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Culture

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.

Categories
Culture

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).

eepa_02402

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.

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Culture

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.

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Culture

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.

Categories
Culture

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.

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Culture

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.