The Autobiography of the Half-Baked Indian

My desire on my third visit to India was different; this time  I wanted to hear what the city of Delhi was saying, I wanted to listen to the road and hear what music the streets of Gurgoan danced to. I so yearned to feel the fabric of the people’s  character, their trade, the structures, systems and key socializations that made them shine and drove their development. As language often limited my interaction with the auto rickshaw-puller, the beautiful women with lowered gaze on the streets, the shop owners and the taxi drivers who mostly spoke Hindi language, I settled for observation and reading.  Beyond reading the Times of India, my other means of learning was their novels. I had made a few selection from suggested authors on my friend Harlene’s bookshelf.  It was considerably difficult picking a first read from  Amitav Gosh’s Rivers of SmokeJhumpa Lahiri’s  The Lowland, Aravind  Adiga’s The White Tiger and  Yasmeen Premji’s Days of Gold &Sepia.IMG_2380

I had a hint that Aravind  Adiga’s The White Tiger was partly set in the city of Gurgoan, the bright and modern end of Delhi where I stayed, I couldn’t have made a better choice over what would help untangle my thoughts about this city whose air I was breathing and perhaps the mystery of the incredible India!

From the first page, I met the Protagonist Balram with the following profile:

  • Name: Balram Halwai ‘The White Tiger’ alias  Munna, son of Vikram Halwai the rickshaw-puller.
  • Complexion: Blackish… In India where colour mattered, he has thought of trying those skin whitening creams that can make Indian men look as white as Westerners.
  • Build: 5.4inches; Thin and Small.
  • Age: 25-35; as he was given by the police on his ‘most wanted person’s poster’
  • Origin: Laxmangarh a.k.a The Darkness in the district of Gaya.
  • Caste: ‘Halwai’ Lower Class Sweet Makers
  • Career: Teashop worker, Driver cum Cook, Cleaner, Murderer  and Entrepreneur!

Through a period of seven nights in which he serves as a midnight educator to the Premier of China-His Excellency Wen Jiaboa-who was visiting India, He gently disrupts the official national narratives of India which is presented to foreigners. With Black Humour and hilarious metaphors, drawing attention to contrasting issues in modern day India, he presents an India with stained sky and divided  against itself.

‘Please understand that… India is two country in one: an India of light and an India of Darkness….One thing about India is that  you can take almost everything you hear about the country from the prime minister, and turn it upside down and then you will have the truth…’

Balram’s India is that one country that takes on technology like ducks to water, where you can smell money in the air but yet the screwing of brides family in the name of dowry remains an integral part of its culture. Its the civilized country with rickshaw -pullers; ‘thin,stick-like men leaning forward from the seats of  bicycle with carriage, bearing a pyramid of middle class flesh , some fat man and his wife with their heavy grocery bag. In Balram’s words, ‘when you see these stick-men, think of my Father’.

Balram was born and raised in darkness. Dark was  the paradise of Laxmangarh with defunct electricity poles, broken water taps and ‘children too lean and short for their age and with oversized heads from which vivid eyes shine like the guilty conscience of the government of India.’  The Water buffaloes was the most important member of his family as they dictated the size of milk and money families got. Balram was his rickshaw pulling father’s ticket away from poverty. Having cut short his schooling to work and pay family debt, this ingenious, ambitious and resilient character with an entrepreneurial spunk ensured he did not sink in the mud.  His education continued in the tea shop where he kept spying, lingering and listening to customer’s conversations. Like a sponge, he absorbed all he heard. Then he learnt he could dream bigger to become a driver with a better income. In the caste-system adopting India where one’s surname tells his caste and determines his destiny, Balram’s surname ‘Halwai’ being of the sweet maker’s caste could not be a Driver.

This country in its days of greatness…was like a zoo. A clean , well-kept, orderly zoo. Everyone in his place…Goldsmiths here, Cowherds here. Landlords there. The man called Halwai made sweets. The man called cowherd tended cows. The untouchable cleaned faeces…women covered their heads with a veil and turned their eyes to the ground when talking to a strange man.

Driving was like impossibly getting coal to make ice. In his spirited way, Balram ensured that coal was eventually taught to make ice. Preparation meets opportunity as Balram whose destiny was to be a sweet-maker eventually becomes the Stork’s family driver, gets his dream Khaki Uniform like Vijay’s, and ultimately earns the title of Murderer as he killed the Stork’s  American returnee son Mr. Ashok.  He did not only slit Mr. Ashok’s throat as the Muslims kill chicken, he remorselessly stole his name to run a start up in Bangalore, finally becoming Mr. Ashok Sharma. All of India’s skin whitening cream  couldn’t clean his hands now.

Being a self-acclaimed half-baked Indian, he titled his story ‘the autobiography of the half-baked Indian’ Balram defines the full-baked Indians as the ones who after 12years of school and three years of university, wear nice suits, join companies, take others from other men for the rest of their lives. While the Half-baked Indians like him and thousands of others in India are those who were never allowed to complete their schooling, whose role models were bus conductors like Vijay, tea sellers and rickshaw pullers but yet the Indian ENTREPRENEURS ARE MADE FROM HALF-BAKED CLAY like him.

