Recently in African novels and stories Category

Nadine Gordimer - Six Feet of the Country

This collection of short stories was first published in 1982, and definitely reads a little dated when you know that a new South Africa was born in 1994.  But still, Gordimer's writing flows smoothly, and she is quite comfortable writing in a range of voices. You can understand why she won the Nobel Prize.  What I like is that all of the stories have the feeling of being something that she heard, that is, that someone told her.  The are stories feel like they were told, verbally.  She captures that nicely. 

Reading these stories reminds me of her novel Burger's Daughter, one of the really great novels of the 20th century.

Diane Cheater on books in Zimbabwe, at African Arguments

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It's kind of a long rambling post, and I'm not really sure what the main argument is, but lots of fascinating details about reading culture in Zimbabwe... though the absence of any sort of politics in the posting I find somewhat strange... why has reading culture declined in Zimbabwe?  Gosh I wonder why!!

In the wake of celebrations that once again a Zimbabwean author, NoViolet Bulawayo, has won the Caine Prize for African Writing, a revived Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) will be taking place in Harare at the end of July (25th-30th). The theme of the Book Fair will be 'Books for Africa's Development'. Last week, a well-attended event at the Book Café in Harare debated the past and future for the ZIBF, and ended up discussing the question, 'what is the point of books in contemporary Zimbabwe?' The theme of this year's ZIBF gives some clues as to dominant thinking on the answer: books are for development. But what do books contribute to development, and how will books in Zimbabwe help to ensure that 'things can only get better'?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the ZIBF was the premier book fair for all book deals within Africa - not only between Southern African publishers and the rest of the world, but also between publishers within Africa itself. At last week's meeting, Stringer stated that he does not think that it can ever regain that status - not because other states have stepped in to fill the vacuum that was created during Zimbabwe's 'difficult decade' of the 2000s, but because big trade fairs have been made obsolete by technological change. Publishers no longer need to meet in person in order to have conference meetings, to exchange contracts or to look at proofs. All of these things can be done electronically, via Skype and pdf documents emailed between negotiators. There is some truth to this observation. However, Frankfurt Book Fair is still as vibrant as ever, suggesting that publishers do still feel the need to gather together in a trade fair setting.


Nonetheless, Stinger's point about technological change was quickly picked by other commentators. One speaker suggested that the 'moment of the book' had passed; soon it would be obsolete. But Zimunya spoke lyrically about the vital importance of books in rural communities with negligible internet access, where development projects depended upon a textual support, and where more literate members of the community could easily share the material with others. Books, qua object, have practical benefits over all other forms of communicating information. And, as Brian Jones commented, 'In London there were iPads and Kindles all over, but they are still are a rare sight in Zimbabwe and I don't foresee printed books disappearing from Zimbabwe anytime soon.'


Zimbabweans display a changed attitude towards reading, after their hard decade. It is strange now to recall the days in the 1980s when Dambudzo Marechera sat in Africa Unity Square day after day, writing obsessively and magnificently, and insisting that those around him engage with 'difficult' prose. Reading still takes place, of course: this is, after all, the most literate nation in Africa.[3] Newspapers are read avidly; twitter feeds clutter Zimbabwe's cyberspace; Wikipedia provides a quick fix of information. But reading is not given time. Even in the world of literature, short stories, such as NoViolet Bulawayo's Caine Prize-winning 'Hitting Budapest', predominate over novels.

The crisis of books is seen everywhere. Bookshops are hard to find; and when you do find them, they disappoint. An African film-maker based in Kuwadzana, a high density suburb just outside Harare, told me that he used to enjoy reading contemporary fiction and works on film criticism, which he could find in Kingston's, the state-owned bookshop and stationers. Indeed, a visit to Kingston's was once rated in the top 40 things to do in Harare by Lonely Planet travellers.[4] But now, he said, 'There are no books; and if there are any there, they are just text books and manuals funded by NGOs.'

This point was reiterated by Irene Staunton of Weaver Press at the ZIBF event at the Book Café (a café, incidentally, that was once a book shop with a café attached, but where now, as Eugene Ulman, who made an influential film about the café, commented: 'You'd be hard pressed to find a book at the Book Café'). Staunton pointed out that publishers are struggling because people no longer expect to pay for books. Books are conceptualised as something that NGOs provide for free, to schools, communities and project participants, as part of a 'package' with an instrumentalist purpose. Books are for training, not for leisure. And they are certainly not for enhancing a society's imagination.

At every turn, an instrumentalist attitude to books and reading predominates. The novelist Zimunya's robust and moving defence of the importance of books in rural areas was describing the importance of training manuals, not of novels. Meanwhile, at the University of Zimbabwe, the world's academic journals are freely available to the undergraduates, thanks to gratis subscriptions to JSTOR and to the journals of significant publishers such as Cambridge University Press and Taylor and Francis. Africa Journals Online provides three free downloads per month to anyone accessing their pages with a Zimbabwe-based IP address.[5] And yet, university lecturers complain to me that their students are simply not making use of collections such as JSTOR, even when the technical support would allow them to do so. Undergraduates - and even some teaching staff - tend to seek affirmation from canonical texts rather than to engage with a wide range of positions. Reading tends to be focused on data mining rather than tracing the development of ideas and the conversations between academics. A revolution in resource availability has not led to a revolution in academic engagement or the blossoming of ideas.

Despite the high literacy rates, people no longer seem to love books in Zimbabwe. One publisher told me that, 'Parents don't read to their children any more. Children encounter books at school and those experiences with books are often bad ones.' And, she added, in a culture that is highly oriented towards kinship, community and patronage networks, community activities are valued above the solitary and individual act of reading. Undoubtedly, the avid - often social - reading of newspapers, along with the urban ubiquity of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, maintain a text-oriented and literate culture. But book-reading is in decline.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for 5685317264_062391a410.jpgThis is actually the first-ever solicited book review on the FAVL blog.  I got a free copy of the book, but no payment.  Stephen Davie lives in Djibo, northern Burkina Faso, and knows Charley and Emilie, FAVL's two Peace Corps volunteers. So I guess he's been reading the blog, and when his new book came out he sent along an email asking if I had noticed it, and then was kind enough to have the publisher, Anderson Press, send a copy.

The book is a good adventure story, with high appeal for the 10-14 year old boy crowd.  Elliot liked it just fine (of course, he's lived in Ouagadougou).  I thought it was good too.  Very nicely written.  Davies has excellent grammar, plotting, style.  And I enjoyed all the references to Burkina.

So definitely recommendable to anyone with Sahel experience and young readers in the household.

A very short plot summary is de rigueur: Jake Knight is son of British Ambassador.  he's the lead, but his sister Kas has a big role too. They are kidnapped in Burkina. Lot's of adventures and interesting characters.  There is a strong social justice component.  No dystopia here, just a lot of earnest fun and hope. 

Personally, I'd rather have had the Burkinabè outlaw Yacouba Sor character be the central character, and ditch the expatriate children altogether.  I'm hoping Steve will perhaps venture out into something along those lines?  There's little market for that, I suppose.  But then, what a fun adventure, to create and lead the market for adventure fiction in the Sahel... doing what Alexander McCall Smith did for the African detective novel.

Amos Tutuola's The Palm Wine Drinkard

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Believe it or not I am reading this for the first time and enjoying the style quite a lot.  I'm no heavy duty analyst, for that I turn to others.  I just finished "the complete gentleman" part, and found this excellent blog Gukira that provides some context and reflection.  An extract from the complete blog entry:

My favorite narrative sequence in The Palm-Wine Drinkard is about the "complete gentleman." Briefly, a "complete gentleman" visits a market and, while there, attracts the attention of the town beauty, a young woman who has refused to marry because she finds all other men lacking. Infatuated with him, she decides to follow him home, despite his repeated warnings that she should turn back. On the way home, he begins to shed parts of himself, returning his borrowed accoutrements, including clothing, limbs, and skin. Fully denuded, the "complete gentleman" is revealed to be a Skull. He imprisons the young woman in a community of Skulls and renders her dumb by tying a cowrie shell around her neck. The narrator rescues her. Of course.

The tale of the deceptively beautiful young man is fairly common in African folktales. And it is striking that it's often men, not women, whose beauty is considered deceptive. One could stage an encounter between urban and rural forms of masculinity here, and, following an East African vein, relate this sequence to that between Lawino and the absent Clementine. Interesting tangent. Will not pursue.

Two questions: what does it mean that a "complete gentleman" is composed of a series of discrete, borrowed parts? And, what does it mean, especially within Afro-modernity, that the "real gentleman" is a silencing Skull?

(I should confess that the African fetishization of "the gentleman," and our point of reference is invariably "the colonial gentleman," irritates me to no end. That we continue to valorize this figure and aspire to it is really quite silly.)

In disassembling the "complete gentleman," Tutuola makes visible the various elements that, cumulatively, create the gentleman, elements that, when disaggregated, function as fetishes, a term that has the same suturing effect as Afro-modernity. It sutures the anthropological-religious element with the psychic-capitalist.

Em's Book Review: "Beasts of No Nation"

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beasts_of_no_nation1.jpgThe Peace Corps transit house has a huge take-a-book/leave-a-book library but you have to spend a lot of time digging through the trashy romance novels before finding a good read. Well, I did some digging and was lucky to come across Uzodinma Iweala's award-winning Beasts of No Nation.

The novel follows Agu, a young boy forced to become a child soldier in an unnamed West African country. In a sort of Pidgen English, Agu describes his horrifying experiences of war, murder, mutilation, rape, cannibalism, starvation and thirst.
 From the depiction of a drugged-up Agu chopping up a woman and her child into bits with his machete to the rape scenes of Agu by his Commander, Iweala gets straight to the point, writing in a raw, crude and explicit style. Iweala hides no details but that's exactly what makes readers understand (well, at least try to understand) the horrors that the narrator goes through.
The scene of Agu's first kill is particularly moving yet disturbing at the same time: "...I am bringing the machete up and down and up and down hearing KPWUDA KPWUDA every time and seeing just pink while I am hearing the laughing KEHI, KEHI, KEHI all around me...Commandant is saying it is like falling in love."

I've read several novels and autobiographies on child soldiers (favorite being Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier) and I'm always struck by the fact that no matter how gruesome, violent or animal-like the soldiers become, no matter how many women and girls they rape, no matter how many men they mutilate with machetes, I'm always sympathizing with them. Despite their brutality you never forget they are innocent children, forced into a horrible situation.
Even though he commits unthinkable crimes, Agu fights to remember his previous self and the good son he once was. The novel shifts between the present day's war-torn atrocities and Agu's past life of living peacefully with his family: his love of books, his childhood friends, his village, his school-teacher father and his religious mother. It is by living through his memories that Agu tries to convince himself that he is not a "bad boy."

Why write a novel on something so horrific? As the Nigerian-American, Harvard-educated author says in an interview in the back of the book:
"I wrote and write about violence because of a desire to understand what makes people kill, rape and destroy. I wrote and write about violence because of a fear that one day I might be on either the delivering or receiving end of aggression. I wrote and write about violence because there is something fascinating and inspiring about the human ability to cope with and prevail over the worst of circumstances. In short, I wrote and write about violence because of a desire to understand my own and other people's humanness."

M.G. Vassanji's The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

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inbetween.gifThis novel is loosely based on the corruption scandals of Kenyan post-independence governments, particularly Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi.  The central character seems to be based on Kamlesh Pattni and the Goldenberg scandal that he was involved in, where  corrupt government officials (including the president, it seems clear) siphoned off Central Bank funds in an ostensible export-promotion scheme, knowing that the exports were fraudulent.  (The government gave a 20% bonus for exporting gold-- which Kenya did not mine!-- so the exporter would claim to have exported $100m, and would then receive $20m from the Central Bank.)

The novel is more about the personal life of Vikram Lall, from childhood during the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s, to rise to become the "most corrupt man in Kenya", to exile in Canada, and then brief return (and possible death, ambiguous).  The plot focuses on relationships, between Vikram and his sister Deepa, their common childhood friend (and Deepa's lover, Njoroge), Vikram's parents, his in-laws. Vikram's children are completely absent, though (almost as if the author got tired of having to develop characters)!

While I read the whole book, I have to confess I was pretty indifferent.  It is well-written, but it never builds to a gripping emotional climax.  Deepa makes a shocking confession at the end, but the reader's reaction is ho-hum.  I am not sure why I was so little invested in the characters.  Vassanji's has Vikram be the first person narrator, and adopt a clinical, detached tone.  So part of the novel's conceit is that detachment.  And Vassanji repeatedly draws the reader back to the childhood trauma of a Mau Mau atrocity.  But that feels cheap: only a handful of Europeans were killed during Mau Mau, and to build the book on the effects of this one single, very dramatic event... well so many other characters seemed to pop up with more interesting stories.  I guess that is the hard part of novel-writing: the reader wants a story, the novelist wants a challenge.  This novel really is the challenge of making the reader interested in the life of a rather boring person.

There's a lot about Kenya in the novel, so definitely for the Africanist it is worth the read (especially since I had earlier read Wangari Maathai's Unbowed, about the same epoch in Kenya, and Maathai's silences are very interesting.)

Overall, if you want a quiet, slow novel, or are interested in the construction of Indian/African identity in Kenya/Tanzania, this novel is probably great.  A positive review by Helon Habila is here.

Article sur BD dans Takam Tikou

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L'article de Audrey Bessière est tres interressant, et la foto est de la bibliotheque de Pobe-Mengao, au Burkina, appuyer par FAVL!

Quels sont les titres préférés ?

S'il existe des bandes dessinées informatives sur l'histoire ou les réalités d'un pays (La Grande épopée du Tchad, par exemple) ou à thèmes éducatifs (sur les maladies comme le sida ...), les titres préférés des usagers restent les classiques tels que Tintin, Astérix, ou Lucky Luke... D'autres titres sont cités comme Yakari, Tony et Alberto, Tom-Tom et Nana, Cédric... Une seule bibliothèque - mais c'est peut-être la seule qui en possède ? - cite des comics américains : Les Quatre fantastiques, Spiderman, Batman, Superman... Et parmi toutes ces séries, on trouve un titre incontournable : Aya de Yopougon ! En Côte-d'Ivoire mais aussi au Cameroun ou dans un village au Burkina Faso, Aya est là. « Jamais un seul des cinq tomes d'Aya que nous avons ne reste à la bibliothèque plus d'une journée : dès qu'ils sont ramenés, ils sont immédiatement empruntés ». Et « s'il n'y a que deux titres en librairie, à côté de Tintin, nous trouvons Aya », affirme un bibliothécaire tchadien. Cela dit, les lecteurs lisent, bien sûr, « ce qui est disponible à la bibliothèque [...] mais ils souhaitent de nouvelles séries et d'autres titres des séries citées » (Sokodé, Togo).

Pourquoi lire des bandes dessinées ?
Facilité et célérité
La notion de « facile à lire » revient très fréquemment et fait donc de ces livres des documents très prisés et lus par les usagers. Selon les bibliothécaires, les illustrations aident particulièrement à la compréhension du texte, à la lecture. Cette idée est récurrente au cours des entretiens. « Les images parlent », « ce sont des guides », « les planches avec des images et bulles attrayantes facilitent l'imagination dans la représentativité du lecteur par rapport à son vécu et rendent l'histoire plus facile à gérer au niveau affectif ». L'un d'entre eux emploie une expression très révélatrice : « La BD, c'est comme un feuilleton lu ». Un autre bibliothécaire, au Togo, affirme ; « La BD, c'est comme un dessin animé [...]. On ne se fatigue pas. » L'alliance texte/ image est donc très porteuse, incitative à la lecture, et ce, d'autant plus dans des pays où lire n'est pas forcément une évidence.

Un autre avantage trouvé aux bandes dessinées, c'est qu'elles se lisent rapidement - idée fortement reprise. Un bibliothécaire parle de lecture « en temps record ». Les revues favorisent d'autant plus une lecture facile et instantanée qu'elles publient des BD par épisodes.

Des lectures touchantes
Le bibliothécaire de Kinshasa, RDC, donne une deuxième raison à l'intérêt pour les bandes dessinées : « elles abordent des thèmes souvent tirés des réalités de la vie courante ». Et encore une troisième raison : « Un bouquiniste (vendeur de journaux) a été surpris avec trois bandes dessinées estampillées 'Bibliothèque Wallonie-Bruxelles'. Contraint de les rendre, il a affiché son mécontentement en ces termes : 'Ces BD me rappellent mon enfance et me permettent d'oublier mes souffrances'. Nous lui avons alors proposé de s'abonner à la bibliothèque pour avoir l'occasion d'en lire beaucoup d'autres ».

La majorité des lecteurs plongent facilement au cœur de l'histoire, certains ne pouvant cacher leurs émotions. Des bibliothécaires témoignent de réactions vives, de rires spontanés. Mentionnons cette expression d'un collègue : « À la lecture de BD, il y a de la réaction ! »

Pour la plupart, ces lectures sont source de plaisir, de divertissement, de distraction. Comment donc s'en priver ?

Le goût de lire
Enfin, les bibliothécaires d'Abidjan estiment que « les BD donnent un avant-goût de la lecture aux enfants, les incitent à s'intéresser à des ouvrages autres que les BD » ; « Ils aident les jeunes à découvrir la joie de lire » (Koro-Kaga), et « les BD favorisent le goût de la lecture » (Kinshasa, Abidjan). La bande dessinée, « c'est de l'art qui se déploie dans sa simplicité pour véhiculer des messages et permettre, même à ceux qui ont une instruction moyenne, de pouvoir poursuivre leur formation, en comprenant avec les images ce qu'ils lisent » (Khorogo, Côte-d'Ivoire).

Les pratiques des bibliothécaires
Développer le fonds
L'acquisition des livres par l'achat n'est pas généralisée. Cela dépend des moyens de l'établissement. Ainsi, nous notons, par exemple, une différence entre les bibliothèques municipales de l'océan Indien où les bandes dessinées sont achetées en plus ou moins grand nombre suivant une politique d'acquisition, et les bibliothèques en Afrique, qui constituent leur fonds dans la plupart des cas à partir de dons.

En ce qui concerne les politiques d'achat, les bibliothécaires disent baser leurs choix sur les suggestions des lecteurs, les critiques dans les revues ou sites (un bibliothécaire réunionnais mentionne le site bédéo), en fonction du renouvellement des bandes dessinées abîmées et la disponibilité des titres en librairie. À la bibliothèque municipale de Port-Louis, par exemple, les bibliothécaires disent renouveler autant que possible « les séries très populaires et les BD abîmées » et « quelquefois », ils choisissent sur place, en librairie, « de nouveaux titres de séries qui sont peu familières », même si le fonds de ces dernières reste souvent limité comme nous l'avons vu. « À la date du 8 février 2011, la seule librairie moderne de N'djamena n'a que Tintin et Aya de Yopougon en vente », affirme encore le collègue tchadien.

Tous les bibliothécaires, sauf un, disent lire des bandes dessinées, eux aussi, et leurs réponses le montrent également de manière indirecte... L'un transmet son analyse détaillée d'Aya, par exemple, l'autre une anecdote : « On l'appelait 'Savant' dans sa famille, alors qu'il ne savait ni bien calculer ni bien lire, car il avait été radié des classes du primaire à cause de son mauvais comportement. Son secret : ses copains lui racontaient des histoires qu'ils lisaient dans les livres... Un matin, passant devant une boutique, une vieille, le croyant instruit, l'appela pour lui demander de lui lire une lettre. Son incapacité à lire ayant été remarquée, Savant reprit la route de l'école avec un courage de fer. Au moment où je vous raconte ce récit, Savant est en fin de cycle dans une école professionnelle. Cela me rappelle l'histoire de la BD Les Yeux de Leïla de Tito, que je vous recommande » (Bamako).

Presque tous expriment le souhait d'avoir davantage de bandes dessinées ; plusieurs spécifient « des BD africaines ». 

Malika Secouss, by Tehem... me too!

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After Emilie's recommendation, I decided to read some Malika Secouss.  Funny!  And it makes me wish I were Parisian, probably I would laugh even more.  I have to say it is interesting to read a BD where a librarian, and teen's attitudes towards reading and the library, are a running theme.  I love the running gag about "la mairie" trying to improve everyone's life, and the young, earnest man sure that "projects to improve life for the youth" are great things... I wonder if in the villages in Burkina there is a segment of the young population that thinks the libraries are deeply uncool!  Will have to set up kung fu video evenings for them, natch!


Em's Book Review: "Aman: The Story of a Somali Girl"

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"Aman: The Story of a Somali Girl" is the autobiography (as told to Virginia Lee Barnes and Janice Boddy) of a young girl's coming of age in East Africa's Somalia during the late 1950s and 60s.

There is no doubt that Aman led a difficult life. She lived through genital mutilation, rape, two divorces, two childbirths, the death of a child, a ruined reputation...all by the age of 17! A rebellious girl, Aman falls in love with a young Italian boy near her native village. Dating a non-Muslim, especially a white man, is considered "dirty" and Aman is quickly viewed as a prostitute. She leaves for the city where she dates numerous men (white and black), parties, goes to clubs and stays out late. She is a beautiful girl and uses her beauty and sexuality to get money from men.
If Aman were an American girl, her rebellious lifestyle might not seem that bad. But I have to admit, I caught myself criticizing Aman and questioning her choices. Going out to clubs late at night while pregnant? Going off with strange men in the middle of the night? And it's not the amount of men that she sleeps with but her total lack of care about it. One thing I found sad is that she tries to portray herself as a strong-willed woman yet it's obvious from her story that she is totally dependent on men to get money. She denies being a "bad" girl or a prostitute...but that's exactly what she is. Though, I guess she could be considered more of a high class call girl.
 No matter what you think of Aman, there's no denying that she's incredibly brave.  Not too many American women would be willing to be so open about their rebelliousness, let alone a young girl living in a country with such strict religion and culture. Few women could go through what she went through and still come out as brave and determined as she. Whether or not you agree with the choices of Aman, her story is both poignant and important. It's also quite interesting to read about the history and culture of Somalia during this time period.

Graceland by Chris Abani...

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Can Africa really be this bad?  That's the reaction of myself and fellow FAVL board members... we read Graceland, by Chris Abani, and discussed the hour before our monthly board meeting.  We agreed the novel is really interesting, but flawed in many ways. 

The subject matter, a grim coming of age story, is truly horrifying.  At some points the book reads like a litany of human depravity (organ harvesting, rape, torture, killing of a son).  Tt reminded me of Arlo Guthrie's famous Thanksgiving Day song Alice's Restaurant, where he ends up in jail with... well, if you're 1960s literate, you know who I am talking about.  But in contrast with Guthrie's sly humor, Abani is dead serious- very little humor actually in the book.  It's a frightening portrayal, all the more so for by and large being reasonably accurate.  Of course, Nigeria, the setting, is a huge country of a couple hundred million people, and only a tiny fraction experienced the sequence of horrors that constitute the main elements of the plot.  But many did experience similar stuff.  I see similar lives unfold, occasionally but regularly, in Burkina Faso.   

Beyond this stark realism, we weren't too sure about the literary value.  There is an abrupt shift to a mix of narrators late in the book, very jarring and seems to serve no purpose.  Likewise with a sudden magical realism, at the very end, that makes no sense.  The beginning of many chapters starts with recipes by Beatrice, the deceased mother of the main character, Elvis.  but the recipes didn't seem to mesh with the story, and if they were intended as a puzzle/clue device, well these three FAVL readers (pretty literate, all of us) didn't see it or feel the desire to untangle the meaning. 

Abani may have set out to write a "trashy" novel (at one point he alludes to the trashy fiction Elvie read and still enjoys as a child).  In that case, the novel might be read on a different level, as a kind of Toni Morrison-style blockbuster saga where readers will find themselves and their history.  Part of me says that the market test then is the only relevant one... but I can;t believe the novel sells well in Nigeria, though I could be wrong.

Abani seems like a amazing individual, so while I am somewhat negative on the book (it just has too many flaws to be highly recommended) I did read it through over about four days, and it kept my interest.  I am looking forward to reading more stuff, hopefully more coherent, by Abani.


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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