Friday, November 29, 2013

#Quotes from Femi Osofisan's Women of Owu

Nowadays, when the strong fight the weak, it's called a Liberation War to free the weak from oppression. [8]

Nowadays, in the new world, it is suicide to be weak. [8]

I ask you- without a shrine, without worshippers, what is a god? [9]

Some words are such that when we hear them, all the light inside us dies at once, and our smiling daylight turns into the bleakness of night. [27]

I lit the torch so I will not have to grope my way to the camp where I shall be married to my enemy, that handsome butcher of our people. [27-8]

The gods! Which gods! Do you still trust any of them after this? Or have you quickly forgotten what they told us about Anlugbua just now? No, women, there is no shelter anywhere but in ourselves! Each of us has become our own god. [33]

Happiness is a fake. The gods employ it as a mask to trick us each time they are about to plunge us into grief. [37]

Don't speak like that, my child. Death is sweet, we think. But it is easier to talk of it, than to welcome it. We do not know what is on the other side, whether it is better or worse than here. Whereas even at its most bitter, life offers hope at least, which death does not. [41-2]

Even in misfortune, which levels everyone, the potions are unequal: we dare not tell you what we believe will becoming to us. [42]

My daughter, you won't like to hear this but my advice is- do like the reed in the bush. Stand and strut in good weather. But when it storms, learn also to bend. [42]

Anger and desire are twin sisters in this drama we call love, two kernels in the same nut! [48]

Anyone can kill. But it is not everybody who can forgive, or who can be just, as I know you are. [51]

An artist has only his dreams. He has no power. [52]

[T]he skin that graces the king's shoulders, the leopard knows who supplied it. When mother Goat nods at the sonorous sound of the drum, she is not dancing! It is because, each time it sounds, she recognizes the wailing of the leather! [55]

It is the fate of the conquered to toil for the strong! That is the logic of war, the logic of defeat! [55]

Beauty makes all women vulnerable to the greed of men [57]

War never ends, but only moves to another place? [58]

Let no one count herself lucky till she finds herself on her death bed. [60]

Home is where every traveller returns after a journey, however long. When night falls, the visitor must take his leave of his hosts. [65]

No swimmer, however good, can swim beyond the rim of the world. [65]

A father can only chew for a child; he cannot swallow for her. [66]
Read the review here

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

267. Persuasion by Jane Austen

Writing about a Jane Austen novel, here on this blog, is like spitting into the Atlantic Ocean. There are Austen fans, Austen die-hards, Austen-scholars, Austen Societies, Austen-spawned novels and movies and anything one could imagine. However, what I take from Austen novels - I haven't read many - is that the society they lived in was not much different from other societies.

In Persuasion (Penguin Classics, 1965 (FP: 1818); 264)*, as in the other two novels of hers I have read - Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice - the theme is marriage and society's rules, obligations, and expectations surrounding that institution. Right from the beginning of this book, Austen - with her keen insight into life and the dynamics family life - exposed the biases and patriarchy of the society of the time; a society that ranked individuals of the two genders differently and further ranked people within each gender group according to their wealth, occupation, family status, name, marriage, and such others that might be laughed at today, somewhat. She discussed marriage for convenience against marriage for love; the former being the norm and prevalent, the latter being the route for deviants.

Jane introduced us to two completely similar individuals of similar ranks but of whom society's expectations were different because of their sex. Both Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Russell had lost their spouses; they were both moderately wealthy - though Sir Walter is on a path to ruination. But, whereas people were contented to see Lady Russell remained unmarried, they were worried why Sir Walter should remain single. The same set of people, with the same set of variables, expected different things from two people - differentiated only by sex.

Reading Austen's novels, one cannot but imagine the author poking fun at society's norms and values, the elaborateness of its etiquette, and the absurdities that emanated from these. It was these absurdities that she exposes in her books. What is more illogical than that a man such as Sir Walter should spend himself into poverty, risking the future of his children, for the sole purpose of living as his position required; that he should not only resist change but should resist any decisions his confidantes should make in an attempt to salvage the few and keep him from the final fall over the cliff into scorn? When it was arrived at that he should rent his Kellynch Hall estate and move to his home in Bath, where his expenditure would be drastically reduced, he was thinking of how this would affect his aristocratic status and was concerned with the calibre - that is the occupation and rank - of his future tenants. Thus, instead of deciding on his financial position and how to rescue himself, he was consumed with trivialities. He hated sailors and did not want one as a tenant, which in fact was what he got, because they age faster and look older than their ages and, more importantly, their occupation allowed those of 'obscure birth' to rise into ranks not before dreamt of by them or their ancestors. And this is from a man who kept mirrors in all his rooms, hated wrinkles, and considered himself beautiful. In fact, in today's world he would have been considered a metrosexual. 

And the Elliots are boastful and discriminatory! They would only want to marry into wealthier and worthier families and would obsequiously grovel before any one they deemed to be above them in the social ladder, and would equally expect nothing less from others below them. These extreme mannerisms and aristocracy exuded by the people of the time, which has not been totally erased today but if anything becoming profound, created a class society so that even siblings of the same parentage could fall on either side of the rank, which  in women is determined by the wealth and connections of their husbands. Though Mrs Musgrove and Mrs Hayter were sisters, the latter occupied a higher social ladder and was much respected; in fact, she saw herself different and better than her sister. Alternatively, since one could rise in social rank through marriage, one could also fall through divorce or death, as in the case of Mrs Smith, who suddenly became destitute after the death of her spendthrift husband.

The quest for an improvement in social rank, spawned machinations and strategic marriages and alliances against which Austen writes and which is the theme of this novel. In this novel, people were persuaded to marry people they did not love or not to marry one they did love, as in the case of Anne Elliot, the protagonist. Anne was a nonentity in the Elliot household because she had not the Elliot pride, that is she was not boastful and did not look down to people. When Anne fell in love with Wentworth, family and sympathisers opposed it and Anne was persuaded not to marry him. To the Elliots, Wentworth had no connections, he was not set in life, and was poor; to Lady Russell, he would not make Anne happy, he had not so good mannerisms and social etiquette, and would not place her in the status similar to her mother's. And the young Anne was unable to hold her own against these forces. Years later, Wentworth returned from sea, a captain with wealth, in need of a wife. And there in came Elliot, heir-apparent to Sir Walter's properties, and a schemer. These two characters represent the story's theme: Captain Wenthworth in search for love and Elliot for the wealth of Sir Walter. And both see the realisation of their dreams through marriage with Anne Elliot.

However, the Musgroves - Charles (who married Anne's sister Mary), Henrietta, Louisa, and the other younger children and their parents - were the counterpoint to the proud Elliots. The Musgroves are simple loving folks, who lived their lives as they saw it fit. They looked up to none and down on none. In matters of marriage, all they sought were their children's happiness without consideration of wealth, worth or connections. They, consequently, allowed them to marry those they loved. Thus even though Mary Musgrove nee Elliot, was against Henrietta Musgrove marrying Charles Hayter, because Charles was of 'low birth' and that such marriage would further affect the image of the Musgroves, of which she was now a member, the Musgrove parents saw nothing wrong with their daughter's choice. 

The mistreatment of women by men and by women themselves was palpable. Women were looked-down and treated as weak or as children. For instance, in a conversation with her brother, Captain Wentworth, Mrs Croft - the tenants of Kellynch Hall - bemoaned
But I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days. [94]
Here Mrs Croft was attacking the phenomenon where women are treated as precious objects instead of human beings who live. This is the central message of Austen's novels and by caricaturing the gentility and sensibilities of the time - marriage of convenience, extreme etiquette, social status - she was, in actual fact, ridiculing them. She was rebelling against them by projecting their ridiculousness. And some of the women accepted that attribute and in no one was this more pronounced than in Mary Musgrove (nee Elliot). She was a nagger who always complained of her frailness. She attributed to herself imaginary sickness, believing that the frailer she looked - or the more hypochondriac she was - the more feminine she became. And even though Elizabeth, the first daughter of Sir Walter and sister of Anne and Mary, was strong and bold, she was so in the image and likeness of her father, epitomising the Elliot pride.

I see Austen as a contributor (if not the instigator) of the women's struggle for equality and social inclusion and it is in this light that I read her novels.
*This copy included a memoir by J.E. Austen-Leigh

Monday, November 25, 2013

Readers' Top Ten - Edzordzi G. Agbozo (A Writer)

Edzordzi G. Agbozo is a budding poet, writer and blogger and won the University of Ghana Community Excellence Award (Creative Arts category) in 2012. He was the convener of the Book and Discussion Club of the Writers Project of Ghana. Edzordzi's poem The Hippo turned our Canoe dedicated to Prof Awonoor was published on this blog. He blogs at and

Edzordzi shares with us his Top Ten African books. The only rule in this is that the books be written by an African; the person submitting the list has to define this for himself or herself. I have linked some of the titles to posts within ImageNations, where such reviews are available. Note that my views on these books may drastically differ from Edzordzi's views and so this must be borne in mind when reading those reviews.

The Poor Christ of Bomba by Mongo Beti
It is a cross-cultural evangelism and feminist sociological novel. The Reverend Father Superior Drumont is a lovely and complicated character: true believer, rigid moralist, a self-righteous, (little) dictator, negligent. He never understood his role in a shocking web of corruption in his parish. He mirrors all of us who look outside and blame people for our problems. I love the funny descriptions though they are satirically serious.

This novel is REAL. I mean very real. It is a newspaper reporting happenings in Accra just as the women were being killed and their parts used for rituals. The bodies are found and yet no single family could identify one dead person. It also reveals power play, spirituality and hypocrisy in the name of God. Being a first novel, it is much welcomed. I am patiently waiting for The Jewel of Kabibi by the same author.

This is a soul and conscience tormenting novel. It is full of domestic and religious realities that are so much hidden. It is only a writer who can see. The plot is very undulating, giving a surprise, suspense, breath-taking, and surprise format. I think though that some characters are too exaggerated.

This book is a great statement on our common painful humanity. The pain caused by humans on others. It is really a question and that question never get answered and I don't think it will ever be answered since humanity cannot be sincere enough in answering the question. I love the psychic twist to the whole story.

The Blind Kingdom by Veronique Tadjo
The style is amazing. It is new and unique: poetry cum long and short narratives. The plot is very simple but beautifully elevated beyond the Romeo and Juliet narrative. The story is a clear allegory for the conflict in the Ivory Coast, both past and present but hopefully not in the future. I enjoyed the book. It was a quick read, mostly due to its poetic language.

It reminds me of my childhood stories of gory scenes, super humans and spirits. Each time I read it, the child in me becomes more present and I recall those emotions I felt those days. The style is also great.

This is the novel that posed the greatest challenge at first reading but became like a Bible after breaking through the coded and highly sophisticated plot and style. Its historical education and contemporary probe of the real essence of African independence is relevant. After all, the freedom fighters only end up wearing the gowns and shoes of the masters.

Children of Gebelaawi by Naguib Mahfouz
It is a quiet confusing novel. It is more important than just a story. It is a revelation of a sort and or a prophesy? It is philosophical on another level too. I love the language complexities.

It brings out the various levels of the dehumanising effect of the slave trade on all kinds of persons - women, children and men. The descriptions are very deep and emotional.

It is a detailed report on world history parcelled in a powerful collection of poetry. The cadence and the rhythm of the poems come alive in the incantations, chants and songs recorded on the attached CDs. This brings to bear the quintessential African oral tradition. Indeed, sound is older than the written word.

NOTE: Let me also mention that Ama Ata Aidoo, Kojo Laing, Femi Osofisan, and Tsitsi Dangarembga are very interesting writers. They posses unique styles and voices.

Friday, November 22, 2013

#Quotes from Jane Austen's Persuasion

This is a popular book and so I did not set out to mark out every possible quote; they could be obtained at several outlets. However, there were those I just couldn't skip.

How quick come the reasons for approving what we like! [46]

There's hardly any personal defect, which an agreeable manner might not gradually reconcile to. [63]

I think very differently, an agreeable manner may set off handsome features, but can never alter plain ones. [63]

Personal size and mental sorrow have certainly no necessary proportions. A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction, as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain, - which taste cannot tolerate, - which ridicule will seize. [92]

[W]hen pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure. [193]

You should not have suspected me now; the case so different, and my age so different. If I was wrong I yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was to persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk. When I yielded, I thought it was to duty; but no duty could be called in aid here. In marrying a man indifferent to me, all risk would have been incurred, and all duty violated. [246]

Who can be in doubt of what followed? When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other's ultimate comfort. [250]
Read the review here

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Readers' Top Ten - Manu Herbstein, Author (With a Slideshow)

Manu Herbstein is a civil and structural engineer by profession. He was born in Muizenberg, near Cape Town, in 1936 and educated at the University of Cape Town. Manu is the author of Ama - a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for First Book, and Brave Music of a Distant Drum, a sequel. Manu Herbstein has lived and worked in England, Nigeria, India, Zambia, and Scotland, and now lives in Ghana.

Today Manu shares with us his Top Ten+ African Books. I have linked some of them to reviews and other information within the blog and outside of it. Note that reviews, where they are, are my personal opinion and do not reflect Manu's.
Dear God,
Since You have a reputation for omniscience, You will surely know that I’ve been an atheist since my teens and expect and intend to remain one until my dying day.
My dying day.
I need to talk to You about that. At 77 I’ve already received a 10% bonus on the three score years and ten promised in Your Holy Book. So I must expect to die quite soon. If not this year, then next year; and if not next year then surely within the next decade.
I don’t expect You to answer when I speak to You. However, as of course You know, I’m a writer, a story teller. I create characters, not in the flesh as Your followers claim You did with Adam and Eve, but in the imagination. And I put words into their mouths. So I can, if need be, put words into Your mouth (as, indeed, the so-called Men of God do.)
So “What is it you want to talk to Me about,” I hear You ask.
Books. My bookshelves are full of books, I reply, so full that there’s a serious overflow, onto the headboard of my bed and even piled up on my desk and on the floor.
In preparation for my departure from this earth I’ve been sorting them out, packing those I’ve read and have no wish to read again into cardboard cartons. Still, ranks of unread books stand shoulder to shoulder on the shelves, revealing only their tattooed naked spines, each one challenging me to read it first. So I want to ask You a favour: let me stay alive until I’ve read them all.
 “Nothing doing,” I hear You say (in the words I’ve put into Your mouth). “That would create a precedent.”
That’s just the answer I expected. You may be omnipotent but I don’t see much sign of Your generosity of spirit in this world. (Just think: “Syria” or “Lampedusa” or “Philippines”.)
Let me then make another proposition. When my time comes, let me take my unread books with me. I would promise to lend them to my fellow-dead as soon as I’ve finished reading them; or I might even give them away. Same answer? It’s clear that You are dead-set against establishing precedents. I guess You’re worried about overloading the clouds which support Your heavenly domain.
Dear God, won’t You let me take a hundred, just a hundred? A hundred wouldn’t last me for all eternity, but they would keep me occupied for a while.
I’ve given instructions that my dead body should be cremated. My selected hundred books could be put into my coffin and burned with me. (I’m totally opposed in principle to the burning of books, but this would be a special case.)
If human beings have souls which survive their death, I guess it might be the same with books. My soul could then read the souls of those cremated books.
You reject that too?
“It’s beyond My powers,” I hear You say.
Oh well, I thought You were omnipotent as well as omniscient, but it seems I was wrong.
Ten? Just ten? Let me be more specific: my ten favourite books by African authors. I haven’t packed them away yet because I’d like to read them again. Just ten. No one would notice. And I promise not to create a precedent by revealing Your generosity.
Your answer? Louder, please. I’m getting a little deaf as I grow older.
You agree? Did I really hear You say that You agree? Of course I did. I’m a writer. I put those words into Your mouth.
But there’s a condition? Oh, oh. I might have guessed it. Tell me, what condition? You want me to submit their titles to You in advance, my ten all-time favourite African books? I guess You’ll want to censor them. No blasphemy, right?
Well, as You know, I’m totally opposed to censorship. But what choice do I have? I’ll do as You ask right now before You change Your mind. But be patient, I beg You. It’s not easy to choose just ten books from over seventy years of reading.