Even in his dark and small village of Laxmangarh, he highlights capitalism as it exists also among the poor in Laxmangarh where characters like ‘The Stork‘ owned the river that flows outside the village and took a cut of every fish caught by fishermen therein. Stork’s brother Wild Boar owned all good agricultural land around Laxmangarh. If you wanted to work on those lands, you bow down at his fit.

Balram humorously discusses India’s religious background; In a world with 36,000,004 Gods foisted on us, ‘the Muslims have one God , the Christians have three Gods … the Hindus have 36,000,000 gods, all of which are divine asses he should choose from. ‘These Gods seem to do awfully little work-much like our politicians- and yet they keep winning elections to their golden thrones in heaven, year after year.IMG_2463

Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger deservingly won the Man Booker prize of 2008. With his pen, this writer dissolved the super-power India, stripping away façade of a rising India. This author with his mordant wit presented an India that is in a catch-up relationship with China, with an admiration for all things America, thereby questioning the validity of the Indian dream. There is the American dream, but what is the Indian dream?

The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body in a sharp pen, this is true of Balram’s story. Generally, The White Tiger tells of how the Indian entrepreneur is fostered to success through labouring for pittance, it also narrates how a young boy is corrupted from a sweet innocent village fool  into a citified fellow full of debauchery, depravity and wickedness.

This compelling novel taught me something,’You always ought to talk about a man’s education when describing him‘, You cannot expect a man in a dung heap to smell sweet.

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Daughter of Dust

Bint al Sudan; Daughter of Sudan, Daughter of the Dust… In telling a delightful story of her life, written for the abandoned everywhere, Leila Aziz inscribes the good things that happened to her on a piece of stone, and the bad ones in the sand. The author Wendy Wallace admirably captured the days of Leila’s life growing up as a ‘child of sin’ on the dusts of Sudan. Beginning as a toddler in a cot who survives the Mygoma Orphanage, she welcomes us into the circle of children in the ‘Institute of the protected’ where her elder sister Zulima, her adopted sister Amal, adopted brothers and many other children are abandoned. Some as a result of a culture that is intolerant of pregnancy out of wedlock, others by the death of one or both of their parents.IMG_0170

But for Leila, her parents weren’t dead, life happened to them. She never stopped yearning, smelling or imagining MOTHER in everything good. Someday Nanny Samia was like Mother; when she hugs me I feel happy. It reminds me of something… a familiar smell of bitter oil mixed with perfume. Arms that encircles me, a face I know. She continues to construct an imaginary father, even the smoking stranger in the market place could have been him.

Leila’s story presents the emotional and physical realities of abandoned children in Sudan as they battle with their label Awlad Haram, Bint Haram; Forbidden Children, Daughters of shame. In a very symbolic way, this novel captures the plights of children in the orphanage through their experience of re-adoption, stigma, discrimination and other vulnerabilities like forced or early marriage as in the case of Zulima who was married to a security guard. For Leila, her identity as an abandoned child enclosed her in a state of unfuture; a state of emptiness, of waiting that never ends, of wanting that dwindles to hopelessness.

Beyond these themes, this book became most relevant to me in its description of female genital mutilation which Leila and Amal had undergone as a part of the tradition in Sudan and many other countries.

“All the mothers (Nannies) are there, and the two women I have never seen before. The fat one- she has big hands- tells me to hurry up and take my knickers off and lie on my back on the bed. She says she’s wasted enough time with the other one fighting like a cat and that if I’ve got any sense, I’ll keep still and everything will be finished before I know it.

Mama Luban sits by my head, half on top of me, she covers my eyes with her fingers and two of the other mothers yank my knees apart and hold them so tight I cannot move. I start to shout for help- it’s all happening so quickly, I’m not ready. I feel a slap on my leg and hear Mama Hajji, the old one, say there is no need to cry, no one has touched me yet. After that, I don’t know exactly what happens but I feel a horrible sharp pain between my legs and Mama Luban says it’s an injection. Straight after that, I feel a different kind of pain, a sharp agony that drives the breathe out of my body. I try to kick the women off me, but two of them have got my legs trapped between their arms so that I can’t move. The room is full of noise: drumming, women’s voices shouting out to me to be strong… I think they might be killing me. I screamed at them to stop, as loud as I can. Mama Luban splays her fingers to clamp them over my mouth as well as my eyes as I glimpse the woman standing at the bottom of the bed with a curved needle held in fingers covered with blood. She pulls the needle away from me with a length of bloody thread behind it…The fat woman drops the needle into the bowl and wipes her hands. She kisses her fingertips with a smacking sound.

‘Just like a watermelon,’ she says. ‘No way in at all’…

There is a burning pain between my legs. My body feels as if it doesn’t belong to me. My throat is raw… I think of getting out of the bed…I realize my legs are tied together. Amal is whimpering on the other bed. I call her but she doesn’t answer…

The next day it’s still agony, although I can get off the bed and move around the room and eat the special lunch Mama Luban makes. Amal develops a fever. At night she doesn’t make sense when she talks. She has to be taken away in the Director’s car. She doesn’t come back to the village for a week and when she does, she can’t stand up… she spends most of the school holidays lying on the bed…

Mama Amaani says that Mama Luban chose the wrong woman (circumciser) to do the purification, and that if she had taken her advice and brought a younger person, there wouldn’t have been any problems… Mama Luban shouldn’t have employed an older woman who can’t see the moon in the sky, let alone the bud in a rose.

