declining as the advent of  computers and the internet has rendered the post office obsolete. Sometimes some of them have to beg for food and others, especially the homeless hobos, have to scavenge and sleep in makeshift homes made from cardboard. The story shouts their silences, and their dignity even in their poverty.

This is a matter-of-fact first person narrative of life in a city, where no one really cares about the other. It is told in a nonemotive voice thus making the pain, the desolation, the impotence, the poverty, the waste, the death and loss, all the more palpable. The story is not necessarily about exposing the duality of economic life and the rot that has become the lot of these rejects but through showing the everyday lives of the people, it exposes these profoundly.

Salvation in Odd Places by Aba Amissah Asibon: Aba is the only author in this collection whom I have read before. Earlier this year, I read her short story The Lump in her Throat, published at Guernica. Salvation in Odd Places, written in the present tense, is a story about the life of a young boy in northern Ghana. Like most countries across the continent, Ghana's economy is not uniformly developed. The south, where the capital is located, is relatively more developed with more economic prospects than the northern part. Thus, there is a constant flow of people from the north to the south in search of economic miracles, which sometimes elude them, leading to consequential changes.

In this story, one of the consequential changes is that of a breakdown of the family system, the loss of people in the household and the insecurity of its aged members. Hassan's cousin - Khaled - is leaving for the city, to live with his uncle, leaving Hassan with their grandmother. All of Hassan's wish is to join his brother in Accra and make money for himself; but the decision is not an easy one to make. Who will look after Grandmamma and the household should he leave for the city? Grandmamma has lost two of her three sons, including Hassan's father and in a traditional family this is a big deal as sons are supposed to head and direct the family after the death of their father. Thus, Grandmamma is left uncatered for and unprotected, exposed to economic vagaries. And, as if that is not enough, she has to bear the debt Hassan's father accrued in his life whilst looking after the household. This, coupled with the lack of any economic activity in the household, makes the decision to migrate imperative as it is linked to the survival of the household. This therefore creates a kind of conundrum where each decision is both positive and negative and each will lead to the same effect.

Thrown into this economic migration story is Hassan's love for Farida, a woman he is likely to lose should he move to Accra.

The story thus shows the difficult decisions migrants have to make and its consequential effects, such as the breakdown or changes in the family structure and the deterioration of the basic function of the family as a unit of protection. Today, economic consideration is the first determinant of a family's stability; a family that is not financially sound is more likely to lose its members to the glittering pull of city life, itself harsh and unforgiving, exacting its pound of flesh at the least opportunity. In cities, these migrants are found on the periphery of economic life, live in hovels, and become the urban poor. The redemption they seek eludes them.

Aba showed all these with a kind of laid-back attitude. As if she they are the very things she is not saying. Such writing requires the reader to be involved - virtually - in the writing process. To pull up the words and locate what is beneath, what the writer is saying by not saying it.

The Faces of Fate by Abdulghani Sheikh Hassan: As the title suggests this is a story about fate and its unpredictability. It gives weight to two often-quoted aphorisms: man proposes and god disposes; and the grass is always greener at the other end. Narrated in the second person singular - 'You' - the story is about a girl who had grand plans about her future, having already began school in a prestigious private institution, until fate and an auntie decided otherwise. Together with her friends, Njeri and Atieno, Samira talked about following the footsteps of her father.

Everything was to change when her parents died and she had to live with her auntie. The death of her auntie saw her join the police force and with her rejection of bribery and advances from male colleagues, she barely survived. All these while she had fanciful ideas of what had become of her two friends. She saw them in high places, doing all the great things. But a chance meeting with them, during an operation, told her that life is more than wishes and visions.

The second person narrative created a sort of impersonal relationship with the main character and as a short story it did not take much away from it. The story, however, seems straightforward, lacking an element of surprise. The fact that life really do not turn out as we had perceived it growing up is a lesson in life all adults know. Perhaps I sought for something which was not part of the writer's motif, but the ability to tell everyday problems in a different way is the spine of storytelling.

To young adults, this is a lesson of life they will do well to internalise - that more often than not our station in life is a function of so many independently moving variables.

In Bramble Bushes by Dipita Kwa: That the ultimate end of life in the twenty-first century is wealth, that ambition is the medium, and that wealth restores dignity, are known to all. The opposite too is true. It is said that it is poverty that turns the elder into a toddler so that his admonishes and advice are deemed frivolous and treated with scorn. In this day and age, wealth speaks. So to what extent will one go to accrue such wealth?

Yandes Seka Ebindi will go to all lengths - no holds barred - to become rich and bestow respect on his family. He wants the people of Njock to respect him. He also wants to be better than his bitter polio-ridden father who had cursed life and God for his circumstance. So like what most wealth-seekers do, he migrates to a bigger town, enrols as a human specimen in a research programme by a rogue research institute developing new drugs, and earned some money.

