Burning Grass

Spiraling violence between the Fulani herdsmen and different communities in Nigeria; especially farming communities, aroused my need to understand the socio-economic culture of the herdsmen. My search to learn more of what fabric the Fulani’s, the most dispersed and culturally diverse people in Africa were made of, led me to the Burning Grass.IMG_20170720_141146

In this Novella, the narratives of Mai Sunsaye, the chief of Dokan Toro did not disappoint me. Many of the details he gives of the Fulani herdsmen, serves to understand their socio-economic pattern, and why town dwellers and the nomads continue have conflicting relationships.

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

For all the years he has lived with his most cherished identity as a Fulani, Mai Sunsaye can tell from nature when it is was time to move South or North. Sitting beside his quiver full of arrows, he smelt the smoke fumes in the air and he knew it was of the burning grass: when the grass begins to burn, it is time for the herdsmen to be moving the cattle southward, to the banks of the great river.

Days are, when they move to escape the tax collectors. But when Mai Sunsaye moved on this faithful day, it was not to escape the tax collector, it was at the order of the Sokugo; ‘the charm of the Fulani cattle men; a magic that turned studios men into wanderers’. This charm that infects its victim with a wandering disease sent by Sunsaye’s enemy Ardo, has been brought upon him by the grey-breasted Senegal dove trailing a talisman.

Unbeknowest to Mai Sunsaye, following the bird’s movement would mean deserting his sense of reason, his wife, his children and his people.When asked about his wandering, Sunsaye will tell anyone that cared to listen that he was in search of Fatimeh, the Kanuri slave girl whom he saved from her masters. Fatimeh was caught up in a love triangle with Sunsaye’s love sick son Rikku and Hodio whom she eloped with. All Sunsaye wanted was to bring Fatimeh back to his most loved son Rikku. But in his search for one, he finds another.

In the course of his journey, Mai Sunsaye opened a window for readers to view the nomadic life of the Fulani. Through lonely hills, rivulets and rocks, the herdsmen will thrive. Loneliness was their drink, they are nomads; wandering cattlemen and women.  As their families are scattered beneath different piece of sky in their moving lives, it is little surprise that Mai Sunsaye walks into the embrace of his first son Jalla who has now grown rich with a thousand cattle in the town of New Chanka.

Fiction and Development

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

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

Sunsaye shook his head disapprovingly, ‘You have given up cattle For this? You whom I brought up with the cattle in your veins?’

Hodio laughed ‘The choice was made for me, after what I had done to Rikku and to Jalla.’

In Sunsaye’s absence, his enemy Ardo becomes Chief, rustles his cattles, burns his home and made of his wife and remaining children Rikku and Liebe wanderers. At the urge of the sukugo spell which he was still under, his wandering sickness finally leads him to the Legendary Wild Woman. She was known to always dress in white, leading white cattles with a lion beside her. Alas she was Fatimeh! He is excited, likewise her. She quickly cures him of the wandering disease.

Back to his senses, Sunsaye was able to gather the broken remnants of his family and also restore his chieftancy. But when love sick Rikku and Fatimeh reunites as Mai Sunsaye had hoped for, things were different as even love can wander away. In the time they were apart, Fatimeh had brought forth twins and therefore was now a free-born who is free to marry, but the love Rikku had for her was no more.

In Sunsaye’s words, ‘on the day of death, there is no medicine.’ After gathering his family round the fire again; each telling what they had seen and heard since their separation, Mai Sunsaye died.

Like the author Cyprain Ekwensi, the colorful nuggets of information the character of Mai Sunsaye gives on the Fulani’s helps in understanding their uniqueness. Through him, we learn about the life and values of the Fulani herdsmen:

‘We are fulani’s , the son of Dan fodio, master magicians, we who fight like cats , who die a hundred deaths and live, we who test out manhood by the Sharro’

 ‘we are men of cattles, our cattles come first and since it is our wish to take them to better pastures, all else must succumb to that wish.’

 ‘There is that immediate instinct of the Nomad, developed over a lifetime of exposure to danger from man, beast and nature.’

 ‘A good herdsman must know each one of his cattle by name, colour and habit: the Fulani does.’

 They could ‘eat kneaded flour in sour milk’ and other things but ‘Fulani would not eat the meat from cattle: it was forbidden by the herdsmen.’

 ‘A town must have the smell of a cattle to please a Fulani. If there is no smell of a cattle-dung, it’s like a hospital.’

 ‘Most of the Fulani girls were lightskin with straight noses and thin lips like those of the white people; they could milk cows, separate butter and cheese from the milk, ferment the milk and cook. She hawks the sour milk.’

 ‘A Fulani youth who had not taken a flogging at the sharro would never find a maiden to marry him’

 Their ‘Custom says that a woman is no wife until she is brought under a hut.’

‘To the herdsmen who has spent most of his time on the move, home was a cluster of huts, anywhere from which no more movement was contemplated.’

Reading this book, I could hear the footsteps of Fulani boy taking that trek that will prove him a man. I could see the jaws of cow grinding their cord, I could almost hear the hoots and guffaws of the herdsmen, the clashing of horns. In this book, people and places were so alive.

Written in 1962, the author Cyprian Ekwensi impressed me again. Just like in his novel ‘Jagua Nana’.  I think I love stories where women not only save men but save themselves. The gender balance in this book is commendable. With characters such as Ligu the champion cattle grazer and Fatimeh the legendary wild woman, The Burning Grass became a story, not just of cattle men, but of cattle women too.

This enthralling story set in Northern Nigeria not only gives insight into understanding this ethnic minority group holding the largest pastoral nomadics in the world. The story helps one to understand the incessant conflicts between the nomadic herdsmen and the town dwellers currently on the rise.

Details given in the Burning Grass helps shed light on why since 1987, ‘nomadic school’ educational projects of Nigerian governments targeted at millions of out of school children of Fulani herdsmen has failed. Herdsmen continue to display apathy towards these government driven educational projects. Though language may serve as an impediment, there is also the lose of grazing areas which may make it impossible for nomad children to negotiate herding and schooling within the same space.

The nomadic Fulani’s until present day remains challenged with incidence of cattle rustling, conflict, rural banditing, animal diseases among others. As Mai Sunsaye said, ‘we (Fulanis) are men of cattles, our cattles come first and since it is our wish to take them to better pastures, all else must succumb to that wish.’ Perhaps in teaching them how to grow their cattle sustainably and make their young increase, we may finally begin their education.

 

~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

 

 

Devil on the Cross

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

ngugi 2

    Ngugi Wathiong’O                                                                                                                                             ©2017 University of Massachusetts Amherst                                                                                          

His manner of telling is natural, like a Sage reminding his children and their generations to come the things they must not forget, the wisdom and knowledge of their fathers.

Written in Gikuyu and translated into English, the Devil on the Cross embraces readers with characters in natural states we can relate to. A Matatu ride across the Rift valley to IIlmorog creates a space for passengers to explore inhibiting conflicts that deters them from living happy lives, their discussions were insightful to understanding the problems of the Kenyan Nation.With an exciting point of view, its narratives represent multiple issues that are of concern to international development.

It makes a case for the value of Literature:

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

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

‘Gatuiria spoke Gikuyu like many educated Kenya-people who stutter like babies when speaking their national languages but conduct fluent conversations in foreign languages…The slavery of language is the slavery of the mind and nothing to be proud of.

Let us now look about us. Where are our national languages now? Where are the books written in the alphabets of our national languages? Where is our own literature now? Where is the wisdom and knowledge of our fathers now? Where is the philosophy of our fathers now?’

And likewise a case for Cultural equity:

Our culture has been dominated by the Western imperialist cultures. That is what we call in English cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism is the mother to the slavery of the mind and body. It is cultural imperialism that gives birth to the mental blindness and deafness that persuades people to allow foreigners to tell them what to do in their own country.

It is a tragedy that there is no where we can go to learn the history of our country… our stories, our riddles, our songs, our customs, our traditions; everything about our national heritage has been lost to us.

Who can play the gicaandi for us today and read and interpret the verses written on the gourd? Today who can play the wandindi, the one-stringed violin… Today who can play the bamboo flute, whose sound makes the hearts of a young man and a maiden beat in unison as they go to the fields to scare birds from millet fingers while the moon casts its light over the land?’

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

‘Let’s go back to the question of God and Satan. I have never set eyes on either of them. But let’s agree they both exist. Each has his own powers. And it is true that both have always sought votes on this earth, the vote are cast in the heart of men. Can’t you see then that each is capable of improving or ruining your fortunes on this earth?…So we businessmen pay off God and the Devil against each other. We don’t like to anger either of them. We pray to both.

Business is my temple, and money is my God. But if some other God exists, that’s all right. Sometimes I pour out a little liquor for him so that he won’t be tempted to do to me what he once did to Job. I don’t examine the world too minutely. If it leans this way, I lean with it. The earth is round, and it changes.

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

…she was born in the village, her education is limited. Before she reaches Form Two, Kareendi has had it.

She is pregnant.

Who is responsible?

A student, say. The student doesn’t have a cent to his name… Kareendi where can you turn now?

On the other hand, we could imagine that the man responsible for the pregnancy is a Loafer from the village. The loafer is jobless. He hasn’t even a place to lay his head…Little Kareendi where will you turn?  Perhaps the loafer has a job in the city, but his salary is five shillings a month…who will wipe away Kareendi’s tears now?

Or let’s say that a rich man is the father of the child. Isn’t that kind of affair the fashion these days? The rich man has a wife…

Student, Loafer, Rich man- their response is the same when Kareendi tells them about her condition. “What! Kareendi, who are you claiming is responsible for the pregnancy? Me? How have you worked that out? Go on and pester someone else with your delusions, Kareendi of the easy thighs, ten-cent Kareendi. You can cry until your tears have filled oil drums- it will make no difference. Kareendi, you can’t collect pregnancies wherever you may and then lay them at my door just because one day I happened to tease you…’

It is appalling that babies should emerge from the mother’s womb as corpses. Kareendi has the baby. And she doesn’t throw it into a latrine pit, nor does she abandon it at the road side or in a bus.  Kareendi places on the shoulder of her mother or the grandmother the burden of bringing up this baby. Bur Kareendi’s mother and grandmother warn (her) not to make a habit of this:

“Be on guard from now on, Kareendi. Do not forget that men have stings, vicious and corrosive, the poison of which never leaves the flesh of their victims.”

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

‘As Long as I am President… no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school…after getting pregnant, you are done.

Justifying his position, he further says: ‘After calculating some few mathematics, she’d be asking the teacher in the classroom, ‘Let me go out and breastfeed my crying baby.’

Juxtaposing Magufuli’s narratives with the narratives of Ngugi, one can’t help noting that the former (Ngugi Wathiong’O) is empathetic and progressive, while the later (John Magufuli) is judgemental and retrogressive. I couldn’t help thinking I will recommend this novel to President John Magufuli as it may offer him a mind-shift. Perhaps if he knows better, he will do better.

ngugi

Unlike him, Ngugi is that father that knows the pain that his daughters are not telling, what the four walls of  the Boss’s office sees and hears. He knows that even when a girl survives the crookedness of her young lovers, she will still have Boss Kihara-whose hairy chest has been shaved with money-to contend with. He knows how though tempted, she is forced to turn down Kihara‘s shopping baskets from haute culture houses of Paris in rejection wrapped with civility.  He knows that in soulless cities like Nairobi, the Modern Love Bar and Lodging has become the main employment bureau for girls, and women’s thighs are the tables on which contracts are signed. He knows that amongst all other common struggle, the modern African woman still has to make peace with the fact that the world wants to eat from her thighs.

The Devil on the Cross is a novel that parades too many devils. Ngugi does a good job of nailing them all on the cross of Inequality. Generally, this novel addresses the different shades of inequalities and how it undignifies and divides people; it projects the urban/rural dichotomies, the pain of the rural people whose sweats are used to fatten urban cities that don’t welcome them. It exposes the political, economic and socio-cultural systems that create these gaps. Global inequality projects like the Guardian, Ford foundation  #InequalityIs among others will find this great novel a complement to their course. The message is clear; addressing inequality should be at the centre of all development endeavours.

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 Heart of Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Written by ~  Adaobi Nkeokelonye

The Shock of the Fall.

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

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

Nathan Filer ©telegraph.co.uk

Nathan Filer ©telegraph.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in Mathew Homes’ own words;

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

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

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

Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye

A Man of the People

Dancers capered and stamped, filling the dry-season air with dust. It was a ridiculous festival hosted by the poor contemptible people of Anata to honour their son; Chief Nanga the former school teacher who is now the most charismatic politician in the country. It was in that time in a politician’s tenure when he had to court the villagers for their votes.  Though hindsight shows he is one of those who tuned their country down the slope of inflation, his clannish people remain satisfied with the few pound notes he sticks on their perspiring faces.

Chief the honourable M.A Nanga M.P. is the typical politician who though with a humble background has now been IMG_8531transformed by a sip of power and an insatiable hunger for position and titles. He was that Minister of Culture bloated by the flatulence of ill-gotten wealth, living in mansions built with public fund and secured by hired thugs.  Clad in voluminous damask and gold chain, he acknowledges cheers with an ever present fan of animal skin. With the young and beautiful Edna his next wife by his side, Chief is set to be a man of the people. Fulsome praises flung at his face.

Then we meet the protagonist Odili Samalu a young village teacher, the son of a polygamous district interpreter, a former student of Chief the honourable M.A Nanga. Young he was, with every prospect that will make a politician court his loyalty. Like most young Africans, he longed for the big education of visiting Europe, but his enthusiasm for politics overshadows it. Odili is less enthusiastic of Chief Nanga and his likes whom in a country that just got independence from the colonial power, are becoming the next colonists. He was highly critical of their mismanagement of the coffee market which was the prop of the economy and the trigger for their countries financial crisis. He was defensive of Africa from the criticisms of the self-righteous Westerners. Understanding politics was important but difficult for him. Nights were when he tried to analyse his theory of why power was difficult to relinquish by African leaders.  He questioned the act of politics and its morality? Odili will later ask ;

What potent charm do politicians have? … I find myself wondering whether-perhaps-I have been applying to politics stringent standards that didn’t belong to it.

For Odili and Chief Nanga, what binds them together is smaller than what puts them apart. They are bonded by their fantasies for women, their student-teacher relationship and their tribal affiliation. Yet their idealisms for national governance were practically far apart. Their fantasy for same women creates a conflict, playing a definitive role for their political competition. Chief Nanga wrenched Odili’s lover Elsie from his hands. Humiliated, Odili sets his fight on morality which is questionable. How does he draw a moral boundary in sexual matters when he found it ok to go to bed with an Ambassadors wife? More so on what moral ground does he judge Chief Nanga when he takes advantage of the perks from his political office?

Vindictive Odili was set to revenge his lose by taking over Chief’s young palour-wife  Edna. The battle line in this book was drawn on the body of women. Perhaps Odili’s father was right in his perceptions that the mainspring of political actions was often personal gains. Odili will later admit this saying;

…My political plans which in all honesty I should admit had always been a little nebulous- until Edna came along. She had been like a dust particle in the high atmosphere around which the water vapour of my thinking formed its globule of rain.

IMG_4775Consequently, Odili re-establishes his relationship with his old friend Max who co-opts him into their new political party ‘Common People’s Convention’. After years of watching capitalist politicians with deepening disillusionment, they and other young people understood that when worthy people leave politics to the unworthy ones, corruption happens, and such cannot go on indefinitely.  The youths were hence determined to drop cats among the pigeons in their country’s political space.

After years of lethargy, the impending election created the perfect opportunity to announce the young people’s party. Odili was again concerned on how they could fight corrupt politicians without soiling their own hands. But Max the technocrat was more objective than sentimental. Their participation in politics was not without fatality, it was the tragedy of this book. Odili is beaten black and blue to a state of unconsciousness by Chief Nanga’s thug making way for Chief to win the election unopposed.  Max is murdered by his opponent Chief Koko’s thug, and his fiancée Eunice is jailed for instantly shooting Chief Koko to death.  In Odili’s words,

Max was avenged not by the people’s collective will but by one solitary woman who loved him. Had his spirit waited for the people to demand redress, it would have been waiting still in the rain and out in the sun. But he was lucky.

With so much tragedy experienced by the youth in a bid to save their country from the grip of capitalist politician, it is easy to conclude that they failed, but I thought different.  With their action, these young people were catalysts who stirred up the polity, bringing change.  The election thugs of the politicians refusing to be disbanded after the election formed bands of marauders, beginning a reign of terror.  Consequently, the Army staged a coup that had chief Nanga and other members of the corrupt government parliament jailed. Thus, Max became a hero of the revolution.

While reading this book, I sought earnestly for what made the writer Chinua Achebe a most wanted man by the Chinua-Achebe10--AFP-Nigerian government in the season it was published. Significantly, it presented a post-colonial Africa and principally Nigeria, where corruption and conflict of interest had become the order of the day amongst leaders.  Its climax in a coup d’état arguably made it a predictor of the near future of many African countries and one could herein understand why writers will remain enemies of tyrant governments. Most striking was the series of violent transitions that Nigeria survived shortly after the publication in 1966, seemingly making Achebe a prophet.

Almost fifty years after A Man of the People was published, not much has changed in the governance of African countries. I am tempted to say that this book will never grow old, but I pray it does. I encourage young people to read this book. Perhaps we can hear the author again making a clarion call for youths to understand that a genuine democracy requires their participation. Youths remain a formidable social force and the most active segment of the society, but they remain exploited as politicians pun and their participation in politics are characterized by the violence they create.

It is my desire that young people can once again set cats among the pigeons. It is my prayer that a new Africa emerges to cause a wrinkle on Chinua Achebe’s book  A Man of the People.

– Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye