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No Hoodie No Honey

Just in my very early twenty’s then, I had become excited about carrying a condom. I was grateful for the confidence my new knowledge on sexual reproductive health gave. I used to be the naive girl who could only say NO but never knew how to say YES in a sexual encounter. I was the shy girl who could not be caught dead discussing sex, purchasing or owning a condom. Like many other girls caught up in the socially constructed ‘good girl myth’ I too would deny that sex happens, despite our beliefs. We all seemed to think that unplanned pregnancy, unsafe abortion, HIV and other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) only happened to ‘bad girls’ until it happened to the ‘good girl’ we knew.

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Adeola Olunloyo is the NPO – BCC & Advocacy UNFPA, Nigeria.

Listening to Adeola Olunloyo my trainer and mentor in those days was remarkable. From her, I learnt the most important lessons about my reproductive and sexual health. This was a game changer; it meant I was in charge of my sexuality. I had power over unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection and a promise of a fulfilling adult life. My best of her topic was how to wear a condom.  I was awed at her mastery of the penal model. Watching her facilitate the session that sunny afternoon at the youth camp, I knew right away that I will be wearing her shoes.
There began my journey as a reproductive and sexual health trainer.  The climax was teaching shy clergy men and women the ABC of condom use; Exhilarating! Years passed, camp to camp, class to class, I met young boys and girls excited and many times shy to learn about condoms. Broad shouldered, bold faced, the boys will step out in bravado volunteering to prove their skills at wearing a condom. The girls remained sticklers to the good girl myth; which often left them ignorant of their rights and role in managing what happens in and outside their bodies.  After all, the boys should know it all as the girls are better naïve.
Photo by Inhabitat.com/Lori Zimmer

Photo by Inhabitat.com/Lori Zimmer

Year after year and not one boy or girl though sexually active got how to rip and roll a condom right. Reflecting on each failed attempt, I realised that while they should have been taught, perhaps no one did teach them. Most boys learnt to wear condoms by instinct and the few lucky girls learnt from their inept boyfriends. This pattern extends to knowledge of all things empowering about sex, the contraceptive measures, and the negotiation skills among others. This socialization contributes highly to the cases of teenage pregnancy, unsafe abortion, and new cases of HIV infections in our society.
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Photo by vukuzenzele.gov.za http://tiny.cc/4ay3px

Nothing gets a girl out of the classroom faster than unplanned pregnancy. From the story of Precious in the 1996 novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, to Raven in ‘SpellBound’ , Aisha in ‘Chill Wind’ (both by Janet McDonald) and others, all of them tell tales of broken girls forced to drop out or change schools. For most of them, once was enough; they didn’t need a second sexual encounter to get pregnant. Suddenly they are being asked to PUSH…, experience motherhood in their childhood, and watch the crib rather than their books. For many, abortion or adoptions are familiar experiences, and for even more unlucky ones, HIV is an addition.  All of these stories tell tales of altered lives, girls falling apart in an emotionally crippling way, limiting development and economic potentials.
The No Hoodie No Honey project by UNFPA thrills me. Finally, a bigger platform for addressing things we would rather not talk about is here for the African youth. The videos are engaging and educative, the characters familiar. The evidence-based IEC materials developed under this project potentially drives the discussions that empower young people; especially girls to protect themselves from unplanned pregnancies, STIs by practicing safer sex.toju1 (2)
Ratidzai Ndhlovu, the UNFPA (United Nation’s Population Fund) Nigeria’s representative shares that the No Hoodie No Honey campaign further expresses the importance of young people to the UNFPA mandate. Hence, by expanding access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and services for young people (especially girls),  No Hoodie No Honey project will facilitate a value shift and paradigm shift among boys and girls to create a society where neither culture  nor beliefs will deny women the freedom and power to negotiate safer sex.
Every year, 16million girls under the age of 18 give birth especially in low and middle income countries. Many of these cases are unplanned. This has implication for population growth and economic development. In putting the global population issues on the spotlight, the World Population Day (2013) focused its theme on adolescent pregnancies and the need to take action. Yet, the adolescent girl with a swollen belly continues to live among us.
It is my hope that young people will like I did years ago, take advantage of this platform to address their knowledge gaps on reproductive and sexual health issues. I do hope that young girls will stop their assumptions and take charge of their sexuality; negotiating when, where, and how they experience sex.
Dear girls, unplanned pregnancy is violence against self, don’t be left behind, don’t be the girl who couldn’t say NO!
Written by  ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye.

An Ebola Tale…

The memories began to flow, breaking through the discouragement that was silting up his love for Ma’Kanu. He remembered the Ebola fever outbreak at the end of a state-organised student’s excursion into a wild game reserve. Four of the twenty-four children on the excursion had already died before the Hospital Extension Team from Enugu came for Somto. The Health Officer was a demi-god in those days.
Quarantine! He had screamed.
Odozi may have been located in the lower ranges of Milken Hill, but the sixty-seven kilometres that separated the village from Enugu may as well have been sixty seven years in the past. There were no facilities to retreat anything as virulent as Ebola. It was either the Otawon Infectious Diseases Hospital or nothing.
Ma’Kanu visited Otawon, a desolate place. She found that the IDH was run in the interests of the outside society, rather than the inmates who often came in with one and were buried with a cocktail of infections. A referral there was a deferred death sentence.
She took his antibiotics placebos and went AWOL, returning to Odozi and moving the other children to Dada’s. She lived alone with the dying Somto until she nursed him back to health, to the grudging admiration of a stymied Health Officer…
Ma’Kanu battled the haemorrhagic fever into remission. And her faith was too strong even for the mildest muscle cramp to afflict her.
Slowly he (Somto) pledged, goose bumps breaking out over him: For Ma, I’ll tell my best tale tonight.

Somto’s reflection of his foster-mother’s love is provoked by her request for a last tale as she answers death’s call. IMG_6761Reading this excerpt in One More Tale for the Road by Chuma Nwokolo was a pleasant coincidence. I have almost given up my search for a novel that aptly captures the reality of the virulent Ebola which the world is struggling to contain. I almost gave up thinking that there was no accessible work of fiction that dealt with this comprehensively enough to serve as a discussion starter. Published in 2003, One More Tale for the Road was far-sighted, with characters and scenes that fit today’s reality.
The growing epidemic has indeed sent a shrill wake-up call globally. The above excerpt highlights the isolation of Ebola patients with the scary word QUARANTINE! The lack of structures for responding to treating this scale of disease especially in Africa is stressed.  It draws attention to the risk and helplessness that families and loved ones of patients face in desiring to support their beloved through their illness. ‘Maintain the ABC Rule’ they are told, avoid body contact. This land of vigorous handshakes and hearty hugs has lost its essence, now you certainly can’t hug or hold anyone. This is totally against human nature and unrealistic.
The stigma and discrimination is however not as painful as the lonely and un-dignifying death faced by patients, more so children as was mentioned above.
This book helps in situating strongly, the family as an important institution in the present day discussions on care and support for victims of all violent epidemics. More than any war, Ebola is potentially anti-family; the destruction of families is the fundamental tragedy of this epidemic as can be seen in the Liberian story of Kaizer Dour’s family .


photo culled from Indialive.today http://tiny.cc/1pv3px

Beyond highlighting the Ebola issue, this novel brought to bear the subject of adoption and foster care which is often seen as an anathema in the African society. It questioned the concept of family, challenging the social constructs by deconstructing each character’s root to help them embrace the life they have.  One lesson I take away from engaging this book is that there are no ideals; each person’s reality is indeed their ideal.
I put down One More Tale for the Road praying that like the characters therein, may we all find grace to embrace new realities. There are times we must express love and kindness from a distance, there are times we must stay away from people we love and be with ourselves.  This is it.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Say You’re One of Them.

