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 vigour 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.

JPL DAVIES (2).JPG

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. http://tiny.cc/s0r3ky

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

The Dew Breaker

Ka, the daughter of a Haiti migrant is an artist; sculptor-or in her words an obsessive Wood-carver-whose only single subject so far is her father Pa. She immortalised in a Sculpture which Gabrielle a Haiti born TV star desires to purchase. Ka and her Pa, set out to deliver her work to the Gabrielle, an Avid art collector but Pa, alters the plan midway by running off with the Sculpture to an unknown place. The panic created by his disappearance welcomes a reader into this novel.

Missing Pa reappears with a request that the sculptor be not sold as he has offered it to use thisthe water. Ka’s cherished sculpture now lay plunged at the bottom of the Lake as Pa explains that he is undeserving of being immortalised with a past which he is not proud of, but will eternally be reminded of by long pitted scar on his right cheek. That scar only disappears with a smile but Pa’s past in which he was not a Prey but a Hunter, continues to haunt any smile that even Ka his good angel can bring to his face.

But Ka forgives him, indulging him for her fear that he might be eradicated from her life. She reminisces on her father’s love for art. His obsessions with the Brooklyn Museum as he is mesmerised by the golden masks, the shawabtis, schist tablets, Nefertiti and Osiris in the ancient Egyptian’s rooms which are his favourite is shared; Pa particularly liked how the Egyptians grieved by mummification and in like manner had thought of being buried with his sculpture.

Ka’s story gives way to that of other characters like Nadine and the nameless couple who makes the novel a projection of the fragmented lives of migrants from Haiti who settled in New York. In Nadine, a reader gains insight into the carnival of thoughts burning in a migrant’s head, the barters with their gods and the interminable distance they have to deal with as they are caught between two worlds; home and the green land. To get a green card, they make the hard choice of living in a space with conflict of language and culture, taking jobs that are unrelated to their home profession; sometimes, two, three or more jobs just to meet the expectations of the people at home and manage the noose of love around their neck, while enduring the fear of deportation.  But as I read on, I learnt not just how migrants survive, but also the backstories of why they migrated.

Pa’s comparison of Haiti to Egyptians who fought amongst themselves and where ruled by Pharaohs who were like the dictators he had fled from, would have hinted me of the politics ahead, but it was indeed the mention of Emmanuel Constant, the leader of Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti that made the book shift from the personal to the political.

edwidge Dandicat

Edwidge Dandicat: copyright Cindy Karp for the Newyork Times

The writer Edwidge Dandicat did not bother to fictionalise Constant’s name or character from the notorious real life leader of a Haiti militia FRAPH, who was then wanted for crimes against the Haitian people. Pa’s reaction to Constant’s name reveals Pa as being an important political migrant. He was not just the quiet distant man who only came alive while standing with Ka at the Museums in the mornings of her childhood viewing the ancient Egyptian status, he was not the old barber who ran a barber’s shop and lived a rather isolated life with his wife Ann and daughter Ka. Early in the book, a sober Pa had tried to share this with his daughter in monologues and proverbs, but it didn’t sink.

‘You see Ka, your father was the hunter, he was not the prey…I was never in prison…I was working in prison… It was one of the prisoners inside the prison who cut my face in this way…this man who cut my face, I shot and killed him, like I killed many people.’ Pa said

Pa, was the dew breaker, a child prey who became a hunter; a revered member of the Tonton Macoutes a special paramilitary unit notorious for serving the totalitarian regime of Francois Duvalier a.k.a. Papa Doc. They committed systemic violence and human right abuse. Pa was responsible for killing and abuse, the last of which was a beloved preacher, the dapper looking step-brother of his wife Ann, who left a scar on Pa’s face just before Pa killed him. This incidence caused Pa to flee with Ann to America where he buried his old identity and took on a new one.

Unlike Emmanuel Constant-a younger leader of the Haitian death squad FRAPH in a later regime-whose name and picture was placed on flyers as a Wanted Person for crimes committed such as the Raboteau Massacre, Pa seemed safe.

‘He’d discovered that since he’d lost eighty pounds, changed his name, and given as his place of birth a village deep in the mountains of Leogane, no one asked about him anymore, thinking he was just a peasant who’d made good in New York.’

But his hopes that his victims such as the Preacher will never be able to speak of him is threatened by the fact that preys often don’t forget the face of their hunter. Unbeknownst to him, Beatrice the bridal seamstress whom he abused could still recognise him, Michel the night talker who lives in the basement flat beneath him was the young child whose parents he killed and blinded his Aunt Estina, he could never forget the murderer who destroyed his family.  Ka’s Pa was the Dew Breaker, one of those Haitian torturers that broke the golden dew of sleep; just when the day is pure with its power of refreshing, he and his likes came to shatter the serenity of the dew on the Haiti grass.

With her cycle of short stories woven into a whole, Edwidge uses her beautiful prose to give insight into Haiti’s bitter history using characters like the real life Haitians who are haunted by a bloody past that wouldn’t let them go.  It would not be wrong to imagine from this story that most Haitian immigrants working on the streets of New York are wounded spirits.  When compared to a history book, it is in fact difficult to tell that you are reading a fiction story as it has been classified. Edwidge presents to readers the painful legacy of Haiti’s violent history, establishing through different intersections exactly why the personal and the political are inseparable for us all.

This Jig-Saw puzzle piece of stories which can stand on their own and yet make a whole tgosa-front-cover-h-W-200x300is similar to the style of novelised anthologies used in One More Tale for the Road, and reminds me strongly of the book Ghost of Sani Abacha by Chuma Nwokolo which like the Dew Breaker has captured fiction love and life stories of Nigerians as they emerge from the despotic regime of Sani Abacha whom like Francois Duvalier (his son and successor Jean Claude Duvalier amongst other dictators )had systemically killed and destroyed the people in their aspiration to become Presidents for life. From Francois Duvalier, Sani Abacha, Hissene Habre to all other tyrants, I never understand how a single person is made sovereign, given the power to destroy lives after lives after lives…

To Haitians, as you continue to raise your glasses both broken and unbroken alike, I offer to your future threads of red cloud as omen of good luck. And to the writer Edwidge Dandicat, I think it will be right to say you are one of the most splendid flowers of Haiti, Thanks for giving us another way of looking at things.

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

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