Fiction & Development

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Shattered Windows…

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Ms. Harmony Banwo

I needed a fresh voice to bring me back to reading and writing again. And it came in the voice of a beautiful young girl Ms. Harmony Banwo. To imagine that this 13year old author can write anything that could intrigue my adult mind was amusing, but soon enough I found myself turning the pages of her novella “Shattered Windows” until there was nothing left to read.

In Shattered Windows, Ms. Banwo takes a walk with her readers on the streets of her main character’s life, a teenage girl called Nevaeh. Nevaeh was the only child of Ms. Hart, a single mother who suffered mental health. In Nevaeh’s world, the sky is not blue, it had different shades of colors. Nevaeh’s 16year old life is scared by the incident where she witnesses her mentally ill mother grievously harming a man, who few seconds earlier was a stranger but is soon known to be her absentee father. Right in her presence, her father is being killed for breaking a deal made over 16years ago, before her birth. Nevaeh is caught between standing by her once-adored but now cold-hearted mother or being a life saver to a father who left, but now desperately needed her to save him from death.

Unwillingly, she let her mother print bloodstains on her. Watching her mother become her happiest by killing her father, with his blood splattered all over her, opened a pandora’s box in Nevaeh’s young life. Not ending up like her father who couldn’t kill and was killed, or being like her mother who could kill and lived a troubled life, became the biggest decision she would make.

Hereafter the path to her thoughts becomes strewn with rocks and dirt as she disappears into the darkness painted by her mother, a darkness that hides secrets and poses many questions, for which I had no clear answers to:

“People will say ‘your mom loves you Nevaeh.’ I know she does, but the love she has for me, the way she loves me made me wonder if it was real… Is this what being in love was really like? I never understood what love was growing up. Was love a fuzzy warm feeling, or was love a tragic draining feeling? Was there any answers? Nothing felt right or wrong. How can you be sure you love someone when it comes to reality? Nothing is very happy forever; nothing is ever perfect forever.”

A child should get a box of chocolates and not a box full of darkness, a child should always imagine a life lived on candy land, not in dark places without windows. But for Nevaeh, the candy she knew was the pills her sick mother swallowed to dull her mental pain. The burden that a parent’s mental illnesses places on a child(ren) is brought alive here in the words and thoughts of Nevaeh:

“I realized that without me, she couldn’t get away, she couldn’t stop the pain; I was a different version of painkillers to her. I ate all the pain and suffering she had been feeling… I was her last choice, her last freedom.”

Nevaeh wished for a life where she and her mother both had a chance to live together, one without the memories of the thick black knife covered in her father’s blood, one without flashbacks of dark places with cold black doors, thoughts of suicide and mood swings. But this was a dream. There were many dark days for Nevaeh, some days her life stayed in a state of inertia; she didn’t want to die or live, she just wanted to perish into thin molecules.

Despite her desire to live differently in spaces where their trauma was no longer alive, helpless Nevaeh finally leaned to her mother’s wishes by enabling her death and attempting suicide:

“I took a deep breathe, and I pushed my mom off the railing. I saw her body being caught in the air. I thought about it one more time and maybe it was my head spinning from seeing my mom being sent to her death. But I wanted to join her… I saw my mom almost crashing to the ground and I didn’t cry because I was going to join her.”

In this reading this book, I could see how this young author does not just highlight the trauma of mental illness suffered by adults, but also puts the dire issue of adolescent mental health which remains poorly explored on the map. Simply put, she is saying that every mind matters. The World Health Organization notes that globally, one in seven 10-19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder, this accounts for 13% of the global burden of disease in this age group. It is further noted that depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders significantly contributes as a leading cause of illness and disability among adolescents. Furthermore, suicide is marked as the fourth leading cause of death among 15–19-year-olds.

The HAT Toolkit

As was the case of Nevaeh’s mother Ms. Hart, where unaddressed, adolescent mental health conditions grow with them to adulthood, impairing their wellbeing and limiting their opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults. As part of its promotive and preventive interventions for adolescent mental health, the World Health Organization and UNICEF in a joint effort, had introduced the Helping Adolescents Thrive (HAT) Initiative. Aligning with this was their production of the Helping Adolescents Thrive Toolkit in 2020. The HAT Toolkit presents strategies to promote and protect adolescent mental health globally.

Yet protecting children and adolescents is a duty for us all. Literary works continues to prove an effective medium for promoting mental health issues. In an admirably succinct way, Ms. Banwo’s work shows that when mental illness happens in our homes, pieces of the shattered minds often hit the children. In prioritizing household and community wellbeing, we ought to put our young ones at the center, expressing that if our young ones cannot be well and happy, no one should.

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

The Extinction of Menai

At the dawn of every New Year, I try to acquaint myself on what the United Nations in their status as a leading development agency prioritizes to guide development programme in the world’s third sector. Its exciting that 2019 is proclaimed as the International year of Indigenous Languages. To set it rolling, I sought literature that best captures the challenges faced by indigenous languages across the world.

The Extinction of Menai by Chuma Nwokolo

As if anticipating 2019 as the year for language rights, The Extinction of Menai by Chuma Nwokolo arrived in our bookstores and shelves not just as a novel but a cultural bible that demonstrates how language and culture are inseparable, how a viable culture and language could gradually become extinct.  The replacement of a culture or language by another either forcefully or mildly, by human or natural activities, to the extent that the original culture is eclipsed is a dreaded phenomenon, and mitigating it has become of global concern, addressed by UNESCO.

Through the character of Dr. Ehi Fowoka, we learn of the Menai Ethnic Nation right beneath their piece of sky in Kreektown. Set across the continents of Africa and Europe, these descendants of the historic Meroe civilization had through ancient migration become the Menai’s in Kreektown, sited somewhere in Nigeria’s Niger-Delta. In the character of Foreign Aid, the rogue drug trial by the Multinational Trevi provokes the unfolding apocalypse looming over the Menai . The people, their language and culture are left with genocidal consequences with the death of each member; Wuida the daughter of a seafarer and herbalist of the first water dies with all knowledge of herbal remedies gone with her, Weaver Kakandu Menai’s last weaver no longer weaved beautiful marriage clothes, weaving burial shrouds had killed the Menai Weave.  The older Menai’s knew the Mata’s rendition that went on for a stretch five hours, they knew the power of the Singateya, the sound of the Mananga,  the singing Jamayas. By the day, there is no one to play the Tanda ma, no one is left to sing their calamity. And through Mata Nimito’s journey, we find that the heart of the Menai’s remain planted in the places they lost.

Ehi Fowoka is commissioned to research the psychiatric fate of a doomed ethnic nation by frightened politicians who fear the potentials of Menai becoming another Ogoni, and the Menai society becoming another Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. But what bites most is not their psychiatric fate but the imminent extinction of the sophisticated Menai Language and deeply rooted culture.

‘The Menai are facing a double whammy, of course: they will die out with their language… I shall be recommending a symbolic state funeral when the last ethnic nation dies. For them and the dozens of other languages on the brink of extinction.’

‘And if the extinction of Menai is such a tragedy, we should all go and plait nooses! None of the children of my Urhobo, Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa and Efik colleagues can ask for water in any language besides English. If the instructions of Life were written in our ancestral languages, our next generation would be doomed. It will take a few years, but even our bigger languages are heading for extinction with a psychedelic accent.’

Ehi Fowoka who is acclaimed the most important academic authority worldwide on the Menai takes time to reflect introspectively bearing on what he knows of the Menai and how his parenting of his daughter has poorly appreciated the state of intergenerational language transmission and preservation of the indigenous language.

 “I mean, in most parts of Nigeria, all a five year-old will know of his ancestry is that his father is called Papa and his Mother, Mama. The average Menai five year-old will name five or six generations of his maternal and paternal ancestry without breaking a sweat. And I have seen Menai gatherings with forty, fifty adults reciting hour-long, word perfect historysongs in tandem.”

“With my own daughters, I have tried to change things, addressing the odd comment to them in our language, but they just give me this pitying look, and I have to admit, at ages thirteen and fourteen, I may have left it too late…”

Fowoka’s reflections are consistent with the fact that African children born three or four generations before as younger characters like Zanda, can only see their world through the lens of English Language and not the indigenous languages like the Menai language. The Menai’s owned a sophisticated language grown from their ancient civilization, which enables them to store history and is represented textually, however the Menai language like many indigenous language is not a language of choice. The domain of language rights may recognize all languages as equal, but in practice, the colonizer’s languages; English and French are more equal than others.

Chuma Nwokolo’s poignant narratives further calls to question what happens to a language in the transition of societies from being under-developed to developed. Through the struggles of Fowoka, it challenges the role of development practitioners in reinforcing language loss through programming interventions in languages that diminish the pre-existing mother-tongue and cultures of the indigenous people we desire to protect. Does our poor utilization of a people’s languages in working with them contribute to extinction or preservation of such indigenous languages?

Bell Viliami in the work,”The only way for minority cultural survival” notes that the domains of human life serves as the battlegrounds by which we witness the immense cultural and language losses of recent. For eclipsing indigenous languages, restoration can also happen in the domains of human life;through collective human action. The characters of Sheesti Kruma and Mata Nimoto the philosopher guide shows us how giving indigenous languages an identity function, vehicularity and enabling inter-generational language transmission and documentation  can in effect raise its societal profile. In my most favorite part of this book, they began with a re-naming ceremony which acknowledged and re-positioned their indigenous experiences to a priority place. They showed symbolically how healing and restoration happens for language and culture; how healing our dying culture can heal our identity

Mata Nimito named all Menai. He was an old man that the town mostly forgot, until there was a need to remember him: burials, naming, disputes… Nobody would ever consider him a friend…But he did have that playful way with my name.

Eniemute?’ A warm glow started in me. The love for a husband comes from a region of the mind. The love for a father comes from another. There is no crossover. I felt a glow building from a hearth I had thought was terminally broken. I told him of my children, their names…

With a dry mouth I described Moses: the long limbs he owed to his father, his quick temper…

Amezi, he said.

I described Cynthia, who looked so much like my baby photograph…

Anosso, he said.

…And then I described my baby, Patricia, who had the nurses pledging their sons in marriage

Ogazi, he said.

The naming was complete.

Then he began to sing my torqwa! I that was dead to Menai! I fell on my knees, enthralled again by the antiquity of my lineage. I knelt there streaming in tears as the poetry of my identity bore me from the caravan of the exiled crown prince through the dunes and deserts and the savannahs and the forests and creeks of their sojourns. I listened to the descendants of young Auta, trumpeter in the court of the crown prince, Xera and his wife, Aila, daughter of Numisa, until

Rumieta Kroma the trader of cloth

Married Teacher Gaius from Igarra

To birth Sheesti, little mother

Who, with Denle, son of Alanta, scion of Esie, built pillars for Menai:

Three pillars of Ameizi, fierce athlete,

Anosso her mother’s cunning vomitimage

And Ogazi the fair, for Menai without end…

For the first time since the arrival of my children, I felt they were not stillborn. They were named, properly named from the font of all Menai…in the land of my ancestorsMenai, my children were known.”

Many academic research are in tandem with this. In difference to many academic writings telling about culture and language extinction, Chuma Nwokolo does not tell us, he shows us how languages and cultural extinction are not inseparable from human actions and inaction. His work reminds us further on the need to check our language status and the role the daily choices we make plays in its extinction.

Moons will wax and wane, but the Extinction of Menai by Chuma Nwokolo shall never depart from my shelf. My review does no justice to this powerful book, and no single review can. We can only do justice by reading it and taking from it our own spiritual and cultural awakening just like I have.

~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye


God Dies By the Nile

Nawal El Saadawi showed me how what was once a beautiful cup can suddenly become shattered fragments of porcelain. Her novel God Dies by a Nile opens with Zakeya learning that her niece Nefissa the daughter of her brother Kafrawi had vanished. She was only 12yrs old when she was forced to go work in the Mayor of  Kafr El Teen’s house. Poor Elau is accused of assaulting her and innocent Kafrawi is framed for killing Elau. But for Kafrawi, Elau was a good man, he could never kill him even though he was found near his body.


                                                  Nawal El Saadawi                                                                                                   

After Nefissa goes missing, in Kafr El Teen an unknown girl gives birth to her child and abandons it in front of the home of the childless village Sheik Hamzawi and his young wife Fatheya. Being married the fourth time to young Fatheya whom he takes forcefully against her will in spite of his virility which he patches up with potion, Shiek Hamzawi saw the abandoned baby boy as an angel from God, but for the Chief of the village guard, why could it not be the son of the devil?

The revered Mayor of Kafr El Teen, Sheik Hamzawi, Haj Ismail, Sheik Zahran and their likes were the men who preserved the holy mosques, they were the men who watched over the morals and ensured the piety of the village of Kafr El Teen was intact. But to them, forcing innocent girls like Nefissa, her sister Zeinab and Fatheya out of her cradle into marriage or raping them was not immoral.

‘How exciting these simple girls are, how pleasant it is to take their virgin bodies into one’s arms, like plucking a newly opened rose flower. How I hate the false sophistication of Cairo women, like my wife with her brazen eyes. Nothing any longer intimidates or thrills her. Her frigid body no longer quivers when I caress her, or hold her tight, or even bite her’.

Voices of young beautiful women silenced by their Guardians; fathers and brothers, fill this book. Men who needed potions and amulets to patch their virility take glimpses at the supple bodies of young girls and gleam with unsatisfied lust, not even the God in the Misbahah prayer bead running uninterruptedly through their fingers could stop them. They all fed on the body of young girls like a group of starved men gathered around a lamb roasting on fire.


For the married Mayor who had the whole village enslaved, he was beyond suspicion and nothing could stop his lust for any woman. Unfortunately, he’s got a taste for women, he hunted the most vulnerable of them. After Nefissa vanished from working in his house, his eyes were now set on her sister.

 ‘And if he likes a woman, he can’t forget her. You know he is pretty obstinate himself. Once he sets his eyes on a woman, he must have her, come what may… he burned for such a desire for Zeinab that only death could put an end to it. Sooner or later, he was going to lay his hands on her, for like all Gods he believed that the impossible did not exist.’
‘Do you know he does not sleep because of Zeinab? I have done my best to convince her but she still refuses.’

Fatheya’s will may have been broken on marriage but not on motherhood. She quickly took in the abandoned child born in sin into the home she shared with Sheik Hamzawi. Though the presence of this sinful son of fornication ruffled the village and threatened the position of Hamzawi as Sheik in the village mosque, it did not stop Fatheya from holding on tightly to the child clamped to her breast even when she could see the danger hovering around them.

‘The Mayor has removed Sheik Hamzawi from his job and has appointed another Sheik in the mosque…The worm has eaten our cotton, and we’ve had nothing but trouble since Sheik Hamzawi gave shelter to that child of sin in his house. How can we allow a man who adopts the children of sin and fornication in his house to lead us in prayer?’

In the days to follow, when the wind started to blow, and carried a spark from an oven unto one of the roofs, igniting flames that spread through the village. Fatheya’s child was the accused. Every effort by the wrathful voices and the big rough hands to wrench the child away from Fatheya was in vain even to death.

‘In a few moment, Fatheya’s body had become a mass of torn flesh and the ground was stained red with her blood… His (Hamzawi) eyes were fastened on the naked body of his wife lying on the ground high up on the bank of the river… they carried her as her as the house, and on the following morning buried her with the child held tightly in her arms.’

When Fatheya died, God also died by the Nile. Then the impossible began to happen as the long lost Galal returns from Sinai to seek out his beloved Zeinab who was betrothed to him and ask after his cousin Neffisa and his Uncle Kafrawi whom had all fallen victim to the greed and lust of the revered Mayor, a man who walked the earth like God. Since the day Galal defied the Mayor and married Zeinab, the threatened Mayor unleashed his evil, sending Galal to goal prison, just like he did to Zeinab and Neffisa’s father Kafrawi.

For Zakeya who had lived to see the Mayor take her Brother Kafrawi to goal, and forcefully take his two beautiful daughters Zeinab and Neffisa, sending her long lost son Galal to Goal was the last straw.

