Baba of Karo

Baba of Karo as she is known, tells stories that holds the secrets of the history and existing social systems in Hausa Land in Northern Nigeria that I never knew.  Compared to the realities of the present day Hausa’s which I am familiar with, things have definitely changed.IMG_2594

Baba with her story-telling skills and remarkable memory takes us through her life’s path within her community, sharing event of the past decades as she sincerely remembers it. In a time when women when Women’s voices from her region was rarely heard or captured in any book, Baba’s voice gives some illuminating view into the realities women lived and with what lens they viewed the world around them with.

Her chronicle of events through her childhood, her four marriages, a life time of bareness and old age begins prior to the era of British control of the Nigerian territory, down to 1950 when she recorded the narratives with the author Mary Smith.  Contextualising that era, Baba shared stories of domestic war, slave trade, and slave raiders, overwhelming culture of polygamy, and also the trend of marriages. She had no problem with expressing her opinion on tribalism, sharing her dislikes for other tribes like the Fulani.

Her identity as a Muslim Hausa woman was presented in ways I envied as she negotiated objectively with the concept of freedom through all her marriages. The degree of autonomy she expressed through roles that today could have been considered constraining, was admirable and a rarity with women of like identity in today’s world. Baba never had a child, but it didn’t stop her from answering mother to children her extended family willingly gave up to her. Baba, like many women of her time had serial divorces but there was no stigma or labelling to their status. At the death of her husband Hasan, she experienced widowhood but this too led to no social rejection.

In Baba’s time, it appeared to be a world full of marriages, I considered titling the book ‘ A book of Marriages’. Polygamy thrived even more as women had the agency to end their marriage. In expressing this, Baba tells of her marriages and the reason she went into them. She married her cousin and first husband Duma to please her father:

‘There was also Malam Maigari who wished to marry me, I promised him I would come to him later…Duma came to visit me, I accepted his money because father wanted me to do so. But because I didn’t really love him, I left him after a few years…Duma was tall and handsome and sensible, we lived together in peace with no quarrelling.’

After her Iddah (a 90 day period of celibacy observed by divorcees), she fulfilled her promise and married Malam Maigari, 15years after, she divorced him amicably and married Malam Hasan the farmer and prison keeper. After Hasan’s death, she had a marriage of shoes (where the wife lives apart from husband ) with Ibrahim. Compared to her sister-in-law Hasana who married 11 men, one of whom she married four times, Baba had an average record for the time; just four. The high incidence of divorce highlighted what I could term the instability of the Hausa marriages or in another perspective, the agency of women to end what doesn’t fit their life.

Using relevant indexes, Baba of Karo’s story, set at the inception of what we may call development in Northern Nigeria, raises questions on what social progress could mean in a society. Circa 1950 Hausa land, Hausa people unlike now, seemed more progressive, meeting the needs of its people, women enjoyed more freedom, enabling them to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, thus being able to reach their full potentials. In those times, Karuwai, Prostitution was legal; it was also illegal to owe prostitutes. Yandaudas the homosexuals were recognised in the larger society without being stigmatised, teenage pregnancy was a rarity, adoption of children was without stigma, divorce was acceptable even on a serial level and domestic violence existed at an insignificant level. There was no Sharia law and yet the people were law abiding with only few criminals in jail. Poverty was not a severe issue as people sharing food and things was part of the existing giving culture. Set aside the high level of infant mortality that had existed at the time as captured by Baba of Karo, I am still wondering through this book if development had indeed brought much good or taken away the good in Hausa Land? The wealth of cultural resources and social mechanisms which I have come to know of through this book, are definitely missing in the modern day Hausa land.

Most striking in all Baba‘s narratives where some ideologies underpinning many challenges of development which we battle with today. Baba serving as a midwife, like some modern day adherent shared societal beliefs and misconceptions of her time regarding, circumcision, medicine and breastfeeding; all of which did not emerge from any form of empirical test.

‘Sometimes, if it is a girl child, the father refuses to allow the clitoris to be cut. But the mother will never refuse to have this done, she wants her daughter to grow big and strong. If you do not clip the clitoris, you will see the girl getting ill, she gets thin until she dies. If she starts to become like that, and the clitoris is clipped, and medicine put on, then she recovers.’

‘When a child is seven days old, we rub the soles of his feet with his mother’s milk to kill the flesh there, then even in the dry season he won’t feel the heat of the path. If the mother’s milk gets onto the child’s genital, it will kill them too…she should always cover other breast with her cloth so that the milk shall not fall on the child’s genitals… if the child is a boy he won’t be able to do anything with a women; if a girl, there will be no entrance, it will be blocked up or her genitals will die.’

‘A mother should not go to her husband while she has a child she is suckling. If she does, the child will get thin, he dries up, he won’t get strong, he won’t get healthy. If she goes after two years, it is nothing. It is not sleeping with her husband that spoils her milk, it is the pregnancy that does that…If he insists, she should wear the Kolanut charm…there is medicine to make the pregnancy ‘go to sleep’, but that is not a good thing.’

Putting this book in any single class or genre of conventional literature or academic writing remains a challenge. The author Mary Smith blends history, ethnography with elements of autobiography embellished with songs to give readers an enduring book highlighting political issues of race, culture, slavery, marriage constructs, adoption, widowhood and gender among others.

Mary Smith’s anthropological record of the Hausa people captured through oral accounts given by Baba, carries a sense of compelling authenticity. Nonetheless, there is still the danger of a single story to consider.

 

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

The Dew Breaker

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

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

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

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

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

edwidge Dandicat

Edwidge Dandicat: copyright Cindy Karp for the Newyork Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

The Autobiography of the Half-Baked Indian

My desire on my third visit to India was different; this time  I wanted to hear what the city of Delhi was saying, I wanted to listen to the road and hear what music the streets of Gurgoan danced to. I so yearned to feel the fabric of the people’s  character, their trade, the structures, systems and key socializations that made them shine and drove their development. As language often limited my interaction with the auto rickshaw-puller, the beautiful women with lowered gaze on the streets, the shop owners and the taxi drivers who mostly spoke Hindi language, I settled for observation and reading.  Beyond reading the Times of India, my other means of learning was their novels. I had made a few selection from suggested authors on my friend Harlene’s bookshelf.  It was considerably difficult picking a first read from  Amitav Gosh’s Rivers of SmokeJhumpa Lahiri’s  The Lowland, Aravind  Adiga’s The White Tiger and  Yasmeen Premji’s Days of Gold &Sepia.IMG_2380

I had a hint that Aravind  Adiga’s The White Tiger was partly set in the city of Gurgoan, the bright and modern end of Delhi where I stayed, I couldn’t have made a better choice over what would help untangle my thoughts about this city whose air I was breathing and perhaps the mystery of the incredible India!

From the first page, I met the Protagonist Balram with the following profile:

  • Name: Balram Halwai ‘The White Tiger’ alias  Munna, son of Vikram Halwai the rickshaw-puller.
  • Complexion: Blackish… In India where colour mattered, he has thought of trying those skin whitening creams that can make Indian men look as white as Westerners.
  • Build: 5.4inches; Thin and Small.
  • Age: 25-35; as he was given by the police on his ‘most wanted person’s poster’
  • Origin: Laxmangarh a.k.a The Darkness in the district of Gaya.
  • Caste: ‘Halwai’ Lower Class Sweet Makers
  • Career: Teashop worker, Driver cum Cook, Cleaner, Murderer  and Entrepreneur!

Through a period of seven nights in which he serves as a midnight educator to the Premier of China-His Excellency Wen Jiaboa-who was visiting India, He gently disrupts the official national narratives of India which is presented to foreigners. With Black Humour and hilarious metaphors, drawing attention to contrasting issues in modern day India, he presents an India with stained sky and divided  against itself.

‘Please understand that… India is two country in one: an India of light and an India of Darkness….One thing about India is that  you can take almost everything you hear about the country from the prime minister, and turn it upside down and then you will have the truth…’

Balram’s India is that one country that takes on technology like ducks to water, where you can smell money in the air but yet the screwing of brides family in the name of dowry remains an integral part of its culture. Its the civilized country with rickshaw -pullers; ‘thin,stick-like men leaning forward from the seats of  bicycle with carriage, bearing a pyramid of middle class flesh , some fat man and his wife with their heavy grocery bag. In Balram’s words, ‘when you see these stick-men, think of my Father’.

Balram was born and raised in darkness. Dark was  the paradise of Laxmangarh with defunct electricity poles, broken water taps and ‘children too lean and short for their age and with oversized heads from which vivid eyes shine like the guilty conscience of the government of India.’  The Water buffaloes was the most important member of his family as they dictated the size of milk and money families got. Balram was his rickshaw pulling father’s ticket away from poverty. Having cut short his schooling to work and pay family debt, this ingenious, ambitious and resilient character with an entrepreneurial spunk ensured he did not sink in the mud.  His education continued in the tea shop where he kept spying, lingering and listening to customer’s conversations. Like a sponge, he absorbed all he heard. Then he learnt he could dream bigger to become a driver with a better income. In the caste-system adopting India where one’s surname tells his caste and determines his destiny, Balram’s surname ‘Halwai’ being of the sweet maker’s caste could not be a Driver.

This country in its days of greatness…was like a zoo. A clean , well-kept, orderly zoo. Everyone in his place…Goldsmiths here, Cowherds here. Landlords there. The man called Halwai made sweets. The man called cowherd tended cows. The untouchable cleaned faeces…women covered their heads with a veil and turned their eyes to the ground when talking to a strange man.

Driving was like impossibly getting coal to make ice. In his spirited way, Balram ensured that coal was eventually taught to make ice. Preparation meets opportunity as Balram whose destiny was to be a sweet-maker eventually becomes the Stork’s family driver, gets his dream Khaki Uniform like Vijay’s, and ultimately earns the title of Murderer as he killed the Stork’s  American returnee son Mr. Ashok.  He did not only slit Mr. Ashok’s throat as the Muslims kill chicken, he remorselessly stole his name to run a start up in Bangalore, finally becoming Mr. Ashok Sharma. All of India’s skin whitening cream  couldn’t clean his hands now.

Being a self-acclaimed half-baked Indian, he titled his story ‘the autobiography of the half-baked Indian’ Balram defines the full-baked Indians as the ones who after 12years of school and three years of university, wear nice suits, join companies, take others from other men for the rest of their lives. While the Half-baked Indians like him and thousands of others in India are those who were never allowed to complete their schooling, whose role models were bus conductors like Vijay, tea sellers and rickshaw pullers but yet the Indian ENTREPRENEURS ARE MADE FROM HALF-BAKED CLAY like him.

Even in his dark and small village of Laxmangarh, he highlights capitalism as it exists also among the poor in Laxmangarh where characters like ‘The Stork‘ owned the river that flows outside the village and took a cut of every fish caught by fishermen therein. Stork’s brother Wild Boar owned all good agricultural land around Laxmangarh. If you wanted to work on those lands, you bow down at his fit.

Balram humorously discusses India’s religious background; In a world with 36,000,004 Gods foisted on us, ‘the Muslims have one God , the Christians have three Gods … the Hindus have 36,000,000 gods, all of which are divine asses he should choose from. ‘These Gods seem to do awfully little work-much like our politicians- and yet they keep winning elections to their golden thrones in heaven, year after year.IMG_2463

Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger deservingly won the Man Booker prize of 2008. With his pen, this writer dissolved the super-power India, stripping away façade of a rising India. This author with his mordant wit presented an India that is in a catch-up relationship with China, with an admiration for all things America, thereby questioning the validity of the Indian dream. There is the American dream, but what is the Indian dream?

The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body in a sharp pen, this is true of Balram’s story. Generally, The White Tiger tells of how the Indian entrepreneur is fostered to success through labouring for pittance, it also narrates how a young boy is corrupted from a sweet innocent village fool  into a citified fellow full of debauchery, depravity and wickedness.

This compelling novel taught me something,’You always ought to talk about a man’s education when describing him‘, You cannot expect a man in a dung heap to smell sweet.

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Daughter of Dust

Bint al Sudan; Daughter of Sudan, Daughter of the Dust… In telling a delightful story of her life, written for the abandoned everywhere, Leila Aziz inscribes the good things that happened to her on a piece of stone, and the bad ones in the sand. The author Wendy Wallace admirably captured the days of Leila’s life growing up as a ‘child of sin’ on the dusts of Sudan. Beginning as a toddler in a cot who survives the Mygoma Orphanage, she welcomes us into the circle of children in the ‘Institute of the protected’ where her elder sister Zulima, her adopted sister Amal, adopted brothers and many other children are abandoned. Some as a result of a culture that is intolerant of pregnancy out of wedlock, others by the death of one or both of their parents.IMG_0170

But for Leila, her parents weren’t dead, life happened to them. She never stopped yearning, smelling or imagining MOTHER in everything good. Someday Nanny Samia was like Mother; when she hugs me I feel happy. It reminds me of something… a familiar smell of bitter oil mixed with perfume. Arms that encircles me, a face I know. She continues to construct an imaginary father, even the smoking stranger in the market place could have been him.