I’m sitting by Amal’s bed under the palm-leaf shade of the ‘rakuba’… I still don’t know what purification is, except that I can’t go after the ball in goal properly anymore. I can’t jump from one stone to another either… Peeing takes me a long time. It comes in drops, where it used to come as if from a tap.”

While I appreciated Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s highlighting of this theme in her book Infidel, I found Leila’s narratives of her experience of infibulation (a type of FGM) more detailed and moving, capturing the immediate consequences of female genital hacking as I will put it.

In the past months, while searching pages of different books for a fictionalized story on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), I have also travelled through many regions in Nigeria researching the trends of  FGM with support from United Nation’s Population Fund (UNFPA). Like Leila, I still do not know what justification can be given for FGM. For the girls who were not lucky to be circumcised in infancy, each time they shared their story with me, they sound like Leila, their eyes soften with tears.

Trans-generationally, many culture deceive their women into believing that their clitoris if intact will cause them harm. These harms are interpreted diversely in sync with the value system of each community. Where a community values virginity and sexual purity, women are meant to believe an intact clitoris makes them promiscuous and un-marriable. Where the value system is Fertility and children, especially the male child, women are made to believe the clitoris will make them barren or kill the male child if his head touches the clitoris during birth. In some communities, it is all of the above. Not minding similarities, no two communities have exact same reason or an exact same process for mutilating their women’s genital.

The only thing practicing communities have so far shared in common is an enmity with the clitoris pioneered by some unknown ancestors who though no being scientists, knew where and what a woman’s seat of sexual pleasure is and so hacked it off.

female-genital-mutilation-1It is estimated that every year, three million women and girls will be circumcised around the world. While the practice is not global, the consequences are. In trying to dampen our women’s sexuality, we at the worse cause them death. Otherwise, circumcised women become likely victims of severe pain, vagina tear, excessive scaring, tetanus, septicaemia, dyspareunia, urinary obstruction, stenosis leading to loss of flexibility in the vagina causing obstructed labour, fistula, still birth and most of all increased maternal mortality rate.  The most common cause of maternal death is obstructed labour; over 80% of women who suffer obstructed labour have undergone one or more forms of FGM. Hence where maternal deaths remain a global issue, FGM also remains on the table.

At the root of female sexual oppression and denial of their reproductive health right is the FGM. To Wendy Wallace who wrote this book Daughter of Dust and Leila Aziz who has shared with us some pieces of her life, I say thank you for contributing to the global campaign to end FGM. I hope that one day, people of all land and clime will come to understand that tradition must stop being the shield for hiding these murderous practices. Female circumcision is not a daughter’s love gift, when we circumcise our women, we castrate them, we kill them.

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

The Heart of Darkness

My first thought was that this book had to be a Sea Man’s story and yes it was. On a pleasure ship called Nellie, a narrator who remained unknown through the novel introduces us to men bonding on the sea; one of them was Marlow. Through casual mediation, Marlow reflects on the dark places of the earth as England would have been before the Romans visited it.

Charlie Marlow shares the glories of his exploration as a fresh-water sailor, wanderer seaman whose home is the sea with a passion for maps. He is familiar with living in the world of water and the silent surroundings. Fascinated by the delightful discovery of the unknown places, he finds an inviting place on the map and hankers after it.  It was that mighty big river resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. The snake had charmed him; going there either by hook or by crook was irresistible. Marlow’s Enchantress was later identified as the Congo River.Heart of Darkness 1

Luckily he replaces the late Fresleven who was killed by a native Chief’s son in revenge after Fresleven had whacked his father mercilessly in front of his constituency over a quarrel on two black hens.

Marlow’s account of his voyage up the Congo River is the main narrative of the novel Heart of Darkness. It has been defined as an imperialist novel as it was written at a time when the British Empire controlled colonies around the world using economic, political and military coercion. Marlow’s meeting with men of varying European nationality as he journeys into the Congo tells that the English were not alone in the bloody and inhuman act of imperialism. The French, the Belgians whom Marlow was on this trip for among others were violently took advantage of a people and made of their wealth their private treasury.

Disembarking at the station, Marlow witnesses violence. In one event, there are black prisoners walking along in chains guarded by a uniformed black man with his rifle. On the other account, he finds the dying native laborers whom he offers biscuits. While Marlow showed a little concern to the situation of the natives, the other Europeans were not bothered in the bit.  It is while absorbing the happenings in this space that he learns of a Mr. Kurtz, the biggest ivory merchant who resides in the deep interior.

There is distrust among the Europeans and a conspiracy which Marlow feels may have been responsible for sinking his steamer. Dredging this ship and repairing it took Marlow 3 months. Thereafter Marlow prepares for a 2 months up-river trip into the interior to see Kurtz. This trip is difficult and almost impossible without the help of the maltreated Africans. This journey which Marlow shares as a journey into pre-historic earth gives room for further reflection between the primitive and the civilized. Through the difficult voyage, death skulked in the air, sea and bush. Marlow pondered more on the person of the controversial Mr. Kurtz. His eagerness to meet Kurtz draws him onward in his Journey. Perhaps his having a personal construction of the person of Mr. Kurtz will finally solve the puzzle of what happens to colonists in Africa’s Congo.