Years later, as Yandes lay on his father's shrunken mattress dying from the vaccines injected into him and the experiments conducted on him, his past sins come visiting, in human form: the girl he had raped, with the help of his father, has come with the child that came out of it - a child he has neither seen nor known to exist prior to her presence at his deathbed. Calling for death and death moving farther away from him, Yandes regrets every single decision he has had to make, he thinks of all the things he could have been and did not become. Thus, instead of the respect he sought, he gets the disdain and ridicule from the people, disgracing himself and his family.

This story provides a counterpoint, of sorts, to Abdulghani's. And like Abdulghani's - and others in the collection - they seek to offer a moral lesson, just as most of the traditional folktales do. Here the end of the quest could not be regarded as fairly 'okay'. It is downright repugnant. It shows that ambition for ambition's own sake usually results in fleeting happiness and lengthy period of pain.

Transitions by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende: Every country goes through certain physical and psychological changes after independence, more especially if the society was a racially segregated one. No one continent has suffered such separatism and segregation than Africa. This story is about the changes that took place in Zimbabwe as the country gained its independence from British minority rule. Overnight, locations which were once closed to blacks began receiving their black residents after their white owners sold their properties and left the country.

What presented major obstacles for the blacks then was living up to the expectation of the whites and fighting discrimination and intimidation. The antagonism between the two however remained, stressing the marriages and lives of the first black who entered those neighbourhoods. The children lived in a tensed friendship, and the black children witnessed the maltreatment meted out to their kinds who served in white households.

However, what the story addresses is the deterioration that set in in these neighbourhoods after all the whites left, transforming quiet and pristine neighbourhoods into hovels of rot and degeneracy. Tarred roads eroded, whole streets lost their coatings, garbage piled up, stores appeared everywhere, and buildings sprung up uncontrollably on vacant lots. The colours became random as each painted his house a colour of his own choosing.

The story traces retrogression and decay and can metaphorically be applied to Zimbabwe's political scene whose description by some writers will make it analogous to this story. However, in its literal sense one cannot but ask a moral question: is deterioration a natural consequence of self-rule? Or could one choose between a pristine orderly neighbourhood and independence? The natural outcome of the story's sequence is that when the whites left, the blacks destroyed Zimbabwe. And the blame is the way of life of blacks.
One by one, Portia and her family watched the whites leave Kilarney, a mass exodus, which began in December 1979 with the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement, swelled in April 1980 with the inception of the Republic of Zimbabwe and climaxed in the early 1990s as she finished high school. .... and in the interim years, the neighbourhood transformed from a quiet, sleepy suburb with bland white houses into a busy bustling place with yellow, green, pink and blue houses, concrete walls, emergency taxies, and commuter buses. With each visit home for holidays, Portia found that the landscape had evolved and transformed as new homes were constructed on vacant lots, the bush in which she and her brother had once foraged for wild fruit, gone. It was peppered with trash, plastic bags and old newspapers as the city council garbage pick-up trucks started coming once every two weeks, then once a month, then not at all. ...
Just as Saleem's life mapped out the history of India and Pakistan in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Portia's life - a child born on the eve of independence - mapped out the changes that have taken over Zimbabwe, mostly for the worst.

The story leaves little room for the reader's imagination even about things that are pretty obvious or implied from previous statements. It would have helped if the author had involved the reader in the story by not stating the obvious.

A Yoke for Companionship by Andiswa Maqutu: This is a story about love and the labour of love, of sorts. It is also about the love of a grandmother towards her granddaughter and the gradual deterioration of that love in twenty-first century families resulting, perhaps, from the demands of today's jobs. The story contrasts a time in the past with a time in the present. The narrative is unusual as it shifts constantly from the omniscient narrator to the first person and then to a point-of-view. It becomes somewhat complicated when the grandmother was telling the story about her granddaughter - the grandmother's sister's granddaughter, to be specific; both were married to the same man.

In the end it converges at the strange but unexpressed love between a father and his daughter - that granddaughter being talked about. Strange in a sense that whereas the daughter seems to be somewhat afraid of her father, the relationship between the two has thawed, the father seems to be reliant on her. The narrative style and the jumps in the story makes it difficult for the reader to follow the events and the connections between the people.

The Puppets of Maramudhu by Dilman Dila: Dilma's story is unique, not that it is alien or experimental. It is neither of these. In fact, it is the kind of stories we love to tell, orally, but which we rarely ever write, unfortunately, perhaps because of our quest to remain realists. A story such as Dila's could easily be found on any street across the continent. Stranger stories have been heard.

The story is about a puppeteer named Maramudhu who hypnotises people who patronises his puppet shows and commands them to commit murder so that he will live longer. Every murder allows him to live thirteen - an ominous number - more years. It is believed that he has resurrected before and in an attempt to live forever has been exchanging people's lives with his. His victims will either turn themselves in at the police station or will do nothing to cover up their crimes and in the end will deny ever having committed the crimes they are being charged with. The only person who has seen through Maramudhu's deviousness, Musawo, will not be believed by the police no matter how long he talks and how much evidence he presents. To the police, this is arrant nonsense, superstition forms no part of police work.