I start with a long list of 17, 1 from Brazil, 2 from USA, 1 from DR Congo, 2 from Ghana, 3 from Nigeria, 1 from Senegal, 6 from South Africa, 1 from Uganda; 16 in English (1 translated from Portuguese), 1 in Afrikaans; 11 by men, 6 by women; 11 fiction, 6 non-fiction, of which 2 are history and 2 are memoirs. The Brazilian (Antonio Olinto's The Water House/A Casa de Agua) and the two Americans (Judith Gleason's Agotime, Her Legend and Saidiya Hartman's Lose Your Mother, A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route) are disqualified since their authors are not Africans. That leaves 14. I drop Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Sefi Atta's Everything Good Will Come on the grounds that they will surely appear on other lists. Next to go is Consuelo Roland's The Good Cemetery Guide, set in Kalk Bay just a few kilometres from Muizenberg where I grew up. Just one more to cut. That is just too much to ask. Give me another 10% bonus please: my eleven best African books.

I grew up in segregated South Africa, privileged by a 'white' skin, a middle class family, bookshelves full of books and parents who read. I had access to an excellent Carnegie Public Library. There wasn't much African in my early reading: Jock of the Bushveld, Rider Haggard and, in Afrikaans, the short stories of CJ Langenhoven, of which I recall 'Die Tolk' which described a hilarious case of serial mis-translation by a court interpreter.

My upbringing gave me none of the social and political skills required to stretch a hand across the barbed wire fence that divided South Africans. My first excursions across the colour line were through books.

Time Longer than Rope. The first of these was a chance encounter with Eddie Roux's Time Longer than Rope, first published by Gollancz in 1946. In it I discovered a completely different story from the brainwashing that passed for history in South African schools. "Ideas are difficult to suppress," Roux wrote. "The Liberatory movement has been long at work: its message has penetrated deep into the minds of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people. While racial discrimination remains the movement cannot die. There can be no going back to the old system of slavery and rural serfdom."

Down Second Avenue. The first volume of Ezekiel Mphahlele's authobiography, Down Second Avenue, was published just before I left South Africa in 1959. He had finished writing it after arriving in Nigeria as an exile in September 1957. It had an enormous influence on me and I was thrilled to meet Zeke in person when I arrived there three years later, just before Independence. Our correspondence at the time was recently published in the Chimurenga Chronic Books section under the title '50 years ago: Zeke in Nigeria.' Zeke was joint editor (with Ulli Beier) of Black Orpheus, which introduced me to the work of many young African writers including Kofi Awoonor, Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Mongo Beti, and my countryman Alex la Guma, whose writing was banned back home. I would meet Zeke again many years later when we both worked in Lusaka; and for the last time, shortly before he died, in South Africa. 

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was the first book published in the African Writers Series. That was in 1962. I read many of the AWS books as they appeared: Cyprian Ekwensi, Peter Abrahams, Ngugi, Mongo Beti, Francis Selormey, Ferdinand Oyono, Ayi Kwei Armah. In those days it was not too difficult to keep up with new African writing. Today, it's impossible. I haven't found room for any of their much-loved books in my shortlist of 11.

Frontiers. Noel Mostert's Frontiers, 1335 pages, was first published in 1992. The title refers to the shifting frontier between the whites and the amaXhosa in what the South African school history books of my youth referred to as Kaffer Wars of 1781 - 1878, nine of them in all. This is a brilliant telling of a tragic story, deeply researched and sensitive to the mutually incomprehensible differences across the cultural divide. Google tells me that Mostert is a Canadian, but he was born in South Africa and so, by my lights, he qualifies.

Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongema. I read Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongema in the original Afrikaans. In it author Elsa Joubert transcends the barriers enforced by apartheid to tell the epic story of the life struggle of a black woman who happened to be her employee. It is told with deep womanly empathy, with neither condescension nor romanticising, giving a voice to a courageous woman, effectively her co-author, who might well otherwise have passed this world unnoticed. It also served to undermine the self-confidence of South Africa's Christian Afrikaner rulers, who had persuaded themselves of the moral rectitude of apartheid.

Unconfessed. In Unconfessed, Yvette Christiansë uses fragments of documents from the archives to build a convincing portrait of an enslaved woman, known as Sila van den Kaap. Kidnapped in Mozambique in her youth and sold into slavery in South Africa, Sila is repeatedly sold and cheated. She kills her young son Baro to save him from life as a slave. Charged with infanticide, she refuses to defend her action, giving the book its title. She narrowly escapes execution and is sent to Robben Island, where she conducts a continuous conversation with the spirit of her dead son. For me, this is perhaps the finest of all South African novels written in English. My short summary fails to give it the credit it deserves. 

Search Sweet CountryComparisons are odious, the English proverb tells us. In his introduction to Kojo Laing's Search Sweet Country, Binyavanga Wainaina rates it 'the finest novel written in English to come out of the continent.' I loved it and still love it and its marvellous characters: Beni Baidoo, Kofi Loww, Adwoa Adde, Professor Sackey, Dr Boadi, Osofo and others. First published in 1986 it is a rollicking, hilarious and affectionate portrait of Accra in the 70s and 80s. I'm sad that it's the only work by a Ghanaian in my list.

A Mouth Sweeter than Salt. It's difficult to avoid the use of exaggerated language in a short description of a favourite book. Just check Toyin Falola's academic output at Wikipedia. And the list of his books there is incomplete: missing is the 800-page Ghana in Africa and the World, Essays in Honor of Adu Boahen, which he edited. A Mouth Sweeter than Salt is a treasure. I would rate it the finest autobiographical memoir I have read. The obvious comparison is with Wole Soyinka's Ake. Forgive the odiousness of the comparison. Ake is good. A Mouth Sweeter than Salt is far, far better.

Sozaboy. Another odious comparison. I found Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun much inferior to her first novel Purple Hibiscus. One problem is that she was writing an historical novel set in a period that was not within her own memory but was within the memory of living people of my generation. She's good on the middle class, not so good on the less privileged. In Sozaboy, Saro-Wiwa, inventing what he calls rotten English, convincingly evokes the character of an ordinary young man whose wartime experiences are not of his own making. In doing so he gives a powerful, memorable, voice to one of the multitude of otherwise voiceless who were the real losers in the Biafran War. And so, as with all best stories, the local acquires a universal significance. Give me Sozaboy over Yellow Sun any day.

God's Bits of Wood. I've been a socialist since I was a teenager. It's a long time since I read Sembene Ousmane's God's Bits of Wood but it has remained in my memory as a great West African working class novel written by a man who had himself been a fisherman, plumber, bricklayer, apprentice fitter, soldier, docker and trade union leader before he became a writer and film-maker. It's time to read it again, perhaps.

Song of Lawino. At the recent conference celebrating 50 years of Institute of African Studies at Legon, I started chatting to a visiting academic. In response to my question he told me that he hailed from Uganda and that he was a political scientist. When I told him I was just then finishing re-reading a great work of Ugandan political science he gave me a curious look. I pulled out of my brief-case my well-thumbed copy of Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino. Himself an Acoli man like Okot, my new friend gave me a broad smile. Written entirely in verse, translated from Okot's own Acoli original, it's a great piece of African feminist satire written by a man and in many ways as true today as it was nearly fifty years ago when it was first published. And so funny, even if I sometimes felt that I was Lawino's target as much as Ocol.

Silences in African History. The young Nigerian literary scholar Arthur Anyaduba wrote and published an MA thesis in which he did me the honour of setting my novel Ama by the side of Zakes Mda's Heart of Redness (which, incidentally revisits some of the territory covered by Noel Mostert in Frontiers.) He sent me the chapter about Ama and in it introduced me to Jacques Depelchin's Silences in African History, published in Tanzania. I ordered a copy and read it at a sitting. I've been dipping into it ever since. Depelchin takes a hard, highly critical look at the African history written by Africanist scholars of the West, including some Africans. I'm biased in his favour perhaps, because he makes a strong case for including the work of historical novelists in the study of African history.

That's my lot. Eleven favourite books. A pity to burn them.

Monday, November 18, 2013

266. True Murder by Yaba Badoe

Divorce and separation have become part of the natural phases of family life in the Twenty-first Century. It is almost as if any couple on the verge of marriage know that the next phase of this knot-tying ceremony will be the extrication of the one from the other, and are prepared for it. It is as commonplace as marriage itself. However, whereas divorce, usually but not always, satisfies the wishes of the two consenting adults, its effects on the children are hardly examined. The children who had nothing to do with the choices their parents made become their ultimate victims. Their views are hardly sought or considered in the making of the divorce-separation decision. Rather, all they are told, to assuage its psychological impact, is that limp and trite phrase 'sometimes things just don't work between people'. And with this egocentric statement, delivered with trembling voice by each of the parents at different times, they presume their work done, believing that with this the child will survive the tides. Parents seeking their self-interest at the expense of their children and the effects this has on the children are what Yaba Badoe's True Murder (Vintage, 2009; 262) addresses. It is a story about the lives of two pre-teen girls from such homes, with a layer of mystery.

Ajuba Benson's mother had emigrated to London, from Ghana, with her daughter after her husband separated from her. This separation and emigration resulted from a weird mixture of dreams, stillbirths and miscarriages. In London, Mrs Benson sought to start life anew. However, things worked out differently and Ajuba had to live with her father, Michael Benson, who had to put the eleven-year old in a boarding school at Exe to enable him work in Rome. Polly Venus was no different. Her cosmopolitan American parents - Peter and Isobel - had moved to London and had bought a house - Graylings - near Exe. Consequently, she had been enrolled there. On the first day the two - Ajuba and Polly - met, they were bound to be best friends forever. Together with Beth, they formed an alliance that would see them brave misfortunes, including a near-death incident which occurred when, in a elaborate plan mapped out by Polly, they sought to act some of the stories in Polly's True Murder series they had been reading.

Without a family to spend her weekends and holidays with, Ajuba's friendship with Polly was set to solidify when she was invited to spend her holidays at Graylings. The initial conviviality among the members of Venus household was promising and Ajuba thought she had found the solace she had been yearning for. However, it was not long before the superficiality of the initial wide-smiles cum hugs dissipated. The Venuses were tearing themselves apart: Peter was bent on leaving Isobel; Isobel was tirelessly on holding on to him; Polly was on her father's side and would go to any length to hurt her mother; Theo, Polly's elder brother, was unconcerned of the happenings in the family, choosing rather to spend time with his girlfriend Sylvie. It was within this chaotic, emotionally unbalanced family that an already unstable Ajuba was thrust.

During one of such holidays, Ajuba, Beth, and Polly, playing in the attic of Graylings, discovered a package the previous owner - the late Miss Fielding - had left in one of her clothes. In the package were tiny bones, which the trio had initially conceived as those of kittens. The detectives they invited to investigate their little finding - following the narratives in their series - concluded that their specimens were more than kitten bones. It was something else. Overnight the three became local heroines. But as True Murder addicts, they were not going to leave the entire investigation to the detectives. They were going to conduct parallel investigation into the matter, beginning with visits to Miss Edith Butterworth - Miss Fielding's closest friend who, until the latter's death, lived with her at Graylings.

Yaba Badoe's story is filled with egoistic adults and stubborn children. One cannot but abhor and pity the children in equal measure - pitying them for what they had to go through on their own; and abhor them for who they were, what they did and how they turned out, sometimes intentionally. Or may be not. Polly was not the average preteen girl any mother could contain, tolerate, or love. She was systematically awful and wicked. Her outrageous and repugnant behaviour would overwhelm even the rights' activists and their loyal psychologist friends in the West. Even in such countries, where children were given an abundant room to operate and behave, Polly would be difficult to accommodate. She maltreated, bitterly insulted, and ferociously hated her mother, while openly courting her father's love and siding with him on every issue against her mother. She did this so openly, so blatantly and with obvious malice that Isobel returned her favour in an almost equal measure. Polly threw solid objects at her mother and refused everything she asked of her. Polly perhaps took her father's side as a survival strategy, and Peter, all too happy to have someone to associate with in those tensed post-quarrel periods, was not very eager to contradict her. Instead, he enjoyed it. One could tell Polly's behaviour was a natural emotional consequence of the strain the family was going through, for beneath this open rebellion, hard as a tortoise shell, was a softness that connected with Isobel. And even though mother and daughter were almost always at each other's throat, they did relate positively once in a while, and on those few occasions they did, the love was palpable. However, regardless of Polly's behaviour, Ajuba loved her unreservedly, even when she completely and silently disagreed with her some of them and was sometimes astounded by her audacity to disobey adults.

Ajuba, on the other hand, was in dissonance with herself. She seemed to understand everybody's misdeed but her father's. She never recognised the disconnect between her hatred for her father - for leaving her mother, and her love for Peter - who was also divorcing his wife. Ajuba loved Peter and wished he was her father. She understood and sympathised with him and wished he would be happy. Yet, she was not interested in her father's happiness. She hated the Senegalese woman he was planning to marry, though she did not flinch when she heard that Peter had a fling relationship with the mother of one of their school friends, Maria. In Isobel, she saw her mother, who suffered similarly, and loved her accordingly.

These inconsistencies - choosing and picking - made it difficult to trust Ajuba as a narrator, for she filtered everything through a prejudiced mind. This hatred for her father sharply contrasted her general behaviour, which was one of love. This dissonce might have resulted from her mother's advice to never trust her father, who, she said, would at a point in the future try to poison her mind against her and take Ajuba away from her. Thus, her lack of paternal love for Michael and her hatred towards his wife - Nina - could be her subconscious's interpretation of this advice and a decision she took a younger age. When Mrs Benson referred to everybody as witch and accused Michael of adultery, he deserted the family at that moment of need, leaving Ajuba to cater for her sick mother. This hurt young Ajuba that she swore never to forgive him.
He left her to me. And for that I can never forgive him. [30]
However, Ajuba's story of her mother's breakdown and separation from her husband was itself doubtful in parts. The following discussion ensued after Polly, speaking on Peter's infidelity, said adultery hurts:
Yes, some fathers are like that, ... It drives my mother crazy. Does Isobel go crazy as well?'
Polly nodded: 'Yeah. She doesn't understand Peter like I do.
'Just like my mother.'
'She hates it it when Pa has girlfriends. She says some men can't help themselves. Then she cries, and when she stops crying, she says they're weak - like children.' [104]
The above suggests that Michael's adulterous behaviour led to Ajuba's mother's breakdown, resulting in the separation. However, earlier, Ajuba had said that her mother's accusation of her father's adultery was all made up; that her father was not having an extramarital affair. She had said
My father must have realised that his marriage wasn't going to survive. He was biding his time, waiting for the right moment to leave. But there's never a good time to leave a grief-stricken wife. So, instead of abandoning us, Pa did the next best thing: he avoided my mother as much as possible, staying away for days on end. Dismissing her accusations of infidelity, he claimed she was imagining things; he was staying overnight with relatives. Since Mama wouldn't let them visit us, he was spending time with them for a change. Of course there wasn't another woman! Mama was being neurotic, overwrought. [30]
Ajuba's mother's miscarriages and stillbirths resulting in the Bensons' inability to have more children made her consider the relatives of both families as witches and wizards, set on destroying her family. This misfortune led to her breakdown. Perhaps, this could be Ajuba's own way of supporting her friend and showing solidarity, as was visible in other sections as well.

There were elements of surrealism especially in relation to Ajuba, as a character, which bordered on clairvoyance. She could see things before they happen and past events sometimes revealed themselves to her. Whether this was true or that her imaginative mind conceived them post-facto, was difficult to tell. This contributed to the distrust of Ajuba as a narrator. For instance, in her narrative, she saw Polly's death before it happened and when it did she saw how it happened. Could not this foresight be a trick her mind played on the events she witnessed? Could she not have actually seen them happen? Could not she be misinterpreting her apprehensions as clairvoyance? Further, she saw how the bones came to be in Miss Fielding's attic and Isobel's brutal reaction to Peter's departure.

Yaba Badoe's examination of the mind of these children is excellent, revealing, and interesting. The story is fantastic. Her description of life at the boarding house was engaging and relatable: the white lies told to impress friends; the over simplification of issues hardly understood; the I-am-better-than-you attitude; the strange things said to back an opinion and the defence mounted when they are challenged; the friendships and quarrels were all present and perfectly handled . The lives of the adults were also well-described to such an extent that the reader could feel the pangs of pain, the hurt, and sometimes the stupidity exuding from the pages. The book really did come alive.

However, the period between the inception of an idea to the point of revelation - or the suspense lag - is too long and caused a snag in the story especially when it turned out to be not very mysterious; it created an anti-climactic feeling. The writer seemed to have held back a lot, preventing herself from fully exploding into the Stephen King kind of mystery and spookiness. The book had the promise to blossom into one huge spine-chilling story, but when it did not, I felt let down. The discovery of the bones in the attic which was presumed to a kitten's but which turned out to be something more significant than that could have become something stupendous. The way the Venuses part of the story ended - though shattering - could have been explosive. Or even Ajuba and her father's wife. In the end, we were only made to imagine what she really did with that metallic comb. The goosebumps could have been complete if the author had not withheld from the macabre, because excellent glimpses of them were found throughout the story: the True Murder serials they were reading, the acting of the stories in them, the visits to Edith, and more. Perhaps as an ex-psychological thriller fan, I expected too much. 