Finally the Inner Station in the interiors came into view. Arriving, he meets the Russian trader who feeds him more on yet another enigmatic depiction of Mr. Kurtz. Marlow remains helplessly fascinated by the eloquence of the Mystery man Kurtz whom he characterizes as ‘the voice’.

Mr. Kurtz eventually is an embodiment of the European’s keeping appearances and justification of imperialism, an irony of them being the light bearers for Africa. What Marlow finds is an Ivory hungry and greedy Mr. Kurtz who sets himself up as a god to the natives. Kurtz’s writing ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ speaks further on the conflict in his character and the flaws therein. He is an unscrupulous ivory hunter who could kill even his fellow European for a small stash of ivory. Marlow is further amazed by the discovery that some items he thought of as ornamental balls on the tops of fence posts in the station compound were only severed heads of rebels. Everything about Kurtz was an irony, even his name Kurtz means “short” in German, but Kurtz is tall.

Learning that Mr. Kurtz is now ill and that he Marlow has been charged with the responsibility of taking him back to Civilization in Europe defines the last part of Marlow’s journey. Kurtz’s personality and power creates further challenge for Marlow in carrying out this charge. Their being together finally creates room for some level of intimacy but one, overwhelmed by betrayal.  With a rough journey ahead, Kurtz health gets worse, displaying a sense of vulnerability fearing his own death, he hands over his documents; a symbol of his legacy to Marlow for safekeeping as he awaits death. Despite hearing his last hallucinatory words ‘the horror the horror’, Marlow keeps away from having to witness Mr. Kurtz last breath; a servant runs in shortly after to tell him, ‘Mistah Kurtz—he dead!’

Unlike the African who is thrown out into the sea when he died, Mr. Kurtz is finally buried and Marlow returns to Brussels to dispose of Mr. Kurtz legacies. This act exposes him to meeting other associates of Kurtz, revealing more about Mr. Kurtz and bringing the story to an end.

Generally, this Novella by Joseph Conrad has been classed as a symbolical imperialist work. Published in the late 18th century, it is one of the remarkable colonial literatures that has been engaged and critiqued. Of importance is its criticism as being racist and misogynist.

From the angle of the gender critics, this novella has been faulted for presenting women in the era it was written in very limited way, adopting the presentation of flat female characters with stereotypes. Marlow did encounter a number of women like his Aunt, the two women in Mr. Kurtz’s life and a few more. But none of these were admirable. His Aunt is out of touch with the truth, living in a different world from men, just like other women. Mr. Kurtz’s native mistress is only noted for her attractive looks, gracefully draped in ornaments and nothing more. He also attaches no significant importance to Kurtz’s fiancée who he meets at the end of the story.Chinua-Achebe10--AFP-

I read this novel taking notes of the sentiments of renowned African writer Chinua Achebe who said it was blinkered with xenophobia, he called it an offensive and deplorable book that de-humanizes Africans. More appropriate here is Achebe’s quote in a different instance saying he thinks ‘decency and civilization would insist that the writer take sides with the powerless. Clearly, there’s no moral obligation to write in any particular way. But there is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless. I think an artist, in my definition of that word, would not be someone who takes sides with the emperor against his powerless subjects.’

 Even though the writer Conrad and his character Marlow are noted to be fence-sitting on their position of colonization, there is a sense in which the narratives in this book promoted imperialism as a worthy enterprise, glamourizing racism and the violence of colonialism. According to Marlow,

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.’

Though Marlow expresses shock at the treatment of Africans, it is in no way clear how progressive he is on speaking against this issue. While there is a good appreciation of sceneries in this work, it is amazing that such rich descriptions are not extended to the Africans. Rather than project the humanity in them and give them a name at least, all through the novella, Marlow generously described Africans using words like ‘Negro, Natives, Nigger, Blackman and Savage. All of these rapes Africans of their humanity, their soul and identity.

Reading this book as an African, it is indeed difficult to disagree with Chinua Achebe. But we may be more lenient if we consider that this writer wrote for a time and for an audience. This book was not written for Africans, I doubt if the writer ever thought that a time will come when Africans will read and review his portrayal of their history as am doing today. Such books help me understand the fight of Congolese Matyr Patrice Lumumba.

While the politics of skin colour was overwhelmingly present in this book written in 1899, two centuries later, it still thrives in human interactions. The writer succeeded in contributing to the discourse for demoralizing imperialism as empty and an extortionist concept for exploitation. It fails in contemporary times because it was written from a heart of darkness which couldn’t see any light or soul beneath a black skin.


Written by ~  Adaobi Nkeokelonye



The author Ayaan Hirsi Ali

When you lose the terror of hell, you become free. But to lose that fear isn’t an easy matter. The book Infidel is about how a young girl grew into a freedom fighter, nurturing herself from a world of faith to a world of reason, leaving god, satan, angels, heaven and hell behind, finding a moral compass within herself and no longer within the pages of any sacred book.

Born in a once peaceful Somalia, conflict in Somalia sent her family fleeing as refugees. Ayaan then lived her childhood across Saudi-Arabia, Ethiopia and Nairobi. Between these spaces, she narrates her different experience of the Islamic religion as it is diluted and mixed with culture. It was for her a world cut between honour and shame, where women were pious slaves struggling and working under a long veil, constantly reminded of the necessity of covering female limbs and face to avoid chaos for men sighting the female flesh. Girls were shamed for being kinterley; she with the clitoris, thus ending with hacked vaginas. It was a world where a Virgin’s only response to a marriage proposal was dignified silence; it is honourable. For many women, a lost honour would mean death in the hand of their father, brother or husband.

Soon Ayaan became familiar with the concept of Difference and silently questioned it as shared in the interesting scene involving her father Abeh below.

‘Abeh would always protest and quote the Quran: “Paradise is at the feet of your mother!” But when we looked down at them, our mother’s bare feet were cracked from washing the floor every day, and Abeh’s were clad in expensive Italian Leather shoes.’

Beyond gender inequalities, sharp fragmentation of class, clan, tribes and castes existed in the different societies she grew in. But travelling secretly through the pages of fiction novels, she and her sister Haweya could conceptualize an egalitarian society where difference didn’t necessarily inform exclusion.

‘We read in 1984, Huckleberry Finn, The Thirty-Nine Steps. Later, we read English Translations of Russian Novels…we imagined the British moors in Wuthering Heights and the fight for racial equality in South Africa in Cry, the Beloved Country. An entire world of Western ideas began to take shape… later on there were sexy books: Valley of Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men.’

In such a world where there is no ‘self’ for a woman, any search for a self will remain a struggle. Life was harsh but Ayaan was lucky in a very rare manner. Her kind of luck is outstanding, marked by enormous good fortune. She captures the perils and triumphs of her life below.

‘How many girls born in Digfer Hospital in Mogadishu in November 1969 are even alive today? And how many have a real voice? … When I was born, my mother initially thought death had taken me away. But it didn’t. When I got Malaria and pneumonia, I recovered. When my genitals were cut, the wound healed. When bandit held a knife to my throat, he decided not to slit it. When my Quran teacher fractured my skull, the doctor who treated me kept death at bay.’

IMG_0146Taking a train to Amsterdam as a runaway bride, Ayaan took a chance at freedom; free from bondage to a husband chosen by her father. That act of courage changed her life completely. Ayaan will later obtain a political asylum in the Netherlands and grow to be elected a member of the House of Representatives of the Dutch Parliament.

In Holland, she found the freedom of expression; the freedom to think and choose her fight. On her political platform, Ayaan advanced her criticism for Women’s right, female genital mutilation, Religion and Islam. Her passion for what she believed in will later lead to her production of a controversial short-film ‘Submission’; a film that  triggered the gruesome killing of her producer friend Theo Van Gogh and more so her having to live an endangered life with death threats.

As with this book Infidel, Ayaan’s message in the 10mins film ‘Submissionchallenges convention. Submission presents a young woman in direct dialogue with her deity; Allah. The message was strong; men and even women may look up and speak to Allah … it is possible to free oneself-to adapt one’s faith, to examine critically, and to think about the degree to which that faith is itself at the root of oppression.

I found it challenging to review a book whose author is not only accused of racial inferiority but also known for being Islamophobic by many of my friends. The foreword written by the Late Christopher Hitchens didn’t make it less controversial either. I have chosen to appreciate her bravery in exposing her private memories in a way I could relate with. I choose to critic Ayaan based on the validity of her arguments only. Her enquiries inarguably holds water; Is freedom then only for white people? Is it self-love to adhere to my ancestors’ traditions and mutilate my daughter? To agree to be humiliated and powerless? To watch passively as my countrymen abuse women and slaughter each other in pointless disputes?

27yrs old Farkunda is a Afghan, student of Islamic law who was murdered for allegedly burning a Koran by a mob of men in Kabul Afghanistan, March,2015.

27yrs old Farkunda is a Afghan, student of Islamic law who was murdered for allegedly burning a Koran by a mob of men in Kabul Afghanistan, March,2015.

I think it is for women like the late Farkhunda Malikzada that Ayaan writes. Despite Farkunda’s devotion to her faith, she is falsely accused of burning the Quran and being an American, hence lynched to a horrific death in the name of Islam by men who should have been fathers and brothers. Such are the paradoxes that challenge our faith. Indeed such women require a vocabulary for resistance, a new lens to conceptualize the gaps between the holy book and their reality. A deconstruction of the death and abuse of many women and men alike in the name of religion can only explain why development is hindered beneath some piece of sky. The mistreatment of women and girls remains the most critical human right issue globally.

From Islam to Christianity and others, there is a growing need to unlearn and reconstruct our understanding and interpretation of faith. This book by Ayaan presents a moving narrative, contributing to the wider understanding of the growing linkages between religion, culture and development or under-development.

While criticisms abound on her work, I hope we remember we have no right to question her narratives on how she has experienced life. In this book is a story about Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi; the son of Magan-the son of Isse-the son of Guleid-the son of Ali. It’s the story of her life. In writing her story bravely, Ayaan inspires me to stop tiptoeing around the pretence of my faith and speak the truth even if my voice shakes.

Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

So Long a Letter

I walked out of the airport in Dakar with a feeling of gratitude; it was my fastest immigration clearance in my travel history. Into her warm embrace, Mother Senegal was set to welcome myself and many other youths arriving for the World Youth Movement’s conference on “Youth leadership and democratic transition in Africa”.

Pleasant were the people of this clime, their hospitality overwhelmed my struggle to adjust with the language barriers. In Senegal, I reunited with old friends, expanded my network of new friends and most importantly I learnt a lot of things that provoked my questioning some dominant narratives about governance in Africa.mariama ba

Earphones went off and on according to the language of the speakers; a proof that though we were a people of one continent, we spoke in different tongues. Clearly, the conference discussions had begun with some high and low moments.  For the dreary moments, I flipped through Mariama Ba’s celebrated Novella ‘So Long a Letter’ which came in handy for this trip; it remains my best Senegalese Novella.

From the inter-generational conversations, the conference topic shifted to the role of African youths in democratic transitions. While exploring the stakes for youths and the struggle for democracy, a discussant asked an important ‘Where are the Young Women?’ The perception was that the young women were participating in the engineering of Africa’s democracy at an insignificant level. I received this question and the discussions to follow as a projection of the thought that young African women were like their mothers-before-them being strategically marginalized and not being given the opportunity to participate in political exercises.

My gender sensitive self was reactive to this question but between my threads of thought, my humanist self-prevailed with some inciting questions. While it was clear that the ratio of educated boys versus girls in Africa will suffer imbalance, it’s acceptable that the fate of young women in education was no longer as bad as it used to be – thanks to the massive awareness on girl child education. Finding young women who are equipped with the education, critical thinking, leadership skills, compassion and wit necessary to drive a political career in Africa isn’t difficult. But are the young women ready for politics? I further wondered if the young women could first identify themselves with common experiences that qualify them as a politically marginalized group. Do they have interest in governance and the political exercises therein? If yes, should they wait to be given power or do they have to take power using their agency? Is it right to apply a gender lens here? Is it fair to blame their insignificant participation in governance on others (perhaps men) thereby making a gender case?

I left the conference hall personalizing the questions. I am that humanist who doesn’t believe that the gender lens always serves, or that affirmative action or quota system must apply to all things. My sincere response as a young African whole-woman was that I wasn’t ready for politics. I guess I must be constructing politics with my moral lens; applying stringent standards that didn’t fit it, hence participation in politics meant the soiling of hands with corrupt politicians.

It was sunset when I returned to the pages of Mariama Ba’s ‘So Long a Letter’. It was a pleasant coincidence to find the dialogue between the major character Ramatoulaye and Daouda Dieng discuss women’s place in African politics. My Senegalese choice of best novella held within some validation.

‘Four women Daouda.  Four out of a hundred deputies. What a ridiculous ratio! Not even one for each province’. Ramoutoulaye said.

‘But you women are like mortar shells. You demolish. You destroy. Imagine a large number of women in the Assembly. Why, everything would explode, go up in flames.’  Daouda responded.

‘Nearly twenty years of independence! When will we have the first female minister involved in the decisions concerning the development of our country? And yet the militancy and ability of women, their disinterested commitment have already been demonstrated. Women have raised more than one man to power…when will education be decided for children on the basis not of sex but of talent?’ Ramoutoulaye continued.

‘Whom are you addressing Ramatoulaye? You are echoing my speeches at the National Assembly, where I have been called a “Feminist”. I am not in fact, the only one to insist on changing the rules of the game and injecting new life into it. Women should no longer be decorative accessories, objects to be moved about, companions to be flattered or calmed with promises. Women are the nation’s primary, fundamental root, from which all else grows and blossoms. Women must be encouraged to take a keener interest in the destiny of the country. Even you who are protesting; you preferred your husband, your class, your children to public life. If men alone are active in parties, why should they think of the women? It is only human to give yourself the larger portion of the cake when you are sharing it out.’ Daouda said.

As though the above dialogue highlighting salient points on the place of women in politics was not apt enough, Ramoutoulaye will later harness it, sharing her young daughter Daba’s views on politics in some form of monologue:

‘She reasons everything out, that child… she often tells me: I don’t want to go into politics; it’s not that I am not interested in the fate of my country and, most especially, that of woman. But when I look at the fruitless wrangling even within the ranks of the same party, when I see men’s greed for power, I prefer not to participate. No, I am not afraid of ideological struggle, but in political party it is rare for a woman to make break-through. For a long time, men will continue to have the power of decision, whereas everyone knows that polity should be the affair of women. No: I prefer my own meditation, where there is neither rivalry no schism, neither malice nor jostling for position; there are no post to be shared, nor position to be secured.’

Young Women participants at the World Youth Movement Conference, Dakar, Senegal.

Young Women participants at the World Youth Movement Conference, Dakar, Senegal.

As I muse over this 1981 Noma Award winning epistolary novella by Senegal’s daughter Mariama Ba, it becomes interesting to note that even with a more enabled space in governance, the reason for young women’s lingering absence in politics may not be far from Daba’s as captured above. If my suppositions are right, then the need therefore arises to reorient young women, support them to critically question their narratives and unlearn their assumptions about activities associated with governance.

With more reflections days after the Youth leadership and democratic transition in Africa conference ended, I am grateful for the discussions it offered. I am also grateful for the insight given by this Senegalese Novel.

Hereafter it’s my opinion that beyond the preparation of young women towards a significant level of participation in politics, what the African governance space needs dearly is not affirmative action, quota system or our focusing on the gender of the political office holders. While inclusive governance is ideal, I think that we need feminist leaders like Daouda Dieng who understands the need for creating enabling spaces and equal opportunities for all. Africa requires leaders who are sensitive to the fact that women are a nation’s primary, more so, Women, Disabled Persons, Children and all other vulnerable and marginalized groups of persons in our society must be encouraged to take a keener interest in their country’s governance.

~Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye.

The Shock of the Fall.

Don’t take my devils away, because my angels may flee too~The poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

If you want to experience what goes on in the head of a mentally ill person, the way their shadows are cast and what loving them means, The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer will tell. This novel is about the difference between living and existing, it explores life in an acute psychiatric ward for day after day after day…To read it, you must free your mind and just flow. You may feel you are going mad, but it’s ok. It’s just a feeling.

Nathan Filer ©

Nathan Filer ©

A lot of thinking went into putting this book together, written in very simple English, it is difficult to believe you are reading fiction. It reads like a conversation with the Narrator. The artless use of different font theme and size alerts the reader of a centre that can’t hold; the thought distortions suffered by Mathew, broken words… symbols, repetitions, memory collision, a struggle for remembrance, a burial of unwanted memories, an exhumation of desired ones. All of these are expressed well agonized words that excite the right emotions.

The narrator Mathew Homes is a thoughtful young man who lures us into his emotional journey beginning with the story of his 9yr old self and continues with a diary of his 19yr old self, opening the doors of the psychiatric ward for readers to learn. He introduces people, especially his beloved brother in a retrogressive fashion:

‘I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name is Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages, he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.’

For most mentally ill person, a particular event sticks. Simon’s death was it for Mathew. I followed Mathew through the days of his life, relieving his childhood, constantly recalling the death of his brother Simon which becomes his shadow through to the end of his story. Mathew personifies his illness in experiences of grief for Simon and develops a loyal relationship with it.

‘But my illness knows everything that I know…we move in circles, this illness and me.’

The writer makes it impossible for readers to understand mentally ill Mathew without following his leading or misleading. Mathew confidently asserts this saying;

‘This is my life. I am nineteen years old, and the only thing I have control over in my entire world is the way I choose to tell this story…It would be nice if you’d try to trust me’.

In capturing his realization of a new self; becoming an independent young man, Mathew shares:

‘In the bathroom mirror were the blurred edges of a healthy young man  with a new job, a new home, and the promise of a whole new life. I should have wiped away the condensation and taken a proper look at him. I wish I’d done that now. But I didn’t, so you can’t either.’

What thrills me is the ingenious way this writer presents the issues of mental illness in compelling narratives that will remain etched in a reader’s mind. With a reality that is hidden in the cloud of smoke, Mathew’s character manages to express his mental struggle lucidly in imageries and style any reader can understand.

‘It’s like we each have a wall that separates our dreams from reality, but mine has cracks in it. The dreams can wriggle and squeeze their way through, until it’s hard to know the difference. Sometimes, the wall breaks completely, its then that the nightmare comes…‘Sometimes I would have to cut a little at my skin with a knife or burn myself with a lighter to make sure I was real’

After his bad days in the acute psychiatric ward seemed over, Mathew finds peace organising a memorial for his brother Simon. This poured some sunlight to Mathew’s life, making him proud enough to finally leave his endless story.ficdev

One significant thing this Costa award winning novel achieved, was projecting the fact that mental illness cuts across a wide array of socio-economic status. Brain disease affects loved ones, colleagues and family persons like Mathew working and living among us with major responsibilities.

I happen to read this book at the time I followed the mental health law scholar Professor Elyn Saks’s pro psychiatry talk ‘A tale of mental illness- from the inside’ which shared her experience of brain diseases. This fiction novel has proven to be well researched and evidence-based as it also gives credence to her experience of mental illness. In Elyn’s words;

‘Schizophrenia is a brain disease. Its defining feature is psychosis, or being out of touch with reality. Delusions and hallucinations are hallmarks of the illness. Delusions are fixed and false beliefs that aren’t responsive to evidence, and hallucinations are false sensory experiences. For example, when I’m psychotic I often have the delusion that I’ve killed hundreds of thousands of people with my thoughts. I sometimes have the idea that nuclear explosions are about to be set off in my brain. Occasionally, I have hallucinations, like one time I turned around and saw a man with a raised knife. Imagine having a nightmare while you’re awake… Contrary to what many people think, schizophrenia is not the same as multiple personality disorder or split personality. The schizophrenic mind is not split, but shattered… My head was too full of noise, too full of orange trees and law memos I could not write and mass murders I knew I would be responsible for. Sitting on my bed, I rocked back and forth, moaning in fear and isolation’

For no fault of theirs, many mentally ill persons suffer from poor management. Some die in restraints, suffocating or suffering heart attack in our society’s struggle to manage the fear that they are dangerous to others. In developing countries, they are abandoned or left to destitution. Such isolation and ill treatment makes things worse.

As has been projected in this novel, the importance of care and support given to mentally ill persons by knowing family and friend cannot be overemphasized. Such relationships indeed give them a meaning in the face of their nightmare. But most defeating is the prejudice, label and stigma that our society gives to mentally ill persons. Confessing to this, Elyn Saks said:

‘Even with all that — excellent treatment, wonderful family and friends, supportive work environment — I did not make my illness public until relatively late in life, and that’s because the stigma against mental illness is so powerful that I didn’t feel safe with people knowing .’