‘She opened her mouth wide and started to scream and to wail in a continuous high-pitched lament, as though mourning the suffering of a whole lifetime suppressed in her body from the very first moment of her life when her father struck her mother in the head because she had not borne him the son he expected. It was a wail that went back, far back to many a moment of pain in her life… To the time when Om Saber forced her thighs apart and with her razor cut off a piece of her flesh. To the time when she developed two breasts which the menfolk would pinch when there was nobody around to prevent them. To the time when her spouse Abdel Moneim would beat her with his stick, then climb on her and bear down on her chest with all the weight. To the time when she bore him children and bled, then buried them one after the other with the dead. To the time when Galal put on his army uniform and never came back, and the time when Neffissa ran away… to the time when the car came to the village carrying the gentlemen from the town and the dog, then took Kafrawi with them and left. Her wail went back and back to such times and others she could not forget like the lament which has no end, and sees no end to all the pain in life. It seemed to be as long as the length of her life, as long as the long hours of her days and nights.’

Vengeance was her’s when she crossed the huge iron gate of the Mayor’s house that night with a hoe that ended the Mayor’s life. With a blow from the hoe crushing his head,  Zakeya’s act of murder became Allah’s choice. And from that moment he was destined never to see, or feel, or know anything anymore.

Published in 1985, I got to read this book in the wake of Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein’s scandal. Through each page of this commendable novel, set in an Egyptian Islamic village, I thought about how it unraveled the abuse of women in Muslim communities. I could imagine that Zakeya’s wailing could be relatable and yet muffled for many women. As the global effect of the #Metoo anti-sexual harassment campaign was felt, I wondered if the echoes of #MeToo could someday pierce through walls of muds Fatheya knelt within praying the words of Allah as the hands of Sheik Hamzawi crept between her thighs. Could it penetrate the dark rooms, pound at the high brick walls and iron gates of the Mayor’s house and break out in the Mosque? Could the voices of women resound the #MeToo like the call for prayers? If and when that happens, will they get people stand behind them like they stand behind the Sheik?

In the months gone by, few discourses on whether the  #MeToo movement is a West Only movement has got responses in the call to talk about sexual misconduct among Islamic preachers, and to call out the Harvey Weinstein of Islam. But I still wonder if #MeToo will eventually be a word that vulnerable people world over can use; like Fatheya, can women in marriages also say #MeToo?

~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

When Rain Clouds Gather

If you’ve ever smelt the mud, the dirt and earth on which countries of Africa are built on, you will tell they smell the same. But a different scent lingers in each country; it is the scent of the history upon which they are founded.
Gathering to tell is what I do when I want to understand history from the perspective of the novel. I have always relied on Nadine Gordimer to guide me into what it feels like caressing South Africa’s past.IMG_20170720_141640

My choice this time was her anthology ‘Crimes of Conscience,’ which highlights how Apartheid left many South Africans with either the choice of alcoholism like the character of Rose in Blinder, or joining underground sabotage movements riddled with spies like the characters of Aly and Derek. In crimes of conscience, there is fire but no one sits around it;  at least long enough to finish their story. Nadine’s story tells of young men that go away and says little of wither-to:

The Young go away: once it was to the mines, now -the radio said- it was over the border to learn how to fight. Sons walked out of clearing mud huts; past the chief’s house; past the children playing with models of police patrol Land Rovers made of twisted wire. The children called out, Where are you going? The young men didn’t answer and they hadn’t come back’.

Crimes of Conscience being a collection of short stories only provoked a hunger for tall tales which will tell more about the young men’s journey. Bessie Head’s ‘When Rain Clouds Gather’ was that long tale that revealed why the young men left, where to and why they hadn’t come back.

Makhaya the pivot of this novel is a young man set to flight by savagery and greed. He was tired of the Tin gods called the white men, with peaches and cream skin. He cared less of the old man in the sky who didn’t have the humility to put on a black skin.

‘I am Makhaya, the Black Dog, and as such I am tossed about by life. Life is only torture and torment to me and not something I care to understand.’

Makhaya’s name was an irony, it is for one who stays home, yet he didn’t. As the eldest child of his home, he choose his longing for a free world over a traditional expectation fraught with the grip of apartheid.

‘His reasons for leaving were simple: He could not marry and have children in a country where black men where called ‘boy’ and ‘dog’ and ‘kaffir’. The continent of Africa was vast without end and he simply felt like moving out of the part of it that was mentally and spiritually dead through the constant perpetuation of false beliefs.’

 Wail of approaching sirens from the patrol van of the South African Police reminds him that the journey ahead will not be easy. The seven-feet-high barriers of close tautly drawn barbed wire stand to remind him of the mountains to conquer. But yet he looked up at the stars and they winked at him.

Moments after crossing the border, Makhaya’s demand for shelter is greeted with an accusation from a jarring voice of an old woman ‘I say You are one of the Spies from over the border…All the spies in the world are coming into our country. I tell you, you are a spy! You are a spy!’ But his quiet speech impresses her and she offers a spare hut for Ten Shillings. On settling into his makeshift accommodation for the night, he gets his next big shock as that 10yr old child with full bold stare offered herself.

‘What do you want?’ he asked
The hands darted back and there was a brief silence; then she said, ‘You Know.’
‘I don’t,’ he said.
She kept quiet as though puzzling this out. At last she said, ‘My grandmother won’t mind as long as you pay me.’

Like most illegal migrants, one discomfort about his journey is that he had to invent lies upon lies. He needed another lie to face registration as a refugee seeking political asylum in Bostwana. But his journey was not as invisible as he thought; the asylum office already lay in wait for him. Makhaya’s picture was on the front page under a headline: DANGEROUS SABOTUER FLEES BANNING ORDERS. His response to the question posed by the British colonial officer qualified him to fill the asylum form: ‘Do you like Kwame Nkrumah?’  With no need to lie anymore, Makhaya owned his Identity subsequently.

‘Where do you come from?’
‘South Africa,’ Makhaya said
The old man shook his head. ‘That terrible place,’ he said. The good God don’t like it.’

In stepping away from his shadowy live, he experienced the kindness of strangers. He was showered the hospitality of the poor in the village of Golema Mmidi; a place for people who have fled to escape tragedies of life. In Golema Mmidi; the land of crop growers, he finds a job and a home the very night he arrived. Gilbert Bafour gave him more than he had hoped for. His relationship with Gilbert Bafour the British Migrant becomes a paradox Makhaya will have to make peace with; running away from the White men in South Africa only to end up being saved by another White man in Bostwana was a difficult reality.

But Bostwana was not paradise, the country was in the grip of severe drought, had poor agricultural progress and grazing culture, the structural complexity was a challenge to the dream of a developed society which progressive Gilbert Bafour had for the country. Gilbert will find his self at the center of a violent storm for misunderstanding tribal land tenures in a bid to implement controlled grazing. For Africans the concept of cooperatives though similar to communal land ownership, was not the same after all; they definitely could not replace each other as Gilbert wished. Even where development is well intended for a people, distrust for the white skin and people in power made Gilbert’s truth appear a lie. In the imminent divides in Bostawa, Gilbert and Makhaya were left to figure out how to bring people and knowledge together but the antagonist Chief Matenge was no easy walk-over.

In his time in Bostwana, he will get to learn that Traditional prejudice and tribalism was the devil that drove Bostwana apart; the old man who had tried to dampen his hope on the night he crossed the border was only being realistic:

‘Ha, I see now,’ the old man said…You are running away from tribalism. But just ahead of you is the worst tribal country in the world. We Barolongs are neighbors of the Bastwana, but we cannot get along with them. They are a thick-headed lot who think no further than this door. Tribalism is meat and drink to them.’
‘Oh Papa,’ he (Makhaya) said. ‘I just want to step on free grounds. I don’t care about people. I don’t care about anything, not even the white man. I want to feel what it is like to live in a free country and then maybe some of the evils in my life will correct themselves.’