This is an interesting book. Yaba Badoe, in one single book, has provided a lot for both the young and the old; each will come out with a different lesson. Young Adults might like the mystery more, but adults, especially parents, will anlayse the effects of their decisions on their children. They will learn that they become the choices they make and so do their children. A highly recommended book.
About the author: Yaba Badoe is a Ghanaian-British documentary filmmaker, producer and writer. A graduate of King's College Cambridge, she worked as a civil servant in Ghana before becoming a General Trainee with the BBC. She has taught in Spain and Jamaica and has worked as a producer and director making documentaries for the main terrestrial channels in Britain and the University of Ghana in Accra. Her short stories have been published in Critical Quarterly an in African Love Stories: an Anthology edited by Ama Ata Aidoo. In 2009, her first novel, True Murder was published by Johnathan Cape. Her TV credits include: Black and White, a ground-breaking investigation into race and racism in Bristol, using hidden video cameras for BBC1; I Want Your Sex, for Channel 4 and a six-part series, Voluntary Service Overseas, for ITV. In 2003, she directed a one-hour documentary about the life and work of Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, for BBC4. Her film, The Witches of Gambaga (Fadoa Films, 2010), won the 2010 Best Documentary Award at the Black International Film Festival and 2nd Prize, Documentaries at FESPACO 2011. [Sources: Here and Here]

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Reader's Tips to Cultivating a Reading Habit

Caveat: These are untested hypothesis, or more specifically the sample size that has proved this is n=1, which is not enough to make statistical inferences of rejection or non-rejection. However, I have often been asked to state what I think could be done to improve or spark up people's interest in reading. And I have often pretended that what I used when I began blogging in 2009 will work for everyone. I must add that I was a reader even before 2009 but book blogging requires a much higher dedication to reading and a much more careful reading. Whether this will work for another individual aside myself remains to be seen, but how else will I know this than to share it with others.

To begin with, I believe everybody reads. We read inscriptions, letters, manuals, directions, road-signs, Christian literature, novels, plays, poetry. We form and read sentences within our minds. The problem therefore is not that people do not read at all. It is the frequency and type of reading done. After all, the 2010 Census puts the combined literacy rate among individuals 15 and above (>=15) to be around 71.5% (78.3% for men, and 65.3% for women). The tips here are for formal literary reading materials, which exclude inscriptions, manuals, academic notes and others.

Identify a Genre of Interest. The first thing a person who wants to read more should do is to identify the area of interest. Is it novels, poetry, plays, creative non-fiction, essays, memoirs, Christian literature? Is it psychological thrillers, romance, literary fiction, whodunit; haiku, epic poems, odes, sonnets, limericks; tragedy or comedy? If one is not sure exactly what one is looking for, identify the things that interest you in life, and there are bound to be books on them. Again, one can rely on 'top lists' such as those prepared by international magazines (New York Times, Guardian, etc) and certain award-winning books - the Booker Prize-winning books hardly disappoint. Book blogs also provide important guides. With their reviews one could identify his interests.

It is only in reading books of interest that one could experience the pleasure in reading for reading sake, regardless of the subject. For instance, I will not recommend religiously sensitive books to a person who cannot tolerate criticisms of their religion regardless of the beauty of the prose. With time, when they have come to enjoy reading for its own sake, they will read them. But for a beginner, a bad recommendation could smother his incipient desire to read; sometimes forever.

Start Small. This is very important. More often, when we set a resolution, we want to breeze through to the end, so that we can pat ourselves for a job well-done. Reading is different. No one finishes reading. Besides, you want to develop a habit for reading and habits are not events, they last a lifetime. And need I say there are more books than one could read, even in a specific field of interest? Therefore it is important to start small. Set a manageable daily target. Decide to read, say a minimum of 30 pages a day. Don't overstretch yourself. Stay with this figure, regardless of the workload. Reading 30 pages a day will translate into an average of about 3 books a month, if one consider an average book to be around 250 pages, and 36 books in the year.

Be Consistent. Whilst you need not overstretch yourself, you need to be consistent. Consistency is the key to developing a lifetime habit. Ensure that whatever the case may be you will read at least the daily minimum target. This is the main reason why you need to set a manageable target, but don't be self-serving, setting the minimum to 10 pages helps no one. You are likely to procrastinate if your reading is inconsistent. That is, if you read say 10 pages today and 50 pages another, you are likely to postpone reading when the workload load is slightly higher, promising yourself to make it up at the next reading, which might not be the case. There are a lot of leisurely activities that compete for our time, in this technological age. Video games are one prime example and a conscious effort should be made not to lose one's time to them. Before you complain of time and workload, note that the most read American President, Theodore Roosevelt read one book a day when he was busy and two to three books when he had free evenings. Franklin D. Roosevelt's personal library consisted a stupendous 22,000 volumes. Thomas Jefferson described himself as having a 'canine appetite for reading'. It is said that when the British burned the 3,000-volume Library of Congress, he offered Congress between 9,000 and 10,000 volumes from his personal collection as replacement. He is reputed to have read in French, Italian, and Spanish, and that he once designed a rotating bookstand that allowed him to consult five books at a time.

Make Time. Note that there is nothing like 'reading time'. If one wants to read, one must make the time. Time is infinite, at least no one knows its beginning or when it will end. But in one's lifetime, it is finite. What is certain is that we will die at a point and have twenty-four hours at our disposal in a day. Within this period, we sleep, eat, fight, work, talk, gossip, walk, socialise, etc. No matter what one does, this time will be used by the end of the day. Time is not money you can save. You either use it or lose it. Developing a reading culture means cutting down on some activities - using the time allocated for some activities (consciously or unconsciously) to read. The 3-hour you spend watching TV could be used to read. You can read on the bus - if you do not drive or ride yourself to work. You can read at lunch time. You can read early morning. Make time to read.

Develop a Strategy. Each individual has the time that best works for him. Look for yours. Or develop one. For instance, if you want to read 30 pages a day, you could read 10 pages in the morning, 10 pages at lunch time, and 10 pages in the evening before going to bed. It should be fun. For me I read early in the morning, just before work starts, and in the evening. I also ensconce myself in my book when I am in public transports (troro or taxis). I read at the least opportunity. I carry my book with me to the banks, knowing how much time they still demand of clients.

Join a Community of Readers. It helps a great deal if your friends are reading. The most interesting part of reading is talking about the book one has read with equally book-loving people. T'is paradise. For me, nothing comes near to this. It is bliss. However, if you do not have such friends, join online book blogging communities. Blogging about books is one way to keep you reading, since you can only create content by reading. Having a number of loyal followers means preventing disappointment, which will encourage you to read. If time will not make blogging a possibility, following discussions on such reading platforms as,,,, etc is a great alternative. These platforms, unlike other social sites (like Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are dedicated solely for book discussions. Or one can be selective in his usage of the traditional social media sites. Google+ has communities dedicated to books and discussions; Facebook has reading groups. You can also join book reading clubs. Today, one need not have such clubs in one's community. The internet has made it possible for virtual book clubs to exist.

Challenge Yourself. Yes, I have already said do not overstretch yourself. However, you could set yearly targets and challenge yourself. For instance, again, Goodreads has a platform where readers could decide the number of books they will want to read in the year, at the beginning of that year. The readers then follow their progress over time. Goodreads furnishes the reader with the number of books read, whether he is on target or not, and other such trivia. The reader can, automatically, share his progress on social media platforms, providing progress on books he is reading.

Choose an Appropriate Medium. Choose your medium carefully. This may sound absurd but if you are a technology freak, you are more likely to enjoy the e-readers. If your work involves travelling, packing enough books may pose a challenge and therefore e-readers will come in handy. However, if you are a conservative reader, you may want to stick with physical books. Unless you are like me and do not care about the weight of books, the easiest way to reading Tolstoy's War and Peace is on an e-reader. However, e-readers will decide which books to physically purchase and which to delete. E-readers also solve the problem of book accessibility, which hampers reading in some countries. Note that I am not a fan of e-readers, I do not own one.

If all Things Fail. If all things fail, be worried by such sayings as 'if you want to hide something from a black person hide it in books', if you are black. Also know that 'knowledge is power' and that through books we can live several lives. Know that reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. In the end, I hope you can emulate the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and boast about the number of pages you have read.
Let others pride themselves about how many pages they have written; I'd rather boast about the ones I've read. - Jorge Luis Borges
Note: This is an on-going thesis and changes might be made as and when it becomes necessary.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Golden Baobab Prizes Announces Winners

Golden Baobab has announced the winners of its 2013 Prizes. One hundred and eighty (180) stories were submitted to this year's Golden Baobab Prizes. Of these, 25 made it onto the the longlist and 8 to the shortlist

Liza Esterhuyse, winner of the 2013 Golden Baobab Prize for Picture Book. Liza is a qualified occupational therapist who has a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Intervention. Liza is many things: a daydreamer, a book junkie, a red wine drinker, a world lover, a tree hugger, a dog enthusiast, a horse admirer and a Capetonian. 

The Little Hippo: Faraway in the savannah a little hippo sighed. The rains were late and the hippo-pool was getting very crowded. Then he notices the wildebeest, zebras and antelope gathering for their annual migration and he decides to join them. However, the little hippo quickly realises, that the journey is not as esy as he thought and it's filled with danger. Luckily, he meets friends along the way who help and guide him through the migration.

Karen Hurt, winner of the 2013 Golden Baobab Prize for Early Chapter Book. Karen is an independent writer, editor materials developer and writing workshops facilitator who lives in Johannesburg. She was born in Zambia where she spent her early childhood before moving to South Africa. Whenever Karen can carve out the time, she loves to slip into her 'other world' and write fiction. 

What's Going on at 179 Jabulani Street? (Summary): Jama's life is upside down and going down further until he reluctantly accepts the pink jacket his father insists on buying him from a secondhand clothes seller on a freezing evening in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. He finds keys and an address in Yeoville in the pockets. This is the beginning of a dangerous adventure that leads to a new friendship with a girl called Sophie who Jama discovers the jacket belonged to. Parting with the truth when it comes to telling their parents what they are up to, Jama and Sophie discover a Mozambican craftsman at 179 Jabulani Street who has been trapped in the rhino horn trade by a fierce poacher. They come up with a plan to help him escape and get the syndicate bust. Along the way they make partners with and inherit a dog they rename Licks.

Kanengo Rebecca Diallo, winner of the 2013 Golden Prize for Rising Writers. Twelve year old Kanengo Rebecca Diallo lives in the city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with her mother, Nuru, her father, Anthony, and her two siblings. Since she was eight years old, Kanengo's dream has been to become a world renowned author of books and if lucky, best-selling books. Kanengo discovered that she has a unique talent of drawing manga or anime comics. Usually when she writes her stories, she turns them into anime cartoon drawings. 

Pieces of Africa (Summary): This is a story about four children with diverse backgrounds who are from different parts of Africa. They are chosen to find all the magical puzzle pieces scattered around Africa in order to save the world. They all came from a long lineage of puzzle finders that started since the beginning of time but in trying to find the pieces, all their ancestors failed and died. Now it was up to them to gather all the pieces within a set period of time or else they, and the whole world, will perish.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

265. Permit for Survival by Bill Marshall

Permit for Survival (Educational Press and Manufacturers Ltd, 1981; 120) by Bill Marshall is a humorous book that captures the socioeconomic life of Ghanaians in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It acts as an aperture through which the reader could observe the sights and sounds of a city bourgeoning with hope, opportunities, aspirations, struggles, squashed dreams, and unsurmountable challenges. The book has recently been released under the title Brother Man.

The story opens with twenty-six year old clerk Joseph Jonathan Kofi Kuma, or Jojo as he was affectionately called, faced with the arduous task of preventing his own burial at Anoati, his hometown, after he saw his obituary and funeral announcement in the newspaper. The story tells of the misfortunes that befell him on his journey and after. After the success of this unimaginable quest - similar to some of those embarked upon by Tutuola's Palm Wine Tapster, though not in its mysteriousness - Jojo had to prove to his bureaucratic boss, with documented evidence, that he was not dead. Initially, it seemed all too simple; a mere letter of affidavit and the case was solved. However, as he discovered later, nothing was simple when it came to dealing with people in the civil service.

From one happenstance to another, Jojo moved on to become an electrician - fixing air-conditioners, and repairing other electrical gadgets - for a living. Together with George, his compadre, they moved from one relationship to the other and from one job to the other. One of these relationships found Jojo and Captain Ben Tuo, a military braggart who drew his power from the junta that ruled the country, sharing the same lady. Laura had introduced Jojo as a cousin and the two had become pals.

If the first part of the book dealt with the troubles and exuberance of Jojo, the second part was about his transformation into a matured and responsible man, dealing with love and friendship. Jojo had met Karl - a German on holiday - at a drinking pub; the two struck a friendship that would see them travelling and having fun across the country. It is also the period where Jojo finally settled down with Mina, her laboratory technician girlfriend.

Through the lives of the characters, Permit for Survival reveals the changes that were taking place in the Ghanaian society such as the changing perception of how beauty is defined (fat people no longer preferred), the gradual shift towards nuclear family (activated by the economic realities of the times and education), and the increased demand by women to have their say in marriages and in life (women empowerment). In some way, it marks the point at which the fundamental principles that governed society began to change.

Regardless of the frivolity that marked Jojo's initial life and the sweeping fun he enjoyed, the political tension of the time, resulting from the military rule, was felt in the story. There were politically-motivated arrests like that of the lecturer Dr Mante, who was never tried but released only after a counter-coup; there was a widespread student unrest and demonstrations; and general dissatisfaction among the people, resulting from worsening economic conditions.

The story opened with so much promise of adventure and suspense. This promise could be discerned even from its title. The humorous and insane tale of a man on a journey to prevent his burial and funeral inflamed it, heightening expectation. But the end of that journey marked the end of that promise. Bill was unable to sustain the initial verve, thus settling down to the story of a life of a young man eager to live.

However, whatever the story failed in, it made up for its ability to capture, albeit fleetingly, the almost complete life of the people at the time, allowing for comparison and the possible measurement of progress. Bill balanced the competing atmosphere quite well. He neither over-elaborated on the breakdown of government nor did he exaggerate the seemingly joyous life of Jojo, Karl, Mina, and George. They were humans who could find happiness even in bad times, and who were not immune to the vicissitudes of life. Bill did not take upon himself the duty of a moral analyst or an economic historian; he made no judgement and drew no conclusions, as some books set in the period did. He showed that life does not come to a standstill because certain parts of society refuse to function fully and completely as expected. These are the strengths of this novel.

Bill seemed to have touched on every dimension of the country's node of happiness and identity - from its rich culture (Aboakyere (Deer Hunt) festival at Winneba; a durbar in Kumasi; naming ceremony of Jojo's child) to the night-life in Accra and visits to the country's major installations that used to be attraction points, like the Tema Harbour to the Akosombo Dam. There were parts, which would have been raunchier had they been written two decades later; however, this is expected of a Ghanaian novel written in such a period.

The point of view changed after every chapter from the first person to the omniscient narrator. This style may seem too rigid and unnecessary; nonetheless, it afforded an insight into the lives of Jojo and of the country. The entire story is like beads strung on a thread, each bead representing a distinct tale in the story. This is a fast-read and does not task the reader.
About the Author: Marshall, Bill Okyere (1936 - ), is a Ghanaian dramatist and novelist. Marshall was educated at Presbyterian schools and later attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. After studies in television, he spent a period in the USA during which he composed the play The Son of Umbele (1973). During the early 1990s, he was both head of the National Film and Television Institute in Accra and Lecturer at University of Ghana's School of Performing Arts.

In addition to writing for the theatre Marshall has written radio and television plays, and his novels include Bukom (1979) and Permit for Survival (1981). His stage plays show the influence of such writers as Ibsen Chekhov and an awareness of the discipline advocated by William Archer. His work challenges the notion that all can be explained, all actions accounted for, hinting at the legacy of the African past. [Source]

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

#Quotes from Permit for Survival by Bill Marshall

What I am trying to tell you is that the world is not small. It is a big thing with many people who are not the same. They are all different. And you will have to treat each one differently. That's the way to stay alive. You have to know the rules and apply them when needed. Otherwise, you will be a walking corpse, you will be living in a vacuum. That's the way life is; there are big fishes and small fishes. The big fish eats the small fish and the small fish feed on something else but they have to run faster to avoid being eaten by the big fish. [18]

Africans should eat good food to keep the nation healthy. And when the doctors said that folks must drink milk and eat eggs, nobody blamed them because they had never heard of inflation and the ordinary man. [26]

Some people had to die a little to re-emerge as better human beings. And come to think of it in much deeper perspective, some people die completely so that other people can become better human beings. That was what Jesus did, and that was what other lesser humans did after Him. [45]

Let's grow up woman, let's grow up. The world is not made up of pets who only know and understand love and loving. It is made up of human beings who want to go on living and therefore will make use of whatever life-sustaining things that God has created. [78]

The limits of an individual's ability are usually not known or fully appreciated by the individual himself. And like the old folks say, if a man is clearing the bush for a footpath, he cannot know if the path he has cleared behind him is crooked or straight. [95]

Advice by old men sometimes are given  through tales and adages. These have come down the ages and have been regarded as folk tales which are told to children or by children themselves. One such story is told of a traveller who, having covered the better part of his journey, came to a small river. He decided to sit at the bank of the river for the water to run out before crossing. He did not want his feet to get wet. Of course, the river never ran out and the man never reached his destination because he did not want his feet wet. [108]

A man without solid principles is like a goat who would drop his waste everywhere it sleeps. [113]
Read the review here

Monday, November 11, 2013

264. An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen

An Enemy of the People (1882; translated by Farquharson Sharp) by Henrik Ibsen is a play that critically examines society's role in its political and ideological enslavement and the elements that prevent or impede its progress. The questions: whether 'the government of the people by the people for the people' is a concept that exists or is even possible; the 'rightness' of the majority, which is the basis of democracy; and the end result of unquestioned liberalism, are all answered in this stupendous play.

It critiques society's choices, and the factors that influence those choices: are the choices leaders make made in the interest of the people or are they made in the interest of a few who, armed with the tools given them by the people, make the people believe the reverse? Or is society deceived to choose the very option that is counter to its interest, serving instead the interest of the privilege minority, as in this story? In this story, set in a Norwegian coastal town, the interest being served is the Mayor's, which he has carefully and shrewdly sold to the people and of which the people are enamoured.

Peter Stockmann - Mayor of the Town and Chief Constable, Chairman of the Baths' Committee (and more) - and his brother Dr Thomas Stockmann - Medical Officer of the Municipal Baths - are in an uneasy relationship. Peter wants to be the only person of relevance to the people. He 'is confoundedly afraid of anyone doing any service to the town except himself.' Any idea that he does not generate, or cannot be remotely linked to, or which attempts to challenge his earlier decisions, or brings his office into disrepute, is fiercely opposed to. When Dr Stockmann came up with the idea that the town is well placed to invest into Baths, Peter sabotaged the idea and only implemented it, after a change in its critical design, at a time when he could be credited for it. His behaviour and manoeuvres are meant to seem important and relevant to the people and maintain his grip on society, ensuring the safeness of his political position. In this situation, Peter is no different from any politician today. He is a man who prefers bureaucracy, which imbues power into his position, over urgency. Thus, he worships his position and not the responsibilities it demands of him. He believes in power, and the authority if affords a person.

Dr Stockmann, on the other hand, is the usual strong-headed man who will not hide the truth or allow the wrong thing to be done, just to please people. He believes in authority for opportunities it offers to serve. At home, he ensures that he is what he wants his children to be. Dr Stockmann is that Mr Good Guy, whose moral astuteness does not budge regardless of the strength or source of the suasion. And will choose poverty, if the alternative is to cheat the system and bend to the wishes of the corrupt. He is the guy that can bite the hand that feeds him if that hand is also involved in anything he considers contrary to his principles.

So when Dr Stockmann discovered, and got confirmation from a research laboratory, that the towns' pipes had been polluted with decomposing organic matter resulting from the changes Peter made to the earlier design Thomas presented, which would lead to mass illness and death he was bound to face a fierce opposition from his brother. And this face-off was bound to be destructive. In fact, Thomas, as practical as he was, was prepared to allow Peter to take all the credit for this 'if only I can get the thing set right'. That was his response when his wife asked him if he could not 'make out that it was he [Peter] who set you on the scent of this discovery?'

Peter's opposition resulted not just from the direct cost of the renovation Thomas proposed and the revenue to be lost in the interim, which were the reasons he gave to garner support from the people; his opposition, as expected, was from the damage this finding would have on his reputation, as the main person who changed Thomas' design.
DR STOCKMANN: You have! It is impossible that you should not be convinced. I know I have represented the facts absolutely truthfully and fairly. And you know it very well, Peter, only you won't acknowledge it. It was owing to your action that both the Baths and the water conduits were built where they are; and that is what you won't acknowledge - that damnable blunder of yours. Pooh! - do you suppose I don't see through you?
PETER STOCKMANN: And even if that were true? If I perhaps guard my reputation somewhat anxiously, it is in the interest of the town. Without moral authority I am powerless to direct public affairs as seems, to my judgement, to be best for the common good. And on that account - and for various other reasons too - it appears to me to be a matter of importance that your report should not be delivered to the Committee. In the interest of the public, you must withhold it. Then, later on, I will raise the question and we will do our best, privately; but, nothing of this unfortunate affair not a single word of it - must come to the ears of the public. [Emphasis mine]
Thus, it was not that Peter did not believe his brother. He did. He knew that he had represented the truth in his report, which he intended to submit to the Baths Committee. But Peter would not admit this publicly. Here, not only did he want to be the source of the idea, but he wanted it to be carried out in a way that would keep his integrity intact.

In doing so, Peter equated his interest to the interest of the public, the people he represented, even when it was clear that he was the only beneficiary. However, what is fascinating is not Peter's opposition to Thomas' discovery. What is fascinating is the speed at which the influential people of the town - Hovstad, editor of the People's Messenger; Billing, his sub-editor who was Thomas' close friend; Aslaksen, the printer and Chairman of the House-holders' Association - who had earlier given support to his course suddenly withdrew their support. They had withdrawn their support after Peter wheedled them into believing that the cost of Thomas' proposed renovations was such that the common people, especially the House-holders, would have to contribute financially; besides, the engineer described the renovations superfluous and unnecessary and that it would take two years to complete, taking customers - and revenue - away from the town, further burdening them financially. Overnight, they, who had completely supported Thomas' propositions, considered it sabotage against his brother.

Each influential person, protecting his financial interest, managed to get the entire town - which had nothing to gain and all to lose from the illness that would befall them from drinking the polluted water - to doubt Thomas' findings. In fact, they would not listen to him when he made his appearance at the town council. There, after several cut-ins, insults, and gross misunderstanding of what they were doing, except following one another, in blind support of the few whose interest it was to oppose, they declared Thomas 'an enemy of the people'. Hovstad whose 'humble origin' had given him 'opportunities of knowing what is the most crying need in the humbler ranks of life', and Aslaksen, who had assured Thomas the support of the 'compact majority', and of whom Hovstad had said belonged to the class of people who vacillate from one side to the other and prevaricate and are never able to take any decisive step, led the crowd in incriminating Dr Thomas Stockmann.

Of particular interest is Aslaksen's behaviour. It resonates with most activists of today. Though he believed that authority has to be prodded to act, he was equally afraid of antagonising them, and so got nothing done. For instance, Aslaksen was prepared to debate the politics of the central government but was timid towards local authorities whom he met every day - people are activists as long as they do not have to meet or know the authorities against whom they fight. When the problems got closer Aslaksen demanded moderation. He sought his interest first and foremost, rather than the common good.

Dr Stockmann was completely unaware of the stance his few supporters had taken; he still relied on their capability of convincing the broad-minded, socially aware liberals to understand what he had found; he actually believed that they would be able to ratiocinate, independently, and come to the conclusion he had come to. He saw his conclusion as the natural end of a sequential analysis of the problem at hand, which any normal and intelligent person could not but arrive at. He did not know, then, that the masses whose support he courted were not intelligent and normal and could not hold an independent thought; he could not know that they only regurgitated what they had been fed, that they looked up to their leaders to think for them, that the people were complicit in their own enslavement. He was, however, forced to reassess the nature of society and its people when he was shocked out of his reverie by the open betrayal of these earlier supporters, and in the presence of his brother the Mayor. This reexamination led him to posit his profound insights of society.

This play is a fight against stagnation, against the people who believe that there could be no more progress other than what pertains at present, that where they had got to is the ultimate, and any further progress - because it would radically change the status quo, implying that their position and comfort are at risk - would only complicate matters. It is a fight against both the liberals and the conservatives, who believe that
[T]he public doesn't require any new ideas. The public is best served by the good, old established ideas it already has.
In this way, Ibsen asks, subtly: if a people make a choice, do they they make the choice from their own free will, or have they been made, prodded by an invisible hand, to make that choice? But the people - whose respect for authority borders on reverence and deification - devoid of all these background wrangling, of these hidden decisions and agenda, revel in the idea of having chosen (or voted), of having decided; but, what really is choice if it is between A and A?

In the fight between right and might, right - standing alone with Thomas; might - crowding around Peter, Thomas unfurled his profound expositions on society. Using the water as a metaphor for the community's moral life, Ibsen says that the whole society, which itself is built on falsehood, has been poisoned.
I have already told you that what I want to speak about is the great discovery I have made lately - the discovery that all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.
And this poisoning of the community's moral life was not carried out by the few who coaxed the gullible masses to take the decision that favoured a few, the likes of the Mayor, Aslaksen, Billing, or Hovstad; it is not these leaders or the old conservatives who, holding on to dead and dying ideas were 'paving the path for their own extinction'. These folks pose no danger to truth and freedom.
It is not they who are most instrumental in poisoning the sources of our moral life and infecting the ground on which we stand. It is not they who are the most dangerous enemies of truth and freedom amongst us.
The most dangerous enemies of truth and freedom, those who poison the soil with their pestiferous baths, are the masses, the compact Liberal majority, who instead of fighting for its rights fights against it, who blindly supports and fights unknown wars. These are the pollutants that suffuse and poison our moral life.
The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom amongst us is the compact majority - yes, the damned compact Liberal majority - that is it!
[I]t is the masses, the majority - this infernal compact majority - that poisons the sources of our moral life and infects the ground we stand on.
This is what he wants to 'drum into the heads of these curs'. And this majority - wherever they are and in whatever circumstances they show themselves - are never right. They are incapable of holding independent ideas; they are cannot stand unique ideas; they yearn for homogeneity, which in itself is anti-progressive. For because they entertain no opposing ideas, they produce no revolution, and consequently no progress. The only thing the majority can offer is safety, safety from one another because it has might, and even this, temporarily. For with time, the truth will come crushing and the impenetrable field will be shattered.
The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against which an independent, intelligent man must wage war. Who is it that constitute the majority of the population in a country? Is it the clever folk, or the stupid? I don't imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over. ... The majority has might on its side - unfortunately; but right it has not.
I propose to raise a revolution against the lie that the majority has the monopoly of the truth. What sort of truths are they that the majority usually supports? They are truths that are of such advanced age that they are beginning to break up. And if a truth is as old as that, it is also in a fair way to become a lie...
According to Ibsen, or Thomas, truths when they become universally agreed upon are already becoming a lie. In a progressive society therefore, hypotheses, laws, institutions, authorities should be constantly challenged. One need not accept or believe an idea, a response, a supposition, just because everyone believes it. Universally believed ideas, must be analysed and questioned. This is as important today as the year 1882. Ibsen was speaking portentously. Today, people are given all sorts of names because they believe something entirely different from what the masses do; today, a country, a nation, can do whatever it wishes, because it can and because it has the might and because it has the ability to prod the people to act in any way it requires. They feed the masses with the half and plausible truths, for the masses can reason no further than that which have been offered them and will pounce on anyone who attempts to question it. The stupider ones will ask 'what more do you want? Are you in a position to know more than those in the corridors of power?' For such folks, whom to think is to risk haemorrhaging a cranial nerve, it is sacrilegious to question authorities, the people they salaam before.
The truths of which the masses now approve are the very truths that the fighters at the outposts held to in the days of our grandfathers. We fighters at the outposts nowadays no longer approve of them; and I do not believe there is any other well-ascertained truth except that no community can live a healthy life if it is nourished only on such old marrowless truths.
If society lives on ideas, then stale ideas strangulate and kill societies. Ibsen explains that people should be broad-minded, and allow their independent thoughts to lead them. Was it not universally accepted that the white race is superior to the black race - a fact of which led to slavery and segregation? Was it not accepted by a group of people who had the compact majority, and therefore might on their side, that Jews must be wiped out to pave way for the establishment of a pure Aryan race? Was it not universally accepted that women were inferior to men and were incapable of voting? Yet, in each of these scenarios there were those in the dominating group who could have lucidly argued against the system. That truth ages and dies, that concepts fade and laws breakdown, is a fact of life any broad-minded person cannot but be open to. What might be truthful today, might not necessarily be so in a few years to come. Have not many superstitions been shattered by new scientific discoveries? Ibsen says that 'broad-mindedness is almost precisely the same thing as morality.' Consequently, a community that thrives on lies 'ought to be razed to the ground.' To Thomas a man's worth is based on his ability to hold an independent thought; people who go with the herd are lower in the ranks.

This compact majority is to be found everywhere, and wherever they are their characteristics do not change. However, nowhere are they dangerous than in political parties, where all manner of people come together to hold themselves to common ideologies.
A party is like a sausage machine; it mashes up all sorts of heads together into the same mincemeat - fatheads and blockheads, all in one mash!
Thus, 'from one end of this country to the other, every man is the slave of his Party'. They are unable to hold an independent idea, not stained by others' thought processes, and will act on the interest of that amorphous constitution, which is not the interest of the people. Ibsen sees a party, or any organisation for that matter, as the easiest route to losing one's ideas and identity; for an organisation - working for its own interest - usually cannot stand an ideology that is antithetical to its purpose and its ways of doing things.
Party programmers strangle every young and vigorous truth - that considerations of expediency turn morality and justice upside down... 
The irony according to Thomas was that those who 'turn every idea topsy-turvy', are 'these "liberals," men full of age, going about in crowds imagining that they are the broad-minded party!' Thus broad-mindedness does not come from talking but from acting. If Ibsen bemoaned a bulging and useless Liberals, who were liberals only in name, in 1882, then we should, today, be revolting against them.

In a stroke of genius, a moment that could be described as nothing less than epiphanic, not just in its foreboding but also in its complete and profound truthfulness, Ibsen compares a party leader to a wolf. He says
A party leader is like a wolf, you see - like a voracious wolf. He requires a certain number of smaller victims to prey upon every year, if he is to live.
But standing alone against the truth has its consequences, for no one stand against the raging masses and leve unscathed. In the end, Thomas was dismissed from his position as a Medical Officer by Peter, citing public opinion as the sole reason (it is the reason all his friends gave when they severed relations with him). He however added a caveat, that should Thomas return to the town (as he was urging him to leave for his own good) and accept his error, through a letter of apology, retracting what he had earlier said, he could restore him to his position. 'What about opinion, then?', he asked of his brother. And Peter said:
Public opinion is an extremely mutable thing. 
Clearly, the leaders know their people. The politicians know their flock. With control over the media, and consequently public opinion, today's political leaders do whatever they want and get away with them for they could make the public fight for them by working on what they think. Today, there is a gulf of space between those who get into political positions and the masses. Power and wealth have become the true end of politics. Just as Ibsen pointed out, the majority are made to support the ideas of the few that benefit fewer. Consequently,
the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.
For such a man is usually right. In this light, one is looking at such whistle-blowers as Edward Snowden, Chelsea E. Manning (formerly Bradley Manning), Julian Assange, Daniel Ellsberg and others who, exposing the government to the people, became enemies of the people. Telling the people: 'your government is spying on you. Your government can kill whoever it wants', the people replied 'and so what! You're traitor. You should be killed.' These are the bare facts of life today. The truth cuts and it cuts deepest.

This play, together with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, should be our bedtime stories; they should be on our study tables; their pages should be pasted onto walls, at every turn; they should be taught in schools (in your dreams!); they should be discussed on radio (who owns them?), for these two books, alone, expose, comprehensively, the nature, structure, characteristics, and working of societies, nations and the political machinery of governments. These are books that should be in everybody's handbag. They do not give you fish; they teach you how to fish. They are eye-openers, and if there is anyone out there, who had not read either of the two, you are gravely missing something, and at your own peril.
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