The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampaté Bâ

The Fortunes of Wangrin is my book from Mali for the Read The World challenge.

It’s a novel — or at least it seems to be universally described as a novel, despite the fact that Hampaté Bâ says in the Afterword:

I don’t know why, even is spite of the specific assertions contained in the Foreword, some people continue to ask themselves whether this narrative is fiction, reality, or a clever mixture of both…

I’ll repeat once more, then, for anyone who might still be in doubt, that I heard everything related to the life of the hero, from the account of his birth (a story told by his parents), through the relationship with the animist world, the various predictions, and so forth, all the way to the downfall caused by commercial bankruptcy, from Wangrin himself, in a Bambara often poetic, full of verve, humour, and vigour, to the soft musical accompaniment of his griot Diele Maadi. To this very day I recall with emotion Wangrin’s voice against the background of a guitar.

[…] I rounded off the information already at my disposal by visiting everyone who had frequented him… I have made up no event or circumstances whatsoever. Every single story was told by the people in question or by someone in their circle, either griot, houseboy, or friend.

Which is interesting case. Because it does read like fiction, stylistically; I certainly read it that way and was surprised to learn that it wasn’t. It is told as a single coherent narrative with the kind of omniscient third person narrator normally associated with fiction. To use a television analogy, it is more like a dramatisation of real events than a documentary. And I don’t think it is like a biography in the standard sense, a work of history intended to establish the true events of a person’s life.

Rather, it is a work of oral history — unsurprisingly, perhaps, since Hampaté Bâ was an ethnologist and folklorist. It has the qualities of a good storyteller telling the story of their own life: not perhaps outright fabrication, but just enough massaging and selection and elision and exaggeration to turn the messiness of reality into something beautifully moulded and polished. It’s like a memoir told in the third person.

And Wangrin is certainly an interesting character; the son of a prominent family, he was sent to the colonial school to learn French and worked as an interpreter, which put him in position as the literal and symbolic intermediary between the French colonial administration and the native population, able to play off both sides against each other. Which he did, enriching himself in the process. So a bit of a crook, then, even if a likeable one.

His position between the French and the Africans makes this book a fascinating look into the functioning of colonial life; one of the more striking things for me was how thin the layer of bureaucracy seems to have been: a very small number of French administrators on their own out in the bush, in charge of a large population of people of various languages and religions with whom they share neither culture nor language. And that makes the interpreter a rather more important figure than the title suggests.

I certainly recommend the book. Like so many of these books in translation, it had a few too many endnotes for my taste, and the edition I read had some truly awful typography inflicted on it* — but I can hardly blame Hampaté Bâ for that.

* The front cover and the page headers are set in Lithos Bold, a typeface which is a typographic cliché for black/African literature, despite being based on Greek inscriptions, so that’s at the very least unimaginative; but worse, the chapter headings use a numeral in Lithos Bold and then a chapter heading and an ornamental initial in Papyrus, another typeface used to give a generic impression of the exotic, and a rather ugly one at that.

» The masks are from the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. I just found themby putting ‘Mali’ into the search engine, and thought they were particularly striking.

Football advertising

As all the sportswear manufacturers unveil their big ad campaigns in the run-up to the World Cup, the one which has been the biggest hit is Nike’s epic Write the Future.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly impressive, if only for the sheer amount of money thrown at the screen. And while it’s conceptually and narratively a bit chaotic, it has some amusing moments and striking images. But it’s all about fame and glory and money and glamour and even more fame. It is the self-importance of football writ large. I miss the days when ads used to make football look, you know, entertaining. Even fun.

So I prefer this one, for Puma:

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

So, the World Cup is almost upon us, and inevitably our attention has been narrowed in on the nervy minutiae of squad selections and injury worries and tactical arguments. So before the action starts, can I just take a moment to say how fucking marvellous it is to see the World Cup being hosted in Africa.

I do understand that there are commercial and practical reasons why the USA and Japan both got to host the tournament before an African nation, but it’s not particularly edifying to watch a desparate FIFA trying to break America like some bloated, bombastic Robbie Williams.

How much nicer it is to see the World Cup finally go to the third great heartland of football, somewhere where the locals will be hugely excited to have it. And having seen the ICC manage to host a cricket tournament in the West Indies without any Caribbean atmosphere, let’s hope that the clammy corporate hand of FIFA doesn’t manage to drain all the Africanness out of the experience.

The Whistler by Ondjaki

I have read several books recently that felt like a bit of a chore, so the first point to make about The Whistler is that it is gloriously short. With the help of generous amounts of white space the publishers have padded it out to 100 pages, but it’s probably more like 60 pages of actual text. I’m not a fan of short stories and I’m usually suspicious of very short novels, but this time I was in the mood for it: how nice to get a book finished in a couple of short sittings.

It’s about a man with an extraordinary whistle; except actually the whistler himself hardly appears. It’s really the story of a village reacting to the whistler’s arrival; and his whistling has a remarkable effect on people. We’re in magical realism territory here.