And in Mathew Homes’ own words;

‘This is what labels do. They stick. If you think you are MAD, then everything you do, everything you think, will have MAD stamped across it.’

The author Nathan Filler’s wish is that we share this book. I do so now  with the knowledge that the humanity we all share is more important than the mental illness we may not. Despite our investments in research and medi-care for those with mental illness, there remains a growing need to invest our humanity.

For the mentally ill person, the message I take away from this book is that it’s easier to find happiness in a cooked meal when there’s somebody else to pass you the ketchup. Thank you Nathan Filer for your commitment to helping us understand the realities of this vulnerable group.  More gratitude to you Mun Parbeen for the gift of this novel.

Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

At an age when most mortals have already died, his life was beginning. He had spent all the days of his life without a wife or fortune, inhabiting the colonial house where he was born and where he hopes to die.  It was his libertine IMG_9984night; his moon was full. Don Scholar affirming that he is not confirmed to eternal youth longed for the impossible on his 90th birthday. Hence he gave Madam Rosa Cabarcas the owner of the illicit house a call insisting for a virgin girl who is not USED;his girl had to be available to him that same night!

Still a renowned journalist with all the blessing of patience that comes with age, patience disappeared as his chest became heavy with the anxiety of waiting for his virgin-whore. In waiting, he reflects on his sexual chronicles and ethics through the years.

‘I have never gone to bed with a woman I didn’t pay, and the few who weren’t in the profession I persuaded by argument or by force, to take money even if they threw it in the trash. When I was twenty, I began to keep a record listing name, age, place and a brief notation on the circumstances and style of lovemaking. By the time I was fifty there were 514 women with whom I had been at least once. I stopped making the list when my body no longer allowed me to have so many…’

While reading this book, It becomes unbelievably hard for a reader not to put on a moral lens. As I struggled between lenses, Don Scholar continued further to reflect on the miseries of his misguided life.

‘… My public life was lacking interest: both parents dead, a bachelor without a future, a mediocre journalist and a favourite of caricaturists because of my exemplary ugliness. I slept in the red-light districts, the Barrio Chino, two three times a week, and with such variety of comparisons that I was twice crowned the client of the year’

Reflecting on how his bonding with whores left him no time to marry, Madam Rosa calls to display she knew her trade.not-for-sale1 She offers him a 14yr old girl who would meet him at 10pm after she feeds her younger brothers and sisters and put them to sleep and helps her mother, crippled by rheumatism into bed.

A night like this was far beyond the miser Don Scholar’s means but by his words, his fantasy was worth any cost.

‘From the money box hidden under my bed, I took out two pesos to rent the room, four for the owner, three for the girl, and five in reserve for my supper and other minor expenses.’

There went Don Scholar’s salary for the month as he happily set out into the radiant night in a cooled weather to encounter his mistress of virginity. He meets with Madam Rosa who gives him a brief of her client.

‘She’s beautiful, clean, and well-mannered, but dying of fear because a friend of hers who ran away with a stevedore from Gayra had bled to death in two hours…Poor thing, besides all that she has to work the whole day attaching buttons in a factory… Now she’s asleep…you ought to let her rest for as long as her body needs it, your night is longer than hers.’

Madam Rosa leaves him alone with his terror. With a heart now full of confusion and no escape route, he walks into the room to see the girl sleeping in the enormous bed of hire, as naked and helpless as the day she was born. He named her Delgadina.

It is indeed difficult not to engage this book with a moral lens; the looming possibilities hereafter were indeed disturbing. Night after night, meeting his Delgadina became Don Scholar’s ritual. The writer does not fail to build suspense around this. While I try to unravel the details of this nightly tango, I am caught in my thought for the many Delgadina’s we know or read of. The 2014 UNICEF study, Hidden in Plain Sight, estimates that around 120 million girls under the age of 20 (about 1 in 10) have been subjected to sexual exploitation at some point of their lives. Boys are not left out, though they suffer to lesser extent than girls. All of these are  gross violation of children’s rights

garcia 2

Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a Colombian Novelist; a 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner . He died in 2014.

With this book written in 2004, the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez had created characters and narratives we love to hate.  Rosa Cabarcas reminds me of the modern day Italian Mamans. The likes of Madam Rosa in many cities, remain the only liberals with power in government, and hence they thrive.  Delgadina is a replica of the children of the night that pimps make their living off while Don Scholar remains the notorious client of the skin trade who we know but refuse to acknowledge.

While this book highlighted the issues of ageing and the psychosocial transformations that occur as a result, it did focus more on the normalization of child-prostitution. It is indeed our silence that makes the abuse of Delgadina’s childhood normal.

Don Scholar had always chosen brides for a night only, but his last night bride had an enigma. She was an absolute mistress of virginity and a source of epiphany that liberated him from a servitude that enslaved him. Thus he was able to confront his inner self for the first time in 90yrs.

With this profoundly haunting novel, I think the Late Gabriel Garcia Marquez has shared a story that all people can sincerely relate to. Perhaps in ending it the way he did, he is wishing that all Don Scholar’s replicas out there who prefer pubescent partners will confront their inner truth to the point of rupture. As I drop the book, I am earnestly wishing all Delgadina’s world over will tonight go home with an inheritance, a kiss on their forehead and a long forgive me from us all.

~Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye