The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye

This is a novel from 1954 about Clarence, a white man who, finding himself broke and stranded in Africa, decides to approach the king and ask him for some sort of job. Clarence’s only qualification is that he is white — which admittedly was no small thing in colonial Africa — and after he fails to contact the king, he is taken under the wing of a beggar and two boys, and begins a journey south, hoping to meet the king again later when he visits that part of the country.

UNICEF’s director for West and Central Africa, Gianfranco Rotigliano, visited the office. He does not care much for meetings so we went straight out to get a better understanding of the situation of children. Over three days we drove from Conakry to Bamako in Mali. Along the way we visited schools and health centres in towns and villages. It was abundantly clear that the health system is not working and that major reform is needed. The education system also needs reform, but fortunately for that we have, with a coalition of donors, a solution.

It’s a dreamlike, sensual narrative; I’ve noticed before that novels from Francophone Africa (Guinea, in this case) seem to be more stylised than those from former British colonies. It echoes and subverts the tradition of white men’s adventures into darkest Africa. Africa seen through Clarence’s eyes is a world of fetid scents, impenetrable jungle, and the buttocks and breasts of the women; but he is completely ineffectual and naive, dependent on and manipulated by those around him.

My first impressions of this were really good; I enjoyed it for the characterisation and description, atmosphere, nuance. For me it didn’t sustain that level of excitement though to the end, but it was still a very good read.

» The photo, ‘Washday on the Niger’ is © Julien Harneis and used under a CC by-sa licence.

The Epic of Askia Mohammed by Nouhou Malio, trans. Thomas A. Hale

This is an interesting one: a piece of oral poetry, transcribed from a performance by a griot*, Nouhou Malio, in Niger. To quote the introduction:

The Epic of Askia Mohammed recounts the life of the most famous ruler of the Songhay empire, a man who reigned in Gao, an old city in present-day eastern Mali, from 1493 to 1528.

Although to be strictly accurate, it recounts the life of Askia Mohammed and some of his descendants. I was interested to learn that the events were recorded in contemporary written chronicles, so we have some sense of how the stories have changed over the centuries: the genealogies have been compressed a bit, and some historical events seem to have been conflated, but the people and events are clearly identifiable.

The griot speaks

The subject matter fits comfortably into what you might expect of epic poetry: kings, conquest, revenge, wrangling over succession. But of course it also has cultural specifics; for example, Askia Mohammed is remembered for spreading Islam in West Africa, and one of his notable achievements was a pilgrimage to Mecca. Similarly, some of the second half of the poem is the story of Amar Zoumbani, one of Askia Mohammed’s descendants, and his ambivalent social position as the son of a king and a slave woman.

It’s enjoyable as a story — if you skip over some genealogies of the Bob begat Fred begat Kevin variety — but it doesn’t seem particularly remarkable as a piece of literature. It seems to be fairly plain, direct storytelling; there’s some interesting use of repetition for emphasis, but otherwise the way the language is used seems straightforward; with the inevitable caveat that some amount has been lost in translation. Most notably, the original switched occasionally from Songhay to a version of Soninké used as an ‘occult language’ by Songhay griots, healers and sorcerers, a language which is apparently sufficiently obscure that many lines are just marked as ‘undecipherable’. There’s also some suggestion in the introduction that Malio switched between dialects of Songhay, though I may be misunderstanding; what effect any of this code-switching might have is left unclear.

I kind of feel I should be drawing comparisons with other oral/epic poetry: Greek, Haida, Norse, or Anglo-Saxon, which is the only one I’ve actually studied. But nothing insightful is coming to mind, tbh.

Anyway. The Epic of Askia Mohammed is my book from Niger for the Read The World challenge.

* The local word in Niger is actually jeseré, apparently, but it’s the same kind of poet/storyteller/musician/historian role.

» The griot speaks is © Julien Harneis and used under a CC by-sa licence. It was taken in Guinea, but that will have to be close enough.

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in Search of Happiness by Amadou Ndiaye

This is my book from Mauritania for the Read The World challenge. It tells the story of Baba, a teenager who risks his life in a crowded refugee boat to start a new life in Spain.

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A geographical aside: the book kept talking about taking a small boat from Mauritania to Spain, which seemed staggering. It eventually became clear that the boats from Mauritania go to the Canary Islands rather than the Spanish mainland: a still-terrifying 500 miles across the Atlantic rather than the 1300 miles I was imagining.

It’s a self-published novel by a Mauritanian student who studied in the US on a Fulbright scholarship. According to the blurb, ‘Amadou is one of the first students from his country to write a fiction novel’. And I hate to be negative about a first novel written in the author’s second language*, but it’s not a good advertisement for self-publishing.

It’s badly in need of a copy-editor, which is mildly annoying but forgivable. More importantly, it’s not well-written.The dialogue, characterisation, plotting… it’s all just clumsy and obvious. Which is a great pity, because this is exactly the kind of subject that is badly underrepresented in fiction; if someone could write a really good novel about the experiences of illegal African immigrants to Europe, I would be thrilled to read it.

I don’t know if Ndiaye would have done better for his first novel to have written about the experiences of a Mauritanian student studying in the Appalachians, which would also be a potentially interesting subject, I would think.

Anyway, despite its weaknesses, I’m glad this book exists; the boom in self-publishing is really helping me with reading around the world.

* Third? Fourth? I’m guessing he would have one of the African languages, plus French and maybe some Arabic?

» The photo is © UNHCR/L.Boldrini.

My Country, Africa: Autobiography of the Black Pasionaria by Andrée Blouin

I read this for the Read The World challenge as my book from the Central African Republic, which is where Andrée Blouin was born — although she didn’t actually live there for very long.

Her father, Pierre Gerbillat, was a French businessman with a transport company in what was then French Equatorial Africa. He saw Andrée’s mother, Josephine Wouassimba, dancing in a local village and decided he wanted to marry her. Although she was already promised to somebody else, he offered such a large dowry that her parents were persuaded.

He was forty; she was thirteen. And although they were married according to local custom, they were not actually married under French law — not only that, he was already engaged to a Belgian woman, who he married very soon. And after briefly juggling two wives, he left Josephine and sent Andrée to an orphanage for mixed-race children run by nuns in Brazzaville. She was at the orphanage from the age of three until she was seventeen, when she managed to escape, literally by climbing over the wall.

Then she worked as a dressmaker, and had a sequence of relationships with white men, before getting involved in the campaign for independence, first in Guinea and then the Belgian Congo, where she was Chief of Protocol for the newly independent Republic of the Congo for the very brief period before Mobutu overthrew the government and she had to flee the country, and move to France.

So she’s an interesting subject. Although the stuff which is most obviously notable about her — the politics — was not actually the most engaging part of the book, for me. The most powerful section is about severity of the orphanage, and the sheer cruelty of the nuns; and throughout the book the racial dynamics are particularly thought-provoking.

She was a mixed-race child at a time when they were so rare that they were shipped of to special orphanages and coerced to marry each other, to reduce their disruptive impact on society. And it made her even more of an outsider that she was cut off from normal African society for her entire childhood.

Then as an adult, she was a beautiful mixed-race woman who, despite having suffered at the hands of white institutions and individuals, was apparently only drawn to relationships with white men; one of whom she lived with, and had a child with, even though he was so racist that he would not allow her mother into their house.

And I don’t think she makes any comment herself about whether her partial whiteness made it easier or harder for her to be a woman taking a prominent role in the politics of independence, but it must have been relevant one way or another.

So there’s plenty of interesting material here. And it’s well written, for which the credit may go to Jean McKellar, who is credited as a ‘collaborator’; I don’t know exactly what that means in this case. It’s also out of print, though, and unless it sounds like it’s particularly relevant to your interests, I don’t think it’s so amazing that you need to seek it out.

Para Vasco: poemas da Guiné-Bissau / For Vasco: poems from Guinea-Bissau

This is my book from Guinea-Bissau for the Read The World challenge. Although ‘book’ is almost overselling it; it’s a pamphlet really. A total of twelve poems by nine poets, and even with an introduction, acknowledgements and the poems in both English and Portuguese, it’s only 44 pages.

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But the choices were limited; the only real alternative was a book of the collected speeches and writings of Amílcar Cabral, the politician and guerrilla leader who campaigned for independence for Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Which probably would have been interesting, but I took the cheaper, lazier option and bought this instead.

There are some strong thematic threads running through the poems: the forest, freedom fighters, saudade, eroticised women, slavery, nationalism. If I had been told they were all written by the same poet over a long period, that wouldn’t surprise me; although there may be stylistic differences that are flattened out in translation.

Presumably that thematic similarity is at least partially an artefact of the selection process. But apparently the country’s intellectual tradition grew out of politics: the book is dedicated to Vasco Cabral* ‘who has been called the first Guinean intellectual’ and who, as well as being a poet, was freedom fighter, political prisoner and then government minister of the independent Guinea-Bissau. And in the forty years since independence (almost exactly: the anniversary is the Tuesday after next) there has been a civil war, so the theme of political violence hasn’t lost its relevance.

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As always with parallel texts, it was interesting to see some of the translation decisions, even without knowing any Portuguese. For example, one poem was broken up at different points in the English from the original — i.e. the white space appeared a couple of lines later in the translation — which seems weirdly arbitrary, but it would be fascinating to hear the reasoning behind it.

Anyway, it was worth reading, I think; some of the poems worked better than others, in translation at least, with Hélder Proença the pick of the bunch.

*no relation to Amílcar, as far as I can tell.

» The top image is of the Buba river in Guinea-Bissau. It’s from the US Geological Survey and therefore public domain. The second is of Vasco Cabral at the UN-OAU Oslo conference on Southern Africa (i.e. on apartheid), in his role as Administrative Secretary of the African Party for the Liberation of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), six months before independence in 1973. It is © the UN and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène

This is a novel from 1960 about the railway workers’ strike on the Niger-Dakar railway 13 years earlier.

When I said in my Read The World challenge status update that I’d read 16½ books this year, this was the half book; it has taken me rather a long time to finish. Mainly I think that’s because it is written in rather a high style. Elaborate descriptions, speechifying and a general tone of Serious Business.

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I’m always wary of commenting on prose style for books read in translation, but it reads like a conscious attempt to present the strike as an epic struggle — which indeed it is, featuring a large cast of characters in a many month confrontation with the company and the colonial power, involving a riot, speeches, a trial, a protest march, police brutality, starvation, trickery, and murder, all in a serious cause which is at its root the assertion of the human dignity of the African workers. So the style is not inappropriate; but it’s not particularly to my taste.

Still, it’s an interesting and impressive novel, even if I wasn’t always grabbed by it. Perhaps i’ve just read too much post-colonial fiction recently.

There are certainly lots of good things about it; it’s often vivid and atmospheric, for a start. I liked the prominence of female characters who are not just defined by their relationships to men, but take an active role in the strike. I think it probably deserves a more enthusiastic response than I’m giving it; but hey-ho.

Sembène was also a film director, and while trying to sort out what his name was (the edition I read had ‘Sembène Ousmane’ but everywhere else seems to use Ousmane Sembène’) I found there was a book of interviews with him about film, which might have made a more interesting choice for Senegal for the Read The World challenge. Or not, of course.

» The photo is of people playing football in front of the African Renaissance Monument in Dakar; it’s © Jeff Attaway and used under a CC attribution licence.

African Philosophy: Myth & Reality by Paulin J. Hountondji

This is my book from Benin for the Read The World challenge. I ordered it because I fancied a change from post-colonial fiction, and then regretted it almost immediately; I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about philosophy as a discipline.

Actually, though, I found it interesting and it really did make a nice change. It was first published, as Sur la “philosophie africaine”, in 1976, and is largely framed as a response to earlier works in the field. So it provides an interesting window into a discussion I knew nothing about.

Obviously it’s a narrow window, entirely shaped by Hountondji’s framing, and I don’t have the knowledge to judge how fair and accurate his presentation is. But it still offers an insight into something that would otherwise have passed me by.

The tradition he is arguing with is a kind of ethnological idea of philosophy, where for example, Bantu cultural ideas about death and morality and what have you were investigated, arranged into a system, and then presented as ‘Bantu philosophy’. Hountondji argues that this is not only a misapplication of the word ‘philosophy’ but a damaging one. Rather, ‘African philosophy’ should refer to philosophical works written by Africans; the same thing, in fact, as philosophy from anywhere else.

I was very much predisposed to agree with this argument: so much so that I felt the need to step back every so often and play devil’s advocate. Not because I had any long-standing opinions about African philosophy, of which I was completely ignorant, but because I have a long-standing peeve about the vague, hand-wavy way people use the word ‘philosophy’. It’s rather like ‘poetry’ in that respect.

Still, you can understand the impulse that led people to things like ‘Bantu philosophy’. Given the context of colonialism, there is/was a value in any assertion that Africans are capable of interesting thought that is distinct from that brought by colonialists and worthy of study in its own right.

Whereas if you insist on the narrow definition of philosophy, then there is almost no African philosophical tradition; certainly very little ‘authentically African’ philosophy that precedes or is separate from the stuff brought over by Europeans. That’s just an artefact of an oral society. It’s perfectly possible to do philosophy without writing it down — it was good enough for Socrates — but it doesn’t survive; we only know about Socrates because of Plato.

But things like ‘Bantu philosophy’ are a bad solution to that problem. Firstly, because it perpetuates the idea that Africa is so exotic/primitive/whatever that all our approach to it must be through an ethnographic lens, just as African sculptures end up in a different museum to the Picassos and Modiglianis that they inspired.

One result of that is that it strips away any sense of individual creativity: those African sculptures get labelled with a tribe and a place, and not the name of the individual sculptor. Similarly, ‘folktales’ get stripped down to a simple one-page version based on what the researcher thinks is the kernel, and both the name and the creativity of the individual storyteller get lost. Which of course is pretty much the opposite of how we treat poets, artists and philosophers in our own culture, where if anything we are overly obsessed with the idea of individual genius.

And lastly, the very process of taking a lot of different sources — traditional stories, received opinion, religious ideas — and systematising them into a coherent philosophy is itself pretty dubious. Hountondji argues, I think correctly, that the systematiser is imposing his own ideas far more than he is revealing something which is there already.

All this stuff is no doubt old news to people in the field, but I found it interesting to read about.

In the second half of the book, Hountondji looks at some case studies. I have to admit, I skipped over most of the stuff about Anton-Wilhelm Amo: he’s an interesting figure, an African from what is now Ghana who somehow ended up teaching philosophy in German universities in the 1730s, but his surviving dissertations are minor contributions to the debate between the vitalists and the mechanists; I have no idea what that means, and frankly I don’t care enough about C18th philosophy to try to make sense of it.

But I did read Hountondji’s analyses of Kwame Nkrumah’s thought, which was rather more interesting, not least for some second-hand insight into another set of arguments about which I was ignorant: about class, colonialism, capitalism, Africanism and so on.

» The videos are because, well, I don’t have many immediate associations with Benin, and  pictures of bronze plaques from the British Museum felt a bit inappropriate given the subject, so the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou seemed like as good a choice as any. Although do check those plaques out, if you’ve never seen them.

Life and a Half by Sony Labou Tansi

This is my book from the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the Read The World challenge (which was still the Belgian Congo when Sony Lab’ou Tansi was born and was Zaire when he died).

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It is yet another book about dictatorship — a sequence of dictatorships in this case, each as violent and capricious as the one before. From the very first scene, in which a man refuses to die even as his body is hacked into ever smaller pieces in front of his family, it is unremittingly brutal and full of impossible things. It is, um, mythic? symbolic? surreal? I suppose you could call it magical realism, except I don’t think it fits in the realist tradition at all.

As I say, it is about a sequence of dictators, and one of the striking aspects of the book is the sense of violence just spawning more violence. So in the first few chapters it is focussed on a handful of protagonists and it seems like it is about violence, politics and revenge on that personal level. But then they die and the focus moves on to the next generation, but it still seems like a family story; then it moves on again, and again, and everything that seemed specific and personal — all the particular details and motivations — increasingly just seem to be part of the pattern.

It’s dark, poetic and certainly worth reading.

» The photo, of ‘President Mobutu at a parade of the “Corps des Volontaires de la République,” Kinshasa, Zaire, 1967’ was taken by Eliot Elisofon and is from the Smithsonian. I’ve cropped it to fit in the post; I think it’s worth checking out the full version, though.

88 Days – A true story of Somali Pirates in the Indian Ocean by Francis Roucou

This is a first person account of being kidnapped and held for ransom by Somali pirates. Roucou was the captain of the Indian Ocean Explorer, a boat from the Seychelles which was chartered by tourists for diving and fishing — although only the crew was on board when the boat was captured.

It’s what you might expect: quite an interesting story told by someone who isn’t primarily a writer. He does a perfectly good job of telling what happened, but it’s not full of amazingly evocative description or profound psychological insight.

Still, it is an interesting story, and it does give an idea of the incredibly difficult situation he was in, being the man who had to interact face-to-face with the pirates while only having a very limited sense of what negotiations were happening in the background, and very rarely being given a chance to call the Seychelles, but only with the pirates listening in to his calls.

88 Days is my book from the Seychelles for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, Royal Marines on Counter Piracy Operations Near Somalia, is © the Ministry of Defence and used under a CC by-nc licence. It’s not directly relevant to this book — no swooping in by Royal Marines was involved in the story — but at least it’s a CC licensed image related to Somali piracy.

Translations From The Night by Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo

Rabearivelo was a poet writing in Madagascar in the 20s and 30s — he killed himself in 1937 at the age of 36. He wrote in French; some of his later poems claimed to be translated from Malagasy, but according to this anthology’s introduction, the evidence suggests it was the other way round: that he wrote them in French, produced Malagasy versions, and then lied about it.

Initially at least he wrote squarely in the mainstream of French poetry at the time — again this is according to the introduction, I don’t know enough about early C20th French poetry to judge — but later he took more influence from local traditions, as evidenced by the way he pretended his poems had been translated from Malagasy.

This anthology includes a few examples of his early work but is mainly selected from three later books: shortish free verse lyrics from Presque-Songes (‘Near-Dreams’) and Traduit de la Nuit (‘Translated from the Night’); and short prose pieces from Vieilles Chansons des Pays d’Imerina [‘Old Imerinan Songs’].

The Madagascan influence is not especially obvious, to me at least, in the lyrics; there are a few references to lianas, cassava, coral, and so on, but most of the imagery seems to be very universal: twilight, stars, birds, flowers, bulls, the sun, the moon. I’m sure I’m missing things, since the book is blissfully free of footnotes; which is nice, because footnotes can feel a bit naggy and joyless, but on the other hand, when it says something like

What invisible rat
out of the walls of the night
is gnawing at the milk-cake of the moon?

it could for all I know be a reference to some Malagasy folk-story, or it might just be a ‘normal’ poetic image. And ‘gateau lacté‘ might be some kind of local dish, or it might just mean that the moon is round and white (if it is a real dish, a quick googling provides no evidence for it).

The local influence seems more obvious in the prose, which not only has more local colour but has something of the flavour of traditional story-telling to it. Here’s an example (this is the entire piece):

 – Who is there? Is the Woman-whose-footsteps-echo-the-livelong-days? Is it the Woman-who-is-hard-to-question?
– It is not the Woman-whose-footsteps-echo-the-livelong-days nor the Woman-who-is-hard-to-question! But I am the wife of another, and the livelong days I must know my place. Besides I am the wife of another, and when someone tells me our secrets I am not at all pleased. So plant one root of a fig-tree: perhaps its shadow would make me come. Plant a few roots of castor-oil tree: perhaps then you might be able to hold me. I would rather walk a long way to get my pitcher filled than take away a half empty pitcher with no waiting!
– Offer me green fruits and I will offer you bitter ones.

Questions of ethnology and influence aside, I quite enjoyed it as poetry, although I always struggle with poetry in translation: I assume I’m missing something and try to give everything the benefit of the doubt, but it does feel like watching TV through smoked glass sometimes.

At least in this case I had the French parallel text, but my long-withered schoolboy French was never good enough to assess poetry. It is good enough to find a few spots where the translation seemed a bit odd: repetition in the French which wasn’t reproduced in the English, long sentences in French which were broken up in translation, slangy dialogue in English which seemed less slangy in the original. Small things, really, but they just undermine your confidence a bit.

Still, it was interesting and enjoyable enough to be worth reading.

Translations From The Night: Selected Poems Of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo is my book from Madagascar for the Read The World challenge.

» Because it’s a book from Madagascar, I decided to use a picture of a lemur. There are no lemurs featured in Rabearivelo’s poetry. More’s the pity.

Funny Lemur is © Tambako The Jaguar and used under a CC by-nd licence.

The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah

The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born is a novel set during the last days of the Nkrumah government in Ghana. It’s about a man resisting corruption, quixotically in the view of most of those around him. The scathing portrayal of a corrupt society is all the sharper because of the contrast with the optimism that came with independence; it’s a novel, among other things, about the loss of hope. A kind of Animal Farm of post-colonialism.

It’s a slim book, less than 200 pages, but it took me quite a long time to read because it required focussed attention: eventually I took it on a long train journey where there were no distractions. It’s just densely written, with detailed, closely observed descriptive passages that are very effective; but also with some convoluted sentences that simply do not allow for skimming. This is the kind of thing:

But along the streets, those who can soon learn to recognize in ordinary faces beings whom the spirit has moved, but who cannot follow where it beckons, so heavy are the small ordinary days of the time.

I know it’s hardly Finnegans Wake, but it’s a bit of a speed bump when you’re reading.

Incidentally, the cover of the Heinemann edition really seems like a terrible choice for a novel which is dark and spiky and intricate. I should know by now: don’t read too much into the cover design. But I think it’s unavoidable that it affects your expectations, and I was really startled by the mismatch between the cover and the content.

The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born is my book from Ghana for the Read The World challenge. I tried to find a short passage to quote to give you a flavour, but it doesn’t really lend itself to quoting. So I’ll just say it’s sharp, bitter, evocative, sometimes for my taste slightly overwritten, but more often beautiful.

» The picture is a detail of a cloth printed in the 1950s to commemorate Ghanaian independence, from the British Museum collections.

The Devil That Danced on the Water by Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna’s father was a doctor, then activist and politician in Sierra Leone, rising to be Minister of Finance for a while before resigning in public protest at corruption in the government. But she was born in Scotland to a Scottish mother while her father was studying medicine there.

Unfortunately politics in Sierra Leone was a dangerous business. We learn at the very start of the book that, when she was ten, her father was arrested and she never saw him again, but exactly what happened to him emerges over the course of the book, so even though it is in fact a matter of historical record, I suppose the polite thing to do is to issue a MILD SPOILER ALERT before I go on to talk about it.

So, as I was saying, her father (along with fourteen other men) was arrested and charged on trumped-up charges of treason, inevitably found guilty, and hanged. They had supposedly been conspiring to blow up a government minister — an explosion at his house did take place but appears to have been staged for the purpose.

After that Forna moved to the UK permanently, but even before that she had moved frequently between Sierra Leone and the UK according to her father’s fluctuating political fortunes. That in itself would be an interesting subject for a memoir, of course, a mixed race girl with a childhood split between the UK and Africa in the 60s and 70s; but inevitably her father’s story dominates the book, and the second half is the story of her return to Sierra Leone decades later to learn as much as she can about the details of her father’s trial.

I’ve actually been putting off reading this book because it sounded a bit depressing. But once again it reinforces the basic truth: my enjoyment in books is much more dependent on the quality of the writing than the subject matter. I got pleasure from reading this book, despite everything, because it is very well written. The childhood stuff particularly; she’s good at capturing the limited understanding of a small child caught up in a complicated, adult situation.

I thought the second part, her return to Sierra Leone as an adult to investigate her father’s trial, was less interesting. Just because it’s incredibly predictable, really. It was a political show trial organised by a dictator, and it followed the familiar pattern: forced confessions, a jury stuffed with political partisans, a cowed judiciary, ‘witnesses’ motivated by self-interest or fear, the accused denied access to a lawyer. Of course I can understand why Forna felt driven to find answers, but whereas her account of her childhood is full of individual, unique details, the second part just feels weirdly like you’ve read it before. Still interesting, still worth reading, but not as engaging as the first part.

Anyway, here’s a  little extract, from a period when her father is in prison and she is living in London with her stepmother and her siblings.

I used to walk down a road, any road, and say to myself: If I can just hold my breath until I get to the end of this street Daddy will be released from prison. Or, if I was crossing a bridge and a train went underneath, I wished my father would be freed. Sometimes I’d stand there until train after train had gone by, eyes closed, amassing wishes. Three times over three years, as I cut the first slice of cake, I used my special birthday wish so I could have him back. I wished on the full moon and the new moon, and then any moon at all. At Christmas, if I found the silver sixpence Mum hid in the pudding, I wished for my father’s freedom. I wished for nothing else.

As time went on I increased my challenges: to reach the end of the road with my eyes closed without bumping into anyone or anything; to leap every other paving stone, dancing between them, promising myself that if I could make it ten yards, or twelve, or fifteen, I would somehow, miraculously earn his freedom. gradually I upped the ante: I’d work my bike up to speed then aim the front wheel at a pothole or a speed bump. If I don’t fall off, if I can stay in the saddle, then they’ll let him out of prison. Alone in the flat one afternoon I stood in the galley kitchen passing my hand as slowly as I dared across the ice-blue flame of the gas ring, once, twice, thrice, until the smell, like burnt bacon rinds, rose from the scorched ends of my fingernails.

[…]

There’s a good reason exile was once used as a punishment. It is life apart, life on hold, life in waiting. You may begin full of strength and hope, or just ignorance, but it is time, nothing more than the unending passage of time that wears down your resilience, like the drip of a tap that carves a groove in the granite below. Exile is a war of attrition on the soul, it’s a slow punishment, and it works.

The Devil That Danced on the Water is my book from Sierra Leone for the Read The World challenge. Incidentally, although this book is clearly about the politics of a particular country, the name of that country doesn’t appear on the cover once: there are four references to ‘Africa’ and none to Sierra Leone. I know that we have an unfortunate tendency to lump all of sub-Saharan Africa into one entity, but you might hope that the publisher would make some sort of effort even if no-one else does.

» BP Gas Station in West Africa, 1967 and Lansana Kamara (centre) at his store/pub in Kabala, Sierra Leone (West Africa), 1968 are both © John Atherton and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Shadows of your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo

As part of my ongoing quest to read a book from every country, I picked up Shadows of your Black Memory as a book from Equatorial Guinea. It is a childhood/coming of age novel that sets up the conflict between traditional and western cultures: particularly in this case between traditional religion and Catholicism.

Which, at this point in the exercise, is not a description that fills me with excitement; because nearly all the literature of the post-colonial world seems to be about the conflict between tradition and western culture and/or modernity. Certainly the stuff which makes it into English translation. And it’s also pretty common to tell it as the story of a young person growing up caught between two worlds.

So I didn’t pick it up with much enthusiasm, but actually it’s a really good novel. It is simply very well written: vivid, fresh and engaging.

Here’s one of the Catholic bits:

When I was eight, I knew Father Claret’s catechism by heart, and my favourite book was his Straight and Sure Path to Heaven. The horror of eternal condemnation didn’t allow me to be a child. I didn’t go to the Wele River with Ba any more, I couldn’t learn how to make those bamboo toy cars that I loved so much even though cousin Asumu offered to teach me many times. I didn’t carve arrows to shoot at birds anymore, I didn’t go swimming in the Nganga River with my friend Otunga or my cousins Anton and Mbo. Even today I don’t know how to swim. I didn’t have a hunting dog, and I didn’t know how to make a cage for trapping fish. All this was for other children now, for the ones who weren’t fortunate enough to be touched by the grace of God. What’s the use of all that fun and idleness if in the end your soul is damned forever? Father Claret, the saintly one, asked me this as I read his book, and I had no choice; I had to acknowledge that the most important part of my life was my soul, and to be saved I had to avoid useless amusements, the silly games of my friends, my cousins, the brothers in my tribe. It was shortly before I was nine when I got into the habit of saying Mass from a little altar I made for myself in my room in front of the crucifix Father Ortiz had given me and under the religious things I had on the wall: the Eye-of-God triangle and some prints that were brought to me by my father’s white friends; the Little Prayer Book served as missal. Alone in my room, when no one was looking, when my little brothers succumbed to the midday sun, I got all dressed up in a bed sheet and pretended it was a priest’s chasuble and started to say Mass, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spritus Sancti, and I made the sign of the cross: I, a sinner, confess to Almighty God and the Blessed Mary Ever Virgin, Saint Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist, and to Apostles Peter and Paul and all the saints, and I beat my little breast in contrition, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, and I almost forgot the kyrie eleison kyrie eleison Christe eleison Christe eleison, then the intraito, oremus, and I turned my head ceremoniously; then in silent fervor I genuflected, gloria in excelsis Deo, and I recited it all without knowing what I said in a Latin I learned from listening to Father Ortiz so much.

So, yup, I really enjoyed this one. Well worth picking up. I’d be quite interested in reading the sequel if it was available in English. And I often forget to mention translators, but credit is certainly due in this case, so: the translation is by Michael Ugarte.

» The photo is of a Reliquary Guardian Figure (Eyema-o-Byeri) in the Brooklyn Museum. It is actually from Gabon rather than Equatorial Guinea, but it’s the right ethnic group (Fang).

The Land Without Shadows by Abdourahman A. Waberi

The Land Without Shadows is my book from Djibouti for the Read The World challenge. There are a few options available in French, but Waberi seems to be the only choice in English. Having read a few underwhelmed reviews of his novel, In The United States of Africa, I thought I’d try this collection of short pieces.

It seems to be broadly true that Francophone literature from Africa is much more overtly ‘literary’ than the English-language stuff; more playful, more given to formal and stylistic flourishes. Which says something about the influence of French culture and French academia.

Some of these are fairly conventional short stories, others are more like essays or parables or long prose poems. They add up to a sort of portrait of Djibouti — the land without shadows — both in the present and historically.

It’s quite inventive and well-written, but the plain truth is that it never really held my attention. Shrug.

» Djibouti is © Stéphane Pouyllau and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Warrior King by Sahle Sellassie

Warrior King is one of several books in English by Sahle Sellassie, all now apparently out of print. It wasn’t easy to find much information about them so I just went for the one which was available cheapest second-hand.

It is a historical novel, telling the story of the rise of Kassa Hailu, who starts as an outlaw but eventually conquers the whole of Ethiopia and establishes himself as Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia.

The obvious comparison for me is with the brilliant Chaka by Thomas Mofolo, also a historical novel about the rise of an African emperor. Mofolo captured something of the brutality and darkness inherent in a man’s rise to power through conquest, and the novel has a real literary heft to it.

Warrior King is a much less interesting book. It’s not a complete whitewashing of history — Kassa Hailu is presented as a ruthless figure, even if he is rebelling against an even more brutal regime. If anything, though, it just doesn’t see that interested in engaging with the morality of it, or the psychology. It reminds me of the kind of history books parodied by 1066 And All That: history as a sequence of memorable anecdotes strung together into a basic narrative. It’s certainly not very interesting as literature, but it’s not really very interesting as history either; their just isn’t enough context or detail to make it come to life. There’s surely enough material in the rise of Tewodros II to make either a really interesting history book or a rattling good yarn. This is neither.

Warrior King is my book from Ethiopia for the Read The World challenge.

» The shield decorated with filigree and a lion’s mane is the royal shield of Tewodros II which, like quite a lot of his stuff, ended up in the British Museum.

The King of Kahel by Tierno Monénembo

The King of Kahel is my book from Guinea for the Read The World challenge. It is the first book printed by AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s own publishing imprint specialising in translated literature. They say ‘AmazonCrossing uses customer feedback and other data from Amazon sites to identify exceptional works that deserve a wider, global audience.’ So this book was presumably picked up because it was a big hit in French.

It’s rather unusual among all the post-colonial literature I’ve read for the Read The World challenge, because the hero is a European colonialist. Specifically, it’s about Olivier de Sanderval, a real person, a man from a wealthy family of provincial French industrialists who did some exploring in what is now Guinea and wanted to set himself up as an African king.

And he’s not just the hero in the narrow sense of being the central character; it is very much his story and he is presented as a sympathetic character.

It’s always interesting to have your expectations confounded, if only because it reveals what those expectations are. Because there’s nothing terribly radical about this novel. If it had been written by a white French novelist I wouldn’t have thought anything of it; Monénembo has lived in France for nearly 40 years; and yet I was in fact surprised.

That aside, this is an enjoyable if unexceptional literary novel. It is light and cheery in tone; the back cover claims that ‘Monénembo has created nothing short of a jovial Heart of Darkness‘, which is about as baffling a description as I’ve ever encountered. The book reads to me like a playful re-imagining of history, so I assumed it was only based lightly on the historical Sanderval. Apparently, though, Monénembo did a lot of research and had access to the Sanderval family archives, so there may be more history in it than I realised… perhaps if I’d realised that I would have enjoyed it more. Or maybe I’d rather have read a straight biography.

As an example the book being unexpectedly accurate, Google found me these pictures: the two sides of a real coin produced by the real Olivier de Sanderval to serve as currency for his kingdom of Kahel. The Arabic script reads ‘Sanderval’. Which is sort of amazing, actually.

The Running Man by Gilbert Tuhabonye

I bought The Running Man* as my book from Burundi for the Read The World challenge. I can’t say I was particularly looking forward to reading it, though, because the blurb on the cover — How the voice in my heart helped me survive genocide and realise my Olympic dream — just sounds a bit TV movie of the week. Clearly there’s an interesting story there, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that it will be a well-told story.

I’ve read enough boring sporting autobiographies that I approach the genre with scepticism. Admittedly, it should be pretty hard to make genocide boring, but then you might think the same about playing in the World Cup, and plenty of footballers have managed that.

But I was pleasantly surprised. It is interesting and engagingly written (with the help of ghost writer Gary Brozek); and not just the more dramatic stuff, but about growing up in rural Burundi. It’s not a literary masterpiece, and I don’t think it offers any startling insights into either genocide or elite middle-distance running, but it’s a good story simply and well told.

The blurb is slightly misleading, in that Tuhabonye never actually competed in the Olympics, although he came attended an Olympic development training camp in Atlanta prior to the 1996 games and came very close to qualifying. On the other hand, if the Olympic part is slightly overplayed, the genocide bit is even more remarkable than you might imagine; he was the only survivor of a particularly brutal massacre and the details of his experience are just staggering.

* US title: This Voice in My Heart: A Runner’s Memoir of Genocide, Faith, and Forgiveness. I assume it’s the same book otherwise despite the different emphasis, although I suppose they may have toned down the religious content for the UK edition.

» The photo of Gilbert Tuhabonye meeting Chuck Norris is from his own website. Because, well, why not.

Of Water and the Spirit by Malidoma Patrice Somé

Full title: Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. Somé was kidnapped at the age of four and taken first to a Jesuit-run boarding school and then a seminary, where he was a victim of physical and sexual abuse. At the age of 20 he fled the seminary and walked back to his home village. When he saw his family for the first time in 16 years, he could no longer speak his native Dagara and had lost touch with his native culture; so he underwent the long, harrowing ritual initiation that boys normally go through at 13.

He then realised that his calling was to go out and teach the western world about traditional wisdom; the book ends with him leaving the village again. He went to university and earned a few degrees, and he now seems to work on the New Age lecture circuit and in the men’s movement.

I have to say, as I read the introduction which explains this stuff, my heart sank. The cocktail of academic jargon, self-help, the supernatural and purple prose could have been specifically designed to annoy me. But, to be fair, once he gets going, it is pretty interesting. He never completely shakes off the tendency to flowery prose…

The sun had already risen. A few scattered clouds were speeding across the empty zenith as if running away from the threat of the burning disc.

… but the academic and self-help stuff is much less intrusive. And the supernatural is after all the main subject of the book. As I was reading his descriptions of magical experiences he had before his abduction, all of which happened before he was four, I wondered whether all the impossible things he was witnessing were explicable by his extreme youth, and the embellishing powers of memory. But his experiences during the initiation as an adult are every bit as remarkable.

Assuming that he’s not just a professional bullshitter who made all this stuff up because he knows it is marketable — and I’m not really suggesting that’s the case, although it did occur to me as a possibility — his visions/experiences were extraordinarily complex, specific and precise. Since I’m not a believer in the supernatural, I couldn’t help speculating about what kinds of psychological and physiological effects might have created these experiences — quite fruitless, of course, since we only have one very specific perspective on what happened and I don’t have that kind of expertise anyway.

Really, that’s not the point, anyway; I’m not reading with the book to argue with it. What I would hope to get out of this kind of book is some kind of insight into the traditional culture of the Dagara. And there certainly is some interesting material about the rituals, about the use of divination, the decision making of the elders and so on. But the magical experiences themselves weirdly didn’t ring true to me.

I know I’m the worst person in the world to judge the authenticity of shamanic experience, but when I’ve read stories from oral cultures before I’ve always been struck by the genuine weirdness of them, a lack of the kind of narrative logic I expect. I don’t get that from this book; for all the impossible things happening, they sort of read like a version of shamanic experience as imagined by a westerner. Perhaps that’s unsurprising, given the relatively small proportion of his life Somé actually spent in his home village compared to the time spent elsewhere. He is inevitably as much a product of French colonial education and western universities as he is of Dagara culture. Or perhaps he is consciously targeting it at a western readership. Or, very likely, my idea of what a shamanic experience ought to be like is completely wrong.

One way or another, it’s certainly interesting. Of Water and the Spirit is my book from Burkina Faso for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, ‘decorated potteries for sale at the market along the Niger riverbanks near Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’ is from the Smithsonian. There’s not much connection to the book, but I liked the picture.

The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison and Skipping Without Ropes by Jack Mapanje

I was searching around for a book from Malawi for the Read The World challenge, and found very cheap second-hand copies for sale of these two books of poetry by Jack Mapanje. And since poetry books are generally very short by nature, I thought I might as well buy both. Since I’ve read some fairly dreadful poetry as part of this challenge, it was especially encouraging that Skipping Without Ropes was published by a major poetry publisher, Bloodaxe Books. And I was drawn to The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison because it had birds in the title. Yes, I really am that predictable. Also, if you want me to buy your wine, put a picture of a bird on the label.

And on the subject of birds, the ones in question were almost certainly the species pictured above, African Pied Wagtail. Attractive little beastie, isn’t it. Apparently, they form large communal roosts, one of which was on the wire mesh over the courtyard of Mikuyu prison when Mapanje was locked up there for three years, without charge, for writing poetry which annoyed the regime. Quite a lot of his time in prison was apparently spent mopping up wagtail shit. He was released in 1991 after pressure from writers and human rights activists and moved to the UK; he currently teaches creative writing at Newcastle University.

And he writes well. His poetry is dense, allusive, with telling details and attention to the sounds and rhythms of the language. I wouldn’t say he was suddenly my new favourite writer but he is, as I hoped, a proper poet; in a completely different class to some of the writers I’ve read for the Read The World challenge. You can read, and hear him read, some of his poetry at the Poetry Archive; ‘Scrubbing the Furious Walls of Mikuyu’ seems like an obvious place to start.

I actually read the books in reverse order, because his later book, Skipping Without Ropes, arrived first. His later poems seemed to me to be more relaxed, both emotionally and stylistically. I think on the whole I preferred the earlier stuff: angrier, more tightly wound and densely written. The later poems are probably smoother and more polished, but sometimes wander a bit too close to prose for my tastes. But there’s plenty of good stuff in both.

» The photo, African Pied Wagtail (Motacilla aguimp), is © Arno Meintjes and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Redemption Road by Elma Shaw

Redemption Road is a novel about people dealing with the aftermath of civil war in Liberia.

I’ll keep this fairly short because I don’t really enjoy being nasty about books, and this is unfortunately a quite badly written novel. It is full heavy-handed exposition — it has a particularly irritating way of carefully spelling everything out as though readers are a fundamentally unreliable bunch who cannot be trusted to work out anything for themselves. And it’s full of clichés; often the clichés of the romance novel or the crime thriller, which seem particularly clumsy in a book which is painstakingly working through a list of Important Social Issues.

It is so obviously well-meaning that I feel a bit guilty giving it a kicking, but this seems like a novel written as a social project rather than a work of literature.

Redemption Road is my book from Liberia for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo GOL, was uploaded to Flickr by and is © acqui_photography. He gives it this caption: ‘June 23, 2003, Monrovia, Liberia. The Government of Liberia prepares for War War II.’

Poceza m’Madzulo by Julius Chongo and Ernst Wendland

Or to give the full title: Poceza m’Madzulo: Some Chinyanja Radio Plays of Julius Chongo with English Translations by Ernst R. Wendland. Poceza m’Madzulo means ‘evening story time’, apparently, and was the name of a show broadcast in Zambia from 1967-77. They aren’t really what I would call plays: they are solo storytelling performances. Apparently he did write scripts for them but the broadcast version always differed somewhat from the prepared text; this book is based on transcriptions of the actual broadcast.

Some are the kind of thing I would think of (rightly or wrongly) as traditional African stories: Hare has been stealing chickens but he tricks Hyena into taking the blame for it. Others are more contemporary in their subject matter: stories about young men who leave the village to go and find work in the big town so they can afford to buy bicycles and record players. The division between the traditional and modern isn’t clear-cut; there’s a story about two men returning from working at the mines who are tricked out of all the wealth they are bringing back with them by a witch who turns them into wild pigs. You can imagine basically the same story being told a hundred years earlier with a different social context.

The stories are enjoyable, and these kind of things always work better if they are reproduced with all the quirks of verbal performance; tidying them up and turning them into a plain prose narrative tends to suck some of the life out of them. So that’s all good. My major problem with the book is actually with the presentation, not the content. Each story is given first in Chinyanja and then English, but to make it easier to cross reference the translation with the original, every sentence is numbered.

(251) But Hare merely said “Listen folks! (252) I told you that I’d bring a dance on Saturday. (253) Now what have you done about it, isn’t this the very dance I was talking about?! (254) What kind of dance do you want?! (255) ((That was Hare, stoking up the fire, ahi-hi, hgha!))

As you can imagine, this is incredibly irritating. You might think you would get used to it, but I didn’t — it just made reading the book a lot more like hard work. Why they couldn’t just number each paragraph, preferably in the margin… but there you go.

Still, that’s a pretty inevitable part of the Read The World challenge; I’ve been reading a lot of books published by niche publishers and university presses, and they tend to focus their limited resources on the content, rather than design. If only their were more people in the world like Robert Bringhurst, who published both a very good book about typography and his own (beautifully typeset) translations of the oral poetry of the Haida people of British Columbia.

» The photo — Zambian Women Hold Bags of Tilapia Fingerlings — has no connection to the book at all apart from the fact it was taken in Zambia. But I thought it was a nice image and a brilliant title. There are actually some great photos of Africa from the 60s and 70s on flickr, like this one, but they are all of white people.

Who Needs a Story? — Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic

Who Needs a Story? is my book from Eritrea for the Read The World challenge. Given that the country only gained independence in 1993 after a 30 year war, it’s not really surprising that the anthology is dominated by patriotic poems about the Eritrean struggle.

Unfortunately, most of them read as very generic examples of the type: you would at most have to change a few place names for them to work equally well for any national conflict of the past 100 years. Which is ironic because the entire purpose of the anthology is, pretty explicitly, to demonstrate a distinctively Eritrean literature to the world and to help a new country to take its place among the literary community of nations.

It’s possible, of course, that the original poems had more literary merit, and a more distinctively Eritrean flavour, which went missing in translation. But it’s not obvious.

However, in among the boring patriotic poems were some more interesting bits and pieces. There are some poems on other subjects: love, parenthood, salt. And one or two poets managed to find interesting thing to say about the war, or at least more interesting ways to say them. I thought this was one of the better ones, by Mohammed Mahmoud El-Sheikh (Madani):

Letter from Aliet

My dear friends,
I’ve been fighting so long here
That all the birds have died
And my gun has grown into my shoulder.
I sing for all of us denied
Our basic rights and a decent wage.
I won’t beg for freedom or stop singing.

We’re taking Barentu tonight
And meeting like a groom and bride —
Not with the usual ceremony
But with guns
Singing, bullets for kisses
And shrapnel to caress us
All over our beautiful bodies

Come to the end of brutality
By exploding on top of the enemy.

My dear friends —
No more rooms of our dreams gone up
In the smoke of self-perpetuating
Politicians pretending
They will back our cause.

We’ll make it
On our land and for our land:
Sunlight aglow in good work’s sweat,
Farmers who wed the art of peace,
The wounded under their triumphal arch
And the trigger locked
In the revolution’s palm.

» The photo ‘tanks destroyed in the war’ is © Carsten ten Brink and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni

The Bleeding of the Stone is a Libyan novel about Asouf, a Bedouin man living a hermit-like existence out in the desert, herding goats and occasionally guiding foreigners to see the rock paintings on the walls of the wadis.

Asouf has a spiritual relationship with the desert and particularly with an animal called the waddan, the Barbary Sheep*, that lives in the mountains. Two hunters arrive who want him to find the waddan for them, and the book intercuts the story of their interaction and flashbacks to Asouf’s earlier life.

So it’s a book about deserts, and man’s relationship with nature, and spirituality and religion, and environmentalism, and the effects of solitude.

Apart from getting slightly confused by the order of events — careless reading on my part meant I thought something was a flashback when it wasn’t, which made the ending distinctly unexpected — I enjoyed this book a lot. I read it in the garden on an appropriately hot afternoon (hot by South London standards, admittedly, not by Libyan standards), and it was short enough to read pretty much at one sitting. It was atmospheric and rather moving. I think the reference on the back cover to Al-Koni being ‘a master of magical realism’ is a bit peculiar, but I’m willing to forgive it, because I have been guilty myself of describing any novel where anything slightly peculiar happens in a vaguely exotic country as ‘magical realism’.

The Bleeding of the Stone is my book from Libya for the Read The World challenge. And, incidentally, for the Arabic Summer Reading Challenge.

» The photo is Ägypten, posted to Flickr by and © ursulazrich.

* The book’s endnotes actually translate waddan as moufflon, but as far as I can gather from Wikipedia this is not strictly accurate; the mouflon is a different species of wild sheep found in Asia. Although the French for Barbary Sheep is mouflon à manchettes (sleeved mouflon, roughly), so it may be an error via French. Incidentally, in one of those classic ironies of environmentalism, the Barbary Sheep which is portrayed in this book as threatened by hunting and is indeed now rare in North Africa, has been introduced for the purposes of hunting to Spain where it is spreading and causing environmental damage.

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