Superstition abounds in Africa and this story can be told in any country and will be literally believed. For instance, in Ghana there was a time when some men claimed their manhood had shrunk after they had been touched by certain people. Overnight, people began to walk with care, avoiding suspicious individuals. Dilma therefore did well in telling this story and his command over the narrative was interesting. The subject also lent itself to the short story genre.

Through the Same Gate by Brian Bwesigye: Besigye's story is about a young boy who had been brought into his father's home. The relationship between him and his father's wife is an uneasy one, bordering on maltreatment, and discrimination. Written in the first person, the boy attempts to rationalise his step-mother's maltreatment and the friendship between him and his step siblings. The two situations seem incongruous for him.

This story did not work very well for me. I felt there were a lot of repetitions, especially in reference to the title, that could have been done away with. I also felt that the title could have been metaphorically weaved into the story instead of the literal interpretation it offered. However, Brian wrote the story entirely from the frustrations of a young boy and on this basis the repetition could be justified, for the mind of a frustrated child does not conceive events smoothly. I also like it when Africans insert bits of their local language into their stories, in so far as it does not distort the meaning and take something away from the reader; after all, not everyone gets the Spanish and French one finds in reading English works.

The Spaces in-between by A. B. Doh Set in the US, The Spaces in-between is a story about love that was not. A Cameroonian lady fell in love with a Yoruba man and just when things started to pick up, he dropped the bombshell, indirectly, about a Yoruba lady his parents would want him to marry
Our people have known each other for a really long time, so she thinks it'll be a good thing, especially for our families' business. 
The story is about loss - the loss of loved ones; for Nams was pregnant for Tunde before the separation and Tunde was not ready to father a child outside marriage. It is also about people who cannot stand for themselves. Nams attempted playing the educated modern woman in the twenty-first century who knew her rights and could defy family wishes, and so expected Tunde to do same; to at least be the man and prove his love. But Tunde was different. To him, the family businesses come first.

The story is beautifully narrated in the second person's voice, in the present tense, by a narrator who was peripheral to the events. It is rich in detail.

Anti Natal by Mike Ekunno: This is about the apprehensions of a woman attending her first antenatal. It tells, in the first person, of her struggle to get there, her fear of occupying the tail end of a possibly long queue, the fear of being examined by a male doctor.

The one thing that salvages this story is its ability to highlight people's perception that every pregnant woman is married; one cannot be single and pregnant. The connection between marriage and pregnancy is so automatic that people will hardly ever think about it, especially when the woman is out of her teens. When she gave her name as Emmanuella Owanari Hart, Hart being her maiden name, the nurse automatically inserted a Mrs in front. Besides she turned her next of kin - Doyin - into a man and a husband, thus becoming Doyin Hart. Also, it captures the state of the health system and the general economic situation in most African countries that make accessing healthcare a challenge. The linkages, for instance between transportation and healthcare, is clearly depicted.

Green Eyes and Old Photo by Ola NubiA Nigerian student in England had an affair with a white girl. When the girl got pregnant, the two decided to marry against the wishes of the girl's parents. Now years after, after the birth of their daughter and death of the wife, the girl - who had been prevented from travelling with her father back to her homeland Nigeria by her white grandparents, had come looking for her father. The story is the father's story of what happened in the intervening years.

Ola Nubi told her story in two voices: the third person singular 'He', which referenced the main character's bed-ridden father, and the first person singular, which is the father's story told by himself. The second part of the story, by the father, was told in flashback. It offers a glimpse of life in a racially insensitive England at the time. Overall, the narrative fits the story.

Cut it Off by Lydia Matata: A radio station, discussing the story of a woman who had cut off her husband's penis, invited listeners to make their contributions stating whether they would have cut it off had they been in a similar position, or not. It is the contributions of these callers that built up the story and carried it along its theme. The contributions indicated the various kinds of problems people had endured, or were going through, in their marriages or relationships and the extent to which they will go to retaliate or extricate themselves from the relationship.

There was a lady who had been defrauded by her 'foreigner' boyfriend whom she had loved and trusted because he was handsome and caring. There was another who had nearly poisoned her husband for neglecting his matrimonial home, with his children, whilst keeping another woman in a posh neighbourhood; and another who defended her husband when all had accused him of paedophilia and theft. The stories dig into society, exposing the rot hidden behind smiles and makeups.

The liberalisation of the airwaves and the surge in the number of private radio stations that came with it has given platforms for programmes dedicated to the discussion of such social problems. This has allowed people to share their problems in the hope of finding solutions or healing themselves. This is more important in our part of the world where a visit to the psychiatry will quickly be associated with madness, thus dissuading people from seeking the help they terribly need.

I like this story for its experimental narrative form. Though the story has several voices - told from different sides, by different people - they were not disjointed. Each strand connected and contributed to the thread and its major theme - abuse in relationships. The form worked for the short story genre, but might become difficult to sustain and tedious to read in even a novella.

Conclusion: Overall, this is a fantastic collection of short stories. The reader may not necessarily enjoy each and every one of the stories, but each and every one of them has something to offer. This anthology is unreservedly recommended.


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