The story is light on plot but strong on atmosphere; it’s dreamy and wistful and gently funny. I guess in the end it might be a tiny bit insubstantial, but I found it very likeable. And it’s nice to read African fiction which isn’t about civil war or dictatorship or colonialism, important though those subjects are, but instead about people’s normal desires and concerns on a human scale.

He arrived in October, at the same time as the enduring and silent rains of that village. His hair fell along the thin sides of his face, his clothes were completely soaked and heavy, his eyes barely open from such amazement: it was a rain as soaking as any other, but without the natural gift of making a noise as it fell. He believed he was in the midst of an intense snow storm, and opened his mouth. He had never experienced a rain like this.

He put his bag on the steps. He looked, still with that soaked gaze, at the pigeons that surrounded the church. They flapped around him, alighted n the windows and took to the air again. It was only them that made a noise; only their noise could be heard. Further in the distance was a donkeys’ retreat. It is true, gathered donkeys: grey, fat, content and ambling.

He went into the church with a small step, without making a noise. The day was still young and the first mass had already taken place. He breathed the air around him, felt a delicate religiousness penetrate his lungs and his heart. The beauty of the architecture, the light filtering through the stained-glass windows, the morning and the moment, the absence of the Padre, led him to begin whistling. He discovered, with the end of the first notes, that this was one of the best places in the world for the whistling of melodies.

The Whistler by Ondjaki (trans. Richard Bartlett) is my book from Angola for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is © Jose and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. It has no particular relevance except that it was taken in Angola and I like it.

‘The Kingdom of Ife’ at the British Museum

I went to the BM to see the exhibition of art from the medieval west African kingdom of Ife (now in Nigeria). Ife is most famous for some extraordinarily high quality naturalistic heads cast in brass or copper, although the exhibitions also has various other pieces, including terracotta heads in the same style, jewellery, animal pieces and so on.

These heads are of such high quality that one of the first Europeans to see them felt they couldn’t possibly have been made by Africans: instead he hypothesised that they were evidence for the lost civilisation of Atlantis. Which is, umm, a bit cringeworthy. You know you’ve got a bit of a blind spot when you think that Atlantis is a more likely explanation than a previously unknown African kingdom with a strong metalworking tradition. Its especially embarrassing because while it sounds like something some Elizabethan explorer might have come up with, it was in fact… in 1900. Yikes.

He was at least right that these are genuinely remarkable objects, superbly crafted and of great beauty. In fact if you judge art by how much it looks like the thing it portrays — the Daily Mail school of art criticism — there is something extraordinary about this little flowering of naturalistic sculpture in a continent dominated by various kinds of highly stylised art. Certainly that was the Western press reaction when the bulk of the work was found; references to an African Donatello, to African sculpture standing comparison with the great works of Greece and Italy, and to these sculptures being a great mystery of African art. Because, of course, there is no higher ambition than to produce work which fits tidily into the European tradition, and it is inherently mysterious that Africans should be able to do it.

I’m being a bit glib, but actually the exhibition had me examining my own preconceptions about art (I haven’t reached any conclusions yet). Although these days we are all much quicker to see beauty in ‘primitive’ art, not least because its profound influence on Modernism helped change our expectations of what ‘fine art’ looks like, I think most of us have at least an implicit sense of a hierarchy which sees exquisite representational art as, if not better, then more developed or more sophisticated than the highly stylised carvings which we normally associate with Africa. And so these Ife heads seem to carry a significance beyond their beauty.

But the emergence of naturalism really require any special explanation? I guess it might need a society wealthy enough for some people to work as nearly full-time artists, but beyond that maybe all it needs is a shift in fashion. In fact, perhaps representational art is the kind that needs least explanation, since the logic of ‘making things that look like other things’ is so straightforward.

All such questions aside: it’s a marvellous exhibition and if you’re passing through London in the next three months you you should go and see it.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 7: mousebirds

I just love this picture of mousebirds feeding on aloe flowers in South Africa:

I’m not quite sure about the species — Speckled Mousebird, maybe? — but it doesn’t matter. Here are some more mousebirds, showing their tails better:

The mousebirds are an African family of birds which are distantly related to parrots. They are great little beasts, with real personality, and as they clamber around the foliage in groups they do have a certain mousey quality to them.

They are also one of the very first genuinely ‘exotic’ birds I ever saw; on a family holiday to Kenya when I was quite young we flew into Nairobi and stayed the night there before heading off on safari, and I saw some mousebirds in the the city that evening. OK, they’re a bit drabber than some tropical birds — they don’t have the jaw-dropping impact of toucans or quetzals or bee-eaters — but they are proper African birds, and it was a one of the first of many thrilling sightings on that holiday.

»  Mousebirds on Aloe ferox flowers is © Martin Heigan and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. 5 in a row…………, was uploaded to Flickr by and is © crazykanga.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 3: Secretary Bird

The Secretary BirdSagittarius serpentarius:

Because it’s a bird of prey which has evolved long legs like a crane; something I think is just fabulous beyond words. They stalk across the grasslands of Africa, hunting small prey like snakes and lizards.

It looks more eccentric than terrifying, and it hasn’t lost the power of flight; but as a long-legged predatory bird, it offers a faint echo of the prehistoric Phorusrhacids which once roamed South America, crunching the skulls of their prey in their huge hooked beaks.

» Secretary Bird is © Vearl Brown and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Chaka by Thomas Mofolo

Chaka is a fictionalised account of the life of the C19th Zulu king Shaka. It’s unusually early for an African novel, originally published in 1925 but existing in manuscript in some form as early as 1910.

I wasn’t entirely looking forward to reading it. It has started to really bother me when those who rose to power and built empires through force are presented as Great Men, as admirable or heroic. Qin Shi Huang, Alexander the Great, Napoleon: these men were ruthless megalomaniacs who glorified themselves through the misery of others. But we are fascinated by power, and there’s never a shortage of people who are willing to read history through rose-tinted bifocals. Hell, the Russians are even doing their best to rehabilitate Stalin.

I assumed that Chaka would do the same; but part of the reason I enjoyed it so much is that, on the contrary, its portrayal of Shaka is absolutely excoriating. He is presented as a handsome man of great courage and physical and military prowess; but also as capricious, cruel, violent and terrifyingly, unswervingly power-hungry. In fact the scale of his violence, against his own people as well as his enemies, would seem ridiculously exaggerated, if you’d never heard of Stalin, or Mao, or Idi Amin.

Which isn’t to say that the novel is historically accurate. It doesn’t even pretend to be; it’s told very much in a mythic, folkloric style rather than a historically realist one, and it takes substantial liberties with the history for the sake of telling a good story, to the point of inventing major characters — including Chaka’s love interest and a sorcerer who provides him with his power. His life story is tweaked and manipulated to bring out the themes of ambition and power, and present him with decisions which are loaded with symbolic resonance. I would normally shy away from comparing a writer to Shakespeare — just too much baggage — but as a piece of myth-making based freely on a historical source, it really reminds me of Macbeth or King Lear.

I wasn’t immediately gripped by it, but as the action ramped up and Chaka developed into a more and more extreme character, I thought it was electrifying.

Chaka is my book from Lesotho for the Read The World challenge; a quick hat-tip to the translator, Daniel P. Kunene.

» The Chaka Print cloth ticket is from Trevira’s collection of cloth tickets on Flickr. She explains:

These large gummed labels – known as cloth tickets – were attached to bales of printed cotton cloth for export from Britain (read ‘Manchester’ in many cases). They were designed by British artists who depended on information from company agents in the various territories for subjects that were intended to be appealing for their markets.

It is used under a CC by-nc licence.


  • "These large gummed labels – known as cloth tickets, shippers tickets, or bolt tickets – were attached to bales of printed cotton cloth for export from Britain (read 'Manchester' in many cases). They were designed by British artists who depended on information from company agents in the various territories for subjects that were intended to be appealing for their markets.

    Most of these probably date from around the 1920s to the 1950s (but I could be wrong) and were intended for the African market. "

    ( tags: design labels Africa )

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

Season of Migration to the North is my book from Sudan for the Read The World challenge. Originally published in 1966, ‘in 2001 it was selected by a panel of Arab writers and critics as the most important Arab novel of the twentieth century’.

I didn’t really know anything about it before I started reading, and expecting it to be set entirely in Sudan, I was slightly startled by the amount of London in it. It is narrated by a man who is returning to Sudan after seven years studying in Europe; when he comes back to his home village, he meets a stranger called Mustafa who also, it turns out, spent many years in London.

It is very much a culture clash novel, exploring Mustafa’s experience, firstly in London as an outsider figure who plays up his exoticism to attract women, and then a different kind of outsider after he has returned to Sudan and is living as a farmer among people who know nothing about his background.

The London sections are not too different from what you might find in a mid-C20th English novel; I was more interested in the Sudan stuff. I do appreciate there’s an irony in reading a book about a man who trades on his exoticism and then complaining, effectively, that it’s not as exotic as I was expecting; but there it is. It is quite intriguing to read a novel about English society with the ‘exotic’ character at the centre, though — I’m sure I’ve read a few novels by British writers from early-mid C20th with Mustafa-type characters turning up on the periphery. Not that I can think of specific examples offhand.

Most important Arab novel of the century? I wouldn’t know, although as I say, it reads to me like a fairly conventional novel of the period. A good novel — extremely good in parts — but it didn’t blow me away. But then I don’t think the novel is exactly a traditional part of Arab culture, so it may have been more radical in its context.

» The two pictures — Kadugli – Dilling Provincie Kordofan and West Nuba Mountains — are both © Rita Willaert and used under a CC by-nc licence. They don’t have any very precise connection to the book but they were taken in Sudan and I liked them. There are lots more where those came from.


  • 'In the 1980s video cassette technology made it possible for “mobile cinema” operators in Ghana to travel from town to town and village to village creating temporary cinemas. The touring film group would create a theatre by hooking up a TV and VCR onto a portable generator and playing the films for the people to see.

    In order to promote these showings, artists were hired to paint large posters of the films (usually on used canvas flour sacks). The artists were given the artistic freedom to paint the posters as they desired – often adding elements that weren’t in the actual films, or without even having seen the movies.'

    ( tags: Ghana Africa film posters )
  • More amusing cover-design madness from a POD company that does overpriced editions of books that are out of copyright.
    ( tags: books covers )


Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou

Broken Glass is a novel from the Congo (aka the Republic of the Congo aka Congo-Brazzaville; i.e. the smaller of the two Congos, not the one which used to be Zaire). It was translated from French by Helen Stevenson.

It takes the form of the notebook jottings of the customer at a bar called Credit Gone West. Perhaps rather than try to explain:

let’s say the boss of the bar Credit Gone West gave me this notebook to fill, he’s convinced that I – Broken Glass – can turn out a book, because one day, for a laugh, I told him about this famous writer who drank like a fish, and had to be picked up off the the street when he got drunk, which shows you should never joke with the boss, he takes everything literally, when he gave me this notebook he said from the start it was only for him, no one else would read it, and when I asked why he was so set on this notebook, he said he didn’t want Credit Gone West just to vanish one day, and added that people in this country have no sense of the importance of memory, that the days when grandmothers reminisced from their  deathbeds was gone now, this is the age of the written word, that’s all that’s left, the spoken word’s just black smoke, wild cat’s piss, the boss of Credit Gone West doesn’t like ready-made phrases like ‘in Africa, when an old person dies, a library burns‘, every time he hears that worn-out cliché he gets mad, he’ll say ‘depends which old person, don’t talk crap, I only trust what’s written down‘, so I thought I’d jot a few things down here from time to time, just to make him happy, though I’m not sure what I’m saying, I admit I’ve begun to quite enjoy it, I won’t tell him that, though, he’ll get ideas and start to push me to do more and more, and I want to be free to write when I want, when I can, there’s nothing worse than forced labour, I’m not his ghost, I’m writing this for myself as well, that’s why I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when he reads these pages, I don’t intend to spare him or anyone else, by the time he reads this, though, I’ll no longer be one of his customers, I’ll be dragging my bag of bones about some other place, just slip him the document quietly before I go saying ‘mission accomplished’

That’s the whole of the first chapter; the entire book is written without full stops in this way as long, run-on sentences. Generally it’s a pretty effective device, though at times it can be a bit tiring to read.

The first few chapters tell the stories of other customers at the bar, and then the second half of the book concentrates on Broken Glass’s own life, and how he went from being a school teacher to a drunkard. As the material becomes more personal the tone shifts from comic to melancholy, and the book ended up being more moving than I would have expected after the first couple of chapters.

I heard Mabanckou interviewed on the radio (or a podcast?) and one thing he said was that he didn’t particularly want to write about politics. Well, that’s fine by me. Over the course of reading books from every African country I can see that I’m likely to read an awful lot about civil war and dictatorship, both because that’s a real part of the African experience and because it is the kind of thing that is likely to attract Western publishers; so it’s good to read more personal narratives as well.

Broken Glass is my book from Congo for the Read The World challenge.

» the photo is 032_BIERE NGOK, uploaded to Flickr by & © jmlaurent.

The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida

I’ll keep this fairly brief, because I’m going away to France for a week in Saturday and not only have I not packed, I haven’t done the more important bit of writing a list, and thus don’t know if I have to do some urgent shopping. Or laundry.

So: The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo (translated from the Portuguese by Sheila Faria Glaser) is my book from Cape Verde for the Read The World challenge. For those who don’t know, Cape Verde is an island nation, an archipelago off the coast of Africa at about the point where the continent projects furthest into the Atlantic. It was uninhabited until the Portuguese started using it as a trading port, I learn from Wikipedia, and the population is largely of mixed European and African origin.

That history may explain why it feels more like a book from Latin America than from Africa. I would be hard-pressed to explain exactly what I mean by that: a sense that the European cultural influence is more deeply embedded is part of it, although I can’t immediately articulate what makes me say that. It may be no more than the fact that the book is full of names like Senhor da Silva Araújo, of course.

The book tells the story of a self-made local businessman; it starts with the reading of his will, which reveals unexpected news, and moves back and forward through his life, building up into complex portrait. It’s short — 151 pages — but nicely written, wryly humorous and open to the absurdities as well as the tragedies of the human condition.

» The picture, Ribeira Grande, Santo Antão, is © Cabo Verde 2008 and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is an autobiography about growing up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. It’s about growing up in a war — Fuller was only eleven at the time of independence — and about the last throes of white colonialism and a dying way of life.

Her parents had been living in Kenya, but after Mau Mau they moved to Rhodesia, where Ian Douglas Smith had declared that there would never be majority rule, and fought to keep at least one part of Africa under white rule. Then after Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and their farm was taken by the new government, they moved first to Malawi and then to Zambia. It reminded me of travelling in Zimbabwe nearly twenty years ago, and meeting these white people from South Africa and Zimbabwe and Zambia who seemed to have a shared identity as white Africans that had no real connection with national borders. It’s not just whites in Africa who often have an ethnic identity which doesn’t fully coincide with their nationality, of course.

You don’t have to have any sympathy with the ideal of white rule in Africa to find something melancholy in a story of people being left stranded by the tide of history, their way of life disappearing around them, and this is rather a sad book; as well as the war and the politics, the family suffer more personal losses, with several children dying young and the mother turning more and more to alcohol. But there’s a lot of humour and colour along with the gloom.

She writes well. She has a good ear for dialogue, an eye for the absurd, and her portrayal of her parents’ attitudes to race (and indeed her own childhood attitudes) is unsparing but nuanced. She doesn’t whitewash anything but she’s not interested in demonising her family either.

Here’s a little fairly randomly chosen extract:

We stop at the SPCA in Umtali and collect a host of huge dogs, and then we collect dogs abandoned by civil-war fleeing farmers. These dogs are found tied to trees or staring hopefully down flat driveways, waiting for their nonreturning owners. their owners have gone in the middle of the night to South Africa, Australia, Canada, England. We call it the chicken run. Or we say they gapped it. But they gapped it without their pets.

One day Dad says to Mum, ‘Either I go, or some of those bloody dogs have to go.’
‘But they don’t have anywhere to go.’

Dad is in a rage. He aims a kick at a cluster of dogs, who cheerfully return his gesture with jump-up licking let’s-playfulness.

Mum says, ‘See? How sweet.’
‘I mean it, Nicola.’

So the dogs stay with us until untimely death does them part.

The life expectancy of a dog  on our farm is not great. The dogs are killed by baboons, wild pigs, snakes, wire snares and each other. A few eat the poison blocks left out in the barns for rats. Or they eat cow shit on which dip for killing ticks has splattered and they dissolve in frothy-mouthed fits. They get tick fever and their hearts fail from the heat. More dogs come to take the place of those whose graves are wept-upon humps in the fields below the house.

We buy a 1967 mineproofed Land Rover, complete with siren, and call her Lucy. Lucy, for Luck.

‘Why do we have the bee-ba?’
‘To scare terrorists.’

But Mum and Dad don’t use the siren except to announce their arrival at parties.

I read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight as my book from Zimbabwe for the Read the World challenge. As it turns out, although Alexandra Fuller’s parents spent pretty much their whole lives in Africa and she was conceived in Rhodesia, she was born during about the only two year period when they were living in England… but I’m going to count it anyway.

» The photo, ‘Ritsa and Baobab Tree, Rhodesia, 1973‘, has no direct connection to the book, except that it’s a picture I found on Flickr taken in the 70s in Rhodesia. It is © Robert Wallace and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa

I’ve just finished Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa. Which is a bit of a relief, because I found it quite hard work. The good stuff first: it’s a story that traces a couple of generations through the history of modern Uganda, with the arrival of Idi Amin and the collapse of his regime, the sequence of messy guerilla wars, the rise of AIDS and so on. The central character is initially brought up in a village before moving to Kampala, is from a Catholic background and is educated in a rather brutal seminary; his grandmother is a midwife; he ends up leaving Uganda to move to Holland. So there’s lots of good material. And lots of striking incidents and some strong (though not generally very likeable) characters.

Despite which, after reading a hundred pages, I checked to see how long the book was and had a sinking feeling when I saw there were still 400 pages to go.

The problem is the prose style. Quite apart from a tendency to cliché, it seems like Isegawa reacts to similes the way a small child reacts to candy. Everything is like something. These similes are sometimes quite good in themselves — he describes a priest at the seminary as having ‘an ego as large as a cirrhotic liver’ — but I found the overall effect distracting. And it’s part of a generally over-written, shouty kind of tone the book has which I just didn’t get on with; sometimes I’d get into it and be quite absorbed for twenty or thirty pages, and then some turn of phrase would snap me out of it again.

I did wonder whether it was a problem with the translation; but as far as I can tell from the title page, the book was written in English. I guess English must be the author’s second language, which is pretty impressive, but doesn’t alter the fact that I didn’t enjoy his prose.

Here’s an example of the kind of paragraph that would annoy me:

It struck him like a bolt of lightning splitting a tree down middle: Nakibuka! Had the woman not done her best to interest him in her life? Didn’t he, in his heart of hearts, desire her? Had he ever forgotten her sunny disposition, her sense of humor, the confident way she luxuriated in her femininity? The shaky roots of traditional decorum halted him with the warning that it was improper to desire his wife’s relative, but the mushroom of his pent-up desire had found a weak spot in the layers of hypocritical decency and pushed into the turbulent air of truth, risk, personal satisfaction, revenge. His throttled desire and his curbed sex drive could find a second wind, a resurrection or even eternal life in the bosom of the woman who, with her touch, had accessed his past, saved it and redeemed his virility on his wedding night. Sweat cascaded down his back, his heart palpitated and fire built up in his loins.

200 pages of this stuff would have been harmless enough, and I might have said that, despite a few flaws, it was still well worth reading; 500 pages was too much.

But I stuck it out to the end. Partially from stubbornness but mainly because I bought Abyssinian Chronicles as my book from Uganda for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, ‘Headless‘, is © Dave Blumenkrantz and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o

A Grain of Wheat is a novel about the inhabitants of a village in Kenya in 1963 in the last few days before the celebrations for Uhuru — that is, Kenyan independence. It was originally published in 1967, so the material was completely current at the time, although after finishing it that I read in the introduction that

Ngũgĩ revised A Grain of Wheat in 1987, to make the ‘world outlook’ of his peasants more in line with his ideas of the historical triumph of the oppressed.

and that

Ngũgĩ has said of the 1967 version of A Grain of Wheat that his ‘peasant and worker characters’ had the ‘vacillating mentality of the petite bourgeoisie’.

As far as I can gather, the revisions were relatively minor, and I guess I support the author’s right to mess around with his earlier work if he wants to, but I still find it vaguely frustrating not knowing what was what. And it seems like an odd thing to do, to me. But there you go.

Incidentally, Ngũgĩ’s early work, including this book, was written in English, but for the past 30 years or so he has written in Gĩkùyũ. Rejecting the colonial language has obvious political and social significance, but to switch from a language with hundreds of millions of speakers to one which is a minority language even in Kenya is still a striking decision.

The characters in the book are all dealing with the aftermath of the Mau Mau rebellion, having lost family members or having suffered detention, forced labour and torture. There’s something slightly topical about that at the moment; not just because we recently learned that Barack Obama’s grandfather was tortured by the British at that period, but also because insurgents being detained without trial and tortured  have been in the news recently.

I didn’t read the book, though, as being principally about the relationship between colonist and colonised. Rather, it’s about the relationships between the Africans and the way they’ve been affected by events. Some of them worked for the British; others fought them. A man returns to his wife after years away in prison to find she has had a baby by another man. No one is left untouched.  All this is told in flashback, so we gradually learn how characters became the way they are.

Obviously none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for the British, so they (we) are central in that sense, but still, the novel is building up to Uhuru, when the young Duke of Edinburgh will sit in a stadium in Nairobi and watch the flags changing over, and the British part of the story will peter out. I read the novel as being about what is left behind; in that sense it reminded me of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, Saša Stanišić’s novel about Yugoslavia. A war of independence against a colonial power is I suppose a peculiar kind of civil war, and it tears apart the fabric of the country in a similar way.

Here’s an extract.

He took a jembe and a panga to repeat the daily pattern his life had now fallen into since he left Maguita, his last detention camp. To reach his new strip of shamba which lay the other side of Thabai, Mugo had to walk through the dusty village streets. And as usual Mugo found that some women had risen before him, that some were already returning from the river, their frail backs arched double with water-barrels, in time to prepare tea or porridge for their husbands and children. The sun was now up: shadows of trees and huts and men were thin and long on the ground.

‘How is it with you, this morning?’ Warui called out to him, emerging from one of the huts.
‘It is well.’ And as usual Mugo would have gone on, but Warui seemed anxious to talk.
‘Attacking the ground early?’
‘That’s what I always say. Go to it when the ground is soft. Let the sun find you already there and it’ll not be a match for you. But if he reaches the shamba before you — hm.’

Warui, a village elder, wore a new blanket which sharply relieved his wrinkled face and the grey tufts of hair on his head and on his pointed chin. It was he who had given Mugo the present strip of land on which to grow a little food. His own piece had been confiscated by the government while he was in detention. Though Warui liked talking, he had come to respect Mugo’s reticence. But today he looked at Mugo with new interest, curiosity even.

‘Like Kenyatta is telling us,’ he went on, ‘these are days of Uhuru na Kazi.’ He paused and ejected a jet of saliva on to the hedge. Mugo stood embarrassed by this encounter. ‘And how is your hut, ready for Uhuru?’ continued Warui.
‘Oh, it’s all right,’ Mugo said and excused himself. As he moved on through the village, he tried to puzzle out Warui’s last question.

 A Grain of Wheat is my book from Kenya for the Read The World challenge.

» The cigarette card from the Empire railways series is from the New York Public Library online collection. There is a train that features quite heavily in the book, so it’s not a completely random choice of image.

Africa Reading Challenge: finished!

It just occurred to me that I’ve now read six books from or about Africa since I learnt about the Africa Reading Challenge. Links to the reviews:

  1. An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
  2. Told by Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid
  3. Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote by Ahmadou Kourouma
  4. The Wah-Wah Diaries by Richard E. Grant
  5. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  6. We killed Mangy-Dog by Luis Bernardo Honwana

I think Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is probably my favourite out of those, but they’re all worth a look for one reason or another.

An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

An African in Greenland is an autobiographical book; as a teenager in Togo, Tété-Michel Kpomassie read a book about Greenland and decided to go there. It took him eight years, working a variety of jobs, to make his way up through West Africa and Europe before eventually arranging a trip to Greenland, where he stayed for about two years (in, if I’ve got my sums right, 1965).

The book’s title implies that there is some kind of different perspective that Kpomassie is going to bring because he’s African, and I have to admit that it was part of the appeal for me when I bought the book. It’s such an immediately striking juxtaposition, this young man from Togo living among the Inuit and eating seal blubber: just the title is like a pitch for a cheesy Hollywood comedy.

In fact, it’s not obvious that his Africanness makes that much difference to the book, after the first couple of chapters that take place in Africa, and in retrospect it’s hard to say what I was expecting, really. There are a couple of occasions where he compares local beliefs (about the travels of the human soul in dreams, for example) with those he grew up with; and his Africanness does make him an instant celebrity in Greenland: the first black person most of them had seen, and several inches taller than most of the locals.

It is, though, an interesting and enjoyable book about Greenland: ice-fishing and dog-sledding and eating of revolting-sounding bits of raw viscera and lumps of animal fat. Whale lung! Boiled sea gull! Yummy. And as with Halldór Laxness in Iceland, endless cups of coffee.

Although actually, I think it’s to his credit that he clearly made a point of eating everything that was put in front of him, and doesn’t spend a lot of time in the book dwelling on the off-putting nature of the food. Perhaps it’s nicer than it sounds; perhaps he just wanted to downplay the potential freak-show aspect of this kind of travel book. He has a fairly clear-eyed view of the harshness of life for many of the people he meets and the social problems he encounters, but he doesn’t dwell on it excessively. Perhaps even more surprising for someone who had travelled for eight years to get there to fulfil a childhood dream, he doesn’t romanticise the country either: not too much of the noble savage stuff.

Here’s a longish passage about life during the time of the midnight sun, with 24 hour daylight:

The oddest thing was that we couldn’t get to sleep any more. To fill in the time I stayed at the school, where I took notes, sometimes until three in the morning. Kield Pedersen, the Danish headmaster, kindly gave me access to the Medelelser of his establishment — many bulky volumes which contained the findings of every piece of research done in Greenland since the days of Hans Egede.

Outside, small orange or red tents sprang up, erected by children whom the endless daylight kept from sleeping. At three in the morning you could still see them playing outside. Sometimes they went on like this for two whole days without going to bed. Eventually they dropped with fatigue, and then might sleep for two days at a stretch. It was the teachers, not the parents, who complained, because most of the time their classes were half empty.

Sleep eluded the adults, too. Everyone was restless. They had hardly set foot indoors before they were longing to go out again, to tramp on and on, to run from hill to hill. They rambled around incessantly, in search of who knows what. All through the spring they’d go wandering like this, building cooking fires in the mountains with three stones for an oven, gathering parnet berries, resting no matter where when tiredness overtook them. both with humans and animals, spring here was the season of tireless frenzies of love. Groups of boys and girls ran laughing and shouting until early morning, and there was the noise of rutting huskies fighting, the deep growls of the males mingling with the bitches’ piercing yelps. The birds sang and the eiders quacked in the creeks.

The landscape seemed excluded from this general harmony, and it changed from day to day. All the filth of Christianshåb was suddenly exposed by the sun’s return and the thaw. Snow melted n the slopes, the street became a river of mud, and innumerable streams riddled the ash-grey earth and brought to light piles of of old bottles and cans, dog shit, household waste, and rotten potatoes. All the garbage which cold and snow had preserved — now swollen with melted water, rotting fast and buzzing with clouds of flies, real flies, come out to haunt us like a bad conscience. Outside the doors and under the foundations, the houses were repulsively filthy. the borrowed coat of spotless white had covered so much offal! A sickening stench hung everywhere. the dogs, some of them now moulting, slunk squalidly about the village. You really wondered whether you were still living in the same land that had once been so clean and white.

An African in Greenland is my book from Togo for the Read The World challenge. Oh, I nearly forgot: it was translated from the French by James Kirkup.

» The photo, Oqaatsut/Rodebay, Greenland, is © kaet44 and used under a CC attribution licence. Rodebay is one of the villages where Kpomassie spent a winter in Greenland.

Told by Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid

Told by Starlight in Chad is a collection of stories by Chadian writer Joseph Brahim Seid, translated from French by Karen Haire Hoenig. I’ve tagged this post with ‘short stories’ but they aren’t really short stories in the literary tradition: they are fables or folk tales in the oral tradition. I’m not sure whether they are all traditional stories or new ones, or how true they are to the way the stories might be ‘told by starlight’.

In some ways the material seems very familiar — wicked stepmothers, magic purses, and beautiful princesses — although the stories feature hyenas and gazelles rather than foxes and rabbits. Sometimes the stories end with a moral or an explanation of the ‘and that’s why we do so-and-so’ type, and sometimes they are, as far as I can tell, just stories.

Just to give you an idea of the style, here’s the opening to a story called Bidi-Camoun, Tchourouma’s Horse.

A very long time ago, in the days when miracles and wonders were still common among us, a little prince was born in the kingdom of Lake Fitri. Tchourouma was his name; noone knew the reason why. His father loved him dearly and his mother adored him. At a very young age, they had given him as a gift Bidi-Camoun, a splendid chestnut horse. When Tchourouma had barely reached his fifteenth year, his gentle mother died, snatched away by a cruel disease in her chest, which neither the skill of the fakihs, the fetish doctors nor the Bulala witchdoctors could cure. In memory of his beloved wife, the Sultan retained a great deal of affection for the child. He took him lion hunting and on walks around the lake which is the sanctuary of the ancestral spirits and the safeguard of the kingdom. Devoured with envy by the King’s great fondness for his son, the women of the harem devised plots to kill the child….

All quite interesting and quite enjoyable, though I can’t say I was completely grabbed by it. Told by Starlight in Chad is my book from Chad for the Read The World challenge.

» The picture of rock art in Chad, “Round head” paintings, is © Franck Zecchin and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote by Ahmadou Kourouma

Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is the life story of President Koyaga, the dictator of the (fictional) République du Golfe, as told to him by his court storyteller Bingo.

Bingo is in some ways the ultimate unreliable narrator, portraying Koyaga as a heroic, semi-mythical figure protected by powerful magic, but he is accompanied by an apprentice whose role is to speak truth to power. The result is a portrayal of post-colonial African politics which is brutal, and darkly comic.

It has the sprawling rhythms of oral storytelling, with its repetitions and parallelism, which makes it difficult to pick an excerpt which does it justice and is short enough for me to type out. But this will do: it’s a part of an account of Koyaga’s triumphal march across the country after surviving a coup.

At the entrance to a far-off village, the hunters take the initiative of offering you — since you are a sinbo, a donsoba (a master hunter) —  the shoulder of a slaughtered bubale. At the next village there are shoulders, haunches, heads. At the village after that, there is a stinking mound of animal carcasses of every species: deer, monkeys, even elephants. Above the pile, the canopy of trees is black with vultures. In the sky, carrion birds attack each other with terrifying cries. Packs of hyenas, lycaons, lions follow and threaten.

The order is given that hunters should no longer offer you the shoulders of game killed by the hunters that week, need not gratify the master hunter who is their guest as their code of brotherhood demands.

In another village, to set itself apart, the sacrificial  priest does not stop at two chickens and a goat, he offers four chickens, two goats and an ox to the manes of the ancestors. The sacrificial priests in neighbouring villages follow suit, they outdo him, they go too far. Soon there are twenty oxen and as many goats and forty chickens. The sacrifice becomes interminable, it is a veritable hecatomb. A call goes out for a limit to be set on the number of sacrificial victims.

Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is my book from Côte d’Ivoire for the Read The World challenge.

» The picture, Sarakawa Crash Site, Togo, is © Julius Cruickshank and used under a CC attribution licence. Julius explains:

“A huge monument built in the middle of nowhere to celebrate a plane crash that the dictator of Togo survived in the seventies. The photos at the base of the statue (donated by the people of North Korea) are Eyadéma’s generals that died. 

The only other visitors were the goats on the left…”

The Wah-Wah Diaries by Richard E. Grant

This is Grant’s account of making Wah-Wah, his first film as director. Grant grew up in Swaziland and the film is about growing up there, so I read it as my book from Swaziland for the Read The World challenge.

For me, the book is mainly interesting for its portrayal of film-making, which is fascinating but sounds very very stressful: complicated, expensive, highly time-sensitive, and requiring the juggling of dozens of cast and crew, all of whom have other work commitments.

The film was a French co-production, for the sake of getting the right funding and tax breaks; and Grant had an exceptionally bad relationship with his French producer, who comes across in the book as startlingly incompetent and badly-suited to her job. In fact I suspect her first reaction on reading it was probably to call her lawyer.

It was slightly odd to be reading a making-of book for a film I haven’t seen, but it was an engaging read. I’ll keep an eye out for the film.

(and by the way, is it me or does Julie Walters look really weird in the poster?)

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel about the Biafran war, told from the perspective of three people on the Biafran side. It switches back and forth between their lives pre-war and the war years. Adichie is too young to have been part of the war herself, but I gather from the Author’s Note that her parents and grandparents were in the middle of it, and that this novel is at least in part based on their stories about it.

Although it is in a sense written from a partisan perspective, in that all the main characters are fairly keenly pro-Biafran, the novel is inevitably written and read with the knowledge that Biafra was a doomed entity. So that gives a gloomy irony to all the optimistic political rhetoric. 

Sitting here with the book in front of me, with the Daily Mail quoted on the cover as saying that it is “without doubt, a literary masterpiece and a classic”, I am churlishly inclined to start finding fault, because I’m not quite sure that it is an undoubted instant classic. It’s a well-written if fairly conventional novel with strong characters, touches of humour even amid the gloom, a streak of satire and interesting subject matter. But a masterpiece? Maybe not.

Still, it’s a really good novel and something of a page-turner, and I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone.

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