Recently in African novels and stories Category

A new writer from Nigeria

FAVL Treasurer Deb Garvey pointed me to a short story in the June 23 New Yorker, which we missed while we were abroad, by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie. The story is called "The Headstrong Historian" and employs an interesting technique of going slow through the rhythms of pre-colonial village life and then suddenly accelerating through seventy-five years of colonial and independence life. I get the feeling from the story that there is a deeper structure, and that more than likely she is riffing off Chinua Achebe, but I'm an economist not a literary scholar, so I'll leave it to someone else to map the arcana and enlighten her readers.

The Book of Not

A sequel to Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangaremga's first novel, The Book of Not definitely is no match for the first book, which was wonderfully crafted in prose and story. This novel unfortunately reflects the main character Tambudzai's "teenage" mentality... jumbled, unsure, mixed up, unable to make much sense, lots of hidden stuff, and very self-absorbed! Not really a good read, though the terrific opening scene- the beating of Babamukuru, gives the reader enough answer to "I wonder what happened..." to leave me satisfied for years.
The recent International Criminal Court indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir continues a slow march to the "end of impunity" that so many African residents have been fighting for for decades. A little irony about the whole Darfur issue is that Burkina Faso's Foreign minister, Djibril Bassolet, is now the African Union mediator. Burkina indeed has a number of lessons for Sudan, and I'll write about them next week with my colleague Alain Sissao, I hope (I do have a long drive to visit the Ghana libraries ahead of me).

From The Guardian

Victims of Darfur atrocities find a voice

Halima Bashir, a Sudanese doctor who escaped to London from Darfur, tells of the ongoing tragedy in her country. A member of the Zaghawa tribe, Bashir puts a human face on a situation where the number of casualties is so large as to be incomprehensible. The conflict between the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum and black Africans in Darfur, in western Sudan, has left about 300,000 dead and created as many as 2.5 million refugees, according to the UN. Bashir, 29, said Tears of the Desert, written with the journalist Damien Lewis, who won an award for his reporting from Darfur last year, was her chance to speak out about the atrocities perpetrated by the Sudanese government against black Africans in Darfur. "My story is not the only one," she said in London, where she lives with her husband and young son after a long battle to win asylum. "There are hundreds of thousands of other stories more painful than mine. With this book it is as if I'm telling this story for Darfuri women. I will keep on talking – it is the only thing I can give my people."

In Bashir, the victims of what the international criminal court has described as a policy of genocide by Sudan's leaders have found a soft-spoken but iron-willed representative. Bashir arrived for our interview at a hotel in central London with her round, youthful face uncovered. But she was firm about not revealing her face to the world, particularly to the Sudanese authorities. While she remains safe in Britain, she fears for the safety of her mother, sister and two brothers, who joined the rebels in Darfur. She still does not know what happened to her family after they fled their village when government troops and the notorious Janjaweed militia attacked. The men of the village stood and fought to buy time for the women and children to flee to the forest. Her father died in the attack. Bashir does not want the Khartoum government to use the knowledge of what she looks like to track down her family – if they are still alive.

Because of fears for her family, Bashir talked to us with her face covered by headgear, hastily purchased around the corner from John Lewis. Only her eyes were visible during the interview. Tears of the Desert is not just an account of the atrocities committed by the government-backed Janjaweed – or devils on horseback – against black Africans. The first half of the book describes a happy childhood in a close-knit Darfur village, although it does not gloss over Bashir's hideous circumcision at the age of eight. For the most part, however, growing up was a happy time for Bashir. Family scenes that feature her much-loved grandmother and her best friend, Kadiga, are vividly brought to life. Like little girls anywhere, Bashir played with dolls, although these were rag dolls made from old clothes stuffed with straw. Her father had big plans for Bashir and she was the first girl from her village to go away to school. Eventually she became a doctor, but she ran into trouble with the authorities for telling a reporter that the government should help all Darfuri people regardless of their tribe.

As punishment she was transferred to Mazkhabad, a village in the remote north of Darfur, and put in charge of a clinic. This is where she saw and experienced at first hand the atrocities of the Darfur conflict. Not even in her darkest nightmare had she imagined she would witness such horror, she wrote, as she treated girls as young as eight who had been repeatedly raped. Bashir had to care for more than 40 girls who were sexually assaulted at their school while government soldiers cordoned off the premises. Parents were kept standing outside the school as their daughters' screaming pierced the air. A rape victim who was a teacher told Bashir: "They were shouting and screaming at us. You know what they were saying? 'We have come here to kill you! To finish you all! You are black slaves! You are worse than dogs. The worst was that they were laughing and yelping with joy as they did those terrible things." The Janjaweed eventually came for Bashir herself. Three men in khaki uniforms took her from the clinic to a military camp, where she was beaten and repeatedly raped. The ordeal went on into a second day with Bashir retreating in her head "to a faraway place where my God had taken me, a place where they couldn't reach me". One of her captors told her: "We're going to let you live because we know you'd prefer to die. Isn't that clever of us? Aren't we clever, doctor? We may not have your education, but we're damn smart, wouldn't you agree?"

Hard as it was for her to go over such painful memories, Bashir said the process of writing her memoir help her come to terms with her terrible ordeal. More importantly, she wanted to tell the whole world about what was going on, especially the atrocities committed against young girls. "These men were not normal," she said. "No normal people would do such a thing to children. I wanted to tell the whole world what was happening." She could only explain the actions of the aggressors as an extremely virulent form of racism. "It is because of the colour of our skin, it is because we are black," she said. "Even at school they give us nicknames and make jokes about us. It is something that has gone on a long time." Bashir cited her experience at medical school where she had a reputation as a swot. The corpses students worked on were exclusively black. One of her friends said: "Arabs do not give a damn about us when we're alive, and even less when we're dead".

Some foreign policy commentators have criticised the international criminal court's decision to charge Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, with genocide and crimes against humanity. They say it will make a peace deal between the Sudanese government and the rebels harder to achieve and warn it could jeopardise the already troubled deployment of a joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur. Bashir, however, has no reservations about the court's decision. She told an audience at the Royal Festival Hall: "I can't explain how happy I am for the ICC case," she said. "It is now more than five years this has been going on and very little has been done. It's as if we've been talking to deaf people. For me this is a step for justice."

Dounko's title of the day

I asked our librarian animator what books he had been reading lately, and he summarized "Le Dernier Survivant De La Caravane" by Etienne Goyemide. A whole village is killed or captured by slavers, except for one man who was out hunting. he follows their trail of tears to the coast. A fateful choice there lies. Sounded pretty good.

Apparently it has been adapted as a dance performance in France (hip hop taking over the world?)
Le Dernier Survivant de la caravane
Chorégraphe et interprète Bouba Landrille Tchouda
Sur une trame et un titre empruntés au romancier centrafricain Etienne Goyémidé, accompagné par les rythmes et les chants pygmés, avec les mouvements de la capoeira et le son du berimbao, ou dans le souffle grondant d'un coeur battant, battu, Bouba Landrille Tchouda évoque la traite, la traque, la crainte, la contrainte, la puissance blessée, la force d'un corps vaincu mais rebelle... La fière méharée d'une Afrique meurtrie.

Now more than 30 years old, The Bride Price is a well-told if somewhat formulaic novel of tradition-modernity, choice-custom, men-women set in Nigeria, and a pleasure to read, especially for someone who wants to get an idea of how people might have been interacting as the city and countryside more and more encroached on each other in daily life. Coming back to my earlier postings about novels that try to get into the "minds" of the characters, Emecheta is really all story here and little "mind" - the complex thoughts of her characters are summarized in a few sentences, rather than a half-dozen pages. The most interesting thing in the novel to me is the tantalizing descriptions of people's somewhat ambivalent attitudes towards Chike and his "slave" family. If the focus had been on them and their interior thoughts, rather than on the conventional heroine Aku-nna, it might have been a superb book. By the way, no bookstore in Bolgatanga carries this novel. We'd love to have 4-5 in each library in northern Ghana, so if you are an American university student reading this for a class, and you have finished with the novel, send FAVL the copy and we'll forward to Ghana- PO Box 90533, San Jose, CA 95109.

This was a bad reading week... I did not enjoy at all two high-minded novels- Ben Okri's In Arcadia and J.M. Coetzee's Foe. Foe is apparently taught in a number of high-minded literary theory courses. I'm not averse in principle to hard to read novels that are making a point about me as a reader and the author as a writer and all of us using langugae and so on. It's just that I wonder while I am reading these two particular books why exactly is it that I find them hard to read, and the only conclusion I can draw is that they're boring. I'm reading with a feeling of tedium, turning page after page and not really caring much what the characters are doing (perhaps because they aren't doing much). And I don't find myself puzzled and interested in my reactions to the text (I'm bored). So, not every book from Africa is a gem, some are just bad. These are two I don't recommend, and they are from excellent authors, at that!

The question... I was giving a presentation about FAVL to a group of returned Peace Corps volunteers, and towards the end the question was raised whether this whole endeavour, with its focus on the technology of books, wasn't simply missing the point, the point being that electronic reading material was rapidly eclipsing books. FAVL may as well be setting up darkrooms and teaching people how to develop negatives using chemical photoprocessing techniques. What do I have to say about that? It is a good question. People are indeed writing and reading text messages on their cell phones, even in remote villages in Burkina Faso. And undoubtedly someday people will be reading Ben Okri on their cell phone, the way people read novels on cell phones in Japan. But my son, who is 9, and an avid reader, and who lives in Silicon Valley, has yet to read anything on any electronic medium. And most likely he'll never read fiction in an electronic medium, unless the technology improves really really fast. So kids in African villages are unlikely to lose much from the investments FAVL donors make in community libraries. Besides, I believe the most important investment we are making is in the institution of the community library, rather than the books per se. This is the mission that drives FAVL every day, and makes FAVL so different from the book-oriented NGO.... our focus is on building the community library as a long-lasting community institution. So we are technology neutral. Not Luddites, and not bookworms. FAVL doesn't exist to give people warm and fuzzy feelings of reading printed letters on pages bound into books (covered in calfskin?). FAVL exists to help people read.

Recommended reading....

I am not a book critic, just an avid reader, and over the past several days I have been re-reading Chinua Achebe's A Man of the People . It's just fantastic, in the ambiguity of the theme.... is politics really character? The writing is sharp, wonderful turns of phrase here and there, and the characters are memorable and never overbearing. Chief Nanga... simply amazing. I was in western Sudan in a small village during the time that General Omar al-Bashir in Sudan was just consolidating his power, in 1989, after a coup d'etat. The local reaction to the coup and the new military rulers was so exactly like Odili's father... wise resignation.

Another Barbara Kimenye title


Wow! "Pretty Boy" by force of circumstances leaves his parents when their shanty home is demolished, makes his way to Mombasa , the sex trade, and AIDS... and his mother dies too, from the shame. Brutally frank, nicely written. Want an insight into the real Africa? Pick up some Kimenye.

Beauty Queen - Barbara Kimenye


This is exactly the kind of book that a secondary school student in English-speaking Africa would love... a quick Jackie Collins-like tale of a village girl transformed, and her eventual downfall from HIV/AIDS. The book is remarkable for the absence of explicit moralizing... you could have imagined it quite differently. There are flashes of great writing and story-telling, which keep the more sophisticated reader interested. The ending is dramatically abrupt. She's wasted away, and dies. You knew that from the beginning, that she was not going to a pretty end.

The book is part of a series developed by East African Educational Publishers for secondary school pleasure reading. It is available through Michigan State University Press. Buy an copy, read it, and then send over to an African village library, why don't you?

FAVL Blog

Books, reading, and libraries relevant to Africa by Michael Kevane, co-Director of FAVL and economist at Santa Clara University.

Other contributors include Kate Parry, FAVL-East Africa director, FAVL Burkina Faso representative Koura Donkoui, FAVL Burkina Faso program manager Krystle Nanema, and FAVL friends Emilie Crofton and Elisee Sare.

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