Like all migrants who are desperate to flee their country, they always believe the light bulbs will turn on the other side, they often underestimate the awaiting experience of being a refugee. Even if Makheya forgot to remember he was one, Chief Matenga reminded him, he kept the pot of hate boiling by pulling the refugee card. The narratives here point to the modern day sentiments that many have against refugees. People like Chief Matenge have no sun inside them, they have inherited contempt for humans who are in oppression or fleeing it.

‘Either I go or the refugee goes,’ he (Matenge) said. ‘Howcan people feel safe with acriminal and murderer in their midst? That is what the story says: he (Makhaya) is a criminal and murderer who walks around with bombs in his pocket.’

Chief Matenge belonged to the insane part of mankind, but can a dog bark forever? His hatred for refugees was greeted with the best response from his kind brother: ‘The world is full of refugees.’ Chief Seketo told him. Chief Matenge’s evil plans rather provoked Makhaya’s residency in Bostwana to be granted, with support from George Appleby Smith who stuck his head out for him against a government that was strongly anti-refugee.

Over time in the village of Golema Mmidi, Makhaya learnt that the grass was not greener on the other side, and that oppression had no race; beyond the white oppressors of Africa was also the African Oppressors; Africans stealing from Africans like Chief Matenge. In spite of  Makhaya’s experiences, being charitable to a civilization as was the case in South Africa remained hard, after all those years of strife and struggle cannot be buried like that.

Published in 1969, the character of Makhaya mirrors the author’s life. He was her double, a dream the author Bessie Head evoked to help her live her realities of being stateless, living as a refugee in Bostwana having fled apartheid in South Africa. Her narratives are as relevant today as ever before. She projects the idea that refugees are also migrants. In Zulu’s Makhaya-who just desires peace and harmony- meeting British Gilbert-who is running away from England, a country he no longer loved- in Bostwana, Bessie tells that migration is not a thing of the North or South.

Pivotal to reading this book was my need to understand what happened to people in oppression in South Africa during the apartheid. Makhaya’s story tells of those whose only choice was to flee and pursue freedom in another space. Like them, in present day world, nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict and persecution. UNHCR estimates that over 22 million out of an unprecedented 65 million people around the world who have been forced out of their home are refugees.  Until now, refugees suffer torrents of hatred with only pockets of love to counter it.

~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Burning Grass

Spiraling violence between the Fulani herdsmen and different communities in Nigeria; especially farming communities, aroused my need to understand the socio-economic culture of the herdsmen. My search to learn more of what fabric the Fulani’s, the most dispersed and culturally diverse people in Africa were made of, led me to the Burning Grass.IMG_20170720_141146
In this Novella, the narratives of Mai Sunsaye, the chief of Dokan Toro did not disappoint me. Many of the details he gives of the Fulani herdsmen, serves to understand their socio-economic pattern, and why town dwellers and the nomads continue have conflicting relationships.

‘Understand this: We Fulani’s do not like you town dwellers. We love simple life which makes men free and brave and gives women a strong position. Can you understand that?’

For all the years he has lived with his most cherished identity as a Fulani, Mai Sunsaye can tell from nature when it is was time to move South or North. Sitting beside his quiver full of arrows, he smelt the smoke fumes in the air and he knew it was of the burning grass: when the grass begins to burn, it is time for the herdsmen to be moving the cattle southward, to the banks of the great river.
Days are, when they move to escape the tax collectors. But when Mai Sunsaye moved on this faithful day, it was not to escape the tax collector, it was at the order of the Sokugo; ‘the charm of the Fulani cattle men; a magic that turned studios men into wanderers’. This charm that infects its victim with a wandering disease sent by Sunsaye’s enemy Ardo, has been brought upon him by the grey-breasted Senegal dove trailing a talisman.
Unbeknowest to Mai Sunsaye, following the bird’s movement would mean deserting his sense of reason, his wife, his children and his people.When asked about his wandering, Sunsaye will tell anyone that cared to listen that he was in search of Fatimeh, the Kanuri slave girl whom he saved from her masters. Fatimeh was caught up in a love triangle with Sunsaye’s love sick son Rikku and Hodio whom she eloped with. All Sunsaye wanted was to bring Fatimeh back to his most loved son Rikku. But in his search for one, he finds another.
In the course of his journey, Mai Sunsaye opened a window for readers to view the nomadic life of the Fulani. Through lonely hills, rivulets and rocks, the herdsmen will thrive. Loneliness was their drink, they are nomads; wandering cattlemen and women.  As their families are scattered beneath different piece of sky in their moving lives, it is little surprise that Mai Sunsaye walks into the embrace of his first son Jalla who has now grown rich with a thousand cattle in the town of New Chanka.

Fiction and Development

This picture of grazing Cattle was taken in the Mambilla-Plateau area of Nigeria. The Fulani herdsmen and their Mambillas  in Sardauna Local Government Area of Taraba remain in conflict over land dispute, farming and grazing route.

Mai Sunsaye also wanders into the home of his lost son Hodio who informs him he had lost Fatimeh in the process of eloping and then snatched his other brother Jalla’s betrothed Amina to be his wife. More painful for him is the news that Hodio quite the Nomadic life and settled into sugar making.

Sunsaye shook his head disapprovingly, ‘You have given up cattle For this? You whom I brought up with the cattle in your veins?’
Hodio laughed ‘The choice was made for me, after what I had done to Rikku and to Jalla.’

In Sunsaye’s absence, his enemy Ardo becomes Chief, rustles his cattles, burns his home and made of his wife and remaining children Rikku and Liebe wanderers. At the urge of the sukugo spell which he was still under, his wandering sickness finally leads him to the Legendary Wild Woman. She was known to always dress in white, leading white cattles with a lion beside her. Alas she was Fatimeh! He is excited, likewise her. She quickly cures him of the wandering disease.
Back to his senses, Sunsaye was able to gather the broken remnants of his family and also restore his chieftancy. But when love sick Rikku and Fatimeh reunites as Mai Sunsaye had hoped for, things were different as even love can wander away. In the time they were apart, Fatimeh had brought forth twins and therefore was now a free-born who is free to marry, but the love Rikku had for her was no more.
In Sunsaye’s words, ‘on the day of death, there is no medicine.’ After gathering his family round the fire again; each telling what they had seen and heard since their separation, Mai Sunsaye died.
Like the author Cyprain Ekwensi, the colorful nuggets of information the character of Mai Sunsaye gives on the Fulani’s helps in understanding their uniqueness. Through him, we learn about the life and values of the Fulani herdsmen:

‘We are fulani’s , the son of Dan fodio, master magicians, we who fight like cats , who die a hundred deaths and live, we who test out manhood by the Sharro’
 ‘we are men of cattles, our cattles come first and since it is our wish to take them to better pastures, all else must succumb to that wish.’
 ‘There is that immediate instinct of the Nomad, developed over a lifetime of exposure to danger from man, beast and nature.’
 ‘A good herdsman must know each one of his cattle by name, colour and habit: the Fulani does.’
 They could ‘eat kneaded flour in sour milk’ and other things but ‘Fulani would not eat the meat from cattle: it was forbidden by the herdsmen.’
 ‘A town must have the smell of a cattle to please a Fulani. If there is no smell of a cattle-dung, it’s like a hospital.’
 ‘Most of the Fulani girls were lightskin with straight noses and thin lips like those of the white people; they could milk cows, separate butter and cheese from the milk, ferment the milk and cook. She hawks the sour milk.’
 ‘A Fulani youth who had not taken a flogging at the sharro would never find a maiden to marry him’
 Their ‘Custom says that a woman is no wife until she is brought under a hut.’
‘To the herdsmen who has spent most of his time on the move, home was a cluster of huts, anywhere from which no more movement was contemplated.’

Reading this book, I could hear the footsteps of Fulani boy taking that trek that will prove him a man. I could see the jaws of cow grinding their cord, I could almost hear the hoots and guffaws of the herdsmen, the clashing of horns. In this book, people and places were so alive.
Written in 1962, the author Cyprian Ekwensi impressed me again. Just like in his novel ‘Jagua Nana’.  I think I love stories where women not only save men but save themselves. The gender balance in this book is commendable. With characters such as Ligu the champion cattle grazer and Fatimeh the legendary wild woman, The Burning Grass became a story, not just of cattle men, but of cattle women too.
This enthralling story set in Northern Nigeria not only gives insight into understanding this ethnic minority group holding the largest pastoral nomadics in the world. The story helps one to understand the incessant conflicts between the nomadic herdsmen and the town dwellers currently on the rise.
Details given in the Burning Grass helps shed light on why since 1987, ‘nomadic school’ educational projects of Nigerian governments targeted at millions of out of school children of Fulani herdsmen has failed. Herdsmen continue to display apathy towards these government driven educational projects. Though language may serve as an impediment, there is also the lose of grazing areas which may make it impossible for nomad children to negotiate herding and schooling within the same space.
The nomadic Fulani’s until present day remains challenged with incidence of cattle rustling, conflict, rural banditing, animal diseases among others. As Mai Sunsaye said, ‘we (Fulanis) are men of cattles, our cattles come first and since it is our wish to take them to better pastures, all else must succumb to that wish.’ Perhaps in teaching them how to grow their cattle sustainably and make their young increase, we may finally begin their education.
~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha shares the journey of how Chiyo-Chan, the young girl from the Seashores of Yoriodo, born in the year of the monkey, with so much water in her personality became Nita Sayuri the renowned Geisha of Gion in Japan. The Fisherman’s daughter from the little dump village of Yoriodo which had no glamorous spot, will as a child, with her father’s consent and Mr. Tanaka’s support, be bundled with her elder sister Satsu, away from their little tipsy home by the cliff, into a new place where they knew no one.

Nine years old Chiyo is astonished at her first glimpse of city light, and right under the puddles of yellow glow in the city of Kyoto, she is forcefully separated from Satsu. Unlike her sister, Chiyo’s translucent gray eyes got the fascination of everyone and defined her destiny; Satsu was taken to Miyagawa-cho, a home for prostitutes, while Chiyo ends in the Nitta Okiya, a place where Geishas are nurtured.
An earlier visit to Mr. Tanaka’s home in Senzuru had unknowingly given Chiyo a peep into her future, but little did she know that the beautiful woman in pink kimono with an obi tied around her middle, entertaining men in the teahouse in Senzuru, was nothing compared to the sight of the exquisitely beautiful woman that will welcome her in the Nitta Okiya. Meeting more elegantly dressed women like Mother and Granny, and then a little girl of her age Pumpkin further puzzled Chiyo to seek knowledge on where she found herself.

‘May I ask, ma’am…what is this place?’
‘It’s an Okiya…It’s where Geisha live. If you work very hard, you’ll grow up to be a Geisha yourself.’

In the Nitta Okiya, Chiyo became the most junior of cocoons. She was exposed to store house of Kimonos so expensive they could buy the whole village of Senzuru and Yoriodo where she came from. But such exposure to wealth, beauty and glamour like she had never seen before did not take her heart away from home. Being sent out into the world isn’t necessarily the same as leaving your home behind you. Daily, she thought of her sick and dying mother, of Satsu who she misses, and her father who sold them for money. The hatred of Hatsumomo and everything that made her life more difficult strengthened her determination to run away.
Though at this time, Chiyo had commenced her schooling to become a Geisha with Pumpkin, a brief reunion with Satsu (who now worked as a prostitute) led to their hatching an escape plan. Daily Chiyo planned how she would escape through the roof in the Okiya to reach the Minamiza theatre where Satsu was waiting as planned. A broken arm from her roof fall spoiled it all, Chiyo was brought back to the Okiya and made to understand that her burden of debt just increased.

‘Do you know how much I paid for you?’ Mother said
‘No, ma’am… But you’re going to tell me you paid more than I am worth.’
‘You are right about that!…Half a Yen might have been more than you’re worth….I paid seventy-five yen for you, that’s what I paid. Then you went and ruined a kimono, and stole a brooch, and now you’ve broken your arm, so I’ll be adding medical expenses to your debts as well. Plus you have your meals and lessons, and just this morning I heard from the mistress of the Tatsuyo, over in Miyagawa-cho, that your older sister has run away. The Mistress there still hasn’t paid me what she owes. Now she tells me she’s not going to do it! I’ll add that to your debt as well, but what difference will it make? You already owe me more than you’ll ever repay… I’ll suppose you could repay it after ten or fifteen years as a Geisha,…if you happened to be a success. But who would invest another sen in a girl who runs away?’ Mother said.
‘Throughout my months in Gion, I’d certainly imagined that money must have changed hands before Satsu and I were taken from our home. I often thought of the conversation I’d overhead between Mr. Tanaka and my father, and of what Mrs Fidget had said about Satsu and me being “suitable.” I’d wondered with horror whether Mr. Tanaka had made money by helping to sell us, and how much we had cost. But I’d never imagined that I myself would have to repay it.’

Hence, she wallowed in an overwhelming feeling of despondency. In Aunty’s words,
‘You’ll never be a Geisha now!… I warned you not to make a mistake like this! And now there’s nothing I or anyone else can do to help you.’ 9yrs old Chiyo was hereafter condemned to the drudgery of a maid for trying to run; ‘I was living only half in Gion but the other half of me lived in my dreams of going home.’ A letter from Mr. Tanaka changed her horizon forever.

‘Dear Chiyo,
…Six weeks after you left for your new life in Kyoto, the suffering of your honored mother came to its end, and only a few weeks afterward your honored father departed this world as well…Your sister, Satsu, came through Yoriodo late this past fall, but ran away again at once with the son of Mr. Sugi…’

To learn in a single moment that both her mother and father had died and left her, and her sister too lost to her forever, made her mind feel like a broken vase that would not stand. In the years to come, her life was like a big bee in a jar, circling and circling with nowhere to go. It wasn’t worth it thinking of a sister she lost, a mother whom she hoped was at peace in paradise and a father who’d been so willing to sell them and live out the end of his life alone. Chiyo had no choice but to begin negotiating her past and future.

‘The stale air had washed away, the past was gone. My mother and father were dead and I could do nothing to change it. But I suppose that for the past year, I’d been dead in a way too. And my Sister… yes, she was gone; but I wasn’t gone. I’m not sure this will make sense to you, but I felt as though I’d turned to look in a different direction, so that I no longer faced backward toward the past, but forward toward the future. And now the question confronting me was this: What would that future be?’

The gods will smile on her and she experienced the kindness of strangers like the Chairman, Nobu and Mameha, with the chairman playing a small-god designing the architecture of the rest of her life. Under Mameha’s nurturing, she resumed her lessons as an apprentice Geisha, learning that though some where born into the lineage of Geisha, others were forced into it:

‘We don’t become geisha so our lives will be satisfying. We become geisha because we have no other choice.’

Dance is the most revered of a Geisha’s art, Chiyo mastered it along with the tea ceremony, flower arrangement. She learnt to always look pretty and alert, to wear the Okobo as though it was her feet’s glove, mastered the shamisen and regalia of the apprentice geisha until it was no longer cumbersome, and elegantly displayed the momoware. On the day of her debut ceremony, like a caterpillar turns to a butterfly, little Chiyo died and a beautiful Geisha named Sayuri was born. As the seasons changed, she ruled over Hatsumomo as she became the adopted daughter of the Nitta Okiya. Sayuri Nitta became one of the twenty greatest Geisha of Gion’s past, for almost three decades, she mizuage set an unbeaten record in Gion.
While Sayuri’s story had somewhat of a happy ending as she remained drowned in beauty, but that is not the case for other Geisha’s like Hatsumomo. Unlucky Geisha’s end up as prostitutes or drink themselves to death. Such is a reality that makes being a Geisha not sustainable and more so continues to raise the question on whether beyond class and artistic skill, if there really is much moral difference between the Geisha that ties her Obi to the back and the prostitute that ties her Obi to the front? The two have a lot on in common; they become geisha or prostitute because they mostly lack choice, they become play things of men in power, their success and survival is dependent on their ability to entertain men and get paid or kept for it.
Looming over this fiction novel was the mood of the Nation during the Allied Occupation in Japan. Sayuri sprinkled stories of the second war until the impact of the war hit Gion and resulted in the closure of all Tea houses, rendering both the Geisha’s and Prostitutes to a life of helplessness. Kuraitani as they called the years of the great depression was a valley of darkness, a decade of crushed hopes. Through her narratives, we feel what happens to citizens when a country goes to war. War was indeed a leveler, it turned some Geishas to prostitutes and factory workers. It turned appliance manufacturers into builders of fighter airplanes, and more so Kimono makers into parachute makers. Left with Ghostly memories of Gion, Sayuri survived making parachutes. The reopening of Tea houses at the end of the war was marked with symbolisms; shoes of American Soldiers had replaced the usual rows of men’s shoes which the Geisha’s were used to. And once again the Geisha’s took their place as a National Treasure.
Authur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha hit so many notes on themes relevant to the International development sector. First is the narrative of Gender, projected by Income Inequality which reinforces the culture of Geisha. There was not a single story in this book about any woman who saved herself, or lived independent of men’s mercy. The theme of Poverty provoked by the war and more by the rural/urban dichotomy is noted. Next is the concept of Vulnerability expressed by the Geisha’s and in the character of Satsu and Chiyo, whom as vulnerable children were sold into a life of slavery. This singular act of selling the two sisters for cash by their father understood as Child-trafficking, and Satsu’s purchase by Sex Traffickers, likewise Chiyo’s purchase as a maid and then a Geisha who is enslaved to generate income for the Okiya, remains a foundation of core problems which many development institutions are positioned to solve. Reports on Trafficking in Persons show an increase over the years, specifically, trafficking women and children for sexual exploitation is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world2017 Estimates referenced to the International Labor Organization, 24.9 million victims are trapped in modern-day slavery and 4.8 million (19%) people  are trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally.
In appreciating Arthur Golden’s contributions to relevant development discourse, I could not help imagining the many Chiyo’s and Satsu’s in different parts of the world, who continue to dream of freedom, on how they wish daily that time runs backward while dealing with the difficulty of running away. To these ones, I wish the kindness of strangers, and the experience of knowing that something besides cruelty can be found in this world. May the next turn of life’s wheel bring to them freedom.
~Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Devil on the Cross

If you want to know Ngugi  Wa Thiong’o and his politics, this novel will tell. The ‘Devil on the Cross’ is dense, multi-themed, and educative in a way that challenges ignorance and apathy both for the oppressor and the oppressed.

ngugi 2

Ngugi Wathiong’O  ©2017 UM-Amherst                                                                                                                                                                                      

His manner of telling is natural, like a Sage reminding his children and their generations to come the things they must not forget, the wisdom and knowledge of their fathers.
Written in Gikuyu and translated into English, the Devil on the Cross embraces readers with characters in natural states we can relate to. A Matatu ride across the Rift valley to IIlmorog creates a space for passengers to explore inhibiting conflicts that deters them from living happy lives, their discussions were insightful to understanding the problems of the Kenyan Nation.With an exciting point of view, its narratives represent multiple issues that are of concern to international development.
It makes a case for the value of Literature:

‘Did they ever teach you that literature is a nation’s treasure? Literature is the honey of a nation’s soul, preserved for her children to taste forever, a little at a time. A nation that has cast away its literature is a nation that has sold its soul and has been left a mere shell.’

Through the character of Gatuiria a junior research fellow in African Culture, he made a case for Language Equity:

‘Gatuiria spoke Gikuyu like many educated Kenya-people who stutter like babies when speaking their national languages but conduct fluent conversations in foreign languages…The slavery of language is the slavery of the mind and nothing to be proud of.
Let us now look about us. Where are our national languages now? Where are the books written in the alphabets of our national languages? Where is our own literature now? Where is the wisdom and knowledge of our fathers now? Where is the philosophy of our fathers now?’

And likewise a case for Cultural equity:

Our culture has been dominated by the Western imperialist cultures. That is what we call in English cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism is the mother to the slavery of the mind and body. It is cultural imperialism that gives birth to the mental blindness and deafness that persuades people to allow foreigners to tell them what to do in their own country.
It is a tragedy that there is no where we can go to learn the history of our country… our stories, our riddles, our songs, our customs, our traditions; everything about our national heritage has been lost to us.
Who can play the gicaandi for us today and read and interpret the verses written on the gourd? Today who can play the wandindi, the one-stringed violin… Today who can play the bamboo flute, whose sound makes the hearts of a young man and a maiden beat in unison as they go to the fields to scare birds from millet fingers while the moon casts its light over the land?’

Mwaura the Matatu Driver’s character raises critical questions that are akin to challenging theories of religious absolutism/relativism:

‘Let’s go back to the question of God and Satan. I have never set eyes on either of them. But let’s agree they both exist. Each has his own powers. And it is true that both have always sought votes on this earth, the vote are cast in the heart of men. Can’t you see then that each is capable of improving or ruining your fortunes on this earth?…So we businessmen pay off God and the Devil against each other. We don’t like to anger either of them. We pray to both.
Business is my temple, and money is my God. But if some other God exists, that’s all right. Sometimes I pour out a little liquor for him so that he won’t be tempted to do to me what he once did to Job. I don’t examine the world too minutely. If it leans this way, I lean with it. The earth is round, and it changes.

Beyond his highlights of corruption being the cancer in Kenya, what I loved most in this novel is its very apt narrative of the inequality between the man and the woman. Waringa’s character tells a story of Mahua Kareendi, a girl whose realities represents the struggle of many teenage mothers and broadly, women in general:

…she was born in the village, her education is limited. Before she reaches Form Two, Kareendi has had it.
She is pregnant.
Who is responsible?
A student, say. The student doesn’t have a cent to his name… Kareendi where can you turn now?
On the other hand, we could imagine that the man responsible for the pregnancy is a Loafer from the village. The loafer is jobless. He hasn’t even a place to lay his head…Little Kareendi where will you turn?  Perhaps the loafer has a job in the city, but his salary is five shillings a month…who will wipe away Kareendi’s tears now?
Or let’s say that a rich man is the father of the child. Isn’t that kind of affair the fashion these days? The rich man has a wife…
Student, Loafer, Rich man- their response is the same when Kareendi tells them about her condition. “What! Kareendi, who are you claiming is responsible for the pregnancy? Me? How have you worked that out? Go on and pester someone else with your delusions, Kareendi of the easy thighs, ten-cent Kareendi. You can cry until your tears have filled oil drums- it will make no difference. Kareendi, you can’t collect pregnancies wherever you may and then lay them at my door just because one day I happened to tease you…’
It is appalling that babies should emerge from the mother’s womb as corpses. Kareendi has the baby. And she doesn’t throw it into a latrine pit, nor does she abandon it at the road side or in a bus.  Kareendi places on the shoulder of her mother or the grandmother the burden of bringing up this baby. Bur Kareendi’s mother and grandmother warn (her) not to make a habit of this:
“Be on guard from now on, Kareendi. Do not forget that men have stings, vicious and corrosive, the poison of which never leaves the flesh of their victims.”

At the time of reading Kareendi’s story, I was reflecting on the destructive words of Tanzanian President John Magufuli:

‘As Long as I am President… no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school…after getting pregnant, you are done.
Justifying his position, he further says: ‘After calculating some few mathematics, she’d be asking the teacher in the classroom, ‘Let me go out and breastfeed my crying baby.’

Juxtaposing Magufuli’s narratives with the narratives of Ngugi, one can’t help noting that the former (Ngugi Wathiong’O) is empathetic and progressive, while the later (John Magufuli) is judgemental and retrogressive. I couldn’t help thinking I will recommend this novel to President John Magufuli as it may offer him a mind-shift. Perhaps if he knows better, he will do better.
Unlike him, Ngugi is that father that knows the pain that his daughters are not telling, what the four walls of  the Boss’s office sees and hears. He knows that even when a girl survives the crookedness of her young lovers, she will still have Boss Kihara-whose hairy chest has been shaved with money-to contend with. He knows how though tempted, she is forced to turn down Kihara‘s shopping baskets from haute culture houses of Paris in rejection wrapped with civility.  He knows that in soulless cities like Nairobi, the Modern Love Bar and Lodging has become the main employment bureau for girls, and women’s thighs are the tables on which contracts are signed. He knows that amongst all other common struggle, the modern African woman still has to make peace with the fact that the world wants to eat from her thighs.
The Devil on the Cross is a novel that parades too many devils. Ngugi does a good job of nailing them all on the cross of Inequality. Generally, this novel addresses the different shades of inequalities and how it undignifies and divides people; it projects the urban/rural dichotomies, the pain of the rural people whose sweats are used to fatten urban cities that don’t welcome them. It exposes the political, economic and socio-cultural systems that create these gaps. Global inequality projects like the Guardian, Ford foundation  #InequalityIs among others will find this great novel a complement to their course. The message is clear; addressing inequality should be at the centre of all development endeavours.

Musing on The Brontë Sisters

We cannot talk of Victorian literature without mentioning the Brontë Dynasty; Sisters The Bronte SistersCharlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. In my moments of wool-gathering recently, I reminisced on their contributions to literature, I thought about how these clergyman’s daughters expressed outstanding understanding of society, the passion and insight they give about the realities of their time. Then in my usual frame of reference, I also considered choosing who among them wrote best for social change.
The themes of the Victorian Era novels which to me focused often on romantic love, makes it easy to dismiss some of them as being irrelevant to the present day development discourse, but I think that perspective is not totally right. The Brontë sisters did write about romantic love, but they also wrote about other things. The eldest of the Brontë’s Charlotte did impress me with her Novel Jane Eyre which I have read with pleasure over and over again, offering time to watch and critique the different movies it inspired. More so, Emily Brontë with her only novel Wuthering Heights made my jaws drop; the multi-layered novel that revolves around the wounded soul Heathcliff who is for some a Byronic hero thrilled me with the circles of life and how sometimes it takes a generation dying off before healing happens.

The Brontë sisters wrote about marriage in very romantic ways that continues to appeal to many, we saw male characters of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre and Heathcliff in Wuthering Height express their love through arrogance, dominance and manipulation, seducing their women and even most of us readers. But all the love in the writing of the two elder sisters did not seduce me; it was Anne Brontë; the less known one, that seduced me.
These sisters who wrote these classics under male Pseudonyms (a reflection of the existing Patriarchal system of their time where women were not encouraged to write), may have tried to keep their feminism off the page, but Audacious Anne couldn’t conform.

anne brontePublished in 1847 Anne’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, dared to present a story of an empowered woman Helen Graham who risked it all and walks out of an abusive marriage with her son. Her rebellion against the social norms of that era was revolutionary. Domestic Violence though existing over different era, must have been romanticised at the time, with women not having property rights, income and being complete dependants of their fathers and husbands, it would have taken a lot of guts for a young single mother of a son to pull it off, and Anne Brontë’s character did it confidently to save her son from the corruption of his father.

With the character of Gilbert Markham the hero in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall who will help a victim of violence escape and take no advantage of her vulnerability, Anne shows aversion for violent men. She does not romanticise violence or view badly behaved men with rose tinted glasses as was the practice of writers in her time. Through Gilbert, she projects the model man who will bear no animosity with a woman who says NO even when he is her benefactor. Through Frederick Lawrence she modelled that men who love and care for their immediate and extended families where no lesser men.

It’s not that the act of a woman leaving her husband was new in the novel of that era, in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s wife Isabella also ran away from her husband and this would have me think of Emily Brontë trying to throw a feminist punch, but being that it was not the central conflict in her book, Isabella‘s act held little water. With a matchless audacity, Anne Bronte centralised this in the character of Helen Graham. Not bowing to the prevailing sentiment of her time, she brings to the fore details of how a husband’s alcoholism destroys a home and how the only way to fight and survive his addictions might be to leave.The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
For ages, we have asked the question, why do women stay with abusive partners? In projecting issues of powerlessness and the importance of agency and space for any woman, Anne helps us understand why women stay; she exposes the stigma and discrimination suffered by divorcees and single mothers and their lack of social protection. Addressing this relative poverty and lack of financial freedom women suffered, Virginia Woolf a modernist feminist writer would proudly wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.

I am thrilled for Anne Brontë because her medieval novel is still relevant in modern times. The challenges of single mothers; their shaming, their discomfited lives of raising a child without a father, the constant judgement of their parental abilities and disdain for maternal authority is still very much alive in our time. This concept of a child being tied to a mother’s apron was introduced by her with an equally matching interpretation:

‘Mrs. Graham had brought her child with her, and on my mother’s expressing surprise that he could walk so far, she replied — ’It is a long walk for him; but I must have either taken him with me, or relinquished the visit altogether; for I never leave him alone; and I think, Mrs. Markham, I must beg you to make my excuses to the Millwards and Mrs. Wilson, when you see them, as I fear I cannot do myself the pleasure of calling upon them till my little Arthur is able to accompany me.’
‘But you have a servant,’ said Rose; ‘could you not leave him with her?’
‘She has her own occupations to attend to; and besides, she is too old to run after a child, and he is too mercurial to be tied to an elderly woman.’
‘But you left him to come to church.’
‘Yes, once; but I would not have left him for any other purpose; and I think, in future, I must contrive to bring him with me, or stay at home.’
‘Is he so mischievous?’ asked my mother, considerably shocked.
‘No,’ replied the lady, sadly smiling, as she stroked the wavy locks of her son, who was seated on a low stool at her feet; ‘but he is my only treasure, and I am his only friend: so we don’t like to be separated.’
‘But, my dear, I call that doting,’ said my plain-spoken parent. ‘You should try to suppress such foolish fondness, as well to save your son from ruin as yourself from ridicule.’
‘Ruin! Mrs. Markham!’
‘Yes; it is spoiling the child. Even at his age, he ought not to be always tied to his mother’s apron-string; he should learn to be ashamed of it.’
‘Mrs. Markham, I beg you will not say such things, in his presence, at least. I trust my son will never be ashamed to love his mother!’ said Mrs. Graham, with a serious energy that startled the company.

In a quiet way, Anne Brontë slipped in an unruly novel to harass the social conventions of the English Upper class society of her time. By challenging the laws of marriage, child custody, and the right of a divorced woman to love again, I think her work contributed instrumentally to making a case and preparing the path for present day consideration of women’s experience in global laws such as The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and other complimentary legal framework at national and state levels.
Being the lesser known of the one, Anne Brontë’s novel written with radical vigor may have been suppressed but not silenced; it will always be on my shelf.

Written By~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

…A Colossus of Victorian Lagos

Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter; Until Africans and other indigenous people tell their stories, the tale of the colonisation will always glorify the Colonist.
Reclaiming Africa’s right to tell her story, the story on The Life of James Pinson Labulo Davies begins at that period when colonists still constituted economic administration of Africa, and relied on their indigenous resources. In that era, books about Africa blinkered with Negrophobia, approving the doctrines of biological inferiority of the African race.  Stories of these periods are often framed to be that Europe Developed Africa and not that Europe was developed by Africa. This might be seen as the nub of the white saviour complex which continues to colour every development effort by Africans. Validating it, is the narrative of Joseph Comrade whose book Heart of Darkness projected Africans darkly and Europeans as the light bearer of the dark continent.
Through this time, one silent narrative which hasn’t been expounded much on Africa’s development is how Africans of that time helped to develop Africa; establishing trade ventures, building structures and institutions that have larger impact on citizens much more than any skewed colonial intervention did.  In this, the contribution of notable Africans whose effort has continued to sustain the Africa of today is swept beneath.
The Author Professor Adeyemo Elebute revisits Africa’s History in the Victorian Era to dig up a Colossus of Victorian Lagos who sadly has been long forgotten. By writing about The Life of James Pinson Labulo Davies, he altered history and gave a hero, his true place. So many narratives of social history in that era shares that great things can’t come out of Africa, but they were wrong; James Pinson Labulo Davies was great.

JPL Davies

A carte-de-visite portrait photograph of James Pinson Labulo Davies (b. 1929), taken by Camille Silvy in 1862.

His magical lifetime as an Entrepreneur, philanthropist, Naval Officer… whose memory was almost buried in the rubble of history has suddenly gained a new life through this book. J.P.L Davies was renowned for his contributions in the modernisation of Lagos; West Africa’s sea side city. Highlighted herein was his resistance to cessations; in support of Oba Dosumu, he played a significant role in the Lagos Treaty of Cession ensuring that the development of Africa’s largest city was done with more diplomacy. He pioneered cocoa export which eventually spread prosperity across the South-western Nigeria and sustained their free education policy for a long time. His contributions to building a significant town library is noted, His founding role in the first secondary school in Nigeria; CMS grammar school Lagos, has gone a long way in advancing education, instrumental in producing members of present day’s Nigerian Think-Tanks. Simply put, all of his innovations have continued to yield immeasurable fruits in Africa’s development.
Filled with so much authentic details, this book presents a Cosmopolitan African man whose ancestral roots lay in the interior Yoruba land, with a history that challenges the imperialist image of Africans. In focusing on the women in J.P.L David’s life, the author pulls out an interesting character who is relatively unknown in today’s world but who should be known for the insight she gives to Queen Victoria herself. Sarah Forbes Bonetta a West African of Royal blood was of Yoruba descent, orphaned and a captive of the dreadful slave hunt. In a twist of fate, she became a Goddaughter to Queen Victoria.

She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites’ as captured by Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy who in that time convinced King Ghezo of Dahomey to offer her to the Queen.

With permission from the Queen Victoria in 1862, she entered into a marriage with J.P.L. Davies in a one-of-a kind royal ceremony in Brighton; their daughter Victoria Davies (named after Queen Victoria) also enjoyed a close relationship with the Queen. It will be noted in other publications that teachers and children were given a one day holiday by the queen when her black godchild Victoria Davis passed her music examination.
Published in 2014, this book presents again some hidden history of Africa’s development and put Africans on the Victorian Era map, not just as biologically and mentally inferior people, but as major actors in their own development. By presenting dignified Africans, historically significant figures who had travelled widely with varying experiences, engaging in significant dialogue between Europe and Africa consequential on Africa’s development, it raises questions on the morality of many imperialist writer’s imaginations of Africa.
Reading it now makes me regret not reviewing it alongside the Heart of Darkness where Africans were completely depersonalised. It is interesting that J.P.L Davies lived through a period known as the Victorian Era (1837-1901), which also covers the writing and publication of Joseph Conrad’s fiction novella the Heart of Darkness. But it is sad that Joseph Comrade could only observe Africans whom he generously described as Natives, Negroes, Savages, Blackman. The life of J.P.L. Davies clearly invalidates Conrad’s theory of Africans; it is indeed an Antithesis of the Heart of Darkness.

Baba of Karo

Baba of Karo as she is known, tells stories that holds the secrets of the history and existing social systems in Hausa Land in Northern Nigeria that I never knew.  Compared to the realities of the present day Hausa’s which I am familiar with, things have definitely changed.IMG_2594
Baba with her story-telling skills and remarkable memory takes us through her life’s path within her community, sharing event of the past decades as she sincerely remembers it. In a time when women when Women’s voices from her region was rarely heard or captured in any book, Baba’s voice gives some illuminating view into the realities women lived and with what lens they viewed the world around them with.
Her chronicle of events through her childhood, her four marriages, a life time of bareness and old age begins prior to the era of British control of the Nigerian territory, down to 1950 when she recorded the narratives with the author Mary Smith.  Contextualising that era, Baba shared stories of domestic war, slave trade, and slave raiders, overwhelming culture of polygamy, and also the trend of marriages. She had no problem with expressing her opinion on tribalism, sharing her dislikes for other tribes like the Fulani.
Her identity as a Muslim Hausa woman was presented in ways I envied as she negotiated objectively with the concept of freedom through all her marriages. The degree of autonomy she expressed through roles that today could have been considered constraining, was admirable and a rarity with women of like identity in today’s world. Baba never had a child, but it didn’t stop her from answering mother to children her extended family willingly gave up to her. Baba, like many women of her time had serial divorces but there was no stigma or labelling to their status. At the death of her husband Hasan, she experienced widowhood but this too led to no social rejection.
In Baba’s time, it appeared to be a world full of marriages, I considered titling the book ‘ A book of Marriages’. Polygamy thrived even more as women had the agency to end their marriage. In expressing this, Baba tells of her marriages and the reason she went into them. She married her cousin and first husband Duma to please her father:
‘There was also Malam Maigari who wished to marry me, I promised him I would come to him later…Duma came to visit me, I accepted his money because father wanted me to do so. But because I didn’t really love him, I left him after a few years…Duma was tall and handsome and sensible, we lived together in peace with no quarrelling.’
After her Iddah (a 90 day period of celibacy observed by divorcees), she fulfilled her promise and married Malam Maigari, 15years after, she divorced him amicably and married Malam Hasan the farmer and prison keeper. After Hasan’s death, she had a marriage of shoes (where the wife lives apart from husband ) with Ibrahim. Compared to her sister-in-law Hasana who married 11 men, one of whom she married four times, Baba had an average record for the time; just four. The high incidence of divorce highlighted what I could term the instability of the Hausa marriages or in another perspective, the agency of women to end what doesn’t fit their life.
Using relevant indexes, Baba of Karo’s story, set at the inception of what we may call development in Northern Nigeria, raises questions on what social progress could mean in a society. Circa 1950 Hausa land, Hausa people unlike now, seemed more progressive, meeting the needs of its people, women enjoyed more freedom, enabling them to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, thus being able to reach their full potentials. In those times, Karuwai, Prostitution was legal; it was also illegal to owe prostitutes. Yandaudas the homosexuals were recognised in the larger society without being stigmatised, teenage pregnancy was a rarity, adoption of children was without stigma, divorce was acceptable even on a serial level and domestic violence existed at an insignificant level. There was no Sharia law and yet the people were law abiding with only few criminals in jail. Poverty was not a severe issue as people sharing food and things was part of the existing giving culture. Set aside the high level of infant mortality that had existed at the time as captured by Baba of Karo, I am still wondering through this book if development had indeed brought much good or taken away the good in Hausa Land? The wealth of cultural resources and social mechanisms which I have come to know of through this book, are definitely missing in the modern day Hausa land.
Most striking in all Baba‘s narratives where some ideologies underpinning many challenges of development which we battle with today. Baba serving as a midwife, like some modern day adherent shared societal beliefs and misconceptions of her time regarding, circumcision, medicine and breastfeeding; all of which did not emerge from any form of empirical test.
‘Sometimes, if it is a girl child, the father refuses to allow the clitoris to be cut. But the mother will never refuse to have this done, she wants her daughter to grow big and strong. If you do not clip the clitoris, you will see the girl getting ill, she gets thin until she dies. If she starts to become like that, and the clitoris is clipped, and medicine put on, then she recovers.’
‘When a child is seven days old, we rub the soles of his feet with his mother’s milk to kill the flesh there, then even in the dry season he won’t feel the heat of the path. If the mother’s milk gets onto the child’s genital, it will kill them too…she should always cover other breast with her cloth so that the milk shall not fall on the child’s genitals… if the child is a boy he won’t be able to do anything with a women; if a girl, there will be no entrance, it will be blocked up or her genitals will die.’
‘A mother should not go to her husband while she has a child she is suckling. If she does, the child will get thin, he dries up, he won’t get strong, he won’t get healthy. If she goes after two years, it is nothing. It is not sleeping with her husband that spoils her milk, it is the pregnancy that does that…If he insists, she should wear the Kolanut charm…there is medicine to make the pregnancy ‘go to sleep’, but that is not a good thing.’
Putting this book in any single class or genre of conventional literature or academic writing remains a challenge. The author Mary Smith blends history, ethnography with elements of autobiography embellished with songs to give readers an enduring book highlighting political issues of race, culture, slavery, marriage constructs, adoption, widowhood and gender among others.
Mary Smith’s anthropological record of the Hausa people captured through oral accounts given by Baba, carries a sense of compelling authenticity. Nonetheless, there is still the danger of a single story to consider.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

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