God Dies By the Nile

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

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                                                                                 Nawal El Saadawi                                                                                     image from http://tiny.cc/a0dusy

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

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

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

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

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

 ‘And if he likes a woman, he can’t forget her. You know he is pretty obstinate himself. Once he sets his eyes on a woman, he must have her, come what may… he burned for such a desire for Zeinab that only death could put an end to it. Sooner or later, he was going to lay his hands on her, for like all Gods he believed that the impossible did not exist.’

‘Do you know he does not sleep because of Zeinab? I have done my best to convince her but she still refuses.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

When Rain Clouds Gather

If you’ve ever smelt the mud, the dirt and earth on which countries of Africa are built on, you will tell they smell the same. But a different scent lingers in each country; it is the scent of the history upon which they are founded.

Gathering to tell is what I do when I want to understand history from the perspective of the novel. I have always relied on Nadine Gordimer to guide me into what it feels like caressing South Africa’s past.IMG_20170720_141640

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What do you want?’ he asked

The hands darted back and there was a brief silence; then she said, ‘You Know.’

‘I don’t,’ he said.

She kept quiet as though puzzling this out. At last she said, ‘My grandmother won’t mind as long as you pay me.’

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

‘Where do you come from?’

‘South Africa,’ Makhaya said

The old man shook his head. ‘That terrible place,’ he said. The good God don’t like it.’

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

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

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

‘Ha, I see now,’ the old man said…You are running away from tribalism. But just ahead of you is the worst tribal country in the world. We Barolongs are neighbors of the Bastwana, but we cannot get along with them. They are a thick-headed lot who think no further than this door. Tribalism is meat and drink to them.’

‘Oh Papa,’ he (Makhaya) said. ‘I just want to step on free grounds. I don’t care about people. I don’t care about anything, not even the white man. I want to feel what it is like to live in a free country and then maybe some of the evils in my life will correct themselves.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Burning Grass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction and Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

 

 

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.

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    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