Uninhibited, Despairing, Tragic, Frustrating, Bleak, Vivid, Provoking!  Talk of a book you will hate to Love… this is it. This Jesuit Priest cum writer Uwem Akpan has done for vulnerable African children what I think many writers, legion of documentaries and western mass Media have not. He travelled into the depth of these children’s darkness with a Candle light to reveal to the world how life has smeared their windshields.
Despite being a New York Times #bestseller, making the Caine Prize list and being notably selected by the Oprah Book Club, I was discouraged IMG_6751from reading this book severally by friends who found it a very difficult read. Now I know why. The author Uwem Akpan in this collection of short stories did not write to entertain, he wrote to inform. In capturing the detailed realities of children in modern Africa, the writer ought to write like a child. Writing in the voice of distressed children is no easy task, more so reading such stories. From the stories in this book, every reader will see in detail how a child’s giggle is muffled by violence and fear, how their spirited dance is paused because the earth on which they stand is soaked with blood.
From the story of Maisha in An Ex-Mas Feast (which I am saving for a later review), I continued to the disturbing novella sized Fattening for Gabon which reveals the footprints of slavery as Kotchipka (Pascal) and his sister Yewa (Mary) are trafficked by their uncle Fofo after their parents bow their lives to AIDS in their home town Brafe.  Indeed selling a nephew could be more difficult than selling other kids. Though the chains tying their hands are invisible, either way, they are sold like chicken in an open market.
What Language is that? Adults ask this question when we try to crack the code of our children’s language. The story reflects on the relationship of Selam and her best friend as their parents inject into them the language of hatred triggered by their misunderstanding of faith difference. Like in a typical scenario as it happened to most of us, Mummy pats a space between her and daddy for the child to sit. Then these words that desecrate a child’s innocence follow. ‘Honey, we don’t want you to play with that girl anymore; the Muslim girl’ mummy said. These girls mock their parents’ response to faith difference by improvising a new language that can only be decoded by those who still love as children do.
Religious imageries litter many corners of this book; Luxurious Hearses captures the impact of religious conflict on children. Two brothers Yusuf and Jubril inherit the underserving struggle of choosing whether to identify with the Christian or Muslim faith years after their parents’ marriage end. Jubril and his brother Yusuf were born out of a relationship that was ethno-religiously conflicting, hence becoming a community concern. His parents Aisha and Bartholomew‘s union certainly unnerved the people of UKhemehi. These two brothers gave their life to fighting for a faith identity as Yusuf is stoned to death for apostasy.

The Author Uwem Akpan

The Author Uwem Akpan

Jubril’s journey from the north to the south of Nigeria is symbolic. Like all the children in this book, he was on the path of finding an answer to a torn identity and forced to say ‘I be one of you’.  The danger of having a dual ethnic identity could not be better captured than in the experience of Monique and her toddler brother Jean in My Parent’s Bedroom. This will serve as a torturous ending, perhaps the most tragic short story I ever read.
You have to learn to take care of Jean, Monique’. Her mother Maman says as she prepares her daughter for a life without her in war torn Rwanda where neither god nor marriage was strong enough to dilute any tribe’s blood.
Thinking of how the United Nations may have helped save the Rwandan genocide is hopeless as was also captured by Monique’s parents.

‘I think we should run to those UN soldiers by the street corner…the soldiers are our only hope’ her father said.
They?  Hopeless!’ Maman responded.

Their home once full of love now smells like an abattoir, their ceiling creaking and sagging in the middle; it’s full of Tutsi’s hidden by her parents. Even Maman goes to hide in the ceiling every night with a lie that she sleeps out.

Nobody is telling me the truth today. Tomorrow I must remind them that lying is a sin’ Monique said.

When tomorrow finally came, Monique’s only inheritance was her little brother, a broken crucifix and a gruesome memory of witnessing her father unavoidably machete her mother’s head in an ethnic cleansing ritual right in their bedroom.

‘There is blood everywhere…it flows into Maman’s eyes, she looks at us through the blood-the blood overflows her eyelids and Maman is weeping red tears. My bladder softens and pee flows down my legs towards the blood. The blood overpowers it, bathing my feet. Papa opens his eyes… he bends down and closes Maman’s eyes with trembling hands…Papa covers Maman with a white bedspread and goes off with the mob without looking at me or Jean… Jean is startled by my shout. He stamps around in the blood as if he were playing in mud.
Little Jean yanks the cloth off Manan and tries to wake her. He straightens her finger,but it bends back slowly, as if she were teasing him. He tries to bring together the two halves of Maman’s head, without success. He sticks his fingers into Maman’s hair and kneads it, the block thick like red shampoo. As the ceiling people weep, he wipes his hands on her clothes and walks outside giggling.

Her mother’s words remained a legacy that will ensure she and her brother survives with an identity torn between the Hutus and the Tutsis.

When they ask you,’ Maman says sternly without looking at Monique, ‘say you’re one of them, Ok?’
‘Who?’ Monique asked
‘Anybody’ Maman responded.

With two novellas and three short stories in one book the writer projects many international development issues such as child trafficking, IMG_6745prostitution, and ethno-religious conflicts as it affects children in Ethiopia, Benin, Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda. This writer shows that he is a man acquainted with grief as he portrays nuanced stories of Africa’s abused and battered children in a way that cuts close to the bone. Children in these stories lived struggling like ants whose holes have been blocked.  Their glory and resilience shines forth as their innocent spirits collides with unpleasant realities of culture, religion and social systems.
One other reason this may be a hard read especially for Non-Africans is the use of hybrid English and local terms which it adopts to give the dialogues a local flavour. However I recommend that everyone disobeys those that discouraged me and read this book. You will be confronted, challenged and bothered to your core. Finally, as the writer intended, it will leave you unsettled. But to experience all of this, you must exercise the patience of a still water; these stories are not fast paced, they unfolded slowly.
I am not sure how to fully express gratitude for this book. Uwem Akpan once said and I quote ‘I think fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet’. I agree with him; I would rather not meet Monique, Maisha, Jubril , Yusuf ,Jean and others because if I do, I cannot say I am one of them.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Diaries of a Dead African

With a gift of four attractive books written by Chuma Nwokolo, I was caught in the pleasant dilemma of which one to devour first. The final testament of a minor god looked natural with the picture of a tree and a promise of 100 poems telling how small gods die. The cover page of How to spell Naija with its two volumes of 50 tales apiece was strongly testing the patriotism in me.  The Ghost of Sani Abacha conjured up the memories of the late autocratic general with a promise of some sizzling political stories. Then the Diaries of a Dead African in its noble colour caught me. I must admit my affection for anything with the word ‘Africa’, more so my excitement for reflective writing which any novel in a diary structure often is. In truth, I sentimentally choose the Diaries of a Dead African. Was I disappointed? No! It was absolutely a remarkable read and I can’t wait to read the others. IMG_5925   In Diaries of a Dead African, the author Chuma Nwokolo drives readers on a journey through the collective memories of three different characters spread across one year and five months of their lives. Calamatus and Abel two brothers and their supposed father Meme Jummai all got a chance to tell their story in an incredibly comical way. As their lives end tragically, each man hands the baton to the next surviving character to finish the story.  Meme Jummai’s house is made up of a poor farmer father and a mother notorious for adultery. They all had a faithful pet whose name was Poverty and shared an ancestry they couldn’t take liberty with.
Calamatus was the extremely sincere conman whose life was a journey of revenge for everyone he thought owed him. Castrated by the sudden sneeze of the mid-wife who circumcised him, he was determined to identify this nurse from hell who sentenced him to a life of private shame.  Dead at 25 in a fire like his father, his short-lived success as a 419 conman gave him the money he craved for to alter the shameful pedigree his father’s life and death had bestowed to them.  More so, he lived to mock every constituted authority and tradition of the Ikerre people. His elder brother Abel an unsuccessful writer, who though plagued with poverty and hard-luck was totally disenchanted from wealth even when it fell on his lap as an inheritance from his late brother’s fraudulent deals.

Author of 'Diaries of a Dead African' Chuma Nwokolo.

Chuma Nwokolo: Author of ‘Diaries of a Dead African’

Within the context of fiction and development, the character of their father Meme Jummai struck me most. I met Meme as he was almost dying of hunger. His barn had two poles strung with yams a week before, but they all disappeared when his wife Stella left him for a Vulcaniser, taking with her ten yams for every son she gave him, even the dead ones.  Its two weeks before the village harvest season, Meme is left with a pregnant goat and two tuber of eight inches piece of yam. His farm implements, a gun, an inherited TV with broken dial and his diary were his only asset. These he guarded like his own life, but for his diary, all others were later lost.
Adopting the poverty scorecard often used to determine impoverished targets for development intervention, Meme Jummai’s will be classed as poverty personified. Even the poor called him poor. The author aptly uses imageries and synonyms to project his poverty in a moving way. Meme Jummai slept on a clay bed, no more owned a radio or a fan; he nursed his crop waiting diligently as no man could eat of his crop before the collective village sacrifice was made on harvest day.  Yet this harvest was eaten up by termites and beetles. He moaned;

Hunger is a terrible thing…

Hunger is a demon…

In hunger, larceny was justifiable…

Even when shame struggles with hungers, hunger consumes my shame…

I am looking face –to-face at starvation and I have to confess, he’s an ugly beast.

Hunger hung in the air. Food scarcity altered the meal-time hospitality traditions of the village. Days were when the only thing that moved in Meme’s mouth was his tongue. Suspense arouses each time Meme was close to getting food, yet most times he never did. Hunger sent Abel to jail, hunger provoked Meme Jummai’s tragic death. His diaries of these experiences had some thought provoking questions on the relationship between hunger and morality.

‘In all my adult life, I have never stolen another man’s thing. Could hunger change me, or was I a thief all along without knowing it’? Meme asked.

diary of a dead africanThis novel captures the reality of the poor rural farmers as they negotiate between nature, society, the law and their human need to sustain well-being.  It highlights with great details the reality of individuals within farming household relying on rain-fed agriculture in the tropical African country.  My teacher Robert Chambers researched extensively on the Concept of Seasonality. In this, he propounds the seasonal dimensions to rural poverty, appreciating the seasons when subsistent farmers suffer food insecurity; that season when farmers have to tend their crops with empty stomach scrapping the earth for household survival. These are seasons when everything is stingy; even the rain and the soil. The wealth of social capital which often makes up for lack of social security in Africa does not save one in this season. Mark Hudson in his book our grandmother’s drum reviewed here, was intrigued by the fact that there was indeed hunger and a season of hunger in a landscape of richness in Dulaba, Gambia. According to him, ‘the most disquieting thing about this hunger was that its effects were not easy to see’. ‘Was hunger depressing?’ he asked the women. Perhaps the characters in the Diaries of A Dead African has given detailed answers to Mark Hudson’s question; yes hunger is depressing.
Broadly speaking, there are many ways of learning about social development issues and in this case, household food security for rural farmers. One of them may be from reading research papers which reflect statistics and superficial information from diverse sources. The other one is in reading individual experiences devoid of statistic but vividly bringing us into a close intimacy with the situation and the experience as they are felt by people. The character of Meme Jummai has done just the latter, making a case for the 12.5% or 1 in 8 people of our global population who are chronically under-nourished. While he helps us understand hunger, his reality gives credence to the Rome declaration and World Food Summit Plan of Action focused on halving the number of chronically undernourished people on the Earth by the year 2015. Likewise, The Millennium Development Goals included a commitment to a further 50% reduction in the proportion of the world’s population who suffer from extreme hunger by 2015.
In Diaries of A Dead African, Chuma Nwokolo explores in very detailed way how hunger and poverty can rape the mind. He did this with such wit adopting an English language that uses a walking stick, giving amazing humour that will make a reader laugh at life’s tragedy right from the first page. I could have titled this novel ‘a laugh at hunger’ but in reality, it is hard to laugh at a hungry man. This author did an excellent job; I couldn’t help laughing at Meme Jummai and I couldn’t stop crying with him either.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye.

Black Boy!

Every time I read Richard Wright’s ‘Black Boy’, I wished it was fiction; fiction because ‘Black Boy’ is not a pretty book. This reality told from the eye of a teenage black boy was too disturbing to grasp as real. Perhaps this makes it a very important book especially for us to reflect back on how far we have come with the politics of colour  smearing the wind-shield of our lives, one generation to the other.

richard wright

Pics from http://www.haroldshull.com/id19.html

Recently, I have tried to map below in the language of the writer, scenes, incidence and thoughts that chiselled Richard Wright from being a victim of racism to being a racist himself. I now wonder; if Richard Wright were to do the book ‘Black Boy’ today, would the fabric of his story be much different?

 At last we were at the railroad station with our bags, waiting for the train that would  take us to Arkansas; and for the first time I noticed there  were two lines of people at the ticket window, a “white” line and a “black” line.  During my visit at Granny’s, a sense of the two races had been born in me with a sharp concreteness that would never die until I died. When I boarded the train, I was aware that we Negroes were in one part of the train and the whites were in another…  

I had begun to notice that my mother became irritated when I questioned her about whites and blacks and I could not understand it. I wanted to understand these two sets of people who lived side by side and never touched it seems, except in violence. When my mother told me that the “white” man was not the father of the “black” boy, was no kin to him at all, I was puzzled. “Then why did the ‘white’ man whip the ‘black’ boy I asked mother…

Uncle Hoskins had simply been plucked from our midst and we , figuratively had fallen on our faces to avoid looking into that white-hot face of terror that we knew loomed somewhere above us…Uncle Hoskins had been killed by whites who had long coveted his flourishing liquor business… A dread of white people now came to live permanently in my feelings and imagination. Nothing challenged the totality of personality so much as this pressure of hate and threat that stemmed from the invisible whites…I had never in my life been abused by whites, but I had already become as conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynching…

One evening, I heard a tale that rendered me sleepless for nights. It was of a Negro woman whose husband had been seized and killed by a mob. It was claimed that the woman vowed she would avenge her husband’s death and she took a shot gun, wrapped it in a sheet, and went humbly to the whites, pleading that she was granted permission to come to the side of her dead husband while the whites, silent and armed looked on. The woman, so went the story, knelt and prayed, then proceeded to unwrap the sheet; and before the white men realised what was happening, she had taken the gun from the sheet and had slain four of them, shooting at them from her knees….

Black boy

Pics from http://app.studysync.com/RichardWright

I had already grown to feel that there existed men against whom I was powerless, men who could violate my life at will. I resolved that I would emulate the black woman if I were faced with a white mob; I would conceal a weapon, pretend that I had been crushed by the wrong done to one of my loved ones; then, just when they thought I had accepted their cruelty as law over my life, I would let go with my gun and kill as many of them as possible before they killed me. The story of the woman’s deception gave form and meaning to confused defensive feelings that had long been sleeping in me.

‘Why are they so many black men wearing stripes?’…

“Man, what makes white folks so mean?”

“Whenever I see one I spit.” Emotional Rejection of whites.

“Man, ain’t they ugly?” Increased emotional rejection.

“Man, you ever get right close to a white man; close enough to smell ‘im?”… “They say we stink. But my Ma says white folks smell like dead folks.” Wishing the enemy was dead.

“Niggers smell of sweat. But white folks smell all the time.” The enemy is an animal to be killed on sight.

‘Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilisation, that they lived somehow in it but not of it.’

‘The white boys and the black boys, began to play our traditional racial roles as though we had been born to them, as though it was in our blood, as though they were guided by instinct. … The roundhouse was the racial boundary of the neighbourhood… whenever we caught a white boy on our side we stoned him; if we strayed to their side, they stoned us. Our battles were really bloody …All the frightful descriptions we had heard about each other, all the violent expressions of hate and hostility that had seeped into us from our surroundings, came now to the  surface to guide our actions.

Flipping the pages of this harrowing bildungsroman of Richard Wright written in 1945, am checking the similarities and differences between his time and now. In the quickening events of civil unrest in Ferguson, in the unnecessary killing of young black boys, I can’t help but  observe that the similarities of most black boys in America of today are more numerous , more real and more important than any difference there is with this author’s time.  I suppose if Richard were to write today, he will also ask, ‘why was 17yrs old Trayvon Martin shot, why did Michael brown the 18yrs old boy deserve six bullets’?

In the end, racism is not natural; it begins with the social injection of systemic hatred.  As this emotional and intellectually crippling racial war continues to bloom, we must remember that we all, whether white or black, will be casualties.


Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Keeping Hope Alive

If there is an autobiographical book that woke me up to new realities, it is Hawa Abidi’s ‘Keeping Hope Alive’. In very simple ways, this book was an axe for the frozen sea. For a long while, I yearned to see the woman behind the story. Meeting with Dr. Hawa Abdi, her humility, her grace, her identity with her continent, her passion for a country that was almost unlovable and her faith in peace was comparable to none I had known. I knew I must take a piece of this woman for keeps in my world. Through our discussion which IMG_5650lasted over an hour, Mama Hawa as she is fondly called patiently answered to my entire question as can be read here. 

One thing was clear; the woman I read about was no different from the woman I met.  The book Keeping Hope Alive is a true representation of the ‘Mama Hawa’ I listened to. Beautifully written in the tone of Mariama Ba’s fiction novel ‘So Long a Letter’, Hawa Abdi’s story was shared to the world with the hope that it invites truth to come save her country from an intractable war that has swallowed them. This book co-authored by Sarah J. Robbins begins with a reflection of Somalia as it was when Hawa Abdi was a young Soviet Union graduate returnee with aspiration and clarity of purpose. It ends with a graceful elderly woman to whom life has splashed its many colours of disappointment on but yet her hope for peace continues to shine forth.

1331669125163.cachedHawa’s life was filled with a lineage of dead children, siblings, parents and fellow comrades with whom she had the unavoidable duty to close their lifeless eyes and bury. Her childhood was scared; she was at a time a child and inside her was another child growing. Circumcision of the genitals was also bestowed to her small body. Hawa was soon to know the death of the first baby that suckled her breast, lying lifeless in her arms few days after her grandmother Ayeyo’s death. Her father died some years after her mother and her beloved sisters followed. Her world got smaller and smaller; the demise of her only son Ahmed made death her neighbour. Indeed the landmarks of her life were marked with graves of loved ones. Through all this, Hawa Abdi thrived with all resilience.  In the environment of Martini hospital, her dreams to be a doctor blossomed through the rough roads of grief for a mother she loved. Over the years, birthing babies became second nature to her as she grew to be a Gynaecologist, a Lawyer and a giant in the humanitarian world.

In 1983, her family moved to the rural area to begin the life she dreamed for them. Starting a small clinic for rural women, she would hold hands with her two daughters Deqo and Amina as they marched into the neighbouring villages treating people and encouraging health seeking attitudes. These three women with a strong bond grew into doctors and together grew their Hawa’s endeavour into a globally acknowledged organisation DHAF (Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation). DHAF became a haven which as at 2009, was accommodating 90,000 Somalians displaced by an internal war.

This book chronicled the failure of governance in Somalia from the time of Siad Barre, leading to a war that remains intractable even Keeping-Hope-Alivein present day Somalia. From the Ogaden war between Somalia and Ethiopia under Siad Barre’s tenure, Somalia disintegrated downwards. War really begins when it ends at the front-line. Men returning from war could only bring with them, weapons like anger, hatred and frustration. This weapons they used on the same people they once fought to protect. Clan politics took over, war raged, there was heavy shelling, rattling guns, mass graves as men were buried alive and dead. The Hawa Abdi Hospital began to welcome a different type of patients. There, the number of starving people soon grew more than the number of wounded people. Shelter, water, food and health were all she offered to people who now missed the peace that once was. The world heard and sent help too.

The Global Peace Index measured by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s (IEP’s) latest study for 2014 shows that only eleven countries of the 162  countries studied globally are conflict free. As is the case of  Somalia, trends in sustaining peace are shifting from hostility between states, to a rise in the number and intensity of internal conflicts. The economic cost of such violence to our  global economy today is huge; an equivalent of around US$1,350 per person, or twice the size of Africa’s economy (IEP,2014).  Though peace building remains a prerequisite for socio-economic development,violence remains the true law of the land in Somalia, a nation which continues to bleed mostly from the wounds they inflict on one another. Of a truth, people who are fighting will never be able to build.

To the many dead souls, we cannot count, but we can remember them. This is what Hawa Abdi and Sarah Robbins have done by weaving together the experiences of Somalians dead and alive around the life of a woman who wishes nothing more than peace for her nation.  From a development perspective, Keeping Hope Alive is a book that brings to the fore the issues of maternal health, the evil of war and more so the dynamics of managing Internally Displaced People. In a world that has gotten incrementally less peaceful with internal conflicts,  how are our conflict ridden countries managing the rising numbers of Internally Displaced People? What can we learn from the patriot Dr. Hawa Abdi and the Somalia she continues to keep hope alive for? I truly wish we can validate her more.

IMG_5873To Hawa Abdi, reading your book made my heart grow larger. Now for every day I pray that the burden of war and violence be light on us, I pray more that our shoulders be broadened like yours to carry what comes to us. You have made an indelible mark in the heart of Africa, as the heart does not forget, Africans will not forget. Our history will remain incomplete without you. Thank you Mama Hawa!

To support Dr. Abdi in continuously creating access to human right for the Somali people, kindly forward contributions directly to her organisation through their website www.dhaf.org

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Is Xenophobia the new Racism?

‘When you call yourself an Indian… a Muslim… a Christian or a European… you are being violent because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind.’ J. Krishnamurti



As a tourist with the need to ‘belong’, I sometimes struggle negotiating to make my difference visible or not. In global spaces; airports,I experience mostly the fragility of my identity because I am what my passport says I am. The skin colour, the cloth, the accent, are spaces our identities are negotiated but more so our nationality is becoming even a stronger definer. Stereotypes are being constructed on different nationalities and the national tags automatically determines a persons trait. Some days in the face of perceived discrimination, I am happy to just be an African, allowing my continent shield my nationality but even this shield cannot cover much now as more people now know that Africa is not a country. Beyond our dressing and skin colour, our national identity now tells more of our roots. When made visible, it can sometimes give you a chilling reception as you witness your host burn the welcome mat.
Putting the paths and experiences of my sojourn in words and sketches has been creating an interesting travelogue. If I were to progress with themes, a poignant one will be Xenophobia. Xenophobia is that moment when host countries begin to play with hate for the alien foreigner among them. Little by little, it is no longer the skin colour that triggers intolerance but the fear of s/he who is foreign. In expressing Xenophobia, people vent a deep rooted hatred for foreigners blaming them for everything wrong in their space. They exalt their spaces and identity with presumed purity, hence discriminating others on the bases of an impure, corrupt, criminal stereotype.
In the bubbly city of the promised rainbow nation, Johannesburg, I am driven by a cheerful Afrikaans speaking driver, he was amazingly pleasant with questions about my root, a stack difference from some people I cross path with moving through the city. Earlier on, I had been accosted by an inquisitive airport police officer who in being friendly with barrage of questions, exhibited nothing more than Xenophobia.

Where are you from? Where are the Nigerian Girls, still missing? How is Goodluck or Badluck your President, I heard there was another bomb, I don’t understand it, do you just walk on the street casually and get bombed? Your country men, they are very bad, they claim Christianity and yet engage in all evil. Why do Nigerians talk so loud? Why do they suckle their fingers when they eat? You Nigerians are criminals especially the men, it is hard to befriend you. You pretend a lot!

He further reminds me that almost all the crime in South Africa are committed by Nigerians.  Like many other excuse IMG_4943given by xenophobic people, these crime rate perception of his have no clear documentation to substantiate it, but it has been largely expressed to my hearing by fellow Africans. It is clear that most people may have had a negative physical or emotional experience with some of my fellow comrades, but this is often over-generalized. My new acquaintance minced no words in expressing his hatred for my nationality, gendering his hatred more for my country men and excluding the ‘unmaterialistic Nigerian women’ which he assumes am one of. He allows me a picture with him as he proposed marriage. Hahaha…Marriage perhaps is the neutraliser that will save me from all impurity my nationality has bestowed on me.
Alas, I was free from him, distracted by a limping bird that came near. As I watched the bird fly off, I see a beauty in the fact that though this bird could be tagged deformed, its deformity does not stop it from flying. The things I observe, those things that are spoken or unspoken of, they make me see the lines of difference in the image of the rainbow am shown. Call it Xenophobia or racism; their expressions are deeply rooted in violence expressed in subtle ways. It’s in the sharp words we say; in those gestures we make that compromises a person’s dignity. We adopt such acts in obedience to the fear that locks us in past experiences. This type of violence is not out there, it is inward and each man must explore self and question the root of their violence, it’s our responsibility to uproot it.
A1wBeshmqBL._SL1500_My faith in literary fiction to reflect different social phenomenon never fail me as the difference between fiction and reality is often a thin disguise. If the character of Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe’s widely successful novel where to be studied within this context, we may learn more. Defoe’s novel makes for an evidence-base for most landmark issues of development like slave trade, power relation, colonialism, cultural imperialism and more. Robinson’s general uneasiness at being a stranger in foreign land gives credence to issues of Xenophobia as has been captured by Rajani Sudan’s book Fair Exotics: Xenophobic Subjects in English Literature, 1720-1850. As observed in Robinson Crusoe’s anxiety on his clothing, his fetishization of skin which he polices to protect  its fairness while rejecting a mulatto skin shade that may come from sun heat makes us realise his constructions of ‘the other’ and the struggle to sustain an exalted identity in a foreign land. Another realistically introspective book ‘Xenophobia’ by Peter Cawdron is set in Africa’s Malawi, projecting a story of first contact gone wrong. This book which I am reading expresses the complexity of man’s inability to manage dialogue with fellow earth inhabitants, yet yearning for communication and contact with the terrestrials.
My case study South Africa makes me think that subconsciously we often give what we receive. Though violence of difference may have been expected to reduce after democracy was instituted in this rainbow country, xenophobia is on the rise. I believe that the deeply entrenched xenophobic records of South Africa stems from the influence of institutionalized racism; apartheid.
However its worthy of note that South Africa has no monopoly to Xenophobic acts. Many nations including Nigeria cannot be exempted. While South Africa expressed it in the ‘buyelekhaya’ ‘go back home’ campaign, Nigeria once expressed theirs in ‘Ghana must go’; both are campaigns of mass expulsion of the alien foreigners who are perceived to be milking the land of scarce milk of employment and other benefits.
For correctives, Paragraph 20 in the part two of the June 1993 VDPA (Vienna Declaration and  Programme of Action) advocates the need for penal measures by state parties  to combat all forms of xenophobia, racism or related intolerance. But like most United Nations declaration, it is only a paper tiger. In the realities of today’s emerging issues, it is wise that international organisations like UN should take issues of discrimination and intolerance seriously.
The politics of difference has been triggered even more by the gripping realities of the Ebola disease being from West African countries with a potential to spread globally.  At such time, we need not dim the spotlight on Xenophobia as the stigma of Ebola will surely excite more intolerance among nations who may in wanting to build fortress against this disease, make unwanted foreigners the punching bag of stigma.  This is a perspective that should not be ignored as it has high implications for tourism and overall global economic development.


It’s a fresh morning at 19 Vance street New York. With hearts pounding vehemently, the young man Ikechukwu Uzondu enters the premises of Foreign God’s Inc. the world’s oldest god-shop. Here a religiously desensitized Mark Gruel displays his entire inventory of powerful and ancient deities to be bought off the shelf by aspiring god-parents. Excited Ikechukwu had come to do a price and interest survey for his next line of trade. Soon, he will vend a war god to Foreign God’s Inc. Ngene the ancient deity of Utonki, whose breathe is fire, whose fart is thunder, with rich history will be vended here. Selling and purchasing a sacred god is a sport which seemed odd to Ike and likewise me the reader. Instinctively, I felt Ike had a grouse with some god; this inspired me to read more.
IMG_5806Any hopeful, who at some point had migrated to Europe with the expectation of finding the greenest pasture, will connect at different levels with the narratives of this novel. Ikechuckwu a Nigerian of Ibo descent migrates to America combining studies and menial jobs to achieve a Cum Laude in Economics. His chase of green card led him to the path of many fugitive brides, ideal but elusive women. Having gone through hell and obtained a green card from his now ex-wife and emotional tormentor ‘Queen B’, alas green card was also not the answer. After 13yrs of eking his living and managing pressures of family demands as a cabby, the degree in economics or grades wasn’t the answer either. The politics of soft and thick accent was a strong odd against him and perhaps his tongue couldn’t deny his root no matter how he tried. Through his experiences, even the gods are to blame. This god Ngene, acclaimed to have favoured him as a potential priest has done nothing more than give him spells of rapturous experiences and shame with every storm that he witnessed. When his friend Jonathan sows into him the idea of stealing his people’s war god to come fight a more relevant war for him in America, it became an idea most people would have given a second thought to.
A well woven story of Ike’s life swings around a ruptured migrant’s hope that becomes excited by the ideas of taking advantage of the untapped wealth in the religion of his homeland to make his major break. In an age where according to Mark Gruel, gods must travel or die, Ike becomes the vessel to carry Ngene across continents. This thrill of global connectedness filled with suspense carries the reader to different settings navigating between the realities of urban American cities and rural African town Utonki where religion is projected as a social malaise with little or no interest in the people’s well-being.

Photo from  http://tiny.cc/iojpjx

Photo: http://tiny.cc/iojpjx

Okey Ndibe strongly situated migrant issues and religion as an important topic in the present day discussions on Africa’s development. Despite academic studies on this phenomenon, this author has done a good job of representing and communicating the realities of religion at individual and communal level, provoking the intellect and reshaping our knowledge. Foreign God’s Inc. deftly highlights the inherent danger of blurring the lines between religion and rationality. Capturing a highly religious but morally inept society led by morally bankrupt characters like Pastor Godson Uka, it questions the underlying moral that underpins the Christian faith (perhaps all religion) from colonial times to present day.
Unlike the case with India, Nigeria’s loyalty to their religion and culture meant limited penetration of the Queen’s European culture with the help of the many Reverend Stantons. Hence undermining the ideology of old culture was strategic.

What you call Ngene is nothing; it’s a lie with which you imprisoned yourself. It doesn’t live in the river nor does it own the river. Our God owns everything. He made your river and also the wood Ngene was carved from’ Rev. Stanton said to a people who were not so gullible, to whom the thought of a born God, birthed by a virgin with a father that lives in heaven and is also everywhere remained an idea hard to swallow. For Utonki people, their own Chukwu is not a father that will hand over his child to be killed and made jest of. In their words, their Chukwu lived in the sky and, ‘everywhere we see the signs of his work, the drifting clouds are smoke from his pipe, rainfall his sneeze, all great rivers are born from his spittle…Chukwu is mighty, yet we never say that he is everywhere… if your own god lives everywhere, then why haven’t our eyes seen him?…If he were so powerful, he should make himself visible? or is he a debtor?’ Only debtors hide in Utonki.

Alas, as the ‘white man’s gun out speaks the guns of Utonki’, Rev. Stanton gun-carrying-god overpowered Ngene the war god of Utonki.

A Nigerian pentecostal church


Over the years, the newly injected Rev. Stanton’s god has gained an African flavour. The chief priests became the likes of Pastor Godson Uka, the son of Okadike (a.k.a Efi epeka) the great witchdoctor with records of nocturnal activities. Like his father, Pastor Uka an ex-convict shares characterizations that easily relates to the present day faith leaders that glide our TV screens. ‘A large gold chain bedecks his neck, all five fingers of his left hands and three of the right hands were bedecked with glitzy rings. His hair dropped in slick curls, slacked with oil’. Ike who finds himself in Utonki is amazed at how people like Uka have moved Christianity from the traditional catholic space with solemn and sober air to a religion of holy ruckus. In church, boisterous prayers erupt, shrill affirmations fill the air, human bodies freeze and flip from a pastor’s touch or blow of air, women like his mother piped up in praise tossing and writhing in induced ecstasy. These sons of the traditional witch-doctors surely came into the church through the back-door. Like their fathers, they offer ‘spiritual insurance policies’; protection, deliverance from evil, dispense holy water, prayer and project all forms of pseudo-science in exchange for money or gift.
Unlike others, Ike is amazed at the failure of a multitude to question the autocratic conventions of this corruption that wears a spiritual coat. Suddenly, Ike temporarily adopts a new battle over snatching Ngene. Battling Pastor Uka whose messages are divisive to his relatives was a worthier fight. Onward, I could clearly understand Ike’s grouse with the gods. Any rational thinker who cares about a people’s well-being and their development will join Ike’s fight. These Peacock Pastors; our modern day witch-doctors appeals to the African spirituality but not to her development. Peacock Pastor Uka desires to make of Utonki  a community with ‘spirit-filled, tongue speaking, hands-laying, devil binding born again’ with empty pockets and hungry stomach, he exploits poor people of their meagre feeding money, raping their minds with fear. The scene where Uka demands fifty thousand dollars from a struggling migrant to build God a Church in Utonki as condition for being a millionaire was mind blowing. Beyond this being the size of Pastor Uka’s greed, this narrative aptly captures a wide spread phenomenon in present day Africa. Modern day churches prioritize erecting god more shrines, exploiting poor community purses of vulnerable and gullible people Ike’s mother with terms like ‘God said’, ‘Sow seeds’ … while the people remain perpetually with sick bodies and hungry stomachs.
A walk on the streets of Nigeria confirms that there is a proliferation of churches with almost every street littered with two or three churches if the residents are unlucky. Massive church edifice are now metrics for measuring church growth and an indicator that member populations are on the rise but this in no way reflects the well-being or development of the members. This church building culture of this African flavoured Christianity is being exported phenomenally across the globe and the hinterlands, changing the landscape of the average man’s thinking. Something is fundamentally wrong when a poor person continuously submits his meagre earning to build god a shrine when shrines are not in deficit. Do we really need more churches to develop? Does the growing prioritization of church edifice over the much needed mission schools and hospitals that were once the hallmark of the Christian religion bring to question the mind-set of the present day faith leaders?

Photo: Getty/Graeme Robertson

Decades ago, the church as an institution had proven track record of managing low cost education, accessible quality healthcare and other social services that are critical to sustainable and equitable development. My education validates their impact, for at almost no cost I and others were educated in church missionary schools; taught by selfless teachers from the Catholic, Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian Church schools that spread across the country. Let for a few church schools still committed to low cost quality education, children of today should bewail the loss of this institution’s commitment to drive human development as was the case years back. Can faith leaders with their agencies channel member’s contributions towards other deficit infrastructures that are fundamental to our well-being? Yes!!!
As Pervez Hoodbhoy puts it, selling religion is the easiest and most profitable business… and as Voltaire’s said, ‘a clergyman is one who feels himself called upon to live without working at the expense of the rascals who work to live.’  Foreign God’s Inc. helps us questions the ideology of the new church ministries with sole proprietorship managed by owners and wife. It made me think more seriously of these African ‘Men of God’ who swim in title galore, craving power, exalting their personalities and looming over us from their imposing pictures mounted on highway bill boards. In an incurably religious Africa, god is a game and to play it, you must either be smart or be vulnerable.
By centralizing religion, this novel proves it has researched the spiritual state of Nigeria and perhaps most African countries, hence its projection of religion as a dimension of life that suffuses whatever Africans do. One would have assumed that the more religious we are, the higher the morals in our society. Ironically, our exploits in religion, made us a people with little godliness. The reality is that the more religious we got, the baser we became. Africa’s religious altar is filled with bloodshed from religious extremists; our girls are continuously kidnapped as booties of religious war. More-so, our altars continue to serve for political rallies to endorse leaders who take advantage of people’s frustrations and vulnerability. Indeed the poor are the raw material for religious salvation.
Foreign Gods Inc. projects that religion is obviously indispensable in Africa’s development discourses. But dear Africans, is our understanding of GOD enabling or disabling our development? According to Osuakwu the chief priest of Ngene, ‘people sometimes kill off a recalcitrant god’ Is it not time we come together to kill this god? In the end, the gods are not to blame, we are.
Okey Ndibe is a Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University.

Okey Ndibe is a Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University.

I encourage fellow literary enthusiasts to read and find out if the almighty Ngene the war-god finally travelled to Mark Gruel’s world’s oldest god-shop in New York.  Foreign God’s Inc. was a good read for me, but it failed to project the female gender in an admirable way. For example, I would have loved to know more about the martyred ‘ocher-coloured childless widow who cradled her gun and stood against Rev. Stanton’.
Notwithstanding, Okey Ndibe has given us a book with a detailed narrative that will contribute to wider understanding of the growing linkages between religion and development in ways that few academic writing has. The novel was well written, stories nicely woven and the language is sophisticated. For this and more, I say to Okey, Daalu!
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye



The novelist in 1990. Credit Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Our evergreen Nadine finally answered nature’s call, leaving us with books that will constantly remind us that in all seasons of life, colour should not matter most. I admire her as that woman whose passion for peace and humanity kept burning in spite of her body’s weakening by age. Despite having most of her books banned by the apartheid government, she continued to write densely about racism within the context of South Africa, questioning all forms of power relations. In her writings, she expressed true knowledge of the threads of thought and emotions that run through the complex and political spaces of South Africa.
When I planned my visit to South Africa this July, I had searched for books by South African authors to help me relate my learning expectations before arriving. Nadine’s novel ‘July’s People’ stood out actually because symbolically it connected with my travel month July. But engaging this book, it certainly was worth more than a symbolic title. It helped me understand better the present day realities of the South Africa I set my foot on and more so it supported my narratives.
In Nadine’s words, “I would have been a writer anywhere, but in my country, writing meant confronting racism”. This she has excellently done with ‘July’s People’ as she captured the social disintegration inherent in racial tensions between the inferior black and the domineering white skin.julys-people3
Set in a black skin village in South Africa, we meet Bamford and Maureen Smales. Humbled by a war where the blacks in revolution are killing the whites. Consequently, the Smales family become war refugees to their black servant July in his village. Injected into a new world, they begin a dance between power and powerlessness, constantly negotiating and renegotiating the meaning of power with their servant July in whose space they now live. They struggled with trying to adjust to their new realities.
There are trials and error at socializing with the natives of July’s village, Bamford and Maureen the supposedly liberal white couple were coming to understand that the colour of their skin will always hinder them from getting the true fabric of the realities they seek. Indeed, privileges go beyond spaces, it is also skin deep! Hence despite being in July’s space, there is a conflict in maintaining the master servant relationships. July now drives the Smales vehicle to distract combative attention but also attract power to himself, an almost impossible feat pre-war. Objects that were once meaningless, suddenly began to take on entirely new levels of symbolic importance. In the face of theft and no police to help, Bamford felt impotent, these where all new and hence they struggled.
Buried tensions come to the surface. Maureen Smales struggles with her subservience to July as she watches him become less and less subservient to her and more independent as her family stay in his village. Many times, she tries to negotiate with him using subtle blackmail of telling July’s wife Martha of his city affair with Ellen. Long absences of husbands have become a normal part of black women’s lives as their men worked as slaves in the city for white bosses; hence a relationship with other city women like Ellen was inevitable.
July’s family worries that the unwanted white skinned Smale family will trigger trouble for them. The Smales are scared when they are summoned by the village chief of a black nation. The chief could not comprehend the image of a powerless white government; whites running from blacks or taking refuge with them. Living through a time when the whites will never let him own a gun, he finds the presence of the Smales family in his home as an opportunity to request that Bamford teaches him to shoot his fellow black people with his gun. In shock, Bamford responds ‘You’re not going to take guns and help the white government kill blacks, are you?. . . You mustn’t let the government make you kill each other.’
This novel challenges the identity and ambiguous moral constructions of any liberal South African white. Reflective Maureen recalls in her childhood days walking home from school with Lydia the black family’s servant carrying the family school bag on her head. With a photographer’s click of these symbolic image of the two racially different girls, Maureen finds the picture in a Life photograph book years later and was provoked to question a system that makes Lydia carrying her books.

Nadine Gordimer&Late President Nelson Mandela. www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/gor1bio-1

Does questioning alone make-up for an active revolt of such an exploitative system? Likewise, If revolting, does partaking in the privileges of such system therefore indict someone in the institutions’ injustices? The Smales never identified with the oppressive Afrikaner society as they deplored the apartheid system. In their understanding within their former spaces, there was nothing condescending in their relationship with the blacks, especially with July despite his being their servant. But injecting them into a new space reveals that an unconsciously unequal relationship of master and servant exists. They struggled to reconcile with the truth that they too share part of the blame for reinforcing racism.
Like America, South Africa continues to witness the legacy of slavery and the _74382538_2659675disastrous consequences of Apartheid. Thirty three years after Nadine Gordimer wrote this book, the ‘Whites Only’ sign posts have disappeared but the battlegrounds of South Africa remains on the human skin shade as I could still feel racism among citizens strong enough that I could cut it with a knife. If Nadine hoped for a future where power will shift from the white to the black, I am glad she saw a fragment of it with the end of Apartheid. I say fragments because this freedom is incomplete. What I experienced in South Africa shows that power was sliced into two parts. While the white skinned people held the economic power living a first world life, the blacks hold political power, marginally living and working in subservient positions. I am left to wonder between the two powers, which one Nadine Gordimer desired to shift.

Photo of Nadine Gordimer, used on the academy of achievement profile. www.achievement.org

Nadine Gordimer ‘July’s People’ is a mentally provocative book that stretches one’s intellectual muscles on the dynamics of relationships triggered by racism. The shifts in relationships and spaces give a remarkable understanding of the constructions of difference between blacks and whites. Towards the end of this book, Maureen is seen fervently running after a helicopter perhaps with a hope that they be rescued and returned back to the familiar world where she was once a queen of the Manor with servants.
Imagining Maureen standing nude in the rain makes me think we may need to stand in the rain too to be washed of all racism… Nadine is gone with the month of July, as we bid her farewell with a wish that her soul finds rest, no better honour could be given to Nadine Gordimer’s life and fights than a South Africa washed of racism. In my language, I will say Kachifo; until morning comes Nadine, thank you.
Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

In the Belly of Dar es salaam

In Tanzania, I learnt that the Haven of peace in Arabic means Dar es salaam. Driving through Dar es salaam with Rahab my friend, I imagined that a place called a haven must indeed have a coveted peace. More so, it will hold many foot prints of hope; hope from desperate people who have fled from everything unpleasant. For those whose dreams take long to come through here, I hoped that the beautiful beaches, the trees and all of nature’s beauty I see in this country will serve as a bed of solace.
IMG_5163 (2)In the rumbling belly of Dar es salaam, at the heart of this haven of peace, I and Rahab finally located E & D Vision Publishing house. I was meeting with the first feminist English novelist from Tanzania, Elieshi Lema. As we held hands and she says Karibu; welcome, I was carried away by her natural grace and the ambience around her. She was like the future I admired. Meeting this Kiswahili and English writer added more sweetness to my time in Tanzania. Considering her many works, I looked beyond Parched Earth  aswas strongly drawn to her fiction novel and stories that focused on children. I must say that most of her work represents an embodiment of the linkages between fiction and development. Her partnership with the Children’s Book Project (CBP) Tanzania has helped promote the use of novel writing and publishing in English to encourage language skills for in-school youths.
Her novel In the Belly of Dar es salaam proved she was not neglecting the out-of-school youths either. Through the hour, we talked about governance, the strengths and weaknesses of the African continent, we reflected on feminism and the African woman but most of all, our discussions focused on her novel In the Belly of Dar es salaam. Confidently, she spoke about the life of street children in Tanzania, expressing the certainty of a writer who had passionately researched her work. This novel uses a female as the central character to questions the political rhetoric on the commitment to social-economic development of children in general.

Eleisha Lema serves as Director of E&D Vision Publishing.

Eleisha Lema authored Parched  Earth and serves as the Director of E&D Vision Publishing.

Elieshi glowingly shares the character of Sara; an unconventional girl who we meet in the first page doing a boy’s work; climbing a hill burdened with the head of a slaughtered cow. Small rivulets of blood from the dead animal were dripping and drying on her face; so unconventional! With her young eye eaten up by Cataract and all other impending worries, Sara was flawed in looks but not in character. It is this charisma that followed her through her days in the street with other children, there she lived like a butterfly, freely flying and perching to enjoy life’s sweetness despite the pains.
Leaving Elieshi’s office, I continued reading through how Sara met Prospa, but I dropped the book when Sara changes her clothing in her mother’s death room, leaving an emphatic message for her grandmother before setting out to begin a life on the streets of Dar es salaam. I dropped the book with the assumption that I know what the rest of the stories will be, but practically, we do not know the reality of street children. Two days after meeting with Elieshi, I was attacked by a gang of robbers led by a street child in Kampala,Uganda. With the painful loss of my mobile phone; I was provoked to learn more about this child who was party to those that robbed me.
Vagabond! Waif! Bastards! Urchin! Hooligans! Destitute! Ragamuffin! Guttersnipe!      
IMG_5093 Their names are so many, but yet we know very little about them. The pain and trauma I felt for my lost phone gave me the energy to further research on this isolated group of children whom despite our ignorance has remained an integral part of our world. Voraciously, I now read through all the pages of In the Belly of Dar es salaam to soothe my grief. I followed the story of Sara as she progressed on the streets of Dar es salaam, her paths meeting and parting with other street-children Mansa, Caleb, Ali among other gang members whom she became Maza; a mother to. For all the children, life in the street was triggered by the need to survive and not adventure. The novel expounded on the triggers of migrant street-children from the rural areas to the urban city. Under pressure from a society that does not appreciate that the hoe and the pen are miles apart, most young children believe that their answers lies in the belly of the urban city.In their hearts, the grass was greener in the city because those who left for the city never came back.  So as schools, teachers and families pour them out like a river lets water go, then like tributaries; they flow into the belly of the city. The city thus embraces and nestles them into its rumbling belly.

Photo by Akansha Yadav

Life in the streets of a city called the haven of peace is not what they expected. Here, their plight seems unchanging; they become more voiceless and vulnerable. Over time, their young hearts begins to know the city geography. They walk about, each with a stomach to feed, yet leftovers will remain their buffet. Holding their possession in cellophane bags, street-children often find shelter in abandoned cars, dilapidated rooms, and uncompleted houses. For them, anywhere their body can be stretched until daylight dispels the night is home. And ‘if they felt too tired during the day time, they lay somewhere on the side-walk or in the public gardens… their possessions beside their tired bodies’. Hardship tints their age and hard work hardens their hands. For the tainted ones who have lost patience like the character of Ali, the night is their mask; when the city sleeps, they prowl in its darkness looking for what to steal. The street has finally groomed their hearts tobe ruthless.
According to my colleague Akansha Yadav, street kids are those ‘children out of school, working in horrible conditions with no bargaining power, underpaid and malnourished. Some of us see them as cheap labour and some see them as not our responsibilities but a product of failed parenting, social structures and poor public education system. Admittedly, we have grown immune to the image of them given how pervasive they are and despite the shocking nature of this reality; it does not seem to assault our senses anymore.’ These street-children, do they really strike us? Can we hold them in honour? In the thought lines of Uwem Akpan’s An Ex-mas gift, can you dare say you are one of them? Can we dare say they are one of us?
In the Belly of Dar es salaam, the character of Safina and Belinda whom were born in the street and fathered by nameless men established the fact that street children reproduce themselves making their street life become trans-generational. Over centuries now, street-children have existed in fiction novels also. Horatio Alger, a 19th century prolific author was famous for his novels following the grass to grace adventures of impoverished children. His novel Tattered Tom; or, The Story of a Street Arab (1871) remarkably projects this age long phenomenon and even now, it raises the question of the possibility of extinction of children from the streets.
Photo by Trace Uganda. Trace Uganda empowers slum and street children, providing alternatives to street life.

Photo by Trace Uganda. Trace Uganda empowers slum and street children, providing alternatives to street life.

Yet while they grace the streets, these children continue to question their realities, they are not dumb. The character of Caleb reflects on the disparity in urban and rural development; ‘my father has been growing cashew nuts all his life, he does not know the kibaha cashew factory or who decides the price, why was the factory not built in my village where I could seek employment’? Sara asked, ‘was Kigogo immune to beauty…do you think poverty can be completely eliminated?’ Through their banter, they explore intra-household dynamics, the gaps between them and the rich minister’s children. And what answers do we think there is for these questions? Ramifications of iniquity seldom are resolved with  violence, will their answers rupture them and result in an unruly political revolution?
Perhaps development organisations understand that nature’s providence is certainly a chameleon, hence what is good for the goose; the gander might one day have too. Better than the clean-up squads most governments set up to violate street-children, much more has been done to manage them around the world but little is done to eliminate the phenomenon. The International day for Street Children celebrated in over 130 countries brings a global dimension to reminding the world that street children are also covered by the widely ratified United Nation’s Convention on the Right of the Child. Such progressive activities do not go to waste for Indeed street children have ambition to leave the street someday. Elieshi symbolizes this in the gift of a Pushcart Mansa gets from an adopted father, this triggered him to quit the streets and live more responsibly.
I remember living a day on the street in the city of Lagos as a 16year old girl; I was hungry, frightened and visibly lonely. I had a hateful frown for the world around me. Night came and with a fear for the dark, I was desperate for protection. Helplessly I crept into an abandoned car until morning came. I tasted the street for one night and it was clear I could never survive there. Harrowing as it is, this experience I had is but a tip of what street children like Sara and the one that stole from me knows. Perpetually they tumble into the swift current of the city, swinging on the back of its waves. With many rivers to cross for their survival, day after day, they try to tell us they are not invisible, that they too are one of us.  ‘I am somebody’ they say. Do we hear them clear?

Rahab Mbise is the Communications Officer at Helvetas Swiss Inter-cooperation, Tanzania.

In the Belly of Dar es salaam written in simple language has successfully contextualised the pervasive phenomenon of the street-children, situating it in the gap between us and them. Between the street kid and us all there remains a social divide, they live on the fringes of our lives and thoughts. It is therefore with compassion at individual and communal level that we must connect with these children.I dare us to begin to think we are part of them; I dare us to say they are one of us…
To Elieshi, I say Asante; thank you for this simple but well written novel that aptly places the street-child phenomenon within the African context. To Rahab, Juliana and Innocent, I am grateful for the gift of this book.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

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