Leila’s story presents the emotional and physical realities of abandoned children in Sudan as they battle with their label Awlad Haram, Bint Haram; Forbidden Children, Daughters of shame. In a very symbolic way, this novel captures the plights of children in the orphanage through their experience of re-adoption, stigma, discrimination and other vulnerabilities like forced or early marriage as in the case of Zulima who was married to a security guard. For Leila, her identity as an abandoned child enclosed her in a state of unfuture; a state of emptiness, of waiting that never ends, of wanting that dwindles to hopelessness.

Beyond these themes, this book became most relevant to me in its description of female genital mutilation which Leila and Amal had undergone as a part of the tradition in Sudan and many other countries.

“All the mothers (Nannies) are there, and the two women I have never seen before. The fat one- she has big hands- tells me to hurry up and take my knickers off and lie on my back on the bed. She says she’s wasted enough time with the other one fighting like a cat and that if I’ve got any sense, I’ll keep still and everything will be finished before I know it.

Mama Luban sits by my head, half on top of me, she covers my eyes with her fingers and two of the other mothers yank my knees apart and hold them so tight I cannot move. I start to shout for help- it’s all happening so quickly, I’m not ready. I feel a slap on my leg and hear Mama Hajji, the old one, say there is no need to cry, no one has touched me yet. After that, I don’t know exactly what happens but I feel a horrible sharp pain between my legs and Mama Luban says it’s an injection. Straight after that, I feel a different kind of pain, a sharp agony that drives the breathe out of my body. I try to kick the women off me, but two of them have got my legs trapped between their arms so that I can’t move. The room is full of noise: drumming, women’s voices shouting out to me to be strong… I think they might be killing me. I screamed at them to stop, as loud as I can. Mama Luban splays her fingers to clamp them over my mouth as well as my eyes as I glimpse the woman standing at the bottom of the bed with a curved needle held in fingers covered with blood. She pulls the needle away from me with a length of bloody thread behind it…The fat woman drops the needle into the bowl and wipes her hands. She kisses her fingertips with a smacking sound.

‘Just like a watermelon,’ she says. ‘No way in at all’…

There is a burning pain between my legs. My body feels as if it doesn’t belong to me. My throat is raw… I think of getting out of the bed…I realize my legs are tied together. Amal is whimpering on the other bed. I call her but she doesn’t answer…

The next day it’s still agony, although I can get off the bed and move around the room and eat the special lunch Mama Luban makes. Amal develops a fever. At night she doesn’t make sense when she talks. She has to be taken away in the Director’s car. She doesn’t come back to the village for a week and when she does, she can’t stand up… she spends most of the school holidays lying on the bed…

Mama Amaani says that Mama Luban chose the wrong woman (circumciser) to do the purification, and that if she had taken her advice and brought a younger person, there wouldn’t have been any problems… Mama Luban shouldn’t have employed an older woman who can’t see the moon in the sky, let alone the bud in a rose.

I’m sitting by Amal’s bed under the palm-leaf shade of the ‘rakuba’… I still don’t know what purification is, except that I can’t go after the ball in goal properly anymore. I can’t jump from one stone to another either… Peeing takes me a long time. It comes in drops, where it used to come as if from a tap.”

While I appreciated Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s highlighting of this theme in her book Infidel, I found Leila’s narratives of her experience of infibulation (a type of FGM) more detailed and moving, capturing the immediate consequences of female genital hacking as I will put it.

In the past months, while searching pages of different books for a fictionalized story on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), I have also travelled through many regions in Nigeria researching the trends of  FGM with support from United Nation’s Population Fund (UNFPA). Like Leila, I still do not know what justification can be given for FGM. For the girls who were not lucky to be circumcised in infancy, each time they shared their story with me, they sound like Leila, their eyes soften with tears.

Trans-generationally, many culture deceive their women into believing that their clitoris if intact will cause them harm. These harms are interpreted diversely in sync with the value system of each community. Where a community values virginity and sexual purity, women are meant to believe an intact clitoris makes them promiscuous and un-marriable. Where the value system is Fertility and children, especially the male child, women are made to believe the clitoris will make them barren or kill the male child if his head touches the clitoris during birth. In some communities, it is all of the above. Not minding similarities, no two communities have exact same reason or an exact same process for mutilating their women’s genital.

The only thing practicing communities have so far shared in common is an enmity with the clitoris pioneered by some unknown ancestors who though no being scientists, knew where and what a woman’s seat of sexual pleasure is and so hacked it off.

female-genital-mutilation-1It is estimated that every year, three million women and girls will be circumcised around the world. While the practice is not global, the consequences are. In trying to dampen our women’s sexuality, we at the worse cause them death. Otherwise, circumcised women become likely victims of severe pain, vagina tear, excessive scaring, tetanus, septicaemia, dyspareunia, urinary obstruction, stenosis leading to loss of flexibility in the vagina causing obstructed labour, fistula, still birth and most of all increased maternal mortality rate.  The most common cause of maternal death is obstructed labour; over 80% of women who suffer obstructed labour have undergone one or more forms of FGM. Hence where maternal deaths remain a global issue, FGM also remains on the table.

At the root of female sexual oppression and denial of their reproductive health right is the FGM. To Wendy Wallace who wrote this book Daughter of Dust and Leila Aziz who has shared with us some pieces of her life, I say thank you for contributing to the global campaign to end FGM. I hope that one day, people of all land and clime will come to understand that tradition must stop being the shield for hiding these murderous practices. Female circumcision is not a daughter’s love gift, when we circumcise our women, we castrate them, we kill them.

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

The Heart of Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Written by ~  Adaobi Nkeokelonye

INFIDEL!

ayaan_hirsi

The author Ayaan Hirsi Ali

When you lose the terror of hell, you become free. But to lose that fear isn’t an easy matter. The book Infidel is about how a young girl grew into a freedom fighter, nurturing herself from a world of faith to a world of reason, leaving god, satan, angels, heaven and hell behind, finding a moral compass within herself and no longer within the pages of any sacred book.

Born in a once peaceful Somalia, conflict in Somalia sent her family fleeing as refugees. Ayaan then lived her childhood across Saudi-Arabia, Ethiopia and Nairobi. Between these spaces, she narrates her different experience of the Islamic religion as it is diluted and mixed with culture. It was for her a world cut between honour and shame, where women were pious slaves struggling and working under a long veil, constantly reminded of the necessity of covering female limbs and face to avoid chaos for men sighting the female flesh. Girls were shamed for being kinterley; she with the clitoris, thus ending with hacked vaginas. It was a world where a Virgin’s only response to a marriage proposal was dignified silence; it is honourable. For many women, a lost honour would mean death in the hand of their father, brother or husband.

Soon Ayaan became familiar with the concept of Difference and silently questioned it as shared in the interesting scene involving her father Abeh below.

‘Abeh would always protest and quote the Quran: “Paradise is at the feet of your mother!” But when we looked down at them, our mother’s bare feet were cracked from washing the floor every day, and Abeh’s were clad in expensive Italian Leather shoes.’

Beyond gender inequalities, sharp fragmentation of class, clan, tribes and castes existed in the different societies she grew in. But travelling secretly through the pages of fiction novels, she and her sister Haweya could conceptualize an egalitarian society where difference didn’t necessarily inform exclusion.

‘We read in 1984, Huckleberry Finn, The Thirty-Nine Steps. Later, we read English Translations of Russian Novels…we imagined the British moors in Wuthering Heights and the fight for racial equality in South Africa in Cry, the Beloved Country. An entire world of Western ideas began to take shape… later on there were sexy books: Valley of Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men.’

In such a world where there is no ‘self’ for a woman, any search for a self will remain a struggle. Life was harsh but Ayaan was lucky in a very rare manner. Her kind of luck is outstanding, marked by enormous good fortune. She captures the perils and triumphs of her life below.

‘How many girls born in Digfer Hospital in Mogadishu in November 1969 are even alive today? And how many have a real voice? … When I was born, my mother initially thought death had taken me away. But it didn’t. When I got Malaria and pneumonia, I recovered. When my genitals were cut, the wound healed. When bandit held a knife to my throat, he decided not to slit it. When my Quran teacher fractured my skull, the doctor who treated me kept death at bay.’

IMG_0146Taking a train to Amsterdam as a runaway bride, Ayaan took a chance at freedom; free from bondage to a husband chosen by her father. That act of courage changed her life completely. Ayaan will later obtain a political asylum in the Netherlands and grow to be elected a member of the House of Representatives of the Dutch Parliament.

In Holland, she found the freedom of expression; the freedom to think and choose her fight. On her political platform, Ayaan advanced her criticism for Women’s right, female genital mutilation, Religion and Islam. Her passion for what she believed in will later lead to her production of a controversial short-film ‘Submission’; a film that  triggered the gruesome killing of her producer friend Theo Van Gogh and more so her having to live an endangered life with death threats.

As with this book Infidel, Ayaan’s message in the 10mins film ‘Submissionchallenges convention. Submission presents a young woman in direct dialogue with her deity; Allah. The message was strong; men and even women may look up and speak to Allah … it is possible to free oneself-to adapt one’s faith, to examine critically, and to think about the degree to which that faith is itself at the root of oppression.

I found it challenging to review a book whose author is not only accused of racial inferiority but also known for being Islamophobic by many of my friends. The foreword written by the Late Christopher Hitchens didn’t make it less controversial either. I have chosen to appreciate her bravery in exposing her private memories in a way I could relate with. I choose to critic Ayaan based on the validity of her arguments only. Her enquiries inarguably holds water; Is freedom then only for white people? Is it self-love to adhere to my ancestors’ traditions and mutilate my daughter? To agree to be humiliated and powerless? To watch passively as my countrymen abuse women and slaughter each other in pointless disputes?

27yrs old Farkunda is a Afghan, student of Islamic law who was murdered for allegedly burning a Koran by a mob of men in Kabul Afghanistan, March,2015.

27yrs old Farkunda is a Afghan, student of Islamic law who was murdered for allegedly burning a Koran by a mob of men in Kabul Afghanistan, March,2015.

I think it is for women like the late Farkhunda Malikzada that Ayaan writes. Despite Farkunda’s devotion to her faith, she is falsely accused of burning the Quran and being an American, hence lynched to a horrific death in the name of Islam by men who should have been fathers and brothers. Such are the paradoxes that challenge our faith. Indeed such women require a vocabulary for resistance, a new lens to conceptualize the gaps between the holy book and their reality. A deconstruction of the death and abuse of many women and men alike in the name of religion can only explain why development is hindered beneath some piece of sky. The mistreatment of women and girls remains the most critical human right issue globally.

From Islam to Christianity and others, there is a growing need to unlearn and reconstruct our understanding and interpretation of faith. This book by Ayaan presents a moving narrative, contributing to the wider understanding of the growing linkages between religion, culture and development or under-development.

While criticisms abound on her work, I hope we remember we have no right to question her narratives on how she has experienced life. In this book is a story about Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi; the son of Magan-the son of Isse-the son of Guleid-the son of Ali. It’s the story of her life. In writing her story bravely, Ayaan inspires me to stop tiptoeing around the pretence of my faith and speak the truth even if my voice shakes.

Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

So Long a Letter

I walked out of the airport in Dakar with a feeling of gratitude; it was my fastest immigration clearance in my travel history. Into her warm embrace, Mother Senegal was set to welcome myself and many other youths arriving for the World Youth Movement’s conference on “Youth leadership and democratic transition in Africa”.

Pleasant were the people of this clime, their hospitality overwhelmed my struggle to adjust with the language barriers. In Senegal, I reunited with old friends, expanded my network of new friends and most importantly I learnt a lot of things that provoked my questioning some dominant narratives about governance in Africa.mariama ba

Earphones went off and on according to the language of the speakers; a proof that though we were a people of one continent, we spoke in different tongues. Clearly, the conference discussions had begun with some high and low moments.  For the dreary moments, I flipped through Mariama Ba’s celebrated Novella ‘So Long a Letter’ which came in handy for this trip; it remains my best Senegalese Novella.

From the inter-generational conversations, the conference topic shifted to the role of African youths in democratic transitions. While exploring the stakes for youths and the struggle for democracy, a discussant asked an important ‘Where are the Young Women?’ The perception was that the young women were participating in the engineering of Africa’s democracy at an insignificant level. I received this question and the discussions to follow as a projection of the thought that young African women were like their mothers-before-them being strategically marginalized and not being given the opportunity to participate in political exercises.

My gender sensitive self was reactive to this question but between my threads of thought, my humanist self-prevailed with some inciting questions. While it was clear that the ratio of educated boys versus girls in Africa will suffer imbalance, it’s acceptable that the fate of young women in education was no longer as bad as it used to be – thanks to the massive awareness on girl child education. Finding young women who are equipped with the education, critical thinking, leadership skills, compassion and wit necessary to drive a political career in Africa isn’t difficult. But are the young women ready for politics? I further wondered if the young women could first identify themselves with common experiences that qualify them as a politically marginalized group. Do they have interest in governance and the political exercises therein? If yes, should they wait to be given power or do they have to take power using their agency? Is it right to apply a gender lens here? Is it fair to blame their insignificant participation in governance on others (perhaps men) thereby making a gender case?

I left the conference hall personalizing the questions. I am that humanist who doesn’t believe that the gender lens always serves, or that affirmative action or quota system must apply to all things. My sincere response as a young African whole-woman was that I wasn’t ready for politics. I guess I must be constructing politics with my moral lens; applying stringent standards that didn’t fit it, hence participation in politics meant the soiling of hands with corrupt politicians.

It was sunset when I returned to the pages of Mariama Ba’s ‘So Long a Letter’. It was a pleasant coincidence to find the dialogue between the major character Ramatoulaye and Daouda Dieng discuss women’s place in African politics. My Senegalese choice of best novella held within some validation.

‘Four women Daouda.  Four out of a hundred deputies. What a ridiculous ratio! Not even one for each province’. Ramoutoulaye said.

‘But you women are like mortar shells. You demolish. You destroy. Imagine a large number of women in the Assembly. Why, everything would explode, go up in flames.’  Daouda responded.

‘Nearly twenty years of independence! When will we have the first female minister involved in the decisions concerning the development of our country? And yet the militancy and ability of women, their disinterested commitment have already been demonstrated. Women have raised more than one man to power…when will education be decided for children on the basis not of sex but of talent?’ Ramoutoulaye continued.

‘Whom are you addressing Ramatoulaye? You are echoing my speeches at the National Assembly, where I have been called a “Feminist”. I am not in fact, the only one to insist on changing the rules of the game and injecting new life into it. Women should no longer be decorative accessories, objects to be moved about, companions to be flattered or calmed with promises. Women are the nation’s primary, fundamental root, from which all else grows and blossoms. Women must be encouraged to take a keener interest in the destiny of the country. Even you who are protesting; you preferred your husband, your class, your children to public life. If men alone are active in parties, why should they think of the women? It is only human to give yourself the larger portion of the cake when you are sharing it out.’ Daouda said.

As though the above dialogue highlighting salient points on the place of women in politics was not apt enough, Ramoutoulaye will later harness it, sharing her young daughter Daba’s views on politics in some form of monologue:

‘She reasons everything out, that child… she often tells me: I don’t want to go into politics; it’s not that I am not interested in the fate of my country and, most especially, that of woman. But when I look at the fruitless wrangling even within the ranks of the same party, when I see men’s greed for power, I prefer not to participate. No, I am not afraid of ideological struggle, but in political party it is rare for a woman to make break-through. For a long time, men will continue to have the power of decision, whereas everyone knows that polity should be the affair of women. No: I prefer my own meditation, where there is neither rivalry no schism, neither malice nor jostling for position; there are no post to be shared, nor position to be secured.’

Young Women participants at the World Youth Movement Conference, Dakar, Senegal.

Young Women participants at the World Youth Movement Conference, Dakar, Senegal.

As I muse over this 1981 Noma Award winning epistolary novella by Senegal’s daughter Mariama Ba, it becomes interesting to note that even with a more enabled space in governance, the reason for young women’s lingering absence in politics may not be far from Daba’s as captured above. If my suppositions are right, then the need therefore arises to reorient young women, support them to critically question their narratives and unlearn their assumptions about activities associated with governance.

With more reflections days after the Youth leadership and democratic transition in Africa conference ended, I am grateful for the discussions it offered. I am also grateful for the insight given by this Senegalese Novel.

Hereafter it’s my opinion that beyond the preparation of young women towards a significant level of participation in politics, what the African governance space needs dearly is not affirmative action, quota system or our focusing on the gender of the political office holders. While inclusive governance is ideal, I think that we need feminist leaders like Daouda Dieng who understands the need for creating enabling spaces and equal opportunities for all. Africa requires leaders who are sensitive to the fact that women are a nation’s primary, more so, Women, Disabled Persons, Children and all other vulnerable and marginalized groups of persons in our society must be encouraged to take a keener interest in their country’s governance.

~Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye.